Friday, July 18, 2008

A Loose Cannon at Ben-Gurion University

The mind-set illustrated by this cartoon -- that Iran will surely drop a nuclear bomb on Israel as soon as it can produce one -- lives on, unfortunately. I have written on this subject in an earlier post.

The New York Times today (July 18, 2007) published an Op-Ed piece by one Bennie Morris, a maverick academic at Ben-Gurion University, entitled "Using Bombs to Stave Off War." The gist of the piece is that Israel must get on with it and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities using conventional, non-nuclear weapons. Morris predicts that Israel will in fact do so within the next four to seven months. The rationale is that unless Israel does so there will certainly be nuclear war between Israel and Iran, "either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb." The four to seven month time frame is designed to assure that it happens during the waning days of the Bush administration which "ensures that Israel will have support from a lame-duck White House."

Morris' argument proceeds in steps introduced by statements such as "Every intelligence agency in the world believes," "everyone knows that," "Western intelligence agencies agree" .... All this self-evident information "leaves the world with only one option if it wishes to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weaponry: the military option, meaning an aerial assault by either the United States or Israel."

The best outcome of this recommendation, in Morris' view, is that Iran will come to its senses and give up its nuclear ambitions. Morris does not, however, believe that will happen, so he staunchly accepts that this is but a prelude to the eventual nuclear war between Israel and Iran. Iran is, of course (as everyone knows), undeterrable because it is ruled by fundamentalist muslims: "Thus an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable."

Bennie Morris

As if this eccentric Op-Ed piece were not evidence enough that Morris is a very odd duck, his academic career is further illustration. Initially he was regarded as an Israeli who was sympathetic to the Palestinians. He even refused to do military service in the West Bank. Over the years he has come so far from that starting point that he has actually argued in favor of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. In the 2004 interview in Haaretz wherein he made this statement he was described by the interviewer (Ari Shavit) as follows:
But sitting in his armchair in his Jerusalem apartment, he does not don the mantle of the cautious academic. Far from it: Morris spews out his words, rapidly and energetically, sometimes spilling over into English. He doesn’t think twice before firing off the sharpest, most shocking statements, which are anything but politically correct. He describes horrific war crimes offhandedly, paints apocalyptic visions with a smile on his lips. He gives the observer the feeling that this agitated individual, who with his own hands opened the Zionist Pandora’s box, is still having difficulty coping with what he found in it...

It thus appears that Bennie Morris is only an isolated crank and is not here sending out an authorized feeler on behalf of the Israeli government. That is comforting. We can nevertheless wish that the New York Times had done deeper due diligence on Morris before publishing his reckless piece. We can also recommend to the Academic Senate of Ben-Gurion University that it is time to tighten up their academic standards.

As Morris himself acknowledges in his Op-Ed piece Israel is a nuclear power (a fact Israel itself has never officially admitted.) He fails to acknowledge, however, that by most estimates Israel has between 150 and 200 nuclear weapons, supported by aircraft, missile and submarine delivery capabilities. Against this arsenal are we really to believe that Iran is going to send the first bomb off its assembly line to Israel and suffer the civilization-ending consequences?

Monday, July 07, 2008

How are the Candidates REALLY Doing?

The Colley Rankings

Two rocket scientists from Princeton, astrophysicists actually, have a taken a statistical technique they use in their work and applied it to the race between Barack Obama and John McCain. The results are shown on a fascinating page on Colley's website entitled "Electoral Scoreboard 2008" in which they take the median of available poll results in all states and track the progress of the race between Barack Obama and John McCain over time and show the current number of electoral votes in favor of each candidate. The method is explained in detail on their site.

As of July 2 they show Obama with 317 electoral votes and McCain with 221.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The 74th Anniversary of the Death of Madame Curie

Marie Curie deep in conversation with Henri Poincare
while Albert Einstein looks on (ca. 1924)

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska, died at 66 of aplastic anemia on July 4, 1934, in the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, France, just a short distance from Mont Blanc. July 4 of this year is thus the 74th anniversary of her death. There are scarcely enough superlatives to do justice to the greatest and most remarkable woman who ever lived, as least so far as we in the west can judge, and so far as we have historical records to consult.

I have written an earlier post about Madame Curie recalling the unmatched highlights of her scientific career: two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics in 1903 (the same year she received her PhD!) with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for discovering radioactivity, and the other, hers alone, in 1911 in Chemistry for the discoveries of radium and polonium. To this date no other scientist has received two Nobels in the natural sciences. These facts of her life are of course well known.

There are other less well-known but fascinating aspects of her life:

  • In WW I she invented the mobile x-ray lab by outfitting 20 vehicles with x-ray equipment, building 200 stationary x-ray units, training 150 x-ray technicians and taking to the battlefield with her daughter Irene, sometimes driving the mobile x-ray vans herself, and in all making possible the x-ray treatment of over one million soldiers during the course of the war. Here she is at the wheel of one of her Renault mobile x-ray vans:

  • Her native tongue was Polish, her adopted language was French, and altogether she spoke five languages.
  • She suffered from stage fright and was generally terrified when she had to speak in public, which was often.
  • She suffered from tinnitus.
  • She loved to play Scrabble, actually "Letters," an ancestor of Scrabble, similarly involving the drawing of letters from a sack and the formation of words with them.
  • She was an accomplished athlete who did hiking, skiing, skating, cycling and swimming. She was especially proud of her swimming ability and was extremely competitive, forever measuring herself against other swimmers in the group, mostly men, gathered at L'Arcouest in Brittany, the country retreat of much of the faculty of the Sorbonne:
    She implacably counted the distances covered by her adversaries, and, without ever openly proposing a race, she put herself in training to break the records of speed and distance held by the university teaching body...At more than fifty years of age, she was one of the best swimmers of her generation." (from Curie, Eve, Madame Curie 316 (Da Capo Press 2d ed. 2001))
  • She loved fast cars and was proud of her Ford, which she considered to be a sporting vehicle.
  • After the tragic death of her husband Pierre Marie had a notorious love affair with a married man, Paul Langevin, a physicist at the Sorbonne who had done his Ph.D. under Pierre Curie and was the doctoral advisor of Marie's daughter Irene. Their affair was a sensation. Langevin's wife Jeanne discovered the affair and told Marie to leave France or die. Marie threatened suicide if Paul would not leave Jeanne. Jeanne stole Marie's love letters from Paul's desk and released them to the press on the same day that Marie received word she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry! An angry crowd gathered in front of Marie's house and threw stones at her windows. A right-wing journalist insulted Langevin in print and Langevin challenged him to a duel. The duel did not happen because when it came time to square off the journalist refused to fire because he did not want to kill one of France's finest minds. In the wake of the scandal the Nobel committee, severely underestimating who they were dealing with, asked Marie not to come to Sweden to receive the prize. That only made her angry. She wrote back declaring, rightly, that her discovery of radium and polonium had nothing to do with her private life and thereupon embarked for Sweden to receive her prize from King Gustaf. The denouement of this bizarre affair was that Langevin in due course went back to his wife, took yet another mistress but then fathered an illegitimate child by one of his students, Elaine, following which he appealed to Marie to find Elaine a job. And she did. (Goldsmith, Barbara, Obsessive Genius 165-76 (Atlas Books 2005))
Marie Curie's scientific achievements were larger than life and her life itself was almost larger than life. She knew genius, greatness, fame, tragedy, love, pain, humiliation, recognition, athletic achievement, illness, family warmth, universal admiration and the transcendent thrill of making at least three of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of mankind.