Saturday, March 14, 2015

The peaceful atom is a bomb

Previously, I wrote about my concern that little attention and publicity is given these days to issues of nuclear security and proliferation. Hence, it was good to see the cover (and a lead editorial) of The Economist this past week.

On related matters there is an interesting article [and cover story] in the February Physics Today, Pakistan’s nuclear Taj Mahal  by Stuart W. Leslie
Inspired by the promise of Atoms for Peace, the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology eventually succumbed to the demands of the country’s nuclear weapons program. 
One thing I learnt was the central role that Abdus Salam played. I found the following rather disturbing.
Salam, though still the director of the ICTP, organized the theoretical-physics group that performed the sophisticated calculations for the bomb, and he personally asked his former student and protégé Riazuddin to head it. Riazuddin, then teaching at the University of Islamabad (now Quaid-i-Azam University), took several trips to the US, where he collected unclassified documents on nuclear weapons design. ....  Salam left the details to others, though he did open the ICTP library to Riazuddin’s group and kept in close touch with its members. Riazuddin, describing his research team, later acknowledged, “We were the designers of the bomb.... ” 
A thoughtful and careful analysis of the implications of India and Pakistan obtaining nuclear weapons was given in 2000 by Amartya Sen.


  1. I think whatever role Salam may or may not have played in developing Pakistan's atomic bomb, it does not seem very different from that of Einstein's in his letter to Roosevelt recommending its creation; especially, given his long-standing pacifism and association with the IAEA, his position as Scientific Secretary for the Geneva conferences of '55 and '58 (at the ripe ages of 29 and 32!), his work with the Atoms for Peace Foundation, and so on, it seems to me that any involvement of his with a bomb-project is to be more rightly seen within this context (apart from the 1971 war etc.) i.e. as an unforeseeable outcome of the then ongoing science and technology transfer, which as we know he'd always strove not to make a prerogative of the developed nations. Salam is certainly on record stating that he would like all politicians to lobby for complete disarmament:

    Salam also touches on some related matters in his insightful collection of speeches and essays, Ideals and Realities.

  2. Vipin,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I think the comparison with Einstein is weak. He did not supervise building the US bomb. He also did not open up the IAS library to people working on it.
    The mission of the IAEA and of ICTP was not to build a bomb. Hence, using their resources to do so is problematic. Did the board of directors of ICTP know what was going on? Did Salam inform them?
    I don't doubt he was a great physicist and had genuine concerns for peace, particularly later in life.