On Physicists and the law: how society has misplaced its views of science and its community

While I have often said that the community of physicists works for the common gaining of knowledge and to derive infinite mental pleasure out of that, I have also asserted that little is done towards blindly implementing it—that is what engineers are for: the Engineering – this is where the semi-skilled workers realize the work of better minds… [The] Oompah-Loompahs of science, as Sheldon Cooper puts it.

But, fun apart, my argument has always been struck, perhaps even beheaded many a time in the past. And today, I learned the height of it all—although I was quite late in finding out. Perhaps the greatest opponent to my belief is social paradigm. Non-scientists (who are the ones supposed to understand this in the first place) fail to catch on to the fact that a scientist has so much on their hands that to conform to complicated social ways becomes terribly troublesome. And, needless to mention, it is quite meaningless to hold them legally responsible for it.

Dr Adlène Hicheur

Today I read the editorial on a recent issue of Nature (Oct. 13, 2011) about the singular case of the French-Algerian physicist Dr Hicheur, which reminded me of the villain from Iron Man 2 (he is a physicist.) As it happens, the French think that Dr Hicheur, a high-energy physicist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Laussane, was plotting terrorist attacks in France.

Whether his work was so alien to the (forgive me for saying this, but) incompetent authorities who captured him on this account, that it appeared to them like a diabolical plot to blow up France; or whether they just needed a reason to feel safe and so decided to catch somebody and call him a criminal, is beyond me. Either way, Dr Hicheur has been in jail since 2009. Yes, he missed the LHC experiments altogether.

As nature rightly put it, the continued imprisonment of the French-Algerian physicist highlights the need for scientists to defend the human rights of all colleagues.

Speaking of human rights, as the Nature Editorial rightly points out, although holding a person for so long without trial is legal under France’s anti-terror laws, it is a clear violation of the physicist’s human rights.

I seem to be borrowing heavily from Nature, but here is a small paragraph that says it best, that this is nothing new: “Persecution of scientists, and physicists in particular, is nothing new. During the cold war, researchers on both sides of the iron curtain suffered for their political views. In the United States, Robert Oppenheimer’s career was ruined by rumours of communist sympathies. And Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov spent much of the 1980s in internal exile for his outspoken views on human rights and arms control.”

Apparently, Dr Hicheur—whose online exchanges are being blocked by authorities—has been quite forgotten until recently when his defenders helplessly confessed that he can be held another 12 months before the French courts come to a decision on whether to go ahead with his trial or not.

The L’Aquila Earthquake

What prompted me to write this article was not Dr Hicheur’s case alone. Just last month six Italian physicists were jailed and are now standing trial for the manslaughter of 300 citizens for failing to predict an earthquake in the town of L’Aquila.

While that sounds like a line right out of a fairy tale, it is, sadly, true. As ABC News reported it, back in March of 2009, the panel of scientists and a local official, Bernardo di Bernardinis (who is the seventh man charged,) had a meet and the scientists declared that there was no danger then. Six days later, the earthquake struck, understandably killing many (around 309) and making as many as 7,000 people homeless.

Stating that the community was misinformed and misled, the very able community, which can take care of itself, at L’Aquila, has lodged a case of manslaughter against the six scientists. And the naive court (which in an idealistic world is supposed to have a mind of its own) has now brought them to trial, successfully hindering scientific growth.

Who was to blame when Mt Vesuvius temporarily wiped out Sicily from the face of the earth? Who is to blame every time the San Andreas fault crack open? It is nature. Nature decides, nature goes ahead with it. And as people living in such places, they ought to expect such things and be prepared with it. One does not pull the trigger at the bidding of another’s mind. It is one’s own that rules our actions.

Why did the people not look to the gods they so deeply believe in? Do they then consider physicists worthy replacements? If physicists indeed could prevent such calamities and rightly predict it every time, why would they be on Earth? They would rather fancy exploring the remainder of the universe.

Why is the weatherman not blamed everyday he reports faulty weather (which is every other day)? Because people understand. But with dead kin on their hands, man’s logical reasoning centre seems to spontaneously shift from his head to his chest.

Looking on the brighter side, unlike hardly anybody coming to Dr Hicheur’s aid (and CERN even looking the other way,) the reaction to this outrageous incident has been rather good—although more ought to be done. Soon after this shocking incident (it quite sent me staggering backwards in disbelief) about 5,000 physicists have signed a petition condemning this unprecedented court action. This is well reflected in a Nature article from July this year (2011,) on human-rights issues among scientists and in scientific collaborations.

While Dr Hicheur stays hopeful of walking free soon, the seven Italians, if convicted, face 12 year jail terms. And physicists will expectedly cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

In the meanwhile, if you choose to do the right thing and support the physicists mentioned in this article and probably many others who are not, then speak out on your social networking profiles and like or +1 or share this article. You can also add your views as comments below.

Oh mon Dieu! What is it with nuclear reactors these days?

It is a well known fact that a nuclear reactor has to be built on a geographically safe land area, which is why the Japanese chose a fault line to construct their reactor on, in Fukushima. Everybody saw the havoc it created when the Tsunami struck this past year but the experts over in Japan seem to maintain that the fault line was innocent all along.

While the fault has not been sentenced to anything yet, a nuclear waste site down in Southern France saw it fit to explode for mysterious reasons resulting in—in the descending order of cruelty (and national expenditure)—the slight injury of three people, severe injury of one and the death of one other.

The Authority which checks over this sort of thing promptly gave a statement that declared no radiation leak was detected (which does not mean there was no leak, simply that it was not detected) and that the most probably cause of the accident was an explosion in an oven which the employees mistook to be suitable to warm their brunch (the explosion occurred a little while past 10 AM.)

A scarier, but nonetheless a reason that cannot be disregarded, is that the oven was really used to melt metals of little or very little radioactivity. (Now why would they want to do that?) Saying little and very little are just fancy words referring to that disposed waste that would do without specific treatment for nuclear radiations, but without which the waste plant would lose a chunk of its net income.

And while the Germans, following the aforementioned incident in Japan, decided subtly (via elections) to shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022, its smart neighbour, France, headed by its smarter (no, really) president, Sarkozy, decided to shell out an additional $1.37 billion towards nuclear power generation because the country’s 58 plants are clearly insufficient. After all, they only contribute to 79% of France’s power generation.

Speaking of exploding reactors, it is important to note that nuclear reactors cannot possible explode—unless they are headed by a terrorist organisation not backed by physicists and they decide to use pure Uranium-235. What does happen is a meltdown.

This, remarkably, is comparable to the national general elections (a wholly man-made concept) of a country (another wholly man-made concept—which begs the question, are man’s problems not a man-made concept?)

Think of a nuclear reactor—built legally. It cannot explode, but it can run out of coolant. This is like a general election in that the voting and results do not happen overnight, rather the voting begins when the nominees’ pockets have mysteriously run out of money (perhaps from the pocket to a bank account, but that is a different matter.) So what does the reactor do? Stop being of any use. Think of a politician around the time when his campaign budgets end and the dusty ballot boxes are retrieved from the attic. That is about the time after which all politicians cease to be of any use.

Now the worse part is that not only do they not work for us, they start working against us. Like an elected politician—election being synonymous to their leather briefcase entirely dedicated to bribes, more, in fact, than they are to their post—the nuclear reactor begins a chain reaction that is fueled by the uncontrolled reaction itself. Now, on the brighter side, while the post general election period, run largely by uncontrolled bribes, lasts a good five years, there is actually a practical chance for us to end the uncontrolled meltdown within a much shorter timespan.

Now, returning to our default darker outlook, while the post general election stress is a result of five years of <insert arbitrary word here>, the meltdown does an almost equally severe damage in a much shorter period.

The entire reactor literally melts, the tubes, pipelines, tanks, even the wall of the reactor melts because of the (more than) 2,700 degree Celsius temperature, causing the Uranium fuel rods of the reactor to sink about 50 feet deep into the Earth from where—like post-election practices—it has to be uprooted from the grassroots level or further below. This, it is needless to say (or so some think,) affects the ground water and creates a large explosion of radioactive steam and debris that would affect nearby villages.

And that is what it is with nuclear reactors these days. Is it not also a sound analogy for the aftermath of the general elections set according to the present universal trend? Oh mon Dieu!

DSK set up? Who would profit from it anyway?

A 23 strong Grand Jury in New York is examining the evidence against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (popularly known as DSK in France) as the man himself spends time in house-arrest under constant watch of police personnel. If they find sufficient cause, they will vouch for a full-scale trial and the United States government has promised a fair trial to the high-profile man who allegedly has quite an indecent history with women around him.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Dominique Strauss-Kahn

But, whatever the United States government promises or however the court sees this case, statistics have now shown that 57% of France believes that the DSK issue was fabricated and that the man was set up. And the French have absolutely no conviction in the fair trial that has been promised to DSK. And why? For starters, in France individuals are not publicly transported or photographed in handcuffs. But every single wall in New York now stands adorned with DSK’s picture, in handcuffs.

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The last time we struck from air, we fought a war. And we are doing it again.

Interesting things have been going on in Libya. And the most interesting of all, till date, is what prompted me to write this quick snippet.

Let me take you a few hours back: It was rumoured that, with France switching diplomatic status from the Gaddafi Government to the opposition groups, Spain and Portugal would follow suit. But BBC’s Sarah Rainsford clarified from Madrid that the Spanish Foreign Ministry has denied any such thing. Continue reading