Friday, October 14, 2016

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer's "Unclear Physics"

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons, and reported the following:
From page 99:
When Jafar presented a quarterly progress report to the IAEC [Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission] in April 1987, however, he seemed nervous. This report went into far more detail than previous quarterly reports, and the conclusion was bleak: it would be impossible to make the major leap forward within the deadline promised to Saddam two years earlier. Having put massive resources into the EMIS research program, they were still not seeing reliable results during pilot trials. Because other approaches had been marginalized in order to pour resources into the EMIS project, little progress was forthcoming elsewhere.

The reactions were strong and immediate. The first commissioner commenting was al-Kittal, who asked whether this finding would be reported to Saddam - it was not. [.] Senior participants later described the discussion, which lasted for hours, as the most stressful meeting of the weapons program.
The events described on page 99 are among the most dramatic turning points in the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Having promised Saddam Hussein to make a major breakthrough only two years earlier, the scientific leader of the program is now telling his senior colleagues that they are going to miss the deadline. They will all be held accountable if Saddam finds out. So they make sure he doesn't.

This incident reflects two of the main findings of Unclear Physics. Scientists in personalist dictatorships (such as Saddam's Iraq and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi) report selectively to the state leader. They get away with this because the state apparatus - essential for monitoring specialized programs - has been undermined by the dictator's efforts to concentrate power in his own hands. This means that the state leader does not have the resources to verify what his scientists are telling him. Both Saddam and Gaddafi were aware of these problems, and tried to compensate by placing additional controls on their scientists, with mixed results.

As this page, and book, demonstrates, everyday lives of scientists and officials in personalist regimes do not always look like what we might expect. Faced with unimaginable pressures, individuals came up with various coping strategies in order to survive. While dictators such as Gaddafi and Saddam wanted to come across as omniscient, the history of their nuclear weapons programs tells a different story.
Learn more about Unclear Physics at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue