An email written on May 12, 2008:
Hello Chong Nui,
How’s life ?
I came back from a 3/4 day Portuguese trip a few days ago. I didn’t write until I could finish reading a book called "Plutonium" by J. Bernstein today, which is quite an interesting read. The author obviously is interested in telling all kinds of anecdotes in addition to the scientific aspects of making nuclear bombs.
Have you heard of "Farm Hall" near Cambridge ? Apparently in 1945, 10 German scientists who all seemed to have some scientific knowledges about nuclear fission/boms were interned in this "Farm Hall". One of them was the great Heisenberg (!) who happened to lead the official German effort to make nuclear bomb during WWII. This book partly tell us that German was remote from making a nuclear bomb during WWII. When I was in Oxford, the semi-retiring Prof. Dalitz (the famous Dalitz in HEP with "Dalitz plots" etc.) also gave a lecture refuting the theory that German’s failure in making nuclear bomb during WWII was due to the high morality of Heisenberg et. al. who didn’t want to make nuclear bomb for the Nazis though they knew how. Dalitz kind of tried to prove that was just bull-shit — though probably the proof may not be the most rigorous one in his career … In your 3+ years in Cambridge, have you heard anything about this "Farm Hall" or even been there ?
Another interesting part for these 10 Germans was that one of them, O. Hahn, was rewarded the Nobel Prize (for chemistry) while he was interned in the "Farm Hall" !! This itself is interesting but then the author went on to tell us his version of the relationship between Hahn and the woman physicist L. Meitner who (along with her nephew O. Frisch) was the first to tell the world what happened in those experiments were "fission". Probably like everybody outside Germany, the author strongly thought that Meitner should share that Nobel Prize with Hahn. Meitner, being a woman as well as a Jewish Austrian in Germany at that time, had a very difficult career (not allowed/paid to do research) and life — she narrowly escaped from Nazi’s persecution and then roamed to Holland -> Denmark -> Sweden…USA/UK. From CERN Courier, it seemed somebody has just published another book about her but unfortunately it’s written in German.
By showing a German patent document about nuclear bomb which claimed that plutonium could be easily separated, the author showed us that the Germans couldn’t be more wrong. The main reason that German didn’t make much advance in nuclear bomb technology was that they didn’t have a cyclotron for a substantial length of time during WWII to produce uranium-235 and study it. And not to mention the tricky techniques and all sorts of massage in extracting plutonium etc. in nuclear reactor.
Among other things, now I learn that the concern about the nuclear stockpile in US or elsewhere is about the stability of d-phase plutonium. Since US has committed to not doing nuclear test, they have to use other ways to test whether those nuclear bomb still work. Remember I told you about the "proton radiography" expt. being done at BNL by a Los Alamos group. That’s their development towards testing whether the nuclear bomb is still good. All these have been under Dept. of Energy.
But actually now DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency) of Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) funded this Los Alamos team to do expt. at BNL with a goal to use some GeV proton beam (on a plane) to detect nuclear weapons — which is a very remote possibility and it’s just "basic research" for now. Somehow a US company called DTI which collaborates with the Russians also tries to gain funding from DTRA to do this thing. I was told that the funding actually came from Dept. of Defense (DOD) but due to political reasons, we disguised such that everything comes from DHS. No difference to us …. It’s interesting that US may want to outsource this as well to Russians … and the Los Alamos group is fighting to get this development to be done in US.
… I started reading this book "Plutonium" before my Portuguese trip but I didn’t bring it with me to Portugal but rather a book of Amy Chang’s (張小嫻) for leisure reading (though it didn’t last too long).
… and about my Portuguese trip, you may view photos taken in Portugal (in Lisboa and Sintra):
Western Europe is always a pleasant place to visit. Portugal was about the poorest when EU was first formed but it doesn’t remind you anything like that now. After all my research and optimization, I’ve visited many museums/palaces etc. and 6 of them were free on a Sunday. I like and have enjoyed planning and I’ve kind of made the most of everything …. but I felt tired both physically and mentally at the end of each day.
In my last few trips, I’ve begun to ask myself what the meaning of travelling is (just like asking what the meaning of life is). In my trips, I was like finishing some assigned tasks by visiting spot no. 1, 2, 3, …. which is like another kind of work. But I’ve planned all this because I somehow don’t like sitting in my café house or lying on the beach etc., doing nothing but letting time flow …. I could do so here in Long Island and indeed I just came back from doing something like (though I couldn’t stay too long in any place) in nearby Port Jefferson.
But anyway, meaningfully or meaninglessly, I did go to many places. The last (full) day I went to a nearby town called Sintra and visited 3 "major" spots. The palace (Pena) & castle (Mouros) high up in the mountain (some hiking was involved) were places good to be … probably after gaining potential energy in the gravitational field. It’s always good to look down from somewhere high up, rather than the other way (for me at least).
Though it may not always be the state of the art, things in Portugal just seem to work. Again, I was reminded how bad the New York City infra-structure has become. No or miniscule improvement in the last 10 years ? Having seen so many underground subway systems in the world, I don’t think one can say any of them is worse than the one in New York City (old/dirty with bad air-conditioning). The Lisboa subway had fewer cabins in the subway train in the weekend (~half). I’ve needed to run from one end to another in order to catch the subway (funny!). I guess this is one cost-saving and environment-friendly approach. ( I realized this only on Monday when I met the usual train. )
When I was leaving Portugal, I witnessed an Asian girl ordering "Latte" which gave me some amusement. "Caffè latte" to me is just a fancy way of saying coffee with milk. In places like Starbuck in US or elsewhere, it’s probably more fancy than just cofee and milk. But people probably say "Latte" as a word for a type of coffee. In China now, it’s called "拿鐵" (for that kind of coffee). But of course, "latte" is just the Italian word for milk. In Portuguese, milk is "leite" which is kind of close in pronunciation to the Italian "latte". So, when the Asian girl asked for "Latte", though she’s assuming it’s all about coffee, the Portuguese woman was very confused and thought that she wanted to have "milk" only. There needed several rounds of back and forth (in English) before they sorted it out. I was just behind the Asian girl and I was "amused". Probably, I was just "五十步笑百步" but it does show that one needs to know the basics I ordered "chá com leite" (noticed that "con" in Spanish/Italian becomes "com" in Portuguese …. all so similar). I realized only later that the way that I pronounced "chá" was like "cha" in English (or actually close to Chinese 茶). Nevertheless, really, it should be pronounced more like "shaa" in Portuguese. But nobody corrected me when I said "cha" (instead of "shaa") for a couple of times. Probably too many have made the same mistake and/or maybe Portuguese aren’t like the French who are more likely to want to correct you before they’d help you
By the way, last night, I just realized that the former HP CEO Carly Fiorina is now the "Chair of Victory, 2008" for the Republican National Committee when she was being interviewed in Bloomberg …. Interesting (to me ) !