Bombs, missiles and scientific progress

Print edition : May 22, 1999

Pakistan has declared bombs and missiles to be the touchstone of scientific progress. However, it has achieved this without having created an educated society or working science institutions or even attempting to move towards a society where science can ultimately develop.

TEN days of officially sponsored celebrations, leading up to the first anniversary of the nuclear tests of May 28, are scheduled to culminate with the award of prizes and honours by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to leading members of Pakistan's nuclear establishment. In preparation for this grand finale, Pakistan Television is continuously exhorting its viewers to celebrate Pakistan's power to wreak apocalyptic destruction. The Chagai tests, together with the more recent Ghauri-II and Shaheen-I missile launches, have been deemed heroic symbols of high scientific achievement.

Making the bombs and missiles has indeed demonstrated a high level of engineering and management skills, and the individuals to be decorated are undoubtedly competent, resourceful, and dedicated to the tasks they were assigned. But these programmes have little to do with cutting-edge science, original scientific research, high-technology, or the country's general scientific progress. Testing even a hundred bombs or missiles cannot change this reality by the tiniest bit.

The truth about science in Pakistan flatly contradicts all claims of scientific progress. But it is pointless to answer hyperbole with more hyperbole. Therefore I shall first define suitable criteria for gauging scientific achievement.

Pakistan's Ghauri missile on display at a parade in Islamabad on March 23, 1999.-

One key criterion of progress is what new scientific discoveries, analyses, inventions, or processes a country's scientists have produced. Since modern science is about the discovery and invention of new knowledge in highly specific areas, all scientists need to establish their professional credentials by publishing their work in internationally referred journals or file patents.

Pakistan's international status can be determined from publications of the Institute for Scientific Information that regularly tabulates the scientific output of each country. Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, Pakistan's leading chemist, quotes the following facts published by the Institute. In the period 1990-1994, Pakistani physicists, chemists, and mathematicians produced a pitiful 0.11 per cent, 0.13 per cent, and 0.05 per cent respectively of the world's research publications. Pakistan's total share of world research output in 1994 was just 0.08 per cent.

These painfully small numbers are even more painful if one also looks at the usefulness of these papers, also measured by the Institute. The average number of citations per paper was around 0.3, which is barely above zero. In other words, an overwhelming majority of papers by Pakistani scientists had zero impact on their respective fields. Atta-ur-Rahman also points out that between 1947 and 1986 the total number of Ph.Ds in the sciences produced by all the Pakistani universities and research institutes put together was 128. In comparison, India produces over 150 science and engineering Ph.Ds in one single year.

With fewer than 40 active research physicists in the country, about 100 active chemists, and far fewer mathematicians, Pakistan is starved of scientists. Even in nuclear physics, contrary to what may be suggested by Pakistan's successful nuclear weapons programme, there are just a handful of nuclear physicists. Ill-informed journalism is responsible for certain popular misconceptions. For example, Dr. A.Q. Khan, the pre-eminent architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme, is often called a nuclear physicist when, in fact, his degrees and professional accomplishments belong to the field of metallurgy, which is an engineering discipline rather than physics. When Dr. Khan visited the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University about two months ago, he endeared himself even more to his admirers by wistfully saying he wished he could come some day to that university to study physics.

The small size and poor quality of Pakistan's science establishment is firmly linked to the miserable state of Pakistan's universities, which rate among the poorest in the world. There are very few qualified and motivated faculty members, student quality is low, rote learning is normal, academic fraud is widespread, and student violence is common. Pakistan does not satisfy the first criterion.

The second criterion for scientific achievement is the degree to which science enters into a nation's economy. Again, the facts are stark. Pakistan's exports are principally textiles, cotton, leather, footballs, fish, fruits, and so on. The value-added component of Pakistani manufacturing somewhat exceeds that of Bangladesh and Sudan, but is far below that of India, Turkey and Indonesia. Apart from relatively minor exports of computer software and light armaments, science and technology are irrelevant in the process of production.

Thirdly, and lastly, a nation's scientific level is estimated by the quality of science taught in its educational institutions, and the extent to which scientific thinking is a part of the general public consciousness. It is not necessary to say very much in this regard. Even Pakistan's leaders admit that the country's schools, colleges, and universities are a shambles. An internationally administered test in 1983 established that Sixth Grade students in Japan performed better in physics and mathematics than 11th Grade students in Pakistan. And with creeping Talibanisation, the dawn of scientific enlightenment among the masses recedes daily. Pakistan fails the third criterion as well.

The arguments given above must have left some readers puzzled, and others angry but still confident that I am taking them for a ride. Everyone knows that nuclear bombs and long-range missile technologies are extremely complex systems. So if a country is indeed scientifically impoverished, how can it possibly manufacture them?

A large part of the answer lies in the modular nature of modern technology, and the ease with which separate modular units can be transported and then joined together to form highly complex and effective systems. You only need to know how the units are to be assembled, not how they work. Therefore, making bombs and missiles of the type Pakistan and India possess is now the work of engineers, and no longer that of scientists. Even here global technological advancement has created enormous simplifications. Consider, for example, that 30 years ago an electronic engineer working on a missile guidance system had to spend years learning how to design extremely intricate circuits using transistors and other components. But now he just needs to be able to follow the manufacturer's instructions for programming a tiny microprocessor chip, available from almost any commercial electronics supplier. Today sophisticated motorists and hikers can buy so-called GPSS (Global Positioning System Satellite) receiver units costing a few hundred dollars to determine their coordinates, and similar units can guide a missile launched thousands of miles away to a level of accuracy of better than 50 metres.

Modular technology applies also to rocketry, including engine design and aerodynamic construction. Advanced numerically-controlled machines have made reverse engineering of mechanical parts easy. No longer is "rocket science" a correct expression for indicating scientific complexity. Famine-stricken North Korea, with few other achievements, clearly has a very advanced missile programme. In fact, it has been repeatedly accused of transferring this technology to Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. None of these countries has a reputation for scientific and technological excellence, yet all three have intermediate range missiles.

The facts about nuclear weapons are equally stark. Unquestionably, the first atomic bomb was an exceedingly brilliant, if terrible, achievement by the world's finest physicists. It required the creation of wholly new physical concepts, based on a then very newly acquired understanding of the atomic nucleus. The ensuing technological effort, the Manhattan Project, was quite unparallelled in the history of mankind for its complexity and difficulty.

But here too the passage of five decades has changed everything and the design of atomic weapons, while still non-trivial, is vastly simpler now than it was earlier. Basic information is freely available in technical libraries throughout the world and simply surfing the Internet can bring to anyone a staggering amount of detail. Advanced textbooks and monographs contain details that can enable reasonably competent scientists and engineers to come up with "quick and dirty" designs for nuclear explosives. The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students.

Implosion calculations are also far simpler now. This is owing to the free availability of extremely powerful but cheap computers, as well as numerical codes which allow one to see how a bomb's characteristics change as one changes sizes and shapes, purity of materials and so on. In contrast, the early bomb calculations had been painfully carried out by hand or by programming huge and primitive vacuum-tube computers. Today, a pocket calculator worth only Rs.500, has more computational power than the room-sized early computers which were worth millions of dollars.

In a world where science moves at super-high speeds, nuclear weapons and missile development is today second-rate science. The undeniable fact is that the technology of nuclear bombs belongs to the 1940s, and the furious pace of science makes that ancient history. Nevertheless, the reader may still demand an answer to the question: exactly how hard is it to make nuclear weapons?

Hard and easy are relative terms. Therefore, to make things more precise, consider the following hypothetical situation. Let us suppose that the developed countries exercise no export controls, or that a given Third World country has a sufficiently clever purchasing network to get around these controls, and hence that it can obtain all the non-military technologies it wants. Assume also that it has the cash to pay for such commercially available equipment, electronic systems, machine parts, special steels and materials, and so forth, as are needed in a modern industrial setting. And, finally, suppose that the country either possesses naturally found uranium, or waste material from some reactor. What, then, would be the chances of success?

Botswana, Lesotho and Somalia still could not make it, I am afraid. Nor could Madagascar or the Maldives. Libya or Saudi Arabia would also have great difficulty unless they hired scientists and engineers from abroad. But one can count more than 60 countries currently without nuclear weapons, which could very well have them if the conditions of the above hypothesis were fulfilled - and, of course, if they wanted the weapons.

It is not my purpose to denigrate the considerable achievements of Pakistani and Indian nuclear and missile experts. They have accomplished their goal of being able to reduce each other's country to radioactive ashes in a matter of minutes. This is no mean feat because even today substantial engineering ingenuity is required to make any textbook method actually work. It takes intelligence to get complex machines to work, and reliably convert formulas given in books and documents into bombs and rockets. But this does not amount to scientific genius or to meaningful overall advancement of the nation's technology.

Does it really matter that making bombs and missiles is no longer high-science? The answer is yes, for three reasons. First, making these weapons no longer impresses the rest of the world. There was indeed a time when being nuclear and missile armed meant that a country was big and powerful, but today's international pecking order is determined by a nation's economic, not military, strength. India had hoped for a Security Council seat after the May 11 tests but miserably failed.

Secondly, the highly focussed, and hugely expensive, Pakistani and Indian weapons programmes are wasteful because they use scientific principles discovered and developed elsewhere and so cannot produce any important spin-offs. In contrast, the strongly research-oriented military-industrial complex in the U.S. has often produced new spin-off technology with enormous applications, the Internet being one example.

Thirdly, the irrelevance of high-science to bombs and missiles has yet another, and still deeper, implication. Pakistan has established that even a scientifically impoverished country can, with minimal infrastructure, produce bombs that will go off and missiles that will fly. The prescription for success is sufficient money and resources, a few hundred engineers working under the direction of effective and intelligent group leaders, an international buying network, and the will to do it all.

Therefore one does not need high-class research scientists or world-class universities. A couple of good engineering institutes will suffice, together with a few good schools and colleges. More would be welcome, but an expensive luxury. Hence, Chagai cannot give an impetus for resurrecting an educational system that had collapsed over a decade ago.

The Pakistani state has declared bombs and missiles to be the touchstone of scientific progress and its present elation is understandable. But it has been able to acquire these without having created an educated society, or working science institutions, or even attempting to move towards a society where science can ultimately develop. Historically, every society where science has flourished has necessarily submitted to the power of reason and been radically transformed. When science came to Europe three centuries ago, it swept away the old theocratic medieval order and replaced it with ideas of progress, humanism, and rationalism. Curiously, the offspring of science, technology, has been summoned to serve and defend an increasingly Talibanised Pakistan. The country's emerging new medieval theocracy, that now impatiently awaits its turn for power, counts upon having at its disposal the power of fiery jinns to use as it wills.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is Professor of Nuclear and High-Energy Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

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