Not Enough Disruption?

For the past few weeks, a paper in Nature has provoked vapors among those who want more scientific disruption. Bill Broad summarized it in the New York Times.

The paper defined “disruption” by a pattern of citations in the scientific literature. Horrifyingly to some, those disruptions have decreased since 1950.

There are layers of assumptions. First, that a pattern of citations in scientific papers is a measure of disruption. Next, that disruption is good and necessary for science. The overall goal of this disruption is not made explicit. To better our lives? In what way? For an abstract ideal of progress? For personal glory?

Four examples are given in Johnson’s thread: the DNA helix, relativity, quantum mechanics, and space flight. None were developed in a single paper. All emerged after long histories of related work. The first two are associated with single historic papers. The last two aren’t.

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Cleaning Up One Of The Soviet Union’s Messes

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably seen parts of this story. A longer version was posted for a while, but then Stanford University cleaned out all websites that used Drupal, so it’s gone now.

This week I refound a video that I like because it explains a lot about the Silmet rare-earths refining plant at Sillamäe, Estonia.

I became involved with Sillamäe in 1998, when NATO wanted Los Alamos to hold more of its Advanced Research Workshops with the recently independent states that came out of the Soviet Union. We held an ARW in Tallinn in October 1998 on how to remediate the kilometer-long tailings pond from the plant.

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The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem was published in the December 1922 issue of Criterion, 100 years ago. There’s a lot in it, and people focus on different parts. The first few lines get a workout every April, when people try to make them mean that April weather is changeable, but if you read the first four lines, and even better seven, it’s clear that that’s not what they mean.

The rest of the poem is harder. It’s fragmented, and thus easy to pluck pieces out, which is what people do.

But perhaps Eliot and his famous editor, Ezra Pound, had a thought that unified the poem. Let’s look at the title: The Waste Land. We can see that theme throughout: the dry red rocks, the inability of people to connect, water and death, and finally, in line 424 of 437, we meet the Fisher King, who rules the Waste Land and who suffers a wound that will not heal.

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Oppenheimer Clearance Removal Vacated

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm vacated the 1954 decision of the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy, to revoke J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

Many people have worked to remove this unfair judgment against Oppenheimer for many years. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been instrumental. Jeff Bingaman, when he was New Mexico’s senator worked hard on the issue. Many organizations and individuals were involved, even me to a small extent.

Here’s what’s not in the Granholm statement or an NYT article on the decision. In the early 1950s, Oppenheimer was not sufficiently in favor of developing the hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller had been pushing the idea since the Manhattan Project, when he had pursued it to minimizing his work toward the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had humiliated Lewis Straus, the chairman of the AEC, in a congressional hearing for his lack of knowledge of science. The knives were out.

As Granholm’s statement points out, no evidence was presented in the hearing that the two men precipitated on Oppenheimer’s security clearance that he was disloyal to the United States. Just that they didn’t like the cut of his jib. And they won at the time.

Now that has been reversed. Sadly, it doesn’t remove the harms of the past, to Oppenheimer and his family.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Post-Colonial Trolling

Vladimir Putin has made clear his ambition to reintegrate Ukraine into a Russian Empire. Russia expanded from the Ukraine-Moscow-Novgorod area across Asia over a period of centuries. By 1721, it was at its maximum extent, including colonies in North America. Like other empires, it indulged in various forms of genocide as it incorporated peoples of many languages and living conditions.

The Soviet Union grew out of the Russian Empire and continued its imperial characteristics, but its rhetoric denied those characteristics. It was the friend of oppressed people everywhere, and the members of the Union were happy to be part of it, so went the official line.

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Will Russia Break Up?

One speculation on the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine is that Russia will break up. Russia remains an empire, conquered over centuries. The breakup of the Soviet Union allowed 14 of its colonies to become independent. Those colonies had been given the status of Republics of the Soviet Union. Russia today contains several types of internal groupings: 46 oblasts, 21 republics, 9 krays, 4 autonomous okrugs, 2 cities of federal significance and 1 autonomous oblasts.

Many of these are ethnically distinct. All are supposed to be treated equally, but they are unequal in size and importance to Moscow. Many of the differences go back to how the groups were incorporated into the Russian Empire.

In addition to the union republics, most of these groups existed at the time the Soviet Union but did not seek independence, partly because their governmental organization was not strong enough to stand independently. All of the union republics had legislative bodies (supreme soviets) and an executive, some stronger and more prepared for independence than others.

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Jack Kerouac And Me

This year is the 100th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s birth. I’ve never liked his books, but he and others provided a spark of light for teenage me in what seemed to be a dull world.

I didn’t fit into the predominant narrative of the 1950s, in which I was to expect a career as a housewife, maybe becoming a teacher or nurse if I was determined to work outside the home. But why do that when home and pleasing a husband was plenty?

One of my ambitions was to grind my own telescope. I lived in the suburbs of New York City, and the American Museum of Natural History offered telescope grinding workshops. It was, though, more expensive than my parents could afford, and the weekly sessions, with the commute, probably more than I had time for.

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The Biggest Bomb

Popular movements in the late 1950s pressed toward the Limited Test-Ban Treaty (LTBT), signed in 1963, which prohibited atmospheric testing. It was preceded by a voluntary test moratorium by the United States and the Soviet Union from 1958 through 1961. At the time, the development of nuclear weapons – and other things like a nuclear-powered airplane – was wild and woolly.

One of the points of competition was the size of explosion that a nuclear weapon could produce. This was a somewhat silly competition, because the amount of damage a bomb could wreak increases with the cube root of its energy. So ten 10-megaton (MT; that’s millions of tons of TNT equivalent) weapons would be much more damaging than one 100-MT weapon. But for some, size does matter.

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Moving Into The New Year With Molotov and Ribbentrop


In 1939, the Soviet Union formally allied with Nazi Germany and agreed on how to split up the countries located between them. Immediately after, Germany invaded Poland. It is generally thought to be the beginning of World War II. Russia did not acknowledge the existence of the secret protocol on dividing Europe until 1989.

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Cartoon by David Low in the Evening Standard depicting Hitler greeting Stalin after the invasion of Poland, 

But that is not what Vladimir Putin wants you to believe. No, it was dastardly France, United Kingdom, the United States, and others who joined up with Hitler first at Munich, leaving the poor Soviet Union with no choice! Putin has mentioned this in several speeches, and in the last several weeks, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has joined in.

And they’re dissing diplomats who disagree with them.

The nations Russia has accused of starting World War II are pushing back.

Even Germany…

And, of course, a lot more from amateur and professional historians on Twitter. If you ever wanted to learn more about the beginnings of World War II, this is your big chance.

It’s hard to know what is motivating this propaganda storm from Russia. Here’s a person I trust.

That’s a little unclear, but I think the second sentence is intended to say that when Russia wants to use WW2 to gain friends, it usually talks about its sacrifices rather than the war’s origins.

There is speculation, as you see in the Dalsjö tweet, that it’s in preparation for some sort of military action from Russia. I tend to doubt that – Russia doesn’t need that kind of trouble right now. OTOH, Putin has been feeling cocky about his new weapons designed to deter the United States.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

On the Trail of a Fourth Soviet Spy at Los Alamos

Three Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project are well known – Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall. Fuchs and Greenglass were known publicly in the 1950s, but Hall’s story came out only in the 1990s.

Now more documents have been declassified, and Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, who have done much to illuminate Soviet spying during that time, have found a fourth Soviet spy. They have found his path from the United States to East Germany and then Russia in 1952, escaping from possible arrest. Their article in the CIA’s “Studies in Intelligence” lays out what is known about him.

The spy’s name is Oscar Seborer. His story intersects with the FBI’s Project SOLO, in which they turned two members of the Communist Party in the USA. Their communications with Moscow seem to indicate that Seborer furnished information on the atomic bomb project, where he was a technician.

Seborer seems to have operated separately from the other spies, and his reporting seems to have been more to the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) than the civilian KGB. The two intelligence agencies have historically competed.

Klehr and Haynes have uncovered a fair bit of information about Seborer’s family, but not much about what he did at Los Alamos or what information he gave to Moscow. Maybe someone reading this knows something about the Seborer family or, as they called themselves in Russia, the Smiths.

 

Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.