Selected Memories of an International Science Bureaucrat, Part 1

(Episode 1 + 2)
Irving A. Lerch*

1. Mamma Ligga in the Rilla Mountains—

On my arrival in Vienna at the IAEA in January, 1973, my assigned territory included east-central Europe (home of the “evil empire” of the day), the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. One of my first excursions was to Sofia, Bulgaria, where I was to help set up a radiation biophysics lab for both research and biomedical service to the central university radiation oncology department.

When I arrived at the airport I proudly laid my sky-blue UN Laissez-Passer before the customs official and he stared at it without moving for fully 10 minutes.  I got nervous—certain that I was about to be whisked to an interrogation chamber. Then he bestirred himself, looked up and asked me for my American passport.  I handed it to him and he stamped it and ushered me through customs without hesitation—so much for my diplomatic status.

I was met by Bulgarian colleagues who drove me to a government ministry.  I presumed my task was to assure delivery of equipment and help my colleagues set it up and begin their experimental program.  Instead I found myself confronting two government ministers—the minister of health and the minister of science, technology and higher education.  They sat me down at a large conference table and stared at me.  It dawned on me that I was supposed to make a statement.  I began to talk in English when the big barrel-chested minister of S&T interrupted and demanded to know if I spoke Russian.  No.  What languages did I speak?  German and French.  Good, said S&T, we speak German and you speak French with my colleague.
I began again and for 2-3 hours relying on my wholly inadequate vocabulary and grammar, argued facilities, university appointments, schedules and pay.  In the end, S&T turned to me and asked if I liked "mama ligga" (corn meal mush in Yiddish).  I was stunned and stammered yes (perhaps out of politesse because I know of no living creature who will voluntarily request the stuff).  He then invited me into his black Mariah and we drove for an hour and a half up Mount Vitosha until we came to a huge rustic restaurant—mostly empty.  We went inside and he ordered something from the waitress.  She arrived with one bowl of mush and put it in front of me.  I asked the minister whether he wanted some and he sniffed and said no.  He hated the stuff.  During the war that was all they could eat when battling the Nazis in the Rilla Mountains.

2. Atomic aspirations in West Africa and the fall of Saigon—

Californium-252 is a radionuclide first discovered in nuclear transformation reactions in cyclotron experiments by Glen Seaborg and his colleagues in 1950 and subsequently in the debris of the Pacific tests of the hydrogen bomb. It is unusual in that it decays by nuclear fission, emitting neutron and alpha radiation. Also it is relatively easy to produce in nuclear reactors—much as Plutonium. Because of its unique radiological properties, the US Atomic Energy Commission decided to make the isotope for research purposes, with an eye on industrial and medical applications.

On my arrival in Vienna, the US had offered the Agency the loan of Californium sources for use in its outreach programs worldwide. In reality, the sources were being returned to the Department of Energy when radioactive decay had reduced their usefulness (it decays to half its activity in 2.6 years). The brilliant idea was to garner international gratitude by proffering the sources as a “gift.” The problem was that no one in Vienna knew what to do with them. I was told that since I was an American and, presumably an expert on radiation, I should come up with a program (so as not to offend the US Administration or allow the Agency staff to appear ineffectual). And, by the way, there was little—in reality no—money.

My immediate response was to circulate an announcement inviting research proposals. Preference would be given to scientists from developing countries although partnerships with institutions in industrial countries were encouraged. The fact that these were dangerous radioactive materials requiring special shipping containers and monitoring equipment was set aside for the moment.

The response was immediate and I arranged programs in South Vietnam (there was a nuclear center not far from Cam Ranh Bay), Ghana, West Africa, Egypt, Israel, and numerous other countries. With the help of the US Resident Representative in Vienna, the Hungarian Atomic Energy Commission and others, I was able to put together a program.

The only question was: How do you make delicate radiological measurements in a rain forest? I had to find out.

Hungarian colleagues at the Budapest standards institute helped by producing extremely robust, sensitive and accurate dosimetry equipment and I designed the shielded shipping containers and experimental chambers that were constructed by the IAEA laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria.

The University of Legon, located outside the Capital, Accra, is the largest of five institutes of higher learning in Ghana. Adjacent to the university is the nuclear research center—the brain-child of Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, who was deposed in the 1960s. Nkrumah was a Russian client and had invited Soviet scientists and technicians to build a nuclear research center with as its centerpiece a small “swimming-pool” research reactor. When I arrived, the infrastructure was crumbling and decayed plumbing and insulation hung from the ceiling of the reactor building. However a few outbuildings were serviced with electricity and one even had a window air-conditioning unit where we set up shop.

Two physics professors had decided to collaborate on neutron dosimetry experiments. They had been trained in Germany and had good credentials but were frustrated—as was true of so many African scientists and engineers—by the lack of equipment and research opportunities. By the end of the decade of the 1970s, fully 10,000 highest trained scientists and engineers would emigrate to the West or the Soviet Union to be followed by 100,000 skilled workers of all stripes annually.

The time in Ghana was exhilarating and I learned to like kenke (fermented cornmeal in a banana leaf—a higher form of “mamma ligga”), West African High Life (the wonderful lilting music that gave birth to Caribbean Reggae, spicy ground nut soup (wonderful when used as a sauce on fou-fou, the pounded cooked gelatinous cassava) and a group of dedicated scholars who were both optimistic and certain that they could better their country. Around the corner, however, was a civil storm that would deluge West Africa and undermine all that was or could be accomplished for generations.

On Thursday, April 31, 1975, I convened a research meeting at the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Center in Germany for the purpose of bringing all of the scientists working with Californium together to discuss their results. I learned that morning that Saigon had just fallen and presumed that my colleague from South Vietnam would not attend. During the morning session, however, I was called to the phone. The Vietnamese physicist was calling from Paris and was profusely apologetic for missing the opening of the conference.

I told him not to worry, and not to try to come to Karlsruhe. He had taken one of the last commercial flights out of Saigon without his family and I told him that we would wire money. I asked him to contact the large expatriate Vietnamese community in Paris and seek help. He insisted on coming and presenting his report which he did the following day. He then disappeared and I never saw nor heard from him again.

Years later when the North Vietnamese government official who had taken his position visited me in Washington, DC, I asked about him and his fate but received no reply.

* Irving Lerch has been Chair, Executive Committee, FIP, and Director, Office of International Affairs, APS