Leo Szilard Award (2019) for Zia Mian – Why We Must Tilt At Windmills

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Forman Christian College-University in Lahore, Pakistan, hoodbhoy@mit.edu

Nuclear weapons are back in fashion, arms control treaties are being torn up, and global peace appears more distant than ever. What can you do? Shut up because nukes are like furniture now and nobody really likes to waste time thinking about them? You could shrug your shoulders and say, well, the world will go on – and if doesn’t, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. The other option is to rush the windmills. A few modern Quixotes keep trying. Even if they haven’t succeeded, some have actually made a difference.

Leo Szilard, originator of the nuclear chain reaction and co-designer of the world’s first nuclear reactor, must count among them. In his 1939 letter to Albert Einstein, he outlined the possibility of creating a new type of bomb drawing its explosive energy from within the nucleus. This was instrumental in starting off the Manhattan Project. But once Nazi Germany had been defeated, Szilard initiated a petition among fellow top scientists against using the bomb. The giants of physics – Oppenheimer, Fermi, Lawrence, and Compton – rejected it. So did the Project’s management, which ensured that President Truman and Secretary Stimson never got to see the petition before August 1945.

Szilard and his colleagues failed to stop the Bomb; Hiroshima happened, then Nagasaki. In 1946, Szilard worked with Einstein to set up the Emergency Committee of the Atomic Scientists but the nuclear genie had floated away by then. Discouraged, many Manhattan scientists gave up and went back to academic research but a few held steady and continued to speak out. Convinced that survival of the planet was imperiled, they helped mobilize citizens into confronting the bomb. In the 1980’s, massive anti-nuclear protests swept parts of Europe and the United States. From the old times onward, every generation of scientists has inspired the next and passed on its activism.

Zia Mian, winner of the American Physical Society’s (APS) 2019 Leo Szilard Lectureship Award, is among those who received the baton and is now running with it as hard as he can. The Award recognizes outstanding accomplishments by physicists in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society in such areas as the environment, arms control and science policy. His citation reads: “promoting global peace and nuclear disarmament particularly in South Asia, through academic research, public speaking, technical and popular writing and organizing efforts to ban nuclear weapons.”

Mian is passionate and articulate as he speaks to different groups of people within and outside the United States: “The nine nations of the world placing this sword over the life of every person on the planet must change their conduct. Nuclear weapons states should take the weapons off of alert status, lower their numbers, bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force by ratifying it, lower the operational status of the weapons, decouple the warheads from delivery vehicles, strengthen the treaty verification and inspection institutions, and expand the current nuclear weapons free zones which make the Southern Hemisphere virtually nuclear weapons-free.”

At Princeton University, where he has been since 1997, Mian co-directs (with Alexander Glaser) the Program on Science and Global Security (PSGS) at the Woodrow Wilson School. He also directs the Program’s Project on Peace and Security in South Asia and is co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a group supported by PSGS and comprised of nuclear experts from 16 countries that works to end all production of nuclear weapons materials and eliminate existing stockpiles worldwide. He is the co-editor of Science & Global Security, the international journal of arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation science, based at the University.

Mian’s advice is often sought at international forums such as those that agreed to the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons agreed upon in 2017 by 122 countries at the United Nations. Mian and collaborators at Princeton started the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia – for which Mian has been setting the research agenda every year since 1997. This project is the only one of its kind in the world, bringing physicists from India and Pakistan together to work on technical arms control issues and nuclear energy issues. The project was highlighted by “Nature” in its 10 January 2008 editorial, calling for scientists to become more involved in addressing questions of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. It picked out PSGS’s South Asia project as an example of the kind of collaboration that is needed.

I first met Zia in 1983 when, prior to his PhD from the University of Newcastle, he joined Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad as a lecturer. Not unusually for a person of Pakistani origin who grew up in Britain, he wanted to connect with his roots. The explosion in the 1980’s of public worry about nuclear weapons, expressed through large public demonstrations in Europe and the United States, had persuaded this young physics student that he needed to play his part.

This period also happened to be the time when Pakistan was surreptitiously engaged in making nuclear weapons. Only a handful of Pakistanis then (and, regrettably, now as well) felt that such weapons were immoral and needed to be opposed. Zia quickly became a convert and joined our little group of anti-nuclear academics, led by my physicist colleague A.H. Nayyar. He gave the first lecture on the concept of nuclear winter in the QAU physics department in 1985.

Pakistan then was under the boot of dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. It was a period of intense political and cultural repression but, as a very junior lecturer in the Earth Sciences department, Mian remained undaunted by the hierarchical and authoritarian setting. He returned to Britain for a PhD in 1986 but, after he had completed his post-doc, some of us persuaded him to return to Pakistan in 1993 to work on arms control issues. Thereupon, in 1995, Mian edited the very first book on Pakistan’s nuclear program. For this he, and the organization that published it, had to face harassment by the authorities.

Mian eventually decided to settle in the US, working initially for the Union of Concerned Scientists. There, over the years he acquired a reputation of being a sort of guru for those working on global nuclear disarmament, as well as that in South Asia. He has co-authored scores of articles and books on these subjects with a very diverse group of researchers and activists, including myself. In 2001 he and I produced a video documentary, “Pakistan and India under the Nuclear Shadow”. It was the first documentary – and still the only one from Pakistan – that is critical of South Asia’s nuclear race. It was followed by a second documentary, “Crossing the Lines – Kashmir, Pakistan, India” which is again the only one from Pakistan that attempts to look at a conflict that has consumed well over 100,000 lives. In my edited book “Confronting the Bomb – Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out”, Zia is author or co-author on 8 out of the 17 chapters.

Is it important to be a physicist to be effective in creating awareness of nuclear issues? Once upon a time it absolutely was – the Manhattan scientists were listened to attentively in the years after 1945, and the Pugwash Conference achieved celebrity status because its membership included both US and Soviet nuclear scientists who had worked on weapons. But that time is well gone; with the passage of decades the making of nuclear weapons has become far simpler and does not represent a high level physics challenge. Nevertheless, knowledge of basic physics is vital for understanding important technical issues related to production, development, and delivery matters. Committees concerned with international policies to reduce stockpiles and end production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (the key ingredients in nuclear weapons) seek technical advice from experts with a physics background.

No one knows this better than theoretical physicist and citizen-scientist Frank von Hippel, founding director of PSGS and now emeritus professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. A former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, and with a lifetime of involvement in nuclear disarmament issues, Hippel had recruited Mian to work in his Princeton group.

It turned out to be a happy choice; the baton continues to move forward: “Mian has carried on the great tradition pioneered by Szilard”, Hippel wrote to me after the award was announced, “of warning the public of the danger of nuclear arms races and making creative suggestions to concerned leaders for how to mitigate and ultimately control the danger.”

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.