The Vatican, November 25th, 2009

Download 45.05 Kb.
Size45.05 Kb.

Ettore Majorana Foundation and Center for Scientific Culture

Pontificia Academia Scientiarum

Session on Planetary Emergencies,

The Vatican,

November 25th, 2009
The crucial Role of Science (and scientists) in Public Affairs

A suggestion for coping with terrorism

Richard Wilson

Harvard University
Firstly I thank the organizers of this meeting, Professor Antonino (Nino) Zichichi and Monseigneur Sanchez Serrondo for inviting me to this meeting and thereby giving me the opportunity to express and explain my views to this distinguished audience.
I start with a couple of quotations by people more distinguished and powerful than myself. Firstly by Professor Wolfgang H Panofsky, one of the brightest men of the last century who was my wife’s brother-in-law. He was known by his childhood nickname (Pief) to a dozen US presidents. Three days after his death the following words were in an “op-ed” in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Scientific-technical realities cannot be overruled by political decisions without resulting in grave risks to the nation." (Panofsky, 2007). This was referring to the emphasis on anti ballistic missiles (ABMs) He had testified to the US Senate about them in 1969 and the ABM treaty was a response to this and other scientists. But he was ignored, as was Bethe and Garwin when President Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty and proposed ABM systems in the Czech Republic and Poland .
“Humanity has been the subject of vicious attacks from extremists. Undoubtedly scientific centers that embrace all peoples are the first line of defense against extremists”

This was said by an unlikely person- King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - when he opened a new University in 2009. Indeed, however, King Abdullah and his predecessor understood the importance of science, although they were not scientists, and had two PhD scientists, one each from Harvard and Stanford in the cabinet.
Today others will talk on the importance of science in general. I will restrict my talk to the importance of Science in Public Affairs - in short in politics . Even this is a subject that is large and general. I will talk about a subset in which a panel of the World Federation of Scientists, meeting in Erice, has become concerned. I will talk about a specific set of their proposals made by the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism (PMPT) of the World Federation of Scientists, and its s subgroup Permanent Monitoring Panel on Mitigation of Terrorist Acts (PMPMTA) for limiting the effects of terrorism.
As one thinks about terrorism one realizes that it is useful to think through the problems from the beginning.

Can one stop someone becoming a terrorist?

Can one prevent a potential terrorist from having access to weapons?

Can one prevent a potential terrorist from approaching a vulnerable target?

Can one mitigate the effects of a terrorist action?

The mitigation of the effects of a possible action is difficult because of the huge number of possible targets open to a single terrorist. Mitigation may seem useless and impossible. But we start by a couple of important statements which are not proven and are only assumptions, but assumptions we believe.

(1) If the potential terrorist knows that the effects of attack on a particular target or type of target are limited it is less likely that he or she will choose this action

(2) Many potential terrorist actions are to create a situation which might occur naturally.
These have been realized for 35 years by professionals. I quote from memory a conversation on this subject in 1979 Professor Norman Rasmussen, the chairman of the “Reactor Safety Study”. We were discussing terrorism just after the Three Mile Island accident:’Three is nothing a terrorist can do that those clowns (the reactor operators at TMI) did not do on their own”. More professionally put, one must examine the “Low Probability High Consequence” accident scenarios. These were widely ignored before 1976, but are now taken very seriously by almost all industries. Alas, the US building industry still does not take this seriously, even after the (preventable) fall of the towers at the World Trade Center in 2001. It was less obvious to the biomedical community that preparation for a natural outbreak of disease is the best preparation for a release of disease vectors by a terrorist. But after SARS most of that community was converted. This, then became a focus of discussion.
Before I address the specific recommendations I will address a few reasons for the difficulty in communicating science to the public in these situations. I will of course greatly simplify what has indubitably been the subject of many PhD theses.

In 1820 or so the same man (1) understood the science (2) applied it to technology (3)

explained it to legislatures (4) got approvals (5) oversaw the application in practice.
Perhaps the last of these scientists who understood almost everything was Gauss. Alas, a problem with the common currency in the European Union is that we no longer see Gauss, and his Gaussian (normal) distribution on a 10 mrk note. But we also had Helmholz in Germany, and Maxwell and Thompson (Kelvin) in the UK. But now each of these 5 steps is, at best a different man, but more commonly a different department. Each person in the department has his own incentives and constraints which can inhibit transfer of information up or down the chain. The basic science can, and often does, get lost and stupid decisions are made. I think we can all urge that politicians must reach down and understand basic science and also scientists must not stay in an ivory tower but reach up and insist that the public and politicians base their decisions on science. The compartmentalization in the process of communication was perhaps worse in the USSR than in other developed countries. It was dangerous to criticize or even comment upon the work done by people in another compartment. There were few scientists who understood the weaknesses in the RBMK reactor - both in design and careless operation. It is widely believed in the USA that if such criticism had been made and considered, the Chernobyl accident would not have occurred.
In this point we note that science is not technology but only related to it. The newspapers and many in the general public and politicians are confused about this. Technological advances depend upon scientific understanding and are strictly limited by basic scientific facts. Inversely, in scientific inquiry, it is important to be able to use the best technological apparatus that is available.
Once it is realized that addressing a natural accident with large consequences, is a crucial step in addressing response to terrorism, it follows that FIRST RESPONDERS must learn and understand the science that underlies the accidents with large consequences even though improbable under ordinary circumstances. In considering the possibility of a “dirty bomb”, the release of a 10,000 Curie source in a busy crowded, area such as Wall Street, we can look at a situation where such a source was released by accident in Brazil. In that case, a thief broke open a an abandoned clinic, broke into a locked area which contained the source, and spread it in the community. Children took the fluorescent powder on their faces. It was perhaps a week before the hazard was realized. But less than a dozen people died, although a few more got an increase in cancer risk, calculable under usual pessimistic assumptions but unverifiable. But depending on rules for clean up and reentry many square kilometers of a major city could be unusable for 30 or more years. Some of us think that the rules for reentry in an area with a high radioactivity level are too restrictive. They were put in place by the international community soon after the Chernobyl accident contrary to the advice of the UK National Center for Radiological Protection who alone of all national groups had thought about the problem and issued a report that was published just a week before the accident.
But the PMP has suggested ways in which the adverse effect be avoided. Trained “Radiation Workers” can enter into places, with their radiation monitors at levels that would not be permitted to the general public. Critical employees in city organizations could get radiation training preferably in advance. I have had radiation training for over 60 years, recently rechecked both at Harvard University and Jefferson National Accelerator Laboratory. First responders should have several people on their rolls who understand radiation and perhaps consultants who would be willing to drop their other occupations at a moments notice.
But this is not being urged as it should be and, indeed, there are more stupid restrictions being put in place even as we discuss the matter. For example the latent period for many cancers is 20 years and perhaps the same for radiation induced . For example if I at age 83 were to get an overdose I might get cancer at 103 and that would be the least of my worries. Yet UK recommend that only people under 50 actively be involved if there is radiation release - the inverse of the sensible restriction!
After WWII my colleague Professor Kenneth Bainbridge, who had set off the first atomic bomb at Alamagordo and became famous for saying: “We’ll all be called sons of bitches now”, pointed out that physicists were likely to be asked in the future about radiation and insisted that in the (compulsory) advanced physics laboratory everyone get radiation instruction. I was of this generation. In the 1970s I went to the “Television School” run by Jack Hilton in New York learning to make my point in the 2 minute (less commercial) time. I learned in detail about the epidemiology and the data on radiation problems and was willing to take the trouble - unpaid- to find out. As a result I have been in demand as an independent expert in the well known accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Japanese criticality accident of a few years ago. At TMI not one newspaper to my knowledge quoted the accurate press releases of the US government Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But I was on the TV six times in 2 days with that knowledge. At TMI not one major newspaper got the units right - confusing R and milliR and worse, mR and mR per hour. Even at the Japanese criticality accident the New York Times quoted the dose NUMBER correctly but put in R not milliR thereby changing an accident into a disaster.. Fortunately I had called Japan during the night and had the correct number and was able to stop the National Public Radio from making the same mistake. More details about this suggestion are in my presentation to the PMPMTA in August 2009. (Wilson, 2009a)
In 1939 -1943 incendiary bombs fell on houses in London. But the population was prepared. Inflammable material was removed from the top floors and replaced with a bucket of water and a bucket of sand and a small stirrup pump. There was three minutes to put out the bomb before it burnt through the floor and set the whole house alight. The three minutes was enough in many cases. There are now more reasons for early decisions. The Chairman of the PMPMTA has repeatedly emphasized that the first 10 minutes after an accident is crucial. (Leivesley, S., 2008). Then it is that the mitigation steps are decided. This is the time the trained radiation worker, with equipment in good shape, is crucial. Often, however communication networks can prove inadequate, and this might particularly apply if terrorists deliberately block them This leads to a suggestion which the PMP feels should be explored, where the basic scientists can help (Wilson, 2009b). High Energy Physicists have a dedicated fast computer networks with experts who understand hackers. This is at CERN and DOE. This is operated by a group independent of “industry” and Government. Departments and is perhaps more believable than the government directly. The European Union in in May 2009 proposed greater cooperation with CERN. I propose that CERN and US DOE jointly offer to the world their computer network in an emergency. High energy physics data analysis could stop for awhile. Management might be by CERN AND FERMILAB.
Additionally the physicists at CERN and DOE laboratories could be encouraged to volunteer. They could be trained to understand radiation in advance, as I was. They could be “vetted” by the World Federation of Scientists (WFS) or by an independent professional society

Interestingly, Andrei Sakharov in the late 1980s proposed a similar committee procedure, not for short term assistance but to make serious policy recommendations to the government. Government experts would merely testify to the committee. This procedure was adopted in the organization of the Sakharov conference in Moscow in 1981.
Bioterrorism is very different from terrorism with dirty bombs. The way an epidemic develops is very complex but one can derive from the data two crucial numbers:

(1) The time from infection to the time of infecting others (~ 1 week )

(2) The average number of people infected 1.5 to 3

The first number tells us the rate an epidemic can develop and the second tells us whether it will.

For millenia the only procedure mankind had to combat epidemics was quarantine. Lepers were sent into the desert to avoid infecting others. 200 years ago quarantine was used against yellow fever in the south of the United states. Cuba has used it against AIDS. China was slow at using this against SARS but has used it recently against H1N1 flu. But the PMP has suggested that we have better procedures (Morse et al.,, 2006). The main emphasis in the USA has been to vaccinate people. In USA the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is widely respected. Since May 2009 their recommendations have been accepted. BUT new vaccines are inherently slow and the other steps are often ignored.
We address the number in (2). We only need to reduce this from 1.5 or 3 to 0.99 to stop a pandemic. Suppose 80% of a group were to screen themselves and reduce exposure 10 fold by closing schools, stop shaking hands, washing hands, wearing masks, staying home if a high temperature. Then instead of 3 people being infected by one patient, there would be 20% x 3 + 80% x 0.3 = 0.84. The epidemic would be wiped out within a few cycles. Although this principle was used in wiping out small pox, spear headed by WHO, and is being used, in wiping out elephantitis, this possibility at the earlier stage is not understood and is still widely ignored.

Fortunately there are scientists who are studying the development of the H1N1 influenza, that has already killed 7000 persons in the USA, half from secondary causes (Yang Yang et al,.et al., 2009). They do not in this paper derive the simple numbers above but do note that 1/3 of all cases are from transmission from others in the home or school. Many persons have suggested that school buses are particular places for incubating diseases. I will always avoid in future traveling back by airplane from a resort location just before the school restarts. The last time I did this I picked up a pneumonia virus. Even if one member of a family has a fever, they will not postpone travel because the airline will charge $200 each ticket for cancellation.
There is a technological advance that shows promise of reducing (1) - the time before a disease cluster is diagnosed. The time to recognize an emergency from 1 week to 1 hour. Representative digital temperature measurements can be sent automatically to a semi-central location with date, temperature and location for each entry. A cluster of fever can be located at once. This is being tested by a former student at Beth Israel Hospital in Brookline and Exergen corporation in Watertown (Pompei, 2009).
In either of these attempts to stop an epidemic needs fast action. It is not clear whether a large dedicated computer network is needed in this case, but it would be a fine gesture if the CERN - DOE network were offered with WHO and CDC being the lead organizations. The extent that volunteers would be helpful in this situation is unclear, but they could presumably come from public health school faculty and students and vetted by CDC and professional societies.)
In both these two cases, the PMTP is suggesting thought and action on both sides of the communication chain. Scientists should reach out and try to bridge all the gaps in talking to the politicians. At the same time media hounds and politicians must be careful to talk about the science and technology in a responsible way. But I give two major warnings. Anyone who volunteers commits him/herself to continuous hard work for a period of a month or so. One has to be patient with people on the phone. One has to reply to phone calls at once. One has to be prepared to go to an accident scene at one’s own expense and not wait for the government grant. Also do not expect a reward or to be thanked. If you are right, few people will have even radiation damage and there will be no pandemic. Then the public may erroneously say the restriction was unnecessary.
The same principles apply widely to other situations even when there is not the urgency of coping with terrorism. Understand the fundamentals of the situation you are describing and emphasize them at all times. Units, words, all mean something and they must be used carefully and as precisely as you can. Try not to talk down to the public. In sports language KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL! To illustrate this I describe two related topical examples where misuse of words by experts still confuses the public.
The first is about the energy situation in the country. I found even last week a paper by two physicists who should know better talking about Energy Conservation. Yet we have known for 150 years that energy is conserved! Most people stopped doing this mistaken utterance by saying that we should conserve fuel without saying why. Who for example wants to conserve solar energy? Now it is popular to talk about energy efficiency. Fuel efficiency would be better but as we say it it becomes clear that it is only a partial solution. Persuading people, not to heat their houses as much or to avoid unnecessary journeys is important. That might be fuel restraint. Also if the public policy concentrates on efficiency in use of carboniferous fuels, that leaves nuclear power and carbon sequestration with no incentives. But we must also be careful to define and state the boundaries of the problem. If we emphasize efficient use of coal, we must use the uranium therein. This could, for example, generate between 2 and 10 times as much energy to use as the carbon. Even Dick Garwin and other proponents of using uranium in sea water never proposed this logical step! But I personally, born next to a coal fired power plant, cringe when I hear the words, ‘clean coal”. Has someone come with a paint brush and whitewashed it?

In discussion of climate change there is another set of word usage problems which are not coincident. I hear it said many times per day that CO2 emissions affect climate. They only do indirectly. : CO2 concentrations can and probably do. Discussion of control methods at Copenhagen and elsewhere seem to concentrate on control of emissions and making an analogy with control of sulphur emissions. This analogy is very misleading and scientists should not let it pass unchallenged. There is an apochryphal story of a committee of EPA regulators discussing the desired level of CO2 concentrations. “What level do we want?” From the back of the room came the reply: “Zero of course” an answer appropriate for sulphur but not for carbon. Moreover economists argue for regulation as early in the chain as possible. Yet ALL of the EU or US government proposals, and perhaps even more important the discussion of them in the media, are for controlling emissions of CO2 from the millions of emitters and none of the proposals are for controlling carbon where it is already recorded as it comes out of the ground at the oil well, coal mine, gas field or port of entry. Few media commentators discuss the distinction. We have work to do.
Two examples of careless use of language at the end of 2009 stand out. The Program on Public Affairs of the American Physical Society carelessly worded a resolution affirming their belief that there is a serious problem demanding attention. This bad wording encouraged critics, including at least two distinguished scientists whom I personally respect, to ask for its recall, which the APS president has declined to do. In another situation the group at the University of East Anglia, UK has been carelessly sending each other E mails with embarrassing descriptions on how to present the data to disguise uncertainties. Among other things they forgot that E mails are easier to access and search than the written or spoken word. Laws rightly consider that insults in the written word (libel) are more serious than insults in the spoken word (slander). Insults by e mail are clearly worse than libel! I know of no scientist who has changed his opinion as a result of this, but opinion polls in the US public have turned sharply against action on a climate-energy bill. This then becomes still another matter on the Science-Policy interface that demands the attention of the World Federation of Scientists and its able leadership.. In particular I call upon the groups concerned to “come clean”. Admit their mistakes clearly and help us to move on.
But in the twin issues of climate and energy there is no international political consensus as the zoo at Copenhagen in December 2009. The scientists meeting in Erice have been vocal but it has not been enough. The chairman, Nino Zichichi, has constantly urged at the Erice meetings that concise recommendations be provided that might influence government action. In the last few years the Energy PMP has responded, and members thereof have also taken these recommendations to all the decision makers that they personally know. I, for example, gave the 2007 recommendation (EnergyPMP, 2007) on controlling carbon as it comes out of the ground to US representative Edward Markey at a small reception at Harvard University, with another copy to his staff. But no sign of it appears in the 1000 plus pages of the Waxman-Markey bill being discussed in the US House of Representatives. Others have similar stories. We must redouble our efforts.
In this brief paper I inevitably express my own opinion, and give examples from my own personal experience. I know that others have very similar experiences. I think that my views are consonant with those at both the PMPMTA and the energy PMP. I thank the members of these groups, the speakers at the Erice meetings and elsewhere, for having molded my opinion.

American Physical Society (APS) (2009) No longer easily available on their website.
EnergyPMP, 2007 “Simple Upstream Control of Carbon”. Available on the energypmp website at pmp or

Other recommendations of the energy pmp are similarly available.
Panofsky, W.K.H. (2007) “Missiles no defense” San Francisco Chronicle, September 25th
Wilson, R.,2009a The need for a corps of radiation workers for immediate assignment,

Presented at the PMPMTA August 2009, available on the site:
Wilson, R., 2009b Establishment of a scientifically informed Rapid Response system

Presented at the PMPMTA August 2009,

available on the site:
Yang Yang et al. (2009)

The Transmissability and Control of Pandemic Influenza A (H1N1) virus

Science, 326:729 (2009)


Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page