Random Thoughts
Tales and Anecdotes

By Dr A Q Khan

I had been planning to write on some technical/educational topic, but ran into some interesting episodes, which I thought I should share.
Some of you might remember that on Sept 1, 2007, the Shershah Northern Bypass Bridge collapsed just 20 days after its inauguration by Gen (R) Musharraf. No action of any sort was taken and there were rumors that this was because Maj Gen (R) Farrukh Javed, chairman of the National Highway Authority, was a personal friend of Musharraf. This and other rumors were rife. Now the chairman of the Prime Minister's Inspection Commission, has put the blame of that catastrophe, which cost the lives of six people, squarely on the shoulders of the chairman of the NHA and his colleague, Mr Altaf Chaudhry.
Like everyone else, I thought at the time that the chapter was closed, as had so many other subjects been closed without further action, the latest being the murder of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. What a nice change to hear somebody being held responsible! These events made me think of Nizamul Mulk Tusi, the prime minister of the Seljuk king Jalaluddin Malik Shah. Tusi was an extremely capable administrator and an intelligent, God-fearing citizen. His treatise on the administration of state affairs, known as Syasat Nama, is an excellent piece of advice on how to rule a country and to be a popular ruler at the same time. In this Syasat Nama he describes many anecdotes as examples on good governance. One of these was about a defective bridge, supposedly built during the Caliphate of Hazrat Umar (RA).
It is said that at the time of his father's death, Abdullah bin Umar Al-Khattab asked: "Oh, father, where and when shall I see you again?" Umar replied: "In the next world." The son said he wanted to see him sooner. Umar replied that Abdullah would see him in a dream that very night, the next night or the night after that. However, for 12 years Abdullah did not see his father in a dream. Then one night he saw his father and said: "Oh father, didn't you say that within three nights I would see you?" Umar replied that he had been occupied because a bridge near Baghdad had become dilapidated and the officials had not repaired it. A goat's foreleg fell into a hole in that bridge and was broken. Until now I had been questioned about that.
The moral of the story should be clear to the NHA officials and the ruler at the time. It is a fact that in this Mumlake Khudadade Pakistan, it is a free-for-all situation. No accountability, no punishment, no consequences. Tusi's Syasat Nama was based on truth, honesty, Qur’anic edicts, Ahadith and Shariah, this in contrast to the one written by the Hindu, Chanakya, PM to Chandra Gupta Muria, which was based on deceit, dishonesty and intrigues.
Most people have heard of the word "fission" in connection with nuclear bombs without knowing its meaning or history. James Chadwick, the British physicist, discovered the neutral particle, Neutron, in the nucleus of an atom (in addition to the existing Proton) in 1932, as had been forecast by Rutherford in 1920. At that time, Rutherford had described the prospect of nuclear energy application as an idea "all moonshine". Soon after its discovery, scientists in Europe and America started bombarding atoms of various elements to see their reaction. Fermi of Italy bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons and found several new elements. He erroneously concluded that trans-uranic elements heavier than uranium were produced. However, the German scientists Hahn and Strassmann found, by thorough chemical analysis, that the element Barium had been produced. In France, Irene Joliot-Curie found the element Lanthalum in a similar experiment. Lise Meitner, a top-notch Jewish physicist and colleague of Hahn, and her nephew, Otto Frisch, also a physicist, both of Austrian origin, had fled to Sweden and Denmark respectively to save themselves from Hitler's mad campaign against the Jews. Hahn and Strassmann's information greatly intrigued Meitner and Frisch and a few weeks later, while Frisch was spending the Christmas holidays in Sweden, they came to the conclusion that Hahn and Strassmann had indeed split the uranium nucleus into two nuclei, roughly equal in size. This was the real start of the nuclear age. After having read about the experiments and results of Hahn and Strassmann, a brilliant German lady chemist, Ida Noddack, published a paper suggesting that a nucleus of uranium, after absorbing a neutron, might break up into two fragments or, in other words, nuclear fission. It was sheer good luck for the Allies that this discovery was not made in Germany, as they would definitely have produced an atom bomb in time for use in the Second World War. The Germans missed this opportunity and lost the race to the USA in producing nuclear weapons. Frisch called this splitting of the uranium nucleus Fission. The term is borrowed from biology – the process by which a single cell divides into two. Later Frisch worked on the US atom bomb project and then became a Professor in England. He, together with another refugee, the German physicist Rudolf Peierls, prepared the famous Maud Report confirming the possibility of producing a nuclear weapon using fissile material.
The purpose of mentioning Otto Frisch is to tell an interesting anecdote. In 1933 he was going by train from Berlin to Moscow to attend a conference and had as traveling companion Homi Bhabha (later Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission). They became friends and stayed in the same hotel in Moscow. Frisch relates how he was quite fascinated when Bhabha once asked him how to use a Geiger counter (a hand-held instrument to detect the presence of charged nuclear particles or radioactivity). Here was a PhD from Cambridge who did not know how to use a simple instrument! One of our first physics practicals in Berlin was to describe/find the characteristics of such a Geiger counter.
Another interesting episode happened in 1953 when I was doing first year physical practicals at DJ Sindh Government Science College. We were given a vernier calipers and a micrometer/screwguage and were asked to measure the thickness of a small piece of metal plate and the diameter of a wire. We were taught to first find the Pitch and Least Count of the instruments. Our demonstrator was Baqi Beg who had just topped in MSc from the University of Karachi and was waiting to go to the US for PhD studies. Our Professor, Mr. DeSouza, came around checking what we were doing. He sat at the table with Baqi Beg and asked him to explain the use of the two instruments and to measure the two parameters. I happened to be standing nearby. Bagi Beg looked embarrassed and could not answer. Prof. DeSouza then went on to explain their use. Incidentally, Baqi Beg did go abroad, obtained a PhD and became a brilliant physicist heading the famous Rockefeller Institute in New York. Late Mr. Agha Shahi met him there once and tried to convince him to return to Pakistan and become Chairman of PAEC when Mr. Bhutto wanted to replace Munir Ahmed Khan, but Baqi Beg politely declined.
The last episode I would like to relate happened in 1984, if I remember correctly, when I accompanied Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Mr. Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, Mr. H.U. Beg and Gen. Arif to PINSTECH. After our meeting we went to visit the "New Labs" where radioactive materials were handled in a hot lab with the help of a manipulator. Put simply, this works more or less on the same principle as a "putli" manipulator. One puts one's hands into special grips and with the use of levers, manipulates a crane-like gadget behind a glass shield to handle small items. During the inspection, Mr. Ghulam Ishaq Khan asked the Head of the Division to show him how the manipulator worked. He was taken aback when the reply came that, since the operator was not present and he (Head of Division) did not know how to work it, he was unable to demonstrate. Mr. Ghulm Ishaq Khan immediately remarked that during his regular visits to KRL workshops, the Heads of Divisions were always able to operate all the equipment under their control, something I had always ensured. My advice to all scientists and engineers: know your equipment and instruments inside out. If you are unable to lead by example and in practice, you will lose respect in the eyes of your subordinates and colleagues. (Courtesy The News)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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