Questions and answers with Pervez Hoodbhoy

A long-time activist assembles scientists from feuding states to confront the bomb and those who would use it for ill.

February 11, 2013

Physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy is known equally as an academic and as an activist against nuclear weapons. This year is the Pakistani native's 40th year as a physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. He has also served as a visiting professor at his alma mater MIT, Carnegie Mellon University , the University of Maryland, and the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.

Steven Gimbel

His contributions to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament are extensive. He is a sponsor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a member of the World Federation of Scientists' Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism, and a former member of the Pugwash Council. In 2011 he was included in the list of 100 most influential global thinkers by the magazine Foreign Policy.
As the chairman of the nonprofit Mashal Books in Lahore, Hoodbhoy is leading an initiative to translate into Urdu books that promote modern thought, human rights, and the emancipation of women. He recently arranged and edited Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out (Oxford University Press, 2013), a collection of 17 articles written for Princeton University's Project on Peace and Security in South Asia. Physics Today caught up with Hoodbhoy last month to discuss the book.


PT: What prompted you to produce this book?

Hoodbhoy: Pakistanis and Indians have been told lie after lie about nuclear weapons. National chauvinists and jingoists use [the lies] to whip up national enthusiasm. But they never talk about the catastrophic consequences if things somehow go wrong, or [about the fact] that our two countries have actually become more insecure after going nuclear. I felt that it was time to put the record straight and to get together my various writings, as well as essays of other physicist colleagues, in the form of a book. The aim is strip off the usual jargon and present facts just the way they are, both technical and political.


PT: Did you seek and get contributions from any of the scientists directly involved in India's and Pakistan's nuclear programs?

Hoodbhoy: As you can imagine, most Indian and Pakistani scientists and engineers who were actually involved in bomb design and testing are very defensive—sometimes aggressively so—of their role. They regard it as their life's achievement and consider those colleagues opposed to the bomb as either agents of some foreign power or as nutty Don Quixotes. So as much as I would have liked to include those who had actually worked on the bomb, it was simply impossible. Having said that, some are very nice and humane people, and in private conversation they express some personal qualms at having helped create these terrible weapons. But they will never go public.


PT: Which do you think is more imminent: a so-called Islamic bomb unleashed on the Western world or a regional nuclear conflict involving India and Pakistan? And what do you think are the primary reasons that could trigger that threat or stop it?

Hoodbhoy: An India–Pakistan conflict is relatively more probable of the two. It is not imminent by any means, but in five previous periods of high tension, leaders on both sides bellowed nuclear threats at the other. As for the Islamic Bomb, as yet it is not a reality. The bomb that Pakistan made was, at least initially, purely in response to India's 1974 test. Growing radicalization in Pakistan could change that, and some religious-political parties do claim the bomb for Islam. They want to terrify Pakistanis into believing that we are under constant siege and thus create a climate where the right-wing ideology of hate and violence can flourish. They insist that America wants to snatch our nukes. Well, that is certainly true up to a point—if the US could, it would. Few countries in the world trust us with nuclear weapons, especially now that our military is constantly under attack from homegrown terrorists.


PT: Recently, your contract at the Lahore University of Management Sciences was not renewed. What role, if any, do you think the publication of this book played in that decision?

Hoodbhoy: I cannot be sure, but this book could have only been a small part because my sins are many and spread over decades. The university authorities have not provided me any explanation, and they tell different people different things for why I was fired. Sadly, Pakistanis who oppose the bomb are considered unpatriotic and called agents of India, America, and Israel. Indians who oppose their bomb risk being called agents of Pakistan and America.


PT: What is your view on balancing the need to continue raising the scientific level in the region with protection against the threat of WMD proliferation?

Hoodbhoy: Making bombs is no longer a big deal and does not raise any country's scientific level significantly. Poor, starving North Korea is one of the world's most wretched states but it, too, has made the bomb and missiles. Today bomb-making merely requires putting together fissile materials with ready-made explosives and electronics. The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students. Making bombs and missiles of the type Pakistan and India possess is routine stuff that needs good engineers, not high-powered scientists.
There's one simple way to raise Pakistan's scientific level: Open the borders with India and let academics cross freely at will. India's scientific status is at least a couple of notches above Pakistan's, and we'd gain immensely. How I wish narrow-minded nationalism in both countries wouldn't stand in the way. If we could miraculously do away with it, the desire to make more nukes would also disappear.

PT: What books are you reading at the moment?

Hoodbhoy: I am reading through Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell (Princeton University Press, 2010) by Anthony Zee. It's the most brilliant and entertaining exposition of QFT that you could imagine—even stuff that you know shines through in a different light. The next one on my reading agenda is Lawrence Harrison's Jews, Confucians, and Protestants: Cultural Capital and the End of Multiculturalism (Rowan & Littlefield, 2012). I can already see myself disagreeing with parts, but the arguments are interesting.