An Interview with Zia Mian

Dr. Zia Mian, who will be traveling to Oregon in April to accept the 2014 Linus Pauling Legacy Award, was kind enough to give us a bit of his time not long ago for an interview.  In it he discussed a whole range of topics including the development of his socio-political consciousness, his admiration for Pauling and his thoughts on healing old wounds in South Asia.  The transcript of our conversation is presented below.

For a more technical perspective on Mian’s thinking with particular respect to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, see the embedded video above.  An excellent profile of Mian, published by his home institution, Princeton University, is likewise available here.


Pauling Blog: You studied physics in graduate school. Were you already interested in socio-political issues? Or did you experience an awakening of sorts, as happened to Pauling with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Zia Mian: I’m of a generation of people that were growing up during the period of the late 1970s and the early 1980s, what has come to be called the Second Cold War, where President Reagan and the United States, and I believe it was Western Europe, moved new nuclear missiles into Western Europe as a response to new Soviet missiles that had been developed. And so there was a great risk of nuclear war again and peace movements across Europe and in the United States became very active. We had some of the largest demonstrations by these groups that had ever been seen in New York and London and other cities. And the presence of such a large and determined and active social movement raises questions for all kinds of people, such as “what do I think about this issue? What does this mean? How does this impact society and what is my role in what’s going on?”

And so as a young physics student it became obvious that nuclear weapons were something that I had to think about and to try and understand what I thought about them and what they might mean. And so as a consequence I think that it wasn’t so much like a calling of having a Hiroshima or Nagasaki type moment, but the existence of a large and determined peace movement raising the issue to people across the world, that this is an issue you have to take seriously and come to a position on. That led me to think about what nuclear weapons meant and how I felt about them.

PB: With Pauling and several other scientists at the beginning of the nuclear age, they could understand the science behind nuclear weapons as well, and that seemed to lend itself toward their activism, in the sense that they could understand how they worked and the amounts of energy they could release. Did that play in for you as well?

ZM: At the beginning of the nuclear age certainly many scientists, including ones who had worked on the Manhattan Project, realized that the public and policy makers needed to understand the new dangers that nuclear weapons and nuclear materials posed to the world. And having a technical background made it easier to understand some of the things that nuclear weapons mean, without having to know secrets. Because the science was sufficiently clear that you could make this understanding of what was going on. What you have to remember is that lots of other people came to a similar understanding about nuclear dangers without being scientists. One thinks of Mahatma Gandhi writing about the danger of nuclear weapons soon after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus or the English writer George Orwell or the American writer Lewis Mumford. All of them, within months or the first year or so after Hiroshima, tried to explain to people that these nuclear weapons posed a profound and unimaginable new danger, without being scientists themselves.

But the scientists—being experts gives you a somewhat privileged position to debate, because people have a tendency to look to scientists as being people who can understand and explain some of the more detailed factual and technical basis of what nuclear weapons and their production and use mean, rather than just talking about the politics of what nuclear weapons mean or the ethics and morality of what nuclear weapons mean. But I can’t emphasize strongly enough that many of the early scientists like Pauling and others, as well as writers like Mumford and Bertrand Russell and Albert Camus and George Orwell who wrote about nuclear weapons, combined both a technical understanding and a political understanding and a moral and ethical sensibility about what these weapons would mean. And it was only by taking them all together that one can see what kind of intervention they made in helping people understand the nuclear danger.

PB: Well that leads into my next question. Pauling strongly believed in the imperative that scientists act as public citizens, and that they use their talents to help educate the public on socio-political issues. You seem to follow this model as well. Can you tell us a bit more about your work as an educator on nuclear issues?

ZM: I’ve been involved in nuclear issues now for almost thirty years. I remember that in the 1980s I was working at the University of Islamabad in Pakistan, which is Pakistan’s national university, and in August 1985, on the anniversary of Hiroshima, a group of fellow scientists and activists from the local community and students got together to do the first Hiroshima Day event in Pakistan, where we gathered people and showed slides and tried to explain about exactly what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; what were the effects of nuclear weapons on people and the dangers of radiation and of fallout and why it would be a grave peril if Pakistan went down this road. And we were concerned that Pakistan was thinking about having its own nuclear weapons program, which it did in secret, as we now know.

And so the idea from the very beginning was that in any kind of democratic process, your goal as a scientist and as an educator and as a citizen is to help people inform themselves so that they can decide how best to participate in the key decisions that their society is making on their behalf. And I think that scientists, and especially ones who are engaged in issues that so directly affect society, have this obligation to help their citizens understand and empower them to participate in democratic decision making. So I think that’s the combination of science and citizenship and democracy that people like Pauling and Einstein and so many others brought into the public domain so long ago, and has inspired so many of us to continue in that tradition.

PB: One of the ways that you’ve engaged in popular education on these issues is through documentary films. Can you tell me a little bit more about how those came to pass?

ZM: One of the things that we discovered working on trying to educate people in South Asia, in Pakistan and India, about the dangers of nuclear weapons in the 1980s and in the 1990s, was that unlike in North America and Western Europe, where nuclear weapons being part of Hollywood movies, or plays and novels of science fiction stories, or comic books, a constant theme in popular culture; in South Asia this is not the case. Most people have no idea about nuclear weapons or Hiroshima or Nagasaki or radiation or fallout. They never watched a movie about them; they never read a book about them and never see them anywhere. And so they have no point of reference to what these words might mean. And so at the time of the 1998 nuclear tests where India tested nuclear weapons and then Pakistan tested the weapons, we felt that there was a desperate need to help people have things that would help them understand what nuclear weapons were all about.

And so I worked with other Pakistani physicists, especially Pervez Hoodbhoy, to make a short documentary film, “Pakistan and India Under the Nuclear Shadow,” which helped people understand how nuclear weapons were created, their use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how the nuclear weapons arms race unfolded during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then what’s been happening in Pakistan and India. And then the risk of war – what would happen if there was a nuclear war between Pakistan and India – all leading to the hope that people would understand that the risks are so great that it would be a mistake to support having nuclear weapons and expanded nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons. And we’ve been very fortunate that we made an Urdu version of the film to make it accessible as possible to the largest numbers of people, and an English version of the film. And this film is now available on the Internet as well and it was shown very widely at conferences, at workshops, by community groups, by student groups, by peace and justice groups in Pakistan and India.

And we then followed that up with a second documentary film that tried to embed that understanding in the larger context of Pakistan-India relations and the risk of war between those two countries over the disputed territory and people of Kashmir who could get a sense of what the background on which all of this is unfolding. And the idea in the second film was to try and go beyond the nationalistic stories that are told by Pakistan on one side and by India on the other side about their dispute over Kashmir. And it again goes back to the kind of example set by Pauling and Einstein and so on. The idea should not be that your nuclear weapons are bad but ours are good, but that all nuclear weapons are bad and that all people deserve to live in peace and have their rights respected. It’s kind of a universalist ethic.

And so what we tried to show in the second film was that Pakistan’s national story about Kashmir actually misses out on many critical parts of what has actually happened, as does India’s story about Kashmir. And we try to bring in the voices of the people of Kashmir themselves so that they could say what they wanted. And the film tries to make a case for moving beyond nationalism and territory as the basis of identity and politics and social organization and argues for new ways for people to think about how they can live together and share land and resources, rather than have them separated by national borders and cause war. And that film too, we’ve been very pleased to see how well-received it’s been, both in Pakistan and in India, by all kinds of people, from high school students up to policy makers, as a way of making sure that there is a third position, other than that of governments. Not of one government or the other government, but a position that reflects a more humanistic and universal position on how to think about politics and political differences between states that can open an alternative to the use of force in going to war.

PB: Tell me about your involvement with the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

ZM: Fissile materials are the key ingredients of nuclear weapons. They are the nuclear in nuclear weapons. This is the plutonium and the highly enriched uranium that sustains the chain reaction that unleashes the energy that creates the nuclear explosion or, when it’s controlled, leads to a nuclear reactor. And there’s a great set of technical and policy issues associated with the global stockpiles of these fissile materials. There are very large stocks made by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, but all the countries with nuclear weapons have stockpiles of these materials and some of the countries that don’t have nuclear weapons, that have large nuclear energy programs, have also developed stockpiles of some of these materials, especially plutonium. And so in 2006 a group of us at Princeton reached out to our colleagues around the world and tried to think about whether we could develop a way of thinking about the dangers of these fissile materials, no matter who had them—weapons states or non-weapons states, military materials or civilian materials – and develop a new common international understanding of the dangers of fissile materials and of policies and ideas that might actually reduce these dangers and contribute to the process of a very viable path to nuclear disarmament. And to reduce the risk of proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries and, especially after 9/11, to reduce the risk that the materials might fall into the hands of terrorists, who might use them in an act.

And so our idea was to create an international panel that now brings together scientists and former diplomats and technical experts and journalists and analysts – all of them not affiliated with government – from 18 countries, to try to do research and educate policy-makers around the world and the public around the world, about how to think about the dangers of these nuclear materials and how we can find a path to reduce these dangers and to lead the world towards nuclear disarmament and reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and the risk of nuclear terrorism.

And so every year we produce reports on who has how much fissile materials, country by country. And for many countries this is a closely held secret, as to how much material they have, and so we try and do research that can give an estimate into how much various countries have. And we also try and evaluate programs they have for making these materials and in some cases that countries have for disposing of these materials and give out this understanding of how progress can be made so there is more international transparency and progress in reducing the global stockpiles of these materials and reducing the risk from these materials as part of getting to nuclear disarmament.

And so we’ve been very pleased with the kind of reception that our work has had. We are often giving talks at the United Nations and to the General Assembly and to the countries which are members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and to the Conference on Disarmament, in Geneva, which is the United Nations body that is charged with negotiating national treaties for arms control. And our work is, I think, seen as a significant contribution to laying the basis for informed policies and decision-making about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism around the world.

Zia Mian at Princeton University, 2008. Photo by Brian Wilson.

Zia Mian at Princeton University, 2008. Photo by Brian Wilson.

PB: Another thing that you’ve done, which I found very interesting to learn about, was in the summertime you’ve been inviting Indian and Pakistani physicists to Princeton to learn more about nuclear weapons technology, is that accurate?

ZM: Yeah, so I came to Princeton in 1997, before which I worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists and before that I worked in Pakistan. And when I came to Princeton we realized that there were scientists in Pakistan and India, some of whom I had worked with, who were professional physicists and did research in physics and taught at universities, but were keenly interested in nuclear weapons issues. But there were very few people with whom they could work. And there were no resources for them to access. In many cases there were no centers or programs or even books on these issues that they might need to do research on these kinds of topics. And so we had the idea of bringing them to Princeton so that they could have access to people who have lots of experience of working on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy issues as scientists, aiming to try and inform the policy-making process, as well as having access to resources, like books and papers and libraries that would help in that kind of work.

And so every summer since then we have actually had visitors from Pakistan and India come and work together on ideas for how to reduce the nuclear danger in South Asia. They’ve worked on a wide range of issues from the effects of nuclear war in South Asia to how much nuclear weapons material is being made in Pakistan and India; on the problem of nuclear defense in India – how would you protect people in case of a nuclear war, given that you have such large cities with such large populations? What is the problem of early warning between the two countries? It used to take a missile 30 minutes to fly from the United States to the Soviet Union; Pakistan and Indian share a border. You can fly a missile or a nuclear weapon from one country to the other in less than a few minutes. So what does that mean in terms of how leaders make decisions, given that there’s so little warning that a nuclear missile may be coming? And so we try to do scientific research that helps people think about the important issues to do with the danger of nuclear weapons, nuclear energy in South Asia. And we try to communicate in a way that is both technically rigorous as well as accessible to policy-makers and ordinary people, journalists and activists and ordinary citizens, so that they can make up their own minds and think about what’s going on and what should be done about these nuclear dangers in South Asia. And it’s been a very rewarding program to be part of all these years, and many of the scientists that we’ve brought have won awards for the work that they’ve done during these visits.

Select participants in the 1958 Pugwash Conference. Joseph Rotblat is pictured at top left.  Annotated by Linus Pauling.

Select participants in the 1958 Pugwash Conference. Joseph Rotblat is pictured at top left. Annotated by Linus Pauling.

PB: What are your thoughts on Linus Pauling as an example to activist scientists?

ZM: I think Pauling was a remarkable example of a citizen-scientist, in the sense that he didn’t need to do this, to take these kinds of, at times, very difficult and troubling positions in public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. I mean, people have forgotten now perhaps that at the time when Pauling was such a visible representative of the movement to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons testing and to reduce the risks of nuclear war, he paid a great price for taking these kinds of positions. He was harassed by the government; he was denied visas to travel, even for scientific meetings in other countries, by the U.S. government, and sometimes by the government that invited him. Pauling was refused entry to the United Kingdom, for example, when he was invited by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, because he was seen as being somebody who was so committed and so visible and so effective at trying to educate the public. And so Pauling, like others of his generation, realized that it was going to make him very unpopular with governments, to take such a public position and to push so hard against the reliance on nuclear weapons for national security. But he did it and to his great credit, as other scientists have done also, like Joseph Rotblat, who was one of the founders of the Pugwash Movement of scientists. And I think it’s a great example to generations of scientists that people like Pauling and Rotblat did this kind of work.

In a funny sort of way, when you think about it, some of the most important impacts that Pauling had were not just on the public in the United States and in Europe – through his petitions and his writing and his speaking about the dangers of nuclear weapons – but the fact that even in the Soviet Union, the fact that Pauling was such a visible and famous spokesman against the dangers of nuclear weapons, actually inspired Soviet scientists to speak up in their own country against the Soviet nuclear weapons program. The great Russian dissident, for example, Andrei Sakharov, a very famous physicist who helped build the Soviet hydrogen bomb, actually argued and explained that one of the things that made him think about the danger of nuclear weapons, after he had been working with these weapons for quite a long time, was in fact a statement by Linus Pauling and others about the dangers that nuclear weapons posed to humankind. And Sakharov then went to the Soviet leadership and made strong arguments against nuclear testing and so on, which was very, eventually, influential in helping restrain the arms race.

Open Letter from Andrei Sakharov to Linus Pauling, September 19, 1978.

Open Letter from Andrei Sakharov to Linus Pauling, September 19, 1978.

Translation of Sakharov letter.

Translation of Sakharov letter.

And so I think that Pauling’s example was an example to scientists everywhere that you have a responsibility to speak up once you understand what’s going on here, when it comes to nuclear weapons. And so on both sides of the Cold War, Pauling and others were enormously effective in making scientists take a position with regards to their own government and their own people about nuclear risks. And that the important thing is that you take a position that treats nuclear weapons dangers as ones that are dangerous to all and not couch your arguments only in that “oh, they’re a danger to us.”

PB: You mentioned Rotblat and Sakharov, what other icons have inspired you in your work?

ZM: The history of science in the twentieth century is full of remarkable examples of scientists and others who have been willing to confront the institutions of national power and of the ideological consensus that they have built to justify their positions. One of the great scientists of the modern era, Niels Bohr, from Denmark, who helped understand the very idea of the modern structure of the atom, was enormously committed to try and reduce the risk of nuclear weapons and corresponded and met with President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill and argued even during World War II about the risks of nuclear weapons and tried to encourage the United Nations and the international community to make progress on the treaty to ban nuclear weapons. And Bohr believed in having a society that was an international society, that was open and transparent, rather than one that was based upon secrecy and building national strength as part of an arms race.

Albert Einstein also was a famous example of taking such a public position against nuclear weapons after World War II. And I think that in the modern period, what we have is that there are now organizations like Pugwash, which was started by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein through their joint statement calling for an end to nuclear weapons and an end to war, which have gathered an international community of scientists to think about how to talk to each other and develop a common understanding and convince governments and people to get rid of nuclear weapons. The Pugwash organization won the Nobel Prize for Peace, along with Joseph Rotblat, for being its leader for so long.

Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling, 1953.

And I think in terms of today there are inspiring figures out there that one looks to in terms of thinking about models. And the person that brought me to Princeton University is Professor Frank von Hippel. He’s a founder of the program in which I’m privileged to work and Frank has been astonishing in terms of his commitment over many, many decades to the role of what he calls “public interest science.” Governments have scientists, corporations have scientists, the public needs scientists who will try and do scientific analysis and develop scientific arguments. They can represent and shape the interests of what society as a whole wants rather than what might be the interests of a government at a particular time. So I think I would certainly point to Frank as an example of somebody who is very, very inspiring.

Other examples would be the late Theodore Taylor, for example. Ted was a former nuclear weapons designer for the United States who realized that there were many more questions that were raised by the work that he’d been doing, and he devoted his life to try and educate people about the dangers of nuclear weapons and to eliminate them. And so he was instrumental from the 1970s onwards, until his death, in shaping the ways people thought about the risks of nuclear weapons, nuclear materials. He could have had a career and been a very successful insider, in government, in being able to advise governments, had he told them what they wanted to hear. But the idea of dissent, of public dissent, of going to educate citizens so that the democratic process can be made to work, has many, many, many examples.

PB: Some of the world’s problems are very old and seemingly intractable. Specific to South Asia, what do you see as being crucial to breaking through to a new understanding in the region and a more peaceful world?

ZM: In South Asia it’s important to understand a couple of key dynamics. One is that Pakistan and India are still states that are trying to organize themselves as coherent political and social units. And so there’s a great sense of insecurity about their own future internally as well as with regard to their neighbors, because, as I’m sure people know, Pakistan was created by the partition of British India in 1947 and so there is no historical entity such as Pakistan that goes back beyond 1947. And in its history since 1947 – which is the history of just one person’s life time, if you think about the actual time that has passed – during that time Pakistan has had a civil war, where East Pakistan became Bangladesh, there have been military coups, there have been struggles with secession, there have been the efforts to try and do economic development where subsistence farming communities have been forcibly moved toward cities and industrial production, and similar kinds of processes that unfolded in India. This kind of a change is an enormous thing for a society to cope with.

At the same time, Pakistan and India have been embittered in a larger global situation, which was shaped by the United States and the Soviet Union and the Cold War, where they came into existence as countries at the time the Cold War really started. So this is two years, three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in 1949 the Soviet Union had that first nuclear weapons test. So there were great international pressures on those countries, also in trying to push them in particular directions. So the pressures from outside and the pressures from inside have meant that there are many, many institutions and ideas that focus on insecurity and that organize against being more open and being more democratic and being willing to take risks with regard to changing the relationship between people and between people and government and between countries. And so the last thing that has happened is that they became independent at the time where environmental issues and the coming risk of climate change that many of us are so familiar with, did not really figure in peoples’ imagination. And so the model of development that India and Pakistan have taken focused on “grow your economy as fast as you can, no matter what.” And as a consequence, people and nature have paid a terrible price in these countries.

Snapshot from the Paulings’ first trip to India, 1955.

In terms of going forward, I think that there is a new understanding beginning to develop in South Asia. I’ve been involved in a citizens’ diplomacy effort between Pakistan and India, where scientists and writers and journalists and political organizers and activists and student groups from the two countries try and meet with similar people from the other country and discuss the issues that they face and try and arrive at common understandings. And the hope is that people, in talking to people together, can find a new path forward that governments, by talking to each other as governments, have been unable to do so, so far. Pakistan and India have had four wars and now they have nuclear weapons and there is always the risk that a crisis will turn into war and in such a war nuclear weapons might be used. And so there’s a great pressure from below now, for change in both Pakistan and India. They see that the model for development and security and for wellbeing and sustainability, that has been what for so long has not generated a kind of a society that people had hoped for, and so people are looking for alternatives.

And there is a generation of people now that are trying to create that alternative, rather than waiting for governments to give that alternative to them, and that’s a very encouraging thing to witness. Citizens start to organize themselves to take action and then take their ideas to their government and say “this is what we want. You must respect this.” That’s a very encouraging sign and we’re starting to see that in Pakistan and India in many, many issues, especially those of making peace between the countries and laying the basis for cooperation and of an enduring relationship that can be just and peaceful.

PB: My last question for you has to do with citizen involvement. What would you suggest that people who are interested in working for peace do in terms of getting themselves oriented and involved in this sort of movement?

ZM: One of the great lessons from Linus Pauling is that Pauling always got involved with struggles that were actually taking place around him. He didn’t always wait to start something himself, he would find things that were happening and say “how can I help this process go forward?” The second thing was that he took positions that meant that he had to work with all kinds of people. And that meant that you can’t always have exactly the kinds of issue that you want, framed exactly the way that you want, and work with exactly the people that you want. You have to deal with the world as it is and help as best you can. And so one of the great lessons, I think, from Pauling is that if people want to get involved in peace and justice issues, is find people who are already in struggle on peace and justice issues and ask them and ask yourselves, “how can I help them take this process forward?”

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