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.

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Back in the USSR

Linus Pauling lecturing after receiving the Lomonosov Gold Medal, Moscow, September 25, 1978.

[Part 3 of 3]

In 1967 Linus Pauling was invited back to the USSR by the Soviet Academy of Science (Akademia Nauk USSR) to join their general special meeting session in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. He was not able to attend but, around the same time, he was also asked by the Academy to participate in the publication of Functional Biochemistry of Cell Structures, for which Pauling submitted a piece titled “Orthomolecular Methods in Medicine.” The paper discussed Pauling’s growing interest in the molecular basis of health and disease. In it, he delved into the benefits of orthomolecular study, providing both examples and rationale in support of an orthomolecular approach to medicine. The piece was published in 1970 and the volume edited by Pauling’s old friend A. I. Oparin.

That same year, Pauling was honored for his peace activism with the International Lenin Peace Prize for 1968-1669, the Soviet Union’s most prestigious award for humanitarian efforts. Pauling was the fifth American to receive the prize since its inception in 1949, following the likes of W. E. B. DuBois and Rockwell Kent. Pauling was presented with the award by Soviet physicist Dmitry V. Skobeltsyn in a public ceremony held at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. In his acceptance address, Pauling emphasized the need to achieve global peace through international law and expressed growing confidence in the world’s ability to facilitate international relations without reliance on nuclear weapons.

In 1975 Linus and Ava Helen made a return visit to the Soviet Union to participate in a celebration marking the 250th anniversary of the Akademia Nauk. Linus Pauling was one of twenty-seven Americans invited to participate in the event, which had been delayed for more than one year from its original start date due, according to the Associated Press, “to head off embarrassing discussions on intellectual freedom and Jewish emigration.”

Outline annotated by Pauling concerning his appearance on “The 9th Studio” Soviet television program, October 21, 1975.

While in Moscow, Pauling was asked to appear on a Soviet television program, “The 9th Studio,” alongside Bulgarian scientist Angel Balevski, Soviet physicist Nikolay Basov and Soviet philospher Dzermen Gvishiani. The round table was asked to discuss modern science, the prohibition of nuclear weapons and proliferation, and the struggle for peace. The program was broadcast to a potential audience of 80 million people throughout the Eastern bloc.

Though the bulk of Pauling’s relations with the USSR focused on the pursuit of world peace and disarmament, many of his Soviet colleagues were also interested in his work with vitamin C. His popularity in this field provoked an invitation to return to Moscow in 1978 to give talks on ascorbic acid and chemistry. While there, he spoke to the Shemyakin Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry on his growing interest in using vitamin C in the treatment of cancer. He also presented to the USSR Academy of Sciences on vitamin C, and attended the International Symposium of Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling picnicking on the shores of Lake Baikal, southern Siberia, 1978.

During this visit, Pauling was also awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal, the highest award conferred by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Officially, the prize was given for his outstanding achievements in chemistry and biochemistry though, as stated in a letter from Soviet poet Mikhail Vershinin, the award was also in recognition of Pauling’s work as a “knight of peace and progress.” To commemorate the occasion, Pauling gave a lecture on the nature of the bonds formed by transition metals in inorganic compounds.

Pauling visited Moscow again in 1982 for ten days in order to attend the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the USSR. This time, he was the only American invited to attend this celebration. The trip came near the end of a long run of international travel scheduled, in part, to keep his mind off of the death of Ava Helen, who had passed on year earlier. Pauling’s diary from this trip is wistful in parts; of his arrival in Moscow he noted only the landing time and a “Russian girl with a Barbie doll.”

In between this visit and his next trip in 1984, Pauling continued to think about the political and cultural norms developing in Moscow, writing a support notice for the book Give Peace a Chance: Soviet Peace Proposals and U.S. Responses and attending a conference, “What About the Russians?” that took place in Corvallis, Oregon. He also nominated two of his colleagues, Dorothy Hodgkin and Joseph Rotblat, for the International 1983 Lenin Peace Prize.

Pauling in lecture to the Chemistry faculty of Moscow State University, June 18, 1984.

Pauling returned to the Soviet Union for the final time in June 1984, during which time he toured the national biological research center and attended the opening session of another “Frontiers in Bioorganic Chemistry and Molecular Biology” conference. In this symposium he and others discussed research agreements proposed by the Union of International Research’s Committee of Human Relations for Peace and by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

On this trip Pauling also attempted to arrange a meeting with Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Soviet nuclear physicist and humans right activist. At the time, Sakharov was effectively under house arrest and confined to his apartment in the city of Gorky. Pauling proposed that he meet with Sakharov in Gorky, but the request was denied. In his diary Pauling noted having been told by a Soviet official that “he was sure I could understand that a person with secret information might have to have his travel restricted.” So ended Pauling’s personal contacts with the U.S.S.R., a nation whose enchantments and flaws revealed themselves to Pauling, over the years, in near equal measure.