By Yasser Latif Hamdani
3 September, 2012
Why or how a metallurgist like Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan came to be known as the father of our bomb. What was his role essentially in nuclear weapons production?
Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan is our self-styled ‘Baba-e-Bum’ and ‘Mohsin-e-Pak’. His extraordinary claim as a nuclear scientist is accepted carte blanche by the youth from the middle classes. Someone has to tell the truth some time. Dr Khan is neither a nuclear scientist nor the father of our nuclear programme. He is however by his own admission a traitor who sold nuclear secrets to various countries of the world, bringing infamy to Pakistan.
What is a nuclear scientist? The father of the US atomic bomb (and therefore atomic bomb in general) was J Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist. The father of the Indian nuclear programme, Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha was also a physicist. How is it then that metallurgist like Dr A Q Khan has come to be known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme or nuclear bomb? Truth be told there are only two people that can be considered pioneers in nuclear programme related research in Pakistan. First is Dr Munir Ahmad Khan of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) who was the real hero of 1998’s nuclear tests and who detonated Chaghi II, a plutonium device, which was much stronger than the uranium devices of Chaghi I. The second person is someone whose contribution to human understanding in Physics is so much more fundamental and greater than any of Pakistan’s other scientists, that to even associate him with a weapons’ programme is to belittle him. He is Dr Abdus Salam who was instrumental in setting up the PAEC.
That brings us back to the question as to why or how a metallurgist like Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan came to be known as the father of our bomb. What was his role essentially in nuclear weapons production? He was responsible for uranium enrichment, which is in simple terms a separation of U235 isotope from natural uranium, which is mostly U238 isotope. It may also be pointed out that P239 and P241 are also fissile materials that can be used. To oversee uranium enrichment is no doubt an important administrative task. Equally important is to create secure facilities for depleted uranium i.e. U238 isotope left as residue after enrichment. However, could this be enough to declare Dr Khan a nuclear scientist or the father of our nuclear programme? Let me reframe the question: could an aircraft fueller on airport be called the pilot of the aircraft he fuels? This takes nothing away from the importance of the fueller but just as a fueller is not a pilot, Dr Khan is neither a nuclear scientist nor the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.
Doubtless, the job of uranium enrichment is a critical one and requires centrifuges and what not. Did Dr Khan design the centrifuges? No. Pakistan uses gas centrifuge design perfected by URENCO group of Netherlands. Let us not get into where or how we got that. Long story short, the only real job that Dr Khan had — if you think about it — was to securely produce and store enriched uranium as well as depleted uranium. We all know how well Dr Khan did that. Indeed one could say that academically Dr A Q was overqualified to do that job, being a PhD in metallurgy etc. The requisite qualification i.e. honesty and integrity was found utterly lacking in Mohsin-e-Pak, by his own admission.
The deification of A Q Khan as a national hero is the result of an unthinking and unscientific mindset that is all prevalent in a decadent and declining but paradoxically self-righteous society that we have become. Dr Khan himself is hardly a scientific mind. No number of doctoral degrees can a scientific mind make. The central principles of science are testability and falsifi-ability. It is an undertaking of empiricism as the central determinant of facts, not truth. How does one call a person like Dr Khan, who believes that there was some holy baba in Bhopal who could travel between Bhopal and Delhi in a second by the grace of god, a scientific mind? No wonder Dr Khan admires Agha Waqar and his water car. It would be interesting to find out if Dr Khan advised Agha Waqar recently, on Hamid Mir’s show, to refer to free energy and resonance as a defence for his utterly unscientific hogwash packaged as the ‘water-kit’.
Even Dr Khan’s general claims fail the test. In his now infamous interview with Dr Aamir Liaqat Hussain, he declared that he was proud of Bhopal because it had neither produced a Qadiani nor a traitor. This itself is empirically untrue. In so far as Bhopali Qadianis are concerned, Obaidullah Aleem, a well respected Pakistani poet, was born in Bhopal and was an Ahmedi by faith as was his Bhopali family. To disprove the claim that Bhopal has never produced a traitor, what do you call a person who puts up Pakistan’s nuclear assets for sale on the international black market?
Finally, the Indian Supreme Court’s judgment on Ajmal Kasab has a poignant footnote on Mr Jinnah’s deep emotional connection to Mumbai and Taj Mahal Hotel (the scene of Kasab’s massacre), which ends with the Honourable Justices wondering what Mr. Jinnah would have thought of Mumbai attacks. One wonders what he would have thought of Dr A Q Khan, a shameless careerist by any standards, being promoted as a national hero next to a man of towering integrity that Jinnah was? He was lucky to have died when he did.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer.