Friday, July 08, 2005


Let me begin with my personal memories of 9/11. I was visiting New Jersey for two weeks and 9/11 was the day in the very middle of that period. More importantly, 9/11/2001 was the day of my PhD defense at Rutgers. It started at 9:30 am, about 43 kilometers from the World Trade Center.

I woke up at around 8:00 am in what used to be my office (equipped with an airbed) - the housing did not work out and it would be too far from the Physics Department anyway. I took a shower and then opened the e-mail. At 9:00 am, an e-mail message from a Czech friend of mine contained a copy of the report of the Czech Press Agency (CTK) about the first airplane abused in New York.

It sounded very bizarre. Nevertheless, it was completely clear to me that it was true. Another e-mail said that the second tower had been hit. I was conveying the message to the people around and no one believed me, except for a few guys who had already heard it on radio. Well, I grabbed an overhead projector and started to defend.

At the beginning, I said that two airplanes were hijacked and used to attack the Twin Towers by the terrorists. Some members of the committee did not believe it. The thesis continued as expected. 30 seconds before it ended, Edward Witten appeared in the room and told me that he liked the defense.

He was giving a seminar at Rutgers the same day. As far as I remember, it was about the G_2 holonomy manifolds. Before the seminar we had a toast to celebrate my PhD. It was one of the most painful toasts in my life. I made a comment that we may remember that day not only as one of the most disastrous days in the U.S. history, but perhaps also as a day of an interesting seminar by Edward Witten at Rutgers. Witten said that he wished I would have had never used his name in that sentence.

From the highest floor of the math department, we were able to see smoke above Manhattan. The elevators were switched off.

It was only after the defense when we saw the first pictures and videos and the full psychological impact started to affect our minds. People, especially my advisor Tom Banks, were making predictions that our way of life had to change. Although some security measures had to be tightened after 9/11, my feeling today is that these scenarios were exaggerated. Many servers such as CNN.COM were overloaded, and because I (incorrectly) thought that all such servers had to be down, I developed a new website (click) that contained pictures and translations of the basic stories from the Czech internet media that worked fine. The website had thousands of visits within a couple of hours.

I am not sure about you but I was silently frustrated and also upset. My anger was not directed exclusively at the small group of terrorists because they were just a tip of the anti-American and anti-capitalist iceberg. For example, a Czech journalist called Pecina published an article in which he endorsed the attacks against the U.S. Later he argued that it was a way to prove his journalistic independence.

I wrote him an e-mail that argued that the main differences between him and Al Qaeda is that most members of Al Qaeda were born in problematic conditions; and most of them are, unlike Pecina, able to sacrifice their lives for their sick ideas; on the other hand, Pecina has similar goals and emotions and is expressing them in a society where he knows that he can't be punished. This "hate mail" was published and it still appears among the best Google's hits if you search for my name. Needless to say, I would write a similar mail again if the context were similar.

The casualties were often estimated to top 10,000 people. I made a bet that the total number would exceed 10,000. Fortunately, I lost this bet. A week after the attacks, I tried to see Wall Street but the air was still so unpleasant that I did not make it to the Ground Zero.

About three years later, Madrid was also attacked by the terrorists and Al Qaeda helped to elect the Spanish socialists whose relations with Al Qaeda were widely viewed as the more friendly ones. The number of casualties was smaller by an order of magnitude.

The casualties in yesterday's attacks against the city of London seem to be one order of magnitude lower still. While it is still an alarming number of lost lives, the counting suggests that the capabilities of Al Qaeda to end lives are going down the hill. Let's hope that these attacks reflect the typical maximum scale what they can do today. You know, the impact is not so different from a lunetic with an automatic gun who simply starts to shoot as many people as possible in the subway.

London was just chosen to host the 2012 olympics (54 vs 50 for Paris). It's very likely that some votes would have been missing if the vote took place after the attacks and Paris would win instead. Great Britain also succeeded Luxembourg to become the semi-annual leader of the European Union. The Reference Frame officially supports Tony Blair's major policies (with the exception of the climate change agenda). Undoubtedly, Margaret Thatcher is one of the great living examples for the "labourist" Tony Blair and he is doing great steps not exactly to match her greatness but at least to become a comparable leader.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of a leader and his country who is likely to become a target of the acts of human trash such as Osama bin Laden and his disciples.

Some friends of mine are very frustrated by the London attacks. They say that the world is so bad that it is not worth living here. I don't know how to cure these feelings; the best thing I can do with them is to disagree. The world as of 2005 is a pretty good one. Look into the history textbooks and you will see that our world is better than it was at most moments in the past. 65 years ago, it was common sense in most of Europe that people should be killed if they were Jews. 500 years ago, you could have been executed for stating that the Earth orbits around the Sun or for trying to figure out how the guts or the brains work; today it is much better because you will only get a "lack of confidence" vote for the same thing.

The successors of the Inquisition may be obnoxious, but they are not directly threatening your life. (My apologies go to the sexual deviant and killer from the University of Delaware who counts as an exception.) Al Qaeda is a successor of the mass famines, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Except that it is killing many fewer people than the diseases did. And much like in the case of the diseases, we are getting better in fighting with these threats.

A few million years ago, you would be eaten by another mammal if you did one error. 14.3 billion years ago (without 300,000 years), the global warming was so bad that you could not even form the Hydrogen atom. 3 minutes after the Big Bang, all the nuclei would be transmuting into each other all the time. One Planck time after the Big Bang, even the very concept of space and time would be so crippled that even the best string theorists from 2005 could not tell you what to do - even what (and how) you should calculate.

Let me summarize. We should not expect that some threats and annoying things will disappear completely. Moreover, I think that the desire to eliminate an annoying thing completely underlies most totalitarian ideologies. There will always be some risks and some threats. In the case of the terrorists, virtually all of us realize that they are a real problem and we are trying to deal with it. But don't forget that the risks will never disappear totally because it would violate the uncertainty principle. Just like an evil dog can bite you on the street and kill you, you may also be killed by a lunetic (terrorist) in the subway. The probability is small in both cases. And many people are employed to keep the vacuum expectation value of the rate of such deaths low enough.

The terrorists and their ideas and ideals simply cannot be dominating over the world of the 3rd millenium.


  1. A nice post. I especially liked your reminiscences about 9/11.

    Just wondering: "[T]he main difference between [Pecina] and Al Qaeda is that most members of Al Qaeda were born in problematic conditions; and most of them are, unlike Pecina, able to sacrifice their lives for their sick ideas", so wouldn't you also agree that the thrust of the war on terror should be upon improving the "problematic conditions" prevailing in places where Al Qaeda recruits its members? The US war on terror, it looks like, is only resulting in more youth donning the Al Qaeda clothes.

  2. Hi Anand, thanks and sure! Yes, definitely, we should be trying to improve the conditions of the people in the world, especially those who want us to help. However, it is a subtle issue. Not every improvement can be done completely peacefully... If you have a magic formula to save the world, I hope that the responsible people of the West will be listening to you! ;-)

  3. Let's remember that the history of the 20th century is one of proving that concentrated undemocratic political power kills hundreds of millions of people.

    The "liberals" of today have not learned anything about pro-active elimination of pathological threats from history. Islamic Fundamentalism is one of those pathologies.

    Refusing to make a decision is not always a good decision. Allowing a few thousand soldiers to die so that millions may live freely is a terrible decdision that can only be made by adults.

    What passes for respectable academic opinion [including smart fellows like Edward Witten] is an embarrassment. However, it is not surprising. Many of our greatest mathematicians and physicists throughout history have been hopelessly naive and on the wrong side of virtually every major international political argument that has mattered. This continues to this day.

    Let's hear it for those who are willing to make unpopular and difficult pro-active decisions in the name of liberty and freedom. To the others, especially the ineffectual tenured elite, I recommend you read about Owen Chamberlain and Nazi appeasement in Britain circa 1938. Or, you can read about Europe's brave repsonse to the recent Serbian issues. Or, you can read about the American Left's courageous embrace of Mao and Lenin, two of our most accomplished mass murderers.

    To those who adopt this perversion of true liberalism as a fashionable campus pose I say: For Shame.

  4. I also liked your personal viewpoint as someone who had some direct contact with an ugly chapter in recent US history.

    However, my feeling about the comment by "sans serfs" is less favorable. For example:

    The "liberals" of today have not learned anything about pro-active elimination of pathological threats from history. Islamic Fundamentalism is one of those pathologies.

    This, like many arguments born from ideological viewpoints, is simplistic and unsupported argumentation. I would be very surprised, for example, if its author has invested any serious effort to understand Islamic fundamentalism or to understand the teachings of Islam. Yet he or she feels qualified to make a blanket condemnation of this brand of fundamentalism. He identifies "liberals" (whoever they are; the poster doesn't say in what sense these "liberals" are liberal) as the ones who don't "get it," implying, of course, that those who aren't "liberals" somehow are more likely to see clearly. He doesn't distinguish between those who are Islamic fundamentalists, versus those (Islamic fundamentalist or not) who are militant and willing to destroy innocents in their quest to further their own views.

    I think if "sans serfs" thinks more carefully, he will realize that fundamentalism is not the real problem. The problem is when people discard critical thinking and start to see the world in narrow, simple-minded good guys vs. bad guys terms. These are the proactive ideologues of the world, the people who are so sure of their ability to see complex situations clearly and correctly that they don't hesitate to prescribe strong solutions (usually simplistic ones) if they think it will further their agenda. The militants he has identified as pathology are but one example of such people.

    I imagine Hitler and his cronies believed they were being proactive in their "final solution" of the "Jewish problem." I'm sure Senator McCarthy and his collaborators believed he was being proactive in using (abusing) the power of his office in his crusade to ferret out "communist subversives," destroying the careers of a number of innocent people in the process before he was brought to heel. History abounds with examples of people (supported by many others) who were sure of their world view and good judgement, and thus felt justified in being proactive to eliminate the threat they saw.

    A realistic appraisal of a complex situation means being mindful of ambiguities in the assessment, and making sober assessments of the short and long term costs of taking action. Offering simplistic assessments as informed opinion do not qualify.

  5. "m" - besides having an attenuated and lower case name, suffers from stupid and ineffectual thinking. Rarely have i heard a manifestso for doing nothing quite like "m"'s

    "careful consideration", "sober assessment"..

    Tell you what - if the shit hits the fan- and "m" guess what - it has all over the world and throughout history - I'll be glad if a pussy like you is not around to let my family be killed.

  6. "m" sez:

    "The problem is when people discard critical thinking and start to see the world in narrow, simple-minded good guys vs. bad guys terms..."

    The real problem is when one loses one's balls and is unable to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys. I suggest you take the $250,000 your parents spent on your pathetic education and purchase a good history of the 20th century. Why do you hate yourself so much as to be unable to believe in your own ideals?

    Your sloppy thinking has led to many solidarity marches and millions of innocent dead. Congratulations for the achievement, Brother.

  7. "so wouldn't you also agree that the thrust of the war on terror should be upon improving the "problematic conditions" prevailing in places where Al Qaeda recruits its members? The US war on terror, it looks like, is only resulting in more youth donning the Al Qaeda clothes."

    This is the sort of bullshit that anti-West people always expel on these occasions. The subtext is: you people deserved to be murdered, because you are oppressing the downtrodden, blah blah blah. I say: let's kill these bastards first. Then we will try to "understand" their feelings.

  8. Sans Serfs said...

    Let's remember that the history of the 20th century is one of proving that concentrated undemocratic political power kills hundreds of millions of people.

    OK, lets remember it, them. Please add the death toll coming from non democratically chosen governments, and lets see it you get to your claim of 200.000.000 people.

    As a help, you could add hunger death toll, but please verify if/when the corresponding governmens were, or were not, democratically ruled at the hunger time.

    This is a physics blog, and getting the right order of magnitude is always a sane exercise for physicists.

  9. "...most members of Al Qaeda were born in problematic conditions..."

    Says who? Why are you fleeing from empirical reality?

    Understanding Terror Networks

    "The 400 terrorists on whom I’ve collected data were the ones who actually targeted the “far enemy,” the U.S., as opposed to their own governments........three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways."

    etc., read the whole thing, please.

  10. Dear Arun,

    I know this data you posted here. Please accept my apologies, but when I said "problematic conditions", it also included the full middle and higher class families in these problematic countries.


  11. Kissinger once said something like "terrorism is a tactics, declaring a war on terrorism is similar to declaring war on operation Barbarossa" (i do not remember the exact quote).

    The *cause* of Arabian terrorism is the looming peak in oil "production", a depletion of a non-renewable natural resource. Bin Laden said in the mid 1990s that the fair oil prices should be about $200/barrel. As horrible and barbarian as it is, Al_Quaeda acted as an economic force to prolong the usage of the dwindling oil supply. And yes, the oil prices soon will be at $100-200/barrel.

    Either America has to invent an alternative to its oil-hungry SUV Suburban 20 miles-per-gallon “non-negotiable” lifestyle and get the fuck out of Middle East, or it will have to seize and hold the Middle Eastern oil supply militarily, which it is doing since the First Oil War in 1991 in Kuwait (which led to 9/11). The Second Oil War in Iraq that is happening now may lead to even worse terrorist disasters in the future, but it will not mitigate the inevitable consequences of the depletion of the world oil supply.

  12. Here are some facts for the likes of "leucipo":

    Note that his web site doesn not even include the disasters in Sout East Asia, Pol Pot, etc.

    There are similar estimates of 20th century death tolls all over the web. The right order of magnitude of direct and indirect human carnage from undemocratic regimes is 10^8. Sorry "leucipo" why don't you go have a Chai tea and an oatbran muffin and mull it over.

    By the way, it's also easy to argue that many of the problems plaguing Africa [disease, hunger, povery, civil wars] are also the result of pathologically bad, non-democratic governments. Or maybe it's really George Bush's fault.

  13. Lubos,
    The "troubled rich kid" syndrome is what you're talking about?


    Well, you choose the source, lets see

    15 First World War
    9 Russian Civil War
    20 Stalin's regime (intersects WWII?)
    55 Second World War
    2,1 Post-War Expulsion
    2,5 Chinese Civil War
    40 Mao Zedong's regime (includes famine)
    0,6 Tibet (already included?)

    It adds... 144.2

    The same wabpage says the First and Second World Wars, Communist China and the Soviet Union -- which together account for maybe 3/4 of all deaths by atrocity .

    Thus even if the extant 1/4 were attributed to concentrated undemocratic power too, actually you need to use hunger and pest to add up to "hundreds".

    Still, I keep surprised about the relative order of magnitude, even if only about 1E8. Given a total population of 3E9 (say, in 1960), I had expected a so huge death toll to be not sustainable. Humans are amazing.

    (On other hand, it could be that population stagnation in first world gets a psicological component from this death toll).

  15. Glad to see leucipo seeing the point.

    Others don't quite get it. To summarize:

    There is such a thing as "good" and "evil", although academics and posters like "m" don't want to believe it, or accept resonsibility for it. It's too "simple".

    History proves that if the "good" don't act, the "evil" will cause a lot of carnage. And yes, it is expensive in terms of lives and treasure to put down the evil-doers. However, a constructive way to think if it is that the bad guys have impsed the cost, not the good guys who take care of the problem [another liberal idiocy].

    If it has become uncool [again] in academic thought to accept these simple notions, that is a pity - many more will die because of it.

  16. I'd not want to pollute Lubos' blog with a lengthy debate forcing him to moderate me (or us). So just a remark: I get -albeit surprised- the numerical point, but I do not agree on the political conclusions, which come from additional premises.

  17. I just want to make a small point about something that people endlessly repeat (not just Lubos) that is incorrect.

    First of all, Spanish voters did not elect PSOE to appease Al Qaida. They elected PSOE instead of the PP because the PP-led government consistently and forcefully misrepresented the bombing situation and put pressure on European and international institutions to follow this lie.

    Everyone on down in the PP government kept swearing up and down that it was ETA, and of course everyone knew that wasn't true, almost from the outset. The PP and Aznar was so blinded by their hatred they couldn't even tell the truth about this horrible situation and possibly harmed the investigation into the actual culprits.

    It was the decision of the PP government to lie to their citizens and conceal the truth about the bombing. They may even have harmed counter-terrorism efforts by continuing to pursue the false ETA position. These are perfectly valid reasons to toss out a democratically elected government.

    Lubos, you and many others owe the Spanish people an apology.

  18. As the topic appears, let me agree with hektor description of the Spanish election. It could be said that the PP was afraid that an Al-Qaida bombing would drift voters to the PSOE, as suggested above, while an ETA bombing would tip PP over the absolute majority again. On this situation, the reaction and counterreactions followed predictible patterns. But the PP went nuts Saturday, when the red/black quarters of Madrid moved towards the Popular Party headquarters. The final hit was a declaration of the Leader of the PP using the same discourse structure ("Soy Mariano Rajoy,...) than a historic discourse of Azaña(?), in the times of the Second Republic, which declared illegal the CNT and raised martial law. This discourse induced the obvious rumours of cancellation of the elections and drove even more people to the streets. At that moment, in the midnight of 13 to 14 M, the PP lost the election, not in the morning of 11M.

  19. Just on the light side....

    A NEW ELEMENT - Governmentium

    A major research institution has recently announced the discovery
    of the heaviest element yet known to science. This new element has
    been tentatively named "Governmentium."

    Governmentium has 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy
    neutrons, and 111 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic
    mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called
    morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like
    particles called peons.

    Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can
    be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into
    contact. A minute amount of Governmentium causes one reaction to
    take over 4 days to complete when it would normally take less than a
    second. Governmentium has a normal half-life of 3 years; it does not
    decay but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of
    the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact,
    Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each
    reorganization causes some morons to become neutrons, forming
    isodopes. This characteristic of moron-promotion leads some
    scientists to speculate that Governmentium is formed whenever morons
    reach a certain quantity in concentration. This quantity is referred
    to as: "Critical Morass." You will know it when you see it.

  20. Very nice reading this post. I remembered having a seminar on the same morning where I was presenting when someone barged in with tears in her eyes and told us the news. Of course we spent the whole day glued to a TV in our department in the University and actually watched the second plane hit the second tower. Reading the post made me relive the ordeal of that day. And I really liked the way you put it that terrorism is just another epidemic or famine that we need to deal with. We've seen it all, lived through and survived it. Let us hope the world will be able to handle this problem too.