Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Jewish Community of Prague

I have just returned from the Jewish Community Prague where I gave a talk show, or participated in a discussion with the members. It was a pleasant experience. The audience had a genuine interest in physics or at least philosophy etc.

And I was happily surprised that the community was de facto a living organism.

Although the kind host has mostly prepared me for a uniform community of 100-year-old holocaust survivors born in the era of Austria-Hungary (the monarchy), the audience included people from many generations. A young man wanted to deny my entry, but he quickly changed his mind when I explained to him who I was and what was going on.

There were attractive girls over there, too. ;-) And it was good to meet one perfectionist instructor from my Alma Mater.

Before the event, I was studying some Jewish culture and realia, which I have never been "officially" explained by anyone, including various forms of Judaism, their lunisolar calendar, holidays, and so on. I wasn't even shocked that the conference hall, which was a kosher dining hall at the same moment, couldn't offer milk with the coffee because it was a meat dining hall and, as you must know, milk and and meat can't be mixed in the same room!

If the blog were not visible to the public, I would probably quip that the rule must be a pain in the ass. ;-)

The topics we talked about covered string theory, its testability, cosmology, the LHC, Lawrence Summers and feminists, climate change, and a few others. A task for me was to choose the author of the best and most concise question - a winner of a bottle of wine - and I chose a woman who asked whether dark matter had been experimentally proved. That was a pretty good choice because, as it turned out, she didn't like my opinions about women in STEM fields too much so at least she has some liquid to qualm a potential anger if any. :-)

As I expected, it was impossible to avoid a faux pas in a mostly religious environment whose big defender I am - but with which I am unfamiliar in practice. There have probably been many mini-scandals related to what I was saying but I have learned about one of them; the rest of this blog entry is dedicated to this faux pas. When I am studying the historical background right now, what I did looks like a genuine offense but my guess is that when I will tell the story about the offense to other Czechs, they will think that it is a kind of joke.

Well, it's not.

What happened? I was also explaining that CO2 wasn't a pollutant analogous to SO2, SO3, N2O, tar, and so on (those are really bad guys). In fact, 20 years ago, everyone agreed. The most environmentally friendly plastic bags would boast that they decompose to H2O and CO2 only. What is the offense? Well, I used the same word for the plastic bags as pretty much every Czech would: they're "igelit bags" ["igelitové tašky"] because the word "igelit" is being used for any plastic foils, especially those made of PVC and similar soft compounds.


So it was explained to me by a participant that "igelit" was a wrong word. Just to be sure, "igelit" has been a commercial name only, and it referred to PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which produces pollutants when it burns, while the modern plastic bags are environmentally harmless - and they are mostly made out of polyethylene.

As you might guess, this technical inaccuracy of mine, while a clear departure from perfectionism, was not the source of the real trouble. So what was it?

It turns out that what is important is the owner of the commercial name that continues to be used across our nation. Well, it was a company called IG Farben - a huge German corporation founded in 1925; "ige" in "igelit" comes from "IG". That already sounds risky, doesn't it? Well, let me tell you the full story: IG Farben established a chemical plant to produce synthetic fuels and rubber out of fuel. Where? Well, in Auschwitz. To make things worse, IG Farben was employing 83,000 slaves, was the main commercial subject connected with the holocaust, and was the owner of the patent to produce Zyklon B.

Holy crap. Imagine that our nation innocently continues to use their commercial name, and not only for the original material, but for the whole class of materials that look similar!

IG Farben obviously had to be fully liquidated after the war. I guess that some of the U.S. leftists won't be impressed by the terrible things done by IG Farben, so let me add another point that will make them stunned as well: it's proved that IG Farben has collaborated with George Walker, i.e. the grandfather of George H. W. Bush (and great grandfather of George W. Bush). George Walker was given a unit of spies from IG Farben, the Hamburg-Amerika Line [sic], whose task was to spy in North America.

Again, I was totally unfamiliar with the very name of IG Farben - if I have ever heard the name, I instantly forgot it. That's a pity because after 1925, IG Farben included BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, and two more "Chemische Fabriks"; add the confiscated Czech and Polish factories after the occupation and you get pretty much all chemical industry in Central Europe (and one half of the industrial backbone of the Third Reich). Of course, this story was just 1% of the event but it's just another example of the unexpected processes that may occur when different cultures interact.

Meanwhile, I doubt that the Czechs (and Slovaks) will stop using the word "igelit". But your humble correspondent may change his vocabulary a bit.

By the way, the Czechs must love German commercial names for plastics. We use the term "bakelite" ["bakelit" in Czech, a trademark of Bakelite AG], which should normally represent polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride only (an early plastic whose name I wrote via copy-and-paste), for most of the plastics that are not "igelite". For example, it's believed that Trabants were made out of "bakelite". It's not too inaccurate because these funny vehicles were made out of Duroplast which is a similar compound.

The words with the "plastic" root became somewhat more frequent in Czech but I guess that they're still less frequent than "igelit" or "umělá hmota" (a "synthetic or artificial material"), the most common Czech term to describe plastics in general. I vaguely remember that some of the teachers - even during communism - wanted the pupils to switch from all other general names to "plastics" but such a change is largely impossible in a society where only a small portion of the people (pupils of a particular age) are being re-educated in this way.

1 comment:

  1. Albert Einstein was once part of that community too. Glad to hear there were pretty girls. Did you talk to any of them?