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Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole


These are stories that I either cut from the book or never found a place for. I think of this page as something like the outtakes that are sometimes featured while the credits roll at the end of some movies nowadays.

Pontecorvo in Russia
Francis and the Headhunter
The “bad old days” in Russia

Pontecorvo in Russia

Of all the stories I cut from the book, this is the only one that I wish I had not. It's a side story about Bruno Pontecorvo, one of the three great neutrino physicists along with Wolfgang Pauli and Enrico Fermi, the latter of whom had been Pontecorvo's doctoral adviser in Rome. As I tell in the book, during and after World War II, Pontecorvo worked in Canada on Tube Alloys, the secret Anglo-Canadian nuclear program, which was effectively an arm of the Manhattan Project. He and his wife were ardent communists. In 1950, under the pressure of the very first of US Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous communist witch hunts, they and their young children defected to the Soviet Union. This outtake is about his life after his defection.

The recollections of Pontecorvo's Russian friends and colleagues1 paint a picture of a highly civilized man of great moral courage, honesty, a mischievous sense of humor, and a tremendous zest for life. He was admired and loved. It is customary in the Russian language to address a person one respects with his patronymic or father's name, and since Pontecorvo's father's name was Massimo, he was addressed as Bruno Maximovitch. His friends tell of his many interests and hobbies: music, poetry - he read Dante to remind himself of Italy and could quote him both in Italian and Russian - architecture, the out-of-doors, and especially sports. He was fabulous at tennis. He loved spearfishing, of all things, and designed a special "Calypso suit" with all sorts of one-of-a-kind gadgets on its belt. He could ride a bicycle like a circus performer.

Christian Spiering, who would eventually lead the German contingent in both AMANDA and IceCube, grew up in the former East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. As a young post-doctoral student in the late 1970s, he worked for about four years at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, which was the leading nuclear and high-energy physics laboratory in the Soviet Union. Christian crossed paths with Pontecorvo almost daily, since his office was only a few doors down the hall, and he remembers him as being "an absolutely non-pretentious person," who treated everyone with respect, including Christian himself, in contrast to the many stony-faced "German professor"-types who populated the institute.

"He, for instance, liked to drive on the bicycle without using his hands, and I did it also," Christian recalls. "Once, he bypassed me and said, 'Stop young man!' And then I stopped and he said, 'Very good, you can drive with no hands. But can you also drive backwards?' "

Pontecorvo was in his late sixties at the time. He proceeded to plant himself backwards on the handlebars of the small foldable bike he was riding and pedal along beside Christian in reverse... "and was very proud about that!"

They occasionally met in the winter on skis. There was a mound of dirt and construction debris about 200 feet high in the center of the town of Dubna, named Pic Pontecorvo. It had been built so he could do a little downhill skiing in that flat land.

Pontecorvo had been confined to the Soviet Bloc for almost thirty years by the time Christian met him. By then he was disenchanted with the Soviet system, and his good humor was shaded with a deep sadness. According to one of his Russian friends, he had taken "the communist ideology for a true science and faithfully followed it until life in the USSR gradually destroyed his illusions one by one. It was a very painful spiritual process for him."2

He developed a reputation for standing up to hypocrisy, dishonesty, and petty-mindedness in all forms, a stance that took quite a bit of courage in those bad old days. "He was fantastically liberal in a political sense," says Christian, recalling an incident when his own supervisor, Valentin Petrukhin, was defending his habilitation, the next rung on the European academic ladder above a Ph.D. The basis for Petrukhin's defense was a discovery he had made in so-called pi-meson chemistry, and one of his examiners was an anti-Semitic communist hardliner named Tjapkin. Petrukhin was not Jewish, but, according to Christian, "had many Jewish friends, because he was in the underground scene... so he was already in the [sights] of the hardliners and KGB and so on."

During the examination phase of the defense, Professor Tjapkin accused Petrukhin of lying. He claimed that he had not made the discovery, his adviser had.

At that point, "Pontecorvo stood up and said, 'Dear Mr. Tjapkin, if this is true, I also have made practically no discoveries. It was all Fermi.' "

Petrukhin passed his defense, and at the celebratory banquet that evening Pontecorvo gave a short after-dinner speech. He presented Petrukhin with a small plastic sword, and said, "Here, Valentin Ivanovitch. This is to defend yourself against idiotic attacks."

Christian observes that it was "very far-reaching in Soviet times to take the [side] of someone who was under suspicion politically against someone in the mainstream."

"So, that was Pontecorvo."

1 About B. Pontecorvo
2 Gershtein, S. S. Recollections and reflections about Bruno Pontecorvo.

Francis and the Headhunter

Francis Halzen, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was the person who came up with the idea of trying to build a neutrino telescope in Antarctica and has led the project that has now become IceCube since its inception in 1987. He is, of course, the protagonist of my book. I never found a place for the following story, which illustrates Francis's love of physics. Several months ago, he told me he was "just old enough to have known the time that physics was not a job but a passion."

In 1997, at a time when Wall Street had been soaring for almost a decade, Francis Halzen received a telephone call in his office in Madison from an executive recruiter, a headhunter. She was conducting a search for an investment banking firm in Manhattan. They were looking for someone to set up and lead a group that would design investment "instruments" known as derivatives, which were very profitable at the time and were still about ten years away from demonstrating how dangerous they could be. Theoretical physicists were good prospects for this search, because derivatives are based on sophisticated mathematics. The woman explained that the people Francis might hire to work under him - kids fresh out of graduate math and physics programs - would earn more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, while he would make about five times that, along with healthy performance incentives.

She had done her homework; she knew not only of his reputation as a brilliant and prolific theorist in particle and astroparticle physics, but also that according to the rules of tenure, he could leave the University of Wisconsin for a year or two, sock away however many million dollars, and return to academia without prejudicing his position.

Francis turned the offer down.

She doubled the offer. He suggested politely that she needn't waste her time; he wasn't interested.

She paused for a moment, somewhat buffaloed, and asked, "Is there anything we can offer that would tempt you to change your mind?"

"No. Nothing," he said.

"Well then, Mr. Halzen, you must be a very happy man."

Francis told me this story roughly a year after the phone call took place. We were sitting across a table from each other with our third of fourth glasses of wine, in a dark and not particularly fancy Italian restaurant in Madison. After telling the story, he leaned forward confidentially and said, "You know what they say don't you? It's a joke. That a real physicist likes physics more than sex. Now I wouldn't go that far, but I see what they mean ... You're always straining for the high points, you know. Sometimes it's great; sometimes it's not so great ... but something makes you keep trying ... ."

Indeed, he had dragged me through the dark streets on this cold November night to tell me that he and his collaborators on AMANDA (the precursor to IceCube) had just experienced one of those physics high points. His dream of more than ten years and the dream of others for almost forty had finally come true. They had just demonstrated that AMANDA worked: it had detected gold-plated neutrinos in deep Antarctic ice. This discovery laid the ground for building an instrument large enough to make an astrophysical discovery: IceCube.

Almost twenty years after that dinner in Madison, I asked Francis if he had anything to add to the headhunter story. "Nothing to add," he e-mailed back. "It was really that simple. You only live once, and if you think carefully about it, you do not spend two years doing something that you do not want to do. It would have been interesting for one week."

The “bad old days” in Russia

In the book, I refer to John Learned as the pied piper of neutrino astronomy. He was the visionary and guiding spirit of the first attempt to build a large-scale neutrino telescope in the deep ocean off the coast of Hawaii. For various reasons, unfortunately, not least of which was that they were at least a decade ahead of their time, the •project failed. John has been pretty much everywhere in underground neutrino physics ever since the early 1970s, and he's still quite active. He's a vivid character, and he has some remarkable stories to tell. Here are two from the very early days of Russian-American collaboration in neutrino astronomy, before the Soviets invaded Afganistan and Ronald Reagan cut off this small but promising seedling of Cold War collaboration.

The first is a story from the• Pacific Science Congress that took place in Khabarovsk, the second-largest city in the Russian Far East, in 1979.

During the Congress, John "fell in," as he puts it, with fellow U.•S. attendee named Annette, who was an anthropologist. One night as they walked together along the banks of the Amur river in Khabarovsk, they noticed a boat moored at the river's edge with what appeared to be a restaurant in its large, rounded stern. Not one to pass up an adventure, John accosted the machine gun-toting guard on the gangplank and talked their way past that obstacle. But even he began to have his doubts when they encountered another armed guard in one of the dark passageways inside the boat. Luckily, one of the translators from the Congress happened to saunter down the hall at just that moment. Swiftly appreciating the delicacy of the situation, he informed the guard that John and Annette were his guests and whisked them back to the restaurant. They pulled up a table, others were pushed next to theirs, and the room soon transformed, according to John, "into one big snake of tables."

"And the liquor is going down, and there's dancing and there's singing. And we all get high as kites. And in the end of the evening, this large group of people escorted Annette and me back to the hotel, along the dock, everybody drunk and singing and arm-in-arm. ... It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of experiences that made you feel great for a week."

After the Congress ended, the neutrino physicists travelled more than a thousand miles east for a small conference of their own at Lake Baikal, Siberia, where the Russians would begin building an underwater neutrino telescope several years later.

John and Annette wanted to continue pursuing their new relationship, but it turned out that she didn't have the appropriate visa. So John, who was head of the American delegation, asked Moiseĭ Markov, head of the Russian delegation and one of the most powerful scientists in the USSR, if it might be possible for Annette to join them. The great man turned to one of his minions and said, "Igor make it so."

"Somehow things were fixed," and Annette travelled to Baikal.

The second story took place a couple of years earlier, in 1977, when Markov chaired an international neutrino meeting at an underground neutrino laboratory in a tungsten mine in the Baksan Valley in the northern Caucasus.

As it happens, the Baksan Valley is also home to 18,400-foot Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, and when John Learned and an equally adventurous particle physicist-cum-cosmologist named Dave Schramm found out that they'd be going there, they couldn't resist giving the mountain a try. (Schramm was a large man, six-foot-four, who used to stay in shape by wrestling members of the Chicago Bears football team.) This adventure involved the procurement of maps from the U. S. government through the Freedom of Information Act, having their permission revoked by the Soviets but going anyway, and encountering very bad weather. They did not make it to the top.

Learned remembers that on the way down they noticed a team following them, one of whom had "something long across his back" that looked like a stretcher. At first the Americans felt insulted, thinking they were being followed by a rescue team, but they soon realized that the long object was a hang glider "and the crazy fellow [was] a Russian plasma physicist from Kiev, whose name I cannot recall and never heard of again." The combined group lost its way in a blizzard and wandered into an ice fall, whereupon the guy with the hang glider fell into a crevasse. His first lucky break was to have the glider hang up on the walls of the crevasse, thus preventing him from disappearing altogether. His second was to have Dave Schramm along. Schramm lay down un-roped on the snow at the edge of the crevasse, yanked the man out with his bare hands, and they all descended to safety.

The Americans all agree that the Russians made great friends. And Learned believes it was even better in the "bad old days," when there was a "flavor of forbidden fruit."