Discounted to 99c/99p from Oct 11 – 18: Legionis Legatus. Second in a series wherein Scaevola, on the verge of abandoning Athene’s quest, suddenly finds more of the prophecy coming true: Caligulae gives him the command of a legion; he suddenly sees why Aristotle was wrong when he proved the Earth could not go around the sun; and while doing so, he ignores the most beautiful woman he has seen, one of the only two prophesied to be in his life. Scaevola must recover from ignoring she who could be his wife, help thwart the Scribonianus coup against Claudius, and command legion XX Valeria for the invasion of Britain. A historical novel that also includes the answer to the scientific puzzle in Athene’s Prophecy: how to show why the earth has to go around the sun with the knowledge available at the time. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JRH83E2
In the previous post, I questioned whether science is being carried out properly. You may well wonder, then, when this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a rather depressing report, and a rather awkward challenge: according to their report, the world needed to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C between now and 2050, and to do that, it needed to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and net zero by 2050. Even then significant amounts of carbon have to be removed from the atmosphere. The first question is, then, is this real, and if so, why has the IPCC suddenly reduced the tolerable emissions? If their scientists previously predicted seriously lower requirements, why should these be considered better? There are two simple answers. The first is the lesser requirements were based on the assumption that nations would promptly reduce emissions. Most actually increased them. The second is more complicated.
The physics have been verified many times. However, predicting the effects is another matter. The qualitative effects are easily predicted, but to put numbers on them requires very complicated modelling. The planet is not an ideal object, and the calculation is best thought of as an estimate. What has probably happened is their modelling made a projection of what would happen, and they did this long enough ago that now that they can compare prediction with where we are now. That tells them how good the various constants they put into the model were. Such a comparison is somewhat difficult, but there are clear signs in our observations, and things are worse than we might hope for.
So, what are we going to do? Nothing dramatic is going to happen on 2040, or 2050. Change will be gradual, but its progress will be unstoppable unless very dramatic changes in our behaviour are made. The technical challenges here are immense. However, there are a number of important decisions to be taken because we are running short of time due to previous inaction. Do we want to defend what we have? Do we want to attempt to do it through sacrificing our life style, or do we want to attempt a more aggressive approach? Can we get sufficient agreement that anything we try will be properly implemented? Worst of all, do we know what our options are? Of these questions, I am convinced that through inaction, and in part the structural defects of academic science, the answer to the last question is no.
The original factor of required emissions reduction was set at 1990 as a reference point. What eventuated was that very few countries actually reduced any emissions, and most increased them. The few that did reduce them did that by closing coal-fired electricity generation and opted for burning natural gas. This really achieves little, and would have happened anyway. Europe did that, although France is a notable exception to this in that it has had significant nuclear power for a long time. Nuclear power has its problems, but carbon emissions are not one of them. The countries of the Soviet Union have also actually had emission reductions, although this is as much as anything due to the collapse of their economies as they made the rather stupid attempt to convert to “free market economics” which permitted a small number of oligarchs to cream the economy, sell off what they could, use what was usable, pay negligible wages and export their profits so they could purchase foreign football clubs. That reduced carbon emissions, but it is hardly a model to follow.
There is worse news. Most people by now have recognized that Donald Trump and the Republican party do not believe in global warming, while a number of other countries that are only beginning to industrialize want the right to emit their share of CO2 and are on a path to burn coal. Some equatorial countries are hell-bent on tearing down their rain forest, while warming in Siberia will release huge amounts of methane, which is about thirty times more potent than CO2. Further, if we are to totally change our way of life, we shall have to dismantle the energy-related infrastructure from the last fifty years or so (earlier material has probably already been retired) and replace it, which, at the very least will require billions of tonnes of carbon to make the required metals.
There will be some fairly predictable cries. Vegetarians will tell everyone to give up meat. Cyclists will tell everyone they should stop driving cars. In short, everyone will have ideas where someone else gives up whatever. One problem is that people tend to want to go for “the magic bullet”, the one fix to fix them all. Thus everyone should switch to driving electric vehicles. In the long term, yes, but you cannot take all those current vehicles off the road, and despite what some say, heavy trucks, major farm and construction equipment, and aircraft are going to run on hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. People talk about hydrogen, but hydrogen currently requires massive steel bottles (unless you are NASA, or unless you can get hydrides to act reversibly). And, of course, there is a shortage of material to make enough batteries. Yes, electric vehicles, cycling, public transport and being a vegetarian are all noble contributions, but they are just that. Wind and solar power, together with some other sources, are highly desirable, but I suspect that something else, such as nuclear power must be adopted more aggressively. In this context, Germany closing down such reactors is not helpful either.
Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is not that easy either. There have been proposals to absorb it from the effluent gases of coal-fired power stations. Such scrubbing is not 100% efficient, but even if it were, it is not dealing with what is already there. My guess is, that can only be managed by plants in sufficient scale. While not extremely efficient, once going they look after themselves. Eventually you have to do something with the biomass, but restoring all the tropical rain forests would achieve something in the short term. My personal view is the best chances are to grow algae. The sea has a huge area and while we still have to learn how to do it, it is plausible, and the resultant biomass could be used to make biofuel.
No, it is not going to be easy. The real question is, can we be bothered trying to save what we have?
How do scientists carry out science, and how should they? These are questions that have been raised by reviewers in a recent edition of Science magazine, one of the leading science journals. One of the telling quotes is “resources (that) influence the course of science are still more rooted in traditions and intuitions than in evidence.” What does that mean? In my opinion, it is along the lines, for those who have, much will be given. “Much” here refers to much of what is available. Government funding can be tight. And in fairness, those who provide funds want to see something for their efforts, and they are more likely to see something from someone who has produced results consistently in the past. The problem is, the bureaucrats responsible for providing the finds have no idea of the quality of what is produced, so they tend to count scientific papers. This favours the production of fairly ordinary stuff, or even rubbish. Newbies are given a chance, but there is a price: they cannot afford to produce nothing. So what tends to happen is that funds are driven towards something that is difficult to fail, except maybe for some very large projects, like the large hadron collider. The most important thing required is that something is measured, and that something is more or less understandable and acceptable by a scientific journal, for that is a successful result. In some cases, the question, “Why was that measured?” would best be answered, “Because it was easy.” Even the large hadron collider fell into that zone. Scientists wanted to find the Higgs boson, and supersymmetry particles. They found the first, and I suppose when the question of building the collider, the reference (totally not apt) to the “God Particle” did not hurt.
However, while getting research funding for things to be measured is difficult, getting money for analyzing what we know, or for developing theories (other than doing applied mathematics on existing theories), is virtually impossible. I believe this is a problem, and particularly for analyzing what we know. We are in this quite strange position that while in principle we have acquired a huge amount of data, we are not always sure of what we know. To add to our problems, anything found more than twenty years ago is as likely as not to be forgotten.
Theory is thus stagnating. With the exception of cosmic inflation, there have been no new major theories that have taken hold since about 1970. Yet far more scientists have been working during this period than in all of previous history. Of course this may merely be due to the fact that new theories have been proposed, but nobody has accepted them. A quote from Max Planck, who effectively started quantum mechanics may show light on this: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” Not very encouraging. Another reason may be that it failed to draw attention to itself. No scientist these days can read more than an extremely tiny fraction of what is written, as there are tens of millions of scientific papers in chemistry alone. Computer searching helps, but only for well-defined problems, such as a property of some material. How can you define carefully what you do not know exists?
Further information from this Science article provided some interest. An investigation led to what then non-scientists might consider a highly odd result, namely for scientific papers to be a hit, it was found that usually at least 90 per cent of what is written is well established. Novelty might be prized, but unless well mixed with the familiar, nobody will read it, or even worse, it will not be published. That, perforce, means that in general there will be no extremely novel approach, but rather anything new will be a tweak on what is established. To add to this, a study of “star” scientists who had premature deaths led to an interesting observation: the output of their collaborators fell away, which indicates that only the “star” was contributing much intellectual effort, and probably actively squashing dissenting views, whereas new entrants to the field who were starting to shine tended not to have done much in that field before the “star” died.
A different reviewer noticed that many scientists put in very little effort to cite past discoveries, and when citing literature, the most important is about five years old. There will be exceptions, usually through citing papers by the very famous, but I rather suspect in most cases these are cited more to show the authors in a good light than for any subject illumination. Another reviewer noted that scientists appeared to be narrowly channeled in their research by the need to get recognition, which requires work familiar to the readers, and reviewers, particularly those that review funding applications. The important thing is to keep up an output of “good work”, and that tends to mean only too many go after something that they more or less already now the answer. Yes, new facts are reported, but what do they mean? This, of course, fits in well with Thomas Kuhn’s picture of science, where the new activities are generally puzzles that are to be solved, but not puzzles that will be exceedingly difficult to solve. What all this appears to mean is that science is becoming very good at confirming that which would have been easily guessed, but not so good at coming up with the radically new. Actually, there is worse, but that is for the next post.
The methodology of engaging international relations seems to be breaking down. Two issues that come to mind are the US attitude to the International Criminal Court, and Brexit.
Regarding the ICC, on September 10, John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, announced that Washington would “use any means necessary” to push back against the influence of the ICC. The ICC was established in 2002, and has succeeded in convicting a number of war criminals from Africa and former Yugoslavia, although one can question exactly the nature of the sovereignty of the broken laws. Thus a senior military man could be prosecuted for the actions actually carried out by more junior soldiers, even in the absence of clear evidence of such orders. Obviously, people carrying out, or even worse, ordering murder, torture, etc, need punishing, but there also needs to be some sort of sovereignty, the reason being that, in my mind anyway, justice needs to be blind to the origin or nature of the perpetrators. If it is only the losing side that gets prosecuted, it is essentially victor’s justice, which is usually little better than revenge. Given that the US, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia have refused to ratify the founding document, on the basis that it had unacceptable consequences to national sovereignty, the concept of “international” is clearly questionable.
Now, as far as I know, no US citizen has ever been indicted, probably because it would be futile, but apparently there has been agitation regarding US soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly regarding alleged torture of detainees. Now, the argument then is, if the crime took place in Afghanistan, the fact that the US has not ratified the court is irrelevant, and any perpetrator of a crime against a ratified member can be prosecuted, irrespective of the nationality, or at least that is the view of the ICC. Of course, arresting such a person is another matter. Here, however, there is a further issue. Some of what is alleged, e.g. waterboarding and indefinite detention without due process, apparently occurred with the permission of very senior US officials and politicians, and apparently the President. This raises the question, exactly how does such an organization decide whether the President of the United States has ordered or permitted something that is illegal? But if the United States is exempt, why are lesser countries susceptible to prosecution? Is it a case of might makes right?
In any case, Bolton’s statement that the US would ban any such members of the ICC from entering the US, and it would sanction their funds and prevent them from using the US financial system is certainly a shot across the bow. The question then is, is this the way of going about negotiations? Or does the US feel there is no alternative? It is certainly acting as if the rest of the world is some sort of unfortunate added extra. In terms of international relations, the United States, through President Trump’s recent speech at the UN, has effectively declared it feels it wishes to separate its interests from those of the rest of the world. America first! I for one agree that all is not right with the UN, but I do not believe that attitude helps.
The Brexit negotiations are more confusing. The EU rules meant that when Britain elected to leave, there was a two-year period to sort out all the consequences, but at least the last six months of that appeared to be required to put the agreement in place, which left 18 months to reach the agreement. That has almost expired. The EU has decided that the UK has been “dawdling”, and trying to present the EU with a deal that would have to be agreed at the last minute, or no deal. The problem with that approach is that “no deal” works both ways, and the assumption that the other side is desperate to have a deal may be misguided. However, there are issues on which the EU is quite obstinate. One is that if the UK wants access to the EU markets, Britain must accept the free movement of citizens, and stopping that is one of the reasons Britain elected to leave the EU. There are other demands by the EU: manufactured goods must be by the EU rulebook; the European Court of Justice will have overall jurisdiction; the UK must retain European labour and environmental laws. Now it is reasonable to require such things for goods that are shipped to the EU, but the EU should have no say on goods that do not touch the EU as it is none of their business.
Some seem to predict a total disaster for the UK if they leave with no deal, however we should note that the UK buys £318 billion from the EU, and exports £235.8 billion. So, if all trade stopped, the EU would suffer an extra £82 billion. But the situation is worse than that because Britain’s exports of manufactured goods to Europe include an extensive array of parts, etc. These days, large complicated objects are not made by one company, but rather they are assembled from parts supplied by a large number of different manufacturers. So trade will not stop, and it is in both sides’ interests to keep it going with as few hold-ups as possible.
The other major problem is the Northern Ireland border. Theresa May offered a tolerably straightforward solution, which would allow smooth crossing of the border provided certain “paperwork” (essentially electronic in this case) was properly completed. The EU have responded by saying Northern Ireland must remain fully within the customs union, which effectively means that Northern Ireland would become part of Eire in all but name. No UK prime minister could accept that. As a negotiating stance, President Macron of France has stated the British plan is unacceptable because “it does not respect the integrity of the single market.” Effectively that is saying, either be in the EU or do not trade with it. That is a fairly tough stance. President Macron went further and called some of the Brexiteers liars. Not exactly diplomatic.
There is fairly clear evidence the attitude towards the UK from Brussels has hardened, and they seem to be forcing Britain to opt for “no deal”. Mrs May, being pushed into a corner, has responded by saying that it was unacceptable for the EU to reject her plan and offer nothing in return except “no Brexit”. To succeed in negotiations, both sides need something, and in this case, both sides need trade to continue. Neither side does well out of a failure. But both sides also need reasonably good will, and a desire to reach an agreement. Not a lot of promise there. It is hard to get rid of entrenched pig-headedness.
One of the more distressing pieces of news recently is that President Trump wants to create a “Space Force” as a branch of the US armed forces. According to Vice President Pence: “Other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them, however, share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law. So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom in this new frontier.” And, “Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already. . . history has proven that peace only comes through strength. And in the realm of outer space, the United States Space Force will be that strength in the years ahead.” There are two reasons I find this troublesome. The obvious one is we do not need war in space, although, of course, if someone else is taking their military to space, it is reasonable to respond. That leaves open the question, is anybody else taking their military to space? The second one is there is a UN convention that says space will be reserved for peaceful purposes, and in the absence of clear evidence of some other violation it appears that the current administration is going to ignore this convention, which has the deeper problem that if the US is not going to honour its agreements, what is the point of anyone else negotiating? So why? It appears what is becoming an only too familiar excuse: the Russians have done it.
Done what? The case made by Yleem Poblete (State Department, and fuller text at https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/285128.htm ) was that Russia has a satellite that has been behaving oddly, and very suspiciously. The first problem here is the “suspicious satellite” was not identified. The point of concern for Poblete was that Russia has deployed a satellite they claim to be an inspector satellite in October, 2017, and the US thinks it is doing something that is contrary to that claim. So what is it doing? Apparently its orbital behaviour was considered inconsistent with what the US considered an inspector satellite would have done. That raises the question, what did it do and what was it expected to do? Poblete goes on to say the only certainty is that it is in orbit. The rest of its behaviour is unexpected and unclear to purpose.
Russia did not launch anything that could be so described in October, 2017, but it did deploy a subsatellite (Cosmos 2523) which separated from a major satellite then. Apparently Russia launched Cosmos 2519 in June 2017, and in August a subsatellite Cosmos 2521 separated from it. In October, Cosmos 2523 separated from one of these two. These subsatellites then carried out various manoeuvres and as an example, 2521 may have returned and docked with 2519. They all changed their orbits to have different characteristics. None of these manoeuvres were illegal or threatening and while we don’t know what they were for and I suppose we don’t know everything about them, it seems strange to get overly concerned about this. In my opinion, the simplest explanation is that the Russians were practising controlled orbital manoeuvres, possibly under automated control, which, of course, would be highly desirable in any space exploration program.
It is true Poblete raised a very legitimate point: how do you verify what a satellite is actually doing? The same thing goes the other way, of course. One point of concern for me, though, is that this is certainly not a reason to launch a military response. The other question is, is this a straw man accusation, something to politically justify this space force concept?
There is the implied claim that Russia is developing and deploying anti-satellite weapons. Let us leave aside the obvious question as to what evidence is there, and ask instead, why would they do that? The most obvious reason is that the US uses military satellites to carry out surveillance on ground activities (and if some sources are to be believed, with extreme accuracy) and also many US guided weapons depend on satellite positioning to steer them. Therefore the accusation is probably true, but it is rather understandable, and I would be surprised if the US military is not doing the same thing to counter Russian satellites. The point I am making here is that the militaries of the world have already taken notice that space exists.
So, is there anything more that a satellite could do, other than carry out surveillance, aid navigation and carry messages? Could it be a weapon? At this stage, I feel it is unlikely, the reason being that any “ammunition” has to be taken up there. It is reasonably easy, although very expensive, to take up electronics, etc, but something that will do damage to something else on the ground is another matter. One might think that taking a hydrogen bomb would allow it a faster attack, but that is not true. Something in orbit has orbital velocity, and re-entering the atmosphere at that speed leads to intense heat generation, and if you use the atmosphere to reduce the speed, it actually takes longer to arrive than a slower missile launch. There is a case for shooting down other satellites, but it is still probably easier to do that from Earth. You will hear postulates of lasers, etc, but to get a laser powerful enough to do real damage, the power demands involve a huge beast. There are much easier ways to damage a satellite, and the probability that there are satellites up there that will seriously damage any given country is probably fairly remote.
One thing that has become a problem is that more than one country has tested anti-satellite weapons by destroying one of their own defunct satellites. The problem then is, what does “destroy” actually mean? Usually it seems to mean, blow the thing up into many pieces, which then go onto erratic orbits, with velocities probably in the order of 7,500 m/s. Now if the orbit were circular, that would be fairly harmless to anything on a corresponding circular orbit because they would never meet, but the fragments of an explosion will have a variety of eccentric orbits on different planes, and while the collisions will not have that relative velocity, the relative velocity could still be in the few thousand meter per second range, and that is a distinctly dangerous velocity. A moderate-sized piece of metal would make a cannonball seem modest.
As it is right now, orbital space around Earth is starting to get cluttered. I have heard people argue that NASA should investigate asteroid mining. As of now, I am not sure why, because asteroids, apart from a possible iron/nickel core, will have the composition of space dust, and hence have some similarities to basalt on Earth. Nobody wants to mine that. On the other hand, this space junk is made of already refined metals. I rather fancy that collecting that space junk and recycling it would make more sense.
In the meantime, it would also be helpful if the nations could behave in a way that did not lead to weaponizing space.
Making a scientific theory is actually more difficult than you might think. The first step involves surveying what knowledge is already available. That comes in two subsets: the actual observational data and the interpretation of what everyone thinks that set of data means. I happen to think that set theory is a great start here. A set is a collection of data with something in common, together with the rule that suggests it should be put into one set, as opposed to several. That rule must arise naturally from any theory, so as you form a rule, you are well on your way to forming a theory. The next part is probably the hardest: you have to decide what interpretation that is allegedly established is in fact wrong. It is not that easy to say that the authority is wrong, and your idea is right, but you have to do that, and at the same time know that your version is in accord with all observational data and takes you somewhere else. Why I am going on about this now is I have written two novels that set a problem: how could you prove the Earth goes around the sun if you were an ancient Roman? This is a challenge if you want to test yourself as a theoretician. If you don’t. I like to think there is still an interesting story there.
From September 13 – 20, my novel Athene’s Prophecy will be discounted in the US and UK, and this blog will give some background information to make the reading easier as regards the actual story not regarding this problem. In this, my fictional character, Gaius Claudius Scaevola is on a quest, but he must also survive the imperium of a certain Gaius Julius Caesar, aka Caligulae, who suffered from “fake news”, and a bad subsequent press. First the nickname: no Roman would call him Caligula because even his worst enemies would recognize he had two feet, and his father could easily afford two bootlets. Romans had a number of names, but they tended to be similar. Take Gaius Julius Caesar. There were many of them, including the father, grandfather, great grandfather etc. of the one you recognize. Caligulae was also Gaius Julius Caesar. Gaius is a praenomen, like John. Unfortunately, there were not a lot of such names so there are many called Gaius. Julius is the ancient family name, but it is more like a clan, and eventually there needed to be more, so most of the popular clans had a cognomen. This tended to be anything but grandiose. Thus for Marcus Tullius Cicero, Cicero means chickpea. Scaevola means “lefty”. It is less clear what Caesar means because in Latin the “ar” ending is somewhat unusual. Gaius Plinius Secundus interpreted it as coming from caesaries, which means “hairy”. Ironically, the most famous Julius Caesar was bald. Incidentally, in pronunciation, the latin “C” is the equivalent of the Greek gamma, so it is pronounced as a “G” or “K” – the difference is small and we have now way of knowing. “ae” is pronounced as in “pie”. So Caesar is pronounced something like the German Kaiser.
Caligulae is widely regarded as a tyrant of the worst kind, but during his imperium he was only personally responsible for thirteen executions, and he had three failed coup attempts on his life, the leaders of which contributed to that thirteen. That does not sound excessively tyrannical. However, he did have the bad habit of making outrageous comments (this is prior to a certain President tweeting, but there are strange similarities). He made his horse a senator. That was not mad; it was a clear insult to the senators.
He is accused of making a fatuous invasion of Germany. Actually, the evidence is he got two rebellious legions to build bridges over the Rhine, go over, set up camp, dig lots of earthworks, march around and return. This is actually a text-book account of imposing discipline and carrying out an exercise, following the methods of his brother-in-law Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, one of the stronger Roman Generals on discipline. He then took these same two legions and ordered them to invade Britain. The men refused to board what are sometimes called decrepit ships. Whatever, Caligulae gave them the choices between “conquering Neptune” and collecting a mass of sea shells, invading Britain, or face decimation. They collected sea shells. The exercise was not madness: it was a total humiliation for the two legions to have to carry these through Rome in the form of a “triumph”. This rather odd behaviour ended legionary rebellion, but it did not stop the coups. The odd behaviour and the fact he despised many senators inevitably led to bad press because it was the senatorial class that wrote histories, but like a certain president, he seemed to go out of his way to encourage the bad press. However, he was not seen as a tyrant by the masses. When he died the masses gave a genuine outpouring of anger at those who killed him. Like the more famous Gaius Julius Caesar, Caligulae had great support from the masses, but not from the senators. I have collected many of his most notorious acts, and one of the most bizarre political incidents I have heard of is quoted in the novel more or less as reported by Philo of Alexandria, with only minor changes for style consistency, and, of course, to report it in English.
As for showing how scientific theory can be developed, in TV shows you find scientists sitting down doing very difficult mathematics, and while that may be needed when theory is applied, all major theories start with relatively simple concepts. If we take quantum mechanics as an example of a reasonably difficult piece of theoretical physics, thus to get to the famous Schrödinger equation, start with the Hamilton-Jacobi equation from classical physics. Now the mathematician Hamilton had already shown you can manipulated that into a wave-like equation, but that went nowhere useful. However, the French physicist de Broglie had argued that there was real wave-like behaviour, and he came up with an equation in which the classical action (momentum times distance in this case) for a wave length was constant, specifically in units of h (Planck’s quantum of action). All that Schrödinger had to do was to manipulate Hamilton’s waves and ensure that the action came in units of h per wavelength. That may seem easy, but everything was present for some time before Schrödinger put that together. Coming up with an original concept is not at all easy.
Anyway, in the novel, Scaevola has to prove the Earth goes around the sun, with what was available then. (No telescopes that helped Galileo.) The novel gives you the material avaiable, including the theory and measurements of Aristarchus. See if you can do it. You, at least, have the advantage you know it does. (And no, you do not have to invent calculus or Newtonian mechanics.)
The above is, of course, merely the background. The main part of the story involves life in Egypt, the aanti-Jewish riots in Egypt, then the religious problems of Judea as Christianty starts.
I returned to the kiosk at five, as requested, and was surprised to be invited by the woman in the kiosk to stay the night at their apartment. So I drove her home, and she must have been a bit surprised at the car, particularly now that before setting off I refilled the clutch hydraulic oil. The leak was now getting rather bad, and there were only so many clutch usages before a refill, and the number was getting smaller. Anyway, we made it to her apartment, where I met the husband. The Heitlegnerov (I apologise if I got the spelling wrong from memory) apartment was compact, but it seemed to have everything I would expect in a modern western apartment. The previous year I had been in Calgary, so I knew what a modern North American apartment looked like, and the Czech one was much better than where I was in England.
This family had a rather bad history. First, they were Jews, and had spent most of WW II hiding in the forests, living in huts with dirt floors. The husband had been part of a resistance to the Germans, and when the war was over, he had actually helped get the communists into government, only to find the communists in Czechoslovakia were also anti-Jewish. Back to mud floor accommodation for a while. Gradually things got better, and when Dubcek came to power, they got up in the world sufficiently to get this apartment. Now they saw it all coming down around their ears. However, by accident, their daughter, Alenka, was in England on a short stay to help her learn English. The parents had discussed this, and they wanted to send a message for her to stay in England, and would I take some family heirlooms and some of her property? Of course I would, with volume restrictions on obviously women’s things.
The following morning it was announced that the road to Linz was open at the border, so I set off early. Somehow, the day seemed grim, and very quiet. For a major city, nothing was happening. The day did not get better, and when I drove through České Budějovice the continued absence of activity maintained the depressing feeling. It was just as I was leaving České Budějovice that I noticed two young Czechs hitch-hiking. Since I had not seen any cars for a long time, their prospects were poor, so I stopped. They first wanted me to smuggle them out, but I pointed out that was impossible. Any cursory search would find them, but I would take them to the border, let them out before it and they would be on their own. I would wait on the other side for a while, in case they made it. Then they wanted me to smuggle something else: a petition to the United Nations, signed by (according to them) half a million identified signatures. I agreed. I had a tall cardboard box in the boot, and for my trip behind the iron curtain I had taken emergency food: canned food, drink, fruit and rye bread. I had kept the waste, including opened cans because I could not find anywhere to dump rubbish. The petition was wrapped in pastic bags and went to the bottom, a piece of a different cardboard box went on top, just in case although that was probably worthless as a deception, the cans went on top, then rotting fruit, then some mouldy bread, then some fruit that was technically still edible, then the remains of the rye bread, then can openers, cutlery, etc.
When I got to the border, the guards were Czech, but they still did a search. When they came to the box, they asked what was that? I pointed out I was just being tidy and tried to look as iunconcerned as I could. They started ferretting but it got increasingly distasteful and they gave up. The barrier went up, and I was in “no-man’s land”. When I got to the Austrian guards, there were the two Czechs, beaming with triumph. They had got throough before me, while I was being searched, and had told the Austrian guards about the petition. They thought this was mission accomplished. I had no option but to hand the petition over, and while the expressions on the faces of the Czech guards was worth seeing, I was thoroughly depressed. I had taken a huge risk, and for what? The Austrian guards would at best destroy the petition; at worst hand it back to the Czech authorities. Austria was never going to annoy Russia. As I headed to Linz I was stopped by a journalist who wanted the story and a picture of me and my beatup Anglia carrying a Czech flag. I have no idea whether it ever got published.
When I got back to England on the first Saturday I went up to London and to the address where Alenka was staying. It was a grey day with light rain, and the family, being orthodox Jews, left me there standing in the rain. Alenka came to the door, I handed over her valuables, and tried to give as cheerful account as I could of her parents and their feelings. I asked her what she wanted to do. Apparently there were a few scholarships being made available to Czechs who could find a place in a University, and I promised to do what I could at Southampton for her. As it happened, I found a Post-doc was treated as staff, and on my recommendation she could go there, but as it happened, somewhere else was found for her (I think East Anglia). However, that did not last, and eventually she got homesick and returned to Czechoslovakia, where things were seemingly improving a little. It would not be helpful for someone in a communist country then to be corresponding with the West so I never heard from her or her parents again. I am naturally curious as to where her life took her, but I guess I shall never know.