Why is the Picture of a Black Hole a Big Deal?

After more than a decade of super-coordinated technical work, the astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope—a global network of radio telescopes around the Earth—gave us the first picture of a Black Hole. It is a massive glob of what appears to be nothingness, 55 million light years away. Talk about unintended consequences. Einstein himself found the prediction of a Black Hole in his general theory of relativity implausible. In practice, these supermassive objects are our best laboratory for testing our ideas and theories on how we can unite Einstein’s relativity with quantum mechanics, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics.

The English mountaineer George Herbert Leigh Mallory famously answered the question of why climb Mt. Everest with the response, “Because it’s there.” But we don’t seek Black Holes just because they are there, we hound them out because we are searching for ourselves. We want to affirm our own notion of the universe, our understanding of nature, that grand production where we play the anthropocentric starring role.

Yes, a picture of a Black Hole is a big deal.

It fulfills our need to see “hard evidence” of what we have known for decades. But wait—the sight of a gothic cathedral inspires spirituality; that of a sunset over a body of water, serenity. What does a Black Hole do for us? Where is the beauty, the inspiration, the Gee Whiz?

I would venture a guess: the picture not only seizes our imagination if only momentarily, it affirms our faith in the quest to understand the enormous expanse of the universe and the upshot of our almost invisible place within it. That picture is a portrait of a passage to the boundaries of everywhere and nowhere.

The two great struggles of humankind are to understand ourselves—our evolution from creature to more intelligent creature—and to understand the time and space where we find ourselves embedded. Our attempt at comprehending Black Holes brings us closer to understanding both.

Pictures of places to travel from which we can never return? Bring them on. How can we know ourselves without knowing what we have wrought?


James Marshall Smith is a physicist and best selling novelist, whose latest novel is Hybrid: A Thriller.


Review of a Remarkable Little Book “The Atom: A Visual Tour”

Here is a condensed version of my review of The Atom: A Visual Tour, which appears in the New York Journal of Books:

The Atom: A Visual Tour

Author: Jack Challoner

The MIT Press (2018)

What is all the stuff we touch, smell or see made of? This ageless question contemplated by the early Greek philosophers continues to challenge 21stcentury physicists.  As Jack Challoner brings out in his beautifully illustrated book, we have come a long way from the notion of the basic elements of earth, air, fire and water to the Standard Model of the universe, which consists of the likes of quarks, neutrinos, and even the last piece of the puzzle, the recently discovered Higgs boson.

Because the atom has played a central role in the fields of physics and chemistry over the past two hundred years, the book takes us on a journey that reviews the history of those two fundamental fields of science and even tosses in a little molecular biology and geology along the way.  We learn how John Dalton’s atomic theory provided grounds for understanding elements, compounds, and chemical reactions in terms of “tiny particles.” But it was all only “theory” to most scientists of the nineteenth century.

The consensus belief at the time was that atoms don’t really exist.

To challenge that belief system, even scientists like Einstein got into the action. One of his first contributions to physics came by way of rigorously explaining how the atomic nature of liquids contributes to the random movement of pollen grains in a drop of water that is observed under a microscope.

By the 20thcentury atomic theory was finally accepted, but only at the expense of realizing that the concept of an atom as a solid piece of something became obsolete. Quantum theory arose, the only way we have found to understand the behavior of atoms, molecules, and the fundamental particles that make them up.

To say that the book covers a vast array of topics is an understatement, as it speeds along at an Indy racecar pace from colloids (like mayonnaise) to magnetic resonance imaging to quantum field theory. Such broad coverage in less than 200 pages is bound to fall short occasionally in explanation, but author Challoner does an admirable job of balancing explanation with breadth of coverage for his primary theme.

The book expounds on the classic periodic table, Feynman diagrams for understanding how to account for fundamental particle interactions, and what we are learning in the ultimate search for the atomic building blocks of matter, thanks to the renowned Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle accelerator on the border of Switzerland and France.

The author’s purpose is that of seeking the natural history of the atom and its constituents. We have progressed from seeking the nature of the particles that make up atoms and matter to the realization that there is no such thing. Our understanding today of the fundamental particles is that they are mere “excitations” of enigmatic fields that permeate all of space.

These 18 or so quantum fields that saturate the universe entangle and interact with one another, even in some cases that can only be described as “virtual.” What is this strangely interconnected network of fields? Most physicists would agree to the answer: who knows? But the knowledge they have acquired in pursuit of the answer has brought us a fundamental understanding of how matter and nature “work” and that quest has been for the overwhelming benefit of humankind.

Although inviting pictures rather than text first draws our attention to The Atom: A Visual Tour, the accompanying text provides superb explanatory material that makes this small book a delightful read for those seeking to learn how chemistry and physics have so rapidly evolved over the last two hundred years.




Highlights from the 2018 Sun Valley Writers Conference (Plus the Elephant in the Room)

Sun Valley, Idaho

July 21-24, 2018

So many new ideas were lobbed out by so many gifted writers and journalists. And so many old ideas and baggage I had to re-examine. Of course, more than a few speakers had at least to mention, if not expound upon, the Elephant in the Room. Two things are clear: (1) that happens wherever one thousand Americans congregate these days and (2) President Trump most likely loves that! As you might guess, the four conference days had many comments on present day politics and the White House. How could contemporary writers and journalists avoid the topic?

What follows are highlights from some of the talks and panel discussions that especially struck me. If you had joined me at the Conference, your highlights would no doubt differ, but I bet we’d have a lot of overlap.

* * *

Living and Thriving in the Age of Acceleration

THOMAS FRIEDMAN (New York Times columnist and three times Pulitzer Prize winner).

His latest book is “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration.” We are now at a time he calls a technological inflection point. (Think of an inflection point as a place on the graph where there is a sudden break or jump in the curve’s direction.)

Everything old and slow now matters more than ever.

Take time to think. Hit the Pause Button on a computer and it will STOP working. But hit the Pause Button on a human and the brain will START working. Friedman thanks all of those who have been late to his invites for lunch: the opportunities gave him time to cogitate those matters that matter.

Because we are more than ever so darn quickly and easily connected to everyone else on the globe—thanks to smart phones, the internet and the social network—anyone on the planet can reach out to almost anyone else and say hello, inform or do harm.

Don’t forget what’s unique about cyberspace: We are all there and no one is in charge. The Big Deal about it all: the opportunity for deep learning and insight is now becoming ubiquitous.

What happened with the surprising election result of 2016? Many in middle class and throughout country had begun asking themselves: What is all this gender confusion stuff? Why does the clerk at my gas station wear a hijab? Why is this robot next to my workstation studying my job? People were worried. And remember, Friedman emphasizes: people connect with their guts, not just with their ears.

“What keeps you up at night?” was a question from the audience.

Friedman: “The unintended consequences of a President who thinks in an aberrant way. You don’t flip a country like you flip a condo.”

Friedman is no fan of Mr. Trump’s. Do we need a Wall? Well, maybe we do need a high wall, Friedman said, . . . but with a very Big Gate. Mr. Trump asked to use his words, but that version turned out to be a “very High Wall with a Beautiful Door.”

Now more than ever, Tom Friedman believes, the Golden Rule applies to make for strong families, healthy communities and a world we want to venture forth in rather than fear.

* * *

A Journalist in the Age of Fake News

STEVE COLL (Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and two- time Pulitzer Prize winner).

Many years ago newspapers strived to get the “papers” in as many homes as possible. Therefore, they had to stick with the facts and keep opinions out of the news.  Don’t serve a particular group. The purpose: get as wide a distribution and make as much money as possible! But since 2003, newspaper employment has fallen by about 40%, primarily because of loss of traditional advertising revenue.

The biggies in advertising these days are Social media: Google, Facebook and You Tube.

Coll’s opinion is that the last 20 years newspapers and journalists have started choosing sides. The result: emotional engagement with a “tribalized” audience. Although our President refers to mainstream reporting that he doesn’t like as “fake news,” the problem is fake news is also a real phenomenon. In recent times, intelligence agencies and investigative reporters have uncovered millions of news stories that have been “manufactured” by small groups around the world who profit from the enterprise.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly improving the ability to create fake news. A group of teenagers in Macedonia was discovered creating news stories, placing them in ads, and getting paid by the likes of Facebook and You Tube by “the click.” In many cases, Russians created stories and delivered them to the Internet with the appearance of news agency logo, slightly altered to give readers a false sense of a trusted source.

As a Dean of a Journalism School, Coll’s problem with Mr. Trump is his attempt to de-humanize journalists. It’s tougher for them these days, he said, as they strive to be independent seekers of truth.

* * *

So You Want to Write a Murder Mystery

(I think a better title for her talk would be: How to write novels that people will read.)

TESS GERRITSEN (M.D. and New York Times Best-selling novelist)

Gerritsen had a plethora of tips for novelists and those who want to be one. I note only a few that were great reminders for me.

First, get the premise right. And make punch-in-the-gut pitches based on those premises. Examples of premises (she calls them “what-ifs”) she has used to get her writing: What if a medical examiner realized she was doing an autopsy on herself? Or, what if children were being kidnapped and being use as organ donors?

Give every scene tension, even if only petty conflicts. Action is boring. Characters make the story.And by the way, that is what Hollywood is looking for: not plots, but characters. Stephen King is the master of character.

Always write for the purpose of making emotional connection with the reader!

* * *

STEPHEN BREYER (Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court)

One of the toughest issues he faces is that of getting the balance right, between our right to privacy vs. right to obtain and exploit our personal info.

He doesn’t require his grandkids to memorize the Constitution (as he apparently does with the Gettysburg Address!), but he pointed out that the U.S. Constitution only sketches the government’s frontiers and boundaries. It’s only seven articles with the important first 10 amendments: our Bill of Rights.

It’s up to the Supreme Court to interpret this Constitution, and it is usually only complex issues that come before the Court. That is, complex whenever you take a closer look at the cases. “What do I know?” Justice Breyer lamented. “I don’t know anymore than you do; I just read the briefs!” But with the Associate Justice’s twinkle in his eye, the rigor of his speech, and the passion for law he exudes, we have to believe he analyzes those briefs to the hilt . . . and then some.

* * *

JAMES AND DEBORAH FALLOWS (“Our Towns”) spoke enthusiastically about their trips around American towns and small cities.  We learned, for example, that private/public partnerships in Greenville SC have established an Elementary School for Engineering.Yes, that among many other innovative ideas. Community colleges are stepping up everywhere to help fill hi-tech jobs. The public library is the heart and soul of many communities. They even mentioned in particular the one in Charleston, WV where it so happens I was introduced to math, science and Einstein as a teenager.

*  * *

How Did This Happen? The Roots of the Populist Rebellion

FAREED ZAKARIA (CNN host of Fareed Zakaria GPS and Washington Post columnist)

Like Tom Friedman, Zakaria is no fan of the President’s.  To his mind, Trump’s campaign message was one of creating an atmosphere of fear. In his opinion, that message in a nutshell: Immigrants are taking your jobs, the Chinese are taking your factories, and the Muslims are coming after you.

He pointed out that the two best predictors of whether you voted for Donald Trump (as determined by those political scientists who dig to analyzing such details) were how you answered the following: First, are you a Republican? Second, do you have a college degree?

His primary message that stood out for me (scientist, academic, writer), was the class distinction in America that has blossomed forth. As he so succintly puts it, the distinction between those who do well on tests and those who don’t. A lot of Americans disdain those who do well on tests: the scholars, intellectuals, professional of all fields. Zakaria believes what he is seeing in America is the remarkable paradox of the working class’ reverence for rich people, whom they want to be like, while at the same time despising the professional class: you know them, those who did so well in school at taking tests.

To his view, today our political affiliation is more important to our identity than our religious affiliation.Indeed, our politics have become our religion. To that end, a protestant pastor in rural Georgia once confessed to me privately that the primary problem he had with his own congregation was their readiness to bring their politics to their religion, rather than their religion to their politics.

President Trump gets it, Zakaria announces. The President goes for the gut, not the head. (Just as we heard from Friedman.) But he is quick to point out that what President Trump is doing in terms of tax cuts, Supreme Court picks, and government regulatory cuts are policies any Republican would implement as President. That’s not the issue he has with the President. No, he adds, what is “uniquely dangerous” about this President is his constant seeking to “degrade Democratic institutions.”

Question from the audience: Why did Hillary lose? Answer: First, the election was really about change. Neither a Bush nor Clinton was going to hack it for many. (But remember, Hillary won the popular vote.) Mrs. Clinton simply was not the politician her husband was. She lacked emotional resonance with too many voters.

Another question from the audience: What Democrat can succeed in defeating this President in 2020? Zakaria admits he had no idea at the moment who that candidate could possibly be.

Again, the President really might have loved attending the Conference.

* * *


It was a remarkable occasion for my wife June and me to mix with talented writers and voracious readers from around the country. There were many other speakers; only highlights are included from a few talks that I attended. In sum, I came away with renewed interest in writing, a number of new ideas to contemplate, dissect and debate, and a reminder of why we southerners love spending time during our long hot summers at 6,000 feet.

* * *

James Marshall Smith is the author of two award-winning and Amazon best-selling novels: Silent Source and most recently, Hybrid: A Thriller. You can learn more about him and his work on Facebook @AuthorJamesMarshallSmith or on his website: http://www.JamesMarshallSmith.com


Stephen Hawking: My Brief Encounter Remains a Lifetime Memory

On this day, March 14, 2018, Professor Stephen Hawking died at age 76. It was ironically the same month and day as Albert Einstein’s birth. Professor Hawking was diagnosed at age 21 with ALS, commonly know as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but amazingly he lived more than half a century longer with that degenerative motor-neuron disease. His search for understanding the physics of Black Holes—a window into the long-sought union of quantum physics and general relativity—has led to ideas about cosmology that will be explored and debated for many years.

Meeting with The Man

My only opportunity to meet Professor Hawking took place just outside his office some twenty years ago at Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. The foreboding office was perhaps the most famous in academia globally in that whoever occupied it was the designated Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, an endowed professorship first held by Sir Isaac Newton.

I assumed Professor Hawking’s only reason for wanting to meet with me at tea was what I had shared with his nurse: I was a physicist and the business card I handed her was highlighted with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During my time with him he spoke through his speech-generator and indeed wanted to know “what a physicist was doing at the CDC.” I pointed out in my nervousness that one thing “the few of us there are confined to do is work in real rather than imaginary time!” I can still picture that one tiny smile my naïve comment drew out of him. I quickly admitted how, even as a physicist, I was far outside his field and was still struggling with absorbing all that a Brief History of Time had to offer.

What I’ll always remember

My one-on-one meeting with Stephen Hawking only lasted a few minutes, but my memory of it is engraved in my mind. Professor Hawking was not only curious about the Universe and “the mind of God,” but even about individuals who inhabited one miniscule part of the vastness of space-time.

One of my favorite quotes of his was spoken to ABC newscaster Diane Sawyer in 2010: “One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”

Each time I look up at the stars now, I’ll remember Stephen Hawking and that brief encounter that crammed me with enough inspiration to last at least a lifetime.

* * *

James Marshall Smith is the author of two award-winning thrillers: Silent Source and most recently, Hybrid: A Thriller. You can learn more about him and his work on Facebook @AuthorJamesMarshallSmith or on his website: http://www.JamesMarshallSmith.com

A Quick History of Writing a Thriller: Idea to Novel

They called the killer the “Beast of Gévaudan.”

As 1767 grew to a close in the Cevennes Mountains of southern France, sixty-four people had died from their injuries after attacks over three-years by a ferocious creature. Finally, an elderly villager, Antoine de Bauterne, tracked down and shot the animal. It was identified by its unique color and size: a hybrid wolf.

After reading about that unique tragedy, I thought, “There’s got to be a novel there.”

Then came the key idea: Operation Wolfstock, the National Park Service’s plan to bring back wolves to Yellowstone. I had to learn more about wolves and Yellowstone wolf restoration!

My main research began by participating in the Rocky Mountain Wolf Conference, held during a beautiful spring week in 1997 in Chico Springs, Montana. There I learned from many of the world’s premier experts on wolves and wolf restoration, including discussions with David Mech, Carter Niemeyer and Joe Fontaine. My research and writing now moved like a Union Pacific freight train. And, of course, I visited Yellowstone over several summers, studying the infinite landscape (“got to bring those boiling hot springs into the story!”) and the fascinating wildlife, from bison to the smartest of birds: ravens.

Next step: research to make sure my basic idea wasn’t off the wall. How do you plausibly get a misfit wolf into Operation Wolfstock and the wolf population?

Then the plotting, the writing . . . and the re-writing.

For the plotting, which quickly became too involved for me to follow, I used the ol’ very hi-tech method of writing highlights of scenes on 3 x 5 index cards and organizing them on the floor. Preferably the living room–I like lots of square feet for this task. A good deal of time was spent re-organizing the cards, tossing some out, adding more, and hovering over them to get a drone’s eye view. The writing took place in several hour chunks, most days.

I’m unfamiliar with writer’s block. When stumped as to where to go next and how to pull it off, I sit down and write myself a memo in longhand, explaining why I can’t possibly go on because of . . . here I list all of the miserable insurmountable issues. Then, one by one, I confront and solve them. Helps to do this in longhand rather than at the keyboard. As so many writers have found, there is something about that link between fingers and prefrontal cortex that benefits from slow, methodical  flow of ink on paper.

At one point, near the novel’s completion, I had opportunity to meet with Doug Smith, a leader of the Yellowstone wolf restoration project known as Operation Wolfstock. He kindly shared with me accounts of the historical mission, which affirmed much of my research (whew!).

The result of all the labor, although I had too much fun to call it “work,” was HYBRID: A Thriller. Set in the American West, the novel portrays the tragedy that could have happened–with a little stretch of the novelist’s imagination–with the introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

Then came good fortune: the novel was recognized as a finalist for the annual William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award, a competition that pits genres against one another, including fantasy, science fiction, romance, horror, literary . . . the whole shebang. Satisfying, indeed.

* * *

Published by Braveship Books (San Diego), HYBRID: A Thriller has now been released and you can read about it on Amazon. To learn more about the author and his writing go to: www.JamesMarshallSmith.com.


Radiation from Extreme Depths of the Universe Reveals a Secret Hidden within the Great Pyramid of Giza

Do you have a hard time understanding some of the latest scientific discoveries? Often, I do, too. And I’m a scientist.

Good science communication is challenging. In this blog I’ll explain in simplest terms what scientists have learned recently about the Great Pyramid of Giza—and how they did it. As a bonus, I’ll toss in how this discovery relates directly to CT scans, one of the great medical inventions of modern times.

* * *

What do the Great Pyramids, cosmic rays, and CT scans have in common?

Answer: READ ON!

An article in the scientific journal Nature (Nov. 2, 2017) describes how a team of physicists, supervised by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, began collecting data last year with some highly specialized instrumentation placed inside and outside one of “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”


Analysis of the data revealed a 100 foot long empty space (chamber or tunnel?) located somewhere in the middle of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

How on earth did the scientists figure that out?

Well, for starters, the answer didn’t come from somewhere “on earth.”

Cosmic Ray shower

The scientific team took advantage of the fact that particles from outer space—known as cosmic rays—constantly bombard the earth’s upper atmosphere, creating a stream of invisible particles that physicists have named muons.

Focus on the muons hitting the earth’s surface!

Wait a minute. What are muons?

Muons are elementary particles similar to electrons, although much heavier. They rain down upon us from the sky (a hundred or so pass through our body harmlessly each second).

But there’s a lot more to these invisible muons than you think!

Muons are like x-rays on steroids. They ram though almost everything without taking the time say “Hello.” Let me rephrase that: the muons generally pass straight through matter without interacting with any of the atoms that make up the matter. One big exception: massive works of stone, like pyramids, can STOP AND ABSORB some of the muons as they travel through.

Now think of muons bombarding the Great Pyramid of Giza from all directions. The researchers placed high-tech muon detectors outside the pyramid and inside various parts of it, e.g., the Queen’s Chamber and the Grand Gallery.

Then they found a PROBLEM.

The physicists discovered that some detectors inside the pyramid picked up more muons than expected. The simplest explanation is that there is a large empty space (the team called it a “void”), roughly in about the middle of the structure. If that empty space had not been there, all of the detectors would have picked up about the same frequency of hits, after taking into count the amount of stone the muons would have to pass through before detection.

Here’s another way to think about the science of what we might call “muon mapping.”

Suppose you are lost in a dense forest at night. A search party comes looking for you, each member carrying a bright flashlight. They shine their light beams (think muon beams) ahead to try to spot you. (Yes, they’re calling out your name, too, I know. Don’t let that cloud your thinking right now. Keep it simple.)

Spooky foggy forest at night wallpaper Creatie Abstract Background.

You can see the beams of light shining at you from the distance. Now and then a light beam (again, think muon beam) or two or three disappear because the searchers are behind a tree or are partially obstructed by a clump of bushes or whatever.

SWITCH BACK TO YOU: Eventually, you spot beams of light way out there—let’s say to your left. That’s the Big Gap in the woods you go running for! You have used your eyes—that most sensitive light detector—to map out at night the structure of the surrounding terrain because of the collection of light beams coming at you from all around. (Remember, it’s a large search party because you are very important!)

So, what might be hidden away in that most mysterious empty spot within the Great Pyramid of Giza?

No doubt that will be archeological fodder for many years to come.

Wait a minute! What the heck does any of this have to do with a medical CT scan?

Using muons in the fashion described above is similar to what we do with x-rays in a diagnostic CT machine at a medical clinic. The rotating head of the CT instrument allows x-rays to pass through the body or a particular organ from all around us as we lie there. X-ray detectors pick up varying amounts of the x-rays transmitted through the body. Some x-rays pass through unimpeded while some are absorbed within the tissue and that varies as the x-ray generating head rotates around the body.

CT scan technique

The variation in x-ray detection occurs because the tissue structure changes with the path the beam takes: at one moment mostly blood vessels perhaps, the next moment mostly bone, and then maybe the x-rays pass through a structure that is predominantly a solid clump of dense tissue.

In this fashion, a sophisticated mathematical program can reconstruct a three dimensional image of the underlying anatomical features, revealing normal structure or—unfortunately at times—that solid lump of dense tissue: a tumor.

Whether speaking of muons bombarding pyramids or x-rays scanning our body, we refer to the methods described here as “tomography.” In fact, CT stands for computerized tomography.

So now you know how the Great Pyramid of Giza, CT scans, and cosmic rays can all be connected!

* * *

James Marshall Smith is a physicist and novelist. His debut thriller was an Amazon best seller: Silent Source. You can find him at www.JamesMarshallSmith.com

Litvinenko Assassinated by “Nuclear Hit Men”: The Tenth Anniversary

November 4, 2016

What follows is what I posted on the PRWire Service today:



“Polonium poisoning is only one of several ways extremists could engage in nuclear terrorism today.”

November 23rd is the tenth anniversary of Alexander Litvinenko’s death. Litvinenko is the Russian ex-secret service operative who, according to United Kingdom authorities, was assassinated with a unique poison, which most experts agree could only be manufactured by a clandestine state-sponsored activity. The poison is the radioactive isotope, polonium-210. Ingesting an amount the equivalent to the size of the period at the end of this sentence is fatal.

Litvinenko had been granted asylum in the U.K. where he reportedly investigated undercover Russian individuals and companies. In Russia, he was an officer in the KGB and later the Federal Security Service, a position he’d been dismissed from after he publicly announced illegal activity within the organization.

On Nov. 1, 2006, Litvinenko met over tea in the bar of the Millennium Hotel in London with two men, reportedly a former KGB bodyguard and a Red Army deserter. That evening, Litvinenko arrived at a local hospital with acute abdominal pain where he died 22 days later, all of his primary organs having failed. It was discovered only hours before his death, that he had been poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210, which had been placed into his tea. An investigative report commissioned in the U.K. and released earlier this year (http://www.litvinenkoinquiry.org) concluded that there is a “strong circumstantial case that the Russian State was responsible for Mr. Litvinenko’s death.”

We are all aware of the ultimate terrorist threat of a nuclear weapon or an improvised nuclear device. (The latter is often referred to as the “Hiroshima in a suitcase.”) Polonium poisoning is only one of several additional ways extremists could engage in nuclear terrorism today. For example, there’s the “silent source” scenario, where a covert source of radiation is employed to expose people. Then there is the feared “dirty bomb” plot: lacing a conventional bomb with a radioactive isotope like cobalt 60 that emits highly penetrating gamma rays. These possibilities emphasize and reaffirm the importance of radioactive source security in nuclear power plants, universities where radioactive isotopes are widespread for research purposes, hospitals with nuclear medicine departments, and cancer clinics that provide radiation therapy. And that’s only a short list.

The opportunity for smuggling nuclear material and using it as a weapon of terrorism today is greater than ever. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, over a recent ten-year period there have been more than fifteen hundred confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials worldwide. Tens of thousands of these potent radioactive sources are in private hands. Experts tell us that much of the world’s smuggled nuclear material is traceable to stockpiles in Russia and other former Soviet nations, where many research facilities remain poorly protected by underpaid guards, maintenance staff, and unreliable security systems. Today, internationally organized crime and criminal gangs could make sizeable profits from the sale of radioactive sources to extremist groups.

Bottom line: First, awareness by everyone about possibilities far beyond “typical” terrorist scenarios. Beyond that, vigilance and security are required with all things nuclear.

* * *

James Marshall Smith, Ph.D. was chief of radiation studies for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta from 1991-2003, a consultant on nuclear-threat countermeasures for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and an advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the wake of 9/11. Part of this report was taken from the account in his medical thriller, “Silent Source” (Stealth Books, Oct. 2016), inspired by one of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s top scenarios for terrorist attacks on the U.S. For more information on Smith, visit http://www.JamesMarshallSmith.com

Time Travel Is Possible?

Often depends on whom you ask: physicist or novelist.

In today’s New York Times Book Review (10/02/16), Anthony Doerr the novelist gives my favorite answer. You remember Doerr, the author of the terrific novel, All the Light We cannot See. Doerr reviews James Gleick’s latest, Time Travel: A History. 

In his book, Gleick correctly points out the physicist’s answer, namely, that time travel as imagined by science fiction writers is not possible. One of the greatest science writers of our time, James Gleick knows science.

But Anthony Doerr knows the power of novel. His answer to the Big Question: “The shelves of every library in the world brim with time machines. Step into one, and off you go.”

I think the novelist tops physicists with that one.

* * *

James Marshall Smith is a physicist and novelist. His debut thriller is Silent Source.

Visit him at http://www.JamesMarshallSmith.com

She rolled into my world on a smile and a dream . . .

“Let’s have lunch and talk,” I asked Elizabeth over the phone. She hesitated for a while longer than I thought was really necessary, but then agreed to meet for lunch that Friday and talk about my intense interest in her.

I was starting a new program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and was in quick need of a group of scientists with knowledge of nuclear radiation and its health effects. Arriving early for lunch, I waited at the table and contemplated the questions to ask about the position we had posted. She certainly had the “right stuff,” with her Master’s degree in nuclear engineering from New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her extensive experience at such a young age.

But we needed in addition someone who could travel around the country and visit sites of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, places from Washington State to South Carolina. While deep in thought I didn’t realize that the woman rolling toward my table was Elizabeth. Her smile was bigger than the wheels of her chair. Of course, nowhere in the application did it inquire about disabilities and I certainly didn’t ask about it on the earlier phone call.

I’m sure it was the look on my face that prompted her quick apology–that she should have perhaps mentioned her condition on the phone. We chatted over soup and sandwiches for a good hour and a half. We talked about her practice in the sub-specialty of health physics and about her experience in nuclear power plants in Connect, California, Tennessee, and Georgia. We talked physics, health effects of radiation exposure, risk communication with the public . . . and about the challenge of dealing with the progressive loss of muscle mass and control caused by her disease. We both knew it would take its toll in time.

But no one knew how rapid or slow the course of action for such a debilitating disease might be. “So, why try to outguess God?” she said. If ever I was stumped for a response . . .  I tried to mimic her smile back at her, but she could smile using every tiny feature of her warm, peaceful face.

“Liz” was a brilliant woman with an outstanding flair for making the complex sound simple and exactly what the CDC radiation program needed. Before lunch was half over, I had forgotten about our need to have someone who could travel. It suddenly seemed as trivial as the spots of tomato soup I had dribbled onto my tie.

We needed this woman’s mind.

CDC needed her experience, her skills. Her obvious enthusiasm for her profession and excitement about the possibility of working for the world’s number one public health agency all but masked her confinement in that damnable wheelchair, which I had already started developing an attitude toward.

Liz worked for CDC for twenty years. I even had the pleasure of publishing scientific journal articles with her. (I thought I was one for detail!) She was not only a force for making the radiation studies branch of the CDC an internationally recognized research and health communication program, she brought the entire federal government workforce up a notch!

Liz lost her courageous battle with muscular dystrophy on August 25, a few days after she had asked that her feeding tube be removed. I attended her Memorial Service last week, a gentle place of worship for those of the Baha’i faith in the suburbs of Atlanta. She sang in the choir there every Sunday until a year before her death, when she too rapidly lost her ability to manipulate every muscle of her body except those of her Big Beautiful eyes.

I’ve changed my attitude toward wheelchairs. They do indeed allow people like Liz to roll into your life on a smile and a dream. I am a better person because I knew and worked side-by-side with Elizabeth Donnelly. And the CDC is a better place because this remarkable woman was there.

She will never be forgotten by any of those who were lucky enough to know her, to greet her most days and ask, “How you doing, Liz?” We all knew her reply before the words escaped her mouth: “I’m doing great! Isn’t it a wonderful day?”

I miss you, Liz. So does the world you graced.

Donations to the Muscular Dystrophy Association in the name of Elizabeth Donnelly, Decatur, GA, can be made at www.mda.org.

James Marshall Smith



Shut Up and Write!

How about taking an hour out of your week–maybe even a couple of times a week–to dedicate yourself to writing those thank you notes you owe? Or that letter to a grieving friend? Maybe even a special letter you’ve been meaning for months to write to your mother? Or how about a scene for that Great American Novel that you can never seem to find the time start?

I’m not talking about email or texting. I’m talking about like with pen and paper . . . although a keyboard on a laptop works great for that memoir  or novel, too.

A relatively new movement in the academic community–Shut Up and Write–deserves the attention of a wider global audience. From my limited search, it appears the craze got started in San Francisco but is catching on among academics everywhere. I’m sure there are other groups that I’m not aware of that practice it as well.

The idea is simple: get together as a group in a coffee house or convenient gathering place and write in silence for an hour. Afterwards, enjoy coffee or a glass of wine or your favorite beverage and catch up on news with the group. You can even do it virtually with a group on the Internet.

There’s no need for this movement to be confined to academics. It’s really an idea whose time has come for all of us, especially in this new world where “writing” often amounts to two thumbs creating 140 characters . . . and while holding a conversation.

You’d be surprised how much quality writing you can complete over time. I’m talking about the writing you’ve been wanting to do but never-seem-to-get-around-to-it. So let’s get started: find a group of supporters and do it virtually by computer or face-to-face in a favorite meeting place for one hour at a regularly scheduled day and time.

At least once a week, Let’s Shut Up and Write!

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James Marshall Smith practiced the skill of shutting up and writing frequently and the result was his debut thriller Silent Source, an international finalist for the 2015 Grand Master Award. You can find his novel on Amazon.

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