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The curse of the atom

The Japanese seem to have fallen under a curse that devastates their land

The curse of the atom

I feel sorry for Japan and the Japanese. They seem to have fallen under some curse - the curse of the atom. The atoms, in the form of a bomb or two, rain on them from the heavens and devastate their beautiful land. And when everything seems peaceful, the earth starts shaking and the humming reactors are split wide open, releasing deadly showers of atoms in the air, while the earth trembles.

It all began in a small laboratory in Cambridge, England, almost a century ago, when the farmer's son from New Zealand smashed the atom for the first time. The man was Ernest Rutherford, whose simple apparatus you can still see laid out in the Cavendish Laboratory.

When I first saw it in 1945, a few weeks after the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, I could not believe that a few wires and switches were all you needed to smash the mighty atom. I was told that there was no bang and the laboratory remained in one piece.

My next stop was Chicago, where another scientist Errico Fermi was said to have started the first nuclear chain reaction which led straight to the bomb four years later. Fermi had built his pile of nuclear fuel on a tennis court outside Chicago University's biology department, but when I reached the place, nobody could locate it until I discovered a small nameplate amidst the bushes outside the main gate. I don't think Rutherford ever met Fermi but between them, they had laid the foundation for the most deadly business in the world.

Next stop, Switzerland and the patent office in Berne where Albert Einstein came up with his relativity theory in a short paper - one of the five he published in 1905 - which does not even mention E=mc2.

His office, or rather his desk, for the poor fellow had only a desk for himself, is still there, from which you can see the tram that took him from his office to his flat every day. I took the same tram but when I reached his place through a huge gate, there was nobody there but an old lady cooking cabbage. "Einstein doesn't live here anymore," she said.

I said I knew but could we see the flat, please? She allowed us into the sitting room with its walls plastered with lots of family photos but no Einstein. This was I think on the first or second floor of the building and you could hear the rumblings of the tram outside but, of course, Einstein had lived there 60 or 70 years before and the old lady had no idea what he had done.

I had left Hiroshima towards the end of my atomic pilgrimage, for that was to be the final stop, in every sense of the word. I arrived in Tokyo on a rainy day. Japanese people I met were none too keen to talk about Hiroshima, apparently a taboo subject, even after twenty years. Hiroshima was far away from Tokyo, but I was determined to visit it.

I took a bullet train to Osaka and from there, another train to Hiroshima. From the train, everything and everybody looked small, the trees, the houses, the cars and even old men driving toy-like tractors in the rice fields. Everything in Japan is small and delicate, even the cherry trees which were in blossom at the time. And it was on Japan that they decided to drop the bomb and it came down on them when most of them were sleeping.

The next morning, I visited the area where the bomb had landed. The church that had taken a direct hit stood intact, but only the skeleton. The steel columns stood erect against the sky but most beams had either melted away or vanished into thin air. The place had been cleaned up and you could not see a scrap of paper anywhere. It was a Sunday and families were lining up to place candles on the church steps. I, too, bought a candle, a blue one I recall and went up slowly to what would have been the altar and placed it gingerly on the chipped stone step. A small child stood beside me and she smiled and I turned back.

From Cambridge, England, where the atom was first split, to Hiroshima, Japan, where it had exploded, the journey was over.