October 03, 2004

This isn't rocket science

How did the phrase This isn't rocket science came to have its idiomatic meaning "This isn't all that advanced or hard to understand"? I've got a few cliché dictionaries, but they don't cover it. Why is rocket science a byword for arcane advanced science? Rocket technology is thousands of years old. Sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal powder in a tube, light and retire. A few tests and a little trigonometry will tell you where it will land; a little calculus and some data on thrust and combustion rates and you can work out the acceleration and the trajectory and everything. It's applied basic Newtonian physics and math, but although space flight demands some advanced science, the science of firing shouldn't really be emblematic of the most difficult stuff scientists ever got into. I thought about this as I read today's New York Times exposé of how the Bush regime ignored the advice of senior researchers and went with an exaggerated version of one junior analyst's idea that Iraq was purchasing aluminum tubes for uranium-enrichment gas centrifuges. The tubes were in fact almost certainly for rocket bodies. And the Bush administration had been told that. They hushed it up, and looked me straight in the eye and lied to me about it, and that makes me angry.

In the early 1990s, Iraq had done some experimentation with building gas centrifuges. They used tubes about 300mm long, 145mm in diameter, made of hard aluminum 1.1mm thick. They did get one centrifuge to work for a while. What the US noticed a decade later, in 2000 and 2001, was that Iraq was ordering tens of thousands of tubes that they were quite different: three times as long (900mm), three times as thick (3.3mm), and much narrower (only 81mm). One junior intelligence analyst thought that although they weren't at all like modern American centrifuge rotors, nonetheless they might be usable in what are known as a Zippe centrifuge. A team of scientific experts decided otherwise. So did the senior CIA leadership. The specs were all wrong for centrifuge tubes. And the Iraqis were anodizing the tubes. That protects them from the weather if they're left outside all the time like weapons systems are, but it makes them less suitable for centrifuging uranium hexafluoride gas. Was any of that too technical for you to take in? I wouldn't think so.

All of the doubts of the scientific and intelligence community were kept from the public. What we got instead was Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice telling us flat-out lies.

"He has reconstituted his nuclear program," said Cheney of Saddam Hussein. The CIA reports said only that there was evidence that "could mean" this or "suggested" it.

Rice spoke of "aluminum tubes that really are only suited ... for nuclear weapons programs." The truth is that the tubes were basically hopeless for centrifuging uranium isotopes but ideal for rocket bodies. The 7075-T6 hard aluminum of which they were made is not limited in application to making centrifuge rotors; it is actually used by the US for the Mark 66 air-launched 70-millimeter rocket, and the tubes needed to provide those with a combustion chamber are very similar indeed to what the Iraqis had been openly purchasing around the world. The Iraqis had been making rockets with similar tubes for years.

No one enjoys being treated like a mushroom — kept in the dark and fed only bullshit. I hated it when CBS stonewalled over Rathergate and half got away with it. (Everyone who wanted to believe that maybe there were genuine memos by an Air National Guard colonel grumbling about the young George W. Bush's undistinguished and reluctant service followed the CBS half-truth about failure to authenticate. The New Yorker has a piece about it in the October 4 issue, "Rather Knot" by Nancy Franklin, and still it talks about how "it came to light that CBS could not authenticate the documents after all." That is not what came to light. What came to light was that the documents were crude forgeries.)

But let's face it, the forged Killian memos, faked so that some damn fool opponent of Bush could try to smear him during an election campaign, fall away into triviality when compared with lying to the country about crucial intelligence information that was to be the basis for a full-scale invasion and taking down of the regime of a sovereign country. This is not Dan Rather being fooled by a silly hoax that would have been useful only for campaign embarrassment even if true. This is serious.

My very first post on Language Log concerned a half-lie that President Bush told in his first State of the Union address, and the dishonest defense that Dr Rice provided by switching verbs, making a definite lie out of a merely implied one. That was bad. It related to whether the USA had information that the CIA trusted about Iraq attempting to purchase uranium ore in Niger. The answer is no: there was no such evidence. But the British had said there was in an intelligence document of theirs (which the CIA disputed). So Bush reported on what the British had "learned" (the verb learn cleqarly carrying the implication that the thing learned was a fact), and Rice defended him later by saying that "the British have said that", which dishonestly switches the crucial verb to say. Basically, the Bush regime lied.

And now it emerges that they have done it again, much worse. The fictional uranium ore purchase was merely mentioned in passing. But the aluminum tubes were made the central focus of Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council. They were the only physical evidence the USA even claimed to have. Those tubes "really are only suited ... for nuclear weapons programs," said the former Provost of Stanford University, lying in her teeth, and contradicting detailed expert evidence that she had access to but was suppressing. (And she is still, of course, stonewalling, saying she knew there was debate but — as National Security Adviser to the President, speaking publicly on this very topic — she was not aware of its content.) The truth is that the tubes were not suited to nuclear weapons production at all. And understanding why is no more of an excursion into advanced technology than was the typographical evidence about the forged Killian memos. Read the article in the Times and see. No calculus is needed.

This is not rocket science, I want to say. Only the idiom is the reverse of the literal truth. Our government has lied to us again, and this time it was rocket science.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 3, 2004 08:28 PM