Today we welcome a book tour featuring Avraham Anouchi, author of From Timna to Mars: Searching for Rare Earth Metals. Anouchi holds a Master of Engineering-Electronics from Harvard University. He has written fiction and non-fiction. He is also fluent in English, Hebrew, and French. Today we are discussing From Timna to Mars, his most recent work of fiction, which is about the space involving the USA, Russia, China, and Israel as they scramble to secure their future supply of rare earth elements. Some of these rare earth elements are used in the development of military vehicles and military weapons. This story is inspired by a 2011 report released by the Pentagon which discussed the national security risk posed by the decline in rare earth elements.
In the novel, Professor Avner Amram is the lead scientist for Israel’s effort to find and secure more rare earth elements, with a focus on rhenium. Starting with a shocking discovery made by his wife, Daphna, Avner finds himself as the leader of Israel’s efforts to reach Mars before other military powers can stake their claim. Avner’s quest brings him into a space race involving the Cold War giants Russia and the USA.
This is an interview with the novel’s chief protagonist, Professor Avner Amram.
ISH ISM: Thank you for taking the time to do an interview Professor Avner Amram. I know your work keeps you busy. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get started in your work?
AVNER: Growing up in Israel, I was fascinated by its ancient history. It captivated me in High School and left me with a passion for it that never left me. In 1970, after earning my PHD in engineering, I joined students who volunteered to work in an excavation site in Israel. The discovery of two ancient parchments and coins intrigued me. I returned to the university and earned my archaeology degree.
The evaluation of the parchments was done by a Hebrew University Archaeology Professor. She had trained as a carbon dating specialist at Sorbonne University in Paris. The success of deciphering the scrolls was an important milestone in my drive to seek bigger research projects.
ISH ISM: What is it like working with your wife Daphna?
AVNER: Daphna is the Hebrew University Professor I mentioned. Our common interest in ancient history and in the two parchments found in 1970, led us to marriage. We were married seven years after I had lost my first wife to cancer.
Daphna fit flawlessly to fill an empty part of my life. Additionally, she blended perfectly into my family, treating my son Gideon like her own son and my sisters like her own siblings.
ISH ISM: The phrase “Dreamers are the catalysts of inventions” is said by your colleague, Gideon. Explain why you agree or disagree with this concept, based on the economic-drive associated with the pursuit of rhenium?
AVNER: I certainly agree with my son’s statement. As a scientist, I believe that the high technology and health care levels of the twenty-first century could never have been achieved without bold dreamers like Galileo who demonstrated that the earth is not flat and many other dreamers like Madame Currie, Thomas Edison and many others. They were all dreamers who were laughed at by their colleagues. In our generation, dreamers invented transistors in 1950 and their followers gave us smart-phones, Facebook, landing on the moon and reaching planet Mars. Dreamers are the central catalysts to progress.
ISH ISM: Does anything new discovered about King Solomon’s writing matter anymore? What do you think of Daphna’s work in archaeology?
AVNER: On the first question, King Solomon’s wisdom is more valid now than it was in his time. He was labeled as the wisest man not only by Biblical scholars. In 1884, the Russian philosopher Tolstoy published a list of the greatest philosophers including SOCRATES, PASCAL, BUDDAH, CONFUCIUS, the TALMUD, MONTESQUIEU and others.
Tolstoy listed three hundred thinkers and writers considered by him to be the essentials of philosophy. Among them he included King Solomon. He stated that a philosopher loves and seeks wisdom, while a “wise man” is a person who already has wisdom. He labeled King Solomon as “The Wise.” Archaeology magazines are continuously reporting findings of artifacts from King Solomon’s time which increase our understanding the environment that made him so wise.
On the second question, My wife is a genius. Her carbon dating skills are exceptional. We jointly searched and found a hidden scroll written during the Judean revolt against the Greeks. I can’t imagine achieving such success without her. Her research work on rare-earth elements resulted in international recognition of her contributions to science.
ISH ISM: How did it make you feel when the President of the United States said he read your dissertation? Do you believe he read the whole thing, or did one of his advisors summarize it for him?
AVNER: The president admitted not understanding my dissertation on electrons, but his questions on rare-earth metals hit me like a rock. I was dumbfounded. He had no scientific background. I am experienced in answering unexpected questions, but I hesitated for at least ten seconds trying to figure out how to respond to his rare earth questions without embarrassing him. I imagine that everyone in the room was praying for me to find the right words. I don’t think he read my thesis, but he was informed on the importance of some rare earth metals.
ISH ISM: You express some moral concerns about nanotechnology, rhenium, and how the process could be weaponized if your wife published her research. Specifically you are concerned with uranium and also biological weapons becoming developed easier based on your wife’s discovery. But finding more rhenium, and rare earth elements, are already strongly linked with military weapons. Please explain why finding rare earth elements, which are key in the production of military weapons that kill people, did not cause you the same moral quandary as your wife’s discovery?
AVNER: Military weapons are not the only products impacted by the depletion of rare earth elements. Take Rhenium as an a example. With a melting point of over 3,800 degrees Celsius, it is used in many diverse applications, including small rocket thrusters for positioning satellites, drugs for treating liver cancer cells, wires in flashlights, power generation turbine blades, Lanthanum is a critical catalyst used in oil refineries.
Since China supplied over 80 percent of the global need for the major rare earths, my concern was primarily on the need to preserve free nations from being dependent on China for both their defense needs and for preventing the collapse of the industrial revolution which could take back to the 18th century.
ISH ISM: How did it feel to have your research gain interest from the FBI, the CIA, China, and the KGB? Did you feel more concerned about your personal safety, or more concern about the success of the research?
AVNER: I never worried about my personal safety. When the engineers of my company demonstrated the unique electronic instrument which could detect the presence of rhenium on Mars, I became impassioned by the idea of sending an unmanned space vehicle to explore the possibility of bringing rhenium to Earth. I proposed it to the Prime Minister of Israel. His advisors called me a crazy dreamer, but he sent the idea to the President of the United States proposing a joint project. The CIA wanted a pure NASA project, but America did not have the technology of our remote sensing instrument and the joint project was approved. Naturally, the KGB got wind of it and the Soviet Union decided to get to mars first.
ISH ISM: How surprising was it that Russia remained a major player in the race to Mars considering the political turmoil they have experienced?
AVNER: The Soviet Union disintegration slowed the Kremlin project for reaching Mars before the U.S and Israel. A major factor was the location of its Cosmodrome space launching center, the largest in the world. It was in Baikonur, Khazakhstan. But Russia eventually signed an expensive agreement to lease the facility. Although NASA hoped the Russians would not be able to be in the race to Mars, it was not surprised when the program continued after its cosmonauts and its space missions staff were re-organized and the KGB was replaced by the new SVR organization.
ISH ISM: The idea of a society going from cars to bikes was once seen as a regression in human living standards. Now the shift from cars to bikes is seen as environmentally responsible. Given your experience, nanotechnology appears to be environmentally responsible. But other than being weaponized, are there ways that nanotechnology can lead to a regression in human living standards?
AVNER: The opposite is expected from the nanotechnology revolution. The media has not explained to its readers its meaning. We focus on the objective of each research program as a solution to a specific problem and its impact on our lives. We give examples like using nanoengineering to improve not only weapons, but also manufacturing processes and products we use at homes. Nanobiology has already resulted in developing new drugs for cancer treatments. Alzheimer may disappear in the next ten to twenty years.
Nobel Prizes have already been won by scientists who used nanotechnology to develop drugs.
ISH ISM: What is the most important lesson you learned from this experience that you will pass on to your future PhD students?
AVNER: This is the most important question. I thought about what I would leave behind when I am no longer alive. My message is not only to my PhD students, but to everyone. To succeed in whatever goal you set for yourself or for your team, you must be passionate about achieving it. Without passion, you will encounter pitfalls which will cause you to quit trying. Without passion your desire to reach the goal is insufficient. With passion, you will find the time, the resources and the knowledge on how to reach it. In short, be impassioned. Ask yourself every day if you are still impassioned about reaching your goal.
ISH ISM: That’s all the time we have. Thank you, Professor Avner Amram, for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you and Daphna the best in your research adventures.
Amazon.com: Book Reviews of From Timna to Mars
Goodreads author page: Avraham Anouchi
Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/AviYoel
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/avraham.anouchi
If you would like me to consider doing a character interview for your book, feel free to contact me on Twitter: @DrIshIsm
I enjoy reading the following kinds of books:
- Jennifer Crusie
- Janet Evanovich
- Neil Gaiman
- Science Fiction (solid characters, not just science fiction data)
- Stephen King (solid characters, not just gore and death)
- Toni McGee Causey
- No vampires, no werewolves, no witches.