# Iranian Theoretical Physicist Assassinated

An Iranian theoretical physicist named Masoud Alimohammadi was assassinated in Teheran Tuesday. Alimohammadi’s publication list indicates that he began his career specializing in conformal field theory, and more recently had been working on questions in general relativity. Initial news reports inaccurately characterized him as a “nuclear physicist” and speculated that he was assassinated because of his association with the Iranian nuclear program, but there seems to be absolutely no reason to believe this.

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### 20 Responses to Iranian Theoretical Physicist Assassinated

1. This sort of misunderstanding is disturbingly common. A friend of mine was almost disallowed from boarding her flight in Seattle because she had in her backpack an introductory quantum mechanics textbook.

2. Thomas R Love says:

It seems much more likely that he was assassinated because of his association with the Iranian political opposition.

3. obvious says:

Umm, JA, obviously the Iranian government knew what kind of physicist he wasn’t when they decided to assassinate him.

4. Chris Oakley says:

I do not think there are any misunderstandings. See here for example. Either the Iranian government itself or an extremist group supporting the official line but not under their direct control (LUnatics But supporters Of the System – LUBOS for short) carried out the attack to eliminate an opposition supporter and thereby intimidate others. Ali Mohammadi was a convenient choice because they could then blame Mossad or the CIA. He of course could not have made any significant contribution to Iran’s nuclear programme, but the public are not going to know that, are they?

5. ManyMe says:

But I am a bit confused about what he is trying to say.
Does his contempt for murder depend on the number of string theory citations somebody has on spires?

6. Alejandro Rivero says:

For a contrary to Armstrong comment: I was allowed to follow by French Police after finding that my only possession was a book onC-* algebras.

I was running, wearing black sport clothes, during a rainy night in an isolated area. So police stop me, asked to produce an ID card, which I had forgotten, and only after I show the contends on my backpack, the springer yellow book was proof enough that I was a mad scientist and not a burglar.

7. Tim vB says:

ManyMe,

that’s not how I understood Lubos, it’s just that he was not sure if the victim could be of use to Iran’s nuclear program – and that stopping that program, the assasination of the scientists who contribute could be a better alternative than, say, declaring war on Iran.
His statement is a bit odd, because
a) I agree with you that – given the papers the victim published – it is pretty clear that he was not involved in applied nuclear research and
b) I sincerily hope that there are alternative approaches that will succeed to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons, without hurting or killing anyone – and I would never say that “assasination of certain people might be the most human way” to achieve anything.

All in all the interpretation Chris Oakley cites is obvious enough, let’s hope that the Iranians don’t fall for the lies of their government.

8. Serifo says:

Well , you dont have to be an expert on nuclear physics to work on a nuclear program ! Have you forgoten the Manhatan project ? Pure mathematicians (e.g. von Neumann ) and theoretical physicists ( e.g. Richard F. ) all worked on the project…

9. Tim vB says:

Serifo,
no, of course I have not forgotten that. And of course I cannot be sure if what I said is right, but given the information I have I think it is likely to be right.
John von Neumann did work on hardware design of computers, too, and was successfull, because he was a pioneer. Today you would have to beat thousends of specialists with many years of experience to make a significant contribution: Very unlikely that you are able to do that as a theoretical physicist!
During the 19th century you could make groundbreaking discoveries in chemistry on your attic. That time is gone.
And I think it is similarly unlikely that someone interested in quantum gravity or the like would even be asked to help with a nuclear weapons program, or be assasinated if he did help.
(And yes, I know that there were plans to kill Heisenberg during world war II because some people were afraid he could succeed in developing a nuclear weapon – and that he never came close to do so, although he tried).

10. Bob Levine says:

@Serifo

“Have you forgoten the Manhatan project ? Pure mathematicians (e.g. von Neumann ) and theoretical physicists ( e.g. Richard F. ) all worked on the project…”

Theoreticians and mathemeticians were necessary to the work of the Manhatten Project because the question of whether an explosive chain reaction based on specific materials and mechanical configurations was even possible had not been established—that was what Trinity was all about: an existence proof. Theoretical modeling was crucial to determine what kind of engineering was necessary. Generating a spherical shock wave via an explosive lens around a plutonium core to get around the predetonation problem, for example, was a novel idea that only emerged, courtesy of Seth Neddermeyer, after extended discussions based on considerable mathematical extrapolation. Things couldn’t be more different now—the possibility of such processes has been proven far too often; the major engineering stages and corresponding components are known. You probably need mostly high-level nuclear engineers at this point to build a deliverable fission device, at least. The *last* person you need is a GR theorist.

11. Simplicio says:

Chris’s explanation seems overly clever. A pro-gov’t group assasinated Alimohammadi both because killing an reformist supporter would intimidate other members of the opposition, and because people would think Mossad/CIA/etc were behind it? So people are supposed to think the CIA is killing reformists? That doesn’t make much sense.

Plus, he didn’t seem to be particularly well known for his support of the reformists. You’d think the gov’t would choose someone a little more high-profile if they’re trying to intimidate.

Maybe he just owed money to a loan-shark or somethng.

12. Chris Oakley says:

A pro-gov’t group assasinated Alimohammadi both because killing an reformist supporter would intimidate other members of the opposition, and because people would think Mossad/CIA/etc were behind it? So people are supposed to think the CIA is killing reformists?

Not quite correct. Read The Independent article. The story put out by the Iranian government and media (they do not have free speech, remember?) is that Al Mohammadi is a loyal son who was brutally murdered by foreign agents who thought that he was part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

13. Serifo says:

Tim v B , Bob Levine

” And I think it is similarly unlikely that someone interested in quantum gravity or the like would even be asked to help with a nuclear weapons program, or be assasinated if he did help. ”

Unlikely but possible !! There are a lot of theoretical physicists ( string theorists in particular ) working on wall street , most of them had to perhaps learn some economics in order to apply their capacity of buiding abstract models for real world purposes ! A good nuclear program will always require good technical assets , theoretical physicists and mathematicians ( even as assistants to calculate or build abstract models ) are excelent assets ! In fact even if not needed directly in a nuclear program , because of their mathematical background , theoretical physicists and mathematicians may help the army generals in their strategic plans.

As for the assasination of Mr. Alimohammadi :

If it is a CIA – Mossad job ( most likely Mossad ) , then the main goal is clearly to eliminate any techinical asset that may be involved in Irans nuclear program. By ” eliminate ” I mean killing important assets , or scare other assets to leave ( or not be part ) of the nuclear program !

If its Irans internal job , then the main goal is to diverge the attentions of the Iranian people from the internal political and economic problems. Blaming the ” zionist ” and CIA is very appealing to Iranian people !

14. Tim vB says:

Serifo,
again, I cannot know if I am right…
I graduated in theoretical physics, started working as a software developer – and could easily make (a lot) more money if I accepted one of the job offers by EADS, on several weapons programs (e.g. developing software that steers rockets).
I wouldn’t even have to move, I could stay right where I am now!
So I think I know what you mean 🙂
It’s just the combination of several facts that make me think that your theory is less likely (it’s not necessary to repeat what these are, is it?).
In the case of Iran the CIA could have invested massive amounts of money to turn around the elections.
They did it in the past in other countries, several times, with success. Such a story would have better chances to convince me.

15. Simplicio says:

@Chris

I think you’re missing my point. Your explanation gives the theorized gov’t allied assasins two motivations for killing the Professor which are contradictory. That they targeted him both so that reformist intellectuals will know they’re willing to murder people and be intimidated, and that since he’s a professor they can tell the public he was killed by Mossad to keep him from working on nuclear projects.

But who’s going to be intimidated away from supporting reformists if they think he was killed for his nuclear work?

16. Mike says:

Simplicio ,

No, I think you’re missing the point. They tell the world that the US and Israel did it because he was a physicist — it’s what a lot of people want to believe anyway. Of course, that doesn’t work internally, with their own people — they know better (at least the opposition does) and they are already taking it as a warning.

17. Simplicio says:

Maybe, but that’s what I mean by it being overly clever. The plan is dependent on one group of people seeing through one dastardly ruse to a second, deeper contradictory plan to try and interpret out a vaguely threatening message. I just don’t think actual people make plans like that, especially the types of people who use random violence and murder as a form of intimidation, a tactic which doesn’t exactly profit from subtlety. YMMV, of course.

Plus, as I said, the Professor seems a poor target as far as intimidating reformers, even without the layers of obsfucation. While he was a supporter, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly vocal about his support, possibly signing a petition and stating that the gov’t should treat student protesters with less violence (which I imagine is a pretty common sentiment amongst Iranian professors).

18. Chris Oakley says:

Simplicio,

I have no idea who carried out the attack. But if it was a loan shark or other local criminal I doubt that the Iranian media would have made such a big deal of it. It will not have been the CIA or Mossad – even they are not stupid enough to see this guy as a threat. So what are you left with?

19. JK says:

The Iranian state has a long record of terrorising opposition through random murders, not claiming responsibility and often disguising them to look like crime. There are many cases where the truth has never come out. Presumably the idea of the random pattern is to increase the effect of terror. (For an example where a section of the security service went out of control and the truth was exposed google chain murders.)

Killings have fallen back a bit in recent years, but with the new upsurge in opposition I would be surprised if murders didn’t start to rise.

As for blaming it on the Americans / Israelis / British that is what the Iranian state always does in every circumstance, regardless of truth or plausibility (and of course there have been some foreign interventions in Iran that are not too popular with the people there, giving the accusations some resonance – but I won’t take the blog any further away from physics.)

20. Peter Woit says:

I’m shutting off comments here, since the signal to noise ratio seems to have hit zero (if not gone negative).

Please all: stop submitting comments if you don’t actually know anything about the subject of the posting.