Jonathan Tennenbaum is an amazing person. He did not go to school, did not study at university, but it did not impede him to get a doctorate degree at the age of 22, to know several languages and to work as an adviser on science at Lyndon LaRouche, former U.S. presidential candidate. Jonathan told us what helped him to grow as a person and what projects he was involved in.
– First of all, could you tell us about your childhood?
I was born in 1950 in Chicago. My dad was a mathematician and my mother was a pianist. I grew up in a university environment, full of Europeans – artists, philosophers, and, of course, physicians. Main works on the Manhattan Project were executed in Chicago and the world's first nuclear reactor was developed there. I even remember once I saw the “father” of the reactor the great Italian, Enrico Fermi.
A very good Museum of Science and Industry was located there. I often visited it, especially when I was 7-9 year old. There was the biggest railway model in the world (at that time), showing the history of the transport infrastructure formation and development in the United States. There was also a powerful generator of static electricity, producing artificial lightning, a bird incubator with hatched chickens and many different scientific demonstrations, experiments and other things. It was very interesting!
– Did you go there with your parents?
I went with them for the first time. Looking back, I can definitely say that pedagogically it was very good and useful decision. It attracted my interest to science during my childhood.
When my father became a professor of mathematics, since 1959 we have moved to a new place almost every year- from one university to another. Michigan, New York... Basically, my father was very interested in teaching, but he criticized much the American system of that time. He said that our main enemy was not the Soviet Union, but our education system. He thought this system destroyed the human mind. For this reason, he did not send me to school.
– Did he begin to teach you?
He declared to authorities that he taught me by himself. But in fact, I didn’t study at all. I've been playing with my construction set, I have constructed a lot of things: buildings, bridges, mechanical systems with gears. My bedroom was a giant construction site.
I did not go to the University as well, but at the age of 22 I got my doctorate.
– How can it be possible?
It is just a specificity of the American education system – you didn’t have to graduate from a university to get a doctorate.
– I mean substantive factor not official.
My projects gradually became more complicated. By the age of 15, for example, I could assemble operating electrical and radio equipment. If I did not understand something, I read books. The scheme was simple: if there was a question – I chose a book – looked for the answer – read it – made as advised – tested.
I do not think it was the best approach to study. Many things that I was doing would be better done at the lab. In addition, it limited my socialization. I was isolated and did not learn how to work in a group.
But, on the other hand, in the U.S. there is a practical possibility to have a career and to achieve something without a classic education. It was pretty easy, especially at that time. If a person is talented and willing to work, then it does not matter if he has an official degree or not. The main thing is to have motivation and the ability to work.
Actually, school seemed boring to me. University – was much better. But the best thing is to work on a subject, conduct your own research.
– What was your specialty for your doctoral degree?
Mathematics. I completed a very difficult constructive proof in abstract algebra – Hilbert basis theorem. But mathematics was just a set of circumstances; physics was always interesting for me.
– And what then?
I got an opportunity to work as a professor of mathematics in Denmark. At that time, some changes happened in my family and surroundings and I wanted to move to Europe.
I should say that I was quite musical – like my mother, I played the piano. I liked Bach and wanted to play the organ. A move to Denmark provided me an opportunity to play Bach on a very nice, large organ at church, and I could not miss this chance.
I moved to Denmark, knowing neither the country nor its language. But knowledge of Danish was a prerequisite for this job. I had three months to learn Danish. I should say this language was quite simple, even simpler than English. I learnt it very quickly.
– Do you know any other languages?
Now I am talking to you in Russian. Before I left to Denmark, I learnt how to speak French. After Danish I studied German, Spanish and Chinese. I do not know Chinese well. But I read my lectures in Chinese once.
– So, you are in Denmark ...
Yes, my first job – the University in Odense. There I took up a position as a professor of mathematics. After a while, I got the chance to study at Cambridge for one year, and I did it. But I did not know that Cambridge is organized as a group of colleges, each with its own traditions. These colleges are focused upon elite creation.
One day, a local professor asked me, – “What are you doing in Cambridge?” “Mathematics, Physics” – I answered. He looked at me like I was a stupid man. In Cambridge, the most important thing is which college you attend and who are your friends. But I did not know it. I lived timidly, and it was not comfortable. It happened because I couldn’t communicate.
After a year at Cambridge, I worked for five years at the University in Copenhagen. It was a good job and a good chance play on an organ. I was studying physics. But Denmark still was a little boring.
It’s hard to say. Maybe because it's quite a small country. However many known people were born in this country. For example, Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum physics. I knew his son. I met Paul Rasmundsen, a representative of the well-known American economist Lyndon LaRouche. It was in 1976. At that time, I had already read publications on physical economy by LaRouche. He considered not money, but scientific breakthroughs as an economic growth engine. The monetary system was designated as an important tool, but the physical process was still believed as being the centre of the economy. Also LaRouche connected his conception of physical economy with ideas of Riemann and Cantor. They are two mathematicians; my father was involved in working over transfinite numbers developed by Cantor. That's interesting that a man who was then working with LaRouche and wrote one of the most interesting articles about Riemann and Cantor in the physical economy – Uwe Parpart – was a student of my father.
The economy is a growing energy circulation, like a living organism, developing due to scientific discoveries. It seemed to me a very interesting approach.
I got a chance to work in LaRouche’s company in Germany and to learn German. In addition, I became Fusion chief editor in German, which specialized in fusion, space exploration, and other advanced scientific and technology fields. It was a German subsidiary of the Fusion Energy Foundation (FEF), the company founded by LaRouche and his team in the United States. FEF was well-known then in some academic communities and governmental authorities. By means of it I knew laboratories for fusion and other nuclear facilities in many places of the world. In 1981, I visited Moscow, the Kurchatov Institute, and it was extremely interesting.
I have been involved with it for many years, because nuclear fusion was an example of breakthrough, revolutionary research. It is possible to use technologies with very high energy density. It was a very interesting job.
At some point, LaRouche got interested in an idea for the creation of an anti-missile system parallel to the Soviet Union. In this way he wanted to get a new military-political balance between two countries: not an attack balance but defense balance. I happened to attend discussions with Soviet representatives about a possibility to stop the Cold War.
LaRouche's proposal included another important aspect. According to him, the missile system could trigger the U.S. economy in general. If we invested a lot of money in the creation of defence systems, it would contribute to development of other fields. So the invested money in fact would have cost nothing because immediate inferences – new technologies – would generate values that would make the project extremely profitable.
Although Russians launched the first satellite, it was a good gift of the Soviet Union as sometimes it’s said in the United States. In the U.S. it caused a shock, but also it helped to realize that the organization of science is unexpectedly very important.
For example, a study of the economic impact of the ‘Apollo‘ program, a piloted landing on the moon – its consequences and effect on the U.S. economy – shown that every dollar invested in the space project brought ten dollars back to the USA economy as a whole – by increasing productivity of the U.S. economy. The fact that technologies transferred from the military into civilian fields provided advantages to the American economy rather than the Soviet.
– Have you been involved into other projects?
Yes, it was a lot of projects, and all of them were completely different. The most important were associated with China. I started to work with this country actively from 1994, from the first large Lanzhou conference dedicated to transport way between East Asia and Europe – “New Silk Road”. I was a chief editor of the book on the conference in English, German and French. I got lots of opportunities to communicate with economic institutions in China. We discussed coming crisis – a financial bubble was already seen.
– Nuclear Physics was moving to China at that time?
Yes. I personally knew the inventor of the high-temperature reactor, Schulten. Unfortunately his reactor exists only in China. Schulten’s reactor can operate at 500 degrees, providing a high efficiency of high energy use, for hydrogen production, for example. In Germany an idea to use it not only as an electricity source, but also as a thermal energy source for industrial processes was studied.
– Once I listened to a German engineer’s speech stating that the Chinese new generation reactor does not require highly enriched fuel, resulting in nuclear physics solving the energy deficit problem for a thousand years, at least. Is it true?
This field is being developed. But there is a problem – what to do with waste? Operation on low-enriched fuel does not eliminate the waste problem. Of course, Schulten’s thermal elements are very good; a radioactive substance is stored safely for long times within thermal elements.
However, in my opinion, we are still in the stone age of nuclear power because we cannot control the nuclear decay process. Nuclear physics is very primitive. Reactive decomposition is a statistical process, but at the same time a very complicated physical phenomenon. If the nuclear decay process could be controlled, cars with nuclear engines would already be available. A car running fuel free for a thousand years. What a breakthrough would there then be in the nuclear industry? Anyway, I’m sure that different types of reactors will appear eventually.
– Is the thermonuclear reactor in the pay-off period now?
Yes, but for me this reactor is like an elephant. I mean the tokamak reactors. But we need a bird which will fly. So it is not a system leading to revolution. For me it is another symbol that we are still living in a period free of any revolutionary breakthroughs.
– But maybe, there is no need for such a breakthrough?
That is not the question.
This is a symptom of what is not only our economic system, but also the spiritual and mental one focused not on breakthrough, but on the best case scenario, on the gradual development of existing technologies. Perhaps it's not too bad.
– How do you think – experiments on the Large Hadron Collider are dangerous? Can a black hole appear there?
What about physics of elementary particles, it seemed to me, that after creation of the thermo – nuclear bomb, it wasn’t a good idea to do something more. It will be too dangerous if now it happens that there is some kind of fundamental breakthrough. At least, it can be the point of view of a particularly elite community. But in the long – term perspective, the absence of scientific discovery also can be dangerous. A world without any progress is a disaster.
– So, what do you think about Higgs boson?
Physics trended the abstract theory of elementary particles. Of course it is really interesting work, but too exotic. In other words, there is an attractive theory about how the universe was created, but at the same time nuclear reactors are in the Stone Age. It is an essential severance between physics, which understands everything about the creation of the universe, and technological development, that does not match it. And I suppose that it is nonsense.
– Did you design calculation mechanisms for LaRouche physical economy?
LaRouche has never been engaged in mathematical formulas, but only in the fundamental methodological and philosophical approach. And the idea of physical economy is the root of a potential science. LaRouche has approaches to develop this science, but it is an idea of the future. The physical economy scheme is not based on any mathematical calculations. This is an extension. It should be considered – and this is the central point of LaRouche’s work – that the process of scientific and technological progress, based on human creative thinking, can’t be described by a fixed formal mathematical system as usual.
This is very important. On the other hand, LaRouche pointed to Riemann’s and Cantor’s works as a possible basis to overcome this weakness of ordinary mathematical methods. Thus, physical economy, in principle, could be designed as an exact science which could analyze empirical data and allow hypotheses verification.
I was really involved in the creation of a mathematical model based on this idea, but it turned out to be quite primitive. And LaRouche also had little interest in this direction, especially after the 1980’s. He developed little philosophical and methodological directions, he argued a lot about oncoming financial collapse, but as far as I can say, he was no longer interested in a detailed analysis of actual economic processes.
LaRouche has an excellent theoretical idea and a good sense of intuition. But for me the science must always have an empirical side associated with a testing possibility, because a person needs the possibility to adjust his thinking and hypotheses. This is not about positivism and empiricism, but about simple common sense. LaRouche never corrects himself, he is fully self-confident. In this case, there is a risk that the final result will be more religious-type than scientific. And it was one of the reasons why I left him.
– Have been LaRouche or his staff ever nominated for the Nobel Prize?
The Nobel Prize in economics is a very special thing. The modern economy is not a natural science, although with some technical details, of course it can be. But if the Nobel Prize in economics is awarded for a really good thing, then why we are in such a horrible situation? Physics works. I see this every day – how machinery, aircraft, space technology are operated. But the economy does not work or works poorly. Perhaps the fact that today we have a huge amount of electronic money without inflation is a merit for the Nobel Prize in economics, as well as insanity when the hidden inflation turns into debt pyramids. I do not know. I do not have a final answer yet.
– After you left LaRouche what was your interest?
I left him at the end of 2006. Right before I started to cooperate with Daniel Doubochinski, a Russian physicist, now living in Paris. This is a man who during the Soviet era made, in my opinion, a fundamental discovery – phase mechanism of nonlinear interaction of oscillating systems, and phenomenon of "macroscopic quantization" in such systems. Within our collaboration a number of articles were published. We have developed a few ideas which seemed important to me.
Now Daniel is busy with searching for investments for our future work. He made a number of very interesting inventions based on his scientific discoveries, including a new cooling method, which can significantly reduce energy consumption compared to existing technologies. Unfortunately, he has not yet found suitable investors; supporting of international patents is very expensive. I have to say that this is a serious problem killing many significant discoveries, because there are no good mechanisms and a possibility to transform devices from laboratory into technology to sell at the market.
Meanwhile, I am working as an independent consultant in the economy, science and technology in Berlin. And together with my spouse we have a new art career. We conduct programs of poetry and music, my wife reads poems, and I play classical music on the piano.
– After leaving LaRouche did you have a feeling that some opportunities are lost?
Politics is a complicated business. It is associated with feelings. When I entered LaRouche’s company, I saw a lot of aspects that were pretty weird to me. But there were some good points too. There was a dream to create the cultural renaissance, to revive classical culture, music and science. There were a lot of good talented people. I have not seen such a kind of companies anywhere else – neither in the U.S. nor in Europe. I met my wife at this company; I studied music and economics, travelled around the world. I had a great opportunity for development.
Unfortunately, it became difficult to communicate with LaRouche. Along with the creative mind, LaRouche has a strongly narcissistic personality, a strong tendency to extremes and to divide the world for friends and enemies, which is typical for some sectors in American Protestantism. He became offensive and abusive in his relations with people, conflicted with the own humanist ideals. I think that due to these weaknesses he mainly lost a lot of most talented and capable employees. But all this does not change the fact that LaRouche put forward important ideas and his team provided useful intellectual work for many years. This positive contribution deserves to be further developed. However a critical attitude should be present too.
– At the end of our conversation, what would you say to a new generation – to our children? What could you tell a six-year-child with so many possibilities ahead? There are many children with no fathers, and your words would be very valuable for them.
Perhaps it is too early to advise something to six year old children. I think the most important things are principles and continuous development of the personality. This is what distinguishes us from animals. The animal may have some skills, but they are not constant. A person is able to consciously develop them. This development should never be stopped. I know people of 90 years old, but they still dream and move somewhere. I even know a ninety year old man, who is now studying the Chinese language. So a person is a process in development. We have to search for external conditions to develop and to contribute to human development.
I also want to say that I'm still an American, even though live in Europe most of my life. But at the same time I feel very close to Russia. Russia is a particular country, more similar to the United States than to Europe, a huge vast country with very strong scientific and technological potential and opportunities for development. In Central Europe, there is a limitation. Now in Russia, maybe there is not the best situation, but at the same time, the projects discussed now may lead to very interesting breakthroughs. This is very important and interesting from the point of view of ideas I dedicated half of my life to. Unfortunately, the United States are revealed to be in quite a blocked situation. I hope that Russia will play a key role as an organizer of a new paradigm.
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