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Detente's Determined Defenders

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As an American, Joseph Birman feels his full share of outrage over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As a physics professor at City College of New York, he is outraged over the exiling of physicist Andrei Sakharov by Soviet authorities to a remote town in the Soviet Union.

But he is part of a select network of American and Soviet citizens who still refuse to concede that the sun is setting on detente. Twenty years of contacts with Russians convince him that there is too much to lose.

It is not just the conferences with Soviet scientists that he has come to relish, for professional reasons. Not just the harvests from his continuing correspondence with dozens of Russian scientists. What he prizes most are the times when dialogue has unexpectedly revealed mutual interests between Americans and Russians that appear to transcend national differences.

Look, he says, at last year's binational physics symposium in Moscow.

"Twenty of us American physicists were to meet with Soviet physicists at a beautiful old building called the Scientists' House. It looked like something out of the film 'War and Peace.'"

As the meeting convened in a high-ceilinged hall with old-fashioned windows and drapes, Dr. Herman Cummins, a colleague of Professor Birman', stood to report on his testing of the theory of another prominent Russian physicist, Academician Vitali Ginsburg. His words instantly sparked excited, heated, but friendly debate that ultimately brought the academician himself to his feet.

"I'll never forget," Mr. Birman says, "how the tall, distinguished, bushy-eyebrowed Professor Ginsburg thrust his finger toward Cummins, a man of rather short stature, and said in great mock anger, 'Professor Cummins, you have knocked down my theory.' The whole crowd broke out in a tremendous laugh together, because this was the culmination of work on both sides. It was all said in great good spirits."

Advances in theory and experimentation were the eventual result.

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