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ISBN # - 0750306866
Author - Constantin Roman
Publisher - Institute of Physics
Year - June 1, 2000
CHAPTER 1 - THE DNA SIGNATURE
“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing
circumstances contribute to them, few of themwilled or determined by the
will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the
demands of our natures—and the best of themlead us not outwards
in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding
forms of introspection.” - Lawrence Durrell (Bitter Lemons)
THE DNA SIGNATURE
Ever since Adam had a bite at the rotten apple, my ancestors have always
made tactical errors, something to make them fall out with the establishment.
Not that we came from a family who traced its lineage all the way to Adam,
far from it: I came from a family where genealogical trees were scribbled
on parchments, made of the skins of lamb foetuses. These scrolls were
periodically burnt in the various wars that were waged, first eastwards
and then westwards, wiping our lands both ways in the Carpathian foothills.
Such cataclysms happened with monotonous regularity, like the ebb and
flowof the ocean tide, until everything was wiped out of existence. In
the end all that was left standing was the memory of bitterness, which
eventually was purged by lost generations.
By the time I was born, woken frommy mother’s womb by the bombs
dropped by Allied planes on their way to the Ploiesti oil fields, the
family memory, which was not yet reduced to ashes, had been curtailed
to the end of the 18th century on my father’s side and to the Thirty
Years War, at the beginning of the 17th century, on my mother’s
This is not surprising, as women from the slopes of the Carpathian foothills
had longer memories than men, as they had to remember with minute accuracy
where they had buried the family treasures, hurriedly left behind in the
wake of some barbarous invasion. These family trinkets and a few gold
coins were assembled in haste in some earthenware pot and hidden in a
shallow trench. Often the secret was lost by the end of the war when the
folk regained their burnt out hearth and it was not at all unusual for
the oxen-driven plough, gently furrowing the rich soil of the family plot,
to bring a pot of gold to the surface.
If the Wild West witnessed its gold rush, then each Romanian family had
a story of a hidden treasure and to this day they are still looking for
the pot of gold. Some ancestors went beyond the confines of their village
in search of the lost treasure; foreigners in the new land of promise.
More often than not my ancestors gave the treasure search up in despair
and went instead to look for some long-lost ideal. They usually fought
for the wrong cause, having espoused the wrong ideals. Then, as a result
of their misjudgement, my forebears were driven out of their ancestral
home. Often, they considered themselves very lucky indeed to be left alive,
as they moved their womenfolk and children in wooden carts across the
Carpathians to the relative safety of a neighbouring kingdom. Five generations
ago, this was the case with Sava, the Transylvanian iron master of F ag
aras. In 1848 he busied himself sharpening pick axes for the revolutionaries
set to rise against the oppression of the Austrian Emperor: he fought
for the ‘wrong cause’ and had to flee some three hundred miles
eastwards to the mouth of the Danube. There he married his daughter into
another uprooted family, who had fled the Catholic persecution after the
18th century partition of Poland, as these forebears were of the ‘wrong
religion’. These were my Roman ancestors, who were Moldavian merchants,
of Orthodox faith, trading in Lemberg. As this Galician city changed hands
with the change in political boundaries, it was ruled by the Catholic
Emperor of Austria: the Roman family were under considerable pressure
to renounce their Orthodox religion and convert to Catholicism, which
they refused, paying the price of exile. They crossed the border into
Moldavia, which was ruled by a prince of their faith.
The family history is full of such political and religious misfits, who
preferred to take to the road, rather than compromise. Some of these idealists
thought that they were asked to make a stark, if impossible, choice between
right and wrong, or between black and white.
In reality the cause of displacement was simply the result of a clash
of views of some very strong-headed people. One such ‘strong head’
was my great grandfather Venceslaus, a younger son of a younger son from
Bohemia, who, on losing a court case over some family rights (against
the whole village!) had his life made untenable. Little wonder that following
this inauspicious legal event, Venceslaus resolved to migrate down the
Danube, which he negotiated on a wooden raft, and eventually settled in
Bucharest, in the middle of the 19th century.
It was here that this Czech great grandfather married another uprooted
person, a lady from Transylvania, who had the reputation of being a herbalist
and a healer. She was called Ana and she came froma family of minor country
squires fromEastern Transylvania, close to the source of the river Mures.
Here, for generations, her folk built huge fortified churches on top of
solitary hills, like pinnacles surrounded by curtain walls, within the
precincts of which they would drive their cattle and store the grain to
save it from the ravages of invasion.
Shortly before she died, Ana retired to her native Transylvanian village,
which after the treaty of Versailles was no longer under Austria but integrated
into the Kingdom of Romania.
Although I was born after this Transylvanian lady had died, I was fascinated
by the family tales from this branch of the family to such an extent that,
as a youngster of only fourteen, I went in search of my great grandmother’s
native roots. By that time, the village cemetery had been ‘moved’
and as the immediate family did not claim the grave, my great grandmother’s
remains were dispersed in a field of cultivated sunflowers. As a herbalist,
I am certain that Ana would have approved of the change and as I looked
incredulously at the field, I wondered frombehind the face of which particular
sunflower the old lady would be smiling at me?
There were some extraordinary tales passed down the generations from my
Transylvanian ancestors and although I was born across the border, as
it were, on the ‘wrong side’ of the Carpathians, I felt in
a way that I was an honorary citizen of Transylvania.
That is why whenever I did not want to answer questions about my origins,
which were all too often levelled at me, I would simply say that I came
from Transylvania. This was not a technically true statement, but I always
felt that I had some very strong claims to my roots in Transylvania.
Before the stories of the starving Romanian babies made the headlines
of the British Press, Romania was not on the map of the British consciousness,
yet many a Briton would nonetheless have heard of Transylvania.
“Does it really exist?” I would be asked in disbelief.
“Yes it does, I assure you.”
“And what have you come here for?” my persistent torturer
would always ask.
“Well, I have come here to put false fangs on the National Health
Service”, which would usually bring the conversation to an abrupt
end, lest my bite prove more effective than my bark.
By the 20th century my family had settled down, or so it seemed. We were
no longer in search of the pot of gold, nor were we in political or religious
opposition. In the meantime, we came to realize that it was much safer
to invest in an education, rather than in perishable property and heirlooms.
So, we became a family of professionals, having abandoned the land which
had for centuries nurtured so many generations, and reached the relative
safety of the towns where we went to school.
After the Second World War, the latest political cataclysm shook my family,
as Communismcame to stay, for some forty years and Romania fell on the
‘wrong side’ of the Iron Curtain. My family then hoped to
weather the storm by clinging to our education, the only asset which could
not be taken away by the Communist regime, as everything else was either
nationalized or confiscated, and all our savings were lost.
The yearning for travel was still in the blood and so was the persistence
of clinging to the ‘wrong ideals’, an incurable habit passed
on to me by many generations of uprooted and of dispossessed. That is
why when, as a Romanian student in search of my Czech roots, I was seeking
the family archives in Trebon, in Southern Bohemia, the archivist peered
at me, behind his old spectacles and exclaimed:
“Young man, this is the call of the blood.”
My first attempt at getting a passport was at the age of fourteen when,
on receiving my first ID card, I immediately thought that it would automatically
entitle me to obtain a passport: I had some Czech ancestry and was keen
to discover my long lost relations in Czecho-Slovakia.
I went to the central police station in Bucharest and found myself in
a room with many dejected elderly people, all of whom wanted to emigrate
to Israel or America: being so young, I immediately attracted the attention
of the police officer, who asked what it was I wanted. I said I wanted
a passport to travel to Prague.
“Are you travelling by yourself?”
To give greater weight to my request, I said that I would travel with
my father, although he did not know anything about my initiative.
“All right then, ask your father to come here himself.”
This was in 1955. I was in my early teens and felt that my world had fallen
apart. I left the police HQ in sombre mood.
I scanned quickly, in the recesses of my mind, the virtues of our social
pedigree, to see what chances I might have of being granted the freedom
of travelling abroad, as passports were granted on stringent political
and social class appurtenance criteria: clearly we were not born revolutionaries.
Far from being Communist nomenklaturists our family did not want to compromise
by jumping on the Communist bandwagon—quite the contrary they lost
all their hard-won savings, their houses, business and chattels, they
were marginalized. Our chances of survival were not very good, let alone
the luxury of being granted a passport.
My mother Eugenia (Jenny) Velescu was born in Bucharest, in 1912, and
came from a prominent professional family. She was the youngest daughter
of George Velescu and Ana Zeli ska. Her father, George, graduated in
law and pharmacy and chose to profess the latter, on the advice of his
close friend, His Beatitude the Patriarch Miron Cristea, Head of the Romanian
Orthodox Church. Grandfather George started his career at Bruss, by appointment
pharmacist to HM King Carol of Romania, and was decorated, in 1906, for
his services to the King. Subsequently my grandfather started a successful
pharmacy practice and eventually rose to prominence to become President
of the Romanian Pharmacists’ Association, and Editor of the Pharmacopea
Romana and the Curierul Farmaceutic magazine in Bucharest, and became
sole distributor of Merck’s drugs in Romania.
My mother’s mother, Ana, was of Bohemian (Czech) and Transylvanian
(Szekler) parentage. She was born in Bucharest where she was educated
at the B ar a tia Catholic Convent. Grandmother Ana spoke four languages
fluently, was one of the first women in Romania to graduate (in violin
and piano) from the Music Conservatoire in Bucharest and during the First
World War took a degree in pharmacy in order to be allowed to run her
husband’s practice during his absence on military duty. As a child
I vividly remember my grandmother’s huge art collection and library
and until the advent of Communism, when family properties were expropriated,
I attended Granny Ana’s chamber music recitals held on Sunday afternoons
at her home in Bucharest. Ana’s personality was to have the greatest
influence on my upbringing, first in learning foreign languages and also
in opening my interest in arts and science.
Unlike her parents, Mother was not an academic, but she was educated to
converse in several foreign languages and play the piano. At her parents’
home, in Bucharest, Mother was attended by servants, but when Communismcame,
she adapted manfully to the harsh conditions imposed on her and did not
shrink from her responsibilities as wife and mother, in a climate of political
oppression, fear of imprisonment and financially reduced circumstances.
My father, Valeriu Livovschi Roman, was born in Bucharest in 1906, the
eldest son of Vicentiu Livovschi Roman, a pharmacist, and of Stefania
Burada, only daughter of Rev. Constantin Burada. My grandfather Vicentiu
came from a family who served the Romanian Orthodox Church for seven generations
and had a strong musical tradition, which produced a composer of Russian
liturgical music at the Tzar’s cathedral in St Petersburg. On my
paternal grandmother’s side, the Buradas were a landed family of
Orthodox clergy who were benefactors and founders of churches and schools
in the 19th century, but also produced composers, judges and an anthropologist.
My father, Valeriu, graduated in industrial chemistry at the University
of Bucharest, in 1930, and started his career in the chemistry laboratory
of ‘Phoenix’, an Anglo-Romanian oil company, with producing
fields and a refinery at Ploiesti. Father was soon promoted to become
a senior executive responsible for oil export, first at the Company’s
terminal at Constanta, a port on the Black Sea, and from 1937 at Giurgiu,
a port on the Danube where I was born in 1941. When the Giurgiu terminal
was bombed in 1941, my father moved to the company’s HQ in Bucharest,
where he became Head of Marketing, but not for long as the Communists
nationalized ‘Phoenix’ in 1948 and in the ensuing witch hunt
Father was accused of being a ‘collaborator’ with the British.
He escaped the Communist prisons only due to the strong backing of the
company’s workers, with whom he was very popular and who pleaded
for his reprieve. In the process Father was made redundant. After several
years as a chemical engineer in industry, his career ended as an editor
at the Editura Technic a publishing house in Bucharest. As he refused
to join the ranks of the Communist Party, Father’s name was not
allowed to appear in print on the back cover of the many science books
he produced, and was relegated instead to a relative professional obscurity.
Still, in spite of these inauspicious circumstances, he managed to produce
several patents in the field of catalysis of sodium chloride and wrote
a classic book on the subject.
The political and social scene in Eastern Europe was not going to improve.
Although after Stalin’s death, in 1953, a slight relaxation occurred
in Romania, with the Moscow-trained Communists being purged from power,
by 1956 the Hungarian uprising against the Russian occupation troops and
their Communist stooges caused a tremendous backlash throughout neighbouring
Romania. I thought for a moment that we too would have been liberated
of the Communist-led oppression, Russian in particular, so I slackened
my studies of compulsory Russian language and nearly had to repeat the
fifth form. I only did well at the subjects where I liked the teachers
and neither physics nor geology were favourites of mine. We were taught
geology by a female Communist Party activist, who knewnothing of the subject
and who ‘politicized’ her classes, by telling us, literally,
“The Capitalist’s over-production of hydrocarbons in Romania
was criminal, as it did not allow for the oil and gas fields to regenerate.”
“When, in our life time?” I would tease the teacher, but she
could not understand the jibe. At the age of 15, when we started to be
critical of all values taught and in particular of Communist values, we
could not stop laughing and did not take geology seriously for that matter.
For my ten A-level exams I merely scraped by, with geology being at the
bottom limit. Besides, I had known ever since I was in primary education
that I wanted to become an architect, for which geology was superfluous.
The Russian repression of the Hungarian Uprising, in 1956, had a long-term
negative effect on the selection process for university entry. This was
a ruthless, positive discrimination, based on social class criteria. The
immediate result was that by the time I had to sit the entrance tests
for the School of Architecture, in 1959, only 20% of the places were allocated
to sons of ‘professionals’, of whom I was one, as my father
had a university degree and worked in a publishing house. Out of the available
60 places for the first year of the School of Architecture, therefore,
I could only compete for a mere handful of 12 places, for which there
were hundreds of candidates. The two drawing tests were crucial in being
short-listed for the second tests of maths and physics. Quite apart from
the intrinsic merits of the drawing tests each candidate was given a ‘social
weighting’ mark as a function of his parents’ Communist Party
membership, nationalized property and the like. As no member of my family
had joined the Communist Party and my family’s houses and business
were expropriated, I had a negative handicap from the outset. To counteract
this inevitable disadvantage, I had prepared for two solid years, with
private coaching every week in physics, maths and drawing. But all this
was to no avail, as I could never ever be short-listed following the arts
eliminatory tests in drawing for the School of Architecture. At this point,
Father beseeched me to face up to the political reality, painful as it
was, and agree that I had better go for admission exams in science, rather
than in arts. It stood to reason that in science, at least, the results
of the exams tests were unequivocal and not open to interpretation for
It was somehow ironic that with poor A-levels in geology and physics,
I would sit the following year the admission exams for geophysics, at
the Faculty of Geology in Bucharest. On this occasion there were only
5.5 candidates for one place, but as the equations provided unique answers
I could prove my strength in the maths and physics tests. My father was
relievedto see me through, as educationhadbecome a symbol of survival
in a family where all savings were confiscated and all properties and
chattels gone. So, in our family, as in many other professional families
in Romania and throughout Eastern Europe, education became a symbol of
resistance to the Communist system. This is how I became a geophysicist.
DRIFT TO GEOPHYSICS
To appease my disappointment at training to be a geophysicist, rather
than an architect, Father tried to play up the ‘cosmopolitan’
character of the school I joined, where many students came fromAfrica,
the Middle East and South America. These were the aspiring Communist r
egimes, which would send students to study petroleumgeology and drilling
in Romania; all in all, an uninspiring motley group of assorted Syrians,
Iraqis, Cubans, Algerians, Nigerians and Albanians, most of whom were
Communist sympathizers, which I was definitely not! Besides, what separated
the Romanian native student population from their foreign colleagues was
the latter’s freedom to travel abroad. By contrast, Romanian citizens
had no automatic right to a passport, unless they were from the higher
echelons of the Communist party. We resented our foreign colleagues returning
from holidays with presents for their Romanian girlfriends, with whom
they were very popular. Understandably, for this same reason, the foreign
students carried less favour with the native male student population,
who were at a definite disadvantage, for lack of cash and travel opportunities.
Eventually the world politics of super-powers came to our rescue: the
Cuban students were expelled from Romania for demonstrating, without permission,
in front of the American Embassy in Bucharest, following the debacle at
the Bay of Pigs. The Cubans were soon followed by another wave of expulsions
of the Albanian students, this time, because their Government sought a
rapprochement with China, at the expense of the Russians, who were still
Romania’s staunch allies. Soon after this clean up job, some of
the North African Arab contingent withered away in disillusionment at
seeing for themselves that Communism did not actually work in practice.
So, the Romanian male students found themselves, overnight, masters of
their own backyard over the bevy of rudderless girls whose boyfriends
were unceremoniously kicked out of the country. We could hardly disguise
our jubilant mood: in fact we flouted our hitherto repressed male chauvinism
and our newly found self-esteemas unchallenged kings of the Communist
castle. The rejoicing was short-lived, as most students had to keep their
nose to the grindstone and make sure that they passed all exams by the
end of each year.
The whole teaching structure was rather Victorian in practice, with an
obsession for technical details, which we had to absorb regardless of
their relevance. We had ten compulsory exams every year and in all sixty
different courses. These ranged frommaths, physics, chemistry, even combustionengineering,
drilling, hydrocarbongeology, structural geology, tectonics, stratigraphy,
mineralogy and crystallography, palaeontology, geochemistry, followed
by gravity, magnetics, seismology, electric logging and a myriad of other
courses, with a sprinkle of languages, economics and politics (Marxist
ideology, of course). There were no published textbooks and we were relegated
to taking notes during lectures, of which there were six a day plus practicals
(laboratory work) and summer field trips.
Faced with what I considered to be a barrage of wanton, oldfashioned teaching
I decided to be selective, an attitude which was frowned upon. I needed
my space to develop personal interests, some of which were extra-curricular
activities, like earning some much-needed money to buy myself basic clothes,
which my father’s meagre professional salary could not provide.
Although the university education was free, I had no right to a student
grant, under a rule of positive discrimination against the sons of professionals.
However, some of the mature students, selected from amongst factory workers,
did have a sponsorship from their original place of work. The academic
going was tough and should we fail exams at the end of the first year,
we would be asked to leave. As it happened, by the fourth academic year
numbers dwindled from the original sixty to a mere forty or so students,
who were still in the race. During the academic year I would earn a little
extra cash doing abstracts of science papers from French and English journals,
occasionally publishing articles in Via ta Studen teasc a, the Bucharest
student rag (travel fiction, interviews), or in high-brownational literary
weeklies such as Luceaf arul and Contemporanul. Writing travel fiction
became an obsession and escapism, securing a minimum of sanity: as I would
not be allowed to travel freely abroad I would do it with the eyes of
my imagination and pretend that I did go and visit Copenhagen, Edinburgh,
Palermo or London. So I wrote about the spires of Copenhagen, which I
never saw, I invented a fictitious interview with Count Tomaso di Lampedusa,
the Sicilian grandee, as an excuse for introducing to the Romanian public
his best-seller The Leopard. I wrote about the Hogmanay revels in Edinburgh,
about the University of Sussex, in order to introduce its architect, Sir
Basil Spence, and ‘travelled’ to many more places I had never
set foot into, but dreamt of visiting one day. In addition to having fun
with such publications, I also had the secret pleasure of ‘educating’
the Romanian public, whilst I would get a bit of pocket money.
As for the summer months, when I had no practicals I took up the job of
courier for the National Tourist Agency in Bucharest. This allowed me
to visit the 16th century Moldavian painted churches, the castles of Transylvania
or the beaches of the Black Sea resorts.
Contacts with foreign visitors from the West were expressly forbidden
in Romania, and if they took place at all they had to be ‘reported’
to the police. In my summer job as a tourist guide I found a major loophole
in allowing unfettered contacts with the ‘free world’ as well
as the ability to practise my English, learn about the West, get some
pocket money and have a free holiday which I could otherwise not afford.
Still, I was well aware of the fact that sundry hotel waiters, receptionists
and coach drivers were informers of the dreaded Securitate, but I was
too young and too reckless to care for such ‘details’, which
eventually brought me into conflict with the authorities.
Through my courier activities I made friends abroad, who would subsequently
send me much-needed dictionaries or foreign literature unavailable in
Romanian book shops for economic or political reasons. In this way I managed
to smuggle into Romania (and not without trouble) the 24 Penguin paperback
volumes of Churchill’s History of the Second World War. Should I
have been caught in possession of such illicit political material I would
have risked my freedom for this crazy enterprise and would have been expelled
from university, for political and social dereliction, branded an ‘enemy
of the people’. Quite so and proud of it too!
The Romanian School of Geology had a long tradition of links with the
German, Austrian, Belgian and French schools going back to the 18th and
19th centuries. This was due to the research on the mineral ore deposits
of Transylvania, the salt mines and the oil and gas fields of the Carpathians.
Gold and silver mines had existed since Roman times. Salt had been an
export commodity since the Middle Ages, and oil seepages used since ancient
times for lighting homes and oiling cartwheels. By the mid 19th century
the oil industry started in earnest, at the same time as in the United
States, with the oil fields of Ploiesti looking like a site from wild
Texas during the oil rush. It was on the gas fields of Transylvania that
Count E otv os tested his gravity method of exploration. The terms ‘diapir’
and ‘diapirism’ were coined at the beginning of the 20th century
by Ludovic Mrazek, a professor fromBucharest University, and it is in
Romania that salt diapirs were demonstrated to provide an effective seal
for hydrocarbons. Until then, geologists were only looking for classical
dome structures, or ‘four-way closures’. The new salt sealing
concept broadened substantially the areas of investigation worldwide.
It was also in Romania, in 1923, that two brothers, Conrad and Marcel
Schlumberger, graduates of the Paris School of Mines, tested their electrical
resistivity methods for hydrocarbon prospecting. The discovery of the
Aricesti oil field, a salt-controlled structure, near Ploiesti, was a
turning point in geophysical prospecting. The survey was commissioned
by Jules M Denil, the President of the ‘Steaua Romˆan a’
Oil Company. It took several years before the Schlumbergers managed to
persuade the Texan oil companies about the advantages of electric prospecting.
The Schlumberger brothers were beckoned to Romania by their contemporary
from the Paris School of Mines, Sabba Stefanescu, who put the mathematical
foundations to some of the Schlumberger methods. Essentially, the whole
idea was going to make famous the Schlumberger brothers and, subsequently,
their business empire. They knew that different rock formations drilled
in the process of oil search could be identified (lithology, thickness
of formation, physical properties, etc) by sending a miniaturized apparatus
down the drilling hole. This equipment would take physical measurements
of the rock resistivity/conductivity through an induced current, which
would register on a paper log the variations in the response of the rocks.
These logs would be interpreted and the geology identified. The whole
idea was to revolutionize oil exploration and make it more reliable and
cost effective, because, prior to that, the only scant knowledge obtained
about the subsurface geology was through the bits and pieces of rocks
which came to the surface from the drilled material. This was not sufficient
to know the depth fromwhich such material came, the thickness of the beds,
etc. The first visits to the United States, intended to demonstrate the
logging method, were met with scepticism, if not indifference. In the
America of the 1920s the prevailing philosophy in oil exploration was
one of ‘wildcatting’, that is of drilling new exploration
wells on the basis of risk-taking, rather than geological interpretation.
It was the time of an upsurge in oil discoveries and understandably science
was not needed to become a successful oilman. Besides, how was one going
to demonstrate that the results were right or wrong?
The answer was to test the method on a known producing field, which was
done in Romania. From then on the Schlumbergers never looked back. The
method was established, patented and subsequently used throughout the
world on every single oil well drilled. Of course, new methods were introduced
to measure other physical parameters (magnetic properties, radioactivity,
seismic response, etc) intended to define the porosity, permeability,
oil or gas saturation, water saturation of the sub-surface formations.
Not one log, but several such logs were registered and compared, which
made the method more comprehensive and reliable.
Log analysis became a science in its own right, the bible of the oil geologist
and an important course at the University of Bucharest, where I was studying.
Stefanescu, later to become a Fellow of the Romanian Academy, taught electrical
prospecting at the School of Geology in Bucharest and he was on the board
of examiners of my Dissertation.
Amongst the plethora of sixty or so professors and lecturers we had in
Bucharest, the Head of Geophysics, Professor Liviu Constantinescu, was
odd for a variety of reasons. He combined his patrician-like demeanour
with Communist Party membership, where he was an active member. This position
allowed himaccess to a passport and foreign travel, generally denied to
non-party members. Liviu Constantinescu spoke fluent French, English,
Russian and German and was appointed to many national and international
committees. This secured for him in addition the extraordinary advantage
of regular foreign travel, contacts with western academics and their research
topics, as well as a number of subscriptions to foreign scientific journals,
which he kept locked up in his office. It is from Constantinescu that
I learned for the first time about the methods of physics applied to the
history of art and archaeology at Aitken and Hall’s Oxford Laboratory,
likewise about the archaeometrical research of the Lerici Foundation in
Italy, or the magnetic research on archaeological pottery artefacts of
Professor Thellier in Paris. This was exciting stuff for me because it
brought art into science, or rather opened the perspective of bringing
arts back into my life through the ‘back door’. Essentially,
what Lerici did in Italy was to introduce geophysical prospecting methods
used in hydrocarbon exploration to the much finer and smaller scale of
archaeology. The same methodology used in finding buried oil structures
was now applied in discovering buried historical cities, Etruscan tombs,
fortifications and so on. Even more riveting was the under-water archaeology
which identified, off the coast of Egypt and Greece, sunken ships full
of treasure trove. A newworld suddenly unfolded before me and I was entranced:
geophysics was not so dull after all!
It was Constantinescu who brought to our attention, during his lectures,
the first elements of palaeomagnetic research carried out previously at
Cambridge and subsequently at the School of Physics in Newcastle by Runcorn
and Creer. Earlier on, in Paris in the 1940s, Professor Thellier established
from measuring the magnetic intensity properties of fired bricks from
Carthage that their values were a function of age. As the bricks were
dated with great accuracy by the archaeologists, it emerged that the Earth’s
magnetic field intensity varied in time. In practice, it was discovered
that as the clay was fired for the purpose of turning it into bricks,
at high temperatures in the kiln, all magnetic iron particles aligned
themselves in the prevailing direction of the Earth’s magnetic field,
like little compasses, used in navigation. Once the temperature of the
brick dropped and the firing process finished the neworientation of the
magnetic particles would remain ‘fossilized’ and the whole
brick would display the same azimuth as the Earth’s magnetic field
of the time. Astandard curve was established from statistical measurements
which allowed conversely to date bricks from sites which could not be
dated through traditional archaeological methods, by simply plotting their
total magnetic intensity on the standard curve.
The methodology was extended from historical to geological times and gradually
the Earth’s magnetic field variations were established for each
continent for particular geological times. Once the palaeomagnetic variations
of the Earth’s field were known in space and time, it emerged that
at different geological times continents had had different positions on
the surface of the globe. The theory of ‘continental drift’,
suggested by Alfred Wegener, at the turn of the century, had practically
been ignored after the 1920s but now began to look much more promising.
Wegener, a German astronomer turned meteorologist, noticed, as many had
before him, that the curves of Africa and South America fitted together
rather neatly. He compiled solid observational evidence, both biological
and geological, for the concept that the continents had moved apart. His
ideas were not accepted when he introduced them first in 1912 and later
in his book The Origins of Continents and Oceans, not only because he
was regarded as an outsider by the geological establishment, but also
because he could not convincingly explain the mechanismof continental
drift. This objection persisted until the 1970s and its main proponent
was Sir Harold Jeffries.
What Wegener’s intuition suggested at the turn of the century, now
became a scientific fact that could be demonstrated in much finer detail.
‘Continental Drift’ got a fresh impetus (the term plate tectonics
was not coined until after 1965) and it was the buzzword amongst Western
geoscientists. Behind the Iron Curtain, with the paucity of scientific
information imposed by ideological censorship, continental drift had the
same mysterious attraction as the Sphinx’s riddle to which only
Liviu Constantinescu had the answer. Such mystery spurred my curiosity
and I soon decided to avail myself of my communication skills in foreign
languages to write ‘fan letters’ to the main palaeomagnetism
players in Newcastle and Paris. I also wrote to the Oxford laboratory,
which dealt with methods of restoration, conservation and dating of archaeological
artefacts. It was a pleasant surprise to receive reprints of scientific
papers, which until recently were the sole preserve of Constantinescu.
This was the beginning of a long and fruitful correspondence with my colleagues
in Western Europe, which was eventually going to be my life raft, when
stranded in England and France without a return visa to Romania.
I waited another eight years to the age of 22, before I eventually attempted
again to obtain a passport to travel to Poland, through Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
By this time I was a student in geophysics at the Institute for Oil, Gas
and Geology and had many contacts with foreign tourists through my summer
job as a courier. Even then the travel was not a straightforward affair.
I had to produce to the passport authorities letters of invitation from
Poland from my would-be hosts stating that they took entire responsibility
for my upkeep during my visit to their country and that I would not ask
for any foreign currency for my trip.
I went twice to Poland, Hungary and Czecho-Slovakia. These trips gave
me a foretaste of the West, with the Gothic and Baroque churches of Prague,
with the broad vistas of the Danube in Budapest, with the avantgarde music
and paintings of Poland and French and English books and newspapers available
there, but forbidden in Romania. The Theatre of the Absurd of my fellowcountryman
Eug`ene Ionesco, an exile in Paris, was not played in Romania, but I could
enjoy it, for the first time, in Poland. Now I could read the books of
Vintil a Horia, another uprooted Romanian and winner of the 1960 Goncourt
prize for his deeply moving historical novel, Dieu est ne en exil. A new
world was opening up to me, a world I knew existed, but could only dream
of, and I felt almost inebriated.
As for travelling to Western Europe, I knew that I would never be granted
a passport. This was immensely frustrating, as my fluent knowledge of
French and English gave me access to the latest Goncourt and Renaudot
literary prizes in Paris, or the reviews of the Cannes and Venice Film
Festivals. I was longing to see for myself the Impressionist paintings
in the Courtauld Institute in London and the Orangery in Paris, the churches
of Christopher Wren, the Oxford colleges, the modern architecture of Le
Corbusier and Sir Basil Spence, and listen to the rock music of the Beatles.
My fledgling contacts with researchers in Oxford, Newcastle and Paris
who worked on palaeomagnetismgrewstronger. I found the subject fascinating
especially for its applications to dating of archaeological clay artefacts.
Oxford’s Laboratory of Physics applied to the history of art and
archaeology seemed even more riveting. We had no such facilities at our
disposal in Romania. I absorbed ravenously the contents of the scientific
paper reprints which were sent to me fromabroad and within a short period
of time I had enough confidence to request that my diploma dissertation
should be in palaeomagnetism. This sounds an easier choice than it seemed
at the time, as it went against the grain of the established system: in
effect the Head of the Department had devised forty or so different topics
of research, one for each student in his final year. We were supposed
to choose the subject in the order of our exam success. I was towards
the bottom of this league, for my unorthodox and much frowned upon practice
of being selective in my performance, but I still had to jump through
the hoops. I found little choice in Constantinescu’s list to fire
my imagination for a proposed MA dissertation. I said that I wanted none
of the topics on the list and I preferred instead a subject in palaeomagnetism.
Far frombeing pleased about the enthusiasm inspired by one of his own
lectures, the professor retorted that I could do as I pleased, but that
he could not condone it and would not guarantee success. In fact, he used
this excuse to wash his hands of all responsibility in what appeared to
be an unconventional choice.
Undaunted by this inauspicious beginning, but pleased enough about the
green light, with all its gloomy caveats, I contacted the only specialist
on the subject at a geophysics laboratory in Bucharest and asked for help.
I was soon off to a fresh start on the suggested topic of the ‘Palaeomagnetic
properties of the mineral ores in a copper deposit of the Dobrogea district’.
I went on site to collect samples for my measurements and here a skilled
worker, a former political prisoner who still suffered a ‘forced
domicile’, accompanied me down the mine. This was in 1965, a period
of relative political relaxation at the beginning of the Ceausescu r egime.
Although I considered myself politically and socially aware about the
repression suffered by the Romanian professional classes at the hands
of the Communist dictatorship, I was numb at the stories I was told by
my newlyfound companion. I also lived the frustration of being totally
unable to do anything to improve his plight, other than to listen sympathetically
and not divulge his confession. Astrong complicity developed between us,
which made my odd stay in this mining community an enriching experience.
I took the rock samples to Bucharest and started to prepare the specimens
for the measurement of remanent magnetism. The brief I had was to comment
on the results from two groups of samples from the actual mineral ore
and to compare them with similar measurements from samples taken from
the sterile rock formation. The study was intended to settle a longdrawn-out
dispute between two schools of geological thought, regarding the epigenetic
or syngenetic origin of the copper ore deposits. This had a practical
implication in the future development of the mine. It was easy to understand
that, whichever way the results would tilt the balance, the conclusions
would be quite exciting and I plunged myself with great enthusiasm into
crunching the numbers and integrating the palaeomagnetic and geomorphologic
The first results of my palaeomagnetic research seemed encouraging enough
to present themto a Congress of Geology in Belgrade: I was denied access
to a passport and consequently was not allowed to present the paper myself.
Yugoslavia had an open border with Trieste and the Romanian apparatchiks,
mindful of the possibility of defection to the West, decided that I was
not sufficiently ‘reliable’ to be allowed to travel. The refusal
came as no great surprise, but I was not to be deterred. If anything,
this ‘no confidence’ vote made me even more determined to
The Proceedings of the 9th Carpathian–Balkan Geological Congress,
in Belgrade, published my article in 1967: I sent a reprint to Professor
Runcorn at the University of Newcastle, one to Professor Thellier in Paris
and another to Oxford to Teddy Hall. Soon I had a new article published
by the Geophysical Journal of the Romanian Academy and I was glad I could
reciprocate the exchange of reprints with my western colleagues, even
though I was aware that my contribution was quite modest.
The idea of visiting the specialist university laboratories in France
and England started to germinate in my mind and so I arranged to receive
an invitation to England from a young British friend. I had no great hope
in succeeding in an enterprise in which I had already failed in the previous
year, but I felt it was certainly worth trying again. In the event I was
inevitably refused. At my suggestion, my English friend tried intervening
through his MP whom he asked to impress on the Romanians to grant me a
passport—it was a long shot and it did not work. This was 1966.
I was 25 and already my request for a passport had been refused three
The same summer of 1966 I had my finals and part of these involved the
writing of the MA dissertation and an oral presentation to a panel of
examiners. To this end I already had several scientific articles to my
name, including the Belgrade paper and several articles on physics applied
to archaeology. I also took recorded interviews from known geologists
presenting contradictory views on the genetics of the copper mine deposits.
This put me in the invidious position of being a kind of scientific referee
with an undisputed new method of deciding the ‘truth’ and
this fired me witha youthful enthusiasm. I shouldhave got 10 out of 10
for my work, but, mindful of my academic past, the examiners could not
come to terms with this success and marked me with 9/10. This represented
50% of the whole score with the other 50%being the average of the 60 odd
examresults taken over the previous five years. Furthermore, the examiners
knewand I knew it too, that I had repeated the fourth year of my studies
for having failed the test in seismics. This meant that it took me six
years, instead of five, to get an MA degree. Still, my final average mark
was much improved, but not enough to improve my job prospects. Here too
the system wanted us to choose froma list of available state jobs inthe
order of the examleague table: the best graduate having 40 options to
choose from, whilst the last one was left with Hobson’s choice.
That was not good enough and certainly not too appealing for my future
plans. To avoid being labelled a ‘social parasite’ all graduates
had to accept a job, regardless of where they came in the queue, so I
chose a job as a mining engineer. Within a few months of this choice,
and following the compulsory military service, I managed a transfer to
a publishing house in Bucharest, where a combined knowledge of science
and languages was in demand. I was now an employee of the Romanian Academy’s
Publishing House and I could not be happier for it. Its head was Alexander
Graur, a distinguished linguist, whose articles and radio shows I much
admired. It was 1967 and I had not given up hope of doing a doctorate
in geophysics at some point in the future and in the meantime I carried
on my professional correspondence with my academic friends abroad.
In the autumn of 1967 I was told by the Newcastle University School of
Physics of a forthcoming palaeomagnetism conference at which I was invited
to present the results of my Romanian dissertation. This came out of the
blue and I was elated.
I was determined this time to wrench a passport fromthe authorities and
fired on all cylinders. I told Newcastle that I would not be allowed out
of Romania unless they accepted responsibility for my expenses in Britain.
I was later to discover that this was a prerequisite not just of the Communist
bureaucracy, but ironically, also of the British Home Office.
“What a splendid convergence of minds”, I would have thought
years later, but at the time I was just puzzled.
Newcastle sent me the application forms for a travel grant, but very much
to my dismay, I discovered that the word ‘NATO’ was printed
on the headed paper. I told them that I stood no chance of obtaining a
passport if it had a NATO sponsorship: obligingly, all further correspondence
from Newcastle carefully deleted all reference to NATO.
Soon I was sent the conference programme, which included my contribution
as well as a return train ticket from Bucharest to Newcastle. This was
close to a miracle, because no Romanian citizen could buy an international
travel ticket without producing a valid passport, which was impossible
Armed with the invitation, the ticket and the conference programme, I
made a fresh passport application. I knew that as a matter of strategy
the authorities would not give a negative answer until it was too late:
as the deadline for the conference would have passed there was no need
for the applicant to go at all! It stood to reason, therefore, to press
the Romanian passport authorities for an early answer, so that in the
event of the inevitable refusal I could still appeal in good time to attend
the meeting. in front of their eyes—an extraordinary possession,
denied to a Romanian citizen without a passport. On appeal, my letter
was skilfully placed on top of the in-tray and with a smile and a wink
I was invited to get my passport. The British visa had to be hurried and
I did not understand why the British Consul in Bucharest was not best
pleased to process the application so quickly. She was truly humourless,
in contrast to my high spirits
PICADOR IN ACTION
My friends in Bucharest proved invaluable in affecting the outcome of
the application: my English teacher, Madame Jeannette Ulvinianu, had once
taught Ceasescu himself, as well as scores of Government ministers. I
also remembered that my girlfriend’s mother knew the secretary of
the official in the passport office. With the help of these contacts I
managed to get some informal interviews, during which I explained that
it was an ‘honour to represent my country at such a scientific venue’
and that I ‘had no need for any foreign currency’. I waved
the train ticket to Newcastle in front of their eyes—an extraordinary
possession, denied to a Romanian citizen without a passport. On appeal,
my letter was skilfully placed on top of the in-tray and with a smile
and a wink I was invited to get my passport.
The British visa had to be hurried and I did not understand why the British
Consul in Bucharest was not best pleased to process the application so
quickly. She was truly humourless, in contrast to my high spirits
With the British visa granted and duly endorsed in my new crisp passport
of the ‘Socialist Republic of Romania’, I soon realized that,
if I were to take the train, the conference would be over. I had to take
the plane instead, on a day that ‘TAROM’, the Romanian airlines,
did not fly to London. I would have to change planes in Zurich and from
then on travel on a western airline to London and Newcastle, which meant
asking for foreign currency, which would have been automatically refused.
The Romanian Airlines office in Piata Universitatii was packed with disgruntled
passengers, each of them with some problem. The official in charge, whom
I was supposed to see for a signature, was just finishing an angry exchange
with a ballerina from the Bucharest Opera House, whose colleagues were
left stranded in West Berlin after one of them had defected:
“Very grave problem, comrade: why did you allow it to happen?”
he thundered. I wondered who he was to be concerned about such questions,
as I felt it was none of his business to ask. But then, one found Securitate
people, or their stooges, in all these places all the time.
When my turn came, the adrenaline still pumping, the comrade asked dismissively
what it was I wanted? My chances of success were very slim indeed, so
I quipped, in defiance:
“You will not grant me my ticket, because you are already in a bad
mood.” To prove the contrary, he looked at the papers and signed
FIVE GUINEAS GRANT
It was 2 pm on Thursday 4 April 1968. The one-week NATO Summer School
conference in Newcastle had started the previous Monday and there was
no way I could make it in time. I decided that I would go, visit the University,
apologize in person for missing the meeting, return the unused train ticket
and return to Bucharest. I rushed breathlessly to the Banca Nationala,
waving my passport and air ticket. It was to no avail, as I had first
to obtain a signature fromone of the directors of the Bank: I ran round
the corner of the neoclassical building to the main entrance and stopped
at the porter’s lodge.
The porter was deep in telephone conversation. He did not appear to notice
me. I coughed discreetly to no avail, shuffled with no luck and so concluded
that the best way to catch his attention would be to run up the marble
staircase provoking him to stop me. He did not respond and I found myself
walking on the red, plush carpet of the first floor corridor, lined with
impressive mahogany doors:
I knocked at random at one of the doors and the smiling face of a blonde
secretary beckoned me in—a far cry from the usual unpleasant world
of the common bureaucracy: here we were in the ‘Land of the Almighty’,
where things were done politely and without fuss.
“May I help you?”
“I am invited to present a scientific paper in England and I need
“Take this paper and make a request in writing. My boss will sign
She helped me with the text, took the request next door and within two
minutes returned beaming with the approval.
“Here you are, darling! You are very lucky indeed—you have
got five guineas, more than what the entire Romanian football team ever
get on a trip to England.”
I did not know what ‘guineas’ were, but it sounded like a
lot to me.
I mumbled confusedly: “How could I thank you?” and tried to
reach for the document, but she would not give it to me.
“Now”, she said in a hush, conspiratorial voice, “Tell
me darling, who smuggled you into the building, you must have friends
in high places?”
“Why?” I protested, “Simply nobody, I promise, I took
the grand staircase, as simply as that!”
She would not accept my explanation, as she waved her finger at me, reproachingly:
“I do not believe you, young cock, you must know somebody inside!”
She handed over the paper with a wink. I flew down the stairs, past the
forgetful porter and got in just in time, only minutes before the bank’s
foreign currency desk was shut for the day.
OUT IN 24 HOURS
Now I had in my pocket a Romanian passport, a British visa, five guineas
and an air ticket to Newcastle. It was 5 pm on Thursday 4 April 1968.
I rushed home to throw a few belongings in a suitcase and arranged to
leave by the first plane the following day. I was out of Romania in less
than 24 hours from the moment I got my passport. It was not unknown for
passports to be withdrawn at the border if one lingered too long. On Friday
5 April 1968 I landed at Heathrow and was granted a visitor’s visa
for one month.
The same evening I arrived in Newcastle, the very day the conference had
ended. I could not imagine, by the wildest stretch of the imagination,
that in my pursuit of science or rather because of it, I would be shut
out of the Communist prison for 21 years and would not set foot in Romania
again until Ceausescu was brought down!