Q: What was it that spurred your interest in archeology generally, and specifically in the ark?
A: Ever since I was a young boy growing up in Turkey I had heard legends and myths about an ark having landed on Mount Ararat. An uncle of mine, who became the director of the archeological museum in Istanbul, had been sent up there in the 1950s to resolve once and for all whether there was anything up there.
Q: How old were you then?
A: Ten or 12. In the early '50s a Frenchman, Ferdnand Navara -- who I understand had made a considerable fortune inventing wrecking balls -- made it a great avocation to search for this ark. He came back with some wood and some black and white movies he had shot with his son that show him going into a crevice and emerging with a rather large piece of timber which he chopped up and, in the best of promotion efforts, sent a piece to De Gaulle and a piece to the pope. The French immediately recognized him as the discoverer of the ark. He wrote a book, "J'ai Trouv,e L'Arch" ("I Found the Ark").
Q: What was the wood like? A piece of lumber?
A: The pieces I eventually saw from the original timber had a cross section of a 90-degree L. It definitely had adz marks, so it was hand- hewn. It was carbon-dated to be quite old -- 4,000 to 5,000 years. The one thing that made me uncomfortable was that he claimed it came from somewhere around 13,000-or 14,000-[foot] peaks. That's where the plateau and the crevice was that he found this in.
As a conventional, theoretical physicist, I'm very much more cautious about floods at high altitudes. There's no way I can accept water rising to 17,000 feet, which Mount Ararat is. There simply isn't enough water in the atmosphere if you were to condense it, or in the poles if you were to melt them, to get above three or four hundred meters.
Art, archaeology and physics are essentially my three fields. In archaeology I'm more interested in applying state-of-the-art science and physics to archeology than I am in this Indiana Jones-type archeology which expeditions to Mount Ararat are pretty much about.
Q: How did you happen to become involved in these expeditions?
A: In the United States there's a subculture of archeologists and fundamentalists who overlap. There was a group of Seventh Day Adventists, $ approached me in the '60s to see if I would be a scientific consultant to them as they mounted an effort to acquire permissions to climb the mountain, and perhaps to evaluate their findings afterward.
Q: How did they happen to pick you and not someone else?
A: My father was a general in the Turkish army. They thought he might be able to help them get permission. They also realized that I was a scientist and could possibly give them some scientific credibility. Most of these people are very honest, nice people. They're fundamentalists; I don't see eye-to-eye with them in religion certainly. I have no problems with incompatibilities of religion and science, but I do with fundamentalist causes. Some of them really do have trouble believing in evolution.
Q: How do your own religious convictions fit in with this particular expedition?
A: I was born in Turkey and raised in the Islamic religion. Then I went to school in England where the religion was Anglican. Then I went to St. Andrew's School in Delaware. The school was Episcopal. I was an undergraduate at Georgetown, a Jesuit school, and I practice in the field of theoretical physics which is really dominated by Jews. I've picked up the best and the worst -- mostly the worst -- of each of the religions. But I am quite skeptical about fundamentalist belief in a rather youthful earth of only a few thousand years and a belief that there is no evolution but creation. I don't really believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but I have no troubles with a primary creator.
Q: In those expeditions at Ararat in the '60s, you were up there at one point?
A: I helped them get permission but I didn't go up. This original group was SEARCH, an acronym for Scientific Research and Archeological Foundation. But it was an acronym. This group mounted most of the serious attempts in the late '60s. Navara, the Frenchman, joined them. He took them right up to that point of his aforementioned expedition when he found pieces of wood. They found 17 pieces of wood, the longest of which was 22 inches. There was a great disparity in the ages of the wood. Some of the pieces were indeed very old -- 4,000 or 5,000 years. Others were as new as 1,200 years. I can't explain this great disparity in ages coming from the same area. You couldn't really tell whether they were hand-hewn. You could tell that they didn't belong up there because there are no trees for miles around. This is a volcanic mountain with absolutely no foliage. It rises from a plateau of roughly 2,000 feet to a peak of 17,000 feet. It's incredibly imposing.
Q: Was the expedition you joined the most recent?
A: Yes. Until two years ago there had been a prohibition on people climbing the mountain, mainly because of the mountain's location. It's right on the triple-point border between the Soviet Union, Turkey and Iran. The Soviets often ballyhooed about United States espionage work going on up there.
Two years ago Jim Irwin, the astronaut, a born-again Christian -- he found God I think on the moon when he landed -- visited the Turkish president $ Evren. He took a Turkish flag to him that he had carried to the surface of the moon. The Turkish president was very grateful and Jim Irwin requested permission to go on Mount Ararat.
Turkish officers and their Russian counterparts have protocol meetings at the border, to talk about the weather and small things. In this instance they told the Russians that the American astronaut was going on the mountain for an expedition. There was nothing more to it. Nothing clandestine. The Russian officers laughed and they produced a photograph they had taken from a satellite and they said "There he is." They had identified him up there. So from time to time on the mountain I'd look up and wave to the satellites.
Q: But do you believe that there is an ark up there?
A: There could be a shrine up there. Rebuilt. The item that we found has the shape of an enormous pistachio. Looks like a boat. It's not at 14,000 or 15,000 feet, it's at only 5,000 feet, which is certainly a little bit more palatable. The dimensions are just about what the Bible suggests as the size of an ark. Three hundred cubits long. A cubit is about 18 inches -- the distance from the middle finger to the elbow. So 300 cubits makes it about 450 feet, and that's what this is, within four or five feet.
This thing that we found is not on the main mountain but across from it. There is a valley between the mountain and this hill where we found the object. The same thing was originally photographed by a U-2 pilot back in the late '50s. There seems to be a rocklike formation around this huge pistachio- shaped anomaly. It's conceivable there was a boat there and this fortification was built around it. That's why it survived the weathering causes of the earth. It's under hard terrain, so without proper equipment it would be pretty difficult to dig there. What we found we haven't been able to date yet.
My fundamentalist friends are very excited about it, but it would be a premature to make any statements. But even if we find a boat on Mt. Ararat, whether at 5,000 feet or 15,000 feet, I would feel comfortable with the idea that there was a flood down at pedestrian levels and this thing was erected as a shrine at either 14,000 where Navara insists it's located, or where we found this anomaly at about 5,000 feet.
Q: What would happen if other civilizations stumbled upon this site? Do their legends mention it in anyway?
A: That's a good question. Four to 5,000 years ago, the Hittites were roaming around. The Sumerian civilization had lived there just previously. The Assyrians were there. So civilizations really do live through, before and after this period. There are legends of a flood there. Different civilizations talked about a flood. Maybe a fairly large flood. But the idea of a universal flood is scientifically untenable. There isn't enough water on the earth now and there wouldn't have been 5,000 years ago to actually submerge most of the earth.
Q: When you were growing up, what was it about the country that spurred your interest in archeology?
A: Living in Turkey I had seen ruins. I had taken them for granted, as most Turks do. Living in the United States and recognizing 200 or 250 years as historic made me appreciate the thousands of years of history in Turkey. You reckon history in the United States in decades and Europe maybe in centuries. In the Middle East you do this in millenia. We went to Mt. Ararat by driving over a six-span Roman bridge. You tend to appreciate how they built this to last millenia.
It's about a five-hour drive from the city called Erzurum. In a way you go about 10 years in the past by going to Ankara and 100 years into the past by going to Erzurum. A little town close to the mountain looks 1,000 years in the past. It's like a pioneer town, Dogubeyazit, and is in the shadow of this incredible mountain.
Q: Did you talk to any of the people living in that area?
A: I spoke to quite a few. Some of them are very hopeful that something like an ark would be found there. They have it in their own legends that there is something like that there. There's a village called Tlceker right above this pistachio. Certainly for the economic advantages of having some great shrine close by they are very much interested.
Q: As a teen-ager, what did you see yourself becoming?
A: I had always intended to go back and live in Turkey. Once I became a theoretical physicist, it became somewhat more difficult to go back because I was locked in a very esoteric field. So I did my research here at Berkeley, Princeton. I'm a theoretical physicist. I do research in nuclear physics and in cosmology. My specialty is rather a esoteric bit of work called perturbation theory for projected states. It has applications to all the areas of physics and to physical chemistry. I suspect there are about 18 people who have either the training or the interest to read the work. Perturbation theory of projected states is a mathematical technique in quantum mechanics and quantum mechanics in turn is the physics of very small systems -- about atomic, molecular, nuclear systems. It's the mathematical approach to the world of the very, very small.
And the archeology -- the Noah's Ark -- was just a very interesting aside.
Q: You use modern physics to investigate things from the past?
A: Exactly. A few years ago Louis Alvarez, now a Nobel Laureate at Berkeley, was trying to map out the interior of the pyramids. He was using cosmic radiation. Of the two largest pyramids -- the Cheops and the Chephron -- there was a puzzle why Chephron had such a simple structure. It certainly belonged to the more important of the two pharoahs. The only way to map it out, it seemed, was to let cosmic radiation penetrate it and then with detectors in the main chamber essentially X-ray the entire pyramid.
This scheme was also used in England. During the Second World War the British had hidden some of their treasures in subway tunnels and then walled them up for safekeeping. Later when the maps were all lost, they had a hard time finding them so they took detectors into the lowest levels of the subways and X-rayed up. They found the hidden chambers and the paintings.
Q: If you could think of a similar site to visit, something else to try to find, what would it be?
A: I'm personally a little bit leery of this type of archaeology beyond my immediate project. But I do have friends who go to Israel and Saudi Arabia for biblical research. The parting of the sea. I'd like to go around disproving $ Von Daniken's ideas about ancient astronauts visiting the earth and planting their seeds from which we all came.
This plethora of interests that I have, in the sciences, in art, in archaeology, has had one very interesting payoff. During the past 10 years I've gotten invitations, mostly from the Royal Viking Line -- a Norwegian ship line, almost the Rolls Royce of cruises. A bit like the Love Boat except the average age and income is higher. I go on the ships as the enrichment lecturer. The cruises have taken me to China, the Soviet Union, Central and South America and Alaska. On an academic salary this would have been absolutely impossible.
Q: What do you lecture about?
A: I speak about the archaeological sites in the places we go, about the cultures and, sometimes crossing oceans when people are tired of the sites, I speak about birth and death of the universe, of stars. I can pack in audiences easier with these big questions about cosmology.