Flat Earth

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I WOULDN'T want to frighten you or anything, but Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of the latest nation to join the nuclear club, is - how can I put this? - not exactly a rocket scientist ...

I once interviewed him when he was visiting London, and found myself ushered into a curiously dim hotel suite. The Pakistani leader and I were placed facing each other in the middle of an expanse of carpet. The questions had been submitted in advance, and Sharif rattled through the replies fluently enough, while I struggled to make notes in the gloom.

I realised, though, that the PM was answering the questions in the wrong order. He became aware of this too, and stumbled to a halt. At this point there was a commotion behind me - the first indication I had that anyone else was in the room - and I turned to see an aide frantically reshuffling his pack of cue cards. I hope the newly-nuclear Prime Minister has equipped himself with a better team of handlers since then.

Klairvoyant Kinkel

IN AN ideal world, countries that cannot be trusted to shuffle their nukes with care might be forced to deposit them for safe-keeping with a reliable power. With Germany, for instance, where the government is so efficient, it had prepared its demarche to Pakistan two weeks before the bombs went off.

Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel's harsh words "today" rolled off fax machines within minutes of Thursday's test, with only one tiny glitch. Crossed out but not deleted from the press statement was a curious remark, dated 14 May: "In the event of Pak conducting a nuclear test on the weekend of 16/17 May, we should issue the following text." What followed was vintage Kinkel, at his fulminating best, so good that the ministry re-issued it moments later, without the civil servant's instructions this time.

Just goes to show that it pays to be prepared, though one does wonder what else lurks in Bonn's out-trays. A statement on the end of the world, perhaps? Meanwhile, Chancellor Helmut Kohl fired the government's chief spokesman last week, in an attempt to make its PR even better.

A long day's journey

WHAT more appropriate place than this column to announce that El Nino is making the Earth rotate more slowly? It's true, honestly: the welling up of warm water in the Pacific has stirred up such strong westerly winds that the Earth has had to slow its rotation to keep pace with its surrounding atmosphere. As a result, our days are getting longer, according to a study released by the American Geophysical Union.

All right, we are getting only a millisecond or so more daylight, but scientists say it matters. Spacecraft such as the Mars Pathfinder use tracking devices on Earth to orientate and navigate themselves in space, a calculation that could be thrown off if the Earth is spinning at a different rate than expected.