Everyting was going according to plan. Distinguished Soviet physicist Dr. L. Okun had his visa, passport, and ticket to fly to the United States to address a long-planned gathering of high energy physicists.
But when some 800 physicists from 37 countries gathered in Madison, Wisconsin , last week, they were stunned: Dr. Okun was missing from the 12-member Soviet delegation.
Puzzled and disturbed, the scientists assume that Soviet authorities had prevented the Russian from leaving. The move may have been a retaliation for the US boycott of the Olympic Games, but American scientists doubt it.
Nevertheless, in the scientific community the physicist's absence counts as a black mark for Moscow.
More than 840 of the physicists from 34 countries are protesting sharply to the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Academician A. P. Alexandrov.
"We. . . are deeply disturbed that. . . Dr. Okun. . . was unable to attend," their protest reads. "Personal interaction at the. . . conferences is an essential part of scientific cooperation. The fact that some physicists cannot participate. . . can only lead to a deterioration of scientific relations between countries."
Physicist Richard Wilson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented 841 signatures and the statement in person July 29 to the scientific attache of the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
Dr. Okun is a jovial man of Jewish family background, although he himself is a nonbeliever. Many of the world's physicists have come to comsider him one of the brightest in their field. He is not thought to be involved in military research, and he has attended international physics conferences both within and without the USSR ever since they began in 1957, including last year's meeting in Geneva.
Paradoxically three papers from his famous colleague, Andrei Sakharov, did reach the meeting. They had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union, where Dr. Sakharov is confined to a closed city east of Moscow and cut off from libraries and laboratories.
The papers from Dr. Sakharov included discussion of the behavior of subatomic "quarks" and "cosmological models" of the universe given changing time factors.
The high energy physicists are scheduled to hold their next conference in Moscow in 1984. But speculation is rife that it could be moved to another site by the organization of physicists, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).
"The action against Dr. Okun goes specifically against the rules of the IUPAP ," says Dr. Wilson. "Soviet authorities had agreed that they would not arbitrarily stop physicists from coming to these meetings."
In addition to the industrialized countries, physicists from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, India, Venezuela, Portugal, Colombia, China, Mexico, South Korea, and Singapore signed the protest.