As a child, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam remembers being fascinated by the flight of seagulls. He grew up on the island of Rameshwaram in south India, where his father was a boat builder. Kalam's interest in flight led to a degree in aeronautical engineering, and eventually to his supervising the development of India's guided missiles. Along the way, he found time to write Tamil poetry and learned to play the veena, an instrument similar to the sitar. Today Kalam, 67, who is India's best known scientist, heads the mammoth Department of Defense Research and Development. He played a key role in the nuclear tests at Pokharan in the Rajasthan desert on May 11 and 13. "I remember the earth shaking under our feet," he recalls of that fateful experience. In a rare interview, he spoke to TIME's New Delhi bureau chief Tim McGirk and correspondent Maseeh Rahman. He also had a question for TIME's readers, which appears at the end of the interview. Excerpts:
Q: How did you choose to become a scientist?
A: In my school in Rameshwaram, I had a fantastic teacher, Siva Subramania Iyer, who taught us mathematics and science. He got me interested in learning science. Then there were a lot of birds on the island, and I used to watch their beautiful flight paths. That got me interested in aeronautics. I love the sea. I write poetry, I started learning the veena, a beautiful instrument. One day I'll play a concert so that I can make people happy. These days you have to make people happy around you [laughs].
Q: What did you feel at the time of independence, when there were riots in India and the subcontinent was partitioned?
A: I was in high school when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled India's flag in New Delhi. What I still remember is that the next morning there were two photographs on the front page of the newspaper--one of Nehru unfurling the flag, and the other showing Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, walking in Noakhali in Bengal, because of the communal riots there. You would normally expect the Father of the Nation to be at the flag-hoisting in the capital, but no, he was far away, removing the pain of the people. That taught me something about our culture that no university education could have.
Q: What did India achieve with the nuclear tests in May?
A: The tests are the culmination of the development of nuclear technology in India, leading to nuclear weaponization. The tests were the result of many years of work by our nuclear scientists and defense technologists. They have generated a very important data base on the fission device as well as the fusion system. Today, India is a nuclear weapons state.
Q: But why did India need to go for nuclear weapons?
A: We gave out three signals. In 1950, Nehru told the United Nations that the U.S. and the then Soviet Union should get rid of their nuclear weapons, go down to zero level. What happened? Both countries accumulated nuclear weapons, from dozens in the 1950s to thousands in 1974. We sent another signal by having a peaceful nuclear test in 1974. What happened then? By the 1990s the figure had reached 20,000 nuclear weapons. And there was proliferation. From one side to China, from the other side to Europe. And it didn't stop there. It even came to Pakistan. So two of our neighbors had nuclear weapons. In such a situation, we didn't have an alternative. For national security reasons, we had to explode nuclear devices.
Q: How do you get back to zero level now?
A: India can live without nuclear weapons. That's our dream, and it should be the dream of the U.S. also. Under the START II treaty, the nuclear arsenals on each side have been reduced to around 3,000 weapons. I asked a top U.S. defense official when it'll come down to zero. He said it won't, it's just a dream. That means the so-called nuclear weapons states want to perpetuate their nuclear weapons status. What's the alternative for India then, especially when two neighbors are armed with nuclear weapons? Still, our Prime Minister has announced, "You go to zero level, we are with you."
Q: Is there a danger of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent?
A: I'm not an expert on the arms race. But India's national security is a supreme requirement. Just like any developed nation, we will do everything for that.
Q: What about signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Should India do it?
A: The five tests we conducted in May generated sufficient data for nuclear weaponization. So both Dr. R. Chidambaram, the Atomic Energy Commission chief, and I have said we need no further tests. As for the CTBT, it is for the nation to take a holistic view on this.
Q: But it's being said that if India is to weaponize properly it must conduct more tests.
A: My job in the defense ministry is to ensure weaponization. There is enormous confusion in the minds of people that while some countries have done thousands of tests, how can India with limited tests go for a moratorium. After their tests, other countries produced 20,000 weapons of 70 different types. India's requirement is minimum deterrence. How many types of weapons we need decides how many tests we conduct. And the definition of minimum deterrence is that which deters our adversaries maximum. Actually, we'd planned six tests in May, but we stopped the last one as we felt we'd got the data we wanted.
Q: Some Western scientists maintain that the strength of the tests was nowhere near what was claimed.
A: What we achieved was very close to what we had predicted. The measuring of the nuclear yield depends on multiple parameters--the location and number of instruments, the geology of the area, the location of the seismic station in relation to the test site. The New Scientist took data from 125 seismic stations and their analysis closely matches ours. We measured it at 5.4 on the Richter scale, which is equivalent to a yield of 58 kilotons, plus or minus five kilotons. The New Scientist estimate is nearer 60 kilotons. Dr. Chidambaram, myself and our team reviewed the data and we're happy with our performance. After all, finally we're the developers and users.
Q: How will the U.S. sanctions and the blacklisting of a number of scientific organizations affect your work?
A: Science is global. Einstein's equation, E=mc2, has to reach everywhere. Science is a beautiful gift to humanity, we should not distort it. Science does not differentiate between multiple races. Actually, in India's case the so-called sanctions have ignited young minds. I'm witnessing it. Every day a new software or hardware product is coming out of my laboratories. No sanction can stand against ignited minds. After all, our nuclear program has faced sanctions for nearly three decades, the missile program has faced sanctions for the last one decade.
Q: Will India go ahead with its missile development program despite the sanctions?
A: India's missile program is a national program with capability for indigenous design, development and production. Originally, the Agni missile program was a technological demonstrator. But global and national security needs forced India to get into the Agni program in full swing. Today, India is a missile power. We are self reliant in our missile program--90% of our items are made in India. We do not depend on any country for any critical technology.
Q: Why is it that India and Pakistan have so much in common, yet are at each other's throats?
A: Europe fought for a hundred years. How many civil wars were there in the U.S.? It's a process. One day on the subcontinent also a transformation will take place.
Q: Do you believe the subcontinent has a common civilization?
A: It has--many languages, many religions, the cultural bonds are there. After all tomorrow's work has to be global. A Tamil poet wrote 4,000 years ago, "All the world's villages are one, all the people are relatives"--relatives, mind you, not just friends. That's the dream of Indian culture, the dream that the world will be one.