Light Years Away

Light Years Away

Zahid Hussain

No one in Pakistan had heard the name of Nergis Mavalvala until last week. The Karachi-born professor of physics at MIT has become an unexpected celebrity overnight for her involvement in the detection of gravitational waves which have fulfilled Einstein’s century-old prediction proposed in his general theory of relativity. Now Nergis’s smiling face adorns the front pages of our newspapers.

The Pakistani-American astrophysicist was part of a team of hundreds of scientists who had been working on the project that picked up the sound produced by the collision of two black holes across a distance of more than a billion light years. The scientists have found what even Einstein was not sure could ever be discovered.

A monumental scientific breakthrough indeed that has opened up a new window of horizon providing greater understanding of the universe and its genesis that has always been the biggest challenge to the human imagination. With this discovery our knowledge now stretches far beyond the visual bounds of the universe. It is hard to fathom the implications of the discovery. Few here understand what all that means and even if they do, it is hard for them to accept it as it may clash with their belief about the creation of the universe.

Prof Mavalvala may have left Pakistan a long time ago after finishing her schooling at Karachi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary. Nevertheless, her roots in Karachi make most of us feel proud of her. The euphoria over her contribution in such a landmark scientific breakthrough is understandable though she owes little to this country for her achievement.

It has certainly been a pleasant surprise as we rarely own our heroes who do not rise too often. One hopes it is not just a fleeting moment before the zealots and conspiracy theorists —never in short supply in this country — are out questioning the religious veracity of the discovery. We are an unfortunate nation where the value of scientific knowledge is scarce and ignorance is bliss.

Many years ago, in 1979, another Pakistani scientist, Dr Abdus Salam, won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his landmark work on what is described as the ‘God particle’. He was the first Pakistani Nobel laureate. But one of the greatest scientists of his age was disowned by his own country because of his Ahmadi faith.

Dr Salam was treated as a pariah when he returned to the country after receiving the Nobel Prize. There was no one from the government or even from the public to receive him. He could not even give lectures at Pakistani universities because of the threat from the right-wing Islamic parties.

He was not even spared in death. The epitaph on his gravestone was defaced and the word ‘Muslim’ was removed on the instructions of the local magistrate. His name was not there in school textbooks. While he was so treated in his own country, the world held him in the highest esteem.

Dr Salam’s biggest dream was to establish an international research centre in Pakistan. But after failing to get the government’s support he established in Trieste, Italy, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. The name was later changed to the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Perhaps if Dr Salam had been welcomed and embraced in his own country, a completely different status would have been accorded to the sciences in Pakistan. We now seem to be light years away from progress in the knowledge of science.

It is not just about science and scientists; achievers in other fields are also being haunted by the zealots and the so-called champions of patriotism. Take the example of Malala Yousafzai, the second Pakistani and youngest Nobel laureate, who is also unable to return to her homeland because of grave threats to her life. Despite her being an international icon the young woman has been castigated by the so-called champions of religion.

While we cheered the historic scientific discovery that involved a Pakistani-born American scientist, a TV talk show host castigated the young education campaigner, declaring her a ‘foreign agent’. Frothing and fuming, the participants even accused her of blasphemy citing passages from her book I Am Malala.

What is most shocking is that these sick minds seem to have influenced a large number of Pakistanis who are susceptible to conspiracy theories. Even many highly educated people here tend to believe in a conspiracy behind Malala’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One of our brightest stars may never be able to return to the country at least in the near future.

There may be thousands of bright Pakistanis expats excelling in their respective fields across the world. Dr Mavalvala is certainly one of the brightest. But will they ever be able to return to their homeland? One has serious doubts about it. People like Dr Salam are not born every day. But what could be more tragic that he was not even allowed to serve his country because of his faith?

Prof Mavalvala is certainly a source of inspiration for young Pakistanis to go into the field of science and research. But there is a need for creating an atmosphere for creative learning.

After all, the inquiring mind is shaped in the early years of development. But rather than being nurtured and allowed to go on to produce research leading to discovery, our flawed educational system is teaching children to be numb to the truth. An important turning point can be deliberate efforts to improve the teaching of science in our public schools and colleges and the general state of our universities.

It is heartening that Prof Mavalvala has inspired the prime minister into ordering the Ministry of Science and Technology to devise a framework to facilitate Pakistani scientists in their pursuits. One hopes that this does not turn out to be one of those instructions that are never implemented.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2016

 Courtesy: Dawn News

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