Safe space for cre­ativ­ity

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Muham­mad Hamid Za­man

NES­TLED in the western part of Cam­bridge, away from the ever-grow­ing num­bers of swarm­ing tourists, on a quiet street is a place that for the last 20-some­thing years has be­come one of the lead­ing places of in­quiry and ac­com­plish­ments in math­e­mat­ics and the­o­ret­i­cal physics. On a Cam­bridge timeline that spans nearly a mil­len­nium, 20 years is pre-in­fancy. As a mat­ter of fact, for any in­sti­tu­tion, 20 years is not enough time to get its name writ­ten in the im­pact register. Yet, the Isaac New­ton In­sti­tute (INI), through vi­sion and a fun­da­men­tal sin­gu­lar com­mit­ment to qual­ity, has done ex­actly that. It is the very place where, in 1993, Sir An­drew John Wiles an­nounced his proof for Fer­mat's last the­o­rem, one of the grand­est un­solved puzzles in math­e­mat­ics for nearly 350 years. While the proof was met with plenty of fanfare, it also gen­er­ated rig­or­ous de­bate, in­clud­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a gap by Richard Tay­lor, a young math­e­ma­ti­cian who at­tended the famed lec­ture at the INI. The proof was fur­ther re­vised and the gap was ad­dressed through col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Wiles and Richard the sub­se­quent year.

Over the last two decades, dozens of pro­grammes at the in­sti­tute have en­gaged No­bel lau­re­ates and Fields Medal­ists, young sci­en­tists and es­tab­lished lead­ers in a va­ri­ety of dis­ci­plines in pure and ap­plied math­e­mat­i­cal sciences. The list is long, il­lus­tri­ous and grow­ing, but as I have spent my first of the two weeks here at the In­sti­tute, I am not only in awe of those who spent time here, but also inspired by the free­dom to pur­sue one's bold­est ideas. There are al­most no de­mands on one's time, no ex­pec­ta­tion to work on a par­tic­u­lar pa­per, no dead­lines to meet, but only a prom­ise to pro­vide a space con­ducive to in­quiry, cre­ativ­ity and thought. De­spite its stature, the INI runs only a cou­ple of pro­grammes a year, fo­cuses on spe­cific ques­tions in a broad range of sub­jects and al­lows the re­searchers to come and go as they see fit. Some are here for a few days, oth­ers spend nearly six months. All en­gaged with a sin­gle goal, the pur­suit of knowl­edge.

Just as the brief but sig­nif­i­cant history of the in­sti­tute inspires me, it also both­ers me a great deal. Why have we in Pak­istan in par­tic­u­lar, or the de­vel­op­ing world in gen­eral, not been suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing open and safe spa­ces for cre­ativ­ity. Why are our cen­tres of ex­cel­lence about ev­ery- thing, but ex­cel­lence? The INI, while highly stim­u­lat­ing, is not a grand build­ing, does not have an en­dow­ment of bil­lions, has a mod­est staff and has had five di­rec­tors in the last 20-some­thing years. I strongly be­lieve we have all the es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents ex­cept one. We have po­ten­tial bene­fac­tors with deep pock­ets, ar­chi­tects to cre­ate open, in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing places and stu­dents in­trigued by na­ture. What we lack is the vi­sion for in­te­gra­tion, at the so­ci­etal level, of these in­gre­di­ents to pur­sue knowl­edge for the sake of knowl­edge. The de­trac­tors for cre­at­ing open, cre­ative spa­ces may point to a lack of funds, which is hardly the case if we en­gage the right peo­ple and make a case for the value of knowl­edge. Or they may say that we will not be able to cre­ate a truly in­ter­na­tional space for cre­ativ­ity. But we should ask who is stop­ping us from cre­at­ing a na­tional space? Fi­nally, there is the im­me­di­ate con­cern of na­tional se­cu­rity. I am also fully cog­nisant of the ero­sion of safe spa­ces in our so­ci­ety. The last two weeks have brought hor­rors to the fore, from Ka­sur to the of­fice of the Punjab home min­is­ter.

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