Safe space for creativity
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.