Light years away

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - 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 years away from progress in 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 so­called 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. light

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