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Nurturing Genius at Home

Unconventional learning methods and a passion for science have enabled the Niazi siblings to surprise established scientists before they even graduated from high school.
by Aima Khosa

The Niazis are the ideal nuclear family. Ahmad Niazi is a pilot flying for the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Aisha Niazi, his wife, is a former speech therapist and a stay-at-home mom. They have two teenagers, Khadija and Shaheer, who are twins. On Sundays, the family goes out for brunch. The parents order a sandwich, the twins share a pizza. When the meal is over, the parents sip coffee from their cups and watch their children gobble down the molten lava cake they ordered for desert.

The family is unique – not for these mundanities – but because they all share a deep passion for learning and unlocking the secrets of the universe. Fame and accolades are just by-products of this process and of secondary importance to the family.

For a teenager who has made global headlines for surprising experienced scientists with his research on the electric honeycomb effect, Shaheer manages to hide his genius quite well. The bespectacled curly-haired student from the Lahore College of Arts and Sciences (LACAS), Johar Town, A-Level Campus, recently published a research paper in the Royal Society Open Science journal. It is based on research conducted for the 2016 edition of the International Young Physicists’ Tournament held in Russia.

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Before I discuss his research, I ask him to talk about his interest in physics.

“When we were young, my parents gave us story books which explained the concepts of physics. You know, the ones without much text and with lots of pictures. We also watched lots of documentaries. My father has great interest in physics. He buys a lot of books on the subject and reads them. So, he was the one who encouraged this interest in us, using documentaries and self-learning books and online courses. Learning became fun for us. Normally, people think that physics is a dry subject and the way it (science) is taught in schools is very boring. But we got interested because we had an environment at home conducive for learning in a way that was fun,” he says.

Although the International Young Physicists’ Tournament in Russia was not his first contest, it was the problem sets presented to his team in this competition that led him to experiments that included taking images of the motion of ions that form the honeycomb. He also managed to record the heat found on the surface of the oil. No one had done this before him.

Niazi used two electrodes – a pointed needle on top of a flat surface with a thin layer of oil on it. High voltage from the needle made ions strike the surface of the oil – like lightning on the surface of the earth – on their way to meet the ground electrode. Since the oil was a non-conductor, the ions began gathering on the surface of the oil. As the pressure rose, they created a depression to meet the ground electrode. The surface of the oil lost shape and created honeycomb-like structures as it attempted to come back to the state of equilibrium.
To prove his findings, Shaheer photographed the ion wind using a thermal camera at a laboratory at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

The pioneers of Electrohydrodynamics

The phenomenon studied by Shaheer has been known since 1997, but only a few researchers have worked on it.
Alberto T. Perez Izquierdo, a physicist at the University of Seville in Spain, is one of these researchers. He has worked extensively on Electrohydrodynamics (EHD), the science that studies the flow of liquids under electric fields. Shaheer has used Izquierdo’s work in his experiment.

In an email communication with MIT Technology Review Pakistan, Izquierdo says, “I wasn’t surprised to learn about the use of this imaging technique by Shaheer Niazi. What amazed me was the results he has managed to obtain.”

He says that the temperature difference observed by Shaheer calls for further explanation. “I didn’t expect such a temperature difference on a liquid surface. The electric current used in the experiment is very low, so the Joule heating – the effect responsible for the heating of electric wires and electric heaters – is also very low,” he says.

Izquierdo completed his doctoral research under the supervision of the late Antonio Castellanos in 1989. For his PhD thesis, he developed a numerical code to solve the EHD flow produced by injection of ions in a highly insulating liquid. During his PhD studies, Izquierdo also conducted some experimental work under the supervision of another leading physicist in the EHD field, Dr. Pierre Atten.

When Izquierdo finished his thesis, he and Castellanos started an EHD laboratory in Seville. One of the first experimental setups at the lab was inspired by Dr. Atten’s work. “I discovered the same pattern now reproduced by Niazi,” he says.

Since the convective cells observed by Izquierdo were not of uniform size, the pattern resembled the shape of a flower. “It reminded me of the rose windows typical of Gothic cathedrals, as the one we have in Seville. This is why I named the pattern ‘rose-window’,” he says.

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Izquierdo says that EHD as a general field is involved in many industrial applications, such as electrospray, liquid flow control or drop control. “I’m not aware of any specific application for rose-window instability, but the understanding of the basic mechanisms of liquid flow under electric field is of great importance for any technical development.”

Twin Geniuses

As we speak for the interview, Shaheer is perfectly comfortable sharing the spotlight with Khadija, his brilliant twin sibling, who was also his team captain at the tournament which led to the experiment.

She was in the room with Shaheer when he was setting up the experiment.

“He was running around and being annoying. He switched off the lights and the air conditioners and I yelled at him to stop annoying me,” she says a little sheepishly.

“It’s really not a surprise for me that his paper got published,” she says. “When he showed me what he had done, I knew that it was important.”

Currently the head girl at her school, Khadija ventured into the world of science much earlier than most people. She began reading material on String Theory when she was 11-years old. “I developed an interest in String Theory while reading a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace,” she says. Two years later, Khadija spoke at a panel alongside Kaku at Yalta European Strategy in Ukraine.

“My mother once suggested that I become a doctor. I thought about it and started looking for documentaries but I couldn’t find anything exciting. Then my father gave me the book by Michio Kaku. Soon, I found myself at a conference with Kaku. I was completely star struck when I ran into him at the hotel before the event.”

Khadija first made headlines when she was featured in an article by Time Magazine in October 2012. Back then, she wanted to complete a college-level online course set up by Udacity, a Silicon Valley startup, before her 12th birthday. She was on question six of the exam when she realized that she was unable to access the video material embedded in the site as the Pakistani government had shutdown access to YouTube. She posted an angry message in the forum, expressing her shock and sadness, and within a few hours, she began receiving help from a network of students enrolled in the course. The next day, she passed the exam with distinction.

As the teenagers share their experiences, I am reminded of my journey through school and wondered why I had ventured into writing over studying physics. I was reminded of the difficulty I faced in physics and chemistry and how discouraging it was to be in the classroom alongside those who were somehow excelling in the same subject. I wondered how the twins overcame that.

“We learned to study outside of the conventional system,” Shaheer says. “My father always says, read a book, watch documentaries, and then go online to find out more.”

Parenting scientists

This enthusiasm for science comes from a great deal of intelligent parenting by Aisha and Ahmad.

Aisha beams when she talks about her children. “I am very proud of them, they have more than lived up to my expectations. I told Shaheer one day that it was my dream to see him publish his research in a respected journal. He told me he would work on it and a year later, he did it!”

I ask what does it mean to be a mother of a young scientist and what techniques parents could adopt to maintain their children’s interest in science education.

“I’ve never relied on any conventional method of parenting. When they were little – as young as two-months old – I would show them colorful books and flashcards and read everything out for them. My friends used to say to me that I was wasting my time and that they wouldn’t understand what I was doing. That’s not what I believed. I think a young human mind is primed for processing information and making connections. Being a speech therapist, I thought learning a language was a very difficult task. I believed that if my children could learn a new language, they could learn anything. I’ve never seen them as too young for learning – even when they were toddlers,” she says.

When the twins were nine-months old, Aisha began teaching them phonics online. When they were nearly three-year old, they joined prep school. “Their teachers came up to me and told me that the class was learning alphabets and Khadija was able to read full sentences. The teachers said you should be very proud.”

Aisha says the children learned counting, reading, and basic math from the Internet.

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“When I took them out on drives, or to schools, I would ask them to read out loud as many posters and signs as they could. It was an ongoing process of learning – it wasn’t all grounded in books. I just wanted to keep their mind constantly engaged.”

Nonetheless, Aisha doesn’t want to claim all the credit.

“My husband played a very important role by encouraging them, very early on, to read books. They loved reading so much so that books became more important to them than toys. I remember he brought them a book on dinosaurs and one day, Shaheer came up to me and said I want to be a paleontologist. I was so surprised that he knew that word and what it meant and I understood that it was because of all the literature my husband was giving them.”

“We both had decided very early on that we would never infantilize our children. Shaheer was seven-years old when he was reading encyclopedias and that’s because we never told him these things were beyond his age.”

Ahmad, on his part, inherited his love for physics from his father, who worked as a structural engineer.

“My father also loved physics and I grew up reading his books. I was just a reader. But my kids became an advanced version of me – they are taking their interest in a practical direction. We taught them to question everything. We said if you want to question Einstein’s work, you should do it!”

The Niazis were especially enabled by the availability of interactive educational material online. “There is a series on YouTube called Eureka, it’s all physics-oriented. It gave me so much inspiration – I wish it can be dubbed in Urdu and made accessible for all children of our country.”

The parents also discussed barriers to collaboration between scientists across the globe and the limitations of the education system in Pakistan.

“I find it very unfortunate that there are no summer camps on science subjects in Pakistan,” Aisha says. “Whenever the children have gone abroad for summer camps, they have either been invited or we paid from our own pocket. Even so, after making applications and going through a grueling process, sometimes our visa applications were rejected. It is so silly! A child is going to study and he is going to pay for his education in your country, why would you deny him entry?”

Finally, I ask the family about the children’s future plans. In his excitement, Ahmad shares Shaheer’s latest genre of interest: crypto computers, but Shaheer doesn’t delve into details. “For now, we’re just looking forward to completing our A Levels,” he says, “The Nobel Prize remains the dream.”

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