Global Editions

Popularizing Science: One Mela at a Time

by Umair Rasheed

Dr Sabieh Anwar is an experimental physicist with a tenure-track teaching position at Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS). He divides his time between teaching undergraduate courses and researching at his laboratory on the interaction between laser light and the spin of electrons, a relatively new field in quantum physics known as spintronics.

As a co-founder of Khwarizmi Science Society, Dr Sabieh Anwar played an instrumental role in starting an annual science festival in Lahore in 2017. The second edition of the festival took place in January this year, bringing together students and researchers from education institutions and professional associations across the country as well as from abroad. The idea behind the festival is to popularize science by presenting natural phenomena in an interesting way, particularly to school-age children. MIT Technology Review Pakistan sat with Dr Anwar to get his insights on theoretical physics, its significance to humanity’s present and future, and the state of the field in Pakistan.

How has physics transformed humans’ relationship with nature over time?
Noted physicist Freeman Dyson famously categorized physicists in two types. He said there are birds of physics who take a panoramic view of things like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Schrodinger; and there are frogs who go into minute details by conducting experiments at their labs.

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Over the previous century, two major theoretical breakthroughs have opened the domains of quantum mechanics and general relativity for further research. The former has allowed us to study particles at atomic and subatomic levels, and the latter has expanded our horizons to the whole universe. In between these two domains lies our everyday physics whose application dates back to medieval ages, well before the Greek philosophers. Machines built in those times in agriculture and in architecture, to quote just two fields, were based on the principles of physics. Even if those principles were not articulated in the form of theories back then, those applying them were very much conscious of their existence.

With the scientific revolution of the modern era, however, the way we look at the universe has transformed. We do so in terms and explanations provided by science, using mathematical language. We can theorize different processes in the universe to the extent that we have been able to predict phenomena that still haven’t come to us through our sensory perceptions.

What are some of the key issues at the forefront of research in physics today?
I think there are three research areas that lie on the frontiers of physics today.

Firstly, a major chunk of research happening in physics is about dark matter and dark energy. Based on our existing knowledge of the universe, we know that it is expanding and it is doing so at such a speed that the known part of the universe can be no more than a mere four percent of its actual size. The rest is dark matter and dark energy, and we still don’t know anything about it.

The second research area on the frontiers is related to materials whose properties have yet to be demystified. Magnets once used to be such a material since we knew that they attracted metals towards them but we didn’t know why. That is no longer the case, but there are other materials, developed in laboratories after rigorous research, whose full range of properties have yet to be explained. Take superconductors for example. They don’t get hot when electricity passes through them, meaning that there will be no cost of electricity if all our generation and transmission infrastructure can be converted to superconductors. For now, its cost remains prohibitive.

The final frontier is at the interface of physics and biology in the field of neurology and human consciousness. Can you believe that we know more about our Sun and Moon than we do about our brains? Physics and quantum mechanics can expand our understanding of neurological processes that underlie phenomena like our memory, dreams, and conscious and subconscious states.

Work on these frontiers is happening at a global level, primarily at leading universities in the U.S. and Europe. How does this work manifest differently in our part of the globe?
I think you’re asking if science is subservient to the global political and economic circumstances. Conceded that we, here in Pakistan, have some specific issues like poor state of municipal services and public health and sanitation infrastructure that are tied to our dependent position in the global political economy, but it is important to bear in mind that scientists are simultaneously universal and national citizens.

As universal citizens, scientists are part of a global community whose research priorities are shaped by the academic discipline itself, regardless of political, economic, and socio-cultural disparities. But we also have to use our universalist perspective and knowledge to help tackle local issues. Think globally and act locally, if you will. For instance, we still have diseases like hepatitis and dysentery that are widespread and need to be tackled. In terms of scale, cancer is not as big a problem here as these diseases.

How do you assess the landscape of science education and research in Pakistan?
In my two decades spent studying, teaching, and researching as an experimental physicist, I have witnessed a positive change in the way the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has conducted itself. I look at it this way: if soil doesn’t have the requisite nutrients, it cannot benefit much from rain water. Our education system was like such soil by the time the HEC was set up at the federal level. It’s funding allowed us to send many students for advanced degrees at western universities. Many have since returned and are now working in academic institutions across the country, and they are being paid well as well.

Our shortcoming right now is in science education at the school level. Even if our students acquire PhDs from abroad, their knowledge of fundamentals still remains undeveloped to the extent that most of them simply lack the requisite level of intellectual curiosity to ask the right kind of questions in their research. Transforming science education at the school level must be taken up by the government. No one in the private sector can do this.

What will be the contours of reforms in the curricula of science at the school level? How can science be made interesting and curious for school-age students?
Our laboratories are dead. They need to be revived. The way I see it, we have to create laboratories as hubs of knowledge. Buildings and infrastructure alone won’t be enough. Such laboratories at school-level should be open to the community so that they can serve as science museums where families can come for recreation and education of children.

Secondly, let us face it. Science teachers at our schools simply don’t take any interest in their jobs. The perception among them and in society is that school teaching is for underachievers. Their situation needs to be improved with better pays and service structures that incentivize performance. We will have to take politics out of governance of schools education. Hirings and firings should be based on an objectively verified criteria.

Finally, technology’s role has to be kept in its rightful place. It is not that magic wand that can transform human mind automatically. Human mind has its own rhythm, it does not work mechanically. Different aspects come together in the learning process. We take inspiration from teachers to accomplish more and to imbibe socio-cultural values that enhance our curiosity for learning. These aspects cannot be covered through robots and Artificial Intelligence. Don’t take me to be a luddite. I’m saying technology can supplement our teaching methods, but the key to reforming the system lies in how we manage our resources and introduce and nurture innovative learning techniques.

We can learn a few lessons from one of our eastern neighbours. Iranians have introduced some of these reforms at the school level. They have made maths and science education interesting for children, since it’s taught in Persian and with innovative methods.

Several institutions exist at the federal level to promote research in natural sciences, including physics. What have been their contributions to the field in the country?
We have numerous institutions set up in the country for very specific tasks but unfortunately none of these has delivered on those tasks. Simply put, we haven’t developed the requisite human resources. Take the Thar coal project for example. Dr Samar Mubarakmand is a very knowledgeable nuclear physicist but coal mining is not his expertise, and yet he is leading the project. There has been a lot of brouhaha about Saindak copper mines in Balochistan, but we don’t have a single expert in metallurgy who can work on such a project.

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Earlier some of our federal-level institutes did deliver. Nayab, an institute for agricultural research in Faisalabad, had introduced new wheat grain varieties that enabled us to improve food security.

Granted that our major achievement to date has been in a very destructive use of nuclear technology, but we also have organizations like Inmol and Nuri Hospital that can pioneer work on peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

Workshops maintained by Pakistan Railways, Pakistan International Airlines, and Steel Mills were once world standard organizations. Now we are importing metro trains, which is well and good, but we don’t have people with skills needed to look after maintenance of these trains. We simply haven’t spent enough on education to produce enough human resources for these institutions.

Did the HEC not develop a blueprint for sending scholars abroad in coordination with other decision making bodies in Islamabad?
Regarding HEC, it was welcomed initially purely on grounds that some initiative had finally been taken to promote higher education. When we were developing our nuclear programme, people were sent abroad to specialize in particular fields needed for development of nuclear technology. With HEC, it was different. It did not send scholars abroad for higher studies based on a blueprint for socio-economic development in the country. To be fair, the commission did not have academics or visionaries running it. It was in control of bureaucrats. Well, Dr Attaur Rahman was there but I don’t know why didn’t he pay much attention to this aspect.

What did happen because of HEC’s interventions was social engineering since people who would not have otherwise been able to afford higher education were given scholarships paying for their studies at leading universities abroad. Not all of them have returned to benefit the communities from which they came, but we still have generated a pool of human resources whose skills can be channelized if our institutions and those leading them have the will and the vision to do so.

Are there any forums available for the science faculty at various universities in Pakistan to get together, brainstorm, and provide feedback on education policy to the commission and other decision making bodies?
There are no pressure or lobbying groups of physics, or of any other sciences for that matter, and these forums are needed badly. We have informal networks of faculty members, but there are no formal associations that can provide informed input to decision makers.

The Center for Physics in Islamabad can serve as one such forum. Its founder, Dr Riazuddin, was truly a visionary. He laid the foundation for the center as a hub for physics education and research in the country. But soon after him, the center went into the control of those looking after strategic defence organizations in the country. Its scope and access got restricted, and it became just another public sector institution in the country. National Institution for Laser and Optics met the same fate.

What is that one sector in the country, in your opinion, that needs immediate attention in terms of scientific advancement?
That would be the health sector. We don’t have home grown technicians to repair even an ECG machine. We have to call experts from Philips to repair X-ray machines at our hospitals.

There is no excuse why we still haven’t been able to manufacture any of the machines that are used widely in the health sector. To be sure, that is way easier than some of the more difficult tasks that we have accomplished already. It was a lot more difficult to build nuclear weapons. If we have done that, we can certainly make advances in the health sector as well. All we need is a little investment of time and resources.

The lesson nuclear energy should teach us is: if political will and public support are present, there are no financial constraints, and scientists are in charge of their projects, there is no goal that cannot be achieved. This attitude needs to be replicated in all other public-sector organizations.


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