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Bottom of the class

By Irfan Husain

It would take a person without a soul to be blind to the beauty of the images sent back from Saturn by the Cassini mission.

The planet’s rings, first discovered by Galileo in 1610, have fascinated mankind ever since. Huygens, a Dutch astronomer, made more detailed observations in 1655, but it was Cassini who, in 1675, determined that Saturn’s main ring was actually made of three rings that were composed of small pieces of ice.

After a journey of two billion miles that took seven years, the Nasa spacecraft Cassini spent 13 years circling the planet and many of its 62 moons. The European probe Huygens that it released over Titan has sent amazing photographs of an orange moon where rivers of methane have sculpted the inhospitable surface. But it was Enceladus that provided the biggest surprise with its plumes of water shooting into space. Together with the molecules of carbon-based substances detected by Cassini, the moon would appear to have the components for life, no matter how basic.

As I have watched the unfolding of this amazing mission and its end, I have been struck by the absence of contribution from Muslim states in the exploration of our solar system, or, indeed, in any serious study of the cosmos. Many Muslim scientists have been part of this effort to enhance our understanding of the universe, but they have done so in the West.

Some Muslim countries like Pakistan have missile programmes, but these have specifically military goals. True, the Russian and American initiatives to break gravity’s shackles originated in the Cold War, and both owe a debt of gratitude to the German development of V2 military rockets. But both spend billions on pure research where the object is to satisfy human curiosity.

The big questions of how and why are not addressed.

And here’s an odd thing: Saudi Arabia and Russia both have large GDPs. And yet all the kingdom seems to spend its cash — apart from catering to the whims of its thousands of freeloading princelings — is on buying weapons that it uses to devastate a dirt poor country like Yemen.

Russia, on the other hand, is a major player in scientific research across a wide range of disciplines. From psychology to particle physics, its scientists are constantly pushing the frontiers of knowledge. India has launched space missions to the moon and to Mars. China has sent astronauts into space, apart from landing a rover on the moon. It is now planning a mission to Mars.

True, most Muslim countries are too poor to undertake ground-breaking research. Even the rich ones would rather squander their natural resources in gambling casinos and on luxury jets than on science. So while they happily consume products of foreign technology, they contribute nothing to the sum total of human knowledge.

But money aside, why don’t our schools instil a sense of curiosity and wonder into our students? Turkey has just removed the teaching of Darwinian evolution from the school curriculum. Thus, at a stroke, Erdogan has condemned a generation of young Turks to ignorance about how life evolved on our planet. But here, he’s in good company: Imran Khan once dismissed Darwin’s theory as ‘half-baked’.

When our leaders display such ignorance about scientific evidence, how can we expect our children to excel in science? In several columns here, Pervez Hoodbhoy has alerted us to the dangers of issuing degrees at the highest academic level to postgraduate students who have not earned them by professors and institutions who seek to boost numbers rather than quality. These same undeserving PhDs then go on to teach others. This vision of growing mediocrity is depressing beyond measure.

Small wonder, then, that the combined output of scientific papers produced by Muslim countries is a tiny fraction of Israel’s. We are proud of the achievements of Muslim scientists who made a huge contribution in the mediaeval era. Since then, however, the torch of scientific inquiry has passed to the West.

So why have we lagged so far behind? The fact that our sole Nobel Prize winner in physics, Prof Abdus Salam, had to live and work abroad speaks volumes for the hospitality of our soil to scientists. He wasn’t even allowed to speak at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University by Jamiat thugs.

Also, when children are taught that the universe and all it contains are the creations of an omnipotent deity, then there is little motivation to explore and experiment. The big questions of how and why are not addressed as it would be close to blasphemy to probe into the way matter was formed, and life evolved.

But finally, as Pervez Hoodbhoy has argued, there is no ‘Muslim science’ or ‘Western science’; there is only scientific truth arrived at through informed theorising and rigorous experimentation. Until we grasp and internalise this, we will stay at the bottom of the class.


Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2017

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