In conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson of Pakistan

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In a time when Pakistan is experiencing a brain drain Dr. Salman Hameed is the hero we need probably not the one we deserve (*cough* dark knight reference) Charles Taylor Chair, associate professor of integrated science & humanities in the school of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, director of Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies. Why are we telling you all this? Because we want to show you why Dr. Salman deserves the recognition of Pakistan. Despite being a reputed Professor and having an already busy life Dr. Salman takes time out of his schedule, makes videos about Astronomy in Urdu at Hampshire College, visits Pakistan and gives talks about Astronomy. He is spreading whatever he knows to any of us who are willing to listen. A man who is going out of his way to give to the thriving scientific community of Pakistan.

I know most of you would be wondering why we called him the Neil deGrasse Tyson of Pakistan.The answer is pretty simple, both of them have a lot of similarities according to us. Both of them are related with astronomy although Neil is an Astrophysicist while Dr. Salman is an Astronomer. Both of them believe in sharing what they know (mostly through social media platforms) for example Neil deGrasse Tyson is very active on twitter and hosts a science podcast called StarTalk while Dr. Salman writes a blog called Irtiqa and is the host of science vlog Science ka Adda.

Now let’s tell you guys about the interview…

We were lucky enough to get an interview of Dr. Salman, the answers he gave were exceptional. He spoke very passionately and his voice reflected the passion he has for astronomy. The questions and answers of the interview were as follow:

Q. We were just joking that you might be the Neil deGrasse Tyson of Pakistan. What would you say to that?

A. Well first, I’m flattered and I don’t think I’m at that level at all but second, if you do want to compare me, I would rather be compared with Carl Sagan. The reason is that I think their is a difference between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m not saying that I’m like Sagan but I aspire to the things that Sagan was doing.The difference between Tyson and Sagan is that; Sagan brought in culture and society in his communication of science while Tyson is I think a very good communicator of science but I think Carl Sagan was a communicator of something like science’s place in the society. I do take as a distinction and so for me, if I want to aspire somebody, I would rather think about how science affects people and how people affect science which Sagan did more than Tyson.

Q. Who is your inspiration from the world of Science?

A. Carl Sagan.

Q. What is Astronomy through the lens of Salman Hameed?

A. Well that’s a really hard question, it depends upon which lens; which telescope we are using. My research part was about studying galaxies and I worked on how stars form in the galaxy. In that context; through that lens, I would think that any image of a galaxy or something that is just absolutely amazing like Hubble deep field, a picture of Pluto or Saturn and all these pictures – in astronomy you have to really imagine trying to be there, that’s what I find the most interesting thing when I think about Astronomy. Let me give you an example, When I started getting into astronomy, One of the books that I read (back in the 1980’s) was called “Black Holes, Quasars and the Universe”. I would be reading it in Karachi and it was talking about Quasar, now Quasars are central parts of galaxies and they have Black holes, Big Black Holes powering these galaxies and they have clouds around them; these are not like Karachi’s clouds but they are Hydrogen clouds. I was so fascinated by thinking about them, because in this book it talked about what the central Black Hole is doing, how its light is coming out and how it hits some of these clouds at some points, what do you see when it doesn’t hit, what do you see when it does. So I remember when I would be reading this book, I would look up at the clouds in the sky and I would imagine that actually (while I am here in Karachi) when I am looking up at the sky those are the clouds that are around Quasar. I know there is no connection at all but Imagining that, all these astronomical things are so big, so far away, everything is just so incredible compared to anything else on earth, it makes it really exciting. What would it be really like if you are seeing a central black hole that powers a Quasar – you can not really see that but you can imagine that. So astronomy through my lenses; it would be a more general thing, trying to imagine yourself being there among all of those astronomical phenomena that you read about and see pictures of. Just thinking about them gives me chills.

 

Q. We recently heard a podcast where you were criticizing Star Wars of being scientifically inaccurate (which we agree with) so, we wanted to ask you that what, according to you, is the most accurate Sci-Fi movie of all time?

A. It’s a tricky question… “Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey”; it’s a great movie but is it scientifically accurate? Well… it’s speculative and the whole premise is speculative so I would say its a very accurate film within the premise of what assumptions it is making. Other than that (and its my own bias) its “Contact”. Contact was written by Carl Sagan so when there are things in there that are presented or when there are things that may appear to be inaccurate, Actually, there is a very good reason why he is putting them there and he would actually explain that for example: Jodie Foster has headphones on and she doesn’t search for millions of channels with the headphones but there is a little dialogue in it which says that somebody might, nobody does that anymore like you do it. So what is inaccurate about it? Well the likelihood that the signal comes to this one channel that she is listening out from a million of channels; its pretty much zero but in the movie for dramatic purposes it’s that channel she is listening to that the headphones go on to. So it’s accurate but unlikely, there is a reason why they are doing things like this which is the fact that they are making a movie and not a documentary.

 

Q. Why does Pakistan lag behind in Scientific development? and What do you think is an essential ingredient for the development of scientific thought in a certain society which is non-existent in Pakistani society.

A. There are many many different reasons and there are complex reasons, our own history in terms of colonial context, our own infrastructure, it takes a long time for institutions to develop and I think there hasn’t been enough thought. I don’t want to say that simply investment could resolve the issue, you can actually put in a lot of money (which the government did few years ago) in our education but it’s not just the question of money, It’s a question of how you invest the money and it has to be a long term investment with the thought of building a scientific culture but then there is a chicken and egg problem because you need a lot people to actually be peer who are concerned with that, to create that system. There are a lot of people here; sometimes their voices are not heard and other times the government makes short-term decisions . So what can be done? I think, I don’t have the answers other then cliched answers; like we should create a scientific society, but the question is how? I think, I would go with what we can do and what we can do is at an individual level. Critical thinking is necessary, not just for science, but also for leading your life. So I would say there are two ways to go about and do that. One; Challenge when things are wrong but also be respectful of people who are actually claiming those things wrong because if the goal is to have a communication, if you want people to change their minds, and be ready to change your own mind, in both of those cases it’s really important that you respect the person that you are having conversation with even though you know that the person is completely wrong. But ultimately I think it’s place like these (t2f cafe) or others where you engage with the public, with the schools, colleges; their is a Lahore Astronomical Society person here, their is Karachi Astronomical Society person here; they take telescope to schools and colleges to show that and i think those are some of the things that can be done at a smaller level. Development of amateur astronomers is actually a case in study, there used to be no astronomers here but now there are actually thriving societies at least in Karachi, I say thriving because we are talking about hundreds of people who go to observing, they have their telescopes and things like that. I’m pretty sure that in a few years we will start getting more professional astronomers as well, so this is one little case for optimism.

 

Q. We mostly write for youth so what message would you give to the aspiring Astronomers?

A. READ AND BE CURIOUS.

 

Q. What was your secret of success when you were pursuing Science?

A. To have a view that you don’t know anything and that you are just starting up. I think the problem comes in, when you think you know because that is when you don’t realize that you were (or could be) wrong. So I think, if you have it in your mind that you don’t know then you’re very careful in making proclamations and you are a little unguarded, you have the desire to read everything that you can, because you know that you don’t know. In that context it again goes back to READ, READ A LOT. I think that is the key thing.

Q. What should we as Pakistanis do for the promotion and development of science?

A. Just talk about the spectacular, wonderful things about the universe, if you read something share it. Be excited yourself; If you are excited yourself you are going to explain that to others because you won’t be able to keep it to yourself. If you are excited about science then you’re going to communicate it to others. It’s about you; You read and you get excited about things.

Q. We see that in Science ka Adda majority of the videos are related to Astronomy. Do you hope to expand its scope?

A. Not immediately because that is easier for me to do and I’m the only one doing it.

Q. Can Science ka Adda be a platform for other people who want to do the same thing as you in their respective fields?

A. Yes, but right now Science ka Adda is still in its early stages so we are talking about that kind of expansion after a while because it takes a long time for something to establish. We are right now trying to establish it and so in the future, it’s absolutely a possibility.

In the End:

I would like to mention that this blog post is a way to appreciate what Dr. Salman do. He is an inspiration to us all. I have no doubt that there are many people like him out there who work in the shadows. It is a privilege to have people like him in Pakistan.

 

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