Prediction, precision & passionate pursuit

The story of gravitational waves is, the story of men and women such as Pakistan-born Nergis Mavalvala


Muhammad Hamid Zaman February 15, 2016
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

In general, the news these days is not particularly heartwarming. Reading the front page of the paper in general, and turning on the TV in particular is not what one would consider a cure for high blood pressure and depression. Yet, last week changed this routine of doom and gloom to something that gave me goosebumps with excitement. It is very rare for the major newspapers and news outlets of the world, from Australia to America, to make a scientific breakthrough as their main headline. Yet, that is exactly what happened. The announcement made on the morning of February 11 changed the way we think about our universe. The experimental studies proving the existence of gravitational waves opens up new possibilities to understand the universe, the big bang theory and countless other phenomena.

Despite the fact that this is far from my own work and research, my sense of excitement was palpable. The story of this amazing discovery made me hopeful for the future. The story of gravitational waves is, in fact, a story of imagination, inquiry and dogged pursuit. It’s a story of a bold scientist, unbothered by dogma, who over a hundred years ago thought, and thought hard, and made predictions, well before we could even conceive the very nature of the instruments that would validate his prediction. Einstein is very much a hero of this story, a visionary, but he is not the only one. It is also a story of a team of scientists, over decades, who were intrigued enough by the predictions made decades ago to build some of the most precise instruments ever built. It is a story of what makes humans look for events that happen over a billion light years away. It is also a tale of men and women, among them Pakistan-born Nergis Mavalvala, coming together to ask some of the most fundamental questions about our own universe, and having the passion and perseverance to pursue these hard questions, even at a time when our collective focus is only on the immediate.

The discovery of gravitational waves is not just a story of commitment by scientists, but also of organisations that support them, even in the face of tremendous internal and external pressure. The National Science Foundation (NSF) continued to support this work, for nearly 40 years, even when there was deep scepticism, unprecedented budget cuts and mounting criticism of the way NSF was spending its money. To change the very foundations of our knowledge does not just take leadership in the lab, it also requires visionary leadership in halls of scientific administration and the corridors of power. The long list of pioneers are thus not just those who did the experiments, built the instruments and analysed the faint sounds coming from the deep corners of the universe, it also includes those who enabled these scientists to do their jobs.

As we Pakistanis reflect upon this breakthrough of the century, we should recognise that investments in science should not be measured by immediate returns. It should make us, and those setting the policies, think about what it means to do research.  But perhaps most importantly, we should also think about how we can use these rare moments to energise our students and citizens about inquiry, research and pursuit of excellence, even in the face of mounting negativity that engulfs us all.

Lately, social media in the country has been abuzz by a picture of a beautiful young girl, who in her crisp uniform is going to school, on a bicycle with her father. The bicycle is cramped, but the father has moved up, just a little bit to give his daughter a bit more writing space. The image of commitment, both on the part of the girl and her father, is etched on my mind, and that of many of my friends, who find tremendous hope in this little girl. She and her father, and countless others all around the country, remain the core reason for my hope in a better future. They deserve to be commended for their commitment. The commitment and pursuit of excellence, as they are showing, can change the way we look at our whole universe.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (4)

Student | 4 years ago | Reply | Recommend He moved up to give her a bit more "writing space"? Really? Did no one edit this pointless submission before publishing it?
Ali | 4 years ago | Reply | Recommend Prior to being elected the Sharif brothers promised 4% of GDP would go on education as opposed the measly 2% now. Has anyone actually bothered to ask why more money hasn't been allocated for this vital area? Instead the only policies I see them implementing when it comes to education is free laptops and a few Danish schools (some of which have already crumbled and the Sharif tenure isn't even over yet) Till we tax the elite more and invest the proceeds into education we are doomed to staying where we are.
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