Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdul Salam, was a physicist whose work helped us understand the cosmological forces that keep our material space in order. Sadly, he was ostracised because his faith did not meet the merits of this ‘land of the pure.’ What a tragedy it was for Pakistan that the man who wanted to set up a research centre in his homeland and wore a traditional sherwani and turban to the Nobel Prize ceremony, as a mark of pride in his culture, was rejected by his own people simply because he was an ‘Ahmadi.’ Even so, Dr Salam insisted on being buried in Pakistan where, sadly, fanatics defaced even his grave with epithets.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview a promising young physicist of Pakistani origin who, too, has abandoned her land of birth to seek a life of intellectual freedom elsewhere. Dr Nergis Mavalvala is a tenured professor of physics at MIT and was recently awarded the MacArthur Fellowship — one of the highest honours in American scholarship comprising an individual prize of half a million dollars. She is the third Pakistani American to receive this honour — historian Ayesha Jalal and artist Shahzia Sikander being the other two.
Born to a Parsi family in Karachi, Dr Mavalvala fondly remembers her schooling at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi, where a Sri Lankan refugee science teacher named Ranjit Bulathsinghala was among her inspirations for pursuing a career in science. Proceeding to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she went on to do her higher studies at MIT and Caltech and is now one of the leading researchers in identifying gravitational waves that can have profound implications for our understanding of the universe. Raising her two-year-old son with her Indian American partner, she is a role model of multicultural multitasking!
Dr Mavalvala’s story shows us how science can transcend cultural barriers at multiple levels and lead to a flourishing career. Many in Pakistan continue to malign America but her story also reflects why the United States ends up being a home for so many of us who don’t want to be subjected to the tyranny of cultural exclusion. Yes, there are many problems in America, including incipient racism, but when it comes to practicing excellence in science, the country is unsurpassed in its commitment. Even with the rise of Christian fundamentalists who condemn the study of evolutionary biology and cosmology, the US department of education and university accreditation committees have resisted meddling in the curriculum by ideological zealots.
When I asked Dr Mavalvala if she would consider returning to Pakistan, she hesitated for a moment but then responded with genuine humility about the remote possibility if the opportunity arose during a sabbatical year. Let’s hope that Pakistan will welcome expatriates such as Dr Mavalvala to spend whatever time they can spare to help advance our science curriculum in higher education. Such scholars are not after some grand pay packages during sabbatical but rather an independent and facilitative higher education establishment which supports their work. Unfortunately, higher education has been acutely politicised in Pakistan and well-intentioned efforts are frequently undermined by petty bickering and turf wars which must cease. Scholars can disagree about the structure of reforms but to attract talent we will need to first address the question of academic and scientific independence which should never be impeded by theological forces.
Muslim scientists in the golden age of Iberian science were able to flourish because of such independence and their willingness to engage across religions. That tradition has been sadly lost to the dogmatic edicts of the pulpit. Scientists are afraid to speak their mind for the fear of students telling them that they are blasphemous or being labelled by the establishment as heretics or conspirators. To be a truly powerful nation, we need science at the grass-roots and not just the kind that can help us build bombs of every assortment.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2010.