Dr Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist, mathematician, and activist. He did his BSc in mathematics and electrical engineering from MIT and went on to have an MSc in Solid State Physics and a PhD in Nuclear Physics from the same institution. He has had an extensive academic career: working as a guest scientist at the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) alongside Dr Abdus Salam; professorship and research position at various Pakistani and American institutions like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Quaid-e-Azam University and the University of Maryland.
Dr Hoodbhoy has received numerous awards in recognition of his scientific research and science and educational activism, including Baker Prize, ROCASA Prize, and UNESCO Kalinga Prize. Moreover, he received an honorary doctorate of law from the University of British Columbia in 2019 for his services in promoting nuclear non-proliferation. He is currently a distinguished professor of physics and mathematics at Forman Christian College, Lahore.
Spectra sat down with Dr Hoodbhoy to discuss his ideas about scientific knowledge and the prospects of science education and science communication in Pakistan.
In the second part of the interview, Dr Hoodbhoy talks about the state of science in Pakistan. The first part of the interview can be read here.
Until the early 2000s, PTV telecast informative documentaries and programs. In fact, your own program Rastay Ilm Ke is one shining example. We don’t see those kinds of programs anymore. In your opinion, what is the reason?
Yes, those days were comparatively better. There were some fine entertainment plays and programs in PTV’s early years. Unfortunately, there was hardly any science worth talking about. The only two science documentary series – Bazm-e-Kainat (1996) and Asrar-e-Jehan (2004) – that was ever broadcast by PTV were made by me. Unfortunately, nobody else was willing to put in the time and effort or put up with the discouragement that PTV offered. The studio and editing shifts are given to me would be from midnight until morning – and it was tough! The rest of the time would be taken up by PTV’s programs on Kashmir, politics, dramas, songs and all that. Science documentaries got the lowest priority.
With the technology that existed then, it would take me about one month to make a 30-minute documentary. Moreover, it had to be done almost single-handedly. These days you can make documentaries very easily by using your own computer software, employ 3D animation software, and even a first-class camera is no problem. Phone cameras are becoming really good. It was not that simple in those days.
So why are people not making science documentaries today for any channel? I think there are several reasons. One is that there are far too many TV channels. And if you were to make a documentary program on science, it could be aired on just one channel out of a hundred. But at the time of Bazm-e-Kainat and Asrar-e-Jahan, there was only PTV. The audience didn’t have a choice, and everyone had to see it! That’s good because even 20 years later, a lot of viewers haven’t forgotten it. The other reason is that if you make a science documentary today, there will be fewer viewers. Through the internet, access to a much bigger world outside is possible. So, a lot of young people simply Google the stuff they are looking for: black holes, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics. They satisfy their curiosity from there. I still think that there is viewership for Urdu documentaries, and they should be made again. I wish somebody would do it. However, I don’t have the energy or the time for this anymore.
But there are people today who are working towards science popularization. What do you think about them?
It’s good. Of course, one should have more of that. But science doesn’t get popularized by just taking a telescope and looking at the moon or Mars — there’s not much science in that. It’s just observing something that’s already there. It doesn’t lead you into deeper principles. Engaging with young people and answering their questions is really what’s needed. Unfortunately, there are very few mentors and science teachers. Few students are interested in science as a calling. Most are interested only in salaries.
We consider the West to be more scientifically aware than us. However, we see the Flat Earth Society is quite, if not very popular in America. That brings into question whether education is the only thing we are missing. If it’s not education, then what is it that we need in order to make people more aware of science?
Well, the Flat-Earthers are considered idiots by scientifically literate people in America. Until Donald Trump came around, the scientifically illiterate had no access to high places. They do now but, given the power and legitimacy of Western science, I think this is a temporary problem only. You will never see such fools in western academia; sadly, we see them everywhere here in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s difficulty with science is much deeper and graver. To have real science, the very first thing that we have to get into people’s minds is that the world functions according to physical law and not mysterious other-worldly forces. Our training is that of sheep, and this has to change. It can be changed if kids are encouraged to asking questions and search for reasons. That’s what builds up the scientific potential of a society.
When I say scientific potential, it goes beyond science: a society that accepts the premises of science functions in a rational way and obeys the rule of law and reason.
There are only one or two scientists out of hundreds who practice both religion and science. Is there something peculiar to their way of thinking that makes them different from the rest?
It is indeed true that a majority of scientists are not religious. The scientific method they practice makes it impossible for them to accept all that comes their way. Most scientists see religion as a matter of personal choice and basically something you inherited from your parents or environment. Of course, there are some scientists who say that they do science for the glory of God. But science doesn’t borrow anything from religion.
The great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan couldn’t explain how he arrived at his astonishing mathematical discoveries; he thought that the Goddess Kali would come and put these astonishing results on his tongue and then he simply wrote them down. Abdus Salam would sometimes talk about Ilm-e-ghaeb and how the concept of Tawheed drew him towards the unification of the fundamental forces of nature. But the co-winner of the Nobel Prize is Steven Weinberg who proudly calls himself an atheist! Clearly Weinberg got his motivation from an entirely different basis. We must recognize that scientists arrive at the same result irrespective of motivation. So, religion has got nothing to do with the results of science. If somebody gets inspired by something religious, that’s fine. But the conclusions don’t depend on that.
If we compare Pakistan with Iran, we see that Iran has a stricter implementation of religion, yet they produce better mathematicians and physicists. They also have a far better education than Pakistan. What did they do differently?
That’s actually a very good question. In Persian culture, there has been a great emphasis on learning. The couple of times I have been to Iran, I’ve been very impressed by the number of bookshops over there. They have translations of English and French books into Farsi. In Pakistan, there’s hardly any reading public. Culture makes a huge difference in forming attitudes towards everything, including science.
Let’s look at Turkey. It has historically done fairly well in science. But again, you cannot compare its scientific achievements with that of Europe. The level of curiosity of the Ottoman Turks was small as compared to the Europeans. But let’s return to the Subcontinent.
The Mughal era did not spark much scientific learning. When the British came, they came at the time of the Scientific Revolution. They brought some inventions and machines that had just been invented. The Mughals showed some interest and bought a few telescopes and eyeglasses. But they never asked how they were made. They didn’t ask how the inventions work. It’s because when you had a passive mindset, you don’t really find the need to understand. You simply buy it – that’s how things are done in Dubai today! So, the Mughals looked only for trade and better ways to govern and conquer.
There was little curiosity or value given to disinterested enquiry or scholarship in the Mughal era. That remains true even today in Pakistan.
Here in Lahore, four Nobel Prize winners have lived in the city yet there is no street named after them. They are named after some shaheed or poet or whatever.
You were very close to Eqbal Ahmed. Can you share the idea of Khaldunia University with us?
Yes. Eqbal’s dream was to have a university in Pakistan with the kind of openness that one sees in American universities, and where intellectual inquiry is valued. He wanted to attract the best minds from all over the world and bring them together. He wanted Khaldunia to be a university where such academics would interact with students, inspire them, create original thinking, create analyses of society, and make the kind of citizen who will go out and transform Pakistan. He tried very hard. But in the last 3 or 4 years before his death, he had almost given up because of bureaucratic hurdles. The University Grants Commission refused to grant him a charter, without which nothing else could be made to move. Nawaz Sharif had promised him land in the 1990s. But when he was ousted and Benazir Bhutto took over, she refused to honor the previous government’s offer of land. When Nawaz Sharif returned to his second term, he didn’t like the fact that Eqbal had been critical of his administration at times. Ultimately, Eqbal gave up on Khaldunia. To this day it remains just a dream.
Could his idea of Khaldunia University have reduced the difference between madrasa and university?
I don’t think so. Eqbal’s idea of Khaldunia was very much that of the college where he taught for the last fourteen years of his life, Hampshire College. Hampshire is a unique institution known for its openness. You could say it is a product of America’s counter-culture. Its students realize that they can explore different models of self-development. However, it also aims at academic excellence and so is not completely unstructured. Eqbal enthused some of the world’s best academics – not just from the West but also from those in the Middle Eastern countries – through his network of friends and admirers. If he had succeeded, we could have had an institution without parallel in the Muslim world. But could it have survived? I don’t know.
The notion that academic freedom is a good thing is central to the success of any university.
But academic freedom is not something that our country’s establishment or most people value. In fact, it is imagined as something very dangerous and subversive.
Do you think that from 1988 to 2019, we have been able to bridge those gaps or have the chasms widened?
There is a totally different university culture now as compared to earlier times. Let me divide the period of universities: from 1947 to 2002, that’s one chunk; from 2002 till now is a separate chunk. During the first, we had very few universities and the very first one was Punjab University. When Hindus fled Lahore in 1947, hardly any good teachers remained but with time things improved. By 2000 we had around 40 or 50 universities. In some places, we had relatively good work. When I joined Islamabad University in 1973 (it was renamed Quaid-e-Azam University around 1977) it had a good department of physics. This had been founded by Professor Abdus Salam’s student, Dr Riazuddin, who died in 2013. Inspired by Salam’s example, many fine academicians had come there.
Alas, in a few years, that good start dissipated because of the usual reasons: nepotism, corruption, maladministration. Appointments and promotions followed a curious logic. In those days, you had to wait for many years to get promoted but only a few papers were needed for that. So, to become a full professor required only needed 12 papers and just two papers for assistant professor. This changed after 2002 when the newly formed HEC started dishing out massive amounts of money. They paid you to write papers. Today, even a PhD student publishes 5-10 papers, and sometimes even 20 more, during his so-called “research”. It’s mostly garbage. He, and often his supervisor, doesn’t know anything about the subject but he has all those papers. Our universities are flooded with fraud. Those who publish papers plagiarize and produce the lowest quality work. If they can’t get it published somewhere, they start their own journal.
Now that the government’s new policies have cut the budgets for HEC and universities, do you think this could lower the paper chase of paper and undo the damage it has done to the academia?
The present HEC chairman knows it well that paper mills and PhD production have actually led us nowhere. Therefore, he wants to bring change. He wants to have four-year degree programs which will equip a student with enough skills to be employable. That’s a good way of thinking. But because there’s so much rot in the system, I don’t know if he’s going to succeed. However, one does wish him luck.
In which field should Pakistan focus on applied science or theoretical science?
There is no theoretical science in Pakistan. It’s dead. Even if a few individuals do it here or there, it has no impact. So, I would say that theoretical science, particularly physics and math, barely exists in Pakistan. What’s needed now is much better teaching quality rather than so-called research. We need to hold teachers up to certain standards. At the very outset, we need to check whether they know the basics of their subject. Over 90% of physics and math teachers in this country, both at the college and university level, are absolute ignoramuses. There’s a massive wastage of resources. This will continue until we develop some mechanism to check the competence of teachers. But this cannot be done using our own internal standards because science subjects are universal. Our teachers will have to be held up to those standards instead of internally set ones. There’s no other way.