Sending Pakistan to Mars

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy

When spacecraft Mangalyaan successfully entered the Martian orbit in late September after a 10-month journey, India erupted in joy. Costing more than an F-16 but less than a Rafale, Mangalyaan’s meticulous planning and execution established India as a space-faring country. Although Indians had falsely celebrated their five nuclear tests of 1998 — which were based upon well-known physics of the 1940s — the Mars mission is a true accomplishment.

Pakistanis may well ask: can we do it too? What will it take? Seen in the proper spirit, India’s foray into the solar system could be Pakistan’s sputnik moment — an opportunity to reflect upon what’s important. Let’s see how India did it: First, space travel is all about science and India’s young ones are a huge reservoir of enthusiasm for science. Surveys show that 12-16 year olds practically worship Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, are fascinated by black holes and Schrödinger cats, and most want a career in science. They see more prestige in this than becoming doctors, lawyers, financial managers, or army officers. Although most eventually settle for more conventional professions, this eagerness leads India’s very best students towards science.

Ten years ago, I had personally experienced this youthful enthusiasm during a four-week lecture tour across seven Indian cities that took me to all sorts of schools, colleges, and universities. In places, hundreds turned up for my talks on scientific subjects. Every city had at least one much-visited science museum, and sometimes two or three. Student scientific societies, which appeared active, were everywhere.

How can we Pakistanis get to our bit of the solar system? Or establish a presence in the world of science?

Second, Indian universities have created the necessary backbone for advanced scientific projects. University quality goes from moderately bad to very good, with the median lying around fair. Many mediocre ones produce rotten science PhDs and publications prodigiously, suffocating growth. On the positive side, research in the theoretical sciences carried out in India’s very best universities — as well as institutes such as TIFR and IMSC — compares favourably with that in the world’s top universities.

Rigorous entry standards for students, and a careful selection of faculty, have been important ingredients for this relative success. National examinations for entrance into the Indian Institutes of Technology would make the best students anywhere in the world sweat.

Third, India values — nay, venerates — its top mathematicians and scientists. There is scarcely an Indian I’ve met who doesn’t know the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the child prodigy from Madras who astonished the world of high mathematics but tragically died at the age of 32. India is dotted with institutes bearing such names as S.N. Bose, C.V. Raman, M. Saha, and Homi Bhabha.

Back to space: a developing country looking at faraway Mars can take either the Arab way or the Chinese-Indian way.

The first needs a ticket. Petrodollars paid for Prince Salman ibn Saud, the first Arab in space, and put him aloft an American space shuttle in 1985. Recently the UAE announced plans for a Mars mission within 18 years. Just as cash and foreign experts built Dubai and its mega-sized airport, they will also put sheikhs on planets.

But how can we cash-strapped Pakistanis get to our bit of the solar system? Or establish a presence — which we so far lack — in the world of science? The process will be slow, but here is how to do it.

First, create enthusiasm in our young people for science. Space exploration is only a part of the larger whole. Instead of TV channels saturated with dharna news and random political “experts”, have good educational programmes. Standards of English in Pakistan must improve; they have fallen so low that English-language TV channels no longer exist. Sadly, the world of science is closed to those who can only read or understand Urdu.

Second, we must re-educate ourselves to know the difference between science and “cargo science”. This phrase, borrowed from anthropology, was introduced by the physicist Richard Feynman during his 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology.

Feynman said: “In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During [the Second World War] they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

We must stop teaching a kind of science in Pakistani schools which is science only in name but which bypasses its essence — evidence and reasoning. Students experience mathematics as a bunch of cookbook prescriptions, physics and chemistry are mountains of formulae, and experimental science has been almost totally banished.

Our universities need even more drastic reform. Desperate to show evidence of improvement, government organisations such as the Higher Education Commission and Pakistan Council for Science and Technology have institutionalised a reward system that has led to armies of cargo PhDs — with wooden pieces sticking out of their heads — as well as mountains of cargo publications. Serious de-weeding is needed else academic fakes will crowd out the few genuine academic scientists around.

Third, and last, individual scientific achievement must be recognised while narrow prejudices, both religious and ethnic, must be firmly rejected. India has had many, but Pakistan has had only one great scientist — Abdus Salam. His tragic marginalisation must be reversed. This will be a strong signal that the country is finally prepared to move into the future.


Written by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2014. Read it here in Urdu.

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