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Inside the life of Pakistan’s first female string theorist

Updated December 02, 2016

Tasneem Zehra Husain, Pakistan’s first female string theorist at the mere age of 26, recently published her new book Only the Longest Threads, which fictionalises major breakthroughs in physics through the minds of the people who lived in those periods of discovery, reports the MIT Technology Review Pakistan.

Husain is an eminent scientist, writer and educator who obtained her bachelor of science in mathematics and physics from Kinnaird College and a masters degree in physics from the Quaid-i-Azam University.

She was awarded a scholarship by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) to study in the field of High-Energy Physics in Trieste, Italy. Husain obtained her PhD in theoretical physics from Stockholm University, and then went on to do her post-doctoral research at Harvard University. While still a post-doc, she helped found the Lahore University of Managment Sciences (LUMS) School of Science and Engineering in Lahore, where she later taught as a faculty member.

Husain has represented Pakistan at the meeting of nobel laureates in Lindau, Germany. She has written extensively for several magazines and newspapers, including the award winning blog.

Tasneem Zehra Husain sat down with MIT Technology Review Pakistan to talk about her life, research and her aspirations for the field of theoretical Physics in the country, here is what she had to say.

A childhood surrounded by love, laughter and books

My parents were very supportive and involved in their children’s upbringing. My father is very hands-on so he would get involved in projects with us. My mother read to us since before we could even speak.

Growing up in the 80’s in Pakistan, there weren’t a lot of bookstores. There were maybe three or four like Anees book store or Iqbal book corner. They didn’t have a range of interesting things to read; only textbooks or classics were available. However, my parent’s had an extensive personal library of books at home and later my mother started the Alif Laila lending library when my brother and I were only one or two years old, so we grew up with books all around us.

Our parents would have to frequently bring home books to catalogue, so we saw them all the time and everywhere. We were encouraged to read voraciously and I think that was the main turning point for all of us.

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An Unconventional Education

I really liked school and I was perfectly happy there but it got to the point where I felt like the curriculum was dragging a little. I didn’t feel challenged by the pace. I could also give you an example of how unconventional my parents were comfortable being. When I was in class 7, I sat my father down and told him that I was being bored in school and it just wasn’t interesting any more. So my father says,”Why don’t you give your O-levels then? Speed it up and give it on your own.

I did exactly that. I took a year to prepare and sat for the exams privately. I worked through the syllabus at home by myself. I did have the occasional help. Once in awhile, one of my parent’s friends would offer to answer any questions I had, but that was it.

I ended up giving my O-Levels at the age of 13 and my A-level examinations at the age of 15.

The whole experience taught me a few skills that were very useful later on in graduate school, and in establishing my career. It taught me to do things at my own pace, set my own goals, have the discipline of working on my own and not depend so much on a formal structure at a very early age. You generally don’t learn these things so young, so it turned out pretty well for me.

Looking back, I’m not sure what I would have done in my parent’s place.

A Budding Interest in Science

My parents weren’t involved in the sciences. They both had a humanities background. My father was an economist and my mother got her degrees in Literature and History, and then she worked in education with children from low-income households. But all of their children went on to have degrees or careers in the sciences. So I didn’t really have any mentor at home. It’s just that my parents were open minded and encouraged us to follow our own curiosity and see wherever it takes us.

I became interested in science at a early age. When I was seven or eight years old, I was always curious about how things work and liked the logic of math because of the way it flows. Later on, when I had the words to express my interests, I could frame it better and say that I like theoretical Physics more. And the more I read about the theory, I realised that these were the fundamental questions that interested me.

I like gadgets and technology but my curiosity was never that I wanted to take something apart and find out what happens under the hood. I always wanted to know more about the fundamental questions of nature: why does something work a certain way, why does a theory work, what are the mathematical mechanics of the theory.

It’s similar to being interested in brainteasers or crossword puzzles. If I come across something like that half done, I want to stop in my track and figure out why or what? That same kind of instinct dragged me towards theoretical physics. I thought it was beautiful the way all of these puzzles in Physics fit together. The more I discovered about it, the more I realised that this is what I wanted to do.

Diving into String Theory

My interest in string theory seems inevitable in hindsight. I have always been curious about fundamental questions, underlying structures, basic constituents. At every stage of my education, I was drawn to the same aesthetic – revealing the hidden similarities between apparently different objects. If I were to extrapolate my intellectual and aesthetic preferences to draw a curve, string theory would be one of the points that lie furthest along.

The string of string theory is the smallest building block of reality. There is nothing more basic than this. Everything else we see, is built up in terms of strings. You understand this one fundamental thing and all else can be formulated in terms of it. In that sense, string theory is the ultimate unification.

Unification in physics – as in life – is considered both beautiful and powerful. It’s just a very compelling idea, and one that has always grabbed my attention.

The Gravitational Waves that Einstein Predicted a Century Ago

Every physical theory starts with a certain set of assumptions, and then you depend on mathematics to explore all that can happen in the framework of the theory. Inevitably, you find that logic leads you to places you had not even dreamed of. This is why physicists often say things like “the theory knows more than we do”.

That, in fact, is the most interesting thing about science. You start out with some assumptions and you probably know their immediate implications. But then you use mathematics to mine these statements, and you keep digging, keep unearthing truths you had no idea existed. The logic of the theory compels you to say that if everything so far is correct, then this must also be correct.

For example, you might have heard about the discovery of the gravitational waves earlier this year. Einstein wrote down the theory of general relativity a hundred years ago, and gravitational waves were one of the outputs of his equations. We had no other reason to suspect something like this existed. But now we’ve seen them.

Researching the classification of supersymmetric flux backgrounds in 11 dimensions

In my research, I’ve dealt a fair bit with classifying supersymmetric backgrounds in 11-dimensional supergravity. The technical details aren’t really important here, and for our present purposes, you can think of supergravity as an extension of general relativity, and we can fall back on the oft-quoted analogy of space-time as a rubber sheet which deforms in response to the presence of matter.

One of the things that you can find in the equation of supergravity is an object called the M-brane. Since in the scope of this story, space-time has 11 dimensions (rather than the familiar 4), it can accommodate objects of more dimensions than we are used to seeing. The M-brane, for instance, can span either 2 or 5 spatial dimensions. The latter is impossible to visualise, but it has a precise mathematical description.

Leaving the numerology of dimensions aside, the basic point is that these M-branes are heavy objects, which deform space-time, just like stars and planets and houses and apples do, and one of the problems I tackled in my research, was the classification of these deformed backgrounds, for a particular type of optimal (supersymmetric) M-brane configuration.

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The Future of Research in Pakistan

Unfortunately, we don’t figure anywhere on the world stage in terms of research in science at the moment.

The first step to promote science in Pakistan is to have a culture that values research. If you don’t inculcate in your PhD’s the value of research, they will never be able to produce new knowledge.

Ten years ago, there were only four string theorists from Pakistan. None of them are in Pakistan anymore.

Initially, the idea was that we would start doing theoretical physics out from here because it required next to no financial input. You didn’t need labs. All you required was a laptop and that was it. However, that didn’t work out for a number of reasons. Some were political, some environmental or maybe we were too ambitious too early.

There are a lot of examples of countries closer to home that have limited resources and yet they have made their culture much more conducive to scientific research than ours. Look at India and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs); they have phenomenal educational institutes and good centres for research, especially in the field of string theory.

When I was doing my post-doc in Harvard, there were a lot of Indian Assistant Professors who were on the prestigious tenure track. Some of them left to go back to their home environment and a decade later, they’re still in India. They are publishing their research and their careers and reputations haven’t suffered because India gives them enough of a research atmosphere.

When I moved back to Pakistan, one of my main goals was to try to build more of a regional nexus. You want people to have international exposure but it’s not very practical to send all your students to the US or UK.

It’s much more convenient to send them to places that are more culturally accessible, financially feasible and closer to home. My dream was that since there were so many string theorists in India that we could work more closely with them.

That was basically the plan but it didn’t end up happening. There are ways of making these things work only if there is an institutional or political will. It’s also a question of attitude. The most common question that I used to get was “What are you going to do with string theory?” It is disheartening when you are constantly getting questions like that and you have to keep on explaining and justifying yourself.

Politicians only focus on these immediate short term measures because they are only thinking about the next five years. Look at what 40 years of this short term thinking has done for the country. The major structural issues in the health and education sectors are still where they were decades ago.

The same kind of thinking is passed on to the sciences. People tend you ask you “I don’t have clean water. Why are you doing string theory? What will we get from that?” That’s like saying that there are so many problems in the country, you shouldn’t write literature, poetry or prose.

Right now, Pakistan is in a much better position than it was a few years ago. The resources that are available now, including Fulbright scholarships, collaborations with CERN and other liaisons with the international world are incredible. It’s time for people to really start utilising these opportunities.

Only the Longest Threads

There are a lot of science books in the genre field at the moment – some written by experts and some not. I decided to write this book in fiction because I wanted it to appeal to people who would not have picked up a popular science book.

The title of the book comes from a quotation by Richard P. Feynman, a physicist and a nobel laureate. He said, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organisation of the entire tapestry.”

This book is my attempt to go back and explain everything that I need people to know in order to explain string theory to them at the end.

This article originally appeared in MIT Tech Review Pakistan and has been reproduced with permission.