Unsung in the Muslim world

July 31, 2017

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MARYAM Mirzakhani, a mathematics genius, born in Iran, died of cancer on July 14, 2017, at the age of 40. In 2014, she was awarded the Fields Medal, an equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics. Known as the ‘Queen of Mathematics’, she was the first woman and first Muslim to receive this high honour. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling in the supposed male domain of mathematics.

To lose a great talent so soon is tragic. Her native Iran mourned her death and celebrated her accomplishments, as did much of the developed and academic world. Outside Iran, in the Islamic world, her loss was literally a nonevent. In Pakistan, she barely merited a mention in the print and electronic media. This too is tragic.

Mirzakhani made contributions in the wide field of complex geometry. The Fields Medal Award Committee had cited her work in “the dynamics and geometry of Reimann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. All this is beyond my grasp, because today’s mathematics is as far removed from that of the early 1960s when I did my Master’s in the subject as cell phones are from the analog telephone sets of that era. Mirzakhani had her early education at Farzanegan School and graduated in 1999 from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. She earned her PhD from Harvard in 2004 and taught at Princeton and Stanford. The Iranian education system deserves recognition for having institutions that can groom and produce a mathematician of Mirzakhani’s calibre.

With the death of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, a light in the Muslim world has been extinguished.

In Pakistan, the British had left good institutions. I recall that in the chemistry department at the old campus of the Punjab University, my alma mater, there was a plaque with the inscription: “The Compton Effect Experiment was replicated here (1929)” — a foundational experiment of 1923 that led to the theory of quantum physics. We also produced brilliant scientists. Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam is a legend who inspired my generation of students. By the early 1960s, Pakistan had one of the largest pools of theoretical physicists anywhere in the developing world.

We have our accomplishments. In 1960, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission was set up and managed entirely by Pakistani scientists. Pakistan did not pursue the nuclear option at that time. Dr I.H. Usmani, former PAEC head, lamented this fact. I met him in 1979 in New York. When he learnt about my educational background, he spoke bitterly of how ‘bureaucrats’ had blocked his efforts to acquire a reprocessing plant. He insisted that Pakistan had lost the opportunity for good and dismissed the centrifuge technology as ‘fraud’. “How can mattha (churning for butter) technology produce atomic bombs?” he asked.

Yet, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan brought the Promethean fire to Pakistan. With his dedicated team of scientists, he innovated and improvised an untested technology. The result was for everyone to see and caused chagrin to those who thought Pakistan was ‘bluffing’.

In his book, At the Centre of the Storm, former CIA chief George Tenet (1997-2004) remarked wistfully that Dr Khan had “almost single-handedly turned Pakistan into a nuclear power”. Pakistan ended up introducing the third route to nuclear weaponisation whereas the other two processes for producing fissionable material were developed at the Manhattan Project in the beginning of the 1940s.

We’ve also had our own examples of unfulfilled talent. I remember Shafaat Hussain, one year my senior and a mind of rare intensity and quality. We started studying topology together in 1964. In an early discussion, Dr Mumtaz Hussain Kazi, our excellent supervisor and friend who had just returned from Harvard, explained an unresolved theorem. Shafaat stopped attending the class and within two months produced a paper with a solution under a generalised conditionality, which was published in the prestigious Journal of the London Mathematical Society. There were stories that if a thought came to him at night and he could not find paper, he would use the white bed sheet and in the morning ask his mother not to wash it. He did his PhD and started pursuing post-doctoral work in Canada. A few years later, I learnt that he had turned tablighi. He would say that he had hit a crossroad; he had to choose between “God and mathematics”. He died soon after. Shafaat was a genius lost. I guess he broke down under the rigour of his passion, mathematics. In his life trajectory, I also see an allegory for our society.

Our educational institutions have regressed since the 1960s. Politics infected them in the name of religion, social revolution, and party agendas. First we saw the rise of Islami Jamiat Tuleba, then the Peoples Students Federation, Muslim Students Federation and myriad others. Campuses were infested with veteran ‘student leaders’ with expertise in agitation tactics. Many entered national politics. Could they ever understand the demands of modern education? The mid-1960s witnessed political ferment sweeping campuses across the globe. Within a few years it had mostly subsided everywhere, but in Pakistan the malaise persists. The worst hit is education in the sciences. We lost the lead we once enjoyed in the Islamic world.

Our secondary education system is fragmented largely in English-medium schools, run-of-the-mill government schools and madressahs. English-medium schools, like Aitchison College, are not designed to produce scientists and engineers. Standards in mainstream government schools are pathetically low. Madressahs resist general and science education. And we are proving incapable of dealing with this challenge intellectually, socially and politically. Yet it is science and the scientific outlook on life that counts for strength and earns the respect of nations in these times.

With these thoughts, let me say thank you Maryam Mirzakhani for providing a flicker of light in the bleakness that pervades the Muslim heartland at present.

The writer, a former foreign secretary and author, lectured in quantum physics (1965-69) at Punjab University.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2017