A Pakistani Hawking?

Updated August 25, 2018


WHEN the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking died earlier this year, it was headline news across the world. Soon thereafter universities and colleges in Lahore and Islamabad asked me to speak upon his life and scientific work before non-scientific audiences. The Q&A sessions that followed were interesting reflections of the current mindset of young Pakistanis. Their concern and fear about the relation between science and religion was also apparent.

One earnest student — staggered by the depth of questions that Hawking had attempted to answer — wistfully asked me: Sir, when do you think there will be a Pakistani Stephen Hawking? Don’t we have the resources?

It seems like a fair question. Pakistan has produced good cricketers, squash players, fighter pilots, soldiers, musicians, artists, poets, writers, and doctors. Pakistani-origin entrepreneurs have hit it big in Silicon Valley and Pakistani-origin doctors in America are fabulously rich. Searching the faculty list of American and European universities you will also find some Pakistani-origin faculty — mostly historians, political scientists, economists, and even a few biologists and medical researchers.

And yet, totally absent are mathematicians. My web search for Pakistani-origin mathematicians in the world’s 20 top math departments yielded exactly zero; the only South Asian names are Indian (and there are plenty of them). I saw some Iranian names as well. And, of course, the Chinese are always present.

Pakistan has produced many good cricketers and businessmen but not a single mathematician.

Next, I looked at second-tier overseas universities. Again, this drew a blank. You simply do not find Pakistani names on the faculty of math departments. Physicists are only slightly more plentiful. A web search, together with estimates from six overseas colleagues who I contacted before writing this article, suggests there are only 15-20 Pakistani-origin physicists (all fields, not just theoretical) who hold faculty positions in the entire Western world.

What explains this damning intellectual poverty? Money is not the issue. The theoretical sciences demand no expensive equipment or elaborate laboratories. All that’s needed is good school education that forms nimble minds adept at problem solving, followed by higher education with professors who actually know their math-physics.

This condition is not fulfilled. Pakistan’s university math departments are 90 per cent junk, staffed mostly by third-raters who neither know nor care for their subject. Although they release floods of so-called research papers, nobody reads them because they are not worth reading. Were these professors confronted with the kind of questions that sophomore (2nd year BSc) students need to solve for passing their exams at a good US university, 90pc would flunk.

Institutional dysfunction makes nurturing talent in Pakistan dauntingly difficult. Still, one had hoped that the Lahore University of Management Sciences would harbour a nucleus of exceptional minds that, although nowhere close to Hawking and Cambridge, could eventually move math-physics forward. But when jealous colleagues recently succeeded in ousting Pakistan’s finest mathematician from there — probably the single one who can land a math-physics professorship at Harvard or MIT today — the hope dimmed.

At the post-Hawking events, not everyone was impressed by what this extraordinary paraplegic had achieved. One student had read on the internet that Hawking had been hyped up. He asked: Hawking didn’t invent any new machine or device, and his black holes are useless because you can’t see them anyway. So why so much noise?

Implicit in his question was disparagement of pure science, a common attitude. The work of this mathematically minded genius is largely about the universe’s origin and the intricate properties of space and time. It takes years of intense effort to understand such complexities. But what after that? No money-making, life-saving invention — or even a bigger bomb — can ever come from such discoveries.

Pure math-science cheerfully admits to being useless; it is strictly driven by human curiosity and the insatiable urge to know what’s up there. The famous English mathematician G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) took enormous pride in the lack of application of his theorems to anything in the real world. (He would be flabbergasted to know of their wide use today!)

Nonetheless, human progress owes solidly to foundational works in pure math-physics and other sciences. Without them you and I would be herding goats or growing wheat and corn, travelling on camels and horses, and most of us would be dead or dying before reaching the age of 40. Science — and math-physics in particular — has given us the world we know today, but in an incredibly devious way.

A nation of farmers, shopkeepers, property dealers, businessmen and soldiers can neither know this nor care. The duffers of American society — those of the Bible Belt and the Trump-supporting cowboy mid-Westerners — have no patience for such nonsense. Even less do they want to hear of climate science or evolutionary biology.

Still, at least for now, large parts of America and Europe are protected by the enlightened part of their population. There, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking achieved fame that will long outlive the transients enjoyed by sports stars and rock musicians. Educated people know that math-physics is the highest point of human intellectual evolution and that we are separated from lower species in a key respect: humans alone can think mathematically and follow long chains of closely reasoned statements. Knowing this helps propel the best and brightest young minds towards ‘useless’ math-physics. Hawking was the product of a society that understands science and appreciates it for what it is — the most exciting of all human ventures.

There are lots of smart Pakistani kids around; a precocious 10-year old I just met in Karachi left me gasping — and envious. He had already mastered the multi-variable calculus that I had learned at age 18. And yet he, like countless others, will probably end up in something mundane like banking or insurance. Ultimately, social values determine outcome.

Pakistan will get its Hawking when its brightest and best kids yearn to become scientists rather than doctors, lawyers, preachers, or army officers. But, like the rest of the world, it will first have to disentangle science from religion, encourage curiosity in its schools, create strict meritocracy in its universities, and elevate brain over brawn. That’s not happening soon, so don’t hold your breath.

The writer teaches physics and math in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2018