Science and our people

By Muhammad Hamid Zaman

Somehow, science and the Pakistani society have never really formed a bond. There is always a little tension, some suspicion and plenty of misunderstanding. Our suspicion does not help our ability to think rationally, analyse critically and innovate for the future. It would be unfair to say that the burden of this misunderstanding lies only on the greater society at large — I believe, that we as scientists, have not performed our parts either.

As I walked back from the Cambridge Science Festival, an annual event held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that attracts thousands of common citizens every year, I asked myself how come a similar event does not take place in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad or every other major city of Pakistan?

The science festival that I am thinking and talking about is not an event where students showcase their projects and compete for a prize, but a festival that truly celebrates science in a way that makes it accessible to the common man and woman, both literate and illiterate. What we need is a discussion of how science continues to impact our lives and what lies ahead. What are the transformative ideas and how can those, who are in this field for a living and those who are not, benefit from it equally. What I would like to see, is a common man, who was not afforded any education, get excited to send his daughter to school so she can study science.

The event at the Cambridge Science Festival — where I had the opportunity to present — was titled “Big Ideas for Busy People”. Speakers, including myself, had only five minutes to talk about a big idea pertaining to our research and discuss it and its implications for the general public. The audience, which was well above a thousand people, included folks from all races, opinions, religions and, of course, ages. Following the five-minute presentations, there was a five-minute window for questions and answers. The topics ranged from devices that detect counterfeit devices to brain mapping and moral decision-making, aging and the world, the new superconductors and real-world origami. The lack of any particular theme was intentional as the idea was to discuss big ideas in simple words that would engage a broader community. Similar events through the course of 10 days engaged kids and adults, working and non-working people, men and women and discussed the applications and fundamentals of science and created a sense that science is cool and that we need it. If a high-tech, unusually creative and innovation-conscious city like Cambridge feels that science is needed for its development, the case for Pakistan’s need for science is also clearly obvious.

We need to engage the scientists and engineers at our universities and colleges to take the message to the next generation. There may not be a lot of research taking place at each and every department in our universities, but there is still plenty of interesting research and creativity amongst our researchers that could engage the broader community. But perhaps, the strongest argument in favour of a science festival is to create a sense of wonder, creativity and inspiration among our youth. We need the ‘Sputnik’ moments for our society, the ‘Eureka’ feeling in our children to believe in the changes that society needs. There is never enough of rational thinking, quantitative approaches and innovative spirit in any society, and our society in particular, is short in supply when it comes to these essential ingredients. A sense of wonder can also do wonders for our people.

Holding such science fairs in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta or Islamabad is not going to be an inexpensive activity, but no price is too big if it involves making investments in inspiring our youth. It is time we take science and the scientific method to the street.

The Express Tribune