Cosmology may be coming to an institution near you. The Middle East is surprisingly uninterested in cosmology, even though we have at least one eminent cosmologist that I know of (Qaisar Shafii from Egypt), cosmology has failed to take root in the academic institutions in the region. This I always found surprising, for research into theoretical cosmology is cheap to fund, all we need is a computer with an internet connection, and a supply of paper, pencils and erasers. I also find that arabs are very curious about cosmology, most arabs I meet quizz me about the Big Bang theory, the origins of the universe and such. Stephen Hawking was met with a huge crowd when he visited the university of Birzeit in 2006, yet the Centre for Excellence in Theoretical Physics and Applied Mathematics due to be built with EU funds sometime in the future do not have cosmology on their list of research aims (in fairness though they were very open to the idea of possibly including it). Apparently attempts to establish cosmology research groups in Lebanon, Egypt and Morroco have failed, due to apathy, and lack of a conducive research environment. This was a wakeup call to me, I had always thought that moving back to the Middle East and establishing such research would be a doddle. I do find it surprising on another level, since the Middle East is predominantly Muslim (except Lebanon, but even there we make up 50% of the population!), and the Quran strongly urges “looking up at the stars and pondering their origins” (c.f. Aal Imraan verse 191 + many more).
As a result of these unpromising experiences Dr Al Fakir has established the Muhammed Institute for Science of the Cosmos (MISC) and they have just launched their website.
WHAT THE MISC DOES
The end product of MISC operations are substantial advances in astrophysics, cosmology, and space exploration, in the form of scientific papers in internationally recognised refereed journals, and collaborative experimental projects. To that end, MISC activities include (1) organising annual conferences brining together the MISC research community at large, (2) supporting specific research collaborations between groups of MISC researchers, (3) supporting senior researchers in dedicating extended stretches of time to the MISC, (4) planning and promoting Earth-based and space-born experiments that have bearing either on the physics of the Universe (gravitation, microwave background, etc) or on the origin of life (solar system exobiology, astrobiology, etc), (5) creating and nurturing branches of the MISC in various parts of the Muslim world, (6) creating opportunities for promising young researchers from the Muslim world to collaborate with seasoned MISC researchers.
Of particular interest is the list of eminent non-muslim cosmologists who support the institute, Alexander Vilenkin, Robert Wald and William Unruh, which I find extremely promising. Eventually they plan on being able to fund visits to institutions in the Muslim world with a resident cosmologist, or visits from cosmologists based in the Muslim world, with the possibility of funding postdoctoral and permanent staff members. The potential increase in job opportunities aside (something of extreme interest to someone at my level), this will be great for the middle east (and muslim world as a whole) on many levels. It will foster creativity and ‘outside the box thinkin’, something I find to be lacking in the arab countries at least, interaction with experienced cosmologists, and the potential in excelling in something other than conflict and commerce (as in the UAE). The Muslim world has a strong history in Astronomy (see 1001 Muslim Inventions and George Saliba’s site for a summary), that even though we managed to severley neglect, makes us naturally disposed to this branch of science and we really should foster it once more.