This is the second in our four part interview with renowned Astrophysicist, Professor Arif Babul. The first installment was published on Monday, June 8th, 2009 and can be read at:
Voices: Brilliant Astrophysicist, Arif Babul, in Conversation with Simerg
Simerg: Earlier you explained the differences between the theoretical and practical areas of the study of the universe that astrophysicists and astronomers are respectively engaged in. Can you explain a little bit more about this distinction, perhaps by way of an example where you and your colleagues were assumed to be ‘astronomers’?
Dr. Babul: Sure, perhaps this anecdote will help make the distinction a bit more clear, though it is a bit embarrassing.
But first some background: Imagine you’re sitting in a bubble bath full of big bubbles, and you have a whole bunch of bubbles stacked up against each other. If you took some glitter and sprinkled it over these bubbles, the sparkly little bits of paper would stick to the bubbles’ surface. Inside the bubbles there would be no flakes, but the surfaces of the bubbles would be coated with them. That’s a good description of the way galaxies are distributed throughout our universe – think of the flack of glitter as galaxies. When this was first discovered about twenty years ago, I was just starting out in my career. At the time, theorists were all excited about one particular large bubble that had just been discovered called the Bootes Void because it is in the direction of the constellation of Bootes – astronomers, when they discover new structures, often name these features based on the constellation in the direction of those features. The Bootes Void had truly captured the theorists’ imagination. It is nearly 300 million light-years from side to side – this means that it takes light 300 million years to cross the void – and structures this large were unheard of at the time and so there was a great deal of creative energy being expended in trying to understand how such structures would have come to be.
So there we were, at a conference in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and we had just stepped out after dinner one fine clear evening. A group of tourists discovered that we were “astronomers” and started asking questions. They pointed to certain stars in the sky and asked, “what constellation is that?” I certainly had no clue and neither did most of my theorist colleagues. We didn’t really give much thought to stars and constellations. We thought about the universe in a very different way, on a very different scale. Our universe was characterized by geometric structures on our computer screens and mathematical equations on sheets of paper. But these tourists wanted to know what these patterns of stars were in the sky, and we had no clue! Fortunately, one of us was a genuine astronomer. He was familiar with the sky and he chirped, “Oh that’s the constellation of Bootes.” And there was this audible “Oh!” but not from the tourists, but the theorists. This Void had suddenly become a concrete structure. Okay, it was still ridiculously far away – 700 million light-years away – but now we knew it was in that direction, out there in space!
So that sort of explains the distinction between astronomers and astrophysicists.
Simerg: Your research articles are published in some of the most prestigious astronomy and astrophysics journals, and many of your published papers rank within the top ten percent in terms of citations. That’s very impressive. What are some of your most recent papers and what do they deal with? How would you explain one or two of your findings to a non-scientific person?
Dr. Babul: At present, I work on three different topics. The first one is the study of the Andromeda (M31) galaxy. The Andromeda galaxy is the sister galaxy of our own Milky Way. You can actually see it if you have really good eyesight as a little fuzzy blur in the sky. It’s gravitationally trapped to the Milky Way – the two galaxies are rushing towards an embrace and eventually, they will collide and collapse together to form one large galaxy.
Galaxies in the universe have grown out of collisions and mergers of successively smaller systems of stars form first, and galaxies in turn continue to merge and form yet larger systems. The assimilation process results in long ribbons of stars, much like the coloured ribbons twirled and trailed by those gymnasts at the Olympics. When we look at galaxies like the Andromeda galaxy, the streamers of stars that we see are a fossil record of how the galaxy was built up. We look at these fossil records to try and understand what happened, and how the galaxy was formed. One of the active research areas that I’m involved in is trying to understand how these fossil records form, and what characteristics and features they possess. We then use that information, along with computer simulations, to unravel the past history of the Andromeda galaxy.
The second subject I’ve been working on is understanding how clusters of galaxies maintain their hot, X-ray emitting atmospheres. Clusters of galaxies are among the most massive objects in the universe. Sometimes a collection of galaxies get caught with collective gravity and they form clusters of galaxies which contain within them up to a thousand Milky Way-like galaxies. Surrounding these galaxies is a lot of hot gas (10 million to 50 million degrees in temperature) which radiates in X-rays, and my primary area of research is trying to understand the characteristics and behaviour of these hot gas. One of the enigmas that we face is that we would have expected most of these systems to cool down very rapidly, and this is not in fact the case.
For example, if you have a hot cup of coffee and you leave it on the counter, it cools off very quickly because all the heat escapes. Your cup will be radiating infrared radiation, and that’s what cools it down. In the same way, the hot gas is radiating X-rays and therefore should be cooling down. Yet it doesn’t appear to be cooling down as quickly as we would have expected, and that’s a puzzle. When I started working on this with my group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, we postulated that there had to be some continuous source of energy. Think of it like a pot of water on the stove, where you don’t know whether the stove is on. The water keeps boiling and doesn’t cool down. When you see that the water doesn’t cool down you realize that there must be some source of energy. So we postulated that there must be something like a stove that’s constantly heating the gas up.
And, we argued that the only possible source of energy that was capable of doing this was a massive black hole at the center of these systems. And it turned out that we were correct. We’re talking about a black hole whose size would be something comparable to the size of our solar system – which is huge as far as black holes go but tiny in comparison to the system, cluster of galaxies, that we were studying, and yet, this tiny object has the power to dramatically impact the physical state of a system that is hundreds of millions of light years in size. Remember that there are a thousand galaxies in these systems, and in each galaxy there are a hundred billion stars like our own sun, so we’re talking about huge differences in scale here.
Finally, as a result of my work on clusters of galaxies, I have gotten interested in trying to understand how it is that a black hole, such a physically small object, can have such a powerful impact. So that’s my third area of research
Simerg: Let me come back to your passion for science. You have been instrumental in designing new astronomy and astrophysics courses. For example, due to your initiative and interest, the University of Victoria now offers a course on the “Origin of Space, Time, and Matter in the Universe.” This is for students with little or no background in science. Why would you suggest such a course to students throughout the country, and what kinds of opportunities open up after taking a course like this?
Dr. Babul: There are several reasons why I started to teach and develop this course. First, I think that a lot of students have a misperception of science, to be perfectly honest. And that misperception arises because the way they are taught science in the high schools and elementary schools doesn’t quite do justice to what scientists do. It doesn’t capture our desire to discover and the creativity that’s involved in trying to do so. It doesn’t capture our passion to understand. It doesn’t capture the challenge that drives us. Classroom experiments are sort of prescribed, you do them in a specific way, and the emphasis is on how you write your lab report, not on what you discovered while you were doing the experiment. It is not surprising that the students aren’t fired up about it. I think that it is very important that the general public is aware of why scientists do what they do, the ideas that scientists work with, and how they think.
Professor Babul is especially well known for creating and teaching a popular third-year course for non-science students on the origin of space, time and matter in the universe. “This is a must-take course for non-physicists,” wrote one student. “Dr. Babul has a gifted ability to explain mind-boggling concepts at a level that is easily understood, even though it feels like you leave each class with a mental hangover.” – Ring Newsletter, 10/2007
And as far as my course is concerned, I view it as success if my students, at the end of the semester, have a sufficient level of scientific literacy that they can read and appreciate science articles in the newspaper, because then they will have a sufficient level of understanding to be able to engage in the broader discourse about science and its role in society. That’s important because at some level the public, through the political system, supports the endeavour of science. You have to understand why it is that the Canadian government supports astronomy, for example. The question I start my class off with every year is “If you were voting today, and one party said that they would give ten dollars to health research and would give one dollar to basic research in Physics and Astronomy, and another party said that they would take all eleven dollars and put it into health research and the medical system, what would you vote for?”
At first most students would be very quiet and not know what to say because they’re obviously talking to a scientist, but at the end of the day they would admit that they would rather see that money go to the health system. By the end of the semester, most will have changed their minds. So being scientifically aware and literate means that you understand what the benefits are to society of supporting these kinds of ventures. This is important for the long-term health of the society as a whole.
Simerg: In Ismaili Ginanic literature, there’s a reference in one of the Ginans where Sayyid Imamshah says “In the beginning there was a void, And the Word was created out of (that) void.” What do you make of this verse in reference to the title of your course (“Origin of Space, Time, and Matter in the Universe”)?
Dr. Babul: I take such expressions in the Ginanic literature as allegories. To me, the verse that you’re referring to is trying to convey the idea that out of chaos, order emerged, and from that order emerged everything else. In the Ginans and in the Holy Qur’an, the discussion of the universe and its structure is a vehicle to teach people about spirituality, about the ethics that should guide the relationship between individuals and between individuals and the wider community, and about how to establish a relationship with the Divine. And in that discourse, Allah uses metaphors and allegories that people at the time could relate to in a concrete sense. The words are being addressed to a group of people in a certain geographical location at a certain time. The message is timeless but the language being used and the imagery that is called for this directly tied to the local culture and the experiences.
This is important to keep in mind because when one reads the Qur’an, there are certain phrases that could be interpreted as referring to a flat world or a geocentric universe. Am I shocked? No. I don’t think of the Qur’an as a science textbook.
If you ask me where the tension between religion and science originates, it comes from this prevailing thought of taking literally books that were never meant to be taken literally. In fact, the Qur’an repeatedly demands that Muslims must be intellectually engaged with creation in all its manifestations; it doesn’t say that you can blindly read the holy book and be satisfied. With respect to the physical universe, in the Qur’an, Allah refers to natural phenomena as His “ayats” (signs) and encourages firsthand study of these phenomena. It is because of such injunctions that Muslims excelled at science and mathematics and other areas of studies a thousand years ago.
Simerg: Obviously Dr. Babul, you personally believe in the existence of God, and I’m just wondering how you’ve managed to construct your religious beliefs vis-à-vis being a scientist at the same time.
Dr. Babul: The idea of God is, as the saying goes, “a Riddle wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma”. On one hand, we assert that from a human perspective, God is beyond comprehension, beyond imagination, and all the descriptions that we attach to the concept of God are limitations. And yet, we require the reference frame offered by these descriptions to relate to the Divine. The danger arises when we begin to take these descriptions literally and begin to think of God in anthropomorphic terms. Personally, I find the late Aga Khan’s (Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s) discourses on this matter highly enlightening. He often doesn’t even refer to God as God. He uses a different word; he says, “The Mystery” or “The Divine”. And I think he does that deliberately.
When I use the word God, I often seem to think of an anthropomorphic entity. But when I think about “the Mystery,” I think of a sort of totality. And from this perspective, I actually don’t think that I am living outside the realm of the Divine.
My science is to discover the play of the world, which is built on some powerfully elegant ideas. The “play of the world” is not random or chaotic; it happens with a very clearly defined order to it, such as can be seen with the laws of gravity. It’s the same order that plays out in other galaxies, billions of light years away. It’s the same order that was present at the earliest moments of the Universe’s existence. There is a quotation from Einstein that I keep in the back of my head: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
The idea that the universe manifests such order is really quite remarkable. But it really gets interesting when we ask, “why do these laws of nature exist?” or “why is there this order?” It turns out that the laws of nature are pointing towards a very elegant superstructure. Physicists often talk about elegance and beauty in equations. And that’s where I start to get a glimpse of something deeper, that there’s a sense of mystery that underlies the both the spiritual and physical world.
Simerg:You have reflected on the thoughts of the late Aga Khan, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, in terms of using the words “Mystery” and “Divine.” How do you view the current Imam’s statements where he sees a strong affinity between Intellect and Faith?
Dr. Babul: Hazar Imam spoke to the relationship between intellect and faith in the opening speech he gave at the workshop with the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) on the Qur’an, where he talked about the references in the Qur’an and how they are meant to provide guidance. He said that the Qur’an demands that we make an effort to understand and interpret it, and recognize that we will not always be able to grasp the complete and absolute truth. So the goal is to make a genuine effort to understand the Qur’an while acknowledging that our understanding will necessarily be imperfect at any time. The challenge is to not become stagnant or to take on an arrogant attitude that “today I understand and know everything.”
In this sense, there is a very strong continuity between Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s and Hazar Imam’s philosophical outlook. This is not surprising since all of the Ismaili Imams, from the time of the first Shia Imam, Hazrat Ali, have advocated the same message.
However, when I was growing up, I read a lot of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s and Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s speeches and writings and noted an interesting difference. In Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s writings, I occasionally came across expressions of a poetic vision that struck a chord. In contrast, until relatively recently, Hazar Imam has devoted his energies towards establishing practical, sustainable responses to monumental – and very real – challenges facing people in the developing world, challenges in areas such as health, economic development, rural development, etc.
For the longest time, I felt like there was no place for me, no role for me to play in this arena, and so I felt like I was on the outside. And this alienation was only made worse by an event that happened when I was in high school.
The Education Board in Ontario decided to take a poll of students to see what kinds of careers we were planning to pursue. One of the ‘volunteer counsellors’, a university student really, came to interview me, and asked me what I wanted to be when I was older. I said I wanted to be a scientist, and he responded by saying, “you’re wasting your time, the Imam doesn’t want you to become a scientist.” And I remember being stunned by the idea that Hazar Imam didn’t want me to be a scientist, and would prefer that I became an engineer and did something practical. I was a headstrong kid so it didn’t really change my mind but did reinforce the feeling that I may not be able to contribute in a meaningful way.
I have now realized how wrong I was – wrong is so many ways. For one, in the years since the Silver Jubilee, Mawlana Hazar Imam has begun to unveil his programmatic vision more fully and in its breadth, depth and transformative potential, this vision is astounding. It seems to touch upon every aspect of human culture and society.
Simerg: Taking your response further, do you see our institutions moving in the direction of science and technology? The focus has been on other issues such as the medical field, but are you aware of any major areas where they are thinking of bringing in science and technology?
Dr. Babul: Well, the fact that the Aga Khan University is moving to the direction of establishing a faculty of Arts and Science is the most apparent sign of the movement in that direction. The Aga Khan often talks about the intellectual legacy that Muslims created, and when he gives examples he inevitably refers to Muslim scientists. So I think that science is on his mind. If you look back to a thousand years ago, Muslims were leading the world in many of the areas of research in science. The Fatimid Caliphs were among the foremost patrons of scientific research programs. When you look at the world today, and ask what fraction of scientific papers is produced in Muslim countries, the answer is less than one percent.
I think that economic development of a country is inherently tied to its ability to generate new ideas, and science and technology is the primary driver of such innovation, so by not participating in scientific activities, these countries are effectively curtailing their long-term growth, even if they have rapid short-term growth. So eventually, sustainable development must also include creating conditions that allow science and technology to flourish.
Additionally, many of communities served by Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) live in regions that may be negatively impacted by global warming. Of course, we don’t know the nature of the impact. This is where basic research – in the form of scientific modeling becomes important – because the resulting information can inform the development of adaptation strategies, and better sooner than later.
Part III Voices: Babul on Science Funding, Muslim Scientists, Intelligent Design and Neurosciences
Part IV Voices: Babul Talks about Identity, Aspirations for the Family and the Jamat, “An Ismaili Academy”, Family Pursuits, Frontierless Brotherhood, and Allah’s Blessing