Pervez Hoodbhoy recounts the cautionary tale of Pakistan’s most recognised mathematician, and why the country finally lost him
Two weeks ago Pakistan’s only well-known mathematician left for the Western world. He has no plans to return. Since the country has almost no real mathematicians – a bare half a dozen or fewer– the loss was huge. But who cares? Preoccupied by the politics of the boot, busy gorging on imported luxury products, and feverishly preparing for travel to the hereafter, our moribund culture is indifferent to maths or physics.
But in living and vibrant cultures, both new and old, mathematicians and theoretical physicists are seen very differently. In millennia past, Pythagoras and Plato were cult leaders who saw in geometry the wondrous key to unlocking the universe’s secrets. They demanded from their students accurate definitions, clearly stated assumptions, and logical deductive proof – the very stuff that makes mathematics the queen of sciences and the mother of physics. Everything in the modern world, from spacecraft and the internet to pharmaceuticals and chewing gum, owes itself to such rigorous mental training.
Below is a story for all who wonder why Pakistan sorely loses out in the modern world, why its universities consistently fail to keep our best and brightest, and why there’s no genuine culture of learning and research. While it is about just one person, there are countless stories of others who returned to Pakistan but eventually gave up.
Around 1994-1995, I received a handwritten letter from someone saying he was deeply interested in studying theoretical physics. It was signed by one Amer Iqbal. Filled with neatly written formulae, it seemed moderately interesting but little more. I replied, suggesting he visit.
Weeks later, a tall lad in his late teens walked into my office at Quaid-e-Azam University. I was then teaching a subject called quantum field theory whose comprehension requires years of mathematical preparation. The boy seemed bright but I said he wouldn’t be able to follow my course.
I was wrong. He rapidly self-studied the necessary background and, to my amazement, was soon picking out my occasional mistakes on the blackboard.
Delighted, I suggested MIT for a PhD. Although all its departments are extremely competitive, MIT’s departments of theoretical physics and mathematics can be terrifying. Even with 100 per cent perfect GRE scores and excellent grades, overseas candidates have a hard time getting in and then surviving. Fortunately, I had colleagues on the MIT faculty with whom I had either collaborated on research or who had been on my PhD committee. After an initial hiccup it all worked out and Amer was on his way.
The rest is history. His PhD research and a series of brilliant papers soon established Amer in high academia. MIT’s Professor Jeffrey Goldstone – of Goldstone Boson fame (the Higgs Boson, or so-called ‘God Particle’, derives from the Goldstone Boson) – is also famously frugal with words. But in a corridor encounter about 20 years ago, he somehow strung together enough of them to gruffly bark a ‘thank you’ at me for sending Amer to MIT. At the next stage, Steven Weinberg – who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow – invited Amer for post-doctoral research at the University of Texas (Austin).
The young man was flowering. During short subsequent visits to the United States from Pakistan, he was co-authoring papers with the world’s outstanding mathematicians (Okounkov, Yau, etc) and famous string-theory physicists (Vafa, Zwiebach, etc). Only practitioners in the super stratified world of high science can understand what this really means. Amer Iqbal is still the sole Pakistani invited to lecture at high-level meetings on problems at the interface of theoretical physics and mathematics.
Yet none of this cut much ice with his colleagues in Pakistani institutions. Six years of teaching and research at Lums (2009-2015) ended with Amer’s forced resignation and unceremonious exit. Some of his peers – jealous intellectual midgets – were threatened by his academic stature and conspired against him. Lums has never explained why he was fired.
The next stint – at the Abdus Salam School for Mathematical Sciences (AS-SMS) in Lahore – lasted another five years and ended no better. Instead of a regular appointment, he was given a year-to-year contract, a situation leaving appointees vulnerable and forced to curry favour with higher ups. For Amer that was out of the question.
But it was his exposing a mega-scandal that ended everything. Readers are referred to an article I wrote in Dawn, ‘Our ghost mathematicians’, which tells how at least Rs638 million were paid in fake salaries at AS-SMS. I began the article by saying: ‘To be named below are several persons who would have ended up behind bars in any country where there is rule of law. Several others – whether complicit or negligent – would be shamed, reviled and removed from their current official positions. Knowing that nothing will happen here in Pakistan, this is still a story I must tell.’
That story was told and indeed nothing happened – except that Amer’s contract was not renewed. One hears that the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has launched a scam investigation. But committees are made to whitewash crimes, not to catch crooks.
Nevertheless, the truth filtered out. Days later my Dawn article was picked up by the BBC. Its diligent researchers located several European ‘ghost mathematicians’ from ten years ago as well as the former director of AS-SMS who ran away with the loot (of course, he denies it).
In essence, this BBC report (accessible at https://www.bbc.com/urdu/pakistan-50490259) corroborated Amer’s extraordinary 456-page investigative report. Earlier posted on the AS-SMS official website, it was removed last month. Presumably this is to protect others complicit in the heist at AS-SMS.
Pakistan’s universities – all of them – are cesspools of political filth and intrigue. In a system with perverted values and nonsensical selection criteria, duffers who fail at all else become lauded university professors. Today they rule the roost. Even if Pakistan somehow attracts back its best and brightest from foreign lands, they will soon leave unless our universities can be made to respect the rule of law and operate on principles of strict merit, fair play and transparency. It is hard to see how any of these conditions can be met in the near future.