21 July 2011

Universal truths here and there

Last winter, Abdel Nasser Tawfik was an eyewitness to the birth of the Arab Spring in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Now, he is seeking to transform his research institute in Egypt into an international centre of excellence. He spoke about his efforts during a recent visit to Trieste.

Universal truths here and there"It was the most exhilarating two days of my life. Everyone was at risk, yet everyone was together fighting for what they believed was right and just," says Abdel Nasser Tawfik, professor of physics and founding director of the Egyptian Center for Theoretical Physics at the Modern University of Technology and Information in Cairo.

Six months later, Tawfik is spearheading another campaign. The initiative – and the events surrounding it – may not be as a dramatic as the political transformation that accompanied the Arab Spring. But that doesn't minimize the importance of these actions for the future well-being of his home country. Specifically, Tawfik is trying to lay the groundwork for transforming his research group into an international centre of excellence for cosmology and high energy particle physics. This has been his dream since he first started studying physics more than two decades ago, and its realization may finally be within his grasp.

Tawfik's group, comprised of four senior researchers and 10 research assistants, is dedicated to the study of the cosmos at the moment of the creation of the universe, microseconds after the 'big bang'.

"We explore such exotic questions as ultra-high energy cosmic rays and phase transitions in quantum chromodynamics." Investigations into the behaviour of such elemental forces of Nature require the assembly and analyses of vast amounts of data.

Since the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory, came online two years ago, the amount of data that drives high-energy particles research has increased exponentially – and so too has the potential to unlock critical issues surrounding the behaviour of such fundamental forces as quarks and gluons. To facilitate this "laboratory exploration" of the early universe, CERN, taking advantage of the new information and communication technologies (ICTs), has invited physics research centres from around the world to join them in the effort.

MTI_Cairo_entranceTawfik's centre has been formally asked to participate through the ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) programme. ALICE researchers examine the outcomes of nucleus-to-nucleus interactions. The aim is to study the physics of strongly interacting matter at extremely high energy densities. Researchers are hoping to discover evidence of the formation of a new phase of matter, labelled 'quark-gluon plasma'. Such questions of fundamental physics also lie at the heart of investigations at Tawfik's research centre in Egypt.

The problem that Tawfik faces is this: the internet system at his facility has a speed of just two megabytes per second whereas a minimum speed of fifteen megabytes per second is required to become a member of the ALICE global research alliance. That's because ICT systems running at slower speeds simply cannot handle the enormous reams of data now being generated by the LHC.

Upgrading the system is not expensive. It would cost about USD5,000. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Egyptian revolution, funding for such activities is currently difficult to secure.

"It's not as if the interim government does not support science," explains Tawfik. "In fact, early indications are that political officials are eager to provide substantially more funding for science than in the past. For example, the government recently announced plans to increase the budget for science and technology tenfold over the next three years. It has also agreed to build a USD2 billion city of science named in honour of Ahmed Zewail (TWAS Fellow 1989), Egypt's only science Nobel Laureate. Zewail has been a vocal advocate of improving the state of science in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Nevertheless, Tawfik acknowledges that the uncertainty and confusion that has accompanied the revolution not only makes it difficult to know where to request grant funds, but it has also disrupted grant funding cycles, which raises doubts about when researchers can apply for money.

Tawfik expects these difficulties to be ironed out over the coming months and he remains optimistic that both science and society will benefit enormously from the dramatic turn of events that has taken place in Egypt and throughout much of the Arab region.

"Science," Tawfik says, "can only flourish in a free and open society that promotes rigorous debate, embraces transparency and competition, and rewards excellence. If Egypt places these principles at the centre of its political and social discourse, science cannot help but benefit. No one can predict the future, but I firmly believe that the coming months and years will be brighter than anyone could have imagined just six months ago."

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