Today I attended a talk by the renowned string theorist Dr. Farhad Ardalan on “Physics in Iran”. He was recently in news for having his visa denied by the US consulate in Bern, Switzerland, which prevented him from attending the APS March meeting in Portland this year. His presentation was full of humor and stories worth knowing. The first part of the talk consisted of tables showing how Iran is making progress in Physics and in science in the recent years, as exhibited by the number of published articles in peer-reviewed international science journals and other various indicators. It is still behind the output from Turkey, and way beyond Germany; but it is among the top in the middle east. He stressed on keeping politics and science separate in his institutions for practical reasons, like securing funding (provided solely by the government through Ministry of Science). Personally he opposes the present regime led by Ahmadinejad and the rigged presidential election and goes public about it. This stance made some members of the audience visibly uncomfortable (leading to near-stupid questions being asked, if I may say so), who do not have to deal with an oppressive and illogical government on a daily basis and have the luxury of voicing their opinion in one of the most resourceful and free societies in the world!
The short talk soon opened to discussion. I really liked his attitude to deal with the issues of speaking up against the regime and tackling the inherent threat one runs into by doing so. I’m paraphrasing him here: fear is a good, it protects us; but one should not be more afraid than necessary. He encouraged people to do everything in their power to enhance collaboration, invite more students and young scientists from Iran to workshops. And telling the people in intelligence here to be intelligent, so as not to make all Iranians’ or Nigerians’ travel to US difficult! I must add that there was a reference to the recent foiled Times Square bombing attempt which sounded quite generic (like, Pakistan being US’s friend and you guess the rest…), but I’m pretty sure he did not mean it the way it came off.
Finally, this is supposed to be off the record, but it was hilarious to hear a first-hand account of how naïve spy agencies are at times (clue: the process starts with denying visa to someone)!