Saturday, December 13, 2003

A scientist who made dreams come true

A scientist who made dreams come true
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui

It was a sultry summer afternoon. The venue: a posh locality in Karachi. The period: sometime before a train of tragic events divided East and West Pakistan. The audience was of mixed extraction and the mood hushed but excited.

The speaker was vividly articulate. His eloquent King's English seemed to fill the spacious room and beyond to hold the entranced gathering in a state of awe. The expressions on the handsome face changed, now lit up with a smile on a cheerful prospect, now blighted with anguish on a dismal review of events. But the messagewas clear - promotion of science - and spelled out with unwavering conviction.

Present in the gathering were quite a few heavyweights: Dr Amir Mohammad who later became minister for agriculture under General Zia; Dr Naeem Ahmad Khan who was to assume the responsibility of Chairman, PCSIR; Dr Ishfaq Ahmad who headed the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission with distinction; and Dr Abdul Mateen Chaudhry who became vice-chancellor of Dhaka University after the emergence of Bangladesh.

Suddenly, introspection gave way to retrospection. What factors precipitated the decline of Muslim science? The audience sat spellbound as the question was probed with cold logic. Exuding ideas, the captivating mortal appeared as dynamism personified.

His demeanor and deportment betrayed his background - an ICS who had opted for Pakistan, and, earlier, one of the youngest physicists to obtain his PhD from the University of London under Nobel Laureate G. P. Thomson.

Such was the man called DrI. H. Usmani who left hundreds of scientists, engineers and science enthusiasts orphaned as he passed away in Karachi on June 17, 1992.

Despite his headstrong ways, his commitment to the cause of science promotion was infectious and uncompromising - to be shared in life, and to be cherished after death.

Not surprisingly, his lieutenants made their mark in their respective fields. They shared his zest to strive for the quintessence of excellence.

What made the late Dr I. H. Usmani a giant among his contemporaries men of accomplishment? First, it was his vision that was too expansive for any canvas. Induction of nuclear power - beginning with Kanupp - in a developing country often disparaged for its bullock-cart image was truly the work of a visionary. His other singular attribute was his extraordinary perspicacity to produce time-marked results. The third distinguishing trait was his consummate devotion marked by his rough and tough ways. He worked late into the evenings, raising the pulse-beat of his lieutenants with peremptory commands and demanding schedules.

A perfectionist to the core, he strove for a better-than-the-best standards. Pinstech (Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, Nilore, Islamabad) is a living testimony to that vision. Described as 'best of both the worlds' by the Time magazine, the research center was conceived with rich imagination. It would make the Mughal emperors who had built the Taj Mahal "rub their eyes in wonderment" if they were alive today! No mean compliment by Time.

Another admirable trait was his inspirational leadership which fired the 500 researchers trained by him at the PhD/MS level with an ardent passion to give off their best. In 1965, PARR, the 5 MW research reactor at Pinstech, attained criticality heralding Pakistan'sappearance on the nuclear map. Six years later, Kanupp was successfully commissionedmarking Pakistan's entry in the nuclear age as the second developing - and the only Muslim - country to draw energy from the heart of the atom. The visionary's dream had partly come true.

Yet the going was tough: the work ethics conformed to a stringent pattern of discipline which ensured that meritwas rewarded, mediocrity discarded, run-of-the-mill ignored, and casual attitudes shunned. Stinkers would be quickly registered and words of appreciation duly recorded on files and documents.

Dr Usmani seemed to act as a catalyst to galvanize talent and had an eye for all that transpired within the four walls of the Commission. His attention would not spare such trivialities as a newspaper supplement's layout or the architectural pattern of the overhead water tank at the Tandojam Agricultural Research Centre while he attended to the more crucial and pressing issues. The most important and the least important appeared equally weighty. Each was his creation, each was a work of perfection.

With such deep involvement he became too endearing to the corps of scientists and engineers who began to look up to him as their patron saint, father, mentor, and guide.He, in turn, prided on the technical corps that he had raised and which he regarded as a potent catalyst for change, Pakistan's passport to all-round progress. The science divide, he often argued, accounted for economic disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Science needed to be nurtured to bridge the yawning gap between the North and the South. He championed its cause and clamored for a Scientific Service, parallel to the Civil Service of Pakistan.

No wonder, in life as well as in death, he remained a deeply endeared man. On the tragic day of June 17, Dr N M Butt dashed from Pinstech to Karachi. His compelling urge to reach the funeral procession on time was writ large on his face. The benumbed eyes brimmed with deep sorrow as he waded through the maze of cars.

From 1,000 miles away, came another reminder of undying affection: "I on behalf of my colleagues and on my own behalf would like to express our profound shock and grief at the side demise of Dr I. H. Usmani, an ardent pursuer of science and technology...We gratefully remember his immense contribution and admirable leadership for the development of science and technology, particularly for the peaceful applications of atomic energy..." - Dr M. A. Mannan, Chairman, Bangladesh AEC.

Dr Usmani prided on being "a son of the ideology of Pakistan."The centres he established were located across the length and breadth of the country- along the Cox's Bazar beach, Mymensingh, Chittagong, Dacca, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Tandojam, Multan, DG Khan,Faisalabad, and many more.

Dr Usmani was extremely witty and sharp-tongued. His gutsy outbursts, self-destructive at times, were a reminder of H. G. Wells' guiding principle in life: "If you want to do something, do it and damn the consequences." In Dr Usmani's case, 'say' seemed to have been replaced by 'do.' He minced no words and called a spade a spade.

Thus, at one of the functions he rattled the chief guest, the then minister for science, commerce, and tribal affairs, with the cutting remark: "We are happy that he (President) has entrusted the task of fostering the cause of science to you, Sir, as commerce minister, but we are unhappy also because commerce has nothing to do with science.... We do not want to share our ministry with commerce and our secretariat with tribal affairs...."

On another occasion, he took the Scientific Society of Pakistan to task for its Persianization of Urdu. "Agar basic English ko raaij karnay ki koshish kee jarahi hay to ham sada Urdu ki muhim kyun naa shuroo karain?...Hamain to yeh chahiay keh jis zaban sae matlab asani say ada ho jaey usay Urdu main jagah dain aur apna kaam chalaaen. Hamain kya pari hay keh Arabi aur Farsi kee awraq gardani kartay phirain aur kisi European ya Angrezi zaban kay lafzon par khwamakhwa bandishain lagaaen..."He strongly supported the adoption of English scientific terms in Urdu.

His speeches were a work of erudition. A sampling: "Among the school-goers, the top of the ladder is occupied by those sons and daughters of sahibs and begums who speak English better than their mother tongue, who know the names of the wives of Henry the Eighth but not the names of our caliphs; who have read Shakespeare but not Iqbal. They are ill at ease attending a qawwali, a mushaira. . . .

Poet Akbar Allahbadi lamented thus:

Kon kehta hay na parh, aql na seekh
Kon kehta hay na kar hasrat-i-London paida
Bas yeh kehta hoon keh mulk kay ma'anay na bhool
Rah-i-qaumi ka too khud na ho rahzan paida

And now an intimately time-related observation: "If you look at our school-going generations, you will find yourselves looking into a colorful kaleidoscope with a confusing variety of patterns. The pattern which you may find most colourless and blank is, of course, the one that relates to technical and vocational education. While at school our boys and girls learn no trade, or vocation with the result that they do not acquire confidence in themselves and in the dignity of labor.

After the schooling is over, there are no institutions to train them in such trades and skills as pottery making, tailoring, plumbing, printing, industrial designing, metal-working, glass-blowing, woodwork, poultry raising, tool-making, electrical and mechanical fitting, food preserving and a hundred and one other vocations for which there is, and should be, an insatiable demand in a developing country like Pakistan..."

With such undiluted perspicacity, it was not surprising that both nationally and internationally, Dr Usmani made his name. He stood out among the Science Ministers who had converged at Trieste, Italy, at the invitation of Nobel Laureate Professor Abdus Salam in late-1988. Despite visible signs of aging, he seemed to outshine others. As I watched him mesmerize the distinguished assemblage with his address, memories of yesteryear returned.

A host of outstanding men of science such as Prof Hans Bethe, aneminent personage among Nobel Laureates; Walker Cisler, President, World Energy Conferencewho electrified post-World War II Europe; and many morehad visited Pakistan to find more than a match inthe person of Dr IH Usmani.

As Chairman of the IAEA Board of Governors, and later, as Energy Adviser to the UN Secretary General, his performance won superlatives.

Dr Usmani is dead but the centers he has established would live. And so would his memories, his contributions, and his infectious zest. His lieutenants would reach new milestones on the road that he painstakingly, nay, tenaciously, carved out for them.

The writer is editor of Pakistan Link, most widely circulated Pakistani newspaper in the United States, and the former Principal PRO of PAEC.

Copyright C. 2002 - 2004
Pakistan Science and Engineering Forum (R)
"Kindling the Flame of Science in Pakistan (TM)"
PakSEF (TM) Daily Science News Update

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