It is not usual for a Bangladeshi scientist to be credited for major discoveries. Of late, however, three scientists of Bangladeshi origin have been in the forefront of three major discoveries. All three for the moment belong to the realm of astrophysics and related sciences.
The first Bangladeshi scientist in this area who came to our notice is Rubab Khan, a 29-year-old astrophysist, working at the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Centre in USA. He led an international team and made a significant contribution towards enhancing our understanding of 'how massive stars in the Universe live, age and die'. Using data from NASA Spitzer and Hubble Space telescopes, he and his associates discovered five potential twins of Eta Carinae, “a super star in other galaxies. Eta Carinae itself has the mass of 100-150 suns”. In 1840, Eta Carinae had a major eruption. This threw out a large amount of matter. It was 20 times the mass of the sun. But this was not the only aberration. Rubab's team found that the debris from this giant eruption was not only in Eta Carinae but there are five such twin debris in other galaxies. But what is the benefit of knowing all this information? At least astronomy now knows that such massive explosions occur to such massive stars as they grow old. This knowledge would help future astrophysicists to trace clearly the origin of such stars and its future progress.
Another US-based Bangladeshi Professor Selim Shariar led another team of scientists at Northwestern University to discover gravitational waves – which now confirms Albert Einstein's famous theory of relativity. He confirmed the existence of gravitational waves created by the collision of two black holes in the universe. This collision took place 1.3 billion light years away from earth. (A light year is the time taken when a ray of light moves at the speed of light per second). Selim said he had been working to “improve the sensitivity of LIGO detectors and broaden the spectrum” for the last ten years. In September 2015, he placed two L-shaped antennae on opposite sides of the US – one in Washington State in west USA and the other in the eastern sea board. And then, on the same day, he noticed a small blip lasting for 0.2 seconds, which was 1000 times smaller than a proton. Such blips gave extensive information to scientists about the birth and nature of the universe. It also confirmed Albert Einstein's idea of gravitational wave in the universe. Now he is trying to use atomic clocks as pulsars on other planets in order to find out about gravitational waves that show up in a spectrum. So far scientists have used light to detect gravitational pull. But by not using light -- as immediately after the Big Bang, light could not escape the universe because it was too dense -- we are likely to get a better understanding of gravitational pulls.
Through this blip, he was able to also measure gravitational waves. Thus Selim Shariar has devised another way to observe immediately what happened after the Big Bang.
The third individual who brought fame to Bangladesh is a physicist who was part of the international team that detected gravitational waves and ripples in space. He is Dipanker Talukdara, a 39 year old former student of Physics Department of Dhaka University. He, along with his team, used a pair of giant laser detectors in the US. One of these detectors was in Lousiana and the other in Washington. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) received a wave signal about which scientists came to know. They found that the waves were the product of a collision between two black holes 30 times more massive than our sun and located about 1.3 billion light years from earth. Dipanker now wants to study the cosmos by studying the gravitational forces.
It may be noted that two of the scientists from Bangladesh are in their early or late thirties. Only Salim Shariar is slightly older. But interestingly, all of them began their studies in their village schools and in rural colleges. Only Salim studied in Notre Dame College in Dhaka. But then all of them went for higher studies in some of the top universities in the US. They were chosen on the basis of their merit. They have brought international laurels to Bangladesh and have attributed their discoveries to Bangladesh.
It is clear that if the bright students of the country are given an opportunity, they will not disappoint their families and their country. Students at the primary and secondary level, therefore, need to be nurtured and educated in well-funded schools and colleges and then move on to universities where merit takes the premier position. Our society guardians need to prioritise their goals. We need an educated population but we also seek a merit-based society. The nation needs to develop the concept of pouring resources on educational institutions where a new generation of Bangladeshis will take charge without fear or favour, to steer this country into a prosperous future. The deeper pursuit of pure science and technology as well as profound knowledge of humanitarian subjects should be the way forward. Let our politics and society be geared to nurturing the new generation.
The writer is a former ambassador and columnist. E-Mail: ashfaque firstname.lastname@example.org