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Matin Durrani: September 2009 Archives

The pirate physicist: Jens Seipenbusch, third from left, with other members of the Piratenpartei

By Matin Durrani

It was all smiles for Angela Merkel in Germany’s general election as she won another term as chancellor. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), scooped 239 seats in the Bundestag — enough for Merkel to hold on to power through a new coalition with the pro-business free democrats (FDP). Her former partners, the social democrats (SPD), now face a spell in opposition.

Yes, all very interesting but what’s this got to do with physics? Well, as I’m sure you know, Merkel is one of the few political leaders to be a physicist too.

The 55-year-old Merkel studied physics at Leipzig University, in the former East Germany, between 1973 and 1978, before obtaining a PhD from the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1986 for a thesis entitled “The calculation of speed constants of reactions of simple hydrocarbons”. She is also married to Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

Merkel’s background in physics is well known, but did you know that another German political leader is a physicist too?

Let’s say hello to Jens Seipenbusch , 40, who is founder and leader of the fringe Piratenpartei (Pirate Party), which was campaigning for increased freedom of speech, copyright reform and less intrusive government surveillance, particularly of the internet.

Seipenbusch studied physics at the University of Münster. He founded the party in 2006, serving as leader until 2007 before taking the top job again earlier this year.

I haven’t been able to find out too much about his physics career, but it appears that he was a research assistant at Münster from 1994 to 1998, having studied physics at the Ruhr University in Bochum from 1987 to 1989. From one website I stumbled upon, it looks like he used to be involved in non-linear and quantum optics.

Sadly for Jens, his party didn’t cross the 5% hurdle that you need to get seats in the Bundestag. The pirates ended up with about 2% of the vote, although they reached the giddy heights of 2.6% in Munich and 3.5% in Tübingen.

But that’s not even the end of the matter. I have been reliably informed by my wife, who is German, that the leader of the left-wing Die Linke (The Left) party, Oskar Lafontaine, is a physicist too. According to his party’s website , he has a master’s degree in physics from the universities of Bonn and Saarbrücken. His party got 76 seats from 11.9% of the vote.

It seems as if the Germans have a thing about physics political leaders.

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Who’s who of science and engineering

By Matin Durrani

This will be my last blog entry during my visit to KAUST — Saudi Arabia’s new research university, which opened on Wednesday.

The highlight of yesterday was the inaugural symposium entitled “Sustainability in a changing climate”, which is a key part of KAUST’s mission.

First to speak was George W Bush’s former energy secretary Samuel Bodman, who outlined four priorities for tackling climate change — increased energy efficiency, new-generation nuclear reactors, growing use of renewables and advanced biofuels, and better exploitation of fossil fuels such as clean coal.

Next up was Alec Broers, former president of the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, who discussed the importance of engineers in sustainability. “Scientists have sounded the alarm. Engineers need to find the solution”; he said. Mind you, he would say that — Broers trained as a physicist at the University of Melbourne before a career in engineering.

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Madly perfect?

After words from a couple of other heavyweights — Imperial College rector Sir Roy Anderson and University of Southern California president Steven Sample — on to the stage came Chen Ning Yang, the 87-year-old physicist who shared the 1957 Nobel prize with Tsung-dao Lee.

Remarkably young looking, Yang stressed the importance of basic research, pointing out how quantum theory in the early decades of the 20th century led to semiconductors, which led to transistors, which led to chips — without which computers, TV and the rest of modern life — would not exist.

Yang’s view, widely held, is that basic research leads to applied research in a linear path. Actually, things are a lot more complicated than that, but cosily ensconsed in my leather seat high up in KAUST’s vast auditorium, I kept quiet.

As I stepped out of the symposium into the warm evening air, the angular, university buildings were lit up beautifully and a troupe of singers could be heard singing in the main square where small tables lay with cold drinks. Guests pressed forwards to the music, and there, above the scene, as if by arrangement, was a half-crescent moon, the symbol of Islam. Like KAUST itself, the whole scene seemed madly perfect — and almost too good to be true.

Cue fireworks…

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Are the KAUST celebrations getting a bit too sweet?

By Matin Durrani

I mentioned in my two blog entries yesterday that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia is not exactly short of cash - it has a $10bn endowment from the man himself.

One US physicist said he’d heard that the whole inauguration has cost $80m - flying in thousands of guests (including physics Nobel laureates Gerard ‘t Hooft and Chen Ning Yang) putting them up in the best hotels in Jeddah, and giving them all, myself included, nice little luggage tags with the KAUST logo.

A fair whack must have also gone on the fireworks that concluded the official launch party last night, which were probably enough to have kept most physics departments in business for a few years at least.

The event took place in what was dubbed “the tent” - a temporary structure about two football pitches in size with an exhibition hall, auditorium and vast dining area. Air-conditioned to the hilt, the plastic windows dripped with condensation on the outside. A troupe of drummers lined the stage as we waited for the king’s jet to land.

Once settled in his seat, there followed speeches from the likes of the minister for petroleum and KAUST’s president Choon Fong Shih, and then specially recorded films beamed onto the huge backdrop to the stage. One featured a boy on the sunlit beach, picking up stones - presumably a nod to Newton’s comment about just being like a boy on the shores of discovery - backed by rousingly cheesy music.

With the heads of state of Bahrain, Jordan, Malaysia and elsewhere — not to mention the Duke of York (aka Prince Andrew) — sitting alongside him, the King then mounted the stage, delivering a thankfully short address, which should soon be available here.

The drummers marched off stage right while the king pressed his hand into a weird tablet that shot out a puff of smoke in green-and-white Saudi colours. The back wall of the stage parted - and there, through the windows, was the university and its iconic tower lit up against the night sky

Cue fireworks.

“It’s like Disneyland” muttered one physicist later to me.

Tony Eastham shows off his new facilities

By Matin Durrani

I wrote yesterday about whether the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia will attract researchers to the new venture.

One thing is clear: the facilities are second to none.

Tony Eastham, KAUST’s lab director, greeted me as I stepped off the media bus into the melting heat. First stop was the visualization “cave” — basically a white, walk-in room onto which colour images are beamed by four cinema-quality projectors. Put on a pair of goggles and the cave lets you see images of, say, protein molecules to look for possible binding sites or to view 3D fly-through of archaeological sites. Although such rooms exist elsewhere, this has apparently a better resolution than any other; it can even play sound, should you wish.

As we headed down to the nanotech facilities, Eastham, who used to be based at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told me that KAUST has a whopping $1.5bn over its first five years for lab equipment. Tasty.

In one of the downstairs labs a total of 10 NMR spectrometers stood sentry, all unused so far. Then it was through a side door and down a corridor with tall doors leading off. Eastham opened one to reveal a state-of-the art electron microscope and then a second and then a third. Each boasted another microscope - five TEMs and five SEMs in all, each barely out of its packaging. Another room had a suite of confocal and Raman microscopes.

And so into the clean rooms - a total of 2000 square metres in all. All spotless so far. “KAUST,” claimed Eastham, “is the most exciting thing happening in academia anywhere in the world.”

Whether all the new toys can be used for anything useful, however, remains to be seen.


By Matin Durrani

If you’ve read my news story and blog entry earlier today, you will have realized that I am spending a couple of days at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

The question on my lips is can the university fulfil its ambitions and become a world-leading institution, carrying out research into solar power, nanotechnology, clean water and everything else the country has its eyes on. Can it simply “buy success” by building a new university, pouring in oodles of cash, paying for lots of top-notch equipment and recruiting what are reported to be some of the world’s top scientists in their fields. (Or so I am told — I haven’t actually met any yet).

It’s a bit like Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea football club and snapping up the world’s best players, the only difference being he already had a football club with a 100-year tradition to buy.

I caught up with Choon Fong Shih, KAUST’s president, shortly before the king himself was due to attend the official launch party in a vast “tent” filled with the great and the good from Saudi Arabia and beyond.

As far as Shih is concerned, failure is not an option. Speaking to me near the front of the vast indoor arena, he brushed aside suggestions that KAUST might not work. “We are free of legacies and traditional boxes”, he said, referring to the fact that the university is starting from scratch and with interdisciplinary being the key.

CERN boss Rolf-Dieter Heuer, who is on KAUST’s board of trustees, was a bit more cautious, talking to me about the “challenges” of encouraging researchers to stay beyond just a few years and of making sure that the university has good links with the rest of the country.

“But it’s a new way of doing things and this is what I like,” says Heuer.

KAUST may do good work, but can it meet the standards set by, say, Bologna, Cambridge or Oxford universities, which have taken centuries to reach the top?

This is probably a cop-out, but only time will tell. Still, it makes an interesting experiment - and if KAUST works, it may encourage other emerging nations to do likewise, which is surely a good thing.

A new ivory tower in Saudi Arabia

By Matin Durrani

It’s at least an hour’s drive north of Jeddah along a dusty and baking hot six-lane highway to get to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which Saudi Arabia hopes will soon become one of the world’s leading research institutions.

The question, though, is will researchers be tempted to the shores of the Red Sea and turn KAUST into what its proponents envisage? Why give up a respectable career path in, say, the US or Europe to join a new university with no track record in a country that, in recent times, is not exactly a power house on the world research stage?

That’s the question I hope to answer while here at KAUST over the next two days.

Of course, there’s the money: KAUST comes with an endowment of $10bn, which is not to be sniffed at. The salaries are sure to be good.

Then there are the spanking-new research facilities, which include a nanotech lab, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and a visualization unit.

KAUST also intends to be interdisciplinary and global in outlook, with researchers from all over the world.

The university also will look after staff well, with housing, recreational facilities, schools and so on. The main building itself is a fabulous glass-and-steel edifice overlooking a lagoon next to the sea.

But perhaps the biggest pull is the vision of the university’s leaders and the chance to make a mark right from the start in creating something different.

The university wants to focus on topics like solar energy — Saudi Arabia’s biggest asset after its oil and gas — as well as clean combustion, and the development of plants that can survive in hot desert conditions.

It is all is part of a plan to create a new “house of wisdom” and put science in the Islamic world back to the level it enjoyed centuries ago.

Well, that’s the spiel we’ve been hearing at the official press conference. But given that scientists are always moaning about a lack of cash, it’s hard to begrudge what is certainly an ambitious scientific venture.

And thanks to air conditioning, that baking heat is nicely out of reach.