Not since Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon has the world been captivated by a marvel of science, engineering and the human potential.
Sunday night, the hush that had descended across the globe erupted with cheers of jubilation as engineer, Allen Chen, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced: “Touchdown confirmed ... we’re safe on Mars.” Across the United States and Canada, people met at homes and cafes to view the countdown to one of the most expensive scientific endeavours of the human race.
But on the other side of the planet, in Pakistan, millions of people were celebrating another scientific “breakthrough.” Pakistani engineer Agha Waqar Ahmad claimed he had invented a “water kit” that would enable automobiles to dispense with gasoline and instead run on plain water. His story was straight from the medieval annals of alchemists attempting to turn metal into gold.
While American engineers had to rely on the evidence of images sent back from Mars to confirm and validate their accomplishment, the Pakistani engineer had no such problem. His invention was presented on live TV with news anchors taking turns to drive the “water car” and marvel at this “invention.” Politicians jumped on the bandwagon with the federal cabinet meeting three times in Islamabad to discuss how to mass-produce this manna from heaven that came during the holy month of Ramadan.
Even Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, the infamous Dr. A. Q. Khan, chipped in with his stamp of approval. He said: “I have investigated the matter and there is no fraud involved”.
It took Pakistan’s MIT-educated physicist Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, to burst the bubble. In dismissing the water car as a joke, he wrote the inventor “had exposed just how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and self-delusion.” Hoodbhoy concluded:
“our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence. … it is easier to believe the world is run by magic and conspiracies, to wish and wait for Aladdin’s magic lamp.”
Which brings us to the debate about culture and progress triggered by U.S. Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and his comments comparing the economies of Israel and Palestine.
Some have accused Romney of being a racist, but the facts speak otherwise.
In 2002, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a scathing report written by distinguished Arab intellectuals who slammed Arab countries for oppressing women, subjugating citizens, and failing to provide adequate education. The report said the Arab world was stuck in Dark Ages.
To be fair, there is no such thing as a distinct Jewish culture or a designated Arab or Muslim culture. The culture of Jews who spit on Christian monks in Jerusalem is not the same as the culture of the urban Jew of Haifa who heads a NASDAQ company.
Similarly the culture of a Palestinian Arab academic such as Prof Rashid Khalidi is not the same as the culture of Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Mishal. Wall Street Journal columnist Richard Landes, who came to Romney’s defence, admits “Palestinian culture compares favourably with that of other Arabs. Palestinians have higher education, a strong work ethic and successful entrepreneurs.”
Somewhere in between, lies the truth.
But the culture that believes in Aladdin’s lamp and water cars is not equal to the culture that lands Curiosity on the planet Mars.