Interview with Iranian Harvard Physicist, Prof. Cumrun Vafa
Anne-Laure Biolley & Shahriar Zayyani
Cumrun Vafa was born in Tehran in 1960. He attended the prestigious Alborz High School, before going to the US in 1977 as an undergraduate at MIT, where he got his bachelor’s degree in math and physics, as a double major. He then went on to Princeton University for graduate work, where he got his PhD in Physics, in 1985. He then became a junior fellow at Harvard, where he later got a junior faculty position. In 1989 he was offered a senior faculty position, and he has been there ever since.
Professor Vafa, is the Donner Professor of Science at Harvard University. He is one of the main initiators and one of the leaders of research in String Theory - one of the leading physics theories for describing the interactions and forces of nature.
When did you decide to become a physicist and why?
Well, I was interested in physics, but I was not considering it as a profession when I was in Iran. After I came to study in the US, in my freshman year, I really liked physics and math, much much more than the rest of the courses I was taking. But I was still not reconciled with the idea of doing it as a job. The idea of majoring in science, at the time, was foreign to our culture. So after a bit of consideration – my parents were a great help, they never pushed me in anyone direction or another, so thanks to their openness – I was allowed to choose the direction I was interested in. So I ended up in physics and math.
But if you ask me since when I was interested in physics – that’s a different question – that goes as far back as I remember. I remember when I was first grade, whenever I would look at the moon, it was bothering me why it wouldn’t fall to the ground. That fact stuck with me, and also why other people were not bothered by it and treated it as if it was irrelevant. So these are the kinds of questions I’ve been interested in since childhood.
What would you have done if not physics?
Well, the natural path in Iran at the time, while I was studying at MIT, would have been some kind of engineering. So before I started I was thinking of doing some kind of a double-major in electrical engineering with some kind of management. So I took some electrical engineering courses and some economics courses in my first year at MIT and then I decided that this was not for me.
So the plan then was to finish the degree, and then go back to Iran?
The plan at the time was to do this and then go back. There was at that time no discussion of doing anything else. Even when I decided to do physics, one of my hesitations, was that I had realized that if I do a major in physics, I may not end up going back to Iran. There was not that much exciting research going on at the time.
And this was all during the revolution?
This was a mix of just before the revolution and during. In fact it was in the middle of my sophomore year that the revolution took place, but my decision to go into physics was taken before that.
This year, is the 100th anniversary of Einstein Miraculous year. As one of the leading physicists in the world, 100 years later, where do you think we stand, and how does the future look?
The future looks unclear, but exciting. I think that the amount that we have learned over the past century has been tremendous. But we now also understand that there is a lot more to go. From the point of view of what I’m interested in, which is string theory - the merging of quantum theory and gravity - the sociology and the development of the history of it has been extremely random. So it's hard to predict the future, given its path, and I’d rather not venture into speculation; but I think it's one of the most exciting adventures that theoretical physicists are engaged in, and it has led to a lot of brilliant physical insights; and as an offshoot, it has led to the development of various branches of mathematics. So I think that the fact that it has led to all these insights and connections in mathematics makes us more sure of its validity; but the question of when and where and how it will make the connection to experiment, is a big question and I have nothing to offer other than hope that, with recent advances in experiments such as some beautiful results in cosmology, in the future we will be able to get some experimental confirmation of string theory.
You go back very regularly to Iran. Do you have any memories that stand out for you, recent or from before?
Many things. In fact I consider myself more Iranian than anything else. So even though most of my time has been outside of Iran, most of my memories are from the 17 years or so that I was in Iran. They make up a great fraction of my memory. Generally what stands out from our culture is the hospitality of our people, and similar nice aspects of our culture are what I like and are the strength. If you ask me about what my most recent memories are, it’s meeting eager young minds working on theoretical physics, and basically feeling a little sad that I couldn’t be of more help. There are many who are looking for guidance and for help; and I certainly am not in the position to offer them much help, but I felt like they had so much more interest than the resources had to offer them, to realise their talent. It is a sad realization, but I was glad to see so much talent there.
And of course the parties and the get-togethers with family, they’re of course far too familiar to us all, for me to elaborate all.
Should someone ask you if you’re Iranian or Iranian-American, what would you answer?
In some ways Iranian, and in some ways American. A bit of a mixture of both. I think for all Iranians who are outside of Iran, whether they want to or not, they’re a bit mixed. For example, there are some aspects of what is going on in Iran which are quite foreign to me. But at the same time, there are a lot of things here which are still very foreign to me, even though it has been more that 20 years that I've been here. I think all of us who are outside of Iran are a bit mixed so that unfortunately, we don’t completely belong to either country, and also on the fortunate side, at the same time belong to both.
A year and a half ago, there was a big String Theory Workshop in the north of Iran: did you attend?
No unfortunately I was not able to, but I was involved in some of the fund-raising.
What do you think of the current state of research in Iran?
I’m impressed with the young minds, and the talent there. I'm impressed that they follow the recent developments, and as a matter of fact contribute at a high level. I'm quite impressed with the few senior faculty who are still there, doing a lot of interesting work, and encouraging the young people, directing them in the right direction. So those are all positive. And I'm impressed that they pay attention to try and develop connections with the outside, in terms of seminars, conferences, workshops. They’re very active especially at the Institute of Physics and Mathematics [IPM], and at Daaneshgaah San’atee [Sharif University]. They’re doing all they can, but it’s not enough. In other words, they’re doing all they can but the government or the institutions which are supposed to help should do more; clearly it’s not enough for the amount of talent and the amount of interest that we have in Iran.
Over the past few years, there are more and more Iranians taking positions in the various universities and research institutes in the US and abroad – like yourself and Prof. Nima Arkani-Hamed who are faculty at Harvard University, and generally making an impression on the world academia. What are your views on that?
Well, I'm not sure if I'm recognized, or Nima is recognized as being Iranian in the community. We are Iranian, but we’re not recognized so much for that. So unfortunately, one or two examples are just too little.
What do you think can be done about that?
Well, I can give you an idea what can be done, but I'm not sure if that's going to happen. Ideally what should happen is that there would be a more unified community of Iranians outside of Iran, in all areas, which would try and look after Iranian concerns; and be political or social or whatnot. Then, as a by-product, it would bring out the Iranians in all the different branches of science, art, or whatever. And basically to bring these people out to the Iranian community before even the international community; I don't think we're even known among our own community, let alone the bigger international community. The point is that we're too scattered and don't have a central community sense unfortunately. So I think the first step is to start from within ourselves, among Iranians, to get together more, make the effort and connect together, with the kind of things that you are doing, through newspapers, or websites.
I think those are the things we need to encourage. And I think that we have reached a critical mass, to try and do it a bit more internationally. Even within the US and Canada, we don't have such a grouping. So some kind of an Iranian network or society would be the first step, and then we can take further steps after that. We still need to develop these local pockets of Iranian interest.
Since the events in New York in 2001, we've heard stories of Iranian students or scientist in the United States, losing funding, or getting locked out of their labs. Have you, as a scientist in the US of Iranian heritage, experienced any kind of different treatment, or persecution?
Well, nothing to this degree towards me. If you’re asking if something has happened to me, then no, nothing. But, the climate has changed after those events. I think the whole US is different and changed, and I would say in a more negative direction. I think that terrorists succeeded unfortunately, in their sad goal, and I think, more than the Americans realize, and not in terms of casualties, but rather in terms of the psychological effect they had on this country; it has been disastrous. Unfortunately, the America that I remember is not the same America as now.
Has it been a different environment for your family growing up there, or have they been more immune to it, by virtue of having lived there longer?
Well they are too young perhaps. I have three kids under 12 years old. So they are not at the point where they ask deep questions about identity, but it has affected them a little bit. In their school they are supposed to write something which signifies who they are. And one of them says that ‘I'm Iranian’, or ‘my parents are Iranian’, so that means that it’s clear for them that it's a big thing. But how exactly they identify that with this, is rather unclear; they are still too young for that.
It is my hope that, when they grow up, they grow up in a way that would not alienate them from their Iranian culture; and it can in some way influence the American culture, in a way to be more understanding toward Eastern cultures and Iranian culture and so forth. I hope that is what will happen, not just for my kids, but for any kids growing up outside of Iran. I think that they should basically play the role of messengers from our culture. I think right now, there is just too much misunderstanding.
For example after September 11th, the first reaction was the knee-jerk reaction, but the second reaction should have been ‘why has this happened’. Let's go to the cultural reasons or political reasons. Unfortunately those questions are never asked. Maybe, a week or two after it happened, it was beginning to get asked, but suddenly it gets suppressed amazingly. Some of the discussion got completely diverted to how do we protect our security and that was basically the end of the story. There were no further discussion about ‘are there any wrong politics that we are having?’ ‘is this the result of a coherent mistake in our policies’ or ‘whether we should do anything about that’. Nothing. And unfortunately the media played a very sad role: instead of encouraging deep questions, root-cause questions, they basically got side-tracked by whether the security level is orange, or blue, or whatever.
Are you following the current political situation in Iran?
Yes I am following it, as I'm sure many of the Iranians abroad are. Unfortunately, the events are not very encouraging, especially after the defeat of the reformers. That was a golden opportunity which was lost.
What do you see as a possible solution?
Well, I think that it should be from within for sure. We, from the outside, can have some partial, minor involvement or help, but the greatest part of it, fortunately or unfortunately has to come from within. My feeling is that the youth will drive it. As you know, the percentage of population of Iran which are young, is growing, and forms a big fraction. And I think that they are going to drive the future events in Iran. And I don't think that the status quo will continue for long, with the explosion of youth population. Increasingly, what they hear is in contradiction with what their beliefs are, and I don’t think they are going to put up with it. But, exactly what will happen, and how it will happen, I don’t know.
You must have heard all the noise the last while about America's plan to invade Iran. Do you think that outside intervention, be it a full blown invasion, or be it the precision strikes that Israel is talking about, could be a solution to the nuclear dilemma of Iran?
I think that any involvement from outside of Iran, of any kind, would be disastrous; be it Israel, US, or whoever. I think it would be a grave error by whoever does it. Whether Iran is actually doing it or not, I don’t know. But if I know our culture, I would have thought that it's a good bargaining chip. I have a feeling that, that is how it's being used. I could be wrong on that, but, if I were to guess … I mean, the logic of it … I mean, for example, the negotiations that are going on with the Europeans, are precisely directed to take advantage of the position rather than actually trying to develop nuclear weapons. But that's if I were to make a guess. However, that's just speculation.
What – non scientific – book are you reading right now?
I just finished reading the book Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It was really really interesting, and I recommend it. It has so many references to the memories of that time period.
And finally, what do you enjoy about being a physicists?
Freedom of thinking and the excitement of discovery – of intellectual discovery.