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Facing Mount Nebo

By Obadiah Malafia

I’M writing this piece from the Jordan Valley, about 40 km from the Jordanian capital of Amman. I have been here for a week, attending the Second World Science Forum, WSF, which took place from 7 – 11 November.  More than 3,000 scientists were assembled, in fields ranging from astronomy and theoretical physics to medicine, bioengineering, genetics and robotics.

Mount Nebo

For those conversant with the geography of the Middle East, the Dead Sea, which is located within the Jordan Valley, is 390 metres below sea level; reputed to be the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea is literally what it name says – dead. There is no iota of life, microbial or otherwise inside it. But it is also reputed for its curative powers. For many, it is a rare elixir. People come from far and wide to bath in it and smear themselves with its antediluvian earth. My hotel is located literally besides the Dead Sea.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a delight for archaeologists. From the Romano-Greek ruins of Petra to the site of Christ’s baptism on the River Jordan, the whole country breathes and swims history.

From my hotel window I see the august Mount Nebo high above the horizon. According to Biblical accounts, it was here that Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land, although it was only his progeny that would get there. From Mount Nebo you can behold, on a clear day, the entire panoramic view of the Holy Land, including the West Bank city of Jericho, famed for its ancient walls that were, according to tradition, felled by the mere blowing of the Jewish musical horn, the shofar. Both Christian and Muslim traditions say that Moses was buried on Mount Nebo, although no one has been able to discover his actual tomb.

Mount Nebo represents for me a metaphor. From the deepest point of the earth we had a World Science Forum that explored the uttermost reaches of the universe and the deepest things of the mind.  The theme of WSF 2017 is “Science for Peace”.  This could not be more germane in a region in turmoil; a region that has known no peace since 1948, when the Jewish state of Israel was unilaterally declared and became a reality in fact, if not in law.

The conference was declared open by His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal, a prominent member of the Jordanian royal family and younger brother to late King Hussein. The prince astonished everyone by the depth of his intellect. He happens to be an Oxford- educated historian and philosopher with mastery of languages ranging from his native Arabic to English, French, German, Turkish, Spanish and Hebrew. Prince Hussein rhapsodised about the need for cooperation in science and for deploying science to the service of humanity and for peace. He spoke about Einstein and about epistemology. In front of everyone he declared: “We are nothing; Humanity is everything”.

The Head of the Organising Team was none other than Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint Hassan, daughter of Prince Hassan himself. She is a well-spoken and articulate young woman who heads the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan. She is also founder of a university that bears her name, Princess Sumaya University for Technology which is based in Kingdom’s capital of Amman. I had occasion to meet with the princess and commended her for organising one of the best international conferences I have ever had the privilege to participate in. The whole proceedings went with the harmony and orderliness of a Vienna orchestra. There was so much to eat and drink. Every evening was filled with entertainment.  In the last evening Princess Sumaya herself took to the dance floor as if she would have danced all night!

One of the highlights of the event was the presence His Royal Majesty King Abdullah II. He spoke of the commitment of his country to develop science for the development and for social justice. He urged the august assembly to re-commit to making science a veritable tool of social and economic transformation and for peace. The king used the occasion to award prestigious national honours to about a dozen Jordanian scientists for services to science both at home and abroad. It was a highly moving occasion.

The key facilitator of the conference was none other than the Japanese-American theoretical physicist, futurist and celebrated author Professor Michio Kaku. He was a great speaker and facilitator. He inspired us with his own prognostications about the future of science. He spoke about how flying cars, supersonic plans and magnetic levitation trains will transform world public transport systems. He also spoke about how robotics and nanotechnology will transform medical science, education and the very way in which we live.

The conference itself had a rich confetti of sub-themes. They included: connecting scientists with policy and diplomacy for peace; new frontiers in science teaching, education and research in the university; encouraging women in science; promoting science for food security, nutrition and agriculture; scientific cooperation and regional integration; twenty-first century interdisciplinary science and technologies; role of artificial and human intelligence in solving global challenges; the energy/water nexus – intelligent management systems for sustainability and fairness; science-based advice to policymakers in an era of alternative facts; persistent bacteria and global pandemics; role of refugee scientists; international funding for science and technology in Africa; light sources and crystallographic sciences for sustainable development; and sustainable development goals and the future we want.

I was invited to the forum as a social scientist and development economist with a passion for science and technology policy. I have always believed with C. P. Snow that an educated person is someone who knows something about the discipline other than his own. Ever since I read Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica as a starry-eyed teenage undergraduate, I have always been fascinated by science. I have deep interests in the history and philosophy of science from Thomas Kuhn to Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend.

As an economist I know that human progress is possible only through enhanced productivity rooted in scientific and technological innovation. The poorest countries are those that do not or cannot innovate. Those who achieve prosperity are those that are resolutely committed to scientific and technological innovation.

Sadly, Nigeria was not officially represented in this important scientific gathering.  I regret very much that we as a country seem more committed to superstition than to science. Only some 20% of our young people are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The opposite is the case with China and the Asia Pacific countries. We must place science in its rightful place in our national development priorities if ours is to become a humane, enlightened and prosperous democracy.

Even in the deepest valleys of life, my eyes will forever be set on Mount Nebo.


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