A galaxy not so far away

Construction of the GCC's largest telescope is sparking a public love affair with space. Kate Dobinson ask two of Dubai's elemental science stars why we should fall head over heels for the subject

There is the galaxy of infinite possibilities, and then there is the world of Rohan Roberts and Lara Matossian. 

The director and co-founder of SciFest Dubai have myriad innovative and entrepreneurial projects in orbit around them. Take a trip to Cafe Scientifique, otherwise known as coffee with a shot of science that lets you in on secrets from code-breaking to sports science, or treat yourself to a helping of Intelligent Optimism, perhaps?

This is a pivotal year for enhancing public interest in space and scientific possibility. Firstly, Hasan Al Hariri, chief executive of the Dubai Astronomy Group has revealed that the Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre in Mushrif Park is '90 per centdone' and on track to be built by the end of 2016.  The Dh40m observatory will house the biggest active telescope in the GCC and will 'tell the story of the universe,' he says. 

Of course, the UAE's high profile Space Programme is also essential to inspiring an enthusiasm for science and is also 'essential to spreading happiness', according to Omran Sharaf, project manager of Emirates Mars Space Mission. It is clearer then ever before that Dubai is rapt with the mysteries of space. 

But is it too late to fall in love with science as adults? We ask Rohan and Lara for a guided tour into the realm of astronomy, science and technology...

Lara and Rohan Science
Lara Matossian and Rohan Roberts

Where does your sense of wonder for all things scientific and space stem from?

Rohan: As a child I was always curious about the world. I needed to know how things worked. And I soon learned that science is the best tool we have to make sense of the world around us. Science is more than just a body of knowledge – it’s a way of thinking. And when we look at the world through a scientifically literate lens, the world becomes a place of answers and explanations.

Lara: In the words of renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Science is like a utility belt you wear – it prepares you to grapple with the world.” An understanding of the scientific method creates, develops and maintains one’s intellectual integrity. In order for progress to be true, profound and comprehensive, we need to be equipped with intellectual integrity with its foundation being critical thinking, which is developed by following the thought mechanism of the scientific method.

What can the awesome power of science teach us about our relatively tiny places on earth? 

Rohan: One of the most poetic things I know is the Pale Blue Dot. It’s an image of earth taken by the Voyager One space probe from six billion km away. That image had 640,000 pixels – of mostly nothing except the empty void of space. Earth was just half a pixel in that image.That image of earth as a pale blue dot, underscores how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. Astronomy is a humbling, and, a character-building experience.

Lara: One of the books that had a profound impact on me was Dr. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. He writes about how a layperson can equip themselves with the tools they need to dissect sensationalised articles that quote “scientific studies” and peddle pseudo-science to the detriment of people’s health. This is every day, this is immediate – it’s real and it’s all around us.  Only through embracing the scientific method can we cut through the nonsense and see it for what it is.

Cafe Scientifique
Take a trip to Cafe Scientifique, otherwise known as coffee with a shot of science

Why is there increased appetite for learning about science in Dubai?

Rohan: A thousand years ago when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, the Middle East saw a flourishing of scientific inquiry and investigation. We refer to that period as the Golden Age of Arabic Science. The reason for the increased appetite for learning about science in Dubai is because the rulers recognize the importance of returning to that Golden Age. 

What fundamentally drives you to run myriad exciting projects? Do you ever sleep?

Rohan: I’m an educator at heart. All the events, festivals, clubs, social movements, workshops, think-tanks, and various groups we run for students and the wider community is part of our drive to create a better world. That may sound lofty or airy-fairy, but it’s true. One of the movements I’m most proud to have co-founded is the Intelligent Optimism movement – which aims to help people appreciate the positive impact of science and realise that contrary to mainstream media the world is actually getting better and not worse. We are living in the best possible time in human history. This isn’t a Pollyanna outlook. We base it on science, reason, evidence, statistics and data. Intelligent Optimism started out as a small Dubai-based movement but in the last two years it has gone global. We now have over 300,000 followers worldwide and have recently opened chapters in Boston and Vancouver as well.

Rohan telescope
Looking at the world in new ways

At Café Scientifique, you say for the price of a cup of coffee you can explore the latest ideas in science and technology – give us an expresso shot of the latest ideas in STEM…

Rohan: What we’re now seeing is an exponential growth in technology. Ray Kurzweil, who is the head of engineering at Google, says that in the next 100 years we will see the equivalent of 20,000 years’ worth of progress. Rapid advances in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, quantum computing, 3-D printing, neuroscience and astrophysics will usher in a world that will be absolutely astonishing. We’ve put a man on the moon; sent rovers to Mars; launched space probes that have left our solar system; we’ve learnt more about the human brain in the last five years than in all the previous centuries put together; we’ve taken pictures of the edge of the visible universe; we’re discovering exoplanets at an astonishing rate; we’re uncovering a veritable zoo of fundamental particles… the list of the astonishing things happening in STEM is mind-boggling!

Why  are events like the recent Mercury Transit on May 9 worth watching? 

Rohan: Events like the Mercury Transit are fairly rare. (The last time this happened was in 2006.) These events are worth watching because they remind us of our place in the cosmos. Astonishing events are happening right now out there in the universe: as we speak, millions of stars are being born and millions are dying in spectacular supernovas; black holes, gamma ray bursts, comet impacts, meteor strikes… there is stuff happening out there that we’re normally too busy to notice. Making time for astronomy and cosmic events highlights our connection with the rest of the universe.

Cafe Scientifique Rohan Roberts Lara Matossian
Making time for cosmic events highlights our connection with the universe

What is your favourite scientific fact that everyone should know? 

Rohan: There are two facts that I usually like to share with people: one is that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand in all the deserts and beaches of our planet. And the other fact is that we are literally star dust. This is not a metaphor. The most abundant elements in the universe are hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. The most abundant elements in our body are exactly the same. All the elements in our body –iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and so on – were forged in the core of stars that died and scattered their enriched guts across the universe. We – and all life on this planet – are literally star dust.

If you could live on any alternative planet, what would it be?

Rohan: I would love to live on one of the moons of Saturn – perhaps Titan. Can you imagine how spectacular Saturn-rise would be?! The majestic rings of Saturn would be mind-blowing enough – but the constellation of moons orbiting around it would be a very special sight at night.

Lara: I would like to try another dimension altogether! What would the laws of physics be like there and what would I be like? How different would I be? Would I exist in another form? What about the equivalent of the solar system in that dimension? Would there be multiple suns? The possibilities are infinite. I would also like to leave you with these last words, from Albert Einstein: “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead…”