Summer 1996 (4.2)
Science That Made a Difference
- by Betty Blair
"Most people don't realize how strong Azerbaijan is in the sciences," says Azad Mirzajanzade, one of the Republic's foremost scientists. "When Westerners think of Azerbaijan, they don't expect to find a country full of sophisticated scientists. We may have been poor and lived under many restrictions. But we were not forbidden to think. To tell you the truth, science has really developed to higher stages here than in the West because we had to work with very simple equipment and we had to think how to achieve results despite our limitations. The simpler the machine, the more you have to think. So we used our brains. Some projects that they're just beginning to explore in the States, we were working on them ten years ago.
Unfortunately, these days, Azerbaijanis are less and less able to take advantage of their scientific advancement and knowledge base which has taken so many years to accumulate. The economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union has hit intellectuals very hard, perhaps the hardest. Scientists, professors and researchers are having to look for other possibilities just to be able to survive. According to Murtuz Alaskarov, Rector of Baku State University, 80 professors have already left their faculty. Many of them, fortunately, still try to hold on to their fields, even if it means packing up for a while and working in neighboring countries. Turkey seems to be the greatest beneficiary of this crisis as similarities in culture and language make assignments there less painful. The only other option for many intellectuals is to give up academics all together. University professors, for example, draw a government salary of about $20 a month. A street vendor can probably make more selling cigarettes in a single day. There have even been a few known cases of suicides among professors who opted out, rather than "lose their dignity."
Theory vs. Application
Science in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period had a different emphasis than science in the West, according to Dr. Hafiz Pashayev, Azerbaijan's Ambassador to the United States and himself a physicist. "We concentrated on theoretical investigations, in other words, science merely for the sake of science, even in practical fields such as engineering. It was a terrible mistake for us. When our scientists invented something, we didn't care how fast it was implemented in industry. Our system didn't have the mechanisms to encourage applied science. We were paid the same amount whether we applied our theories or not."
Left: Billboard in Baku - 1996
He's right. and the consequences for Azerbaijani and Soviet scientists are that the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans are benefiting by finding applications for the theories which, in many cases, had already been worked out.
Science and Oil
Scientific research, beginning from the second half of the 19th century, developed primarily in relationship to oil production and refining, though the use of oil for fuel and medicinal purposes had been known from ancient times. For the past 100 years or so, science has expanded into many related fields from geology, to geophysics, geo-chemistry, physics, electronics, control systems, mathematics and many more. Today, oil is still the engine for scientific invention in Azerbaijan. This year, the Oil Academy, celebrates its 75th Jubilee. The school has expanded to include eight departments: 1) geological search; 2) gas and oil industry; 3) chemical technology; 4) oil mechanics; 5) energetics; 6) automation of production processes; 7) economics of oil and gas energy complex and 8) international economic relations which includes management and marketing. There are 66 chairs, and more than 1,150 staff members. Over the years, the Oil Academy has graduated around 75,000 students-many from other parts of the Soviet Union and foreign countries. Currently, 15,000 students are enrolled, 40 percent of whom are women.
Westerners have been surprised at the intellectual resources that are available in Azerbaijan. Some oil executives expected that they would have to import everything to the Caspian-including the "know-how." But they're finding this isn't true. SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) is one of the largest companies in the world with 80,000 employees. Vast intellectual resources are waiting to be tapped, especially among the young people, if companies commit to provide training on modern equipment that has not been available for them. Numerous companies, including AIOC (Azerbaijan International Oil Company) are actively recruiting from this vast pool of knowledge. It's clearly the right direction to go and will contribute to a much stronger country and promising future.
Azerbaijan's geographical location in the Caucasus has been another contributing factor for their high achievement in education and science. For centuries, possibly even millennia, this region has been a corridor between East and West, North and South. The Caucasus linked China to Europe, Russia to Persia and the Arabian world. And with all this interaction-these comings and goings-the people living in Azerbaijan and the adjacent area gained exposure to some of the greatest thinkers of the day.
English - Language of Science
The language of science for Azerbaijanis has been Russian for the past 70 years. Scientists gained access to the latest developments in their respective fields via journals in the Russian language. In turn, their own works received wide attention through distribution in Russian throughout the Soviet Union and beyond.
Today, a shift in language usage is becoming evident as English becomes the language of science for Azerbaijanis. Those journals are no longer available, the Republic doesn't have the money to buy them. The presence of international oil companies establishing themselves in Baku and the opportunities to train abroad in scientific fields fuels their interests. Another boost in science via English will come when the Internet gets set up in Azerbaijan which, hopefully, should happen within the year.
Outside the Republic
Nor must the contribution of Azerbaijanis living outside of the Republic or Iran be overlooked. Many Azerbaijanis, especially those who have immigrated from Iran, are making strong contributions in scientific fields all over the world. Several have impacted world technologies with their discoveries and theories.
In this issue, we feature Ali Javan, currently at MIT, whose gas laser invention of 1960 continues to challenge modern technology. But Javan doesn't stop there, he's busy with the next invention to take electronics out of radio frequency into the light wave frequency range which would speed up information processing tremendously. In our Autumn 1994 issue (AI 2.4), we focused on Lotfi Zadeh, born in Baku and Inventor of "Fuzzy Logic" of 1965, a theory which has brought about an explosion of inventions in electronics in our everyday world. (Also see Lotfi and Japanese Prize and his Commencement Speech at UC Berkeley in 1997- AI 6.1 "When You Can't Stop for Lunch).
"Drop in the Bucket"
As with so many subjects that we've focused on in the past-the arts, medicine, and literature-we're obliged once more to admit that we've barely managed to introduce the subject. What we discuss in the following pages is merely "a drop in the bucket" compared to what really exists. We apologize, but hope we manage to whet the appetitie of many readers to make further discoveries on their own.
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