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Iran Makes the Sciences A Part of Its Revolution

Burton Richter, right, an American Nobel laureate in physics who spoke at Sharif University in Tehran, called the students there "very impressive."
Burton Richter, right, an American Nobel laureate in physics who spoke at Sharif University in Tehran, called the students there "very impressive." (By Newsha Tavakolian -- Polaris)

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 6, 2008

TEHRAN -- As Burton Richter, an American Nobel laureate in physics, entered the main auditorium of Tehran's prestigious Sharif University, hundreds of students rose to give him a loud and lengthy ovation. But Richter, wearing a white suit and leaning on a cane, said he was the one who should be awed.

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"The students here are very impressive," Richter said, lauding the high level of education at Sharif. "I expect to hear a lot more from you all in the future."

The students, young men and women with laptops and smart briefcases, giggled in their seats. A woman took pictures of the Stanford professor emeritus, whose visit last month was part of a privately funded academic program run by the National Academies of the United States and universities in Iran.

"Mr. Richter is an example for us," explained Ismael Hosseini, a 23-year-old electrical engineering student who had managed to get a seat near the stage. "But soon I will be able to listen to an Iranian scientist who has received a Nobel Prize for his or her work," he said. "We are all studying and researching hard to receive this honor."

Iran's determination to develop what it says is a nuclear energy program is part of a broader effort to promote technological self-sufficiency and to see Iran recognized as one of the world's most advanced nations. The country's leaders, who three decades ago wrested the government away from a ruler they saw as overly dependent on the West, invest heavily in scientific and industrial achievement, but critics say government backing is sometimes erratic, leaving Iran's technological promise unfulfilled.

Still, Iranian scientists claim breakthroughs in nanotechnology, biological researchers are pushing the boundaries of stem cell research and the country's car industry produces more cars than anywhere else in the region.

"Iran wants to join the group of countries that want to know about the biggest things, like space," Richter said to the students during his speech at Sharif University, which draws many of the country's best students. Every year, 1.5 million young Iranians take a national university entrance exam, or "concours." Of the 500,000 who pass and are entitled to free higher education, only the top 800 can attend Sharif, considered Iran's MIT.

At Sharif, students work in fields including aerospace and nanotechnology. While some end up advancing Iran's nuclear program or finding work in other technological fields in Iran, many, especially PhD candidates, are lured by employers or universities in Australia, Canada and the United States.

"Our visitors are flabbergasted when they come to our modern laboratories and see women PhD students. Often they had a completely different image of Iran, not as an academic country," said Abdolhassan Vafai, a professor at Sharif. "Here, we educate our students to solve problems that affect all humanity, like hunger, global warming and water shortages."

But in Iran, scientists are also expected to serve ideological goals. Iran's leaders hold up their inventions as proof that the country's 1979 revolution has made it independent and self-sufficient.

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened Iran's first space center in February, he issued a launch order sending a test missile into space and proclaimed that "no power can overcome Iran's will."

Iran hopes to launch its second satellite -- the first was launched commercially by a Russian company -- within weeks, using a locally made rocket. Iran's advances in this field cannot be independently verified.


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