BEIRUT: As head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles Elachi’s work may have taken him all the way to Mars – overseeing the Exploration Rover missions – but that does not mean the Bekaa Valley native has forgotten his roots.
“I was always fascinated by science,” he says. “But when you grow up in a little village in Lebanon, you don’t imagine that you will become a major player in NASA.”
What set him on the path, he says, was the quality of the Lebanese educational system and the commitment of his family to education.
That has remained important to him, and until very recently he served as the chairman of the board of trustees at the Lebanese American University, where The Daily Star spoke to him shortly before he received an honorary degree from the institute.
His background also means that Elachi, who studied in France and then the California Institute of Technology before joining JPL in 1970, feels a personal connection to the state of science in the Middle East.
“Science is essential for the welfare of any society, because it allows you to gain knowledge, to develop new ideas and new technologies,” Elachi says. “One of the challenges for the Middle East is to catch up with rest of the world by investing in education and the sciences.”
Last April Ahmed Zewail, the Nobel laureate and U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East, wrote an article for the New Scientist magazine in which he highlighted the specific ways political change could become a catalyst for innovation in the sciences in the region.
Though perhaps not as sure as Zewail of the potential for change, Elachi nonetheless also sees an opportunity.
“There is some connection,” between political change and scientific innovation,” Elachi says. “I wouldn’t say it is a very strong connection, but clearly you need enlightened politicians to invest in things which will give knowledge.”
He cites the Soviet Union as an example of the importance of freedom of thought, and expression.
“When I’d go to the Soviet Union I was amazed that their different laboratories did not know what the other laboratories were doing. In the United States that would be unheard of,” he says. “Open interaction leads to new ideas and new innovation and so on.
“Ideas are a collective effort, so by having a free society – a politically free society – I think it will lead to the gaining of more knowledge and innovation and so on.
“I hope in the longer term that is what will happen, in the Middle East.”
Elachi has learned that the value – in the work that JPL does – in the willingness to try and achieve the seemingly unachievable.
“People thought it was impossible for us to land a car on another planet,” Elachi says of the Mars Curosity, the rover launched on Aug. 6 of this year to widespread public attention. “Almost everybody thought we were crazy.”
Similarities can be drawn with what is currently going on in the region.
“People even two years ago, thought that certain things would never change – things are changing now,” he says.
“You can argue that they are changing for the better or for the worse – that’s a judgment that people can make – but it’s really making people think that things that their parents thought were not possible, it is possible to do that.
“The question now is to manage to guide it hopefully in the right direction,” he adds.
Though it is too soon to tell, that may have a knock-on effect even into the way people view scientific research.
“When people see that if there is a change then things can happen, it gives them more the courage – the incentive – to actually keep trying, to do it,” Elachi says.
But if Elachi does not overemphasize the importance of politics, it is possibly because in his line of work his perspective is somewhat broader.
“I have a picture in my office taken from the Cassini spacecraft of the rings of Saturn, and if you look closely you can see a tiny dot – and that’s Earth.
“Here you have all the people you know, all the people you love, all the people you hate, that you ever met, on such a teeny dot. And when you think about it, all these people are alike. They are all part of society,” he says.
“What I hope is that the young people [in Lebanon] can transcend all this factional fighting, and all the things that happened to their parents and their grandparents and see that these are inconsequential. They don’t mean anything, in the big picture of things.”
Change in the Middle East, he says, is likely to come slowly.
“I wish I could predict these things, but if we look at advanced societies, the West, it took a long time,” he says.
But patience is also expected in Elachi’s day job.
“[With the Mars Rovers] you don’t have a discovery every five minutes,” he says. “We’re always very careful and cautious. First of all, it’s on another planet, so you don’t drive it like a Lebanese driver on the highway here. You go very slowly and very carefully, to make sure you don’t make any mistakes.”