Choueiri shifts his sights from space to sound

Choueiri chairs Princeton University’s Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Laboratory.

BEIRUT: Edgar Choueiri picked up his father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder one day in 1972 and taped a message to himself about what he wanted to be when he grew up. The 11-year-old Tripoli boy intended to listen to the tape after he turned 30.

Nowadays Choueiri lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where he chairs the university’s Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Laboratory. He’d forgotten about the tape until his sister found it five years ago.

Listening to the 30-minute tape was an emotional experience, Choueiri said, made all the more poignant by the fact that he has fulfilled nearly all his youthful aspirations.

“I’m 11 years old now and you must be well above 11 years old,” Choueiri’s youthful voice says, in Arabic. “Although you exist in a different time, I am talking to you through this machine in my hands. I’m not sure if this tape will survive. I would love it if you have become an astronaut or if you were working in aerospace and electronics and playing with instruments.”

Choueiri lives in the U.S., just as he wanted to do three decades ago. Though he isn’t an astronaut, the plasma rocket technology he developed at his Princeton lab has enabled hundreds of spacecraft to travel the solar system more efficiently and inexpensively than traditional chemical rockets.

While he excels at no instrument in particular, his love of music and recording inspired him to explore the possibilities of 3-D sound – a technology many believe will revolutionize the experience of sound more than any development since the leap from mono to stereo in the 1950s.

Choueiri’s 3-D sound filter allows listeners to hear sound as it is made, and heard, live. The technology eliminates cross talk. This is a sort of aural “leakage,” which causes the left ear, say, to hear not only the sound produced in the left side of the room but also snippets of the sound the right ear is hearing. Cross talk confuses the brain’s natural capacity to process sound spatially.

Choueiri left Lebanon to study in France in 1975, but he remains connected to this country by various means. He is chairman of the Lebanese Academy of Sciences and has relationships with other diasporic Lebanese who have made a mark on scientific research in the U.S. His hobby is zajal, a form of freestyle rhythmic debate first recorded in Arabic tradition in the 12th century.

In a telephone interview, The Daily Star spoke to Choueiri about various facets of his life and work, China’s race to settle the moon, and the state of science in Lebanon.

Q: Tell me about your work at the Lebanese Academy of Sciences.

A: The Academy of Sciences is not understood by many laymen around the world, especially in Lebanon. It’s where very senior and very well established scientists are elected to be part of the academy to advise the nation on a pro bono, volunteer basis about national science policy.

To be elected to the Academy of Sciences in France or the U.S. is the highest distinction a scientist can earn other than the Nobel Prize.

The French decided to launch an Academy of Sciences in Lebanon in 2009. We have bylaws that 60 percent of the members have to be Lebanese or of Lebanese origin. We have 20 members now and at least five are Lebanese living in Lebanon.

Q: What has the Academy achieved so far?

A: We were formed in 2009 and it’s volunteer work so it is hard to arrange a time to convene all the members in Lebanon. Second of all, the security situation in Lebanon made it difficult for all of us to assemble. Both of the prime ministers helped us a lot, especially [Fouad] Siniora.

We held a big symposium in Lebanon in 2011, where we invited every scientist in the country. I think we had more than 160 people. We broke into sections and asked scientists about the obstacles they face and a U.S. scientist chaired each session.

We recorded every word and wrote a report. It’s pretty much complete and was supposed to be presented last year, but we had to delay it. Basically it makes suggestions about areas of scientific research in which Lebanon is well placed to excel.

Q: Are there a lot of internationally recognized scientists doing research work in Lebanon?

A: In every country I visit, at every single symposium, I meet a scientist of Lebanese origin or who was born in Lebanon. The Lebanese diaspora is doing very important work.

I’ve also given a lot of speeches and written papers advising the government on how it can reverse the brain drain. One of the functions of the Academy is to connect scientists in the country to scientists in the Lebanese diaspora.

Q: What are some of the areas in which Lebanon can excel?

A: Some of the areas are due to Lebanon’s natural attributes. Solar energy is one of them because Lebanon has 350 days of sun per year.

The other suggestions are based on Lebanon’s strengths in health care and the environment.

If I had to single out one area in Lebanon that could reverse the brain drain with very little investment, it would be the IT sector.

If the laws – which are like Ottoman-era laws and discourage entrepreneurship – and security situation improve, it would take very little to develop the information technology sector in Lebanon. People want to move back and you can do it from anywhere.

When I raise this issue, I invariably hear that Lebanon does not have a streamlined system for small companies to be set up and that its tax regime is not competitive. Broadband access is the biggest single impediment to IT growth. We single this out as a source of shame in the article.

Solving the broadband problem and having laws conducive to startups would do a lot to reverse the brain drain. Combining the IT industry with the sectors in which Lebanon already excels – like banking, hospitality and the health industry – and developing software for these things would be the next step.

Q: Were you encouraged to study science as a child and given the educational resources to do so?

A: I grew up before the Civil War started. I was in [my] early teens when it started. I grew up in a nurturing environment. My mother was a science and French teacher in a public school in Tripoli, and my father ran a manufacturing company and encouraged my interest in space and gave me rockets.

My sister also went into science ... and is very well known in her field. I also grew up at a time when the Apollo program was expanding globally so I knew when I was 8 or 9 that I wanted to work in space.

I used to go up to the mountains with a telescope and draw maps of constellations. So I’ve always been interested in space.

Q: How do you feel about the possibility of countries settling in space?

A: Colonization has such negative connotations in Lebanon, but I think humans are destined to settle on nearby planets and will establish permanent settlements on the moon soon. We have the technology to do that now, though it is very expensive.

The Chinese are extremely active right now in space exploration. I think we will see humans settling on the moon in the next few decades. China has been very active in this realm. I know that their program is evolving in the direction of building a permanent settlement on the moon. I know that the technology is not only within our grasp – most of it was developed in the 1970s.

But it is very expensive. It costs [at least] $100,000 per kilogram to put something in orbit and even more to land on the moon.

Q: Is that what motivated your research?

A: Yes, I have always been interested in developing more cost and fuel-efficient rockets.

The problem is that the funding for space research in all nations comes from the government. One of the best things that has happened in the realm of space travel recently is that private companies are building more efficient rockets now.

Virgin Galactic and Space X are two of them. This bodes well for a reduction in costs of space travel in the near future. Once cost goes from $100,000 to $10,000 even a small nation like Lebanon can be involved in the space program. We see this in Israel now.

I’ve also been very active in encouraging Gulf countries to become more active in the field of space travel research. Countries like the UAE and Qatar are well positioned here.

NASA has grown into a very big institution. Ironically, there is a single NASA center that everyone in the field cites as the model lab, the NASA jet propulsion laboratory. Its director, and a fellow member of the Lebanese Academy of Scientists, is Charles Elachi. Moustafa Chahine [NASA AIRS team leader], who passed away recently, is also Lebanese.

But I think there is a general consensus in the field that NASA as an institution has grown too fat and it is protected by senators and that sort of thing.

Q: Tell me about your 3-D sound research.

A: My way of getting close to music has been to record sound. My father had a reel-to-reel machine ... Since I was a kid I’ve been enamored with music and since I wasn’t very good at playing any musical instruments, I concentrated on sound.

I started reading all the research about sound and saw that it was focused on the tonal development of sound, rather than the spatial development. So I made a little lab in my home and started developing a mathematical solution to the problems I found.

I eventually moved my lab to the university and got a patent on the algorithm and have been licensing it. Now it’s the third-largest grossing patent in university history.

The largest source of licensing revenue has been from a best-selling speaker system called the jam box, whose CEO is also of Lebanese origin.

The 3-D sound work has been great because I’ve done a lot of work in [space/plasma] that has been published in journals and read by my colleagues but doesn’t impact peoples’ lives. So it’s been particularly fun to see people enjoy it. Recently I left the Apple store and an employee was raving about the speakers. I had to restrain myself from telling him it was my invention.

I now have a full 3-D sound lab with grad students, post docs and researchers right next to my jet propulsion lab, and I divide my time pretty evenly between the two.

Q: What about your love of zajal?

A: I learned zajal when I was 12 ... I had forgotten a lot of the language, so I started studying it again seriously seven years ago to reconnect to the Arabic language ... with Yuself Abdu Samad [one of the foremost experts of zajal who lives in New York City].

Both of my grandparents were poets, so it’s always been important to me. I decided to study it to reconnect to Arabic and be able to express myself better. I’ve never performed in Lebanon, but I’ve performed in New York City.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2013, on page 2.




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