American space experts at a conference in Esfahan. Photo
by Doug Biesecker
One planet, one people
American scientists visit Iran
August 17, 2000
From Alan Hale's travel diary to Iran. Hale, co-discoverer of Comet
Hale-Bopp and director of the Southwest
Institute for Space Research in New Mexico, led a group of American
space experts to Iran last month to attend an international conference
hosted by the Adib Astronomical
Society in Esfahan. Other American participants included former astronaut
McCandless, co-developer of the Manned Maneuvering Unit used by Space
Shuttle astronauts during the 1980s; Doug
Biesecker, astronomer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland
who works with the SOlar and
Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) project; Charles Morris, astronomer
at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and host of the Comet Observation Home Page; and Herman
Heyn, "sidewalk astronomer" from Baltimore, Maryland, who earlier
this year performed a 600-mile bicycling "stree-corner astronomy"
tour of Cuba. This was the second American scientific visit to Iran organized
with the help of Search
for Common Ground, an independent conflict-resolution group in Washington,
DC. Also see article
by Doug Biesecker.
July 19, 2000
Nothing to report yet; we leave tomorrow.
July 20, 2000
I'm writing this from the airport in San Antonio; I catch my next flight
in half an hour. The entire group will be meeting up in Amsterdam in about
twelve hours. I'm not sure when my next update will be, but it will probably
be from Iran. It looks like we're all on our way . . .
July 23, 2000
Made it! We're here in Esfahan. The last couple of days have been very
long, which is my excuse as to why there haven't been any updates. As expected,
we all met up in Amsterdam, for the five-hour flight to Tehran. We arrived
in Tehran around midnight local time, and then it was a couple of hours
before our luggage had been cleared through customs and we had been transported
to the guest house (apparently, on embassy row!) for what would turn out
to be a short nap. It was up at 4:30 AM and back at the airport for the
flight to Esfahan (only an hour), and we arrived at our hotel in time to
start a full day of conference activities. This included a meeting with
the mayor of Esfahan (with lots of media folks around), and I ended up
giving two talks at the conference, one in the morning, and a second one
(this one being for the general public) in the evening. Then, finally,
a chance to get a decent night's sleep, although before retiring for the
night I was up a bit late preparing for a third talk.
As I expected, the Iranian people continue to be very warm and friendly
towards us. We continue to be beset by those seeking autographs and conversation,
and I've politely had to tell one gentleman that I'm not quite the expert
on gravity waves that he needs to discuss his ideas with. (On the other
hand, I was able to give some feedback on his questions concerning
organic compounds, and the possibility of life, on comets.) Overall, a
confirmation and continuation of my perceptions last year of the Iranian
people's being friendly, intelligent, and industrious. I expect nothing
but more of the same as we continue through the rest of our week here.
Oh yes, the food is excellent. After a year away from them, I had no
problems having one of the ubiquitous kabobs for lunch yesterday. And for
those who are interested, I've already had my share of Zam Zam (one of
the cola drinks they have here).
I'll see if I can convince some of the others to write their thoughts
and perceptions for some of the later updates, and if possible, I'll see
if there's a way to include some photographs. Til, next time,
P.S. It so happens that last night was the 5-year anniversary of my
discovery of Hale-Bopp.
It would have been nice to have observed Comet
LINEAR to celebrate, but I was so wiped out last night after being
up for two straight days that that just wasn't going to happen. Besides,
right now we're in the middle of the city of Esfahan, so it wouldn't have
been too practical anyway.
July 24, 2000
It's been a busy three days at the conference, which is going to be
winding down this evening after a public talk by Bruce. The treatment we've
received this year has been, if it was possible, even warmer than it was
last year. I have apparently been accorded a celebrity status that is as
high as any I've ever been given anywhere, and in fact almost anywhere
I have gone during the course of the meeting I have been literally mobbed
by Iranian citizens -- mostly students, but some older individuals as well
-- seeking autographs, words of encouragement, having their photographs
taken with me, etc. Last night, when Charles in his public talk was giving
his choices for the top ten comets that have appeared during the past thirty
years, their was enormous popular support for that object of mine that
was in the sky three years ago as being the top one. (Charles had the audacity
to choose another object, however.) It has certainly been interesting getting
the "rock star" treatment . . .
We even got a chance to observe Comet LINEAR last night, after Charles'
talk. The members of the Adib Astronomical Society drove us out to one
of the observing sites (some 35 km north of Esfahan) and set up their 12
inch (30 cm) Schmidt-Cass telescope. The comet, unfortunately, has not
lived up to its expectations, and wasn't all that bright or impressive,
but the experience of observing this object from Iran with fellow sky enthusiasts
from this country was most enjoyable nevertheless.
It's inevitable that the discussions occasionally come around to politics.
There is an almost unanimous consensus that it is most unfortunate that
the state of relations between Iran and the U.S. is what it is, and that
travel and communications between the respective countries is so difficult.
I guess if there's one thing I've learned from my study of astronomy all
these years, it's that we live on one very tiny planet within one very
big universe, and that despite the fact that there may be differences in
our religious beliefs or the cultures within which we've been raised, we're
really all one people. My astronomically minded colleagues from Iran seem
to feel the same way and we all seem to agree that it is really silly to
let events which happened long ago in the past to affect our relationships
today. Perhaps that's why it's so gratifying to see so much outpouring
of support from the young people here, since many of the events which are
dividing our countries took place before they were born and thus are ancient
history to them. (Our own Stephanie Lester, who unfortunately -- due to
political reasons -- was unable to make this trip, echoed such sentiments
as these after our trip to Iran last year.)
Anyway, enough philosophizing. Tomorrow we take off to see some other
parts of Iran, with most of our time being spent in the vicinity of Shiraz.
No promises, but before I get this uploaded tomorrow morning I'll see if
I can get some thoughts from some of the other travelers in our group.
P.S. (written 7:00 AM on July 25): it does look like I will get this
uploaded this morning. Since we're departing Esfahan today I'm not exactly
sure when I will have a chance to upload another update, but hopefully
I will be able to do so at least once while in Shiraz. For that update
I should be able to have some photos from Doug, who has been busily clicking
away with his digital camera.
July 29, 2000
I'm writing this from Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. I think I've
found a terminal which will let me get this uploaded from the airport,
but if not I should be able to upload this when I get back to the U.S.
several hours from now.
Well, we made it out of Iran, of course, without any significant difficulties,
and the various members of the group have now gone their separate ways.
Most of the last few days of our trip were spent sight-seeing, and in fact
it seems like we never stopped from that particular activity. We spent
the night after our departure from Esfahan at the lakeside resort village
where our group observed Iran eclipse last
year's solar eclipse, and in fact we were able to grab a (relatively
brief) observation of Comet LINEAR after dusk that evening. Most of the
next day we spent traveling back to Esfahan, and then making the flight
down to Shiraz.
The next day (Thursday, the 27th) we went to the ruins of Persepolis
in the morning, and then some historical and other sites around Shiraz
during the afternoon and evening. Among these was one of the sacred mosques
in the city, and we were even able to go inside while some of the residents
were worshiping. To be truthful, I felt a bit uncomfortable while I was
in there (and some of the other members of the group expressed similar
sentiments to me); I don't share the residents' religious beliefs, but
I nevertheless feel that their practices should be respected, and I also
feel that religious worship should be a private matter if the practitioner
wishes it to be so, and consequently I felt like I was intruding. It was
nevertheless a rather fascinating experience to see how another culture
expresses its beliefs, and the mosque itself was simply incredible as far
as its structure is concerned.
There really isn't much else to relate as far as the events of the trip
are concerned. Yesterday (Friday) we spent waiting at the hotel in Shiraz
until our flight to Tehran took off, and once we arrived in Tehran we were
driven out to the guest house were we had spent our first few hours in
Iran. While there we did have a pleasant visit with the Charge d'Affaires
from the Swiss Embassy (the Ambassador -- whom we had met last year and
who had witnessed the eclipse with us -- currently being out of the country).
After a few hours of rest, it was on to the airport . . . and back home.
I think all of us felt this was an enjoyable and productive trip. We
especially enjoyed meeting with the various students while at the conference
in Esfahan, and getting their perspectives on the current state of affairs
in Iran and the relationship between our respective countries. They really
are the hope of the future (even though some of them told me that they
like the Backstreet Boys . . . ) and we all wish them well and hope they
are successful in their endeavors, both personal and otherwise. I think
we also came away with the sense that future collaborations are appropriate
and desirable, and already my mind is working on ideas . . . I get a sense
that I may be making additional trips to Iran in the future, and my colleagues
have told me that I am indeed welcome to go back there. Perhaps such future
visits, by myself, other members of the groups (from both last year's trip
and this year's), and other scientists, can really start breaking down
the walls which divide our countries. There are so many misperceptions
about Iran among people in the U.S. -- and I'm sure that the reverse is
also true. Through people-to-people visits such as these, perhaps we can
all start to get to know each other as fellow citizens of planet Earth.
I'll post at least one more update, probably a few days from now, after
I get my photographs processed and can put them on this page. I wasn't
able to get with Doug long enough to get his photographs, but he should
be putting them on his page
within a few days. Meanwhile, I hope the people reading this can come away
with a sense of the kinds of interactions we have had with our colleagues
in Iran, and can appreciate what we have tried to accomplish through our
trips to that country.
P.S. It looks like I can't get this uploaded from Amsterdam after all.
I'll thus try to do it later today, either from Memphis which is where
I'll be arriving into the U.S., or from San Antonio, where I'll be spending
the night en route back to New Mexico.
I've been home since Sunday afternoon, and I think it's fair to say
I've pretty much recovered from the trip. In a way it's hard to believe
I've made two trips to Iran within the last year; but the fact is I have,
and I feel I'm a richer person because of it. (Richer in a "better
person" sense, not necessarily a financial sense.)
I've received my pictures, and I've posted some of the better ones on
a special page. Meanwhile,
Doug has also posted the pictures he's taken; you can look at thumbnails of all of his
pictures -- note that this page takes a long time to download -- and some
of what he considers to be his better
ones. (Be warned: I'm in a few of those.) Other members of our group
may also be posting their thoughts and photos, and I'll include links to
them as I become aware of them.
Will there be a third trip (and more?) I've been told that I'm welcome
back in Iran almost any time I wish to return, and I have to say that that's
pleasing to know. I look forward to the day when all Americans can feel
welcome in Iran, and when all Iranians can feel welcome -- and are
welcome -- here in America. In fact, how about a day when all of us, everywhere,
are welcome everywhere on the planet? The earth is one planet, and despite
whatever differences may exist in our respective cultures, our religious
beliefs, etc., we are still nevertheless one people. It is up to each of
us to make this a reality, and we have the power within us to put away
old hatreds to make it happen. I, the people who have accompanied me on
my trips to Iran, and my friends and colleagues within that country, are
all doing our share. Now it's your turn . . . Alan
PS: For my parting thought I'd like to include an excerpt by Carl Sagan
from his book Pale
Blue Dot (Random House, 1994). These comments follow a distant
image of the earth taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990,
which shows our planet as a tiny, insignificant, "pale blue dot"
situated in the vastness of space:
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it
everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every
human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy
and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic
doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator
and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple
in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer,
every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar,"
every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history
of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of
the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that,
in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction
of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of
one corner of this pixel on the scarcely indistinguishable inhabitants
of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they
are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds...
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building
experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human
conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores
our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve
and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Also see article
by Doug Biesecker.