Esmaeil Mirfakhraei, the man who introduced many Iranians to the world of science through his TV program, sat down for an interview during a visit to Australia. Mirfakhraei graduated from Tehran University in the field of biology and continued his studies at North Illinois University, where he graduated with a B.A. in radio and television studies and a M.A. in educational communication. He began his career as a TV producer and host for “Science” (Danesh). He has made more than 500 TV programs. Mirfakhraei continues to lecture at various institutions and takes active part at film festivals both as a documentary maker or as member of the judging committee.
Lots of Iranians are familiar with your voice from the popular “Science” program back in the 1970s. You are something of a celebrity in Iran. How do you reflect on your life having lived and worked under two different systems of governments?
I tried to find myself an appropriate position for being forcefully removed after the revolution from Iranian Radio-TV. I spent a couple of years in the US and Australia hoping to continue my career in a different land. But finally I decided to return to Iran as a free-lance documentary filmmaker, without being attached to any government organization.
I was more appreciated by the old regime; after all they helped me to become a TV producer and presenter. The new system could not take advantage of educated and experienced people like myself. So, independently, I did a couple of TV series on science after the revolution.
My programs were received warmly by the viewers. However, this still did not lead to any contract assignment by the country's Radio-TV industry. So my connection with them has always remained lukewarm and tenuous which is a shame in a way.
How do you review your career as a producer of scientific shows?
It used to be interesting. But at the moment I cannot evaluate the effect on the Iranian people. Because first of all, the new generation of Iranians are so busy with their day today social obligations that scientific matters are not high on their list of interest, understandably. Although many young students are still interested in science, their interests are either superficial or if genuine, wanes with lack of support, feedback and proper infrastructures to make our young scientific talents to flourish. We always have talents in Iran and the sad thing about it is that they never enough support. I remember this was not the case when I worked for Radio-TV in the 70s when science was taken very seriously.
How strong is your commitment to the scientific world, which is ever flourishing in the West?
I think I always have a sense of appreciation toward West due to their technical achievements but I never forget that the idea of scientific realism started in the East by the people like Ibn Sina (Avizenna) and Razi and this has been transferred to the West by the likes of Thomas Aquinas.
Has the direction of science gone through changes after the revolution?
I think it is becoming more a practical tool for business, either in the form of political issues or in the form of salesmanship to promote certain educational and scientific products. Unfortunately we are not in any way pioneers in any scientific field.
With your qualifications and experience you could have easily gone overseas to live and work, as so many people of your generation have. What has kept you in Iran?
I always hoped to do something for my society which suffers from lack of knowledge and education. I spent a year teaching at Central Connecticut University in the U.S. Then I worked in the local radio station in Australia. But none of them made me happy because I knew they have many people like me to do the job. So I was just a person who filled the position and they were not specially interested in me.
Once the head of an American university told me “We'll get a H1 visa for you not because of your qualifications but because you are one of the few people who accepted our conditions.” They offered a salary lower than standard and I accepted that teaching job just for a few months because I needed the visa. How could I have stayed there for long when my heart was not in it?
In 1984 I decided to return to my country Iran. Although I was not welcomed by Iranian Radio-TV, I think the people of Iran are always supportive of people like me and what has made me stay here so far is because of the people and nothing more.
What do you think about the current scientific community in Iran?
I divide them in two groups: one just take science as a device of official and political achievements, and the other group is really devoted to science and doing their own research and teaching at the universities or privately. The latter group have nothing to do with the political establishment. Generally speaking our last generation of scientists were a different breed. They looked at science as a tradition that grew out of their land. They looked at themselves as people with serious responsibility before their country and people. In a way they were nationalist scientists concerned about the place of their country in the world.
How important is science for a developing nation?
I believe in the world today a country cannot develop without scientific methodology. Science, let's not forget, is only a tool, not a way of salvation. But nevertheless a very pivotal tool. Without it the very survival of a nation becomes doubtful. Science is in everything, in a plane that takes us across continents, in electricity that lights up our rooms, or in a simple boat that people ride for leisure across a lake. Only foolish people deny the importance of science in a society.
Science once played an important part in medieval Persia, with personalities like, Ibn Sina and Razi. Why do you think this continuity has not followed in Iran?
After the Industrial Revolution in the West, science became popular as means for the betterment of peoples lives. So governments and private corporations spent money to further develop science. And with the effort of scientists, the scientific method of thinking was built in the social structure. But in Iran, we followed the opposite path. Day by day we kept our distance from practical science, due to ignorant rulers and their fanaticism.
Do the radio and television stations in Iran provide programs on latest scientific discoveries, for instance in the fields of genetics, cloning or superstring theory?
Yes, but just as news items and with no detaiuled explanation, because usually they themselves do not understand the concept of these discoveries. All scientific discoveries have certain social and political ramifications but at the moment our nation seems to be exempt of all these responsibilities that face the civilised world. It seems to be easier this way. Let's be a child forever and just play with our toys while the rest of the world faces up to to real challenges and grows stronger as a result.
Have you personally been challenged by science? Do you see a conflict between science and faith?
Yes, but I think when we are speaking of science we should keep religion at the personal level. History has shown that science and religion can work together. Issac Newton was a very religious man. Einstein believed in God. So was Averros, Sina, Biruni etc…
Once professor Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Noble prize winner in physics told me, “I am a religious person but I see religion as a romantic motivator when working on science.” He also believed some of his achievements in unified field theory came as an intuition from somewhere! I think this was his brain working automatically after 23 years of concentration on one subject.
So I seriously think that religion is a personal matter but science and its outcome belongs to humanity. Only a person without sound ethics would say that he or she does not need science when our existence without science would be chaotic and harmful to ourselves, our fellow human beings and to the universe as a whole. We need more than ever to bring science and ethics closer together in order to find the true purpose of science which was always to serve humanity.
Are you happy with your achievements?
Yes, but I have to be honest and tell you the truth that I still can do more for Iran, But it seems the responsible organizations like Iranian Radio-TV do not care about quality, rather they are just concerned with the quantity of their programs.
So for now I pass my time following sports, which I love and enjoy very much, and doing general readings. If this situation continues much longer I will consider returning to Australia and accept my new life as a retired person, ridding my bike around.
Just to remind you my age: I am 58 and once I was forced to retire by the Iranian Radio-TV at the age of 30!! So retiring twice in one life time is interesting! But I still feel that I have a lot to give to the land and people that I love so much.
What is your message for the Iranians living outside of Iran?
Please do not forget your country. Iran at the moment is like an old person afflicted with Alzheimer's. Nevertheless Iran is our country and our mother. History has shown that this 2,500-year-old lady sometimes gets sick but never dies.