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American space experts at a conference in Esfahan. Photo by Doug Biesecker

One planet, one people
American scientists visit Iran

August 17, 2000
The Iranian

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 Bruce 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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Alan Hale

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