THE CASE OF THEORETICAL PHYSICS AT UNIVERSITY OF DHAKA

The announcement of the abolishment of the undergraduate programme of theoretical physics in Dhaka University raises a number of concerns among the young students, as well as academicians. One that prompted Nahid Riyasad to explores the history, politics and reality of the department is – has the higher education in Bangladesh is turning into technical education? Are graduate students in Bangladesh are conceived of the technical experts of the global market and robbed off their possibility to become scientists, philosopher or a historian? What Nahid unveils is a story of internal teachers’ politics, and power play spanning across nearly five decades.

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Saifuddin Ahmed (pseudo name) has always cherished a dream, to teach at the University of Dhaka. In persuasion of his dream, he left his seat at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and took his chance at the theoretical physics department instead. Interesting fact is, he is not alone. There are currently at least seven students who have left their chances at BUET to study theoretical physics.  However, a new decision from the acting vice chancellor of the university professor Akhtaruzzaman, following a dean’s meeting, announces the abolishment of the undergraduate programme in this subject, blaming the decision on poor infrastructure as well as lack of teachers. We can assume that Saifuddin’s dream has to stop here. Though, the department will continue to offer the graduation courses.

Should we narrow down the very basic fields of knowledge, we will be left with two core discourses – theoretical physics and philosophy. Now the very obvious question that arises is how on earth the oldest university of the country will continue without such a core subject? How this announcement of closing down would impact the overall intellectual psyche of the nation in the long run? How the great universities of the world are handling this very core field of knowledge? Has the higher education in Bangladesh is turning into technical education? Are graduate students in Bangladesh are conceived of the technical experts of the global market and robbed off their possibility to become scientists, philosopher or a historian? While keeping these questions on the back of the mind, interesting things start to come up.

During interview sessions with some of the prominent scholars and professors of the department, a different reality has emerged. With the help of that information, we will try to look up on this matter from an array of different perspectives. In the exploration, things like internal politics of Dhaka University, miscommunication within departments as well as with the authority, ambitious projects and nepotism have come up. So embrace yourself for some hard truth regarding the century-old prestigious educational institution.

The department of theoretical physics started its journey in 1975, exactly 54 years after the opening of the university. A prominent scholar of physics of that time, professor Rafiqullah, wrote to the university authority to open the department in the late 60’s. The authority responded by stopping his increment and not paying any attention about opening an important department. However, the inception of the department was welcomed by the students and academics alike and very soon turned into a successful department, even after that, its operation was halted in 1977. The reasons were lack of sufficient infrastructural facilities and insufficient number of teachers. The head of the theoretical physics department took up the position of chair at neighbouring physics department. The vacancy could not be filled immediately.

Three decades later, for similar reasons the department is closed again. In 2007, the department reopened once again. However, this time offering only graduate level courses. Dwindling between different kinds of uncertainty, in 2016-17 academic session, the university started offering undergraduate programme. However, only to face another shut-down. The new beginning was short lived. The authorities have killed the under graduate programme, keeping the graduate courses alive. After all the fussing around, we might want to know what exactly theoretical physics is. How is it different than the regular physics? Or, is there any difference at all? To be honest, the distinction between these two courses of study is very marginal, often invisible. Physics deals with the physical world and ask questions about the physical existence of everything as well as try to answer the questions. The method includes mathematical assessment, testing different aspects in laboratory environment with the help of the theory. The same case happens in the field of theoretical physics, but they mainly rely on mathematics. In case of theoretical physicists, they too run after the same questions but their method in confined within theory, majorly on mathematics. They try to explore different aspects of a certain problem through math; they are mainly interested on theoretical aspects of things rather than their practical application. What needs to be stated here clearly is that theoretical physics is foundational to western philosophy. In the realm of knowledge production, for us as a country to be able to make a claim as producer of knowledge, not just mere receiver of western knowledge, we should have the sincere opportunity of studying theoretical physics open for students.

Before digging deep in history and politics of Dhaka University, we might take a look at how this course of study is taught around the globe, especially in the prominent western universities. For example Princeton University, where Albert Einstein used to teach, offers the undergraduate course as regular physics. The theoretical physics department is associated with pure mathematics, as these two are interwoven intimately. Theoretical physics is taught in the undergraduate programme in every university beside other aspects of physics and students, who are really interested, can take theoretical physics as their graduation or higher studies. Same thing happens in Australia, students are taught regular physics where theoretical part is also included. So, theoretical physics is a part of physics which is interested in theoretical and mathematical solution of problems rather than solving them by test running situations in a laboratory environment.

Talking with academics and professors on this matter, we have found responses from different perspectives. During a long conversation with Tanvir Hanif, previous head and assistant professor of theoretical physics department, many issues have come up. ‘I would say the decision of abolishing undergraduate studies is actually saving the department,’ he said. In order to back up his assertion, he summons the core philosophy of the department, ‘in the time of the inception, the department was supposed to offer only graduate studies and this is how theoretical physics is taught around the globe’. ‘Departments are being introduced without proper planning or funding, this is to blame on politics of university financing. The last vice chancellor of the university, AAMS Arefin Siddique has this agenda of opening new departments (though he was not the vice chancellor during the 2007 reopening, but the under-graduation programme was launched during his terms), irrespective of the university’s ability of running them’. He also said, ‘During the inception of the undergraduate programme in 2007, the whole department vetoed the decision, however, it was overruled by the authority. The decision came from dean’s meeting where the department officials did not have any say. Moreover, the syllabus of the physics department is mostly copied while making the undergraduate course curriculum for the theoretical physics department. Another interesting piece of information is among four teachers of this department at this moment, two are originally hired from physics department, in order to run the department (university policy allows teachers to teach part-time in related faculties).

Kibria Islam, a teacher of Jessore Science and Technology University, has a different perspective on this issue. He at once critically attacked the decision of the abolishment of theoretical physics at DU. ‘Theoretical physics is one of the most important fields of knowledge, abolishing such an important department might not bring good results in the long run’. While asked about its long term effect, he further pushes the issue. ‘As we know, DU is the role model for the universities in Bangladesh. Following them; other universities might want to close their theoretical departments’. He also said that the budget of the university plays a pivotal role behind this. ‘Universities in present days are more inclined to finance the applied subjects, conforming to the market demand. As a result, the studies which will produce researchers and pure knowledge in time are not getting enough funds to conduct their research. The government is also not very eager to fund researches, compared to their interest in funding practical departments.’

Our last stop was at the office of professor Golam Mohammad Bhuiyan, present chairman of the department of theoretical physics. He has also been in the Noble prize nomination committee twice, for physics. He was the chair of this department in 2007, during the re-opening, without any teachers, classrooms or even a staff. Recollecting his memories, he told the story how the department has started from zero and now, in the under-graduate programme, admission merit list toppers eagerly choose theoretical physics as their department. ‘In this session, we have students who have ditched their seats in BUET, only to persue their passion for theoretical physics’, he said. The undergraduate programme has a much longer effect and benefit for the university as well as to the country. ‘Theoretical physics needs solid foundation in both mathematics as well as basic theories of physics. Only graduate programme means we get really good students with brilliant result from other departments, including BUET, but they lack the extra bit of foundation in pure mathematics. Only during the under-graduation programme, we get to train them from the very basics thus enhancing their chances in research in future educational endeavour’, he explains the importance of the under-graduation in context to the subject’s reality. At least three students from our department, with my reference, have attended CERN, European run world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Such achievement in the world scale should not be ignored when deciding the fate of the department.

The decision of abolishing the under-graduate programme will obviously has its impact, perhaps in ten years. There will surely be a gap in quality researchers. Twenty five students, from the merit list, will lose the chance to peruse their studies in theoretical physics, a very core area of physics as well as human knowledge. When asked about the reason behind this decision, he says that he has not solid idea about why this decision has come. ‘As a department chairman, I cannot directly confront the decision of the university authority. I have sent a letter to the vice chancellor with substantial reasons of the department’s ability and resources. I am yet to receive a reply’, he said. Recently we get Tk 3 lakhs fund from the university funding and spent that fund for a fantastic modern laboratory, which is able to undertake our most operations. Till now, all the classes, especially under-graduate classes are running sound and perfectly. ‘In these circumstances, this is really shocking and frustrating that the university is shutting down such a prospecting and promising department,’ professor Bhuiyan added.

As part of my exploration, I have also chatted with regular current students of the university. They have shared their concerns and thoughts with us regarding this matter. However, many of them, mainly fresher and sophomores, seem to have hard understanding of the questions and critical aspects of such decisions.  One student from mathematics department said that shutting down such an important department will surely hamper the nation in future because this is the subject that produces scientists, researchers and they have the potentials to make our country familiar in the international scientist community. Another soil science student said that the university should try to resolve the problem, instead of shutting it down.

 

In the investigation, some things become apparent. The university authorities as well as the government are eagerly responding to the calls of on growing job market. Thus they are facilitating more and more technological subjects. This trend will one day lead to intellectual poverty, a severe lack of research and core knowledge. Students will gradually lose their interest in theoretical subjects as well as research. Lacking research means the door to new knowledge is shut. This is exactly why students from Bangladesh are working at some of the best research facilities around the globe but they are not contributing here, due to the lack of research facilities and inclination towards more applied thus marketable subjects.

 

After all the information and research, it is hard to come down to a certain decision or perspective about this department. Perhaps professor Kaiser Haq, prominent English poet in Bangladesh, has aptly puts it in words. When asked about this matter, he said that these are nothing but internal politics of the university. We might not have another choice but conforming to professor Haq’s remark.

From the very beginning, the department has been a piece in a game, a much broader game. In the 96 years of history of University of Dhaka, theoretical physics get only 13 years, that too mainly in graduation studies, only a couple of batches of under-graduation students have got their degrees in theoretical physics from the university. The contradictory speech from teachers of the department does nothing but exposing their lack of co-operation, perhaps true dedication to the field of this study. The picture doesn’t look good at all, in such a core subject such minimum effort, surely translates into the intellectual-poverty of the country. Now count the plausible number of prospective scholars, scientists and researchers we could get out this very core science department, the number is mind-boggling, isn’t it?

 

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