Tasneem Zehra Husain – Pakistan’s 1st Female String Theorist
“When faced with the wonders of the cosmos, the almost unimaginable scale and impossible beauty of galaxies, the piercing problems of black holes, the dilemmas of dark energy, we are inevitably struck by the realization that we are infinitesimal – but woven into that humility, I find, is a feeling of transcendence”. – Dr. Tasneem Zehra Husain
Today, there are more female scientists than ever before. Yet, the physical sciences is one scientific discipline where the number of female scientists are relatively low compared to the other disciplines, such as biology and psychology. In a male-dominated field there is one woman, Pakistani physicist, Tasneem Zehra Husain who is defying the patriarchal discipline.
Brought up in Lahore, Pakistan, Husain received her PhD in theoretical physics from Stockholm University before conducting post-doctoral research at Harvard University. During graduate school, she spent a year at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, established by the great Pakistani scientist, Noble Laureate Abdus Salam.
Dr. Husain’s main area of interest has been string theory which addresses the most basic questions about the universe – like, what is everything made of? String theory attempts to answer this question on the largest scale by tracing all the rich diversity of matter and forces in the universe back to the flutters and oscillations of infinitesimal strings. Dr Husain’s own research has been carried out within the framework of 11-dimensional super-gravity, a super-symmetric extension of Einsiten’s theory of general relativity. Dr. Husain describes her work as follows:
“The shape of an arena constrains the events that are held there, and the same is true of space-time. But, as you might recall from the familiar ‘space-time as a rubber-sheet’ explanation of general relativity, mass deforms space-time, so in order to understand the rules of the game we need first to know how the arena is curved, warped and changed by the physical objects present there. Without going into too much technical detail, there are certain special objects called BPS M-Branes that play an important role in 11-dimensional super-gravity: I worked on classifying the space-times that are shaped by the presence of these objects.”
Studying such perplexing and abstract topics has always held a fascination for Dr. Husain. She found the “lure of Nature’s puzzles impossible to resist” even at a young age. Dr. Husain’s interest in physics is still apparent today
“Even after several decades of studying Physics, I am as intrigued as ever by the simplicity of natural law, the subtlety of implementation and the variety of manifestation.”
Aside from theory and fundamental concepts, Dr. Husain is also very interested in promoting the history and education of science. She is the author of a popular science novel entitled “Only the Longest Threads” which revists critical moments in the history of physics, times when the theories created by Maxwell, Newtown and Einstein that we now consider standard, were fresh and unfamiliar. She creatively interweaves scientific facts into a narrative that helps the reader learn about each theory by placing themselves into the mind of the scientist grappling with these radical ideas while they were still new. The novel is designed for the lay audience to experience science rather than focus on the facts and to tell the tales of the beautiful, impassioned human endeavor that encompasses great scientific discoveries.
Dr. Husain likes to describe her novel as “science-in-fiction” , in that “the science is accurate, and the narrators fictional. I hope that combination allows both the poetry and precision of physics to come through”, she says. Unfortunately, the novel is not yet available in Pakistan. Despite growing interests from readers in Pakistan, it will not be until a publisher buys the rights to Only The Longest Threads in Pakistan that the book will be readily available throughout the country.
Even as a freshly minted PhD, Dr. Husain “was very aware of the lack of science communication in Pakistan. There was no tradition of outreach, no public lectures, no way for young students or interested laypeople to learn about what was happening at the forefront of science.” In response to this situation, Dr Husain designed a series of talks to introduce high school students to concepts in modern physics.
Her seminars deviated from traditional lectures and transformed dense and complex topics into colorful and animated presentations that left the students engaged and full of questions.
“The students participated eagerly, asked brilliant questions, and seemed to be infused with a fresh love for the subject. Starting at my own alma mater, Lahore Grammar School, I then went on to deliver the talks at many other venues across Lahore.”
Dr. Husain was able to pursue her dreams because of the support of her parents.
“My parents invested all they had in making sure that my siblings and I were supported, encouraged and intellectually stimulated.”
Dr Husain’s mother painstakingly chose books for her children, taking care to expose them to the best and most beautiful literature through the ages. Her father deeply encouraged intellectual discourse within the house, often speaking to his children for hours at a time on any topic they were interested in. Even though her father was not a scientist, Dr Husain credits him with having taught her “how to approach a problem or argue a point, the importance of intellectual rigor, of digging deep and framing statements precisely,” skills which have been invaluable to her as a physicist.
Dr. Husain finds that Physics “calibrates [her] perspective, while also being an inexhaustible source of beauty and profound joy”. Contemplating the great wonders of the cosmos, the unimaginable scale and beauty of the galaxies, the dilemmas of dark energy and black holes, she says, brings her to the realization that “we are infinitesimal – but woven into that humility, I find, is a feeling of transcendence”.
Interview by Anum Nawaz | Written by Nayaab Khawar