Indonesia Doesn’t Celebrate Their Scientists. Yet.

And yes. That needs changing.

image courtesy by ALMI

“Can you tell me who’s your favorite scientist?”

Well, that’s an easy one. Everybody can pretty much answer it easily, even if you honestly prefer to idolize some flashy celebrity or a football player rather than a good ol’ school scientists. Just pick one name passing through your head (my bet, it’s most likely ‘Einstein’) then elaborate the rest along the way.

Okay, let’s try again. What about this?

“Can you tell me who’s your favorite scientist coming from your country?”

Unless you come from what we commonly call scientifically and technologically developed countries, I believe this particular question screams trouble for you. As for me, I come from one of thus currently developing countries, so yes, this particular question is actually quite the tricky one for me.

And fyi, that last one is actually a real question I supposed to answer for a web TV interview during my participation in The Week of International Scientific Young Talents. This event was hosted by Universcience Paris on last January 29 until February 3 2017. So, in case you’re wondering, no. I didn’t invent them just for the sake of it.

And when I said that’s a tricky question, I mean it. Well, it’s not that the question is impossible to answer. Sure, there is answer for it — an obvious one, to be precise. It’s just…

Alright. I’ll answer it with Baharoedin Joesoef Habibie, popularly known as B.J. Habibie.

Pak Habibie, we call him, was graduated from the infamous Institut Teknologi Bandung before continuing his study on aerodynamics in Germany. Ever a good student, he was known as one of the best on his field and already held several patents on aerodynamic. He’s also Indonesia’s third president and used to take charge of our national airplane industry, PT. Dirgantara Indonesia. Oh, did I forget to mention that he was deeply in love with his wife, Bu Ainun, till the day she died?

See? I can even recite them all quite fluently. But so do many other Indonesians.

***

The word ‘celebrity’ has a real close tie with ‘celebrate’. In fact, someone becomes a celebrity simply because we celebrate his/her existence. We put his/her face all over the media, digging all about his/her personal life, praising all the work he/she has done, deciding to be his/her loyal fans, or during some bad days, resenting or spreading few gossip about him/her around a bit.

So according to this short piece of description, I’d say that Habibie is a highly celebrated figure in Indonesia. We can find info about him real easily on any possible media platform. Hell, there’s even movie dramatizing his earlier life while working his way to be a patriotic scientist many Indonesians recognize today. Yep, it got a prequel too, focusing on his ‘love life’ in Germany before his initial relationship with young Ainun.

However, I’m not taking back my earlier statement that Indonesians don’t celebrate their scientist. No, we still don’t. What we apparently do is celebrating a remarkable figure who happens to be a scientist too. To prove my point, let’s get back to the question “Can you tell me who’s your favorite scientist coming from your country?”. I’ll bet a good deal that if the name Habibie is withdrawn from list of possible answers, most Indonesians won’t be able to come up with any other name.

Indonesians might recognize Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Pasteur, Currie, Ampere, Darwin, Sagan, and such. For some narrower segments of Indonesian public, the name Wallace, Weber, Durkheim, Shannon, Jung, Rousseau, or even Parsons might still be quite familiar. Our first encounter with those names most likely happens at school, while learning some theories or formulas. Some rich kids (and some others who are less rich but privileged enough to have education-concerned parents) might see them again on science magazine for kids or ‘series of world prominent figures’ comic books featured at the bookstores. Some are lucky enough to know these figures ever deeper in college. While for the rest, those names will eventually be forever forgotten in the midst of cheap rents, grocery shopping, and a brand new iPhone advertisement.

Then what about the names of Indonesian local scientists? Where are they?

***

Don’t get me wrong. Putting Pak Habibie as an example here doesn’t mean that I detest him or anything. Quite the opposite even. Habibie in fact is indeed one great scientist of his time, especially since he is always an Indonesian and chooses to develop his country instead of staying comfortably abroad.

Here’s the thing. So far, we don’t really know many Indonesians being recognized and praised highly abroad. Maybe it’s because our local media don’t think it’s worth reporting. Nevertheless, Indonesians in consequence are proud to have our ‘representatives’ receiving so much recognition and appreciation abroad. But we’re so much prouder to know if those people actually decide to stay in Indonesia and ‘develop their country’.

There’s this common belief that there are actually many great Indonesians out there who do stuff that change human civilization. However, many of them choose to stay abroad, since their works are so much more appreciated there. Whether this common belief holds real truth in it or not, I personally won’t blame those Indonesians who decide to stay abroad for all benefits and prosperity foreign countries provide for them. With all bureaucracy , administrative, policy, or social norm hurdles still in progress of improvement, these amazing people might not be able to contribute optimally back home. Worse yet, they might not be able to provide to their family well and I’m sure this issue can be quite dilemmatic to address.

In regard of my credibility upon this particular opinion, I myself had quite a few similar experiences of having less appreciation at home compared to when I was abroad. Of course, I won’t even dare to compare myself with the level of awesomeness those people I’ve mentioned earlier have. What I’m trying to say is that I can relate to them, really.

That’s how Habibie decision to return home after his glorious years in Germany counts as a highly admirable quality for us common Indonesians. In our eyes, it’s impossibly heroic and normatively patriotic. For against all odds, he chosed the noble path despite all hardships lying ahead.

In ideal world, this is undeniably beautiful trait for someone to have. Therefore, it has a ‘drama value’ attached to it. And if you really really know Indonesians, you must know that we are truly drama lovers. So in some ways, no wonder that book and film industries eventually decided to bring up Habibie’s life story. And looking at the huge amounts of profit those industries received after, I’d say that their decision earlier were justified.

Now, another question. So does that mean that any other Indonesian scientists’ life aren’t worth celebrating if they seem to be dull and boring (at least compared to Habibie’s)?

***

Few weeks ago, I got an opportunity to meet Pak Budhi M. Suyitno, secretary general of Akademi Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (AIPI) or Indonesian Academy of Science. This led to several other delightful meetings with more member researchers from AIPI as well as Akademi Ilmuwan Muda Indonesia (ALMI) or Indonesian Young Researchers Academy.

That was when I first discover that Indonesia actually has a community of scientists and researchers. And it’s not a small one either. AIPI currently has around 60 members while ALMI has 40. These people are Ph.D and great researchers coming from different fields of science, both natural and social ones. Specifically for ALMI, all members are particularly under 45 years old.

image courtesy of AIPI

To my surprise, they’ve also made many publications as well as symposiums on various kinds of subject. And other scientific institutions they’ve partnered with… no kidding, really. They’ve been working with US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Australian Academy of Science (AAS) to name a view. Their most recent publication, Science 45-Agenda Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia, has compilated papers answering 45 scientific questions about Indonesia to celebrate The Republic’s 100th birthday in 2045. Each chosen member has already had a rich list of noteworthy scientific contributions in their field respectively. And similar to Habibie, many of them choose to stay in Indonesia and use their knowledge for this country’s well being.

Yet still, many Indonesians can hardly find these scientists’ name. Well, maybe once or twice on the internet or few other times on national papers — that if we really put effort to it. I’d say it again, this country don’t celebrate our scientists. Yet.

But if we don’t celebrate them, how can we find their names?

If we can’t find their names, how do we recognize who they are?

If we don’t recognize who they are, how do we know what they do?

If we don’t know what they do, how do we understand their thoughts?

And if we don’t understand their thoughts, how do we get inspired to respond to it, either by spreading it through, applying it in daily life, or even improving it for a better tomorrow?

Nevertheless, there always be reasons why Indonesia has to celebrate her scientists. It’s not merely about appreciating the very existence of or scientists. It’s about inspiring and encouraging the younger generations to embrace a future that’s full of possibilities.

What’s left to do is to put commitment into it and just… start. Even fire won’t just light up without a spark to ignite it at the first place.