Interview with the astrophysicist, Tahar Amari
The interview conducted in this essay is with the French-Algerian astrophysicist Tahar Amari. known worldwide for his discoveries on solar flares. The interview was hosted July 22nd 2021, on the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene’s online website. I attended the interview and requested a couple questions of my own. I chose Mr. Tahar’s interview because of his convictions. The man is a firm believer in Algerian scientists. Many of his conferences have for title, “Algerian researchers are talented, but lack resources”. In the interview, Mr. Tahar stressed out the fact that Algerian researchers are “talented” and are no less than those of any other country, but need the means to carry out the research, affirmed the astrophysicist. As an international student from Algeria, I want to believe in his words, because I’m hoping to one day be part of those researchers.
First, lets address Mr. Tahar’s research. His recent discovery is about solar storms and their impact on Earth. He explained that this discovery concerns solar flares, the mechanisms behind their origin and their prediction. This is the second discovery on the subject in less than 8 years, both of which made the front page and cover of Nature magazine. The research also concerns the problem of temperature of the solar atmosphere being much warmer than its surface. The flares can send radiation, particles, and a huge bubble of matter (called plasma) traveling from the sun to Earth. All of these eruption products can have significant impacts on many sectors of our economic activity, satellites, launchers (such as Ariane, etc.), electricity distribution networks, GPS, maritime and air communications, living organisms.
At the start of the interview, when discussing Mr. Tahar’s upbringing, and how he became the renown scientist that he is today, he mentioned that it was precisely, first of all, to his father Mohand-Said, who came from the mountains of little Kabylia, that he owes this initial impetus. In fact, he was telling him to lift his head and that everything had an explanation, and that for any disease, there was a cure that we had to look for. Without knowing how to read, he was already a scientist, “because science is defined by this state of mind, knowing that there are laws that govern the world and looking for them.” This is what struck him deeply. The rest is just a way to get there, and there are thousands of ways. With that in mind, he went and trained in theoretical physics in Paris, and chose to focus his research on understanding the Sun. He mentioned that he “wanted to do research on the laws of the universe, but it was the Sun that took him first and he never left it.”
As for his renown status, he mentioned that he didn’t choose to be world famous because it’s not a goal, at least it wasn’t his. “I played handball at a high level and there, it is true, that it is a goal for many athletes in general. But for science, I just wanted to understand, to experience the joy of discovering.” To use the sports analogy, he just wanted to have fun “playing” with the laws that govern our universe.
His childhood, although filled with love and encouragement from his father, wasn’t easy. Being born in Bobigny, the son of a road-mender, to successfully integrate into France and reach the scientific sphere, was not an easy task to accomplish. He mentioned that in Bobigny, where he was raised, as everywhere in Seine Saint-Denis where he was born, and often criticized, although his parents, immigrants before his birth, had never known nor spent five minutes on any school bench, his success allowed everyone to succeed. “The difficulty came from the social environment, the culture, the language, the very low standard of living. But at school, apart from rare cases, anything was possible.” The teachers, whom he was fortunate enough to meet, were for the most part “fair, helpful, attentive, and not discriminating.” The city provided aid to against financial problems. “So it was tough, yes, as conditions with 11 kids at home, but I could dream with my head in the stars, taking classes like that until my doctorate.“
He recently participated in the launch, by the Algerian Embassy in France, of the “Circle Saint-Augustin”, a framework for reflection between the Algerian diaspora in France to explore the possibilities of building bridges with Algeria. He pointed out that this circle is an excellent initiative. “It is not built vertically but horizontally, and its goal is to allow the active creation of a network of expertise and experiences to promote fruitful interactions with institutions, young and old researchers, academics or not in Algeria.”
The expectations are different. Some of his colleagues have studied in Algeria and are familiar with the education and research system and have sometimes experienced difficulties in building a bridge with Algeria. Not having been raised and educated in Algeria, he has a new and perhaps naive outlook. “I am therefore optimistic in this sense.” The Algerian system is often isolated and ignores the experiences of other researchers, so the Circle can help coordinate such efforts, as well as foster and help build stronger relationships between Algerian scientists all over the globe.
There is a lot of talk these days about the Algerian diaspora living abroad and its ability to give more to research and development efforts in Algeria. He stated that, it is first the country of origin that has a dynamic and is then followed by a response from the community. “It is therefore above all, the training in the country that is the most important sector. And it has to be adapted to economic needs.” He added that, this work can and must also be done in parallel with the overseas authorities on site in Algeria, because cooperation agreements are established between the different countries and can also contribute to the implementation of action. “Often, as is my case, these are citizens born and educated in France.”
To go back to his main point about Algerian researchers, he gave an honest assessment of the level of research in Algeria, the means made available to it and what, according to him, are the priorities to achieve reconciling the world of research with economic development. For him, Algerian researchers are talented, no less than those from any other country. “I meet them at high level international conferences.” But, unfortunately the level they manage to reach can be disparate because of the means required to conduct these high-class researches, which are also different depending on the discipline.
“A researcher lives by his link with the International, because research is international above all.” In his views, research has to concern all of humanity and should be accepted by it. Otherwise, confinement is the “incompatible death.” It is somewhat of a “double-flow mechanism”, as he calls it. Humanity must send abroad and welcome foreign researchers to Algerian laboratories. This is what is being done in countries at the forefront of research. “From where I am here, far from the Algerian system, I would say that it seems more difficult to me in the experimental field than that of pure theory where the lack of means can still allow progress.” To him, the experiments require significant means which, alone, can make it possible to rise to a level and thus make young Algerian researchers of value abroad where they can stay and Algerian laboratories, conversely, could be attractive.
“Contrary to popular belief, investing in science and research means winning in economic and educational development, in a natural way.” He phrased it as an investment in the future of adults and young people. For him, science doesn’t stop with scientists. It floods and nourishes education and society. Research is used to train politicians, decision-makers, entrepreneurs who will not all become researchers. They think beyond immediate use, and it pays off, for sustainability. The political world also wins. We need to increase investment in research and, more generally, it is science and education that will be useful for the future. “We need to increase investment in research and, more generally, it is science and education that will be useful for the future.” He took example of countries like Japan, Singapore and Germany, where development goes hand in hand with research. The research and education budget must be higher, it is an investment in the future that will pay off.
The Algerian authorities have made enormous efforts in the development of higher education in the county. And even though Mr. Tahar does not live nor has he ever lived in Algeria, he mentioned that the general consensus is that when we thinks of research, we think of higher education. But we have to think about the education itself. “Science, which trains and protects citizens, begins much earlier with younger minds, whoever they are, who will be citizens well armed to think and reach higher education much later.” Researchers help train teachers and teachers who then train young people.
“On the other hand, training through higher education is good, but I wonder about the meaning of commitment without worrying about professional integration at the same time.” Again, this is a dual-flow system. The work needs to be done with companies and not wait until the end of training to take interest in them. He used the example of digital technology such as Big Data. The demand is so great that companies are running out of candidates. Universities are integrating such training courses to meet this demand for the future. He pointed out that in Algeria, there is a need for synergy between research, which nourishes teaching, and local and international industry. Algerians must find a job corresponding to the needs of companies present on the ground or abroad.
I really enjoyed Mr. Tahar’s interview. He answered all the questions remarkably and with immense detail. It was very educational to learn more about his life and his views on Algerian education. As an Algerian myself, it was inspiring to hear him talk about the situation in Algeria and how we can improve it. His research is incredible and continues to amaze me every time I look through his catalog.