Astronomy comes to Qatar

Beep. I got an email a couple nights ago telling me that I have been finally moved from the waiting list and now would be able to attend the keynote lecture by Professor Lord Martin Rees at the 1st Doha International Astronomy Conference, taking place from 10-13 February in Doha, Qatar. I arrived at the Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC) much earlier than the recommend time and received my ‘Public Guest’ badge. Walking towards Auditorium 3 among other members of the public as well as scientists, officials, and about one hundred primary school students, I could not help but feel like my 7-year-old self. I was as excited as the day I first picked up a book on astronomy and discovered the solar system, comets, and the Milky Way.

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The 1st Doha International Astronomy Conference was organized by Dr. Khalid Al-Subai of Qatar Foundation and Dr. Martin Dominik of the University of St Andrews. Dr. Khalid Al-Subai is also the founder of the Qatar Exoplanet Survey (QES), which over the last couple of years has conducted a wide-angle photometric survey and successfully found two exoplanents (planets outside the Solar System): Qatar-1a and Qatar-2b.

Astronomy has come home  – Dr. Khalid Al-Subai (Qatar Foundation) 

As all the attendees took their seats, Dr. Khalid Al-Subai, took the podium and declared ‘astronomy has come home’. He then introduced the guest speaker, Professor Rees: Astronomer Royal and fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. Professor Rees started his talk, entitled ‘Planets, Life and the Cosmos’ with a brief history of Astronomy from the works of Galileo in the 17th century to the invention of the reflecting telescope by a ‘most unpleasant man’ from Cambridge, Isaac Newton. What followed was an interesting fast-track Astronomy 101 lecture. Professor Rees introduced the solar system and past efforts in space exploration.

With respect to extraterrestrial intelligent life, Professor Rees remains skeptical about stories in the press and from those sent to his email inbox. He believes ‘if we were to detect a signal from space, it would be very artificial’. Whether we do find life outside Earth or not, he believes that life will spread from Earth into space in the future, as humans will start exploring and settling in outer space. His talk was followed by an award presentation by Dr. Mohammad Fathy Saoud, President of Qatar Foundation.

After a brief coffee break, Dr. Khalid Al-Subai took stage again and announced that Qatar Foundation is planning to establish the Astronomy and Space Center in Qatar, which will host QES’s own observatory. He reiterated that Qatar has the opportunity now to engage in explorative science and to have a substantial share in a research field that is much underfunded. Dr. Al-Subai then announced that QES is expecting to discover three new expolanets by the end of 2013.

Astronomy research is coming to Qatar.

Whereas, it is still at its early stages, the project is indeed exciting and promising. And if I learnt anything from today’s talks it is that the next generation here can dream again. My astronomy dream died at the age of 9 (coincidentally with the time I tried to build a spaceship by using twenty-odd plastic and wooden chairs in my grandmother’s living room). I wish I had attended this talk when I was 7 years old. However, I am encouraged and do choose to believe that the inspiring messages from Dr. Khalid Al-Subai and Professor Rees have reached at least one of the future-astronomers sitting a few rows behind me.

– For more information about the 1st Doha International Astronomy Conference, click here .

– For more information about the Qatar Exoplanet Survey, click here.

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Partnerships

As we are on the finishing day for COP18/CMP8 the science around climate change is yet again taking centre stage. The evidence from the science community is compelling and clear, and partnership between countries will probably be able to advance the agenda even further.

As an observer with Qatar Sustainability Network, I was allowed into an informal ministerial session on Wednesday. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon in his keynote made clear again that to fight the global climate crisis, partnerships are needed. They are multidimensional and expected to address the full spectrum of agendas climate change prompts. “Climate change is not an environmental issue for ministers only; it poses a challenge for all policy makers including [those overseeing issues like] transport and finance,” he said.

There are clear country-wide challenges to take care of. The French co-chair of the session mentioned the Philippines who are again tackled by another typhoon and spend around 5% of their GDP to repair damages. Later that night, the negotiator from the Philippines made a powerful statement on behalf of his country which is widely covered.

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We really need to “abandon silos” (Ki-moon)

There is interesting and exciting work going on between China and the USA with the Centre of Climate Strategies, but I was really exited to learn about the latest research links forming between the developed and the developing world.

Qatar Foundation earlier that day singed with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and will provide a research bridge between the east and west, the north and south, and the developing and the developed world. The institute was founded with great foresight in 1991.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people shared in the enthusiasm and joined hands in believing the east-west conflict might be over and free resources to tackle climate change. “In 1992, people thought about the entire planet, not the east-west conflict,” Professor Schellnhuber, founder of the PIK, said at the signing press conference today.

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(l-r)H.E. Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, Mr. Faisal Al-Suwaidi, H.H. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Ban Ki-moon, Professor Chellnhuber and Christiana Figueres

The centre aims to take a 360 degree view, focusing on science, technology and policy, dealing with all aspects of climate change, from eteorology to policy (and I would guess that this would include finance as well since it underscored virtually every issue at the conference).

Qatar is located in an arid region, and the centre aims to internationalise the research and bring PIK’s renowned analytical capacity to contribute to global solutions.

Professor Schellnhuber is firmly rooted in fundamental sciences, and the centre shall be set up with the principles of best scientific practices and could lead to the creation of other thinktanks. If the evidence is there, he believes they will be transformed into action. And in applying these principles, I believe that both regions can learn from each other.

This new centre–which has the support of Ban Ki-moon, Christiana Figueres and, last but not least, the leadership of Qatar Foundation, represented in the meeting by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and QF president of research, Faisal Al Suwaidi–could contribute substantially to the challenges we are facing. Al Suwaidi believes that they are transforming research in bringing the cooperation together.

Communication and the integration of leading climate change research into the global research community will be as important as bringing the best science. We have to act quickly, and the entire Qscience Team is hoping to work together with the new research centre to help advise on scholarly communication strategies and ensure that the research world will connect quickly and transparently into the development in this region.

Innovative partnerships are needed to advance us all on the global stage. On Friday speaking on behalf of the Qatar Sustainability Network, Noor Jassim al-Thani summed it up perfectly in her closing statement of the high level segment:

Noor Jassim al-Thani speaking at the High Level segment

Noor Jassim al-Thani

“We need partnerships between east and west, north and south, developed and developing world, arid and and non-arid regions–partnerships involving governments, industry, financial institutions, education, research and science. Partnerships which help us here to bridge the knowledge gap.”