APS News

War Disrupts Mideast Physics Communities

With the cease-fire in place in Lebanon and Israel , physicists in those countries have begun returning to work and assessing the toll the war has taken on the physics community in the affected region.

When the attacks on Lebanon began on July 12, Bassem Sabra, an APS member at Notre Dame University–Louaize, had been in the Bekaa valley for a long weekend, planning to return to his home and work in Beirut . But the attacks intensified, and he was forced to stay in the Bekaa for the duration of the war.

His work was put on hold. Sabra and his astrophysicist colleagues had been working on a proposal to undertake site-testing at Lebanese mountains. “This key project that was to lay the foundations for observational astronomy in Lebanon is stalled now,” he said. He and colleagues had been planning to do some measurements to assess the astronomical quality of some possible observing sites. “A site which we used to regularly visit was a 2000 m mountain pass. It was bombed several times in the recent weeks. Going to a high mountain at night and deploying a tube on a tripod would probably be a dangerous thing to do,” Sabra said.

Laboratory equipment and textbooks were also delayed, he said. Sabra had hoped to attend the meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Prague in late August, but wasn't able to do so.

In late August Sabra returned to Beirut , finding his house badly damaged. “My Beirut apartment is damaged, basically uninhabitable. I will salvage what I can and find another place to live in as soon as possible, to continue business as usual. There are projects waiting, a summer session that must continue, and an academic year we have to save,” he said.

While there was no physical damage to the university, “The impact on the physics community is huge in terms of lost work hours and various things, such as grants getting delayed,” said Sabra.

Now that the war is over, Sabra worries that “probably money will be taken from research to aid in the rebuilding effort.”

Roger Hajjar, a colleague of Sabra's at Notre Dame University –Louaize, shares that concern. Hajjar had been in France when the war broke out, and because the Beirut airport was closed, Hajjar had to delay his return to Lebanon .

He fears that funding for scientific research in Lebanon will suffer as more government spending will be devoted to reconstruction efforts. Scientific research had not been a high priority in government budgets in recent years, said Hajjar, and the current situation may only make that worse, he worries. Hajjar now fears that science in Lebanon is in “deep deep trouble.”

In the past, Hajjar's lab had received a lot of support from his university. “We had the plan to equip our lab with an optics table and a plan to slowly start a lab for the development of small astronomical instruments,” he said. “It is not clear today how easy it will be to proceed with the plan,” he said, since the university now needs funds for other priorities. Hajjar was also concerned about participation in the international heliophysical year 2007, for which his university was planning to host an instrument for the study of the lower ionosphere. Hajjar said it was uncertain whether that project would be able to proceed.

He also worries about enrollment at his university, as students who used to commute to campus on a daily basis from remote areas may now be unable to reach the university due to damaged roads and transportation infrastructure.

Ghanem Oweis, an APS member in the mechanical engineering department of the American University of Beirut , was able to flee to Jordan , of which he is a citizen, at the start of the war.

Oweis, who had been in Lebanon for the first time, said, “I was busy building up my lab for experimental fluid dynamics. Momentum was building up and my research was taking off. But suddenly everything changed on July 12th when the hostilities started.”

At first Oweis thought he would stay in Lebanon . But “the situation was getting worse by the hour, and it became clearer that it would be safer for me to leave the country. I was also worrying about food, water, and electricity in the days to come if the war went on,” he said.

He decided to evacuate to Jordan , and contacted the Jordanian embassy, which had chartered buses. “The buses were 4 hours late, and these were the most tense 4 hours of the whole experience because of the sonic booms, and the sounds of exploding bombs presumably in the southern district of Beirut. The thing that touched me most during the wait was the sight of the frightened children who would cry with each loud bang,” he said.

The 200 mile trip to Amman took more than 10 hours, said Oweis. They had to drive on side roads through farm and residential areas because the main highway had been cut off by the bombing.

At the American University of Beirut , the summer session was suspended during the war, Oweis reports.

There was no physical damage to the university, but the impact on the university and the physics department has been significant. Classes were suspended for six weeks, and research has been delayed. In addition, “the lives of students, faculty, and their families had been disrupted. Some have left the country and left family, friends, and belongings behind without a hint on when they might be back. Some have probably left for good.”

The mechanical engineering department in which Oweis works had been working on getting the ABET accreditation for the undergraduate program and opening a PhD program, he said. “I think the recent events will have an adverse impact on these efforts for quite some time to come, and we may have to take extra measures to counter the negative effects, such as multiply our recruiting efforts to stay near target.”

Oweis's own work has also been disrupted. “Like many others, I've lost the precious summertime which I've been sparing to get my research going,” said Oweis. It will take a while to make up for the lost time, he said. The disruption of work also caused Oweis to cancel his plans to attend the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in November.

As of late August, Oweis was still in Amman , but planned to return to Beirut for the start of the fall semester.

Mounib El Eid, also of the American University , spent the war in Beirut . “Although the situation in Beirut where I remained was really hard during that time, I have developed a deeper sense for life and its beautiful peaceful side,” he said. “It was great to see how peaceful and human most of the Lebanese are. They were overwhelmed with helpful ideas.”

At AUB, Eid and his colleagues had recently worked hard to re-install a PhD program in theoretical physics, in high energy physics, astrophysics and soft matter physics. “There is a real need to develop and enforce the program of graduate study,” he said. But he now worries that the new program will have difficulty attracting students and faculty because of fears that Lebanon is unsafe and unstable. “We need to hire new faculty members and attract graduate students to be able to conduct serious research,” he said.

Like the other Lebanese physicists, El Eid is concerned that funds for scientific research will have to be used for rebuilding infrastructure instead. “Huge effort is needed to rebuild the damaged infrastructure with a cost estimated more than $3 billion,” he said. “The problem is not only rebuilding the infrastructure, but Lebanon has lost a lot of its credibility as a peaceful country. It has returned to a state of instability with not yet known future. A settled situation is crucial for developing scientific activities.”

In Haifa , the Technion closed for a week during the rocket attacks, but soon returned to normal operations.

During the war, residents of northern Israel, including Haifa, were advised to avoid being in the open or on roads during rocket attacks, and were advised to stay as much as possible in bomb shelters or in “protected areas”-- inside rooms with no external walls and not directly under a roof. Many buildings at the Technion have such “protected areas,” said Arnon Dar, a physicist at the Technion, but some students had been taking exams in unprotected classrooms.

“So, when rockets hit a railroad depot in Haifa at 9:10 a.m. on July 16, killing eight Israeli workers in explosions which were heard well all over town and on campus, and another rocket exploded soon after on a main road within sight of the northern side of the campus, the Technion authorities decided to evacuate the students living in the unsheltered student dormitories of the Technion and to send home those who have not been called for active military duty,” said Dar. Many Haifa residents also chose to leave town.

Spring semester exams at the Technion had been underway at the start of the war. The university delayed those exams until fall. The summer session at the Technion was cancelled. Many technical and academic staff did show up every day, while others had left Haifa with their families.

Those who stayed tried to continue their normal summer activity as much as possible. “Like everyone who has lived in Israel for a while, I tried to continue as much as possible with my daily activities and commitments, while trying to do my best to minimize unnecessary risks,” said David Gershoni, a physicist at the Technion.

Dar said, “Even the customary daily tea and lunch breaks at the h-bar club of our physics department were continued, though many were interrupted by air raid sirens.”

The air raid sirens went off about a dozen times per day during the war, said Dar. “As soon as they were heard, we stopped everything and walked to the nearest `protected area' where in a couple of seconds we could hear clear and loud the sound of the explosions from anywhere in town and in the Haifa bay area,” said Dar.

Some of the rockets fell near the Technion, but not in it. Some laboratory work was affected, Dar reports, because supplies and equipment deliveries were disrupted by the hostilities. Lab work that requires constant attention could not be attended to, as people frequently had to rush to bomb shelters at a moment's notice. Some experiments switched to a night shift for this reason, said Dar.

By late August, most of the population of northern Israel had returned home. Technion students, some returning from active military duty, began to arrive on campus, and the Technion community has begun preparing for the fall semester.


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