APS News | People and History

Peace Prize Laureate, Imprisoned in Iran, Honored at March Meeting

Narges Mohammadi, physicist and activist, has fought for human rights for decades.

Published Apr 12, 2024
Narges Mohammadi
Mohammadi, a physicist by training, has spent decades advocating for human rights in Iran.
Credit: Voice of America/Public domain

As a crowd of March Meeting attendees from around the world gathered in a Minneapolis auditorium to honor the 2023 Nobel laureates, Narges Mohammadi remained in Iran, behind bars.

If the world had been different, she might have been sitting amidst research colleagues, applauding the 2023 physics and chemistry Nobel laureates who spoke at the meeting. Instead, after celebrating the physical science winners, the physics community honored her — physicist, engineer, dedicated activist, and 2023 Nobel Peace Prize recipient — for her human rights legacy and personal sacrifice.

“No one is alone when we speak to their bravery,” said Francis Slakey, the APS chief external affairs officer, in an opening remark on the importance of sharing Mohammadi’s story.

Mohammadi grew up in Iran in a family that supported democracy and valued education. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, while Mohammadi was a child, the newly formed Islamic republic imprisoned, tortured, and executed members of her extended family. “My childhood dreams were cruelly shattered,” she wrote in a message to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in October 2023.

Despite their suffering, her family remained loving and optimistic and supported her studies, Mohammadi told Time magazine in a rare interview from prison in November 2023.

Quantum physics fascinated Mohammadi. She studied applied physics as an undergraduate at Imam Khomeini International University and had planned to pursue a physics doctorate, but she felt compelled to support the rights of women and students and report on the injustices plaguing Iran. “Human rights were, for me, as necessary as breathing to stay alive,” she told Time.

Upon graduation, Mohammadi worked as an engineer and continued speaking out against the oppression of women, vulnerable minorities, and prisoners of conscience; the death penalty; and other human rights abuses, as a journalist and leader in organizations such as the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. As a result, she lost her job and has been arrested 13 times, convicted five times, fined, banned from seeing her children, sentenced to 154 lashes and 31 years in prison, and subjected to solitary confinement.

In 2018, Mohammadi received the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize in recognition of her campaign for peace, justice, and the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, and for promoting human rights and freedoms despite persecution. The citation also acknowledged the forced sacrifice of her scientific pursuit. “I was filled with joy when studying quantum physics at the university as a means to understand the universe,” she recalled in an acceptance letter sent from prison.

In her interview with Time, Mohammadi reflected on what a life free from persecution may have been like: “I always think that if I had been born in a European or American country and had a different life experience, I could have been an active physicist in a university or laboratory who would also advocate for human rights and peace.”

That’s exactly what we should be doing, said Joel Lebowitz, a Rutgers University physicist and mathematician who survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

Mohammadi’s children accept the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf in Oslo.
Mohammadi’s children, seated second and third from left, accepted the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf in Oslo last fall. Mohammadi’s portrait hangs on the wall.
Credit: © Jo Straube / Nobel Prize Outreach

“We, or most of us at least, are neither imprisoned nor in exile, but are free and live comfortable lives,” Lebowitz told the audience in a prerecorded video. “It is our duty not to be silent and forget about those who are suffering, either from the abuse of human rights or more for their struggle for human rights.”

In another prerecorded talk, Iranian cosmologist Encieh Erfani highlighted the “dark aspects” of scientific pursuits that often go unaddressed — barriers erected by gender, race, nationality, and religion and, in many places, the impositions of sanctions and restrictions on scientific collaborations, lack of academic freedom, and disregard for ethical considerations in science.

“It is crucial to acknowledge the complex realities that shape our scientific endeavors,” Erfani told attendees. “As scientists, we must embrace our collective responsibility to uphold academic freedom, support at-risk scholars, and foster a scientific community that transcends borders and champions inclusively.”

She spoke from experience. Erfani was an assistant professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Iran from 2015 until she resigned in protest in 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in custody of the Iranian morality police. Erfani now lives in exile in Germany, her academic future uncertain.

In light of the abuses taking place around the world, Lebowitz urged physicists to support organizations that defend the human rights of scientists and scholars and help those in exile find positions. Even if an organization can only write letters of protest, those letters “are absolutely essential for keeping up the spirits of people like Mohammadi,” Lebowitz told attendees.

APS has already sent a letter to Iran’s Minister of Justice calling for Mohammadi’s release and signifying that its community of 50,000 scientists stands with her, said Slakey.

In her Nobel lecture, smuggled out from Tehran’s Evin prison and delivered by her children Kiana and Ali Rahmani in December 2023, Mohammadi wrote, “With hope and eagerness, and alongside the resilient and courageous women and men of Iran, I extend my hand to all forces, movements, and individuals that focus on peace, the global covenant of human rights, and on democracy.”

Kendra Redmond

Kendra Redmond is a writer based in Bloomington, Minnesota.


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