"....what are the subjects which will be necessary tomorrow? Is the developing world going to continue in this deficit of knowledge? Or are we going to enable it to move forwards in to new areas of knowledge? My conviction is that we have to help these countries move into new areas of knowledge. And therefore, I think of areas such as the space sciences, such as the neurosciences. There are so many new areas of inquiry which, unless we make an effort to share globally, we will continue to have vast populations around the world who will continue in this knowledge deficit."
-Mawlana Hazar Imam, Investiture Ceremony as a Member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, Lisbon, 8 May 2009
As far as we know today, space is one of the few frontiers left for exploration, and NASA scientists are at the forefront of research in this area. Not least Alaudin Bhanji, Project Manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and former President of the Ismaili Council for the USA.
NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is a global network of US spacecraft communication facilities that supports its interplanetary spacecraft missions, and is a part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"DSN is a lifeline to more than 30 spacecraft in deep space that are sending down unique science data about places like the surface of Mars and the far reaches of our solar system," said Alaudin. Without DSN, "we would never have been able to undertake voyages to Mercury and Venus, visit asteroids and comets, we'd never have seen the stunning images of robots on Mars, or close-up views of the majestic rings of Saturn," he said.
Riaz Musani, associate systems director at The Aerospace Corporation in Albuquerque, spoke about the continuing search for knowledge in the cosmos and its potential: "We continue to learn more and more of the solar system in which we live in and the planets that exist beyond. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has flown beyond all the planets in our solar system and continues to send back science information." Riaz also said it is currently the most distant man-made object in space at approximately 13 billion miles from the Sun and we have been able to identify thousands of planets that may one day be habitable.
Cellular telephones and the Global Positioning System (GPS) used for navigation are direct results of the space sciences, as are robotics, vaccine development, ultrasound technology, new home insulation materials, weather monitoring, and a host of other convenient applications to which we are accustomed.
Of course, no space research would be possible without rockets and satellites.
"Modern satellites enable us to collect and distribute vast quantities of important information at reasonably low prices," said Adil Jafry, co-founder of a US-based small satellite startup venture, working closely with other national space research and development organisations.
"Once enough data has been collected on any phenomenon of interest, one can train algorithms to detect trends or specific features of interest,” said Adil. “For example, counting the number of cars standing outside a shopping mall ahead of the holiday season to predict retail sales."
Nanotechnology is another new field, involving the "study, exploration, manipulation, creation, combination, and application of nanomaterials and nanoarchitectures, at both the molecular and atomic levels” said Dr Huma Jafry Lalani, founder and CEO of NanoInnovations, a startup enterprise focused on developing healthcare diagnostic sensors. As an example, Dr Jafry cited the case of gold, whose "unique optical and heat properties at the nanoscale makes it a candidate for tumor destruction, negating the traditional side effects of radiation."
Health care is another beneficiary of scientific developments, beyond the customary research resulting in equipment, pharmaceuticals, and treatments. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the new focus of many healthcare scientists.
Dr Sahirzeeshan Ali, research scientist at the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Medicine at Case Western Reserve Medical University and Seidman Cancer Center, is conducting research on using AI to examine pathologies in patients, such as cancer cells. By using data from thousands of cases, computer software is being designed to recognise patterns and compare diagnoses and treatments to outcomes, thus being able to model and predict the best course of action. The mathematical relationships that AI can detect appear to be better at diagnosing and suggesting optimal treatments. As Dr Ali said, "Every patient deserves to have his or her own equation, and AI is going to lead to greater personal treatment plans rather than generalising treatment based on an average patient with particular symptoms or cells visible only to the naked eye."
Through Aga Khan Education Board initiatives across the United States, many children and youth in the Jamat are engaged in STEM-related activities. In partnership with organisations such as NASA, the International Space Station, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, students are engaging in computer programming, physics, mathematics, robotics, and engineering through fun, hands-on activities. Perhaps in time, some of these young students will match the achievements of Alaudin Bhanji, Riaz Musani, Adil Jafry, Dr Huma Jafry Lalani, and Dr Sahirzeeshan Ali.