“How did all the stars get in the sky?” asks a child of her parent as they look up into the speckled darkness of a clear night. This question has persistently challenged the human imagination since the beginning of time.
Modern science tells us that stars are balls of burning gas, located light-years away from the Earth and held in their courses by the force of gravity. But the question of how they got there is one that Professor Arif Babul, an Ismaili cosmologist, researcher, and professor, seeks to understand.
Equipped with some of the most powerful technologies of our age, and collaborating with colleagues around the world, Professor Babul's work is to search for science's answer to the puzzle of creation and the evolution of our infinite universe.
With a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Princeton, Professor Babul taught at several prominent universities before accepting a position at the University of Victoria in his home country of Canada. He was recently awarded the title Distinguished Professor – the highest academic honour that the university bestows on a faculty member for their research and the international recognition that they have garnered. It also acknowledges his work in founding the Canadian Computational Cosmology Collaboration, which brings together geographically isolated cosmologists so that they may share ideas and work together on answering the question.
“Astrophysics is the oldest of the sciences,” notes Professor Babul. It is also one to which early Muslim scientists made significant contributions. The idea of gravity was suggested by 9th century Persian physicist and astronomer, Ja'far Muhammad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir, who proposed a “force of attraction” between heavenly bodies. In a treatise titled Maqala fi daw al-qamar (On the Light of the Moon) written early in the 11th century, Ibn al-Haytham demonstrated that rather than emitting its own rays, the moon reflects light of the sun. Later between the 13th – 15th centuries, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ali Kuşçu provided the earliest empirical evidence of the Earth's rotation, countering the popularly-held notion of a stationary earth.
Today, Astrophysics addresses more complex issues, such as how our universe developed from its “smooth state” at the time of the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago to the highly complex network of galaxies that we see today. Professor Babul gleans clues from pictures taken using powerful tools such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which gathers light from billions of light-years away. He also leverages technologies like the University of Victoria's Beowulf Cluster – a network of 39 desktop computers that operates as a massive, supercomputer. However, Babul notes that traditional pen and paper calculations are just as important when it comes to formulating hypothetical models and applying new and creative physics solutions – particularly where there are many possible answers to a problem.
Alongside his research, he also teaches a popular class called Origin of Space, Time and Matter in the Universe, in which he shares new discoveries from the field with students from all disciplines of study. It is one of the most sought after courses at the university.The scientific community generally espouses that “a single good theorist ought to be able to come up with 10 different explanations,” bemuses Babul of the nature of his work. He has published many papers describing his research, three-quarters of which are rated among the top 10 per cent in terms of citations. “Science fiction has nothing on us,” laughs Babul. “I used to be a fan of Star Trek, and I gave up when I realised the episodes were drawing inspiration from scientific journal articles.”
Professor Babul feels that it is important in his field to never be pigeonholed. Beyond his work in astrophysics, he is also a prominent voice on Muslim-West relations and recently authored a paper on Islam and Science.
The pursuit of knowledge has long been a tradition in Muslim civilisations. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) is said to have urged the early Muslims to seek knowledge, even as far as China. Arif Babul continues this tradition, pursuing his search to the ends of the universe.