Areg Danagoulian was born in the family of physicists. He liked mathematics from school years and decided to pursue a career in that field. He was better at mathematics when he studied at PhysMath School and didn’t do that well in physics.
Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Areg Danagoulian currently teaches physics, and he shares the main reason for his previous preference of mathematics over physics: “Mathematics was taught in a way that attracted students’ interest and motivated them, while physics wasn’t delivered well.”
Areg Danagoulian decided to apply to the Department of Mathematics, but he panicked at the beginning, when he found out he had to take physics exam to be admitted.
“I had to take all my books and start to prepare for physics exam. Having learned the whole course of 7 th-9th grades on my own, I came to the conclusion that physics is a fantastic branch of science, even more interesting than mathematics. Certainly, my grades quickly improved, and I decided that I wanted to get involved in physics,” Areg Danagoulian tells.
In 1993 Areg’s family moved to the United States, where he continued to study physics. He specializes in Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.
His father, a specialist in nuclear physics, urged him not to choose the same direction, taking into consideration the number of issues and their complexity. However, Areg boldly pursued his dream.
“Nuclear physics tries to observe fundamental laws, by which the nature works. If you wish to comprehensively understand and feel the way our nature is constructed, you need to study nuclear physics and high energy physics.”
In an interview to Mediamax, Areg Danagoulian talked about current tendencies in physics, Armenia’s ties with scientists abroad, issues of education and science and the prospects of the Armenian science.
I came to the conclusion that teachers play a major role in students’ decisions about their career and life choices. A good teacher can inspire weak students and improve their skills, and vice versa, a bad teacher can kill students’ interest in science. As we say in English, to make it or break it, that is to say, teachers possess immense power, which can have very positive or negative effect.
When I started my education abroad, I saw that the difference between teaching systems in Armenia and U.S. is significant. I am even leaving out the lack of equipment and experiment opportunities. Now I speak about simple issues: many teachers act in a very anti-pedagogical way, which kills any interest towards knowledge among students.
The next issue to discuss is the willingness of teachers to work only with stronger students. This is a big mistake, since the best students will find their way, while it is necessary to take care of weaker students and encourage them to move forward. This approach will provide classes not with one talented pupil, but many of those with best, medium and weaker skills. This will help our country more than educating several individuals and working only with them. The American system pays more attention to weaker students.
Armenia also deals with the issue of social justice. The specialized and private schools with higher ratings should not aim at educating only children from rich families, but they should prioritize helping the whole society, including children from poor families. For example, MIT and Harvard have the same principle of indicating in their advertisements the number of students, who come from families where the members do not have higher education. The mechanism of helping people to succeed and find their place in the society is very important, and if a country misses this component, it will get a polarized society with educated and rich members, who become even richer, and uneducated and poor ones who get even poorer. This is very dangerous.
It is also necessary to pay attention to secondary public schools with all of them teaching physics and mathematics on the same level, while the subjects are taught terribly in Armenia. We should aim at improving the quality of public schools. Today children have to go to PhysMath to be able to learn mathematics without the opportunity to get the same quality of education at their own villages.
Tendencies in nuclear physics
I was involved in fundamental nuclear physics before receiving my doctoral degree, and I have been active in applied nuclear physics over the past 10 years. Nuclear physics today tries to understand the theoretical methods and mechanisms, which can describe how nature works on fundamental level. High energy physics sector shows more interest in Standard Model now, which has operated perfectly over the past 60 years. The scientists try to find cases, when the model doesn’t justify itself (Physics beyond the Standard Model). Physicists like it when what they have works in a wrong way. This means they have something new to learn.
Besides, the main interests relate to the combination of nuclear physics and astrophysics, owing to which scientists try to understand how space objects work.
Nuclear physics and medicine
Armenia has developed both low and high energy physics. Director of Yerevan Physics Institute (YerPhI) Ani Aprahamian puts emphasis on applied nuclear physics, which is a common trend around the world. Physicists try to find ways to apply their knowledge in order to solve social issues. For instance, YerPhI’s Armenian Oncology Center of Excellence, which will produce radioactive isotopes, is set to become a nuclear medicine center. They hope to use the resources of the center both for medicine and research.
Given that nuclear physics requires huge investment, Armenia needs to keep a realistic approach and find practical application for science along with conducting fundamental studies, which will ensure the influx of financing. What YerPhI is doing now is a great example of that approach and I hope they will succeed.
Armenia had notable contribution to large experiments and programs in the field of nuclear physics. The prospects of future contribution depend on what YerPhI’s science and management staffs manage to achieve.
As for Armenia’s role in nuclear medicine in the region, it will be a success if they operate the center well. Apart from securing business opportunities, influx of financing and development of medical tourism, it will also make the corresponding treatment available to Armenians in the country. Around 5000-10000 people die annually in Armenia from cancer, while the “neither war nor peace” state of affairs [between Armenia and Azerbaijan] kills far less people. In other words, cancer is a more urgent issue for our national security than war. We need to give this problem a proper thought and if the center works, it could have a huge impact on control and reduction of that disease.
The Oncology Center of Excellence has really good, modern equipment, the building itself is fantastic, but it just stands there empty. It has to start working.
The brain drain and support for top specialists
I’m so happy to see people like Ani Aprahamian come to Armenia. I notice impressive excitement. Even if they don’t stay in Armenia, they contribute to development of the country. My heart just melts from these examples. What can Armenia do to encourage these people? It is a matter of strategy and I do not have a short answer. We need to figure out why the repatriates decided to leave their cozy lives elsewhere and move to Armenia. Once we identify the factors, we have to strengthen them. The least that the Armenian government should do is work very closely with these people. We need to understand what convinced them to repatriate, what challenges they face mainly, what can make others decide to come back to Armenia. I know people who are still in two minds about it. The dialogue between the government and Armenian scientists living abroad has to be active and sincere, not formal.
As you can see, we have to identify the most productive mechanisms. In my opinion, Armenia needs to form a well-coordinated approach and choose the best course of action very carefully. Armenia does not have many resources, so they must be used efficiently.
Efficient resource management
Armenia can develop its scientific sector by making commissioned projects and bringing in funds in that way. The customers don’t have to be from Armenia. For example, I was talking to experts from the Nuclear Safety Regulation State Committee of Armenia and they said that the state budget provides only 15 percent of their financing, while the rest is covered by customers. So, this example shows that model can work.
We can find private clients outside Armenia. These opportunities must be actively sought out. It also implies cooperating with foreign organizations. For instance, in the early 1990s, when Armenia had long power outages and shortage of gas supply, Yerevan Physics Institute was able to work because it quickly and effectively established ties with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), German research center DESY, and Jefferson Lab in USA. They organized a student exchange program and that helped them stay afloat. The “cold and dark” years, as we call that period, passed, and physics stayed.
I believe there are several requirements: applicants for investment need to be active, attend various conferences, read and publish articles to make themselves and their work known abroad.
We should ask ourselves: why are we doing science and technologies? Clearly, Armenia has no oil or other natural resources, but it does have brains. For instance, Israel is the only country in the Middle East to have no oil, but it is the strongest technically, politically and strategically. The people of Israel managed to create a wonderful scientific and technological base. Two of the world’s top 20 universities are in Israel. The size of that country is similar to Armenia’s, the population is 5 million, and Israel has huge military and strategic problems much like Armenia, but still they managed to build all that. So, it is possible and we can do it too.
Secondly, should we do fundamental research or deal with practical solutions only? I think both. It is impossible to have practical science without fundamental research. There is also the issue of what separates humans from animals. Animals want to work a little, eat a lot and procreate. The majority of people is doing exactly that, but the main difference between human and animal is curiosity.
You can do science for the sake of knowledge. Seeking knowledge is deeply human and it must be a part of Armenian identity.
Photos: Emin Aristakesyan