Saturday March 10, 2012

Your 10 Questions by Prof Datuk Mazlan Othman

Prof Datuk Mazlan Othman
UN director for outer space affairs in Austria answers...

What is your role as the director of UN office for outer space affairs in Vienna? Frankie Chia, Selangor

The office's responsibilities as mandated by the UN General Assembly include servicing the intergovernmental process; discharging the responsibilities of the UN secretary-general under the UN treaties and principles of outer space; implementing the UN Programme on Space Applications (PSA), UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-Spider), and coordinating space-related activities within the UN system.

In this context, I provide substantive support to the UN secretary-general and the director-general of UN office at Vienna (UNOV) in the discharge of the responsibilities of the secretary-general under the treaties and principles on outer space and act as adviser on outer space matters.

I direct the preparations and servicing of the sessions of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), its Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and its Legal Subcommittee. I also supervise the preparations and substantive servicing of the Special Political and Decolonisation Committee (Fourth Committee) of the General Assembly when it takes up the item on outer space. I direct and supervise the coordination of activities under the Inter-Agency Meeting on Outer Space Activities mechanism, with emphasis on seeking greater cooperation among UN entities and implementing the UN reform process. Additionally, I direct and monitor the effective implementation of the PSA, UN-Spider and the executive secretariat work of the International Committee on GNSS (ICG). Very importantly, I formulate the office's overall strategies and policies, advocate the work of the office and COPUOS, oversee all administrative aspects, and manage the resources of the office.

What prompted you to study the stars, galaxies and celestial objects suspended in space? Tan Li Li, Petaling Jaya

When I was young, I wanted to study English literature and art. I was also very interested in philosophy. However, my teachers placed me in the pure science field as about 50 years ago the country was very much in need of scientists. Of all the scientific fields, I enjoyed physics the best because in physics you could apply basic principles to all the sub-fields and the same basic principles also apply from the smallest (namely the sub-atomic level) to the largest (namely the universe). When I did physics in the university, I discovered astrophysics and astronomy, which encompass philosophy and the arts in terms of the beauty of the planets and the universe. I was convinced that astrophysics was the field best suited to my hopes and dreams.

What are your hopes and aspiration for Malaysia in the field of astrophysics? Bernard Gideon Lim, Penang

My hope for Malaysia is that the young people will be excited by the mysteries of the universe and endeavour to answer them. Indeed, Malaysia does not need many astrophysicists, but since it is a very dynamic ever-changing field, the chances of nurturing a Malaysian who will contribute meaningfully to the field are great.

In what way does space exploration help to better the human conditions on planet earth? David Tih, Malacca

By definition, space exploration includes exploring by harnessing technology and by human expedition. Space technology has brought untold benefit to life on Earth. Since the first satellite was successfully launched into space in 1957, space technology has transformed human lives in unprecedented ways. A day without satellites will have a profound impact on many services that are taken for granted on a daily basis weather forecasting, credit card transactions, navigation and positioning, mobile telephony, access to data and information, live television telecasts, and many more. A disruption in these services could cause merely an inconvenience to a lifestyle (as in watching live football), but in some instances it could mean the difference between life and death (when emergency warnings cannot be transmitted and received), and in some could lead to economic chaos when it affects international monetary transactions.

Aside from being a necessary part of the daily lives of an increasingly large portion of the world's population, satellites have become an indispensable facet of our scientific undertakings.

And while the loss of space-based data may not be critical to all users on a daily basis, some urgent or real-time applications in agriculture, disaster management, and emergency and humanitarian responses would be severely curtailed. In addition, the use of satellites for intelligence, surveillance, safety and security has in many ways contributed to transparency and confidence-building measures.

The economic benefit of satellite services is also well-known. As an example, in a typical hurricane season in the US, forecasts, warnings and associated emergency responses derived from space assets result in US$3bil savings of lives and property. The economic value of the space industry is also clear: according to industry analysts, satellite services revenue surpassed the US$100bil mark for the first time in 2010.

As for space exploration by humans, there are many benefits to all humans, directly and indirectly. The first relates to perspective. Our telescopes, invented, designed and developed through ingenuity, technological prowess and creativity, probe the depths of space and time, and our spacecraft missions reveal the scale and diversity of worlds even within our own solar system. We are humbled by the sense of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of the universe. The next benefit is the role of exploration in the protection and understanding of our own planet as highlighted previously. Space technology helps us understand the complex world we live on, but in addition, studying other worlds, like Venus and Mars, teaches us how special our planet is and provides examples of how the climates of planets can change.

While the criticism against space exploration is the huge amount of funding required, economics is actually a great incentive for human space exploration. The spin-offs from space exploration, from healthier baby food to technology to better diagnose cancer, to driving golf balls further, generate billions of dollars in revenue. But, in the final analysis, space exploration is about being human. And, to be human is to be an explorer. We have the innate desire to explore the unknown and space is the final frontier of the unknown which appeals to the explorer in all of us.

Which aspect of Vienna do you find most enchanting? Mahendran, Kuala Lumpur

Vienna is a city with lots of culture and history. But practically from the point of living, I love the River Danube and the many lakes scattered around the city. Within a few minutes from where I live, I can access several lakes where one can ice-skate in the winter or swim in the summer. I can decide to take one-hour or 3-hour walks or more around them. I see swans, ducks and people walking gorgeous dogs. And I can usually stop at a cafe to have freshly brewed coffee and a freshly-baked croissant. I feel very lucky as people aspire to visit Vienna but I actually get to live and work in this beautiful city.

Has this chosen field of study impart any spiritual perspective for you? Ganesha Mohindran, Puchong

Part of the attraction of astrophysics is the cultural, aesthetic, philosophical and religious perspectives that it carries. Indeed, when one looks at the infinite variety of the beauty in the universe, one can't help wondering where this great creativity comes from. And, it is a proven fact that many of the conditions that exist in the universe right now, such as the characteristics of carbon, the strength of the gravitational field and the structure of elementary particles, reaffirm the uniqueness of our universe.

Is there room for astrophysics as a field of study in Malaysia? We are still grappling whether to teach science and maths in English. Mohd Fairuz Ali, Penang

A comprehensive basis of science in Malaysia must include basic space science, which covers astronomy and astrophysics. If we do not embrace space science, we will be missing a very large part of knowledge. In fact, space science can be used very effectively to inspire students to learn science and maths as it contains many exciting examples of physics, chemistry, biology and geology that, individually or collectively when applied to space science, advance human knowledge. Astrophysics is a specialised field that the students can undertake at the university level.

What are the top three greatest setbacks for this country's education system and what steps should we, as parents, take to improve the current situation? Chong Min Sin, Kuala Lumpur

The first weakness of our education system is the lack of focus on writing skills in the early part of education. The second is the over-emphasis on examinations. The third is the lack of real life experiences in the learning process. To overcome the first, the education system must not only improve the writing skills, but must also inculcate the necessity for creative thinking that goes into the writing. Secondly, the focus on examinations means that students only learn to score marks at the end of the year and do not participate fully and effectively in the education process, which should include all-year-round guidance and activities which are assessed and graded. This will also help in improving the skills set of children who are not good at learning by rote and will particularly help boys who, at the young age, lack the discipline to study and score in exams. The lack of real life experiences can be overcome by making students learn and discover through activities such as excursions, visit to museums, sports and other co-curricular activities.

There was a bit of flak for the RM142mil RazakSAT remote sensing satellite. The images it captured were 37km off target. How can such a costly mistake happen? Marcus Ho, Penang

I have no definitive answer on why the images were off-target. I cannot speculate on this and I believe the Auditor-General's report can be used to get the answer to this.

What do you consider to be your greatest learning experience? Nga Kok Keong, Kuantan

My greatest learning experience is that in order to make a difference, you have to be different. In this regard, I refer to being different in the way of thinking and doing and it helps to have dreams different from others and unique skills to achieve those dreams.

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