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Shock and Recovery

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 45
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.45

DUSHANBE—The hunt for hot sources (see main text) is one of several challenges that the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan (AST) faces as it attempts to recover from a brutal civil war that followed the Soviet collapse. Some of the academy's prized assets, including a cosmic-ray physics laboratory, astronomical observatories, and a network of seismic stations, emerged surprisingly intact. But lingering memories of the civil war and ongoing concerns about Tajikistan's anemic law enforcement—including an unsolved car bombing outside a government building last January—have put a damper on international cooperation.

During the Cold War, the Soviets bankrolled some high-profile Tajikistani projects. The Soviet Equatorial Meteor Expedition from 1968 to 1970, organized by AST's Institute of Astrophysics, painted a detailed picture of meteor bombardment of Earth and wind patterns in the upper atmosphere. And in 1963, the Institute of Earthquake Engineering and Seismology inaugurated the Lyaur testing range, a unique facility where artificial earthquakes—simulated with explosives—probed the durability of full-scale model buildings constructed from novel seismic-resistant materials and designs.

By the early 1990s, however, most scientific activity in Tajikistan, the poorest of the 15 nations born from the old Soviet Union, had ground to a halt. During the worst years of the civil war, in 1992 and 1993, food was scarce, power outages frequent, public transportation virtually nonexistent, and the water supply and telephone lines unreliable. “Yet we came to work every day,” says Alla Aslitdinova, director of AST's central library. “I can't explain why.” Thefts were commonplace. “People stole our computers and other equipment,” says Khursand Ibadinov, director of the astrophysics institute. “Fortunately, they left the telescopes,” he says, including a 40-centimeter Zeiss astrograph at the Hissar observatory near Dushanbe.

Star trackers.

Khursand Ibadinov, director of the astrophysics institute (left), and academician Pulat Bobojonov with a high-precision astrometry telescope at the Hissar observatory.

CREDIT: R. STONE

Shelling, gunfire, and penury were not the only problems. The Russian government asserted ownership of the Murgab cosmic-ray research station, perched in the Pamir Mountains northeast of Dushanbe. Because of the dispute—which shows no signs of ending—“for 14 years no experiments have been carried out there,” says AST president Mamadsho Ilolov, a mathematician.

The country's seismic stations, meanwhile, require an extensive upgrade from analog to digital instruments. But the investment would be worth it, says David Simpson, president of IRIS, a university seismological consortium based in Washington, D.C.: It could sharpen the monitoring of regional seismic hazards and help probe fundamental questions such as the geological structure of the Pamirs. Simpson led a seismological project at Nurek reservoir in Tajikistan from 1975 into the early 1980s. “Even under Soviet power at that time, it was a wonderful, friendly, and beautiful place to live and work,” he says.

AST researchers hope to soon end the isolation that has cocooned them since the civil war. “I have a dream to start academic and student exchanges” with U.S. universities, says Aslitdinova, who spent 4 months as a Fulbright scholar late last year at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. It's a dream many Tajikistanis share, but one that will be a struggle to make come true.

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