In Turkey, scientific progress isn’t perfect

An 83 year-old Zeiss telescope in Istanbul University’s observatory. Astronomers at the university still use the machine, which is now fitted with modern lenses.
Photo by Hélène Franchineau

For the past decade, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been speaking of a grand vision for Turkey for the year 2023, the year the modern Turkish Republic will turn 100. On the agenda is a flurry of ambitious infrastructure projects.

One of these projects is the Eastern Anatolia Observatory. Currently under construction and slated to open in 2019, the observatory will hold one of the largest telescopes in Asia. Professor Sinan Aliş, an astronomer at Istanbul University, says it will be a “giant leap for Turkish astronomy.”
“This telescope will work in the near infra-red wave length, which is totally new in Turkish astronomy.”

In the modern Turkish state, astronomy was first developed as a field of study in the 1930s — in part by several German scientists who came to Istanbul after escaping Nazi Germany. The astronomy department at Istanbul University — where Aliş works — is the oldest one in the country. It was established in 1933 by Erwin Finlay-Freundlich, who was an associate of Albert Einstein. The department is home to one of the oldest observatories still in operation. It has an impressive Zeiss telescope, which was brought over from Germany 83 years ago. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, personally signed the purchase order. Aliş said he feels emotionally connected to the telescope.

“Keeping it operational is also keeping it alive, so we like it,” he said.

Today, Turkey’s goal is to become the next rising Muslim power in the region in all fields, including science. This scientific ambition is reminiscent of an era commonly known as the Islamic Golden Age — the period from the 8th to 13th century when the arts and sciences flourished in the Muslim Middle East. The greatest of these advances were in the fields of astronomy and cartography.

The Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam, located in Istanbul’s historic district, is dedicated to the Arabic and Islamic world’s contributions to these fields of study. Around the 8th century, Arabic became the language of science and Baghdad the center of knowledge.

The museum houses a wide range of groundbreaking scientific instuments — testimony to the momentum and creativity that existed in Islamic science in the Middle Ages. The key artifact is the map commissioned by Caliph Al-Ma’mun, who reigned in Baghdad from 813 to 833. The map depicts a world with a triangular-shaped Africa, where oceans are open, instead of surrounded by land as they had been portrayed until then, and the globe as a spherical projection.

Detlev Quintern, a historian of science at the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University, calls the map a “breakthrough,” as it used Greek knowledge as a base to further advance scientific discoveries. “This map revolutionized the history of geography and cartography,” he said.

Although Turkey reveres these historic scientific advances and has regional ambitions in astronomy, the country has also seen some regression in the scientific field. Last summer, the Ministry of Education announced a new school curriculum that entirely omits Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This worries Yavuz Ekşi, a professor of astrophysics at Istanbul Technical University. He doesn’t see how teaching evolution conflicts with Islam: “Science tells you how you originate. Religion and philosophy would tell you why.”

It’s too soon to know the impact of this new curriculum for future Turkish scientists, but astronomy seems to be left untouched for now.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, strongly supported scientific progress; “the future is in the skies” is one of his most famous quotes — most Turks learn it in childhood. This may help explain the Turkish government’s investment in the new Eastern Anatolia Observatory.

There is a concern, however, that the money being spent on these projects isn’t going to the scientists themselves. It doesn’t always go into buying the latest equipment either. Turkey’s best telescopes are what professor Yavuz Ekşi calls “mediocre.” And while the new four-meter telescope at the Eastern Anatolia Observatory will be a big step forward, it will still pale in comparison to what some other countries have. The United States has three 10-meter optical telescopes and a 40-meter telescope is being built in Chile.

But what Turkey lacks in telescopes, it may make up for in satellites. Preparations are under way for an upcoming Turkish Space Agency. Lawmakers will likely vote on a bill this year, with the goal of producing and launching satellites within the next few years.