Special Episode: Big questions to big thinkers – Ismail Serageldin

Ismail Serageldin is often described as Egypt’s most intelligent man. He has 40 honorary doctorates and has published more than 100 books. We spoke to him about the role science can play in healing global divisions.

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Nuala Hafner: And now to a new segment, we’re calling big questions for big thinkers and Ismail Serageldin certainly fits the bill. He’s published over a hundred books and monographs and well over 500 papers on everything from biotechnology to the value of science. As well as his PhD from Harvard, he’s received 40 honorary doctorates and many, many awards such as the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan, and Presidential medals from Azerbaijan, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia. And he’s a Knight of the French Legion of honour. Ismail was the founding director of the Bibliotecha Alexandria, the new library of Alexandria, and is currently the Emeritas librarian. Ismail, welcome to Global Science.

Ismail Serageldin: Thank you. It’s a privilege to be with you.

Nuala Hafner: Look, there is so much that we could talk about, but I’d like to start with your personal statement of beliefs, if I may. You write that, “The world is my home. Humanity is my family. Nonviolence is my creed, peace, justice, equality, and dignity for all is my purpose. Engagement, rationality, tolerance, dialogue, learning, and understanding of my means. Without stretched hands, we welcome all those who share these beliefs.” If your home is the world, it feels like a pretty unstable place at the moment. Are you confident that enough people do share your beliefs?

Ismail Serageldin: There is of course, always room for improvement, but if you take a historical perspective, undoubtedly, just think of where the 20th century started. Colonisation was standardised. Racism was everywhere, fully entrenched. Women did not have rights to participate, in any political activity in practically every country in the world. We gradually moved on from that to the, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to recognition of the rights of people to determine their own destinies,to the rejection of colonialism,and at least the acceptance on an intellectual level of equality and dignity for all. By the end of the century, we even had a convention on the rights of the child. So we made a lot of progress. Despite of course the enormous cost on the first half of the century by everything from the 1st to the 2nd World War, to the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism. Later on, we have our expectations and for the first time we got the whole world to agree on the millennium development goals. And then on the Sustainable Development Goals, or the SDGs, which together, are an enormous statement of where we want to go. And so, yes, I do believe that, we have made a lot of movement in that direction.

Nuala Hafner: Well, it’s interesting when you do take that historical perspective Ismail, you’re right. I feel like, you know, we have made a lot of progress, but at the same time, when you talk about equality and dignity, and I look at what’s happening, you know, in the United States in recent weeks, and what’s been happening in many parts of the world for a very long time, I can’t help but ask, you know, why are those concepts so difficult to guarantee?

Ismail Serageldin: We have built our international system on what was generally, called the Westphalian Peace in 1648. The countries of the world agreed more or less on a series of treaties that controlled a territory and people on it, and you could enforce your will there, you could enter into agreements with other such governments and the nation state was born. Or so they call it the nation state, but it was really a sovereign state. And that is fine. Now the nation, you can talk about the Arab nation and you can find that in 22 Arab countries that are members of the Arab league, you can talk about the German nation, which includes German speaking people and a shared cultural literary heritage and so on. But the fact is, that the sovereign States wanted to become Nation States.

And they used the power of the state, of the sovereign state, to enforce a common nationality, by having an official language, by having a flag, an Anthem, a common historical narrative. And as a result, they immediately created the issues of minorities in practically every society. How they’ve dealt with that has been very difficult for almost all of them. Today, the issue of immigration has also become a very important one, but that’s also tied with the issue of minorities.

Despite that, I would say that if you take the historical perspective, we are moving forward.

There has been a great deal of advancement in this, and certainly we are not there. And if you want me to reverse all that’s happening in front of you, it is to say that an act of injustice, that was symbolic of a continued status of injustice towards minorities in the United States. In this particular case, it triggered an enormous uproar of people saying this is unacceptable. And that in itself shows you that we have made some advances. Now are these advances as rapid as I would have loved to see them? The answer is no, but are they there? Yes, they are. We have among our Sustainable Development Goals, a very clear goal of reducing inequalities, of abolishing poverty. These are designated, if you want, for both the dignity of the of the human being and the recognition of the desirability of a greater modicum of equality,

Nuala Hafner: I guess, you know, you’re right. It has really rallied so many people around the world. And I’m curious, what role can science play in working towards a more harmonious society?

Ismail Serageldin: Science has a major role to play.

To put it bluntly, every advance that has benefited humanity has come from science.

We have a really magnificent readiness to engage with the contrarian view. We listen to the contrary point of view, and we are betrayed our disputes with evidence. So as a result of that, we have a constant renewal and something which I call a constructive subversiveness. The fact that Einstein showed us that Newton was not absolutely right in what he had written, that these are approximations does not diminish our respect for Newton. It adds to our respect for Einstein, and we anticipate the next discovery that will overthrow the paradigm that we have now built around the legacy of Einstein and of quantum physics. For example, if that didn’t happen, we would have no more progress in science, but on the country, we are open to this constant upheaval,and still maintain our respect.

Because in science, the authority figure is not a book or a person. It is a method.

We arbitrate our disputes with evidence and rational argument. And I think that that sets the scientific community pretty much as a model for a lot of the values that I think are great, and that the ability of science to constantly correct itself and find the errors in its own work and then reconnect, it is what is required. But for that to work well, we have to engage in something new. And we are, myself and others, very, very involved in that, which is open science.

Nuala Hafner: What’s your definition of open science?

Ismail Serageldin: Open science is a movement whereby all the elements related to a scientific publication should be made available for anybody who wants to see it over the years. It has moved in a direction whereby people publish the results, but you very seldom can find the actual background data that they used to arrive at those results. Peer reviews are usually reviewed methodology, but increasingly, people are looking. We want access to data. We want access to the methodology. We want access to the peer reviews. We want the access to a lot, of everything that made, the scientific results available so that we can better test it. And as a result, ensure the greater integrity of science as a whole.

Now, in fact, you just have two major studies on the pandemic that have been withdrawn. Why? Because of some questions about the data. They really want to see the data again.

So open science maintains the idea that everything should be open for the benefit of humanity.

It’s not a matter of saying, you know, proving so, and so is wrong or proving. It is much more of the fact of saying, is this really the truth that we are seeking? Or an approximation of it that is getting us closer to the truth? And that’s fundamentally what science is all about.

Nuala Hafner: Now. You’re the Emeritus Librarian of Alexandria. The great library of Alexandria was one of the most significant libraries in the ancient world. Why was that?

Ismail Serageldin: Well, it was without question, the most significant library, but it was not a library.

Alexander the Great, who was incidentally was tutored by Aristotle personally, told Artistotle that he wouldn’t continue with him.

Aristotle said: “Why?”

And he said: “Because if I continued with you, I would be known as Aristotle’s pupil. And I want to be known as Alexander.”

So he thought, well, what are you going to do?

And he said: “I’m going to conquer the world.”

Now, for a young teenager,that’s kind of a megalomaniac view, but hey, he did it. He did it in 10 years. So he came to Egypt in what is now Alexandria, selected the site, and then went on to hear his future from an Oracle. And the Oracle told him what he wanted to hear, that he was not a human being. He was not a man. He was a God. Which he kind of believed anyway, but that’s another story. Anyway, he left and never came back again. And so the people who built that was the general in Egypt who was known as Ptolemy. When Alexander died, they divided the Empire and that part Egypt and all the way up to Syria, creating Cyprus, part of the polymeric Empire of Egypt. And the Alexandria would be the capital. So there was a guy called Demetrius who had ruled Athens who was now an advisor to Ptolemy.

And he said to him: “If you want Alexandria to be the greatest city in the world, you know, temples and marbles on gold, then all right. But you really need to bring the greatest minds in the world in all fields. Bring them here and then give them nothing to do, which was kind of a rather unusual idea.”

But hey, it’s the idea we’re still pursuing today. When the Institute of advanced studies in Princeton, for example says, Mr. Einstein, please come to the Institute in Princeton and you can teach if you want, you can write, if you want, you can do research or you can just sit and meditate. Just come, come and interact with the people who are here. So each of us at the time could do this. And they said, what are we going to do? So they created a temple to the muses called the Musion, in Greek, the museum in Latin, but museum, not to the connotation we have today. And they had the residential areas for all these people. And they attach the botanical garden to the zoological garden. And what was very unusual for that time, is that they also attached the section room and library. And the library grew and grew and grew.

So there was a second building of the library near the harbor and the third building of the daughter library elsewhere. The name of the library then came to cover the whole complex. The idea was so brilliant. There was an explosion of a scientific and literary and other output that came out of this experiment. And it continued for 300 years, until a most remarkable lady, of course, who, you know, as Cleopatra. And, but then there’s another lesson, other stories. So what happened in the ancient library that set it apart from all other earlier libraries, Egyptian libraries? What about Egyptian knowledge? Greek libraries are worried about Greek knowledge. The ancient library of Alexandria was the first time that universal knowledge, as far as they could know, was combined in one place, and where translation occurred and where in fact they would stop ships and caravans, confiscate their manuscripts, copy them and return the manuscripts, the people, but they copied the scriptoriums and they translated it.

In fact, it was there that the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew into Greek. So the ancient library grew and grew and grew, and it had, we can estimate, around 70% penetration of all the manuscripts that existed around that time, until the Himalayas. Remember that Alexander did not go to China. In fact, he reached the Himalayas – to him, the end of the world, and he said to have cried because there were no more worlds to conquer He did it all in 10 years on foot! You have to imagine these guys walked all of this. This is from Greece down to Egypt, to the desert and back again. So, it was universal knowledge. And there is a magnificent book that was written at the time. My biggest hero was the third director of the ancient library and the great person who calculated the circumference of the earth with 98.5 accuracy, which is pretty remarkable considering it was then 2,300 years ago.

And he called Callimachus, who was the greatest poet of the Hellenistic period. One of the great minds who was there. And he told him, look, I mean, poetry is something you can do in your spare time. Do something useful, write the catalogue for the library. And so he did -and this was the first time ever in history that universal knowledge was organised by subject. And then by author within subject, and the authors were ranked alphabetically by their names, which if you think about it is still how we do bibliographies to this day. So Callimachus became the inventor of bibliography. Now that book would be copied many, many times and find its way to the middle ages. And it’s thanks to that, that we know how much we have lost. So thanks to the pinnacles, we know that the ancient library of Alexandria had the 117 plays by Europe, and of which 17 only survived. So we know what we lost. It’s like finding a list that says there was this guy, William Shakespeare. He wrote something about two gentlemen and another thing called Romeo and Juliet, but we understand he also wrote Hamlet and MacBeth and so on. And well, we don’t know what these were, we don’t have them anymore. So it’s because these catalogs were available, that we know how much we lost by the successive fires that would destroy the ancient library.

Nuala Hafner: In its place, though, you’ve created this incredible new library, the library of Alexandria or the BA the Biblioteca Alexandria. Tell me about that. Is it true that it holds the world’s largest digital collection of historical manuscripts? Is that right?

Ismail Serageldin: Yeah. The ancient library of course, was built at the time when Egypt was the richest country in the world, and they could afford not only to bring the great scientists, but also to pay a King’s ransom, to get a library or to get books and to get some resources. So when we rebuilt the library in roughly the same place,which allows me to say that, with a brief hiatus of 1600 years, we are open for business, again, same place, same services. So it was a complex of scientific research that we did the modern library. And so I started the modern library with a copy of the internet archive, and to my knowledge, still the only copy of the internet archive outside of San Francisco, where Brewster Kahle had invented the internet archive.

And I would argue with people that look, uh, the internet is the modern memory of humanity and having a complete copy of the internet in the library of Alexandria allows me to say that, yes, I can start already, not necessarily with all the volumes of the world, like the ancient library did, but in a digital version of a large part of that. And in fact, we continued with that until 2009, and then we stopped because it was just getting too big for us. And we continued in the library of Alexandria, Egypt to have the record of the Arabic internet. So all the material is in Arabic, we have been sending out robots that would photograph it every page on every website four times a year. We’ve been maintaining that since then, but not the full internet.

Ismail Serageldin: So, that’s how we started. But I also was able to get donations to the library – 500,000 volumes from France. I got 420,000 volumes from the Netherlands. And we purchased our own books. So when I left it, we had about two, physical items, of course, enormous electronic resources. So I had like,1100, uh, journals in paper and the 73,000 journals, electronically. Our resources, were significant and we worked closely with the library of Congress, the British library, the French library, the Chinese library, other libraries, in trying to maintain and advance accessibility in the world. At the same time, of course, it’s also coincided with the enormous expansion of the role that Google played, Google books and getting about 20 million books digitised. This was a new world for libraries.

But finally, it was a librarian’s dream. I can arrange that in the most remote village, anywhere in Africa, where you can have access to the internet, you can have access to almost all the world’s knowledge today. Young people going around with, with their telephones can click on this and get access to almost anything. My friend, Jimmy Wales invented one of the greatest inventions of all time: Wikipedia. And when people told him are we really going to be able to get a hundred thousand people who don’t know each other to collaborate on creating an encyclopedia, he said, yes, and he did, and it works. And it’s beautiful.

We are right now, in the midst of a big transformation, but a wonderful transformation for access to knowledge, for how people are going to transform that knowledge and work with it.

We can remain in touch with each other around the world and almost instantaneously communicating at the speed of light. We can spread ideas and discuss them among the big global scientific community.

Nuala Hafner: You’d think that seemingly the internet and libraries would be something that would be conflictual because, you know, do we really need a library when we have the internet, but it’s really interesting to hear about how libraries are evolving so that actually they’re working together and opening up people’s access to information. I’m curious though, you know, there’s a downside to this and that yes, we can share information so freely now, but that also includes misinformation. So kind of coming back to what we started talking about at the start of the show, you know, it does harm this sharing of false information. Is there an argument that it actually does more harm than good, you know, the internet and social media?

Ismail Serageldin: Not really. I mean, for me, the answer is very straightforward. Yes. Social media has a dark side, but so did everything else. I mean, there was no such backside. There were people who were spreading false rumours. There are people were spreading gossip. There are people who are spreading lies. There were battles for the hearts and minds for generations of people that has been going on all the time. I have enormous confidence in science centre. And I put this down an unimpeachable observation- if you think back through the last 400 years or so, more than 50 years, 500 years, there is no question that science was miniscule, especially in Europe. You think of that. As a famous painting, Galileo putting his hand on his work and they can think his work and all the bishops of the inquisition who are forcing him to do that, they have burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake.

He may or may not escape, and spent the last eight years of his life in a villa, outside of Rome. There’s no, of course denying the enormous power that those people had in that society. If they could bring people like Galileo and have him, they can’t, but who today remembers any of those people? I defied people when I showed them this painting. And I say, okay, tell me who these people are, the people who are passing judgement on the Galileo and forcing him to recant. Nobody can even remember one of them. They are insignificant, they’ve been lost. Why? Because ultimately science proves itself. It has a method. It’s what is proved once and then twice. And again, and again, and truth without truth will always win out. And the experimental method is enormously powerful. And then you think of other debates, the big debates, for example, around Darwinian theory of evolution.

Well, it’s still going on until today, but the opponents of the theory of evolution are smaller and smaller. Those who believe in the mounting evidence are more. We take things for granted. It is surprising how quickly people take things for granted. Uh, we seldom sit and sort of, I mean, I, I used to take planes like, uh, you know, taking a bus, or flight to this conference and that lecture here and this and that. I don’t sit there and I say, wow, I got imagined, this is actually a heavier than air machine, and this is going to fly and take me almost at the speed of sound. I just take it for granted. He said, get down here and read and do whatever I’m going to do in the plane. My grandchildren have grown up completely with the mobile phones. In fact, I was talking to one of them. I said, would you like to have a watch? And he says, what for, what do you mean, what photo do you want to know what time it is? I know what time it is in my phone.

I spot of a generation that was totally brought up with mobile phones. We used to think, I mean, how wonderful computers were, but computers when I started with them in 65, plus the IBM360, which took almost an entire floor of a Harvard’s building. But nowadays it’s not the PC, which we thought was a revolution. It is a successful revolution, which is the handheld device and the cloud, and all of these transformations have impact on the behaviors of people. And so what is changing and evolving fairly rapidly, are these behaviours, including how we meet other people? You know, we used to meet other people in clubs and on social occasions. Well, now they meet online. And so there’s a lot of these transformations that are going to take place. And so when people say we’re going to return to normal after our current lock down, but the normal would not be the same normal that we left behind. And that’s all right. That’s how we advanced as humanity. And hopefully as a result of all of this, we will, again, revive the values that I consider so important, and that I put in my credo values, that we are all single human family. So let us all work together.

Nuala Hafner: I love your sentiments. It really replaces fear of what’s coming with hope and optimism is now honestly, it’s like you are a human library. There is so much more that we could talk about. It has been absolutely entertaining, informative. Thank you so much for your time. You are most welcome, and that’s our show. You can stay up to date by following us on Facebook and Twitter. We post full episodes of our show on our YouTube channel. You can subscribe by searching for global science television. I’m Nuala Hefner. See you next time.