Following Physics into the Unknown

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On the week of September 18, Isaac Nape, Nkosi Bhebe and I set out on a journey that felt a little like pioneering into the unknown with the goal of following physics wherever it might lead.

In this case it was to the less well-visited country of Iran in view of attending the recent “International Workshop on Structured Light and Matter: Concept and Applications” that took place there form the 17th -23rd September 2016 in Zanjan, Iran – a quaint, quieter town 5 hours’ drive from the capital of Tehran. Jointly organised by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences (IASBS) and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), it was held at the IASBS campus, one of the more modern universities.

The fore-warned strict rules regarding ladies attire, staunch Islamic religious standing and governmental isolation accompanied us as we entered this journey. Subsequently, I dawned the required hijab, double checked nothing ‘scandalous’ was showing and stepped off the safe plane and into the unknown with my fellow visitors-in-arms.second-picMet by friendly students from the university awaiting our arrival and directed to a well-informed (albeit not English-speaking) taxi-driver, we were in good hands and these ginger expectations were soon to abate as we became immersed in the culture. Humorously, as soon as we arrived we were met with some misconceptions of their own that were, almost without fail, to be repeated throughout the trip as they could not believe Caucasians lived in Africa too! Utter surprise was exclaimed at my South African residency and the many questions searching for an explanation would begin.third-pic-tif

Confronted by the language difference (English is optional and Persian a must!), we felt the effects of being in a different country while nervously watching our Persian-speaking taxi driver navigate the traffic and wondering how there were no accidents!

There was nothing to fear though as they followed the Persian instructions handed to them on where to go and we comfortingly kept the emergency telephone number printed on our translated copy. Needless to say, the drivers seemed to have the art of weaving and dodging through traffic down and delivered us, after a good 5 hours of skilled navigation, safely to the university with a pre-arranged stop for refreshment and stretching.

The arid nature of the region we were visiting was apparent along the drive, but within it was a different kind of beauty where rolling hills, wide open spaces and beautifully designed mosques kept attention.

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Upon arriving at the university in Zanjan, there was a happy contrast of lush, tall green trees lining the entrance, carpets of grass and arrays of brightly coloured flowers flourishing all over the campus. We were later told that the university founder, a pioneer in the development of basic science research in Iran, has a great love of flowers and so created the beautiful gardens to inspire the students of the university.

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sixteenth The next morning we woke bright and early for the first day of the workshop, starting the series of exciting lectures on singularities, light phenomena, how to describe them, structuring light and how to utilize the phenomena in different applications. We were privileged throughout the workshop to have opportunities to meet and learn from speakers such as Sir Micheal Berry, Lorenzo Marucci, Ebrahim Karimi and Andrew Forbes which populate many of the publications crucial to these fields and I must confess leaving the workshop a little star-struck at the end!

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The day ended off wonderfully as a visit to a traditional Iranian restaurant was planned for the first evening. The cultural warmth quickly became apparent with the eagerness to show us – their guests as they put it – the local culture; so the first adventure began and all the workshop delegates climbed into a big bus and were transported into the town with popular Iranian songs filling the air from the taxi speakers, exciting much clapping and dancing from the local participants.  Most of the restaurant had been booked up to accommodate us and we were introduced to the traditional way of eating out with beautifully designed alcoves lining the walls and distinctly Persian carpets and cushions padding these eating areas.

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Accordingly, we removed our shoes and edged into the eating areas, happily awaiting the experience of trying traditional Iranian food. Most of it we could not identify and were told it was mainly different mixtures of beans and eggplant. What we could identify where some salad components and delicious chicken and beef sosaties. The rest, I’m afraid, will forever remain a mystery. The experience was halved between really delicious foods and – perhaps would be best described as – an interesting emprise in the culinary sector.

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The festivities were accompanied by a band playing traditional instruments, serenading the different groups during the meal and a session of singing and dancing broke out afterwards amongst the locals.

Tuesday yielded a break from the workshop with a day trip to the ancient Takht-e Soleyman (“The Throne of Solomon”) ruins! Apparently, a religious sanctuary built by the Sasanian rulers between the 3rd and 7th century A.D., it is set in a volcanic mountainous region and boasts a strong influence of Islamic architecture. Listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO, it promised to be quite an adventure (see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1077 for info). Armed with sunscreen, cameras and an appropriate amount of tourist enthusiasm, we all boarded a bus again and set off in the early hours of the morning. Being grateful for curtains on the windows we braved the 3-hour drive in the heat and arrived mid-day, beginning the exploration in this history-rich place.

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A main attraction of the ruins was a thermal lake, fed by natural springs and subsequently kept at 21 degrees all year round. We watched longingly as it shimmered in the heat, however, it is deemed a sacred lake by the locals, rumored to be where monsters were imprisoned by King Solomon. Apparently anyone who enters shall never return and yes, of course, there was also talk of a buried treasure hidden within its dangerous, mysterious depths. Alas, no swimming was allowed and we could but look on at the stunning view amidst the arid surroundings – no wonder they built a sanctuary there in ancient times!

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The surrounding structures became quite engrossing once one started walking around, almost as if it was beckoning one to investigate every possible corner, all imprinted with the mysteries and secrets of a past civilization. Many of the structures were well intact and you could make out the halls, arches, protective walls and many of the different rooms of this ancient treasure of history.

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Another evening, close to the end of the trip, we went gallivanting off to a traditional market close by to experience more of the local colour and undertake the noble pursuit for souvenirs. Our difference in ethnicity made us a bit of an attraction, receiving many curious glances, stares and photo requests, but alas, there was no fear as Habib, a PhD student who was graciously showing us around, played translator and guide; introducing us to many of their customs and traditional drinks – one of which we chanced a try – a neon colored liquid with little fun, squishy, round seeds floating around like a bubble party: utterly delicious!

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The rest of our stay in Iran went by quickly as we enjoyed the different culture, learned more about the fascinating physics of structured light, met many people, enjoyed interesting discussions about this phenomena and made new friends.

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The people, experiences, food and places will linger in our memories with a warm glow and when it was time to leave, we looked back at this country with its wonderful people, decided the visit was too short and hope to return again soon!

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