Iraq grapples with sandy solar collectors

Astronomy, the oldest branch of science, originated with the Babylonians in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where Iraq now lies. Today, like modern-day Babylonians, the Iraqis are looking to the sun (for energy) and the stars (through giant telescopes).

Iraq, like many developing countries, has been fascinated by solar energy. One experimental solar house here is heated and cooled by the sun's rays of energy. It is a guest house for distinguished visitors (and serves excellent food) but there is a problem with the solar collectors, one that is not present in most Western countries.

The ever-present sand in Iraq covers the collectors. For solar heating this is unimportant because the system will still operate. But for solar cooling it reduces the crucial temperature difference between the high temperature of the collector and the low temperature of an evaporative cooling tower - reducing the efficiency drastically.

Removing the sand in a cheap and simple way is a major research topic for the Iraqis, but it will be of importance to all countries in desert regions.

A day's drive from Baghdad is the National Astronomical Observatory, where two large optical telescopes and one radio telescope are being constructed. As Iraq's new eye on the universe, they are located on 6,400-foot-high Mt. Konek near Arbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Dr. May Kaftan-Kassim, who worked at Harvard University in the 1950s, is project manager. He is sure that the Kurdish rebels will not disturb the operation of the observatory.

In the last 10 years, the new wealth that has accompanied the increased price of oil has stimulated the Iraqis to think about encouraging science.

The observatory is one way of capturing an ancient tradition. The Babylonians were the first to name the 12 constellations in the zodiac, and the spiral minaret at Samarra was built as an astronomical observatory. The Abbasid Caliph Haroun ar-Rashid (AD 786-809) brought to his court at Baghdad scientists and medical men from all over the civilized world. And the astronomer Abbattani, in 929, determined the length of the year to be 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 24 seconds with the remarkably small error of 21/2 minutes.

In the intervening thousand years, the scientific tradition lapsed and the pursuit of science passed to the West. Under the Ottoman Empire Iraq was neglected. The fruits of technology were imported and science ignored. For example, the Iraqi national railway, with its main line linking Turkey to Baghdad and Basra, was built by Germans.

There were false starts. At the time of the revolution of July 14, 1958, when Col. Abdul-Karim Qasim overthrew and killed King Faisal II and his advisers, there was an important Jesuit college in Baghdad. This had trained many of the country's leaders - both Muslims and Christians. The college was nationalized and incorporated into the University of Baghdad. Standards immediately fell, and many Iraqis regret its passing.

A major effort is being made to increase the quantity and quality of higher education. There are eight universities.

Before 1968, when Ahmad al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein took power in the name of the Baath party, there was some communication with the USSR. This has been largely broken, and Iraq plans to send its best students to the West to do graduate work.

It is also unclear what effect the repressive government has on the activities of scientists. The scientists I talked with would like cooperaton with other countries, but they complain there is not enough freedom of movement - even to other Arab states.

Research is concentrated in the Scientific Research Council. One of the largest sections of the council's laboratories in Baghdad concentrates on work connected with the oil industry.

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