Uzair arrives at the South Pole

Star gazing from the roof top of his middle class home in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Uzair Latif, as little as five years ago, could never have imagined that he would become one of the first Pakistani Physicists to land at the South Pole for research, Pakistani flag in hand.

He used many technical terms to explain the exact nature of his research. Here’s what I could translate in simple English: Uzair is a part of the Askaryan Radio Array Experiment (ARA) whose aim is to detect extremely high energy neutrinos which come from outer space and occasionally land at the South Pole. Inside the ice, these neutrinos then collide with ice molecules, which create a radiation shower emitting radio waves which are then ‘seen’ by ARA detectors inside the ice. In the context of this experiment, the term out of space pretty much means outside our own galaxy cluster.

The energy at which these particles enter earth is so high that humans have never been able to create anything at that energy level. For example, these particles operate at an energy level, a million times higher than the particles colliding at CERN, which as high as human beings have been able to go.

“This will be my first time at the South Pole,” shares Uzair, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas and works with Dr. Dave Besson’s group in Astroparticle physics. “I will be at an altitude of 9,500 feet with extremely cold temperatures ranging from 40 C to 20 C. It will be a bit windy at times and the sun will never set throughout my two month stay there. I will be living at the Amundsen — Scott South Pole Station”

Uzair shares his feelings with scientific precision: “I’m nervous and excited,” he says. ‘The ARA drill team will be working seven to eight kilometres away from the station. We won’t see anything but the white horizon. A lot of things can go wrong but of course we prepare well and take all the precautions we can. Our plan is to drill 20 holes in the ice this season to insert our antennas inside them which basically work as neutrino detectors. Each hole can take upto 12 hours to drill. People can act weird and make wrong decisions because our brain doesn’t get enough oxygen at that altitude so you have to be very focused and careful with your work.”

Uzair’s advice to young Pakistanis? Don’t be afraid of hard work. “Nothing in life is easy,” he shares. “Do the hard stuff. It might be painful but it is the only way up”

“I’m very emotional because I’m taking the Pakistani flag with me,” Uzair shares, his clinical voice finally beginning to crack with nervous energy. “I fear I’m representing all Pakistanis. If anything goes wrong, I represent the whole country. But on the other hand, it’s an achievement for the entire country. I’m a boy from a middle class family, who went from Gulistan-e-Jauhar to the South Pole. This is why I’m coming forward with my story. Young Pakistani scientists can achieve whatever they put their heart and mind to.”

Uzair’s journey hasn’t been an easy one. “One of my lowest points was in my second year at LUMS,” he shares. “In my second week of the first semester, I had severe pain in my kidney and it was discovered that a kidney stone had formed in my body. I had to take a week off. Then there was the dengue break and after that when everything finally restarted I got diagnosed with chicken pox and I was told to take a two weeks leave.”

“I had 6 courses at that time and due the dengue break we were already having an accelerated semester and extra classes on Saturdays,” Uzair shares. “I remember it was a terrifying night when I was put in quarantine and I was alone in my room waiting to go home next day. I missed around 40 classes but I did not take the semester off and eventually I pulled off a 3.0 GPA at the end. I did not want to delay my dream of studying astrophysics in graduate school. I do not recommend this stunt to anyone all I am saying is never giveup on your dreams.”

Uzair’s advice to young Pakistanis? Don’t be afraid of hard work. “Nothing in life is easy,” he shares. “Do the hard stuff. It might be painful but it is the only way up. You can stay in your comfort zone and work around it all your life and people do that. However for me there is really no spark or purpose in a life of that kind. Go out of your comfort zone and explore.”

The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

Published in Daily Times, November 15th 2017.