The American University of Beirut's Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences (CAMS), launched in 1999, hopes to evolve into an international centre of excellence for mathematical studies.
Founded in 1866, the American
University of Beirut (AUB) enjoys a venerable history. The oldest
and largest US-chartered university in the Middle East, AUB has
served as both a regional and international centre of higher education
for 135 years. In fact, 19 AUB alumni attended the UN founding
conference in San Francisco, California (USA), in 1945, and three
AUB alumni were signatories of the UN Charter--no other institution
can lay claim to having so many graduates play such a prominent
role in the creation of the United Nations.
AUB's status as one of the premier universities in the Middle East was shattered by the Lebanese civil war that began in 1970 and continued for more than 20 years. As Khalil Bitar, current dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, describes it, "the fighting devastated the city, frightening both faculty and students and eventually causing many to leave. Those who had come from abroad were the first to flee, but over time even faculty and students from the Middle East and Lebanon itself decided that this was not an environment conducive to teaching and learning. The university never closed its doors--never succumbed to the violence and chaos--but it is fair to say that it did little more than survive for some two decades."
A fragile peace returned to Beirut in 1991 but it would take almost another 10 years before AUB would finally emerge from the deep shadows cast by the war. Beginning in the late 1990s, AUB officials began to discuss strategies for rebuilding the university into one of the premier educational institutions in the region. Such discussions prompted Bitar to return after a 20-year absence.
Scientist Ali Chamseddine, another Lebanese national who had been abroad in Europe, also decided to come home. "It was not an easy decision," Chamseddine explains. "I had tried to return to Lebanon on two previous occasions during the 1970s and 1980s, misreading a temporary lull in violence for a permanent end to the civil war. Each time I was forced to pick up my family and leave after a brief period. My three boys had essentially been raised in Europe and, after having lived in Switzerland from 1986 to 1998, I had given up all hope of returning home. The last thing I wanted to do was to bring my family to Lebanon again only to be forced to take refuge abroad for a third time due to a resumption in hostilities."
What prompted Chamseddine to give peace in Lebanon yet another chance was AUB's decision to launch a Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences (CAMS) as one of the cornerstones of its rebuilding efforts. Chamseddine was offered the post of CAMS' director.
The purpose of CAMS, according to its official mission statement, is "to promote research and graduate studies in mathematics and to serve as a focal point for collaboration among mathematicians and scientists in Lebanon and throughout the region."
But CAMS' ambitions are much larger than this: Ultimately it hopes to become a world-class centre for mathematical research and training on par with the best institutes found in both North and South--places such as New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (USA); the University of Cambridge's Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences (UK); and the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (Brazil).
To advance this lofty goal, Bitar and Chamseddine recently visited Trieste for a meeting to discuss options for a Millennium Science Initiative for the Middle East. The event, hosted by ICTP, was led by Phillip A. Griffiths, chair of the Science Institutes Group (SIG) and director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (USA), who has played an instrumental role in the development of MSI. In addition to administrators and faculty from AUB, representatives from Iran, Tunisia and Turkey were in attendance as well.
Chamseddine's personal affiliation with ICTP runs deep. The Centre's founding director Abdus Salam not only served as his Ph.D. advisor during the early 1970s at Imperial College (UK), where he earned his degree, but following his graduation Chamseddine was awarded an ICTP post doc in Trieste from 1976-1977.
ICTP's ties to CAMS, however, extend beyond Chamseddine's close ties to both institutions. As Nicola Khuri, physics professor at Rockefeller University and member of CAMS' International Advisory Board, explained at the workshop: "ICTP was really a founding sponsor of CAMS. At a critical moment in our discussions with AUB trustees involving our proposal to launch CAMS, ICTP provided US$30,000 in seed money to bolster our efforts. The check was accompanied by a strong letter of support signed by ICTP director Miguel Virasoro."
"The money," notes Khuri, "was not nearly as significant as the affirmation that ICTP's deeds and words gave to our cause. Ten times the funding from a foundation in the United States would not have had as much impact."
Two years later CAMS is prospering and hoping for even better things in the future. In addition to Chamseddine, a distinguished physicist in the fields of supergravity and supersymmetry, its permanent staff of senior fellows consists of Kamal Khuri-Makdisi, a number theorist educated at Princeton University (USA); Wafic Sabra, a string theorist educated at the University of London (UK); and Jihad Touma, an applied mathematician specialising in non-linear dynamics and chaos, who earned his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA).
Although an international advisory board helps shape CAMS' scientific agenda, the Centre is nevertheless an integral part of AUB. In fact, each senior fellow holds a joint appointment as a faculty member either in AUB's physics or mathematics department and is required to teach courses and advise students.
"Those of us calling for the Centre's creation," explains Bitar, "partly justified its potential value by asserting that CAMS' presence would help attract first-rate faculty members to AUB--no easy task in the aftermath of the civil war."
The Center's excellent facilities (it occupies half of a floor in a new building on AUB's campus), combined with senior staff contracts that reduce the teaching load to permit more time for research, has helped advance that goal. In fact, CAMS' success has convinced AUB officials to replicate the model in other fields: A CAMS-like Institute of Financial Economics is scheduled to open on the university campus this fall.
CAMS' inaugural conference, "Mathematical Sciences after the Year 2000," took place between 11-15 January 1999. Some 150 scientists, including Fields Medallist and CAMS advisory member Sir Michael Atiyah, University of Edinburgh (UK), and Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, Santa Fe Institute (USA), participated in the event, which received excellent reviews from mathematicians and physicists and wide media coverage in the Middle East. Since then, the Center has organised a series of lectures, seminars, workshops and courses to explore, for example, state-of-the-art research in noncommutative geometry and string theory. It has also launched a visiting scholar and associate programme to encourage researchers to come to CAMS for periods ranging from a few weeks to two years. Some 70 researchers, largely from the Middle East, have taken advantage of this initiative.
"With an annual budget of US$200,000," says Chamseddine, "our range of activities remains modest. However, the high quality of our research and training activity, as well as the installation of a computer system that is the most powerful in the region, bodes well for the future."
"With continued support from organisations like ICTP and possible ties to such efforts as the Millennium Science Initiative, CAMS has the potential to grow into a regional and perhaps even international centre of excellence in mathematical sciences. That, at least, is our dream. It's a dream that has lured me and my colleagues back to Lebanon, hopefully this time to stay."
For additional information about the Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences, please contact: CAMS, College Hall, Room 425, American University of Beirut, PO Box 11-0236, Beirut, Lebanon; tel: +961 1 374444 or 374374, ext. 4390; fax: +961 1 365087; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit the website at www.cams.aub.edu.lb.
THE MILLENNIUM SCIENCE INITIATIVE
Officials from the American University of Beirut, who visited ICTP on 28-29 June, formed part of a larger group of mathematicians and scientists invited to attend a meeting coordinated by the Science Institutes Group (SIG) focussing on the possibility of launching a Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) in the Middle East. The purpose of MSI, launched in 1998 with the help of the World Bank, is to create and nurture world-class science and scientific talent in the developing world. MSI efforts are currently in various stages of development and/or implementation in South America, Asia and Africa. This marked the second meeting of the MSI held in Trieste. In May 2000, SGI representatives were here to examine the prospects for fostering such an initiative in Africa.
For additional information about MSI, please contact Arlen Hastings, Science Institutes Group/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ (USA); phone: +1 609 734 8202; fax +1 609 683 7605; or e-mail: email@example.com. Also visit the MSI website at www.msi-sig.org.