Saturday, December 04, 2010

Blogging from Egypt: Car headlights and Science trends

I simply don't get it. Traffic in Cairo is insanely chaotic. And yet, a number of cars at night don't have their headlights on. This is madness! There are pedestrians everywhere, and cars/trucks/buses zoom by without lights at night. It is not that these are old cars. You can find nice, new cars with no lights. Over the past two weeks, every time I went out, I saw at least one accident (mostly fender-benders) on the streets of Cairo. While the crowded areas were genuinely problematic for pedestrians (a woman was scrapped by a bus as she was squished between the taxi that I was in and a bus. The bus went by and the woman was relatively fine - only grabbing her hand in pain), highways are scary for cars. On highways you combine high speeds with sharp swerving cars. The problem is that the drivers leave no margin of error - even though the behavior of other drivers is mostly unpredictable and the concept of driving in lanes is non-existent. You combine all this and you can understand my complete bafflement over not using headlights on streets at night.

Just to give you a taste, here is a 1-minute video of pedestrians crossing a street in Cairo (I actually think that this is right at the hotel I was staying at). At night, just think of the same scene with many of the cars and buses without headlights:


Okay, now to science. In one of my conversations here in Cairo, I was told that high school students here are increasingly moving from science and to the humanities (science here means the path to becoming a doctor or an engineer). Well, on the one hand this may be an interesting development and will lead to a large number of poets, novelists, and artists. But it was suggested that one of the reason is that many students find sciences hard and boring (a killer combination), and want to get into advertising or a similar industry. This was just one conversation - nevertheless I found that intriguing. I was wondering, why advertising? After all, medicine and engineering have traditionally been the safer paths for a career. I don't know. It is possible that the new television and mobile phone market is not yet saturated, and there is still plenty of room for advertising. We are seeing a similar market in Pakistan as well. So if this trend of science to humanities is correct, then perhaps it is a consequence of globalization and the opening up of markets in places like Egypt, and the fact that such jobs are lucrative and perhaps more glamorous. But of course, this is just a guess. 

But then I ran into an article just last week that voiced a similar about the shift from science to humanities in Egypt:
A growing trend among Egyptian students to shun science in favour of the humanities is placing the scientific future of the country of 80 million people in peril, according to a recent study. Research and development specialist numbers and journal publication outputs are dropping.
"Increasing numbers of secondary school students major in literary subjects and avoid scientific subjects for fear that they might not obtain high scores to attend prestigious faculties if they majored in science," said the study titled The Future of Science and Mathemtics Education in Egypt.
Conducted by Sahar Abdel Gayed, a researcher at the Future Studies Centre of the Egyptian government, the study cited an "exodus" of students to humanities faculties in Egypt since 2000. "This trend has produced a set of negative results, which augur ill for the future of scientific research in Egypt," Abdel Gayed warned.
According to her, the number of research and development specialists has dropped to 493 per million in Egypt, compared to 7,992 per million in Finland, 2,434 per million in South Korea and 1,012 per million in Tunisia, another North African Arab country.
I tried to find an online copy of the study, The Future of Science and Mathematics Education in Egypt, but couldn't find it. If anyone has access to it, let me know. The blame is again on the way sciences are taught in schools, and the other is on job competition:
Ali Habeesh, chair of the Scientific Professions Association, a non-governmental union, put the blame on science curricula and teachers.
"I have aPhD degree in science. But I do not like physics and maths, though they are the basis of science, and that is because of the physics and maths teachers at my secondary school," he told the semi-official newspaper Al Akhbar recently. 
Another reason in his opinion was the tight job market in Egypt. "Vacancies available in the local job market are those based on having a good command of foreign languages and computer literacy. This situation discourages students from attending science faculties where studies need a lot of effort," he said.
"A medical professional, for example, earns very little compared to an employee at a multinational company."
Again, if this trend is a real trend then I will be surprised if Egypt is the only country experiencing it. I would be curious to know if this perception also exists in other places, in particular in other developing countries. Read the full article here.


Egyptian said...

Hi Salman - hope you enjoyed your stay in Cairo! =)

Don't be surprised that cars turn their headlights off, especially in Cairo.

In my opinion, this is primarily because:
- Most streets are lit at night.
- Traffic jams in most inner city streets make cars move so slow that they don't need headlights.
- Cairo is not foggy.

On highways, they use their headlights though.

BTW, I just took a look from the balcony. I'd say at least 90% of the cars had their headlights on. =)

Salman Hameed said...

Hi Egyptian,

yes, my trip was good - thanks.

I'm actually not sure of you think it is a good idea to have the headlights on or off. Apart from the floodlights of stadiums, there is hardly uniform illumination from street lights - and this makes it harder to detect a car at night-time. And even if 90% have their headlights on (though I think the actual number may be lower), the other 10% are enormously dangerous. Similarly, I left the hotel for the airport at 5:30am on Saturday, and there was thick fog all over the city (there was morning fog on at least 5 of the 14 days I was in Cairo). This may be rare - nevertheless, the majority of cars in the morning (including the taxi I was in) did not have their headlights on. This can only increase the rates of accidents...