INO: Beyond a Dream

by Pouria Nazemi 9 months ago in science

Iranian National Observatory Project, shines the light on science management in Iran

INO: Beyond a Dream
Gargash summit—Iranian National Observatory site

Mahmoud Ghomi, also known as Moshaver-al-Molk Mahmoudi, was among 42 students who had been sent to Europe by the national scholarship in 1858 to learn modern science and technology. This was the first group of Iranian students who were selected to learn modern science and bring it back to Iran. It was a part of the famous Iranian chancellor Amir Kabir's initiations for reforms in Iran.

The idea was sending the bright young students to the best European universities, and upon their return, they started to teach other students in Iran. The hope was to reshape Iranian society, and transform it into a modern country. Ghomi had been sent to Paris. He studied Astronomy in Polytechnique Paris and even briefly worked in the Paris observatory. He probably also worked with a team of German asteroid hunters (The Paris Observatory has not any record of his time there, but Iranian newspapers of that period reported it multiple time, and even called the asteroid ‘Mahmoodi Star.’)

After he finished his studies, he returned to Iran and brought back a few small telescopes, and an Idea.

He held a few observing events for the Naser al-Din Shah Qajar at Shams-al-emareh in Golestan Palace of Tehran. He let the Shah observe the moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and a few other objects with those small telescopes. He asked the Shah to support his idea and proposed the building of a modern optical observatory in Iran: “The Iranian Royal Observatory.”

Shah rejected his proposal. His answer was documented in history: “We shall not spend money on the air and sky”...

Moshaver-al-Molk then was appointed as a senior manager in the Iranian Telegraph services. After that he was sent to Iraq, and finally after the parliamentary revolution in Iran, he became the PM in the first Iranian national parliament. None of those appointments had anything to do with his studies. All the investment into his education was wasted, and Iran lost its chance of founding a modern science organisation. Iran once hosted tens of the most significant—none optical—observatories of the world, yet still had to wait to open her eyes into the starry nights once again.

Since then, Iran has witnessed two regime changes. As Ervand Abrahamian puts it:

“Iran entered the twentieth century with oxen and wooden ploughs. It exited with steel mills, one of the world’s highest automobile accident rates, and, to the consternation of many, a nuclear program.[1]”

Some things should have changed during more than one century. The scientific thought should have evolved in Iran during this long time, and Iran should have gotten over the question about the value of the investment in the scientific endeavour. But it seems that kind of thinking survived throughout all of the changes.

About two decades ago, Iranian scientists and astronomers decided to start an ambitious project: To build the Iranian National Observatory, or INO, an observatory with the main 3.4-meter telescope, equipped with a series of modern technologies including active optics. According to the first plan, it was supposed to get its first light in International Astronomy Year (2009). It didn’t happen. Ten years ago, the project got government funding, and it became the most expensive scientific project in Iran.

Now the target is 2021, and many people are suspicious about this timeline. The first plan included the development of the telescope-building technology in Iran. The scientific goals were ambitious and hopeful.

“Iran entered the twentieth century with oxen and wooden ploughs. It exited with steel mills, one of the world’s highest automobile accident rates, and, to the consternation of many, a nuclear program.”

Now the INO is under construction. Long behind the original timeline—which means the loss of many scientific goals and international collaborations—and probably far different from the original idea.

The INO is the flagship for Iranian scientific projects in the modern day. Studying this case is a pathway to understanding the scientific management in Iran and also gives us a glimpse to other announced scientific plans in Iran.

One issue in this study is the lack of documentation. Most of the decision-making progress is happening behind closed doors, and we don’t know how the scientific community of Iran has participated in it.

Dr. Reza Mansouri — Cosmologist and the former manger of INO project

Recently Dr Reza Mansouri, one of the founders of this project and former manager of the INO, published the two volumes of his memoir about this project. It opens a fantastic window to the behind the scenes of this project. No matter whether you agree with Dr Mansouri’s positions on issues or not, these memoirs are essential.

The nature of the discussions, problems, and challenges in this project shows that, despite all the changes, Iran is still suffering from the same frame of thinking of the last century.

For all of us who are interested in how the system in the scientific community works, this project and this memoir could be valuable.

There is another side note about this project:

Despite the importance of the INO, the coverage of this project is very limited in Iranian media. Why don’t Iranian science journalists cover this issue more thoroughly and in-depth? Do they find this project not interesting? Or the audiences don’t care? Or the management don’t provide the data and information?

No matter what the answer is, it could give us a better understanding of the state of science communications in Iran.


[1] Abrahamian, Ervand. A history of modern Iran. Cambridge university press, 2018.

Pouria Nazemi
Pouria Nazemi
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Pouria Nazemi

Freelance science journalist based in Montreal, Canada

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