Education: Academia’s Resurgence on the Horizon?

Phoehlaing

Phoehlaing and wife in research laboratory in KMM’s department (June 2010).
Phoehlaing and wife in research laboratory in KMM’s department (June 2010).

This is the report of a rare glimmer in Myanmar higher education Myanmar higher education has been in bad shape for decades. It is well known that, under a succession of conceited bigoted dictators, university academics have been humbled, down-trodden, and their knowledge made worthless. The sorry state hasn’t changed yet under the new democratically elected government. As a member of the former Hluttaw Committee for Upgrading Yangon University chaired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the author can say that its efforts to boost the university’s stature has not been successful. But this failure, the author wishes to point out, is due to the refusal of previous President U Thein Sein’s government to co-operate with the committee. And generally the overall blueprint for the new education system is still in planning and legislation stage.
Few Stars in Moonless Sky
Despite the gloomy sky, an indicator of coming progress twinkles. It is seen as the arrival in Yangon today, November 28, of a high profile Myanmar physicist. Professor Khin Maung Maung, head of physics department, University of Southern Missouri, USA, comes as a Fullbright Fellow, to teach at Mandalay University. The fellowship is a highly admired award for the recipient as well as for the host institution. Prof. KMM will also give part-time courses in Yangon University from where he got his first degree. Please note I delete the title Dr. from his name in preference to professor, as it is usual international practice.
If Myanmar education scenario is compared to a moonless night, then Prof Khin Maung Maung is the morning star of physics. He heralds daybreak for physics in Myanmar; but as he works in USA he is also the evening star, the familiar twinkle in western sky. Mind you, the morning star in the east and evening star in the west are one and the same.
Good old days for physics in Mandalay
A visiting professor from USA supported by Fullbright Foundation is not altogether new for MU. Flashback 50+ years – Professor Robert Crozier Williamson of Florida University had been given the same honor. He taught the first four batches of physics honors students in Mandalay from 1959 to 1962. I was one of his students, from the fourth batch. Student numbers were few in those days – only two in the first batches; also in my class only two students plus three instructors attending as M.Sc. qualifying candidates.
The staff in Mandalay in my days was strong and highly qualified. Apart from Prof Williamson, who gave two lectures a day every day, we had Professor Ali Ahmad, an exemplary Myanmar-Bengali, who I admire as a superb specialist of classical physics. He used to join our class, sitting as a student, to attend Prof Williamson’s Quantum Mechanics course! (He sets the example that it’s never too late to learn.) In addition, there were three lecturers – U Kyaw Myint, U Tin Oo Hlaing and U Thar Hlaing, all of them great physics masters. U Kyaw Myint, London trained, was most enthusiastic in teaching, and attractive in style of lecturing. In spite of his handsome looks and also good salary, he remained a bachelor, strongly bonded with students. U Tin Oo Hlaing, a postgrad of Michigan University, also a bachelor for life, doesn’t let us go easy either, despite his hearty personal nature. U Thar Hlaing, last of the trio, tends to be stiff, a little dictatorial, but with good intentions. He happens to be the best electronic experimentalist in Myanmar I have known! And all three guided us in laboratory work! Well, just imagine how close we were with teachers – two professors and three senior lecturers taking care of classes of only four or five students each. No wonder, they produced the best cadres of physics for the country. The number is not large, just fifteen B.Sc. (honours) plus M.Sc. (Q) graduates; but the quality was high, nay lofty indeed. Compare them to any graduate of any top university; they will not let MU down.
A country-run-away repays his country
Professor Khin Maung Maung had been a pyi-pyay (literally country run-away). After getting his first degree, and finished M.Sc., KMM couldn’t get a teaching job, nor could he go anywhere for further study which he seriously wished to pursue. The 1970’s were bad days. With the economy in shambles, the government of dictator U Ne Win didn’t allow citizens easily to leave the country. Unable to get an official passport, KMM just crossed the border to Thailand with a friend. He spent many days in the forest, the area of rebels. Luckily, he was helped by a French missionary worker. “The priest got me a Myanmar passport,” KMM told me; “and the priest told me, ‘don’t ask how I got this passport for you’”. The priest took KMM inside Thailand, helped him with a little money. KMM applied for admission in American universities, got assistantship and graduate training. His rise to professorship is a long story.
Strangeness, the key word of hypernuclear-physics
I began with the sentence, ‘Myanmar higher education has been in bad shape for decades.’ In spite of that, Mandalay University physics is faring not too badly. The department has got a glimmering spot, stars in moonless sky, which is admirable for people who are aware. The MU physics department excels in a highly esoteric specialty known as hypernuclear physics. Yes, a strange name indeed, and very little known even among practicing physicists. But there are few physicists, particularly in Japan, who pay attention to it.
Hypernucleus! What’s that? It is an atomic nucleus, the tiny core of an atom, which contains at least one strange particle (also called hyper-particle). But what does it mean by strange? When it comes to breaking down matter into the ultimate level of smallness, theoretical physicists have found six most basic particles known as quarks, and their counterparts, six anti-particles or anti-quarks.
One of the quarks is given the name ‘strange’ – yes, physicists have invented a particle characteristic known as ‘strangeness’! A particle with strangeness, or anti-strangeness is a strange particle. And an atomic nucleus which contains at least one strange particle is called a hypernucleus. Well, I have said this area is esoteric. Originally strangeness is a purely theoretical entity; but these days hypernuclei can be produced using big machines called high energy accelerators. There are only few accelerators in Japan, Europe and USA capable of producing hypernuclei.
The intellectual level of this kind of physics is so deep and demanding that the work has to be divided between two types of specialists – experimentalists who do practical work and obtain data, and theoreticians who do just thinking and calculating.
to be continuted

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