I’m now a good five thousand kilometers to the east of Paris, in the Iranian capital city, Tehran. Tehran! I am here to teach at a school in observational astronomy. The Iranians have ambitions to build a three-metre class telescope, but almost no-one here has any experience with real data; most astronomy in either the hard-maths variety of theoretical cosmology or observations of nearby stars using detectors at least a generation out of date. So a change of culture is needed, really; modern observational astronomy with modern detectors and modern data reduction software. And no matter there is no telescopes just yet: there are gigabytes of data freely available over the internet — the only problem is downloading it. Despite the fact that the IPM (Insitute for Physics and Mathematics, where the school is being held) has amongst the fastest network connection in the country, we struggle get above a few hundred kb/second. But then I am used to my office in Paris not far from the centre of Renater, the French networking agency, so I am a bit spoiled. I will be spending almost two weeks in Tehran before flying to Shiraz for a few days.
So that is why I am here, but I didn’t talk about how I got here — at the very comfortable IPM guest house, from where I am writing these words. Well — by aeroplane of course. Iran Air run a direct flight from Paris Orly to Tehran twice a week. I thought for about two seconds about Nicolas Bouvier and his trip to Tehran from Geneva in his Fiat Tupelino — but i wanted to arrive this year at least, and I had sadly sold my opel ascona many years ago.
The aircraft cabin seemed modern at first: the plane’s age was revealed by an ancient in-flight entertainment system. I was reassured by the presence of it seemed at least half a dozen airline pilots in the seats in front of me. I felt strangely relieved that there was no useless in-flight magazine that I would waste my time idly flipping through. I watched attentively (at first) the in-flight film, in Farsi with English subtitles, but as the flight wore on it became harder and harder to follow. (After the extremely tedious ‘man from London’ by Bela Tarr which I subjected Marie-Laure to last weekend I felt I could sit through anything). It seemed to be the story of a young girl, a psychology student, who works with old people and who becomes intrigued by the painting of a veiled woman who may or may not be connected with one of her patients. The film shows many broad tree-lined boulevards, elegant buildings and also features a lot of driving (something normal in Tehran — as I am sure I will describe in the next few days). Noticing the odd colour cast of the film (surely a feature of the in-flight entertainment system), the cars that most people seemed to be driving and all the chunky cream-coloured plastic telephones everyone used, I was convinced that the ‘action’ of the film took place sometime in the 1970s — until an e-mail address was exchanged, and I realized that we were really some time in the last decade or so. But — as I said — my attention wandered. This I realised was partly because of the English translations (and partly because of the extremely wooden acting), which seemed to be almost transliterations more than translations. Given the very different word order in Farsi, almost everyone spoke like they were reciting lines of poems, with the subject buried at the end of each sentence. But very soon after we arrived in Tehran, at the Imam Khomeini Airport.