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#1 Yervant1


    The True North!

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Posted 11 July 2015 - 10:34 AM


22:46, 10 Jul 2015
Siranush Ghazanchyan

Garik Israelian on the Soviet era good times -- and why the Canary
Islands make him feel close to nature

By Teresa Levonian Cole, The Financial Times - "I don't know why
people have this idea that we were oppressed under the Soviet Union,"
says Garik Israelian. "I remember a time of parties, a lot of fun.

There was no unemployment, everyone had free apartments, people were
very happy. It was different under Stalin, of course, but things
changed with Khrushchev. Armenia was an exception in the Soviet Union
-- our language, culture and church were preserved and respected."

Dr Garik Israelian, one of the world's leading astrophysicists, was
born in Yerevan in 1963 and is a grateful beneficiary of the Soviet
education system. "I was a disaster at school," he recalls. "I never
studied -- I just liked music." To his family's despair, he left school
at 16, went to work in a theatre and indulged his passion for rock
guitar, forming a band and playing in bars. "But then I saw [the film]
Solaris and it changed me 180 degrees. I was so inspired. I started
reading science fiction and decided to go to university. It meant I
had to study maths and physics from the beginning, at home. But the
great thing about the system then was that it didn't matter how badly
you did at school, so long as you passed the exams for university.

Otherwise I would have had no chance."

Studying astrophysics at Yerevan University, his supervisor was
the renowned Viktor Ambartsumian, who established the USSR's first
department of theoretical astrophysics. "He came from Leningrad
University to Armenia, where he founded the Byurakan observatory
and directed the Armenian Academy of Sciences for 50 years," says
Israelian. "He was very famous, a genius."

So it was with great reluctance that, on gaining his PhD in 1992,
Israelian approached Ambartsumian for a letter of recommendation, to
work abroad. "1988 [the year of the earthquake] to 1996 was the worst
time in Armenia," he says. "The Soviet Union collapsed. There was
no money, no products in the shops, no electricity for six to eight
months. I was writing my thesis by candlelight at night and working
on a farm [by day]. It was very clear that if I stayed in Armenia,
I would have to abandon science."

He had already had a taste of the west, spending three months in
1990 at Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. "My first goal was
to buy records," he laughs. "It seemed incredible to me you could buy
records in a store. I [had] heard The Beatles when I was five or six,
and collected vinyl. So thanks to rock music, I had some English."

Israelian left Armenia in 1993 with his wife Emma and baby son to take
up postdoctoral fellowships, first in Utrecht then Brussels. "It was
awful," he says of those three years. "The climate was depressing,
the people were depressing -- a different mentality. All relationships
were converted into business relationships. We're not used to that."

His next fellowship, in Sydney, proved happier. "Suddenly, there
was sun," he laughs. "So when the offer came of a fellowship in the
Canary Islands [at the Institute of Astrophysics], it was a difficult
choice." Geography tipped the balance -- "Australia was so far, travel
was a nightmare" -- so in 1997 the family moved to Tenerife. In 2006,
Israelian became a permanent research scientist and today heads a
project probing stellar chemical abundances. He lives in the north.

"It's very green, very beautiful, very quiet. You hear the birds. We
have a garden on a hill, overlooking the sea."

When not working -- from home, at the University of La Laguna or at
the observatories on La Palma -- or conferences abroad, Israelian
enjoys the wild habitat. "There are amazing mountains, volcanoes,
forests, clean seaâ~@~I.â~@~I.â~@~I.â~@~IIt is the most beautiful
island. I like to swim and snorkel, and I like to hike, usually alone,
with my music so I can think. I used to hike in Armenia too. I believe
in nature. Nature is my definition of God."

Israelian also feels an affinity with the southern temperament.

Although the Israelians keep the language and culture of Armenia alive
at home, and return to visit family every summer, they feel part of
the community. "I miss Tenerife when I'm away for a long time," he
says. "The people are very nice, very open, like Armenians. We have
lots of friends, have barbecues and go to local restaurants and fish
restaurants in La Punta. The food is good -- and so cheap."

His host country has embraced him with equal enthusiasm, not least for
founding the Starmus Festival, an international gathering of leading
scientists and musicians for concerts and talks, which will be held
for the third time in 2016. "Everyone said it couldn't be done,"
says Israelian, who first brought Apollo and Soyuz cosmonauts, Nobel
laureates and rock musicians together in 2011 and was awarded the Gold
Medal by the government of the Canary Islands in recognition. Fluent
in Spanish, Israelian was also fast-tracked for dual Spanish and
Armenian citizenship.

For Starmus, Israelian enlisted the support of musician and astronomer
Brian May, whom he had helped finish a long-abandoned thesis. "Brian
was an inspiration. For me, it was like meeting my heroes," he laughs,
also citing musicians Rick Wakeman, Peter Gabriel and Tangerine Dream
whom he has brought to the island, and scientists and astronauts such
as Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees and Neil Armstrong. "The festival
is all about encouraging people to come to Tenerife, inspiring them
about science, and capturing their imagination." Much, in fact,
asSolaris did for him as a guitar-playing teenager in Armenia.



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