Barred from Iran, Baha’i scientist takes a quantum leap with Google

Published by IranWire 

Pedram Roshan has not lived in Iran for about 20 years. Memories of his country of birth are “fading,” every day, he says. But he vividly remembers the best definition of physics he ever heard in his life. It came not from a top Ivy League professor in the US but from Mr Dehqan, his high school teacher in the northern Iranian city of Sari.

“In the Iran of those days, everybody said physics was a very hard subject, but no one could explain what exactly it is,” Dr Roshan tells me in a phone conversation from his home in Santa Barbara, California. “Mr Dehqan gave me the best definition I’ve ever gotten in my life. He spoke of our ancestors who had wanted to hit deer with their bows and arrows. They wouldn’t fire the arrows directly at the deer. They would aim ahead so that the deer would run into the arrow. This was the concept of relative velocity!”

Fascinated, the young Pedram in Sari decided to pursue a topic everybody derided as impossibly difficult. This being the 1990s, there was no Internet. He had to pursue his love for physics through any old book he would find on his parents’ shelves or elsewhere. But the interest clearly paid off.

On the morning of August 27, 2020, the same Pedram Roshan reached the highest professional achievement of his career to date.

Google Artificial Intelligence Quantum, a team on which Pedram is a member, today published a cover article for Science Magazine, the leading peer-reviewed academic journal of its kind in the world. In the article, the team explains how it came to perform “the largest chemical simulation performed on a quantum computer to date.”

Pedram had already made the news last year when he helped Google develop a pioneering quantum computer. But in this fast developing field, advances come quickly and this is yet another breakthrough.

“The accuracy of this quantum computation is really state of art,” he tells me.

Trying to explain his complex work to a lay person like me, Pedram expounds on quantum computers and how they fundamentally differ from classical computers like the one with which I wrote this story.

“Quantum processors are still in their infancy,” he says. “What we are doing with them now, to be quite honest, can still be done with classical computers. But we’ve now taken big steps to go beyond that.”

He explains that while the problems solved by Google’s quantum computers last year had been designed to be easy, this time around they “didn’t cherry pick the problems” and tried to “solve a problem that is actually important to a quantum chemist.”


Banned from university 

At 42, the young Roshan has many dreams for his future and his career. But the budding physicist would have been barred from any post-secondary education had he remained in his native Iran. The reason? He is a Baha’i, born into a religious minority heavily suppressed in the country. All Baha’is are barred from pursuing university education, part of the open policy of marginalization of Iran’s biggest religious minority with around 300,000 adherents.

Pedram grew up in the northern province of Mazandaran, by the coast of the Caspian Sea. His father’s prominence in local Baha’i circles brought repression on the family, forcing them to move around the country. The story of this persecution was ably told by Kian Sabeti for IranWire last year. Barred from the country’s academic system, Pedram turned to Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, better known as the BIHE, for his higher learning. Founded in 1987, the BIHE is an informal or “underground” university that serves Baha’i youth barred from formal university education. Over the years it has established links with major universities around the world and many have come to recognize its qualifications.

Pedram came to the US in 2001. After studying in the University of Pittsburgh and Princeton University, where he received his PhD, he started working at a laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, working with Professor John Martinis, an award-winning American physicist. Their research started around eight years ago. The results were so impressive that Google hired the whole team in 2014. The core group of six or seven researchers has now grown into a group of 70 or 80 people, “composed of hardware and software engineers, experimental and theoretical physicists, mostly based in Santa Barbara but also spread around the world including Los Angels, Seattle and Munich in Germany.”

He loves his team especially because it is focused on “making something practical, something on an industrial scale.”

As for the Iran of his birth, he has never held anger or bitterness towards a country that almost crushed his career before it had a chance to begin. “I remember my teachers and my friends and have very fond memories,” he says, even though most of these friends have followed him by also leaving their country and are now spread around the world, from Australia to Canada.

“The systematic injustice against Baha’is has never got any better, of course,” Roshan adds.

Pedram Roshan’s story illustrates what IranWire has for some time called the “cost of discrimination.” In this project, we look at the material and moral price paid by societies when they deprive themselves of talents such as Pedram. Hundreds of thousands of such talented Iranians have left their country in the past few decades – Baha’is but also many thousands of others. Pedram says that for Iran to develop in physics, it needs to overcome these restrictions, and to develop a “culture of research at all levels.” Still, he says Iran’s level of talent and quality of the work shown by Iranian scientists is impressive “relative to neighboring countries.”

“It shows the level of enthusiasm,” adds Peyman Roshan, who was himself once an enthusiastic boy in Sari, Mazandaran, amazed at how his human ancestors used the physics of their time to slay a deer.

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