By Ray Hanania
In an interview this week, Omar Yaghi explained how he had spent his life pursuing his passion of chemistry. I don’t understand all the principles and equations, but basically he talked about coming up with a process to harvest water from the atmosphere.
Yaghi, a world-renowned Jordanian scientist who has just been granted Saudi citizenship, explained how that process was already being done, mainly in humid environments where water is in abundance. But harvesting clean and usable water from the atmosphere in a desert will one day change the way humans survive on this planet.
I know what he is talking about. Each year, during the rainy season, my wife uses a similar system that she buys at the local retail store — a small plastic box that collects water from the air when humidity is high. Every few weeks, the container is filled with nearly a gallon of water extracted from the air in our home. It doesn’t look drinkable, but it is water that could be processed to make it clean.
Yaghi’s vision takes that existing process to new frontiers. When I spoke with the University of California at Berkeley professor to carry out the interview for Arab News, he and I talked about the progress humankind has made in the field of communications.
When I was young, in the 1950s, my father bought our family’s first telephone — a large, heavy and bulky machine that sat on a table and connected to a landline in our Chicago home, allowing my parents’ sisters and brothers to call them from Palestine. Over the years, people dreamed about taking that technology and making it mobile, while the entertainment industry even imagined a small video screen you could wear on your wrist to speak to anyone in the world at any time, no matter where you were.
Today, cellular technology is so sophisticated that I do have a watch on my wrist that connects to my cellphone and I can not only speak to friends and colleagues around the world, but see them too, live and inexpensively. That technology has allowed people to expand their work and their energies to build networks of knowledge and collaboration that advance every field.
As Yaghi explained his concept, I remembered another fantasy conveyed in the entertainment industry in the form of “Dune.” This was originally a novel written by Frank Herbert that was published in 1965, before being turned into a movie in 1984. The science fiction story was about how people on planets throughout the universe could travel nearly instantly using a chemical called “spice” to power their transportation. The spice was found and harvested on only one planet. The planet’s inhabitants wore what were known as “stillsuits” that recycled moisture from the body to instantly create drinking water. The movie has been remade and the new, more technologically advanced, version was released this year.
Just imagine human beings out in the desert, walking around with small cellular-like devices on their wrists that harvest water from the dry, arid atmosphere, creating drinkable water for whenever it is needed. No one would die of thirst. And the process would literally make the desert bloom — a phrase that in the past has been used to fuel wars.
Yaghi dreamed about all that, he told me. But they were dreams that went somewhat against the wishes of his parents, who wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer. He saw depictions of molecules in publications as a child and was so fascinated he became determined to pursue a career as a chemist.
After the interview, he spoke to me about a cultural process often seen in the Middle East, in which parents overbearingly push children to pursue careers that might not be what is in their hearts. He told me that parents should allow their children to explore their dreams and imaginations and let them pursue whatever career they want.
As a result of him following his dreams, which contradicted the loving nudges of his parents, he has reached the pinnacle of the world of chemistry and is now aiming to realize the vision of harvesting drinking water from the planet’s most arid atmospheres so that humankind can advance and survive.
As a result, the immigrant born in Jordan to Palestinian parents was this week offered citizenship of Saudi Arabia by royal decree, along with several other talented visionaries.
Yaghi’s story is not just about a talented visionary. It is the story of humankind and its pursuit of survival. But it is also the story of a young Arab who had the freedom to pursue his own dreams, not those sometimes favored by our beautiful culture.