An unintended consequence: My involvement with Armenia’s Cosmic Ray Division
Published: Monday December 12, 2011
December 26, 1999: My wife Lisa and I were unable to decide on New Year's Eve plans for the new millennium. So we went to Armenia. Believing that the prophesies about the world's computers crashing on Y2K may be true, I hoped to be stranded in Hayastan for a while. But it was not to be.
A few months prior to our departure, at one of Prof. Richard Hovanissian's Armenian Cities seminars at UCLA, I met Anahid Yeremian. An announcement that she was working on some science projects in Armenia led me to introduce myself to her. So on our December trip to Armenia I took an envelope from Anahid to be delivered to the head of the Armenia's Cosmic Ray Division (CRD), Prof. Ashot Chilingarian. The envelope contained a few papers and some money for CRD.
CRD and Professor Ashot Chilingarian
We met Prof. Chilingarian in the lobby of the Ani Hotel where we delivered the envelope, and talked a bit. Prof. Chilingarian was extremely personable and easy to talk to. Anahid had suggested (strongly I may add) that if we got invited to one of CRD's research stations on Mt. Aragats it would be good to go.
Although I am an engineer with a strong interest in physics, I was apprehensive about spending a day with a group of PhD physicists: what would we talk about? Would I understand anything they were saying? Lisa was adamant: "If we get invited, we're going. It's only for a day!"
The invite came and we met Prof. Chilingarian at his office at the Yerevan Physics Institute where he briefly described CRD's research. They study cosmic ray physics and space weather; the effect of cosmic rays on the earth's environment and on systems such as satellites, power grids, and pipelines. They collect cosmic ray data from two cosmic ray observatories on Mt. Aragats.
We left for the lower of CRD's two research stations, the Nor Ambert research station at about 6,000 feet on Mt. Aragats. Going higher up to the Aragats station at 10,500 feet would have been treacherous and time consuming as there was deep snow cover at the higher altitudes.
At CRD's research stations on Mt. Aragats crews monitor sophisticated cosmic ray detectors around the clock. Professor Chilingarian with another senior scientist, Valerie Babayan, showed us their facilities. One technician, working on an old troublesome IBM PC which was used to relay cosmic ray data to CRD's facilities in Yerevan, joked about how valuable the antiquated equipment was; museums would pay a fortune for this stuff!
That evening we dined with the crew at the Nor Ambert station: scientists, engineers, cooks, cleaning women, and the rest totaling perhaps 8-10 people who were on duty there. We discussed everything imaginable: science, Armenia, the US, politics, and history exactly as we would do with dear friends back home.
These people defied my preconceived stereotype. It seemed that we had known each other all our lives - it's just we hadn't met yet. After dinner one gentleman arose, approached me, looked me in the eye, and said "I want you to know one thing. We're going to do our research no matter what, but we're going to do it in Armenia. I've been to Europe and the US. I can go wherever I want. But I'd rather starve than leave Armenia." Yes, I thought, but if your child is going hungry you'll leave.
I excused myself, and asked for directions to the rest room. Looking around I felt both embarrassed and ashamed that we, the Armenian people, allowed such gifted scientists and dedicated Armenians to work and live in such run down conditions.
That evening as time to return to Yerevan approached, Prof. Chilingarian indicated that he would remain on "our mountain". Two of his staff would drive us back to Yerevan. Chilingarian thanked us "for all we had done". Embarrassed by his statement, I protested that we did nothing, just delivered an envelope from Anahid. He stood up, looked me in the eye and said "You don't have the slightest idea what you've done. The mere fact that you're here indicates that someone in the rest of the world knows we exist. You don't know how important that is for us. It gives us the strength to go on."
During our drive back to Yerevan I quietly thought about how I would sell Lisa on doing what we could to help CRD. We arrived at the Ani Hotel. Despite only having met hosts eight or so hours ago, we knew each other in a very fundamental way. It was an emotional goodbye. As soon as the car left Lisa turned to me and stated "That's it, were going to adopt the CRD."
Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union CRD's funding dried up, with CRD's employees going without pay for months on end. Professor Chilingarian told his people that as funds became available, he would distribute the funds equitably among them. Whoever wanted to seek employment elsewhere had his blessing, he understood, and would help as best he could. Most everyone stayed. But to keep up with cutting edge science some of their antiquated equipment had to be replaced. Confident of Prof. Chilingarian's leadership, his people agreed to forego part of their already meager pay to fund essential new equipment. It was an investment in CRD's future.
Local villagers, I am told, during the cold winter months would cook and bring warm food to the scientists stating "We don't quite understanding what you are doing, but we know it's important."
Prof. Chilingarian has on numerous occasions decried the emigration of bright young Armenians to foreign soil. He once told me "You don't realize how bright some of our students are. I know I can't hire them all, I don't have the means. But every year if I can hire one or two of the brightest, keep them here in Armenia, pay them enough so that some day they can bring up families here, well... I think my life will be a success."