Take Me to your Leader?

There’s been some interesting developments on the international front in the area of space sciences that involves a Malaysian. The United Nations has reappointed Dr. Mazlan Othman (apparently Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, and former director of Malaysia’s space agency) as the director of its little known Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Here’s a little bit more about Dr. Mazlan from an article in the Malaysian Insider:

Mazlan attended the University of Otago in 1975 earning a Bachelor of Science (honours) and returned to Malaysia as the country’s first astrophysicist, and worked to create a curriculum in astrophysics at the national university, as well as to build public awareness and understanding of astronomy and space issues. Her interest in public education was rewarded in 1990 when then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad put her in charge of the Planetarium Division of the Prime Minister’s Department, overseeing development of Planetarium Negara, Malaysia’s national planetarium in Kuala Lumpur. After the planetarium opened in 1993, Othman was made Director General of the government’s new Space Science Studies Division, where she launched a microsatellite development programme. She received a full professorship the following year. In November 1999, then United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan named Mazlan as Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna but she returned to Malaysia in July 2002 on the request of Dr Mahathir o serve for five years as the founding Director General of Angkasa, the Malaysian National Space Agency, where her work led to the launch of the first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. She was reappointed as UNOOSA director in 2007 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and left Angkasa to return to the post that December.

A British news report claims that she will be some sort of ambassador and first point of contact if indeed we do encounter E.T. sometime in the near future. A simple google search for ‘Mazlan Othman’ will reveal how viral this tabloid rumour has become. Even Paul Davies has come out to comment about it! As reported by Discovery Channel News: “We consider it our job, and have for many years, to cover this topic,” Paul Davies, astrobiologist and chair of the group, told Boyle. “We have no idea who this person is or where the U.N.’s coming from, but they don’t seem to follow through very well.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Mazlan and the U.N. have come out to strongly deny that. Her actual portfolio is a bit more down to Earth… or Earth Orbit, I would say. At UNOOSA she deals with issues of international cooperation in space, prevention of collisions and space debris, use of space-based remote sensing platforms for sustainable development, coordination of space law between countries, and the risks posed by near-earth asteroids, among other topics.

Personally, although I have doubts about the Malaysian Space Agency, (or ANGKASA) and its capabilities, not to mention the dodgy fighter plane deals and controversies linked to the sending of Malaysia’s first cosmonaut (or space tourist, depending on your views) to space, I have to say that I feel proud for Dr. Mazlan. I don’t know her on a personal level, but from what I read about her, she’s really passionate about astronomy and astronomy education. I’d really like to meet her one day if I get the chance, and I hope I do someday in the course of my work. On the other hand, I was quite disappointed by some of the comments posted by some of the readers of the Malaysian Insider which berates her achievements, just because she’s a Malaysian. And of course, these comments came from fellow Malaysians who couldn’t believe that a Malaysian could succeed on an international stage. The fact that Dr. Mazlan will be giving a talk at a Royal Society meeting speaks volumes about her credentials. I did a quick search on the NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS) and found a list of her publications – looks like she worked on stellar astrophysics early in her career (or during her PhD), but has since been writing mainly about astronomy education. Well, I guess she’s chosen to take that path – which is no bad thing! I guess the good thing coming out of all this is that Dr. Mazlan is getting lots of international publicity (albeit some are negative)!


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