An Interview with Dr. Nasser Kanani Professor, Physicist, and Researcher

October 6, 2019 by  

Shahrokh Ahkami

Please tell us about your childhood, adolescent and your studies in Iran

This is according to my mother. I was born in Mashad. My birth certificate however was registered in Tehran, consequently on paper my birthplace is Tehran. My childhood was spent in the Shemiran area of Tehran where I attended kindergarten. My elementary education was completed in Tehran. We then moved to Kerman. I finished 6th grade in that city and then we moved around the country between Tehran and other cities in Iran. I did complete high school in Teheran in mathematics. My father held a very important position in the Mine and Industry Ministry. He traveled extensively with that position and took us with him anytime he was assigned to a new city. As a result, my education after elementary school took place in different cities in Iran.

Was it easy for you to adapt to these changes?

While it was interesting, all this moving did have its difficulties. I had to adapt and assimilate into the fabric of new subcultures in different parts of the country. In the end, this traveling around the entire country allowed me to have a greater appreciation of the people and subcultures in different parts of Iran. Perhaps this is the reason I have a deep sense of connection to my country.

I know there is an interesting story behind your last name, can you tell us about that?

Yes. As you know my last name is Kanani. I remember my grandmother telling me the story of the time when family names became mandated by the government. One day she took her three sons by the names of Moussa, Issa and my father Youssef to the ministry to register and choose an official last name for her family. The officer in charge asked her what her choice for a last name would be. She responded, “I don’t know yet.”
The officer then looked at her three sons, especially at my father who was a very attractive child and named Youssef. He looked at my grandmother and said, “Madam why don’t you choose the last name of Kanani? It certainly goes well with the first names of your children especially Youssef. 

A very cute story! What made you decide to move to Austria and later to Germany to continue with your higher education?

I was very fortunate! My family was well versed in the arts, literature and music. They instilled their passion in me as a young child. On Fridays we would get together as a family at our house. We had a variety of instruments and poetry would be recited. So, it was natural that I developed an interest in the arts and music. But it was by my father’s recommendation that I take music lessons from the famous professor Hossein Malik. I started playing the santur. My love for music was encouraged by my family and they made the decision to send me to Austria, after my high school graduation, to study music in Vienna.  Shortly after I came to the realization that music studies were not the route I wanted to take for my future. I decided to continue my education in engineering, since my major in high school was in mathematics and I received good grades. I transferred over to the university in Leoben, Austria.  I should interject here that I did not drop my love for music and literature, instead continued my studies on my own. Halfway through my university studies I decided to continue my education in Germany, because of its reputation in industrial engineering. Accordingly, I transferred to the University of Berlin and majored in hardware and industrial engineering. 

What was it like going to school in Germany, do you have any special memories?   ​
In all honesty my biggest wish was to return to my beloved country Iran. I wanted to return to the arms of my loving family. So, after graduation my first step was to go to the Iranian consulate in Berlin. The first requirement for my reentry was that Savak security services had to approve my work. The second step was for me, upon my return, to serve in the army. I was shocked why they were putting these requirements on a young graduate who wanted to return home to serve his country. At that time, I was offered a position by a reputable organization in Germany, as an assistant professor at the University of Berlin. I accepted and decided to continue my doctorate PHD in physics, instead of being interrogated by the Savak and serving in the army. After receiving my doctorate, I was still interested in returning to Iran, but there was another requirement. In addition to the two others I had to join the political party of the regime, Rastakhiz. Not wanting to do that I accepted another offer by the university for a continuation in my studies and to become a full professor that required only German speaking individuals with the highest grades. Thus, I continued my life in Germany. 
What made you move to the United States?
It was never my plan to stay in Germany and continue my higher education. But as the Persian saying goes, “Your welfare is in what happens.” This all happened at a time when I was self-searching my future. I thought about my degrees in chemical and electrical engineering and in what direction my life should go. I then received an offer from MIT in Boston for a five-year research program in atomic and biochemical studies. I packed my bags and was on my way to the United States. 
I have an interesting memory from my travels to the U.S.. I had a very nice gentleman sitting next to me on my flight. He started a conversation with me and I found out that he was the one responsible for inviting me to do the research study at MIT. He looked at me and said, “You must be a genius!” Of course, I was surprised by his comment and responded by saying, “That is not so.” He casually responded by saying, “then perhaps they had made a mistake in choosing you!”
Besides MIT, I also was invited by the University of Gainesville in Florida and the University of Sakaria in Turkey. 

Please tell us about your studies in mathematics and physics and its relationship to music and the arts?

As I had stated earlier growing up I had a great interest in music and the arts and spent most of my free time reading a variety of books.  I was very fortunate to come across a number of literary works that were translated from English, French and Russian into Persian. This introduced me to their cultures and literary works. I remember attending a conference in France many years ago where I met up with a French scholar. We had a wonderful discussion on French literature and the arts. He was amazed by the fact that these works were translated into Persian, accessing these works were easy and how Iranians had so much knowledge about French literary works. I am certain you recall that in Iran during high school Iranian students had the choice of majoring in sciences, mathematics or literature. Naturally mathematics was always the number one choice due to more future opportunities.
What inspired you to write about Hafiz and Goethe?   

Twenty-five years ago I came to the decision that it was my duty or responsibility to introduce the great poets and literary Iranian scholars and Persian literature to interested Germans. I did this by creating a conversation through slides and writings. I first started with famous mathematicians such as Kharazmi, Khayyam, my favorite and Khajeh Nasir-al-dinToussi and the scholars Razi and Ibn Sina. It became evident to me during these seminars that the German attendees and others had a deep interest in Persian scholars in other fields.
Their interest in Persian literature by Ferdowsi, Khayyam and Hafiz and Persian music encouraged me to pursue my interest in writing about it. All my writings are based on extensive research including western scholarly findings; this brought in more credibility and with that more interest and a larger audience. Finding scholarly research in the West required a great deal of research and hard work. I was, however, able to find an overabundance of information. It all could not be covered in these seminars and conferences, so I decided to start putting these collections in books. I started with three books in Persian on Kharazmi, one book in English on Hafiz and his Divan, based on western scholars, and a book in German, which is currently in print. 
Tell us about the other series of books you have written and how you discovered that the origin of the battery was invented by the Persians?

I have always had an interest in reading books by European and American authors that focused on sciences and were translated into Persian. It bewildered me why these scientific authors never mentioned Persian scholars and/or scientists in these books. When I became familiar with English, German and Italian and started reading books in these languages, I discovered that books written in the original languages did write about the history of sciences and scientists from Iran. Surprisingly, I discovered that the battery was invented by the Parthians. I must emphasize that building a battery is a simple task and can happen by accident. This is exactly what happened during the Parthian Empire. All it takes is to take two metal sticks and place them into an acidic liquid solution (any juice or wine). What occurs between the two metals is an electric magnetic field and more than likely the Parthians used this process for many things. I have given numerous talks and written extensive journals on this discovery. In 2004 I published a book on this subject titled the Parthian Battery. Later the book was translated into German and Russian and eventually into Persian by my dear friend Dr. Shahmiry. The opening of the Museum of Sciences and Technology in Tehran displayed a model of this battery created by a group of young science students. The same group was kind enough to create a smaller model which they dedicated to me. The rest of my books are about technical science.

Can you please tell us about your work on the Shahnameh and how it was used against the Nazis during the Hitler reign of power?

I always wondered when the Western Scholars, without a political agenda, became interested in Persian culture, literature, science and history and introduced it into their scholarly research. In pursuit of this discovery I did extensive research.  Included in my research was finding the western scholars who had an interest in Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh. I was interested to see the name of the first western scholar who wrote about this subject matter. As I was doing my research, using ancient books and the internet, I came across a series of postcards published back in 1942. The postcards had Persian miniature artistry on them displaying Hitler and Gobles, identifying them as the devils found in the story of the Shahnameh. The devil (Zahak who had a snake on each shoulder) of the Shahnameh, like Hitler and Gobles, created a blood bath of the surrounding world. In the Shahnameh there was a savior, Kaveh the blacksmith, who took the reign of horror away from the villain on the battle on the mountain of Damavand. Likewise, on these postcards from 1942, there were saviors depicted as Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. The artist’s name on these postcards is British artist Kimon Evan Marengo.  This story was broadcasted on the BBC by the idea of Mojtaba Minoi. It was intended as a propaganda tool to make Iranians rise up against the German Nazis and support the allies Russia, Britain and the United States.

Tell us about your sweet as well as sad memories outside of Iran.

Most of us living as Iranian Diaspora have good and heartbroken memories. We also have taken hard learned lessons away that have helped us evolve into better beings. I have lived and studied in several different countries. I ask that you allow me to refrain from answering this question as it is too emotional for me.

Can you cover some of your experiences with young students both inside and outside the country? 

When we say young people, we must acknowledge that we no longer belong to this group of individuals. Accordingly, when we pass on judgement and try to evaluate their work, we must be conscience and respectful of the generational differences. Remember we were also judged at the time by our predecessors and we suffered good or bad as a result. I must say that young people today who are living outside of the country are doing their best with every opportunity they are given. Those that are born and raised in other countries have a very different perspective then I do. Culturally their values vary because they are very involved with the environment and outside factors. Young Iranians, living in Iran, because of my limited experience and time with them, appear to have different view of the world.
Their concerns are mostly about the future and opportunities concerning education and work. Even though they have tight family bonds, they are looking for any opportunity to leave and find their future outside Iran. My wish would have been for these young people to be able to find those opportunities inside Iran and not seek refuge outside, in America or Europe. For the past 100 years we have been exporting our children to outside countries and it looks like we will continue this path. Isn’t it time for us to stop and think about how this action is detrimental to Iran, causing negative impact financially, emotionally and economically? About 10 years ago I started working with groups of professors to develop programs that can help bring about a new beginning for young people. These programs have been very successful. 

What has inspired you to pursue new discoveries
on Persian literature and arts?

My interest in Parthian literature and art goes back to my childhood years with my family, who loved art and literature. Interest and research, however, does not make an asset to society. It is not a prescription to truism as a human being. What comes first is the culture that one is born into and their love for its land is more important in being an expert in a field.
As Iranians our culture plays a daily role in our lives. We brag and we dismiss our culture daily in everything we do. We take pride in our kings and kings’ men yet ignore their bad deeds. My life philosophy and work ethic is that we live and learn all cultures, keep some and give some to other cultures. We are not alone on this planet. We have contributed to society and other cultures as they to ours. This is the path I have taken in my passion for researching the impact and influences of a variety of other cultures and how ours has influenced theirs. We live in a world of intercultural influences. 

Please give us a brief overlook at your relationship with Iran and Iranians both on a positive
and negative note.
Even though I have lived a large portion of my life outside of Iran and made Germany my place of residence, my heart still beats for my birthplace Iran. Every opportunity I have I take a two to three-week trip to Iran to visit. The Iran I know does not only entail the history, literature and the arts that I have dedicated my life’s research. Being there and being able to physically touch its soil is equally important to me. The images we see today of Iran are the deep pain, sorrow and the hardships the people are feeling. Their will to survive is deeply rooted in Persian culture and way of life. This is creating heartfelt emotions that are contributing to the upheaval within the hearts of the people. 

What are your future plans?

The outcome of years of work in this field has resulted in a few professors and scholars who have been trained by me to develop a path to continuing the research and the work I started many years ago. Today I can say that I have a plan of action just like everyone else does in their life, but as far as these plans coming to fruition still remains in question. My plan is to continue my research on the history, arts and literary findings of ancient Persia.
Unfortunately, this is all I am capable of and hope that this will be a small contribution to my country and homeland. I truly believe that there are others out there that are working hard towards creating a better society, with more economic and financial comfort for the people of Iran. I believe this is true and all of us are working towards the betterment of a society that remains in difficult times. 

What made you decide to choose Germany as your full time residence?

As I mentioned, I made several attempts to go back to Iran. Since my efforts towards this goal were not successful I made my home in a European state and Germany became my choice for residency. It is the country that feeds my needs and my nature as close to home as possible. It has been my hope that I can at least contribute to Iran while living in Germany. 

Do you have a wish for Iran and its’ younger

One wish I have is for Iranians, wherever we live in this vast world, to always work towards embracing Iran’s values and culture and to develop a mindset to enhance and further develop our birthland. It doesn’t matter how many languages you speak or how intellectual you are.
Remember there are those who are not literate but contribute more to society and have a heartfelt responsibility towards the betterment of their home country. They contribute for the betterment of the country not for their own interests. 

Have you received awards for your scientific achievements and cultural activities?

Yes, several awards for both. The one that makes me the proudest is a collection called Kuschner’s Deutscher Grelehrten-Kalender (German Scholar’s Calendar), which is exclusive to the German scientists. Since 1985 every year each new edition contains a report on my scientific activities, even though I am not German.


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