Shimmering mirage of 'water car' thrills Pakistan
News commentators said the coverage of the Pakistani scientist's claims about his water-fueled car was Pakistan's version of Britain's "silly season," when journalists and politicians embrace the unlikely during the annual lull in politics.
The New York Times
ISLAMABAD — In a nation thirsting for energy, he loomed like a messiah: a small-town engineer who claimed he could run a car on water.
The assertion — based on the premise that he had discovered a way to easily split the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water molecules with almost no energy — would, if proved, represent a breakthrough for physics and a near-magical solution to Pakistan's power crisis.
"By the grace of Allah, I have managed to make a formula that converts less voltage into more energy," the professed inventor, Agha Waqar Ahmad, said in a telephone interview. "This invention will solve our country's energy crisis and provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people."
Established scientists have debunked his claims, first made one month ago, saying they violate laws of physics. But across Pakistan, where crippling electricity cuts have left millions drenched in the sweat of a powerless summer and where there is hunger for tales of homegrown glory, the shimmering mirage of a "water car" received a broad and serious embrace.
Federal ministers lauded Ahmad and his vehicle, sometimes at Cabinet meetings. The stand-in minister for religious affairs, Khursheed Shah, appeared on TV with him and took a ride in his small Suzuki rental, which was hooked up to a contraption that Ahmad described as a "water kit." Respected talk-show hosts suggested he should get state financing and protection.
The country's most famous scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan — revered in Pakistan as the father of the country's nuclear-weapons program and reviled elsewhere as a notorious figure in the international nuclear black market — also gave it his imprimatur. "I have investigated the matter, and there is no fraud involved," he said during a recent broadcast that sealed Ahmad's celebrity.
The quest to harness chemical energy from water is a Holy Grail of science, offering the promise of a world free from dependence on oil. Groups in other countries, including Japan, the United States and Sri Lanka, have previously made similar claims. They have been largely ignored.
Not so with Ahmad, 40, an unlikely science prodigy. The father of five graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1990 from a small technical college in Khairpur, in southern Sindh province, he said in the interview. For most of his career he worked in a local police department. He is unemployed.
But he sprang up at a moment Pakistan was intensely aware of its power shortcomings. Violent riots erupted across Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces recently as temperatures in some places hovered around 110 degrees amid electricity shortages that stretched to 20 hours a day. Chronic shortages of natural gas, which powers many cars and homes, result in lines snaking from gas stations.
News commentators said the coverage of Ahmad's claims was the Pakistani version of Britain's "silly season," when journalists and politicians embrace the unlikely during the annual lull in politics. But for established scientists, it was a symptom of a wider, more worrisome, ignorance of science.
It shows "how far Pakistan has fallen into the pit of ignorance and self-delusion," wrote Pervez Hoodbhoy, an outspoken physics professor, in The Express Tribune, a national English-language daily. He added: "Our leaders are lost in the dark, fumbling desperately for a miracle; our media is chasing spectacle, not truth; and our great scientists care more about being important than about evidence."
Pakistan is not lacking in academic talent. With 68 percent of the population younger than 30, according to the United Nations, education is a preoccupation among parents across the social spectrum. This year 200 Pakistani undergraduates will start at 50 U.S. colleges under the government-financed Fulbright educational-exchange program.
Yet even the country's academic achievements are mired in the old problems of politics, prejudice and religion.
The work of a Pakistani particle physicist, Abdus Salam, won him a Nobel Prize along with two other scientists in 1979, and it has been credited with paving the way for the discovery of what appears to be the Higgs boson particle, which was announced July 4.
But Salam, who died in 1996, is largely ignored in his homeland because he was a member of the Ahmadi sect, whose members suffer state-sponsored discrimination and, in recent years, attacks by violent extremists.
Ahmad brushed off his critics, claiming to have run the Suzuki for 250 miles on 10 liters of water.
"I am not concerned with theory. I have given a practical demonstration that a vehicle can run on water," he said. "What more proof do these critics need?"
Salman Masood contributed reporting.