President Peter Dorman's speech
introducing Farouk el-Baz
June 27, 2009
There are few scholars in the world today who can, with complete authority, look back into the ancient prehistory of the world and also look ahead to the unfathomable voids of outer space: Farouk El-Baz is one of them. Currently research professor and director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, El-Baz is a remote-sensing geologist who has applied satellite imagery to geology, geography, archaeology, and environmental studies, and who has become intimately familiar with the surface of the moon, with arid lands, and with every major desert in the world.
Farouk El-Baz was born in a small town in the Nile Delta in 1938, and went on to receive his BS in chemistry and geology from Cairo's Ain Shams University. After two years of teaching geology at Assiut University in Middle Egypt, he accepted a government scholarship for graduate study and traveled to the United States. In 1961 he received an MS in geology from the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and his doctorate two years later, after research he conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1967, after two years of teaching at Heidelberg University, El-Baz began a fateful association with the American Apollo space program, when he became supervisor of Lunar Science Planning at Bellcomm, a division of AT&T. He was then appointed as secretary of the Landing Site Selection Committee for the Apollo missions to the moon, and as chair of the Astronaut Training Group, where his outstanding teaching ability and engaging personality stimulated students and colleagues alike. Throughout his career with Apollo, he proved to be an adept communicator of complicated scientific theories to a public who were both eager and enthralled by the details of America's mission to the moon.
From the Apollo Program El-Baz moved to the Smithsonian Institution, where he established and directed the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. To this day he continues to name features of the moon identified through lunar photographic missions.
This project also marked the beginning of many years of desert research, during which time El-Baz proceeded to study the main deserts of the world by analyzing space photographs in order to select areas for investigation on the ground. It was his seminal research on the origins and evolution of deserts that led to his election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. From 1978 to 1981, he was enlisted to help President Anwar Sadat of Egypt reclaim land from the desert by selecting certain arid regions for development on the basis of the presence of underground water resources. El-Baz applied these new methods not only to the arid lands of Egypt, but also to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula, China, and India. His research methods are now broadly espoused in desert studies.
In 1986 El-Baz became director of Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing, where his work at Boston University has led to the application of remote sensing throughout the world, in applications too numerous to predict. El-Baz developed a method for investigating, using non-invasive techniques, a sealed chamber at the base of the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt, which was found to conceal a disassembled boat dating to the 27th century BC. More significantly, he has used images from space for ground-water exploration, using satellite images and radar data to pinpoint former river courses buried in the sand. For archaeologists, he has modeled the prehistoric course of vanished rivers of the Sahara desert based on the presence of underground aquifers in Egypt and Libya. For conservationists, he explored the severe environmental disruption in Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991. For human development, his 1,000 Wells for Darfur Project seeks water beneath an ancient lake bed in northern Darfur. His own work in remote sensing has brought developments to areas as varied as archaeology, environmental disruption, land reclamation and sustainable use, and even crowd size estimates, such as the Million Man March in Washington and the inauguration of President Obama. From the earth's dim past to the present day, Farouk El-Baz seems ever present.