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Silicon Valley Breaking News

Posted at 10:41 p.m. PST Thursday, Feb. 8, 2001

Iranian computer consultant is a man on a mission

He'll take ideas home after visit to San Jose's tech museum

BY TRACY SEIPEL
Mercury News

When he returns to the Bay Area in May, Iranian computer consultant Ali Parsa will be leading a delegation of other Iranian scientists to San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation for some cutting-edge inspiration.

And he'll be looking to cut some deals. As a representative of a prominent Iranian science foundation seeking to build a central science museum near Tehran, Parsa also hopes to make contact with some of Silicon Valley's most well-known Iranian entrepreneurs for donations.

Included, among others, are Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay; Mory Ejabat, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Zhone Technologies; and Kamran Elahian, co-founder of Cirrus Logic Inc., NeoMagic Corp. and other companies.

``There is a great tendency for Iranians here to keep abreast of today's technology,'' said Parsa, during his visit to San Jose this week. ``I want them to help elevate the level of science literacy among the Iranian public. And I think they want to give back some of these things to their native land.''

They can't do that very easily. Since the 1979 Iran revolution and takeover of the American Embassy, the United States has had no diplomatic relations with the country. While formal trade is embargoed, Gregg Sullivan, acting spokesman with the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department, said U.S. citizens can exchange cultural, educational, artistic, academic and scientific ideas with Iranians ``in an effort to promote understanding between our respective peoples in the hope that this will accelerate the reform process in Iran.''

Parsa's mission fits right in. He is on the board of trustees of the Zirakzadeh Science Foundation in Tehran, established seven years ago. Its goal, he said, is to create centers that encourage the study of science and technology. Building better science centers back in Iran is important, said Parsa, because ``people have heard about the wonders of ideas, but they're ignorant of science and technology.''

Science centers, he said, are a way to experience the ``excitement and curiosity'' of those worlds.

And Parsa, 50, knows some of the best examples of both are in the Bay Area, where he studied computer science in the mid-'70s at the University of San Francisco and at San Jose State, while his wife was getting her master's degree in industrial engineering at Stanford University. Both returned to Iran during the 1979 revolution.

Today, some exhibits in Iran's half-dozen science centers have been constructed by Iranians based on ideas published in books from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a place Parsa visited regularly while a college student here.

``They're cheap to produce and they involve a lot of hands-on action for the visitors,'' said Parsa.

Other ideas have been gleaned from his trips to various science museums around the world. But Parsa would like to incorporate elements of The Tech, too.

Parsa was particularly intrigued by The Tech's ``Thermocamera,'' a device that takes a photographic image of the body and identifies its heat sources; a scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope; and the museum's earthquake lab area. ``I asked an earthquake research center in Iran if they would contribute to a series of exhibits in our museums,'' Parsa recalled. ``They said no.''

He said he was impressed with the brief verbal and written explanations of each exhibit and with the number of docents -- including many senior citizens -- who explain exhibits to visitors.

``They know something and are enthusiastic and transfer it to visitors,'' Parsa said. ``In Iran if you know something, you're probably still working,'' because of the country's high inflation, he said of would-be retirees.

Compared to the tens of millions required to build The Tech and fill it with exhibits, Parsa's funding request for a central science museum center seems modest. The computer consultant said $400,000 would enable the foundation to purchase a piece of land and begin building the center; another $500,00 would be needed to construct the exhibits.

And Parsa believes the interest and audience is there. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 50 percent of Iran's 70 million citizens are under the age of 18. Tehran, in particular, is a city teeming with young citizens who are logging on to the Internet, jamming local Internet cafes and coffee shops, he said.

``People come here and have fun with technology,'' he said of The Tech. ``That is the kind of attitude I'd like to see back home.''


For more information on the Zirakzadeh Science Foundation see http://www.zsf.tsx.org/.

Contact Tracy Seipel at tseipel@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5343.


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