Tracking down Dr. Farouk El-Baz is almost as difficult as finding water in the desert - which happens to be one of his specialties. Internationally known for his pioneering use of space photography to unlock the secrets of arid terrain and locate groundwater resources, the 53-year-old Egyptian-born geologist is as likely to be exploring Egypt's Western Desert or trekking through northwestern China as he is teaching graduate students at Boston University.
Now director of the university's Center for Remote Sensing, El-Baz first gained recognition in the late 1960's when he worked on the Apollo space program - an unexpected opportunity for a young Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy who had originally planned a more earthbound career. From 1967 to 1973, he supervised lunar science planning and operations; working with the US space agency NASA, El-Baz developed a training program for the Apollo astronauts, instructed them in lunar observation and photography, and headed the committee that selected their landing sites.
"The Apollo days were very exciting to me," El-Baz affirms. "I don't know if it was more the scientific work, or the things I did on behalf of Arab culture, such as teaching the astronauts some Arabic, and naming features on the moon."
As a member of the International Astronomical Union's Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature, El-Baz proposed commemorating eminent Arab scientists of the past, such as astronomer Ibn Yunus and mathematician al-Khwarizmi, by naming lunar features after them. At least 36 were so honored.
Always eager for new challenges, El-Baz established the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1973. During his ten years as the center's director, research projects applying aerospace technology and satellite photography to desert environments led to the discovery of natural gas in Jordan and groundwater in Somalia and in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert.
After four years in the private sector, El-Baz founded the Center for Remote Sensing, and since then, his expertise has involved him and his team of scientists in a variety of projects. Remote sensing, a science greatly advanced by space exploration, is the acquisition of information or images from a distance - probing the surface of the Earth with radar waves to find old river beds, for example, or measuring ocean temperatures by satellite to aid forecasting.
The center's scientists have studied wall paintings in the tomb of Queen Nefertari at Luxor, and conducted a nondestructive investigation of the second boat pit of the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) at Giza. The latter project was "researched and planned as if it were a mission to the moon - but instead of going up, we were going down," El-Baz says.
El-Baz, science advisor to various Arab heads of state, recently directed an assessment of post-war environmental damage to the Gulf region for the Third World Academy of Sciences. He also finds himself being called upon more frequently as the need for new groundwater sources becomes increasingly urgent in the Middle East. "I am from the Arab world," El-Baz explains. "I know the people, I know their problems and I can be of great help. Geology has given me a wonderful life, and this is one way for me to give something back."
Piney Kesting is a Boston-based free-lance writer who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs.