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Once a physicist: Rexhep Meidani

Rexhep Meidani was the president of Albania between 1997 and 2002.

Rexhep Meidani
Credit: Club de Madrid

What sparked your interest in physics? As a child, I was curious about the world. I was also fond of nature and I wanted to understand why my surroundings were so beautiful and harmonious. But I really started liking science when the teacher "recruited" me to assist him in preparing experiments in the lab. I began to do some experiments at home, like melting a rock that my brother (a geologist) had collected on an expedition and observing a reflective surface form in the molten material. Many years later, when I was debating with my brother and his colleague about the content of mercury in minerals gathered during their expedition, I told them I knew it years ago!

How did you get into solid-state physics? When I entered university in the early 1960s, it was not possible to study solid-state physics in Albania, and it was also not possible to go abroad because the country was entirely isolated (it even broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union). It was only in 1973 that the physics department of the University of Tirana was able to send me to France for postgraduate studies in solid-state physics. Two special moments stand out from my scientific career. The first relates to my postgraduate studies at CEA Saclay, which allowed me to collaborate with a team of superb French scientists led by the Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. The second was a 1987 visit to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. My meeting with the ICTP's director, Abdus Salam, clearly influenced my research, and his constant support was a great help during the remaining years of Communist rule in Albania, when I felt very isolated. Salam's ICTP was a lighthouse and a place of salvation for young scientists from across the developing world.

How did you get into politics? I served on the boards of several civic groups, including the Albanian Center for Human Rights, in the early 1990s when I was a professor at the University of Tirana. However, I did not enter active politics until 1996, when there was a crisis in Albania due to the collapse of pyramid investment schemes that had been endorsed by the government. Influenced by Salam's humanist ideals, for the first time in my life, I became a member of a political party, the Socialist Party. In August 1996 I was elected as the party's secretary-general; as I understand it, there was an internal political conflict, and they needed someone from outside. Nearly a year later, I was elected as a member of parliament, and parliament elected me as the head of state the next day.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as president? When I was elected, Albanians were suffering from political, institutional, social and economic crises caused by the fall of the pyramid schemes. My main concern was to rebuild trust between citizens and political leaders and to transform a destroyed country into a peaceful and democratic one. In a short period, a new, peaceful balance was created, beginning with a new democratic constitution approved by a popular referendum in November 1998. Also of great importance was my engagement, alongside other Albanian leaders and NATO armed forces, in fighting the genocide in Kosovo and avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe there. The result – a new state of Kosovo, recognized today by 108 UN member countries – is a matter of great political pride.

How has your physics background helped you? When I talk to my friends, I sometimes link my involvement in politics to my initial research interest in equilibrium. But another important aspect is something I call "scientific calm", which is a broad understanding and intellectual strength based on logic and clear arguments. When I consider other politicians with a physics background, I occasionally think that the subject is well suited to the intellectual and spiritual demands of effective governance. I am also persuaded that scientific thinking helps society address its problems in a rational and systematic way, and to change people's outlook on the social and economic problems they face.

Any advice for today's physics students? It is not easy to decide on a career on day one, and the best choice for students is to do what makes them happy. For me, physics was a great way of developing skills such as critical thinking and learning how to ask questions and find answers. Also, my experience was that in research, the results were directly linked to my work, while in politics that is not the case. This meant I was not entirely happy in my political duties, so I do not recommend my career path to physics students! People should study physics not because they can see a career at the end of it, but because they love it and because through it, they see that they have something to offer the world.