Sunday, January 25, 2015

Couple of science and religion relevant movies in the list of best films of 2014

by Salman Hameed

There were couple of interesting films in 2014 that intersected the themes of Irtiqa. I had posted about sci fi film Snowpiercer (see Sacred Engine and the preservation of order in Snowpiercer) as well as about the HBO documentary, The Newburgh Sting, about the framing of three African Americans and one Haitian immigrant in the upstate New York town of Newburgh (see The creation of Muslim terrorists by FBI in "The Newburgh Sting").

But one of the more relevant and interesting films was Darren Aronofsky's Noah (spoilers ahead - so skip this paragraph if you are interested in seeing the film). It takes the Biblical story seriously but then takes it to its logical conclusion. For example, what would be the toll on a man who knows that the world is going to be destroyed except for a handful of human beings (though - the movie argues that humanity has to die...and that sets up a fascinating dilemma). The screenplay is great in providing psychological depth to the main characters. There are giants in the movie as well and that really sets the tone for the film. But, of course, the movie revolves around Noah, and his character is questionable - to say the least. In fact, he himself says that he wasn’t chosen by God "because he was good", but rather because "he would get the job done". And so when he comes to kill his granddaughters, you really believe him. And when he doesn't go through with his action, it is unclear why he didn't. In fact, the ambiguity is fantastic and the charitable interpretation of Noah’s actions (that he chose love over justice) comes from Emma Watson’s character – and not through God. This way, God/Noah in this story are not necessarily off the hook, and Noah can still be considered to have failed in his mission. And I also really liked the way 6-day creation was depicted - perhaps with evolution. Loved the film - as I have all other Aronofsky films (yes, I liked even the flawed The Fountain). 

In any case, here Kevin Anderson and I discuss The Magnificent Seven films of 2014 and all of the above films show up in our discussion. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Video: Nova episode - Big Bang Machine

by Salman Hameed

A Nova's take on the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson. Enjoy!

Friday, January 23, 2015

New Astronomy Podcast in Urdu: "Hamari Kainaat"

by Salman Hameed

If you have followed the blog regularly, you may have seen numerous posts about the flourishing amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan. One of the key figures in this regard is Umair Asim of Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). For the last year or so we had been in conversation about the possibility of an astronomy podcast in Urdu for individuals who are interested in exploring astronomy topics in more detail. Finally we have launched our Urdu podcast titled "Hamari Kainaat" (Our Universe). We are planning to have an episode every 2 weeks. Here is the first episode on extrasolar planets. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Astronomy Pictures from Pakistan: Orion from an observatory in Karachi

by Salman Hameed

I have previously highlighted astronomy photographs from Lahore and Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). But Karachi has a thriving astronomy scene as well and Karachi Amateur Astronomers Society has been arranging stargazing sessions quite regularly. One of the highlights of their activities is an observatory - KaAStrodome Urban Observatory - that houses an impressive homebuilt 12.5 inch Newtonian telescope. Here is a picture of a star forming region, Orion nebula, from the telescope:


For those unfamiliar with Orion nebula, it is basically a stellar nursery about 1300 light years from Earth (relatively close). The label, HH 204 in the picture, points to a Herbig-Haro object. These HH objects are indicators of places where jets from young stars (yes, very young stars are often surrounded by a disk that accretes material and some of this escapes in the form of high speed jets) hit the surrounding gases. 

From Muhammad Akbarovic Hussainov:
[T]his telescope is constructed by a pathologist, Major Ashraf in Pakistan Army who is not even an engineer. It is housed in the first private dome observatory in Pakistan, The KaAStrodome, designed by myself and constructed by me and my brother Mehdi who is also the president of Karachi Astronomers Society. This picture reveals the power of a medium sized telescope from light polluted skies of a metropolis to reveal the fine details of a nebula, if skillfully designed and constructed. 
And here is a picture of the dome, with Orion in the background: 


The dome looks great and Orion is always majestic. I'm pretty sure that I saw this very view of Orion a million time when I was growing up in Karachi. It is wonderful to see that astronomy is flourishing in Karachi.
If you are interested in learning about Herbig-Haro objects and jets around young stars, watch this 4-minute video (if you are in Pakistan, you will have to unnecessarily use a YouTube proxy): 

A new book on the discovery of geological Deep Time

by Salman Hameed

The idea of a few thousand year old (approximately 6000 years in the popular Bishop Ussher's calculation from 1650C.E.) is popular even today in some Evangelical groups in the US (though it is largely missing in the Muslim world). From a historical perspective, this young Earth idea went along with Noah's flood that was thought to have shaped all the major features of the Earth. Humans, in this version of nature, were central to creation and had been present on Earth from the beginning. The discovery of an old - in fact very old - Earth continued the decentrality of humans initiated by Copernicus. Like the case of Copernicus, these are not necessarily debates over science versus religion, but rather within religion about interpretations. If you are interested in knowing the history of the discovery of an old Earth, then check out this new book, Earth's Deep History: How it was Discovered and Why it Matters by Martin Rudwick. Here is a review from Nature (you will need a subscription to access the full article):
This traces the origin of historical science in the seventeenth century, when the things we
see around us in nature came to be seen as 'monuments', pregnant with historical meaning, like archaeological relics. With his talent for encapsulating pre-modern mindsets, Rudwick deftly explains how ideas of natural history were embedded in cultural history. He concentrates on thinking in the late eighteenth century, not only in Anglophone countries but, crucially, also in mainland Europe — especially France. The book's premise, which has been used before by Rudwick and others (including the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould), is that humanity's discovery of Earth's immense age is a step in science's progressive removal of humans from the centre of things. First our planet was relegated to mere third rock from the Sun; then humans were transformed from the pinnacle of God's creation into twigs on an evolutionary bush.
...
Beginning with Irish Archbishop James Ussher's 1650 publication of a chronology suggesting that the world began on 23 October 4004 BC, Rudwick shows how, by the eighteenth century, Western culture had long accepted that Earth had been around for millennia. Ussher was not alone: Isaac Newton played the same game, suggesting a date of 3988 BC. Rudwick is at pains to emphasize that Ussher was a serious chronologist who did not deserve his post-Darwinian ridicule. What these chronologies show is that humanity was at that time assumed by all to have been part of the Universe from its inception.
And here is a more direct science and religion connection:
Rudwick goes on to reveal how natural philosophers such as Jean-André Deluc and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland arrived at a truer picture. In attempting to reconcile scriptural and other textual evidence with that slowly emerging from nature's monuments, they came to realize that Earth had had a long prehistoric existence for which there was no documentary evidence. Yet far from being stifled by what had gone before, they were profoundly aided by the work of traditional, historical and antiquarian scholars working in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The image of emergent science heroically struggling against obscurantist religion is a fiction conjured by post-Darwinian revisionism and militant atheists, Rudwick insists.
Full review here

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Video: "Overview"

by Salman Hameed

Here is a 20 minute short film about the first image of Earth from space and how it transformed our species forever. Enjoy!


OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Astronomy Pictures from Pakistan: Moon through the clouds

by Salman Hameed

Following last week's theme of the Sun, here are three beautiful pictures of the Moon (and yes, we will get nebulae and galaxies soon, but enjoy our close neighbors first). I do request that when people send images, they include at least some information about camera/telescope and exposure time with them. The first one is a full moon seen through the clouds by Omer Sidat:


Here is a close up of a waxing gibbous moon my Roshaan:

And a bit closer up - again from Roshaan:


If you are interested in knowing more about the origins of the dark (known as Mare) and bright parts of the Moon, see this short video:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday Video: Short film "The Cosmonaut"

by Salman Hameed

Here is a wonderful short film for your Saturday. Enjoy!


THE COSMONAUT from Vinegar Hill on Vimeo.

On Free Speech and Satire: One excellent article and a collection of reasonable pieces on Charlie Hebdo

by Salman Hameed

The killing of journalists at Charlie Hebdo was barbaric and there is no excuse for it. However, the followup discussions have gone over the rails. A large problem is that the terms of the debate already frame Muslims all over the world in an accusatory light. "Either you actively condemn it - or you are with the terrorists".

The issues are, of course, complicated. I have been looking for thoughtful articles that take a nuanced approach to the issue of free speech, satire, and minorities. Here is a list of sensible articles on the issues (this list is by no means complete, but I have tried to pick articles that highlight some different aspects of the debate), but I highly recommend the article Why I am not Charlie at the bottom of this post.

Here are some relevant articles:
Juan Cole: Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris: 
Omid Safi: 9 Points to Ponder on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo
Here is a satire about the coverage:
Mark Steel: Charlie Hebdo: Norway's Christians didn't have to apologize for Anders Breivik, and it is the same for Muslims now
But there is one other possibility that’s been overlooked. Maybe the murderers are confused by the British government’s attitude towards crazy Islamic gunmen, which has appeared inconsistent. 
Not long ago President Assad of Syria, whose record for madness and violence is exemplary, was invited by the Prime Minister to stay at Buckingham Palace. And the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who recently got through 19 executions in one month, are sold billions of pounds worth of weapons. So maybe the gunmen’s strategy was to prove how mental they were, thinking they’d then be invited for biscuits with The Queen, and then be asked to do a deal for a tank.
Jacob Canfield: In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom from Criticism
(You should check out the cartoons here to get the proper context)
Political correctness did not kill twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. To talk about the attack as an attack by “political correctness” is the most disgusting, self-serving martyr bullshit I can imagine. To invoke this (bad) Shaw cartoon in relation to the Hebdo murders is to assert that cartoons should never be criticized. To invoke this garbage cartoon is to assert that white, male cartoonists should never have to hear any complaints when they gleefully attack marginalized groups. 
Changing your twitter avatar to a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is a racist thing to do, even in the face of a terrorist attack. The attitude that Muslims need to be ‘punished’ is xenophobic and distressing. The statement, “JE SUIS CHARLIE” works to erase and ignore the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. For us to truly honor the victims of a terrorist attack on free speech, we must not spread hateful racism blithely, and we should not take pride in extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples.
...
The fact that twelve people are dead over cartoons is hateful, and I can only pray that their attackers are brought to justice. Free speech is an important part of our society, but, it should always go without saying, free speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Criticism IS speech – to honor “free speech martyrs” by shouting down any criticism of their work is both ironic and depressing.
In summary: 
Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. 
Fuck those cartoons.
From an Arab Muslim cartoonist:
Khalid Albaih: When Cartoons Upset the 'wrong people'

Muslims seem to lose either way. They are constantly asked to apologise for crimes they neither committed, nor supported. They, too, are victims of the violence of extremists. Still, they are asked to apologise and somehow atone for these crimes that were committed in the name of their religion. Then they must face the wrath of extremists who attack them for refusing to approve of the methods they view as the only way to defend Islam. ...This situation is a perpetuation of what's happening in the Middle East right now - it's far more complex than the cartoon business. For us to help, to play a constructive role, we should desist from pointing the finger at others, and we must examine what motivates these young people to turn to violence and extremism. 
Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon and one I have never fully had - but for those who do have it, I wish they would stop taking it for granted.  
Instead, they ought to ask the right questions - the questions that need to be asked - rather than accusatory ones that fuel the stereotypes that have originated in mainstream media.
Their work must focus on conveying the right message. They must work towards bridging the gap - and not widening it. 
Here is an excellent article by Glenn Greenwald that looks at the issue of free press and publishes offensive cartoon not related to Muslims or Islam (tip from Leyla Keough):
Glen Greenwald: In Solidarity with free press: Some more blasphemous cartoons
Usually, defending free speech rights is much more of a lonely task. For instance, the day before the Paris murders, I wrote an article about multiple cases where Muslims are being prosecuted and even imprisoned by western governments for their online political speech – assaults that have provoked relatively little protest, including from those free speech champions who have been so vocal this week. 
I’ve previously covered cases where Muslims were imprisoned for many years in the U.S. for things like translating and posting “extremist” videos to the internet, writing scholarly articles in defense of Palestinian groups and expressing harsh criticism of Israel, and even including a Hezbollah channelin a cable package. That’s all well beyond the numerous cases of jobs being lost or careers destroyed for expressing criticism of Israel or (much more dangerously and rarely) Judaism. I’m hoping this week’s celebration of free speech values will generate widespread opposition to all of these long-standing and growing infringements of core political rights in the west, not just some....
When I first began to see these demands to publish these anti-Muslim cartoons, the cynic in me thought perhaps this was really just about sanctioning some types of offensive speech against some religions and their adherents, while shielding more favored groups. In particular, the west has spent years bombing, invading and occupying Muslim countries and killing, torturing and lawlessly imprisoning innocent Muslims, and anti-Muslim speech has been a vital driver in sustaining support for those policies. 
So it’s the opposite of surprising to see large numbers of westerners celebrating anti-Muslim cartoons - not on free speech grounds but due to approval of the content. Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being targeted, or aren’t part of (or actively dislike) the group being maligned. 
Indeed, it is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights. In fact, Douthat, Chait and Yglesias all took pains to expressly note that they were only calling for publication of such offensive ideas in the limited case where violence is threatened or perpetrated in response (by which they meant in practice, so far as I can tell: anti-Islam speech). Douthat even used italics to emphasize how limited his defense of blasphemy was: “that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended.”  
One should acknowledge a valid point contained within the Douthat/Chait/Yglesias argument: when media outlets refrain from publishing material out of fear (rather than a desire to avoid publishing gratuitously offensive material), as several of the west’s leading outlets admitted doing with these cartoons, that is genuinely troubling, an actual threat to a free press. But there are all kinds of pernicious taboos in the west that result in self-censorship or compelled suppression of political ideas, from prosecution and imprisonment to career destruction: why is violence by Muslims the most menacing one? (I’m not here talking about the question of whether media outlets should publish the cartoons because they’re newsworthy; my focus in on the demand they be published positively, with approval, as “solidarity”).
On a similar theme, here is Teju Cole in the New Yorker: Unmournable Bodies (tip from Vijay Prashad):
This week’s events took place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab. Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.
...
Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. 
The killings in Paris were an appalling offence to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible. 
And finally to one of the best articles I have read on this issue: Why I am not Charlie. It is a long article but should be worth your time as it addresses deeper structural issues of the post Charlie Hebdo debate. The first part is about the pressure to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons - and I think that issue has been addressed well in the above articles. But I want to highlight a bit about Voltaire - whom I admire as well - and the nature of satire:
We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless. 
Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.” 
Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”
and here is a bit about Voltaire which I didn't know: 
Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.
Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AMThe Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?” 
Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message.  
#JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.” 
Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.
And here is his main point:
This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AMA few hours later he had to add:Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AMThis insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides. 
We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killings. I mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.
I think this is by far the best article I have read on the topic.

But I will leave you with another cartoon by Joe Sacco (tip Vijay Prashad):

Friday, January 09, 2015

Alan Turing and "The Imitation Game"

by Salman Hameed


The new biopic The Imitation Game has lot of flaws. However, it is great that it introduces Alan Turing to a wider audience. Turing is correctly considered alongside Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. It is an utter shame that his life was cut short due to British laws about homosexuality half a century ago. All the shortcomings aside, you should still go and see The Imitation Game. To motivate you further, here is my conversation with professor of computer science at Hampshire College, Lee Spector, about the works of Alan Turing. Enjoy.


Monday, January 05, 2015

Astronomy Pictures from Pakistan: Sun's closeup from Lahore

by Salman Hameed

There is a wonderful website, Astronomy Picture of the Day (APoD). If you are not familiar with it, you should. Borrowing its idea, I will be regularly highlighting astronomy photographs that have been taken in Pakistan. While the country has been in turmoil for the past decade or so, the astronomy scene has been burgeoning in major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (see this recent post: A Wonderful Session with Lahore Astronomical Society; Also see Public Astronomy Flourishing in Pakistan).

To start with, here are some photographs of our Sun taken by Umair Asim at his Zed Astronomical Observatory using an H-alpha telescope back in November. First, here is a panoramic view of the Sun, and you nicely see a few sunspots.


Here is a closeup of the sunspots. Remember, that these sunspots are not holes in the Sun. Rather, these are areas that slightly cooler (still very hot!) than the surrounding areas, and therefore appear darker.



And  here are some spectacular pictures of solar prominence. These are temporary loop like gaseous structures - related to Sun's magnetic fields - that can extend thousands of kilometers.




And Umair has helpfully placed the Earth to give a comparative scale of solar prominence. Of course, do not do this with the real Earth!


Thanks to Umair for the photographs. If you are interested, here are some technical details about the images:

Image Scale: 0.51 arcseconds
FOV: 4*5.4 arcmintes

Equipment:
Telescope: Lunt 152mm Halpha telescope
Mount: Celestron CGEM DX
Camera: Imaging Source DMK21 Mono
Barlow: Televue Powermate 2.5X

Software:
Dave Solar System Recorder
Autostakkert
Registax
Photoshop CS5

Location:
Zeds Astronomical Observtory
Lahore, Pakistan.
31.28, 74.22.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Saturday Video: "A Truncated Story of Infinity"

by Salman Hameed

For the new year, here we are restarting with our Saturday videos (thanks to Ali Kazim Gardezi for cajoling for its restart). Here is an interesting short film that is inspired by one interpretation of parallel universes:


"A Truncated Story of Infinity" - A Short by Paul Trillo from Paul Trillo on Vimeo.

I have also just read an excellent critique of the non-testability of String Theory and Multiverse in last week's Nature and I will post it tomorrow. 

Friday, January 02, 2015

"Interstellar": Review for Science and a bonus Film Autopsy

by Salman Hameed


Christopher Nolan's Interstellar has been out for almost two months and you might have seen it already. I watched the movie twice and my appreciation for the film grew considerably after the second viewing. It is a flawed film: the dialogue is often corny and there are serious plot issues. But it is also a film that embeds some spectacular science into its story. After all, how many times do we see a movie that takes gravitational time dilation due to a supermassive blackhole into account and get the science right?

Part of the reason is that the executive producer of Interstellar is physicist. Much of his research is focused on black holes, but he doesn't shy away from speculative ideas as well. For example, in 1985, Thorne advised Carl Sagan to use a wormhole instead of a black hole in his novel, Contact, to send his heroine to star Vega and beyond. Working with his graduate students, he even published two technical papers on the possibility – however speculative - of traversable wormholes. In the case of Interstellar, Thorne has a more direct role. In 2006, in collaboration with Hollywood producer, Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Seattle, Contact, The Fisher King), he started working on a story for a film that involved an interaction between astronauts and a race of advanced beings that lived in a higher dimensional universe. When Christopher Nolan picked up the film to Direct, he reworked the script with his brother, but kept some of the key physics concepts from Thorne’s ideas.

Thorne also wrote The Science of Interstellar. Here is an excerpt from my review for both the film and the book for Science (if you don't have access to Science, you can read the pdf here)
The blockbuster film Interstellar is a stirring defense of space exploration and of our trust in science to get humanity out of trouble. This ambitious movie weaves complex ideas from physics—including relativity, quantum gravity, and higher-dimensional space—into the very fabric of its narrative. With a running time of just under 3 hours, the film manages to tell a gripping story while still getting most of its science right.
...
Interstellar is set in a near future when blight has destroyed most of the world's crops and food is becoming scarce. The human population has declined precipitously, and humans are in danger of dying out within a generation or two. But a ray of hope comes from space. A wormhole has appeared near Saturn, and a small group of NASA scientists plan to use it to find habitable planets that could serve as humanity's next home. 
Wormholes are not new to science fiction, and although there is no scientific evidence that they exist, they are rooted in various solutions to Einstein's theory of general relativity. They also conveniently solve the science fiction author's problem of how to transport characters across vast interstellar—or intergalactic— distances in a relatively short time. 
The accuracy of science in the film owes much to one of its executive producers, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who has coauthored technical papers on the possibility of traversable wormholes (1, 2). But credit must also go to director Christopher Nolan,
who was committed to maintaining a scientifically plausible story line. One example of this collaboration is described in Thorne's wonderfully entertaining companion book The Science of Interstellar. It arose when Nolan informed Thorne that the plot required a planet where 1 hour spent on the surface would equal 7 years on Earth. This, according to Nolan, was “non-negotiable.” While at first skeptical, Thorne ultimately calculated that such a planet could theoretically exist if it were orbiting close enough to a supermassive black hole that was rotating close to the maximum speed allowed by physics. Whether moving humanity to this world is a good idea or not is a separate question, but science allows the possibility for such a planet to exist. 
Although wormholes are still in the realm of theory and speculation, supermassive black holes do exist and are often found at the centers of galaxies. In chapters 8 and 9, Thorne describes the science that inspired the visual depiction of the black hole in the film. Recalling the first time he saw the film's black hole—Gargantua—he writes, “What a joy it was when I first saw these images! For the first time ever, in a Hollywood movie, a black hole and its disk depicted as we humans will really see them when we've mastered interstellar travel.” The results are spectacular to behold in the movie, and Thorne informs the reader that the models and simulations that helped inspire the images will serve as data in one or more forthcoming technical papers.
But there are issues with the film as well:
Clearly, the movie is based in good science; however, it is not without its issues. For example, it decidedly lacks a sense of wonder and curiosity that one would expect to see in a story about exploring new worlds. Similarly, in the imagined future of the film, there seems to be a noticeable lack of internationalism. American flags are fluttering on planets in another galaxy, and baseball seems to be the sport of choice even in orbital colonies. This is all the more surprising because the movie itself is a result of an international collaboration.
I think the lack of wonder about a new place is a serious flaw. You see this in most Hollywood science fiction films and I think it misses a fundamental emotional response. Another recent example was the terrible film, Prometheus. In Interstellar, when NASA astronauts land on planets in another galaxy, none of them is awestruck by experiencing a new world for the first time. Contact is one of the rare movies that got this feeling right. When the protagonist astronomer in Contact reaches the center of our galaxy, her first words are “they should have sent a poet – there are no words to describe this”. Such a feeling is distinctly missing in Interstellar.

Nevertheless, it is an ambitious movie even if it lacks philosophical sophistication. At the heart of the film it explores the nature of our love for the next of kin versus that for our species and the sacrifices we are willing to make for them. But deep down, the movie is about our fundamental faith in science and human creativity in solving our own problems – even if some of the problems were created by the very same science-driven technology.
Although Interstellar does not have the philosophical sophistication of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is still a unique and ambitious film that does not shy away from complex sociological and scientific ideas. Despite its grim premise, the film's message is ultimately one of faith in science and human ingenuity. As agricultural insecurity and resource scarcity become realities in our own 21st-century world, I can't help but hope that the film's main character is right when he states, “We are going to find the way—we always have.”
Read the full review here (or pdf  here).

For a broader discussion of the film, here is our Film Autopsy of Interstellar, but it contains spoilers:

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Wonderful Session with Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST)

by Salman Hameed

LAST members after the meeting

These are tough times in Pakistan. But there are positive things taking place as well. I have written on several occasions about the burgeoning astronomy scene in Pakistan - in particular in Lahore and Karachi (for example, see this post from early this year: Public Astronomy Flourishing in Pakistan). It was therefore an absolute pleasure to finally attend a LAST meeting last week and to visit Umair Asim's wonderful Zeds Astronomical Observatory. I also gave a talk to the astronomy group and it was titled From the Large to the Very Large: Finding Our Place in the Cosmos. Here are my quick thoughts (I'm in Pakistan on a family trip for a few days and computer time has been limited):

Umair's observatory is really good. It was cloudy that night - and later blindingly foggy. Observations were therefore impossible. But he have me a short tour of the observatory on top of his house that hosts a 14-inch Celestron telescope. Right next to the dome is a comfortable control (warm in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer time) from where he can control the telescope and does image processing. There was a couch that can also serve as a bed on long observing nights. Umair told me that this control room also becomes a place for midnight (more likely 2am) philosophical musings for astronomers using the telescope. I can totally see that. The observatory is located in Lahore - so light pollution is high. But he can still get quite good results and can push the seeing to 4-5". Plus, LAST organizes observing sessions, both for the public and for its members, in areas with darker skies (see some of their activities here). I did not get a chance to see the new H-alpha telescope to observe the Sun - but if you have a chance, go here and see the spectacular images taken by the telescope. Oh and did I mention that the whole observatory is powered by solar power? "Going completely green" was one of the things Umair announced at the beginning of the meeting along with an impressive list of activities that LAST accomplished just in the month of December.

The meeting and my talk was set outside (yes, there was a running joke about the wedding shamiana and wedding chairs). It was cold, but 50-60 members showed up. There were artists, musicians, photographers, science students, a yoga teacher, physicists, - all united by their love of astronomy. It was easy to geek out over discussions on f-ratios, ccd imagers, and exposure times. This enthusiasm was also visible in the Q & A - both during and after my talk. Just to give you an idea, the session lasted close to two and a half hours and most of the audience stayed there even as a thick fog outside was beginning to envelop the area. The quality of questions was outstanding: Relativistic effects on light, the possibility of variable physical laws in the universe, the impact of galaxy recession on H-alpha filters we use, etc. Oh - and of course, the reality of supermassive blackholes as depicted recently in Interstellar. Noteworthy also was an absence of any religious questions. This was surprising as I'm used to fielding statements or leading questions about miracles or other claims about astronomy in public talks. In fact, just the night before, I had such an experience at a family dinner. But I'm delighted that people mostly stayed on science at the LAST meeting.

I think I would be doing a disservice by not mentioning the return drive home. Umair gave me a ride back in a blinding fog. The visibility was zero - and I mean "zero". In fact, initially we kept on trying to clean our windows, but it turned out that they were clean  - the fog outside was hugging the windshield. I have never seen such a fog before. I'm glad that everyone on the road was driving at 10 km/hour. My brother was trying to give us directions for home by following some landmarks. He would ask, "What do you see on your left?" My answer was the same - "we can't see ANYTHING". We got lucky with the turn and ended up at the right place. But this was certainly an added adventure for the night.

Here are some pictures:
 Umair highlighting LAST activities in the month of December

I'm here wasting time with the opening slide

Hustle and bustle before the start of the meeting

 Here is a daytime picture of Umair's observatory (left) and the control room (right)

An example of LAST pubic outreach

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Celebrating human evolution and religion in Ethiopia

by Salman Hameed

Biological evolution is a subject often at the center of science and religion debates. On the one hand, it seems logical that an idea that removes one aspect of human uniqueness may cause tension amongst some religions. On the other hand, such a tension is not necessary nor has always been the case. Even in late 19th century and early 20th century, biological evolution - including that of humans - was more or less accepted in Europe without much controversy. It might have been the case in the US too if not for specific circumstances linked with the Fundamentalist movement of the 1920's and the 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' trial that led to the creation of anti-evolution movement here. Even then, it may not have mattered that much, but the merging of this anti-evolution movement with the new  Christian right in the 1970s brought the topic fully into identity politics. Furthermore, the dominant form of creationism in the US evolved (ha!) from old-earth creationism to the idea of an Earth only a six to ten thousand years old. Since creationism cases in the US have received so much attention - and continue to do so - that we forget that this is not necessarily the default conflict position everywhere else in the world.

It is in this context, it is wonderful to see this article by Amy Maxmen on Ethiopia which highlights the way Ethiopians celebrate religion as well as the story of human evolution as uncovered by archaeologists:
A distinguishing feature of Ethiopia is that both religion and science are bred in its bone,
and the union doesn’t seem to be a matter of either side compromising. A mosaic at the museum’s entrance pictures Lucy, our famous human-like ancestor from over 3 million years ago, and an Orthodox Christian cross. Soon the Ethiopian government will open The Human Origin Museum, devoted to our evolution. 
Generally speaking, Ethiopians are devout Christians or Muslims, and they’re quick to note the holy and historical sites that occur throughout the nation. Both the Old and New Testaments name Ethiopia several times. It is said that the grandson of Noah (of Ark fame) moved to a city in the north of the country, Axum. Today, the Ark of the Covenant—which contains tablets inscribed with Moses’ Ten Commandments—is purportedly locked within Axum’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another name for Ethiopia, Abyssinia, occurs in the Qur’an. It is said that the prophet Muhammad advised his disciples to escape persecution in Mecca by fleeing there, where the Christian ruler of Axum welcomed Muslims with open arms. Ethiopian Jews allegedly descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. And Rastafarians regard Ethiopia as their homeland. 
Ethiopia is also a holy land to paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. In addition to Lucy, 10 other species of hominid (members of our tribe that date back 6 million years) have been discovered in the country. Many of them were found buried west of Axum, in an arid region called the Afar, which rests at the intersection of three enormous tectonic plates that float above the Earth’s molten core. An Ethiopian paleoanthropologist, Zeresenay Alemseged, told me that during celebrations, the leader of the Afar begins ceremonies with a religious prayer, and then welcomes everyone to the cradle of humankind.
I was also asked some questions for the article, and I'm quoted for the US situation:
“More often than not, accepting or rejecting evolution has become a matter of identity,” said Salman Hameed, a professor of integrated science and the humanities at Hampshire College. “If you are a member of the new Christian right, you are often against human evolution, against abortion, against global warming.” In other countries—such as Ethiopia—evolution does not carry the same historical baggage. 
Because evolution is included in a package deal of beliefs in the U.S., conversations for or against it become quickly heated. “If I think that accepting human evolution means rejecting God, my gut reaction might be to reject evolution because rejecting my religion is grave,” Hameed said. Rather than engage in futile debates, Hameed would prefer discussions about why a person feels the way they do. “Otherwise, it just amounts to us-versus-them, to idiot-calling on either side,” he said. That’s a shame because ultimately we’re all united in the same obsession: the tale of our creation.
Read the full article here. But the best part is this short (4 minute) video linked with the article:


P.S. One of the reader's on the article described me in a fascinatingly amusing way - and I have to quote it below: 
“If I think that accepting human evolution means rejecting God, my gut reaction might be to reject evolution because rejecting my religion is grave,” Hameed said. 
And there's the problem. Hameed is a fully rational human walking around with a little burning nugget of insanity carried inside his brain, lovingly wrapped in impervious walls of rationalization.
Love it!

Mapping the damage to Syrian Archaeological sites

by Salman Hameed

From Science: This map is based on satellite data and shows locates sites of damage

The civil war in Syria and surrounding areas is also taking its toll on archeological sites. Last week's issue of Science has an article that used satellite imagery to assess some of the damage. And it is not just ISIS that is responsible for the damage - though they are the ones intentionally going after Shia, Christian or Yazidi sites. But the most extensive damage is simply through the actions of the military:
The Islamic State group has emerged as a particular threat, making concerted efforts to destroy the sacred sites of groups it views as heretical. The group has publicized its intentional destruction of dozens of sacred sites online or in its glossy magazine, Dabiq. “A soldier of the Islamic state clarifies to the people the obligation to demolish the tombs,” states one caption in a recent issue that includes images of exploding shrines. 
“It is all very choreographed,” Danti says. He adds that the biggest spike in destruction took place in May, with nearly 20 sites demolished, followed by a half-dozen or so incidents each month thereafter. Almost half of the destroyed sites are associated with Shia Muslims, while the remainder are places sacred to Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, as well as Christians and Yazidis, an ancient ethnic group centered in northern Iraq. More than 15% are statues and buildings predating Islam; images on the Internet, for example, show a yellow front loader toppling and pulverizing two massive black stone lions dating to the 9th century B.C.E. in the Islamic State provisional capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. 
But researchers say that even more damage to archaeologically important sites stems from military action by all parties in the conflict, including the Syrian government and perhaps Iraqi and U.S. forces. “There is a lot of damage from military garrisoning,” says Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who is part of the ASOR team and has been closely examining dozens of Syrian sites. Tells, remnants of ancient settlements that dot the Syrian and Iraqi landscape, offer high ground for military units, which wreak havoc with heavy equipment as they fortify the sites. Archaeologists also fear that the warring forces are heavily mining strategic tells, creating a daunting threat for future excavators. 
In October, Kurds captured Tell Shair, a site near the hotly contested Syrian town of Kobane. Images taken by the victors showed that the ousted Islamic State group fighters had dug trenches 2 to 3 meters deep on the mound, devastating the upper layers of the millennia-old settlement. The images also showed signs of bomb craters, possibly from U.S. raids—in the first half of October alone, the U.S. military reported conducting more than 135 airstrikes in the area. A Defense Department advisory group provides data to the U.S. military on important cultural heritage monuments so it can limit bomb damage. But whether such protection extends to smaller sites such as Tell Shair is unclear, several U.S. archaeologists say.

Here is a map of the site of an ancient Roman city and the holes dug by looters are apparent:

From Science: This is a December 2012 image of Apamea in Syria and the inset shows the holed dug in by the looters
Casana is also using satellite photos to track another major source of damage: looting. At the important classical city of Apamea outside Hama in western Syria, for example, areas largely undisturbed in images from 2011 are pocked with large holes in 2012—holes big enough to suggest that they were dug by heavy machinery such as backhoes rather than shovels. Looting has since spread across the site in what looks like a “very organized fashion,” Casana says. The Syrian government built a major military garrison, complete with bunkers and artillery emplacements, at the site of the former tourist restaurant at Apamea. “This strongly implicates the military as complicit or participating in looting,” Casana adds. At another tell nearby, the looting holes are located within a few meters of military tents. 
Classical sites like Apamea and Bosra, an ancient city in southern Syria that has also suffered significant damage, are more prone to looting than older sites because their artifacts are more sought-after on the international market. Archaeologists have observed a massive expansion in looting between August 2013 and April 2014 at Dura-Europos, a sprawling Roman-era city on the Euphrates in Syria. But Bronze Age cities like Ebla in the west—damaged by a Syrian government military garrison—and Mari, which is under the Islamic State group's control, are not immune. “There are rumors that armed groups are undertaking the work,” ASOR's Branting says about Mari. Other reports suggest that the Islamic State group is profiting from the business, possibly by exacting a tax as well as by overseeing looting operations. But Danti adds that most looting appears to be the work of desperate Syrians attempting to survive in a devastated economy.
I guess this is another price of war. You can read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it).

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Jail time for a Turkish astrophysicist for blocking headscarf students

by Salman Hameed


Astrophysicist Pekünlü photographed while taking pictures of women wearing headscarfs

This is a fascinating story that provides some insight into the changing political landscape in Turkey. An astronomy professor has been sent to jail for 25 months for repeatedly blocking students wearing headscarves from entering the faculty building where he worked. Until recently (2010), headscarves were banned in Turkish public universities - and I think that such a ban was atrocious. Now, this professor, Esat Rennan Pekünlü, is accused of violating the rights of students as well as their privacy (he also took photographs of headscarved students - but he himself got photographed doing all that as well - see the picture above) by preventing their access to the building. While I wholeheartedly agree that this professor is a schmuck, a 25 month sentence seems a bit harsh and I'm sure there is more to the story than is in the news. Nevertheless, it is good to see some basic defense of rights being taken seriously. Here is the story from World Bulletin
The Supreme Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's decision to sentence a Turkish professor from Ege University to over two years in prison because he repeatedly blocked headscarved women from entering the faculty building where he worked. 
The İzmir 4th Criminal Court of First Instance last year convicted the professor of violating the privacy of Fatma Nur Gidal -- one of the women he prevented from entering the building and the plaintiff in the case -- as well as violating her right to access to education. 
The professor, Esat Rennan Pekünlü, from the university's department of astronomy and space sciences, was caught on camera in May taking photographs of headscarved students and preventing them from entering the building. 
The Higher Education Board (YÖK) lifted a ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf on university campuses in 2010. However, some universities continue to impose the notorious ban. Opponents of the ban, including conservatives and many liberal intellectuals, think that such a ban contravenes fundamental rights as it deprives some citizens of their right to education. 
Pekünlü was captured by cameramen of the Cihan news agency while he was standing at the door of his faculty building and taking photos of headscarved students. Cameramen had arrived at the faculty after some students tipped them off that the professor was violating the rights of women wearing headscarves at their university.
And no - not all astrophysicists are like this.

Nature blogs also mention that there is a petition by eight academic institutions in Pekünlü's defense: 
A group of eight academic organizations released a statement in support of Pekünlü, raising concerns about the fairness of the trial and framing it as an attack against secular academicians. They wrote that his case should have been handled by an administrative rather than a criminal court. Moreover, Pekünlü cannot avoid prison by paying a fine, since he has been sentenced to 25 months of jail. Under Turkish law, sentences of up to 24 months can be avoided by paying a fine.
Also this BBC story: Quite End to Turkey's College Headscarf Ban.

Friday, December 05, 2014

A new book on atheism in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

About a year ago, I had a post about growing open atheism in Egypt where I pointed to a possible trend in increasing self-expression, including in the domain of religious beliefs. Among the various factors contributing to it, university education and the exposure of other ideas via the internet and social media are perhaps the most important ones. It is the notion of "personal religion" that is, perhaps, allowing the possibility of more open atheistic and/or agnostic stances in contemporary Muslim societies (also see this earlier post about secular bloggers in Bangladesh and a backlash against them orchestrated by Jammat-e-Islami). There is a fascinating subject and Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East by British journalist, Brian Whitaker, directly deals with this topic. Here is a review from Muftah:
Since the start of the Arab Spring, atheism has become a growing social phenomenon in
the region, with an increasing presence on social media outlets. In his timely book, Arabs without God, Brian Whitaker, British journalist and former Middle East editor at The Guardian, explores this rarely studied but recurrent phenomenon in the Arab world. Juxtaposing the new wave of atheism with existing social and political discourses in the region, Whitaker highlights the complexities of this intellectual revolution, while also presenting possible solutions for its accommodation in a part of the globe known for its religiosity.
There is an interesting claim that the path to atheism for many in the Middle East may different than the usual path to atheism in "West":
In contrasting the journey taken by Arab atheists with those of their Western counterparts, Whitaker highlights the disenchanting personal experiences Arab non-believers have undergone in rejecting a God in which state and society has told them they are required to believe. According to Whitaker, the road toward non-belief for Arab atheists is usually a slow one with little basis in the “science-versus-religion debate” prevalent in the West. Instead, the journey for Arab atheists is often grounded in the “apparent unfairness of divine justice,” in questions like why do bad religious people go unpunished (either by the cosmos or society) while good non-believers are not spared? 
As Whitaker shows, in religious societies, questioning “divine fairness” does not only pose a challenge to community ethos or state authority. By exercising their right to “offend, shock and disturb” societal norms, Arab non-believers also experience an inner struggle. Whitaker describes this experience as a two-step process. First, in their journey toward atheism, individual Arabs often recount the constant reminders and warnings, received from an early age, about an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God whose punishment for disbelief and non-conformity is inevitable in this life and the hereafter. Second, many non-believers find solace away from this narrative in literary works on existentialism, morality, and religion written by Western as well as Arab philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Abd al-Rahman Badawi, and Albert Camus. For these individuals, these works help transform personal doubts into a grander theoretical inquiry into the nature of religion and God.
I don't know the empirical accuracy of the claim, but it is nevertheless a fascinating claim. I wonder if we will see a similar difference within western societies based on socio-economic status with a similar conception of God. But Whitaker goes on to provide a broader history of Arab and Muslim freethinkers as well:
In perhaps the most engaging chapter of “Arabs without God,” Whitaker provides a revealing historical account of Arab and Muslim free-thinkers. Representing an often purposefully ignored aspect of Arab history and religion, these individuals challenge preconceived notions about Muslim states and societies as always fundamentally intolerant of criticism. Whitaker traces waves of atheism throughout Islamic history and briefly highlights the golden age of intellectual reform, through Islamic thinkers like Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, and Omar al-Khayam, who proclaimed their non-belief at various points. Whitaker emphasizes that, other than Rawandi, these individuals were not necessarily labeled atheists, but instead described as free-thinkers or heretics. 
As the author also argues, in expressing their doubts about the prophetic tradition and the divine, these philosophers as well as others, did not necessarily eschew a belief system for shaping their lives and aiding them in rationalizing and interpreting the world and their own actions. Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi, another respected ninth century scholar, criticized Islam but also believed reason was a sufficient source for the “knowledge of good and evil.” Indeed, both then and now, Arab atheists have offered humanism as a counter-argument to organized religion, substituting a morality shaped by religious tenets with one guided by human reason.
By the way, if you are interested in this history, you should also check out Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History. One of the chapters in there is devoted to Muslim freethinkers. But back to the present, Whitaker documents other reasons for turning away from religion as well, in particular, social alienation:
Social alienation also drives some Arabs, especially women and homosexuals, to reject religion. In his book, Whitaker navigates the ways in which patriarchy, familial discrimination, as well as social marginalization, push women and homosexuals away from their religion. 
On their road to non-belief, women and homosexuals each develop a unique set of characteristics, expressing their private feelings within tightly guarded circles of trust while mirroring social expectations in public. For example, Whitaker’s book contains examples from ex-Muslim women and homosexuals who felt comfortable sharing their non-belief with selected immediate family members, while continuing to superficially display their religious affiliations. 
Whitaker attributes this unique identity formation to two things. The first has to do with the “comfort factor,” which encourages those who are insecure to seek religion, or the pretense of religion, for protection from harassment or persecution. The second has to do with “faith plasticity,” which involves “reshaping orthodox concepts of God and faith to fit their needs.” 
Although Whitaker does not explicitly claim that women’s subjugation is fueled by forces other than religion, he does not shy away from emphasizing the twisted effects patriarchy has on their daily lives. In male-dominated societies, like those in the Arab world, a woman’s piety, virtue, and family honor is assessed through her outward demonstrations of religiosity. Nonconformity and deviation from strict religious practices are automatically linked to negative portrayals of female chastity and virtue, thus paving the way toward “popular association[s] of atheism with immorality.” This social stigma serves to deter women from questioning religious codes of conduct, including the ultimate belief in God and religious forms of dress.
But this is all the more relevant for LGBTQ communities in the Middle East:
For their part, Arab LGBTQ communities endure constant persecution and harassment by state agencies, as well as private citizens who adhere to mainstream Islam. For some LGBTQ Arabs, things are further complicated by doubts about prevailing religious belief systems. Some of these individuals chose to pursue this “double-coming-out.” Other atheist homosexuals in the Arab world, however, continue to weigh their options as to which identity – atheist or homosexual – is less risky for them to publicly assume. 
Interestingly, Whitaker shows that some agnostic Arab homosexuals find solace within a middle ground of spirituality. This is not an outright rejection of faith, but rather a step toward distancing themselves from organized religion, which allows them to construct their distinctive personal identities while maintaining the minimum religiosity required by society. 
In tackling complex issues of gender and sexuality in relation to religion, Whitaker has undertaken the difficult task of mapping the region’s multifaceted atheist sub-groups based on gender and sexuality. Although he does not address the compounded problems faced by atheist LBT feminist groups, the author certainly challenges perspectives that dismiss the affects individual experiences have on the journey toward disbelief.
Atheism in the contemporary Muslim societies is a relatively unexplored topic and it is great to see a book about it. You can read the full review here