Saturday, May 21, 2016

A cool animation showing two centuries of immigration to the US

by Salman Hameed

I thought I was a dot. But now I know that I am a tiny tiny fraction of a dot. Here is a fascinating animation showing let two centuries of US immigration from various countries in the world. A dot here is 10,000 people. From Metrocosm:
From 1820 to 2013, 79 million people obtained lawful permanent resident status in the United States. The interactive map below visualizes all of them based on their prior country of residence. The brightness of a country corresponds to its total migration to the U.S. at the given time.

It will be interesting to see a similar animation for UK, France, Germany, and Russia/Soviet Union to see economic shifts in the past 200 years and if and how that is connected to immigration.

But back to the US, here is a graph of immigration flow by country:


See more here

Friday, May 20, 2016

Olivier Roy on "The Strategic Limits of ISIS"

by Salman Hameed

Olivier Roy is one of the more sophisticated thinkers regarding political Islam. If you have time, here is a recent lecture by him at NYU-Florence. He starts talking about the origins of Al Qaeda - tracing it from the 80s. If you know that history well, you can skip the first 30 minutes. But his most
interesting stuff is about why young Europeans are joining ISIS. One of the striking things is that they are all young - and there are almost no first or third generation migrants! And often, their parents report their own kids - as they don't agree with the actions of their own children. And no, these ISIS volunteers are not affiliated with mosques either.

Here is the talk:


Here is an excerpt from Olivier Roy's lecture at Pandaemonium (you can download a pdf of the full lecture here):
The relationship between European jihadis and Islam is, Roy observes, complex: 
The revolt is expressed in religious terms for two reasons: 
– Most of the radicals have a Muslim background, which makes them open to a process of re-islamisation (almost none of them being pious before entering the process of radicalisation). 
– Jihad is the only cause on the global market. If you kill in silence, it will be reported by the local newspaper; if you kill yelling ‘Allahuakbar’, you are sure to make the national headlines. The ultra- left or radical ecology is too ‘bourgeois’ and intellectual for them.
When they join jihad, they adopt the Salafi version of Islam, because Salafism is both simple to understand (don’ts and do’s), and rigid, providing a personal psychological structuring effect. Moreover, Salafism is the negation of cultural Islam, that is the Islam of their parents and of their roots. Instead of providing them with roots, Salafism glorifies their own deculturation and makes them feel better ‘Muslims’ than their parents. Salafism is the religion by definition of a disenfranchised youngster… 
Incidentally, we should make a distinction between religious radicalisation and jihadist radicalisation. There is of course an overlap, but the bulk of the Salafists are not jihadist, and many jihadists don’t give a dam about theology. None of the radicals has a past of piety. 
Most of them either broke with the Islam of their parents, or had no religious transmission from their parents (it may be because they are converts, or orphans, like the Kouachi brothers, or had non practicing parents). 
Almost none followed a real process of religious education. Their religious knowledge is low (some brought with them ‘Islam for Dummies’). When they said that they were going to learn Islam in Pakistan or Yemen, it is just to appease their parents: in fact they go for jihad. 
The relationship of European jihadis to Muslim communities is also not straightforward: 
Radicals have a loose or no connection with Muslim communities in Europe… Investigators and journalists who immediately meet the family and the entourage of the attacker are told the same story: he was a quiet, nice boy (variation: he was just a petty delinquent), and he was not pious, drank alcohol, had girls etc, except that, recently his attitude has drastically changed… 
Few of them were regular ‘parishers’ in a local mosque. None of them was active in religious activities (proselytism): when they preach Islam it is to recruit other radicals, not to spread the good news. 
This explains why 1) the close monitoring of mosques brings little information 2) Imams have little or no influence on the process of radicalisation; 3) ‘reforming Islam’ does not make sense: they just don’t care about ‘what Islam really means’. 
What they are not:
– There is no theological dimension. Their knowledge of Islam is minimum (‘Islam for the Dummies’) and they don’t care, although the religious myth plays an emotional role. We tend too much to identify religion with theology (what does Islam say about jihad?); while there is certainly an important religious dimension in the way they experience their struggle, it is not an ideological rationalisation of Islamic theology. ‘Religiosity’ not theology is the key. 
– They are not the vanguard of a European (or Middle Eastern) Muslim community that would tend to see them as heroes. On the contrary they have little connection with this community, they broke with their family (the fact that they desperately try to ‘convert’ their family shows their degree of estrangement, not of proximity), and they did not arouse fascination except of course among their peers. They don’t even reconnect with a real Muslim local society in Syria or Yemen.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

From saving a dying lake to the issue of accessing scientific papers: A few stories from Iran

by Salman Hameed


Just by coincidence, I have read a number stories about Iran in the last couple of days. One of them was about a tweet from Leonardo DiCaprio about saving Iran's drying Lake Urmia. Here is an excerpt from a Scientific American article about an Iranian biologist who is leading efforts to save the lake:
Many of Iran’s once flourishing wetlands have dried dramatically in recent years. Lake Urmia in particular, the sixth largest salt lake in the world and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is dangerously receding and threatens to vanish entirelly. Spanning an area larger than the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake combined, the dwindling lake lies tucked in the Zagros Mountain range in northwest Iran near the Turkish border. 
Hossein Akhani, a biologist at the University of Tehran, argues that Iran’s high water consumption and energy and agriculture demands put pressure on the lake. Disturbing photographs of the lake today compared to two decades ago show that now the southern half completely evaporates in summer. Plants, migrating birds like flamingos and pelicans, a unique species of brine shrimp, and other wildlife have begun to disappear. 
Akhani, a longtime advocate on conservation issues, argues that people should take emergency actions to stop the lake from contracting further. Only then, he says, can Iran try to bring water back—from dams, river flow, and treated wastewater—to replenish, revive and restore the lake to its natural state. He believes efforts to save it will be more fruitful as the international community lifts sanctions, following successful negotiations involving Iran’s nuclear program last year. As restrictions ease, Akhani says, there should be more opportunities to collaborate among scientists, conservationists, and international organizations.
Here is a bit about the lifting of sanctions and the fate of the lake:
How will the lifting of the sanctions aid these efforts to restore the lake?When the sanctions are lifted, there will be more opportunities for cooperation between Iranian and international scientists. Then we can learn more from [similar water problems] in the States.
The new era will also help restoration programs. Environmental conditions in Iran became worse after the revolution, because of sanctions and the eight-year war in Iran and Iraq. I’m sure that if relations between Iran and the world improve, then there will be chances for foreign investment in the country, implementing new jobs for people, and supporting industries that reduce pressure on the environment. Environmental problems are world problems, and the world should work together to solve them. But sanctions make them worse, when you can’t import necessary technologies, talent or manpower. 
Are people in other countries trying to help in some way?
In recent years, the case of Urmia became more publicized in international media and generated interest among scientists and international organizations. For example, Japan invested $1 million in the area to improve agricultural management. Several international meetings took place in Iran, and even scientists from the United States came. The Iranian government is very open and welcomes any kind of contribution.
Instead of criticizing Iran, the world should do something! It’s the duty of developed countries that have more scientific facilities and funding to help. 
What are your thoughts about how things will change after the sanctions are lifted, especially for Iranian scientists and science in Iran?
Iran’s education and universities expanded in the last 20 years. There are more than four million students in Iranian universities and the number of scientific publications in Iran has increased. But during the sanctions, we couldn’t get equipment and didn’t have opportunities to participate in international conferences, and exchanging students became difficult. Lifting sanctions will be beneficial for Iranian universities and universities in developed countries.
We have seen thousands of Iranian scholars [working] in the United States and Europe. Iran is a huge country and provides a unique platform for top researchers, especially in fields of photosynthesis, plants, adaptation to harsh environments, and other environmental and biodiversity issues. When the economic situation and the stability in the area improves, our educated students should have opportunities to stay, too. 
Are there other things that you’ve been thinking about lately or that you look forward to after the sanctions?
Our big concern now is that [U.S.] Republican presidential candidates say that if they’re elected, they will cancel these agreements. This would disturb an achievement that cost decades of negotiations. We should not destroy what has been planted—such a very expensive cultivation. I hope we’ll always think that relations and cooperation are the best solution for solving problems.
How long do we have to have conflicts? We are big nations! Not all Iranians love America—but they have a lot of enthusiasm for development, a better life, and to be in contact with the world. We have to try to respect each other in spite of our differences.
He is spot on and I hope sanity will ultimately prevail this election cycle here in the US.

Then there was an interesting article in Science about Sci-Hub - a Russian based site that provided access to 50 million pirated scientific articles to researchers around the world. As expected, there is a heated debate on the matter. When I was in graduate school, I remember the launch of an astronomy pre-print server - Astro-ph - and it generated challenges from various publishers as well as raising questions about posting pre-accepted publications. Nevertheless it has become an essential tool for latest papers not just in astronomy but in other fields as well. A study by Science found that Sci-Hub is being used by researchers everywhere - including where there is easy access to journals. Here is the key figure:

Iran, India, and China provide the most traffic. The article starts with Iran and presents a complicated case:
Just as spring arrived last month in Iran, Meysam Rahimi sat down at his university computer and immediately ran into a problem: how to get the scientific papers he needed. He had to write up a research proposal for his engineering Ph.D. at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran. His project straddles both operations management and behavioral economics, so Rahimi had a lot of ground to cover. 
But every time he found the abstract of a relevant paper, he hit a paywall. Although Amirkabir is one of the top research universities in Iran, international sanctions and economic woes have left it with poor access to journals. To read a 2011 paper in Applied Mathematics and Computation, Rahimi would have to pay the publisher, Elsevier, $28. A 2015 paper in Operations Research, published by the U.S.-based company INFORMS, would cost $30. 
He looked at his list of abstracts and did the math. Purchasing the papers was going to cost $1000 this week alone—about as much as his monthly living expenses—and he would probably need to read research papers at this rate for years to come. Rahimi was peeved. “Publishers give nothing to the authors, so why should they receive anything more than a small amount for managing the journal?” 
Many academic publishers offer programs to help researchers in poor countries access papers, but only one, called Share Link, seemed relevant to the papers that Rahimi sought. It would require him to contact authors individually to get links to their work, and such links go dead 50 days after a paper's publication. The choice seemed clear: Either quit the Ph.D. or illegally obtain copies of the papers. So like millions of other researchers, he turned to Sci-Hub, the world's largest pirate website for scholarly literature. Rahimi felt no guilt. As he sees it, high-priced journals “may be slowing down the growth of science severely.” 
The journal publishers take a very different view. “I'm all for universal access, but not theft!” tweeted Elsevier's director of universal access, Alicia Wise, on 14 March during a heated public debate over Sci-Hub. “There are lots of legal ways to get access.” Wise's tweet included a link to a list of 20 of the company's access initiatives, including Share Link. 
But in increasing numbers, researchers around the world are turning to Sci-Hub, which hosts 50 million papers and counting. Over the 6 months leading up to March, Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China. The papers cover every scientific topic, from obscure physics experiments published decades ago to the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology. The publisher with the most requested Sci-Hub articles? It is Elsevier by a long shot—Sci-Hub provided half-a-million downloads of Elsevier papers in one recent week.
This is a fascinating issue. But who started all this. Sci-Hub was started by a 22-year old graduate student in Kazakhstan. Here is an excerpt from her bio with the Science article:
Beyond being the founder of Sci-Hub, the world's largest pirate site for academic papers, and risking arrest as a result, Alexandra Elbakyan is a typical science graduate student: idealistic, hard-working, and relatively poor. In 1988, when Elbakyan was born in Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union was just beginning to crumble. Books about dinosaurs and evolution fascinated her early on. “I also remember reading Soviet science books that provided scientific explanations for miraculous events thought previously to be produced
by gods or magic.” She was hooked. 
At university in the Kazakh capital, she discovered a knack for computer hacking. It appealed to her because “unlike higher programming languages that are created by people and are volatile,” making and breaking computer security systems requires a deeper knowledge of mathematics and the primitive “assembly language” that computers use to move information. 
Like so many of Kazakhstan's brightest, Elbakyan left the country to pursue her dreams. First she worked in Moscow in computer security for a year, and then she used the earnings to launch herself to the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010, where she joined a brain-computer interface project. She was lured by the possibility that such an interface could one day translate the thought content from one mind and upload it to another. But the work fell short of her dreams. “The lab activity was spiritless,” she says. “There was no feeling of pursuing a higher goal.”
But this is where things get interesting. She has a Transhumanist vision, but the site was born out of frustration with the US visa system:
Elbakyan did find a community of like-minded researchers in transhumanism, a lofty field that encompasses not just neuroscience and computer technology but also philosophy and even speculative fiction about the future of humanity. She discovered a transhumanism conference in the United States and set her heart on attending, but she struggled to get a U.S. visa. She was rejected the first time and only barely made it to the conference. With the remainder of her summer visa, she did a research internship at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. When she got back to Kazakhstan, frustration with the barriers that scientists face would soon lead her to create Sci-Hub—an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask. 
Publisher paywalls are the bane of scientists and students in Kazakhstan, she says, and the existing solution was cumbersome: Post a request on Twitter to #IcanhazPDF with your email address. Eventually, a generous researcher at some university with access to the journal will send you the paper. 
What was needed, she decided, was a system that allowed that paper to be shared—with absolutely everyone. She had the computer skills—and contacts with other pirate websites—to make that happen, and so Sci-Hub was born. Elbakyan sees the site as a natural extension of her dream of helping humans share good ideas. “Journal paywalls are an example of something that works in the reverse direction,” she says, “making communication less open and efficient.”
What is the future?
For Elbakyan herself, the future is even more uncertain. Elsevier is not only charging her with copyright infringement but with illegal hacking under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. “There is the possibility to be suddenly arrested for hacking,” Elbakyan admits. Others who ran afoul of this law have been extradited to the United States while traveling. And she is fully aware that another computer prodigy–turned-advocate, Aaron Swartz, was arrested on similar charges in 2011 after mass-downloading academic papers. Facing devastating financial penalties and jail time, Swartz hanged himself. 
Like the rest of the scientific community, Elbakyan is watching the future of scholarly communication unfold fast. “I will see how all this turns out.” 
Read the full article from Science here - but then you may either need a subscription to access it or you can find it on Sci-Hub :)

And I will leave you with an article from Wired about the ways Iranians are using satellite TV to beam in banned internet. The problem with this article is that the funding for this effort seems to be of dubious origins (ahem....CIA and/or the State Department). And so while I am all for avoiding censorships, such sources complicate such efforts:
Last month, a Los Angeles-based group of eight Iranian and American activists that calls itself Net Freedom Pioneers officially launched Toosheh, that free anti-censorship system. Toosheh, Farsi for “knapsack” or “bundle,” is designed to allow Iranians to use their ubiquitous TV satellite dishes as an alternative to the country’s underdeveloped and highly censored internet, where a government body called the Supreme Council for Cyberspace blocks everything from “anti-Islamic” sites to news coverage of opposition political groups. By broadcasting on its own satellite TV channel and distributing a piece of Windows desktop software that can decode that satellite video stream, the Toosheh project sends thousands of Iranians a daily digital bundle of news articles, videos, and audio—everything from Persian music videos to critical news coverage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. “When they use our software all the content disguised in the video file is extracted and opens in a folder for them,” says Mehdi Yahyanejad, the founder of Net Freedom Pioneers as well as Balatarin, a Reddit-like social news site in Persian. “It can’t be censored…it comes from the sky. Our users just get a big folder of content, and there’s no trace of it on the internet.”
...
Just how Yahyanejad has funded that project isn’t exactly clear, particularly its more than $100,000-a-year in satellite rental fees. He says only that Net Freedom Pioneers receives a combination of private donor and government funds. Yahyanejad declines to say which governments, but emphasizes that only his group’s staff has any say in what materials are included in Toosheh’s daily bundles of digital content.
I think this is it for stories about Iran in this post - unless you want to keep up with the predictable Congressional politics about the nuclear deal with Iran. For insanity, you can read Ted Cruz's oped in today's NYT: The Mullahs and their Missiles. Or for some semblance of sanity, you read about a Senate vote to block blocking of Iran's nuclear deal.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

New Science ka Adda video on the farthest galaxy yet discovered

by Salman Hameed

For those who understand Urdu, here is our latest episode of Science ka Adda: A Look at the Farthest Galaxy (yet0 Discovered:

Our universe had a beginning 13.8 billion years ago. We now live in the Milky Way galaxy. But what were the earliest galaxies like? Astronomers can directly look at these young galaxies by looking farther out in space. Join us for this episode of Science ka Adda (Café Scientifique) where we look at the farthest galaxy yet discovered - a galaxy that existed well before the formation of our own solar system or even our own Milky Way! For more videos in the series, please visit sciencekaadda.com or join us on Facebook at facebook.com/ScienceKaAdda. For more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit hamarikainaat.com

Monday, April 25, 2016

An Excellent Video Essay on the Film "Ex Machina"

by Salman Hameed


If you are looking for a thoughtful discussion of the film, Ex Machina, then definitely check out this video essay, Questioning the Human Machine. It talks about the Turing Test, the structure of the story, and nature of  and questions of intimacy. However, the most fascinating part of the essay deals with the representations of fembots in the film and to ask the question if those are meant to be a critique of gender stereotypes in Hollywood (including fembots in films like Blade Runner), and if yes, then if the critique is successful. I really liked the film and I do think that a key scene towards the end of the movie makes the gender commentary quite clear. Nevertheless, as is the case with satire, such critiques can also end up reinforcing the stereotypes.

But no matter what, you should check out this video essay. It contains spoilers. So if you haven't seen the film, you should do that first. Here is Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine:


For an opposite position on this, check out this essay from Wired: Ex Maxhina Has a Serious Fembot Problem

In case you haven't seen the trailer: 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Charges scaled back for Turkish academics accused of "spreading terrorist propaganda"

by Salman Hameed

The last few years have been harsh for Turkish academics. But things got even worse this past March when several academics were arrested simply for signing a petition. They were charged with "spreading terrorist propaganda" (see this earlier post: Strong Nature Editorial on Turkey). Now four of the accused academics were released by a Turkish court on the first day of their trial when prosecutors scaled back the charges. They are not out of hot water yet - as they still face the charge of "denigrating Turkishness", but this is still progress. From The Guardian:
The four, on trial for signing a petition denouncing the government’s military operations against Kurdish rebels, were released “pending permission from the justice ministry” to change the charge, lawyer Benan Molu told Agence France-Presse. 
Under the original charge, Esra Mungan, Meral Camcı, Kivanç Ersoy and Muzaffer Kaya faced up to seven and a half years behind bars. 
But prosecutors want to bring charges against them under under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code that states that “denigrating Turkishness” is a criminal act. The offence carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail. 
Supporters in court applauded as the four walked free, with the judge setting setting the next hearing for 27 September. 
Earlier, Kaya had fiercely defended the petition, telling the court that the state had “not managed to stifle the voices of our conscience” and that he and the three other academics had been arrested for criticising political power, Dogan news agency said.
...
The petition had urged Ankara to halt “its deliberate massacres and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region”, infuriating the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accused the academics of falling into a “pit of treachery”. 
The four stood accused of engaging in “terrorist propaganda” and “inciting hatred and enmity” for signing the plea and making a statement on the same lines on 10 March, a day before the petition was published. 
They had been held in high-security closed prisons in Istanbul since their arrest last month. 
As well as signatories from more than 90 Turkish universities, the petition was also endorsed by dozens of foreigners, among them the US linguist Noam Chomsky and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Read the full article here.



Saturday, April 23, 2016

Some glimmer of hope for the ancient ruins of Palmyra

by Salman Hameed

Things looked quite bleak for the ancient city of Palmyra just a few months ago. It looked like nothing will be left under the occupation of ISIS (ISIL or Daesh). The city has now been taken back by the forces of the Syrian government and some new assessments offer a glimmer of hope. But before we get to the hope part, here are some pictures of Palmyra destruction (for more pictures, see The Senseless Destruction of Palmyra):

The Arch of Triumph in 2010

The Arch of Triumph in April 2016

But couple of hopeful things. First, most of the museum artifacts were moved to Damascus before the arrival of ISIS. Second, some of the sites were spared, including the spectacular Roman Theater (below):
The Roman Theater in April 2016

A recent issue of Science has an article that talks about the path to recovery for Palmyra:
Archaeologists are getting their first look at how a nearly year-long occupation by the group known as the Islamic State (IS) has affected the World Heritage Site of Palmyra in Syria. Government forces retook the historic city late last month, and although satellite images and recent photos show substantial damage to the city's ancient art and architecture—some of it deliberate— researchers are encouraged that the destruction was not worse. “I'm cautiously optimistic,” says Michael Danti of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a scholarly organization based in Boston, which this week released an assessment of the damage. 
Officials are already discussing plans to restore damaged sites to their former glory. But some experts disagree about how restoration should proceed, whereas others worry that such talk is premature given that IS still poses a threat to the city and that there is no end in sight to the 5-year-old Syrian conflict. “Things in Palmyra went from frying pan to fire, and now it's back to frying pan,” Danti says. 
Palmyra has long held a special place in Middle Eastern studies. The city, which sits in central Syria about 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, reached its cultural peak in the first through third centuries C.E., when it was a Roman empire trading center that attracted Greek, Persian, and Arab merchants. The cultural blending left a distinctive mark, including unique sculptures, tombs, and temples.
Interestingly, we can also get some useful information about the ISIS pattern of destruction:
IS fighters destroyed many of these cultural treasures after they captured Palmyra in May 2015, and researchers are beginning to tally the losses. Danti says the path of devastation documented by satellite images and local residents reveals the group's priorities. First, IS fighters destroyed Tadmor prison, a 20th century structure where the Syrian regime jailed political prisoners, perhaps in a bid to curry favor with city residents. Then, the group's focus became “cultural cleansing,” Danti says. It razed ancient sites that were holy to Islamic groups whose beliefs IS rejects, including the tomb of the Sufi saint Shagaf as well as a number of Sufi and Shia cemeteries and shrines. IS fighters then targeted prominent sites with less direct religious connections, including a massive Roman triumphal arch and a famous statue of a lion in the Palmyra museum that had once adorned a temple of the Semitic goddess al-Lat. The battle to retake the city took an additional toll, with bombs and artillery shells hitting mosques and other major structures. “A whole landscape has been attacked, not just the World Heritage Site,” Danti says. 
Still, the destruction could have been even greater, researchers say. Many important sites appear to have survived, including a military camp and theater dating to Roman times, a historic tax collecting center, and a temple to the Babylonian god Nabu. 
Thorough field assessments are not yet possible, because crews are removing thousands of mines and booby-trapped explosive devices left behind by IS group fighters. In the meantime, Danti and his ASOR colleagues have been examining recently released satellite images. They show that at least a dozen Roman-era towerlike tombs, built to house the dead of wealthy families, have been destroyed, according to the forthcoming ASOR report. Five of the stone tombs were destroyed within the past 5 months, the images suggest.
You can read the full article here (though you may need subscription to access it). 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Growing Islamophobia in the US and its impact on the sciences

by Salman Hameed

I came to the US in 1989. Despite the Afghan war (oh the one with the Soviets), many people I encountered had little idea about the exact location of Pakistan. So I had a prepared answer: It is between Iran (which they knew well because of the hostage crisis) and India. That worked well. Unfortunately, things are a bit different now and the tide of rising Islamophobia in the US is not only sad and dangerous, but it will also impact the sciences as well. So three things here:

First, a UC Berkley student was booted off the Southwest flight for speaking Arabic! Yes - a woman reported him to be a threat and he was asked by an airline employee, why was he speaking Arabic. From NYT:
A college student who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California earlier this month after another passenger became alarmed when she heard him speaking Arabic. 
The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley,
was taken off a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland on April 6 after he called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him about an event he attended that included a speech by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. 
“I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.
He told his uncle about the chicken dinner they were served and the moment when he got to stand up and ask the secretary general a question about the Islamic State, he said. But the conversation seemed troubling to a nearby passenger, who told the crew she overheard him making “potentially threatening comments,” the airline said in a statement. 
Mr. Makhzoomi, 26, knew something was wrong as soon as he finished his phone call and saw that a woman sitting in front of him had turned around in her seat to stare at him, he said. She headed for the airplane door soon after he told his uncle that he would call again when he landed, and qualified it with a common phrase in Arabic, “inshallah,” meaning “god willing.” 
“That is when I thought, ‘Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,’ because it was so weird,” Mr. Makhzoomi said. 
That is exactly what happened. An Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent came to his seat and escorted him off the plane a few minutes after his call ended, he said. The man introduced himself in Arabic and then switched to English to ask, “Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?”
Read the full story here.

This is not the only incident. There have been at least five instances just this year where a passenger has been removed from the plane for being "suspicious". What impact do you think it will have on Muslim students coming to the US to study or for Muslim research collaborator? And remember, you don't even have to be a Muslim - you just have to look and sound like you are from the Middle East. And if we are hearing this many high-profile instances, then there must be far more low level of Islamophobic episodes taking place every month. And I cannot imagine what would be happening to people who have a beard (the non-hipster type :) ) or if you wear a hijab.

Of course, much of this is also due to the political rhetoric or Trump and Ted Cruz (don't forget Cruz - I think he is far more dangerous than Donald Trump). This past week's Nature has an article that talks about the possible impact on science. It starts with Razi Nalim, who is Associate Dean of Research at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. I have had a chance to meet him as well and he is a genuinely nice person and passionate about science:
Razi Nalim has lived in the United States for 30 years. An engineer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, he often travels around the world to recruit science and engineering students to his university. But last week, on the cusp of a recruitment trip to India, he hesitated when asked whether he would still encourage foreign, Muslim students to work or study in the United States. 
“I would still say the opportunity for doing cutting-edge science here is unmatched,” said Nalim, who is Muslim. “Where I think I would caution people to think more carefully is
longer term: where would they want to live and raise a family? That’s a harder question to answer.” 
For Nalim and others, the roots of such concerns are apparent. In December, US presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has campaigned against immigration, boasted that he would ban Muslims from entering the country if elected. (On 30 March, Trump — now the Republican front runner — said that he would make exceptions for some Muslims, notably his wealthy Muslim friends.) 
Science advocates worry that Trump’s broader anti-immigration stance could pose a threat to US research dominance. Roughly 5% of all students in the United States hail from other countries — including more than 380,000 people studying science, engineering, technology or mathematics. “We’ve always been a nation which has welcomed scientific brainpower from other countries,” says Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, a science-advocacy group in Alexandria, Virginia. “We don’t want that to turn around now.”
The article also mentions our friend Ehab Abouheif from McGill University:
But that rhetoric is having an effect, says Ehab Abouheif, a developmental biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who is Muslim. On a recent trip to be interviewed for a position in the United States, recruiters’ “constant question was, ‘Are you really sure you would want to come?’” he says. “My scientist colleagues are really scared.” 
To Abouheif, who fondly remembers completing his PhD and his postdoc in the United States, the current climate is surreal. “If you are trying to stop Muslims from coming in, it means that the ones who are there already are not going to feel comfortable either,” he says. “It would be a shame to alienate this big swathe of society.”
This is already happening - and this is not just a Muslim issue and should be of concern to everyone. On this note it is good to remember how 120000 Japanese Americans were detained during World War II and placed in concentration camps (see the video below about the problem in using "internment" for this case) - and the legal system was okay with that. Here is an excellent discussion at Democracy Now:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Call for papers: CyberOrient - Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in the representations of Islam and the Middle East, as well as the impact of new media and the internet in Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts, then this is the journal for you. Here is a call for papers for the next issue of CyberOrient. The deadline for full paper is August 30, 2016:

CyberOrient
Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East
ISSN 1804-3194
What to Submit
Submissions are welcome from scholars in any discipline. Text style follows the current edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. 
CyberOrient publishes peer-reviewed articles (5000-8000 words) and book reviews (750+ words). 
For articles, please format your submission as follows:
  • Cover page with your name, affiliation, address, article title
  • Second page with article title, abstract (150-200 words) and three or four key words. Do not put your name on this page or on the pages of the following text.
  • Article with references at the end, following the Chicago Manual of Style.
Book reviews will be reviewed by the editor. You may suggest book which you would like to review. 
How to Submit
Please submit all materials electronically as attachments. Text should be in Word format, double spaced, in Times font at 12 point. Please do not submit in PDF format. 
Photographs and illustrations should be submitted in jpg or gif format with minimum 72 DPI. Send your submission to the editor-in-chief, at dmvarisco@gmail.com and to the managing editor, at vit.sisler@ff.cuni.cz. You should receive confirmation of your submission by email within a few days.  
Peer-review Process
Submitted manuscripts are subjected to initial checks to assess their suitability for review (e.g. completeness). After that, the manuscript proceeds to the reviewers. The double-blind peer review is applied, which means that the reviewers of the paper will not get to know the identity of the author(s), and the author(s) will not get to know the identity of the reviewer. The reviewers comment on the quality of the work, as well as on its originality and its importance. The turn-around time for the peer review process is a maximum of two months. 
Permissions and Copyright
The author is responsible for obtaining written permission to use photographs and illustrations not in the public domain. All illustrations should indicate the source and should have captions. Copyright will be held by the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

Call for Papers
Vol. 10, Iss. 2, 2016
Submission deadline: 30 August 2016 (Full Papers)

Call for papers
Editor: Vit Sisler

AimThe aim of the journal is to provide research and theoretical considerations on the representation of Islam and the Middle East, the very areas that used to be styled as an “Orient”, in cyberspace, as well as the impact of the internet and new media in Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts. This issue of CyberOrient aims to bring together the state of the art research dealing with the multifaceted social, cultural, and political aspects of the internet and new media in the Middle East. 
Submission
Articles should be submitted directly to Vit Sisler (vit.sisler@ff.cuni.cz) and Daniel M. Varisco (dmvarisco@gmail.com). Articles should be between 6,000 and 8,000 words (including references), and follow the AAA style in referencing and citations. Upon acceptance, articles will be published online with free access in winter 2016.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Strong Nature Editorial on Turkey

by Salman Hameed


Academic freedom has been taking a beating in Turkey over the past few years. The ruling AKP party, when it came to power in the early noughts, was doing well on a number of issues, including standing up to the military and on its reconciliation efforts towards the Kurdish minority. However, its demeanor has dramatically changed over the past few years and now it is cracking down on any dissent. It is in this context that we saw arrests of Turkish academics last month for simply signing an online petition! Here is an apt recent Nature editorial on the topic:
When he labelled outspoken academics as terrorists, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was probably not thinking of Voltaire’s eighteenth-century philosophical maxim: “To hold a pen is to be at war”. 
Erdoğan sent shivers down the spines of those who care about human rights by declaring on 14 March that those who support terrorists are as guilty as those “who pull the trigger”, and that Turkish law should be changed to reflect this. “The fact that an individual is a deputy, an academic, an author, a journalist or the director of an NGO does not change the fact that that person is a terrorist,” he said. 
One the same day, three academics from universities in Istanbul were hauled into police custody and then refused bail while prosecutors considered charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organization. 
Their crime? In January, they had signed a petition that called for an end to violence in the southeast of the country, where government forces have been fighting Kurdish separatists. The petition was signed by 1,128 academics, mostly from Turkish universities, when it was publicly launched on 11 January. It immediately sparked Erdoğan’s rage. Many politically appointed university rectors leapt into line, launching disciplinary investigations into members of their staff who had signed — more than 500 so far. Dozens of signatories were brought in for police questioning. The harsh response attracted a shocked solidarity. Another 1,000 people signed the petition, including a large number of Western scientists, before it was closed on 20 January.= 
An atmosphere of uncertainty and fear prevails. None of the signatories knows whether they, too, will be arrested, and several have had death threats. Some have actively sought sabbaticals abroad; those working outside the country are afraid to return even to visit family.
All of this is happening at an extremely volatile time for Turkey when there is refugee crisis from the civil war in Syria, ISIS on the border, and we are seeing bombs exploding in major Turkish cities, while the government forces bomb Kurdish cities within its own borders:
Terrorist attacks in Turkey are intensifying, some carried out by Kurdish separatists, others by the Islamist group ISIS. Erdoğan’s controversial announcement followed on the heels of a deadly attack in Ankara, and on 19 March, a suicide bomber killed four in Istanbul. Kurdish separatist terrorism had abated during a two-year ceasefire, but that broke down last July. Erdoğan argues that the peace petition, by focusing only on government military attacks on Kurdish militants, which have killed many innocent civilians, and ignoring terrorist attacks and other serious human-rights abuses carried out by the separatists, actively supports terrorism. 
While appreciating the urgency of a call to peace, many scientists and academics themselves have reservations about the petition, seeing it as unhelpfully confrontational and even intellectually dishonest. But many have still bravely spoken up for the freedom of expression of the signatories. 
Turkey’s recently formed Science Academy published a strongly supportive statement in January. “The right to express one’s opinions — even if these might be annoying or minority views — is an essential freedom of every citizen and every academic,” it said. The academy should know — it was created by those who resigned en masse from the Turkish Academy of Sciences when Erdoğan took it over by decree in 2011. Scientists everywhere should use their pens and send their support.
Read the full editorial here.  

Sunday, April 03, 2016

New episode of Science ka Adda: Stars in our Life

by Salman Hameed

For those who speak Urdu, we have a new episode of Science ka Adda (SkA). Here it is:


We often talk about the large scales of the universe and the humility it evokes in us as small scale humans. Rejoice, as in this episode we talk about the fact that our bodies are constructed from elements that were processed inside stars or in the earliest few minutes after the Big Bang. Please join us in this episode of Science ka Adda where we talk about the role of stars in the making of life on our planet. For more videos in the series, please visit sciencekaadda.com or join us on Facebook at facebook.com/ScienceKaAdda. For more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit hamarikainaat.com

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A fascinating new book about Supreme Court and Eugenics in the US

by Salman Hameed

When talking about the famous 1925 Scopes (Monkey) Trial, the focus is usually on evolution and religion. But one of the important backdrops of it was the existence of social Darwinism and eugenics in the biology textbooks of the time. Not just that, but eugenics was also legal in many states in the US. There is a fascinating new book out that talks about the a 1927 US Supreme Court case that - in an 8-1 decision - further strengthened eugenics in the US and led to at least 60,000 forced sterilizations. Furthermore, it served as a blueprint for the Nazi eugenics program.

Here is a Fresh Air interview with the author of Im-be-ciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Author Adam Cohen tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that Buck v. Bell was considered a victory for America's eugenics movement, an early 20th century school of thought that emphasized biological determinism and actively sought to "breed out" traits that were considered undesirable. 
"There were all kinds of categories of people who were deemed to be unfit [to procreate]," Cohen says. "The eugenicists looked at evolution and survival of the fittest,
as Darwin was describing it, and they believed 'We can help nature along, if we just plan who reproduces and who doesn't reproduce.' " 
All told, as many as 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century. The victims of state-mandated sterilization included people like Buck who had been labeled "mentally deficient," as well as those who who were deaf, blind and diseased. Minorities, poor people and "promiscuous" women were often targeted. 
Cohen's new book about the Buck case, Imbeciles, takes its name from the terms eugenicists used to categorize the "feebleminded." In it, he revisits the Buck v. Bell ruling and explores the connection between the American eugenics movement and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. 
Cohen notes that the instinct to "demonize" people who are different is still prevalent in the U.S. today, particularly in the debate over immigration. 
"I think these instincts to say that we need to stop these other people from 'polluting us,' from changing the nature of our country, they're very real," Cohen warns. "The idea that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it — it's very troubling that we don't remember this past."
Here is the bit about Carrie Buck - the person at the center of the Supreme Court case:
This is this poor young woman, really nothing wrong with her physically or mentally, a victim of a terrible sexual assault, and there's a little hearing, she's declared feebleminded and she gets sent off to the colony for epileptics and feebleminded. (Photograph: Carrie Buck (left) and her monther (right) in 1924). 
When she's at the colony, the guy who is running the colony, Dr. Albert Priddy, is on the prowl. He's looking for someone to put at the center of this test case that they want to
bring, so he's looking for someone to sterilize, and he sees Carrie Buck when she comes in, he does the examination himself, and there are a lot of things about her that excite him. She is deemed to be feebleminded, she has a mother who is feebleminded, so that's good because you can show some genetics, and then they're hoping that [her] baby could be determined to be feebleminded too, then you could really show a genetic pattern of feeblemindedness. The fact that she had been pregnant out of wedlock was another strike against her. So he fixes on her and thinks Carrie Buck is going to be the perfect potential plaintiff. ... 
He chooses her, and then under the Virginia law, they have to have a sterilization hearing at the colony, which they do and they give her a lawyer (who is really not a lawyer for her; it's really someone who had been the chairman of the board of the colony and was sympathetic to the colony's side) and they have a bit of a sham hearing where she is determined to be a suitable person for sterilization; they vote to sterilize her, and that is the order that then gets challenged by Carrie as the plaintiff first in the Virginia court system and then in the Supreme Court.
And what is further heart wrenching is that the process for women was not a minor surgery and they were not always told ahead of time that they were being sterilized:
For men it was something like a vasectomy. For women it was a salpingectomy, where they cauterized the path that the egg takes toward fertilization. It was, in the case of women, not minor surgery and when you read about what happened, it's many, many days of recovery and it had certain dangers attached to it, and a lot of the science was still quite new. ... 
When you add onto all that, the fact that in many, many cases the women involved were not told what was being done to them, they might be told that they were having an appendectomy, they weren't being told that the government has decided that you are unfit to reproduce and we're then going to have surgery on you, so that just compounds the horror of the situation.
You can listen to the full interview here.

Here is a review of the book in Nature (you will need subscription to the read the full article):
By 1928, a total of 375 US universities and colleges were teaching eugenics, and 70% of high-school biology textbooks endorsed the pseudoscience in some form. Eugenics was also endorsed by presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, funded by philanthropic organizations including the Carnegie Institution, and touted by award-winning scientists such as biologist Edwin Grant Conklin and the Nobel laureate Hermann Muller, discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis, as well as prominent inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics came to be seen as the solution to everything from hearing loss to criminality. In Britain, advocates tended to focus on segregation and voluntary sterilization. Major British eugenicists included left-leaning scientists J. B. S. Haldane and Havelock Ellis, and supporters included the economist John Maynard Keynes, social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and writer H. G. Wells. 
In 1927, a month after her sterilization, Buck was released from the asylum as hired help, on a kind of parole. Later, she married. Her sister Doris was also sterilized; interviews suggest that she thought the operation an appendectomy. Imbeciles traces their later life in detail, noting one of the most poignant aspects of the case — Buck's letters to the asylum about her relatives and probationary status. These, Cohen notes, revealed Buck to be intelligent and diligent in trying to contact and protect her mother and child, who lived with a foster family: a testament to one of the most spectacular miscarriages of justice in US history. To this day, the Supreme Court has never officially overruled Buck v. Bell.
Read the full review here.

Also, see these amazing photographs of American Eugenics Society promoting "fitter families". 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A short science fiction film: "The March"

by Salman Hameed

I am co-teaching a class this semester on creating science fiction short films. We watched one of the delightful Oscar nominated shorts, The World of Tomorrow. It is both simple in animation and profound and touching in its message. Unfortunately, it is not yet available for free screening (I think it is available on Netflix). However, here is another film that was the winner of London 48 Hour Sci Fi Film Challenge (yes - you get 48 hours to make a short film based on the prompts given by the competition) in 2014 - and it also has some of the same features.

Sci-Fi 48 WINNER 'The March' - Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge 2014 from Josh Fortune on Vimeo.

The use of the syllable "Al" - from Alcohol and Alcatraz to Algol and Algorithm

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excerpt from an article by Paul Braterman on 3quarksdaily (if you don't know 3quarksdaily, you should visit and visit it often for its intellectual content): Science in the World of Islam I -  The Syllable Al:
The syllable Al- is Arabic for "The", and is attached to the beginning of the word to which it applies. 
Like English today, or Latin in Renaissance Europe, the dominant language of learned discourse for several centuries was Arabic. Arabic-speaking scholars translated the great works of the Greek philosophers and scientists, as well as studying them in the original, did likewise for the texts of Indian mathematics (from which we derive our modern "Arabic" numbering system), and made important discoveries of their own. Spain was where the worlds of Islam and of Western Christianity met, fought, and mingled for more than seven hundred years, and it is mainly through Spanish that Arabic words have entered the English language. 
Alcatraz, an island in California famous for its prison, was named by the Spanish explorers for the pelican (Arabic al-qadus, the water carrier), which they wrongly believed to carry water in its bill. In a further misapplication, the word has passed into English as the name for a completely different bird, the "Albatross". Alcove (al-qubbah, the arch) reminds us of the glories of Moorish architecture, as in the Alhambra (or the red house) in Granada. This building was decorated with abstract designs (Arabesques) great intricacy, whose patterns show so subtle a use of geometry and symmetry that they are studied by mathematicians even today. Alfalfa (from the Arabic name for the plant) is grown for hay in dry climates, such as that of Spain. 
The syllable al also occurs in numerous place names. The Algarve to us is the south of Portugal; to the Iberian Arabs, it was al-Gharb, the West. A very common combination is with wadi, valley, as in Guadalquivir (al-wad al-kebir, the Mighty River, the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific (named after a town in Spain, wad-al-Kanat, valley of merchant stalls), Guadalajara (wad-al-Hajara or valley of stones) in Spain and Mexico. There are even a few Arabic-Spanish or Arabic-Latin hybrid names, such as Alicante (al- tacked onto the Roman name Lucentum, or City of Light) or Guadalupe (wad-al-lupus, valley of the wolf) But most of the Arabic al- words in common English use refer to the Arabic achievements in science and mathematics.
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Evidence of Evolution in your own body...

by Salman Hameed

This is a nice and concise video of the record of our evolutionary past on our own bodies. There you go. Next time if someone asks for evidence for evolution, present yourself. Enjoy!


Monday, March 21, 2016

"Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars" as part of Science on Screen

by Salman Hameed


Many movies simply slip under the radar and here is one example. Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars is a fascinating documentary film that looks at the life of an Iranian teenager, who is obsessed with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut. The film is directed by Berit Madsen. When she first heard of an astronomy society in a small town in southern Iran, she wanted to document these amateur astronomers. However, she ended up focusing on Sepideh - as she turned out to be a fascinating person. I also chatted with the director about a year ago, but did not get a chance to post the interview. I hope to do that in the coming week.

I will be introducing this film at Amherst Cinema tomorrow (Tuesday) night as part of their Science on Screen series. And after the screening, we will have telescopes for viewing Jupiter, the Moon, and Orion nebula right outside the theater - courtesy of Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association. If you are in the area, please join us there. Also, here is my chat with Monte Belmonte for WRSI 93.9 about the movie.

Here is the trailer for the film:


And here is more information about the event:
SEPIDEH - REACHING FOR THE STARS follows an Iranian teenage girl, named Sepideh Hooshyar, living in a small town 400 miles south of Tehran. She is obsessed with astronomy and becomes an active member of a local astronomy club led by her physics teacher. But her real passion is to become an astronaut, following in the footsteps of her idol, Persian-American astronaut, Anousheh Ansari. The documentary provides a unique and complex look into Iranian society, gender expectations, and our shared passion for understanding the universe. This film provides a welcome respite from the prevalent political rhetoric about Iran in the news and gives us a slice of Iranian life in a small town.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Social media in the Middle East - The Times They Are a-Changin'...

by Salman Hameed

Image from The Atlantic

...
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

During the initial phases of the Arab Spring, there was a lot of discussion about the role played by social media in the uprisings. Then came a number of analysis that downplayed its actual impact. Whatever the case, it is clear that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are transforming the youth - be it in the US or in Saudi Arabia. Damian Radcliffe has recently released a report, Social Media in the Middle East: The Story of 2015 (you can download it from the link). Here are his key findings:
  • Facebook is the Middle East’s most used social network, with 80 million users in the region. The U.S., with 192 million subscribers, has more than double the Facebook users of the whole of the MENA region.
  • Egypt, with 27 million users, has MENA’s largest Facebook population; although with fewer (30.5 percent) than a third of the country’s residents on the network, there remains considerable scope for growth. In contrast, 59.7 percent (192 million) of the U.S. is on Facebook.
  • The next most populous Facebook nations are Saudi Arabia (12 million users, akin to 43.2 percent of the total population) and Iraq (11 million, representing a third of the country’s 33 million residents). In Iraq, where there are also 11 million internet users, Facebook is the Internet for many people. 
  • WhatsApp, the popular messaging service owned by Facebook, is the leading social media platform in Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to Northwestern University in Qatar. Beyond just being an SMS replacement service, WhatsApp groups are used to discuss religion, cooking and the news, as well as being a platform for a growing group of eCommerce entrepeneurs.
  • WhatsApp is also the preferred social media channel for 41 percent of social media users in 20 countries across the region, according to a 2015 study produced by the research agency TNS.
And since we at SSiMS are working on videos related to science and Islam, here are the Damian's findings about videos in the MENA: 
  • MENA is the fastest growing consumer of videos on Facebook. Consumption per head of Facebook embedded videos is twice the global average.
  • Turkey is the second most active country for Periscope streams; and three Turkish cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – are among the top 10 cities with the most Periscope users worldwide. Periscope, the live video streaming app, was launched by Twitter during March 2015.
  • Growth in watch time on YouTube is up over 80 percent year on year in the region, Google data show. After the U.S., MENA enjoys the world’s second-highest online video viewership.
These video stats are incredible! This is one of the reasons we have to look at the impact of online videos. 

Read the full article here

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Another atheist in Saudi Arabia sentenced for 10 years in prison and 2000 lashes

by Salman Hameed

You have probably heard about Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. He was arrested in 2012 and is serving a 10 year prison sentence for his thoughts. He has also been lashed 50 times for his sentence of 1000
lashes. These floggings were public and in front of a crowd of spectators. And to provide some more context, he just turned 32 this past January. He has a wife and three children (they are in Canada with a political asylum). There has been an international outcry on the treatment of Badawi (for example, see Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) - but to no avail. He continues to suffer while he awaits more lashes.

Now we have news of another person - this time a 28-year old - who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2000 lashes for his tweets expressing atheism:
According to Saudi newspaper Al Watan, the country's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice found that the 28-year-old man posted more than 600 tweets denying the existence of God, critiquing the teachings of prophets, and deriding Quranic verses. When questioned by the religious police, known locally as the Haia, the man reportedly refused to back down from his beliefs and maintained that he had the right to free expression. The court also fined him 20,000 riyals or $5,300. 
In 2014, Saudi Arabia introduced draconian new counter-terrorism laws that said atheists are the same as terrorists, criminalized all expression of dissenting speech, and gave the Interior Ministry the legal authority to jail people or spy on their communications without judicial oversight.
Until the draconian laws are changed, we are going to see more and more of such cases and more and more young lives being destroyed. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab world, even surpassing Egypt. Social media provides a way to connect with other ideas and people - but unfortunately - it does so in a public way. And that can be dangerous in an insecure authoritarian state:
Twitter had been a huge hit among young Saudis. In 2013, a study found that Saudis made up 4 percent of Twitter's users, almost as many as Spain and more than France or Mexico. One user said they believed Twitter was so popular in the country "because we are able to say what we couldn't say in real life. It's a breather from the suppression we live under, without fear." 
Earlier this month, a Saudi activist wound up with a 10-year jail sentence after he took to Twitter to call for the release of prisoners convicted of "terrorism." 
Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, the country's leading religious cleric, has condemned Twitter as "the source of all evil and devastation," which serves only to spread "lies and falsehood." The Haia, however, activated its own Twitter account last summer and immediately gained more than 66,000 followers. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, the commission's leader Abdul Rahman Al-Sanad hoped that joining Twitter would improve public perception of the police.
Read the full article here

Friday, February 26, 2016

Brian Greene on Albert Camus and String Theory

by Salman Hameed

For your weekend pleasure, here is an interesting article that profiles Brian Greene and how he thinks about the String Theory. He does address some of the criticism of the theory in the end, but there are other bits about his inspiration from Camus, and the influence of Greene's father. So the last part first:
Greene remains hopeful, too, that it won’t be long before the Large Hadron Collider throws up evidence of the super-symmetric particles – “partners” that pair every electron with a “selectron”, every quark with a “squark”, and so on – that string theory demands. 
He cites other possible forms of evidence, including the creation of miniature black holes
(with a consequent loss of energy presumed to have shunted into other dimensions), and, his own meticulous search for subtle signatures in the cosmic microwave background radiation. 
“Collectively there are a number of ways that I think you get strong hints that string theory is going in the right direction,” he says. “But failure to see any of them will not rule the theory out.” 
He has no time for critics who suggest that absence of evidence in string theory is strong evidence for continuing job security. 
His counter-argument echoes Jean Paul Sartre’s assertion that “Man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have.” 
Says Greene: “I think that you go around once in life, and who would ever want to spend that time working on something that’s not right, that’s wrong, that’s a total waste of time? 
“So if string theory’s wrong, I’d like to know right now. I’d like to have known 20 years ago.
“We want to rule the theory out. I would be thrilled if string theory is wrong. I would be thrilled if we could learn that right now. Then I could move on to something else that might be right.”
And here is the bit about Camus, existentialism, and String theory:
For Greene, though, there is still another concept of distance that sometimes occupies his mind, a concept that cannot be quantified, no matter how sophisticated the mathematics, and that will never be subject to experimental evidence, no matter how much juice is pumped into the Large Hadron Collider. 
It is, nevertheless, a concept that gives rise to a powerful question. What is the distance
between a New York scientist and a dead Algerian philosopher? 
“I sort of re-read Albert Camus every few years,” he tells Cosmos from his office in New York. 
“He has a hold on me in a very deep way, and his ability to weave deep philosophical questions together with the kind of human concerns that we all have, into what I find to be riveting stories, makes him a compelling thinker.” 
Greene’s love for Camus isn’t the recently discovered intellectual regard of a smart guy in his 50s. It goes way deeper. It has occupied him for most of his life. 
In terms of his research – from his doctorate describing Calabi-Yau shapes, the putative repositories of the six hidden dimensions string theory demands; to his present quest to uncover evidence of quantum gravity in data describing cosmic microwave background radiation – the image of Camus, Gauloises cigarette hanging from his lip, lurks beneath the equations. 
For Brian Greene, Camus was the start of it all. 
At the beginning of his best-known book, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), Greene describes his teenage discovery of Camus’ philosophical masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus, in his father’s bookcase. He was transfixed by the author’s opening line: “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” 
“I do consider physics to be in some sense a branch of existential philosophy,” Greene tells Cosmos. 
“I would say there is a deep connection. The reason why I’m interested in physics, the reason why I’m interested in cosmology, is really to try to gain some insight into the very questions that Camus is asking. What is it that makes life worth living? What is it that drives the human spirit to explore as opposed to crawl back into the cave and crumble under the weight of existential angst?
Read the full article here

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New Science ka Adda video on "Cosmic Recycling: Anticipating a Glorious Death of our Sun"

by Salman Hameed

This is for our Urdu/Hindi audience. Here is our latest episode of Science ka Adda (Café Scientifique): Cosmic Recycling - Anticipating a Glorious Death of Our Sun

Stars live. Stars die. Our Sun has been a constant source of energy for the past 4.5 billion years. But it will eventually run out of fuel (in about 5 billions years). While this will be bad for the inhabitants of the Earth (and probably for inhabitants of any other planet in our Solar system), this solar demise will be spectacularly beautiful. We know this by looking at the end stages of other stars in our Galaxy. Please join us in this episode of Science ka Adda where we talk about the future of our own Sun.

And for those who don't understand Urdu/Hindi, here is my article on the same topic:

 Anticipating a Glorious Death of Our Sun
All good things come to an end. Even the lives of stars. Located 2,300 light years away, the Ring Nebula (right) is a gorgeous announcement of the demise of a star that shone brightly for ten billion years. 
Now all that is left is a small white nucleus surrounded by gases that once were part of the star itself. Some of these gases will one day be part of another star. This is cosmic recycling at its best. 
While beautiful, this stage is temporary for the star. Most of the gases we see in the Ring Nebula were expelled only a few thousand years ago. The star at the time had bloated into a red giant and subsequently lost much of its outer material to space, leaving behind a central core about the size of the Earth. This core is called a white dwarf and is one of the densest objects in the universe. Here on Earth, a teaspoon of white dwarf material would weigh as much as a car. 
Made up mostly of Carbon and Oxygen, the white dwarf is extremely hot — about twenty times hotter than the surface of our Sun. It is the light from this white dwarf that is making some of the gases glow in the Ring Nebula. However, it does not have any energy source within, and from now on it will slowly cool down for eternity, becoming dimmer and dimmer each passing year, eventually — no longer detectable in visible light. This is the final stage — the corpse of a star that shone for ten billion years. 
This is the fate that awaits the Sun as well. Our star has been a stable source of energy for the past four-and-a-half-billion years. Algae, rodents, ferns, seagulls, ants, humans — they have all been dependent on this supply of energy. Quite amazingly, humans have figured out that our Sun will run out of its supply of fuel in another 5 billion years or so. No need to worry about it tomorrow morning. But if humans — or some form of their descendants — are to survive on scales of billions of years, then journeys to other stars will have to be undertaken. Whatever happens to us, our Sun’s last rites will also include a beautiful nebula followed by the forever cooling of its white dwarf. 
What about life around the star that formed the Ring Nebula? We have not detected any planets there as yet and we certainly have no idea if there ever was any life, let alone intelligence, out there. However, if there were any worlds inhabited by complex, intelligent beings, then I hope they had stumbled upon science, figured out the impending death of their star, and made alternative plans. They may have implemented mass-evacuation to another planet around a nearby star system. They may have left a billion years before the death of their star. The beauty of Ring Nebula may now be bitter sweet as they watch the demise of their original home star. Or maybe this life form never developed the ability to leave its solar system. Then most likely all of this life is now gone — just one of many mass extinctions that must happen quite often in the universe.