Monday, May 25, 2015

Neal Stephenson novel on the future of humanity after losing the Moon...

by Salman Hameed

It is impossible to imagine what humans will be like in a few hundred years let alone in a few thousand years. I think Stephen Hawking is quite accurate when he says that the most unbelievable thing about Star Trek is that humans in the 24th century (the setting of The Next Generation) look like humans of today. It is not a value call of whether we should change or not but rather an assumption that given an opportunity, we will change.

So here comes a novel that looks fantastic and covers 5000 years into the future. It is by Neal Stephenson who writes thought-provoking hard sci-fi. His Anathem is on my list of books to read this year and will get to it soon (all of his books are hefty 800-1000 pages long). In any case, his new book deals with the future of humanity after the destruction of the Moon. It is of course not that unreasonable to imagine an Moon-less Earth, as the Earth and the Moon did not form together (see What if the Moon didn't exist?).

Here is a review of Neil Stephenson's Seveneves in Nature:
It traces an epoch in which humankind and the environment change profoundly. The bulk of the novel is the lead-up to, and immediate aftermath of, a stunning cosmic event
that leaves humanity teetering on the edge. The remainder describes a renaissance with only faint echoes of what we recognize as human culture. 
The cataclysm is the destruction of the Moon by a mysterious agent. As Earth is assaulted by a rain of debris from the shattered satellite, the vast majority of the human population faces oblivion. The core of the story relies on current, or currently anticipated, technologies — weaving a plausible tale of how a tiny number of survivors, the “seveneves” of the title, might secure a future for our species. Stephenson imagines the rebirth as a division into seven races, based on the genetic profiles of the founders. The future cultures have both old and new social problems, but also fresh insights and resources with which to address them. 
The epic injury to Earth looms in the very first sentence: a masterful attention-grabber. Stephenson maintains tension and energy, as well as a remarkable technical complexity, both literary and scientific. I repeatedly found myself sketching parts of the dramatically scaled mechanical constructs that enable later stages of the story — such as whip-like machinery to capture high-flying gliders and transfer them to Earth orbit — to judge whether they were feasible. They were.
Plus, it is a welcome news that, along with its science, the characters are well developed in the novel as well:
This is hard sci-fi in a real and welcome sense, ruled by unremitting physical laws, unlike the negotiable rules of the action thriller. People die because their deaths are inevitable, and many pass unremarked because the disaster's scale is so vast. Their sacrifice is tied to the theme of engineering the survival of the human race. Science fiction often suffers from a disparity between the impressive scale of the scenery, and the size of the characters and how they are developed. Stephenson balances these aspects well, avoiding cookie-cutter scientists and the all-too-common characterization of technologists as brilliant but conflicted renegades.
Read the full review here (you may need subscription for full access). 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Video: Steven Wise on rights for chimps

by Salman Hameed

Here is a TED talk by Steven Wise on Chimps have feelings and thoughts  - they should also have rights.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

UAE planning a mission to Mars by 2021

by Salman Hameed


The end of the semester and conferences have kept me away from Irtiqa. I even missed this news about a UAE mission to Mars by 2021. The UAE Space Agency was launched last year and it did state a Mars mission as one of its first projects. Now they have announced "Hope" mission that will orbit the Red Planet and map the Martian atmosphere. Of course, a cynical (and a reasonable) first reaction would be: are they buying this mission to Mars? The space agency is claiming that the mission will be "100% Emirati". I don't know - but we can go with their claim. Such a mission can indeed create a lot of excitement among Arab and Muslim nations. If they do develop the infrastructure for this mission, then indeed it will will make a significant impact. They certainly have a slick video that claims all these things. But at this point I don't know much about their abilities. They do have a slick video - but then that is the easy part. The publicity for the mission is also carefully tailored. Like space missions from other countries, the photographs are carefully staged - here showing a significant participation of women in the project (early US space missions had cultivated particular views of the wives of astronauts). But it is the actual mission and its local expertise that will ultimately count. Lets follow up in the next year or so and see where there are at.

Here is the video of the UAE Mars Mission:


From Space News:
“This mission is managed by a 100-percent Emirati team,” said Sarah Amiri, the mission deputy project manager and science lead. 
“Emirati universities and research institutions will work on the science,” said Ibrahim Al Qasim, the mission’s deputy project manager for strategic planning. “That way we get to build the knowledge and keep the skills. This mission will be the catalyst for a new generation of Arab scientists and engineers. It will be an anchor project for the space and science sector here in the UAE,” said lead guy. 
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the rule of the emirate of Dubai and the namesake of the UAE’s lead space center, attended the May 6 press briefing, where he explained why the name Hope was chosen for the mission.
Read the full article here

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Third secular blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh!

by Salman Hameed

This is outrageous and a systematic effort to silence secular opposition in Bangladesh. First it was the killing of Avijit Roy in late February of this year. He was killed by two men armed with machetes. Then in late March, Washiqur Rahman was killed by two men using knives and meat cleavers. Yesterday, Ananta Bijoy Dash was attached by four men and hacked to death. Before we even talk about anything else, here are the pictures of the three slain bloggers:

Ananta Bijoy Dash

Washiqur Rahman 

Avijit Roy (with his wife who was also injured in the attack)

They are all young and bright men standing up for what they believe. All three were part of the secular Shahbagh movement along with Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was killed in 2013 (see Standing with Bangladesh's Secular Bloggers!). From the New York Times:
Mr. Haider, Mr. Roy and Mr. Rhaman were all part of a movement known as Shahbag, which called for the death penalty for Islamist political leaders who were implicated in atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. Young Islamic activists reacted with fury to the Shahbag movement. 
Imran Sarker, the head of an organization of secular bloggers in Bangladesh, said that Mr. Dash was also an activist with the Shahbag movement, organizing street protests in Sylhet. According to Free Mind, Mr. Dash had several years ago also edited a magazine called Logic that published essays on secular humanism. His friends described him as an atheist. 
The killings of the bloggers have hit a nerve in Bangladesh, with its deepening divide between secular thinkers and conservative Muslims over the question of whether Bangladesh should be a secular or an Islamic nation.
I doubt that it the killings have much to do with the specific content. Instead, it is about the power struggle and these particular parties are willing to take out their opponents with violence. At this point it is unclear who is to blame directly - but the local Al Qaeda affiliate is eager to take responsibility:
Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh, a group that claims ties to the Indian branch of Al Qaeda, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was responsible for the death of Mr. Dash, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online. 
The leader of the Indian Qaeda branch had claimed responsibility for the deaths of Mr. Roy and Mr. Haider in a video posted on jihadist forums on May 2. The video was translated by SITE. 
The police made two arrests in connection with Mr. Rhaman’s murder, and arrested just one person over Mr. Roy’s murder: Shafiur Rahman Farabi, who had called for Mr. Roy to be killed in a Facebook post. Mr. Farabi is not believed to have been present during the attack. Seven university students and the leader of a hard-line Islamist group were charged with Mr. Haider’s killing in March.
All we can do is to voice our support for these endangered secular bloggers in Bangladesh. Here is the blog Mukto Mona (Free Mind) that was founded by Avijit Roy and Dash also contributed (you can find all of Avijit Roy's articles in English here). 

Friday, May 08, 2015

A poem and a brief discussion about Hubble Space Telescope's 25 years

by Salman Hameed

Last month marked the launching of Hubble Space Telescope (HST). It is hard to overstate the importance of the telescope. It transformed astronomy. I was fortunate to be in graduate school when some of its most significant images were captured (for example, Eagle's nebula's Pillars of Creation, and of course the Hubble Deep Field). The new images in some sense were remaking textbooks and there were many instances of us (graduate students and faculty) just gathering together to fawn-over new Hubble releases. Here is my brief discussion about Hubble's 25 years as part of a new segment with Monte Belmonte for our fantastic radio station, The River: Mr. Universe - Hubble's 25 Years. It is impossible to pick favorite images from Hubble (there are so many great ones!), I will post three below. But before I do that, here is an excerpt from a poem by Tracy K. Smith from her collection Life on Mars that mentions Hubble Space Telescope:
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
You can read here the full poem, My God, It's Full of Stars

 And here now on to three Hubble images that I absolutely love (and also shows my bias towards galaxies):

Hubble Ultra Deep Field - capturing some of the farthest galaxies in the universe. 


Tadpole galaxy (or Arp 188) - an image of one galaxy being torn apart by the gravity of larger neighbor. You can imagine being part of a solar system in the torn stream of stars - and the breathtaking view you may have of the larger spiral galaxy. 



Sombrero galaxy (or NGC 4594) - a nearby galaxy located "only" 28 million light years away. We are seeing the galaxy edge-on. In my previous life, I looked for signs of young stars in this galaxy, but didn't find much (for example here and here).

Oh who am I kidding. I have to include at least one nebula in this post. So here is Helix Nebula:


Helix Nebula - this is a planetary nebula and our Sun's future death is most likely going to be this spectacular. Inspired by this image, you can also read my article in Express Tribune: Anticipating a Glorious Death of Our Sun

If you want more, you can see a collection of Hubble photos by New York Times. But heck - the best place is the official Hubble site. All of the images are breathtaking! Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

More obstacles for The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed


I'm surprised that against all odds, the opposition to TMT continues to gather steam (see earlier posts: here and here). An important development is that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) has now rescinded its support for the project:
The board of trustees in 2009 voted to support Mauna Kea as the site for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. Amid mounting opposition after 31 protesters blocking the construction site were arrested earlier this month, the board held a special meeting Thursday to revisit its stance. 
Trustees could have voted to maintain support, oppose the project or rescind the previous position and take a neutral stance. After hours of listening to public comments for and against the project, some trustees said they were ready to vote for rescinding and opposing, but ultimately joined others to only rescind. 
"We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians," said trustee Dan Ahuna. 
Trustee Peter Apo said rescinding without opposing would allow OHA to remain part of the discussion with the goal of eventual decommissioning of other telescopes already on the mountain.
The support of OHA is not legally required for the construction of the telescope, but it certainly puts more pressure on TMT:
It's not clear what effect OHA's position will have on the project. The office is a public agency tasked with improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians. The office would receive a percentage of rent paid for the sublease of the land the University of Hawaii leases from the state. The company building the telescope earlier agreed to extend a construction moratorium. 
"We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope project. However, we are by no means discouraged," TMT International Observatory Board Chairman Henry Yang said in a statement. "We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders."
Read the full article here.

Last Saturday the New York Times chimed in with a patronizing tone, describing the opposition to telescopes as "militant advocacy" (even though the protests have all been peaceful). The editorial did mention some of root causes of opposition, but then it went ahead and asked the governor of Hawaii to take care of the business:
The protesters don’t speak for all Hawaii residents, or even all Native Hawaiians, many of whom embrace the telescope. But it is easy to understand why they may feel fed up. Mauna Kea is a site of wonderment even before night falls and the stars come out by the billions. It is a habitat for threatened insects and birds, and rich in precious archaeological sites. It also has been stressed for decades. 
The University of Hawaii, which has managed the mountaintop since 1968 under a lease from the state, has at times been a sloppy steward. An embarrassing state audit in 1998 cited its failures to protect the summit’s fragile ecology and cultural resources as it oversaw the development of a sprawling complex of more than a dozen observatories there. Over the decades it has collected little to no rent from its many scientific tenants. (The Thirty Meter Telescope is to be the rare exception, paying up to $1 million a year.)
...
Mr. Ige, who has been far too withdrawn in this confrontation, needs to step up. If he thinks the telescope is an important asset that promises great benefits to Hawaii’s residents and economy, not to mention to science and humanity at large, he should say so. If he thinks more needs to be done to protect the environment and native interests, he should say what that is and make it happen. His mild news releases urging more dialogue are not enough.
And as a parting shot, it used the Polynesian past to urge the protestors (not the astronomers...) to come to an understanding:
Coexistence may never satisfy the core group of protesters who have been demanding the total erasure of technology from Mauna Kea’s peak. What is tragic is the missed opportunity for shared understanding, given that many of these protesters are themselves descendants of some of history’s greatest astronomers, Polynesian wayfinders who set out across the Pacific a millennium ago, guided by the stars and currents, to find Mauna Kea in the first place.
And for an even less enlightening NYT article, see this one from last year where George Johnson brings in Galileo and connects the TMT issue to that of simply science versus religion. You can guess the content and tone of the article from the title: Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Spend 15 minutes and watch Scott Atran's speech on why some young people join ISIS

by Salman Hameed

Last week I organized a panel on The phenomeon of ISIS through the eyes of cognitive science and it was a fantastic learning experience. If you are interested in a nuanced understanding of why young European Muslims join groups like ISIS, watch this short speech by Scott Atran. Of course, it is not about clash of civilizations - but rather about young people growing up in a globally connected world.  In particular, listen to his solutions from 7 minutes on and the problem with our existing counter-narratives to ISIS. This is an excellent talk based on interview data combined with social science, psychology, and anthropology.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Panel Discussion at Hampshire College on " "The Phenomenon of ISIS Through the Lens of Cognitive Science"

by Salman Hameed

This is the end of the semester so we (the School of Cognitive Science) are ending our Wednesday lunch talks with an open-ended discussion (and a bang!). I'm guilty of organizing the panel, but there are others who will have interesting things to say. If you are in the area, join us at Hampshire College at Noon. Here are the details:


"The Phenomenon of ISIS Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: A Panel Discussion"
Wednesday, April 29 at Noon in the ASH Lobby

Panel Members: Neil Stillings, Professor of Psychology, Omar Dahi, Associate Professor of Economics, Salman Hameed, Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities, and James Miller, Professor of Communications, Hampshire College

Abstract: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared itself to be a worldwide Caliphate in 2014. Through brutal violence and a savvy media campaign, ISIS has been able to grab worldwide reaction. Perceptions about ISIS - some real and some imaginary - are now playing a crucial role in US domestic and foreign policy. But beyond politics, how do we understand the phenomenon of ISIS in the broader contexts of international terrorism and global conflict? Why do some individuals in different countries desire to joinISIS? What is the role of media in the creation of both the ISIS spectacle and some of its anti-Muslim backlash? Can the field of cognitive science offer some insights? Join us at this informal panel discussion on questions about ISIS that are relevant to cognitive science.


In The Adele Simmons Hall (ASH) Lobby
A light lunch will be available at noon

Friday, April 24, 2015

Quick note about the killing of Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi

by Salman Hameed


This is an incredibly sad day. Sabeen Mahmud, the director of an incredibly amazing place of culture and science, T2F, was shot dead today. I know that Sabeen Mahmud was behind all sorts of cultural activities in Karachi. I would just add that she was a phenomenal supporter of science as well. I first met her in the early 1992, when she helped us in organizing International Space Year Activities. She was still a teenager at the time. But more recently, our urdu astronomy series Science ka Adda (sciencekaadda.com) came out of conversations with her and Zakir Thaver (her organization PeaceNiche is listed as one of the sponsors of the videos). She was an astronomy enthusiast and got tremendous pleasure in knowing about the enormous scale of the universe. I'm sure the universe misses her enthusiasm and her lively indomitable spirit. I'm still gathering my thoughts - and will have more to say later. In the mean time here is a short clip where you can hear Sabeen talking about T2F and on fear in Karachi:



Since she was killed right after hosting a panel on Baluchistan, there is a justified speculation about the role of ISI in silencing her. Here is a short piece that looks at her killing and state terrorism:
Many liberals on social media have condemned the attack and placed the blame on state agencies. This was responded by others who protested that these are unfair accusations being cast with complete lack of evidence. While it is too soon to know for certain who was behind Sabeen’s murder, this cowardly act is the perfect time to talk about the role of state terrorism. 
One of the most common responses to accusations against ISI responsibility is why would ISI kill Sabeen Mahmud when they could have killed Mama Qadeer? The answer to this is obvious: Killing Mama Qadeer would make a martyr for Baloch separatists. Killing Sabeen Mahmud sends a message to the rest of us not to ask questions about Balochistan. And why not? Why should we not ask questions? 
The answer lies in the very subject of the talk that got Sabeen killed. Human rights organisations across the world have reported on kidnapping, torture, and murder of Baloch by Pakistan armed forces and intelligence agencies. Our own Supreme Court has been forced to threaten contempt proceedings against the government for failing to comply with orders on missing persons. When agencies think it will be good to kill Mama Qadeer, they will kill Mama Qadeer.
But I want to leave you with two things. One a post about T2F from 2 years ago that linked to an NPR story about this coffee shop. And two, a Bruce Springsteen song because Sabeen absolutely loved Springsteen! She lived a full life and enjoyed every second of it. I'm glad to have had the chance to meet with her on several occasions. Here is the post from January 2013:
I have been lucky to have given three talks at one of the coolest cafes in Pakistan: The Second Floor (T2F). I have always found the atmosphere electric and a very high level of questions and discussions. One of the persons behind T2F is Zaheer Kidvai - and I have known him since 1989-90. He helped and guided us in organizing AMASTROPAK - our nascent amateur astronomical society in Karachi. In fact, he provided us with some space in his office as well. 
So it is an absolute pleasure to know that in the midst of all the negative news from Pakistan, NPR discovered T2F. Here is the story: Pakistani Cafe is Oasis in Desert of Civil Discourse. Congrats to Sabeen Mahmud, who is the backbone of T2F.
A little over a year ago, Sabeen went to a Bruce Springsteen concert and she wrote this on her Facebook page:
Apologies for all the hyperbole that shall follow but there is no way to describe a live Bruce Springsteen experience without excessive verbal indulgence. Bruce is a powerhouse of raw, unbridled energy. At 64, he has the tightest, sexiest ass I’ve ever seen and a lean, hungry body that brings to life the notion of strapping your hands 'cross his engines. He burst onto the stage at 7:15 pm and did not stop leaping, bounding, running, and being all kinds of awesome, until 10:30 pm. 3 hours and 15 minutes. Non-stop. Who does that anymore? In a world of synthesised, over-produced, stage-managed shit, a Bruce Springsteen concert is pure, unadulterated, old-fashioned (but not cheesy) rock and roll at its wondrous, glorious best. The way he enunciated that he is "a prisoner of the everlasting eternal ass-kicking power of rock and roll” … oh god, my heart stopped for a nanosecond. He makes every single moment count. Every single moment is special.
...
 I was reminded starkly, of what really matters and what’s important. My politics were reinforced. I made leaps of faith in my head all over again. Bruce Springsteen’s music has defined my life - my hopes, dreams, aspirations and struggles. To be in the same space as him was nothing short of magical.
This just gives a small glimpse of the liveliness of Sabeen. Since she explicitly mentioned Springsteen's Hungry Heart at one point in her post, I will post a live version here. Here is Boss for you Sabeen:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A panel on "Islamic State" at Boston University tomorrow (Apr 23rd)

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in a serious and reasonable discussion on the Islamic State or ISIS, then there is an opportunity for you at Boston University. BU's Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations is hosting a panel, Interdisciplinary Approaches to the "Islamic State". It looks fantastic and I'm planning on attending it. Here are the details:
This panel seeks to transcend the focus on political and strategic concerns that has often dominated the treatment of the rise of IS/ISIS/ISIL in the media and bring some critical nuance and historical context to the way this phenomenon is generally discussed. Four scholars from Boston University will present (Kecia Ali, Michael Pregill, Tom Barfield, and Noora Lori) and four scholars from other institutions in the Boston area will respond (Jessica Stern, Franck Salameh, Mia Bloom, and Ken Garden). 
This is the inaugural event associated with Mizan, the new digital scholarship initiative headed by Michael Pregill, Interlocutor of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations. We hope that those of you in the Boston area will be able to join us for what is sure to be an informative and stimulating conversation! 
When: Thursday, April 23, 2015 @ 4:00 to 6:30 PM 
Where: Pardee School of Global Studies, 121 Bay State Road, First Floor 
This event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP to smscinst@bu.edu
If you live in the Boston area, come to the panel.

One of the panelists is Kecia Ali. She has a nuanced and interesting take on both ISIS and its critics. Here is a short piece by her, ISIS and Authority, where she addresses Graeme Wood's now (in)famous Atlantic article What ISIS really wants:
Though Wood grants that most Muslims do not support ISIS, and acknowledges in passing the role of interpretation in formulating its doctrines, the overall impression conveyed by the article was that Muslims who deny that ISIS is a fair representation of Islam are either apologists or simply do not really know anything about Islam. Others have offered rebuttals of many of the points in the article, and Bernard Haykel, the scholar quoted, has offered a more nuanced articulation of his views. More than one commentator has pointed out that by treating ISIS as a legitimate representative of the Islamic tradition, seriously religious and dedicated to the texts “shared by all Sunni Muslims,” it fosters an unholy convergence of interests between extremist Muslims and Islamophobes. 
Wood is right about some things and wrong about others. ISIS is laying claim to the tradition and the texts they cite are in what we may call the canon. Still, to quote approvingly and without clarification Haykel’s contention that “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” seems quite a stretch. To be sure, it is not the job of religious studies scholars (or U. S. presidents) to judge which groups are “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” Rather, we must understand how various actors make claims to represent, understand, or further their tradition. That does not mean there are no distinctions that can be made, no criteria by which to situate those religious claims in a historical and social framework. 
Some attempts to assess ISIS’s legitimacy have focused on the fact that reputable Muslim authorities – clerics, scholars, ‘ulama – uniformly distance themselves from ISIS and condemn its brutal tactics. Though unwilling (for sound theological reasons) to declare leaders or followers of the Islamic State apostates, some have been willing to describe its actions as sinful, evil, or even “un-Islamic.” 
But these arguments from authority worry me too. When women do something “impermissible” – lead Friday prayer, open a Women’s Mosque, interpret the Qur’an in feminist ways – self-described “traditional” Muslims offer similar condemnations: these acts, and these actors, are outside the pale of tradition. Regardless of the sophistication of the arguments presented, the response is that those who make them are not properly trained. What authority do they have? In sum: how dare they? 
These specious criticisms are nearly impossible to counter, even when those spouting them do not necessarily offer more nuanced or methodologically sophisticated answers. The simple appeal to widespread scholarly agreement leaves me unconvinced.
And here is her central point on tradition and authority:
The most troubling thing about the Atlantic article is the static definition of tradition that Wood uses. In his view, tradition is a body of texts. Legitimacy emerges from texts. Practices consonant with the texts – or that are interpreted as being so – are therefore “Islamic.” Muslims who say otherwise – as he admits the overwhelming majority do when confronted with ISIS – do not have much ground to stand on. But the rejection of ISIS on the basis of its distance from the classical tradition and its unacceptability to contemporary scholars who claim to constitute the legitimate inheritors of that tradition is not a panacea either. Too frequently, the weapon of “scholarly consensus” has been wielded against Muslim women who overstep its bounds—not, as ISIS has done, in a quest for domination, but in a quest for dignity.
Read the full article here

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Video: The truth about Abdus Salam (Part Two)

by Salman Hameed

Here is the second part of Pervez Hoodbhoy's video on Abdus Salam (see the first part here). This directly deals with science and religion. In particular it focuses on the belief and unbelief of Salam and Weinberg, respectively, and on how they both still reached the same conclusions about the electroweak unification theory that got them the Nobel prize. The sentiment here is on the separation of science and religion - something that I also happen to agree with (though inspiration for science can indeed come from religion).

Here is the second part:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mauna Kea TMT Update: More protests, walkouts and a counter-campaign by the TMT

by Salman Hameed


It seems that the movement against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is growing (see this post from last Thursday). The governor of Hawaii has now postponed the construction until April 20th. On Sunday, there were more protests against the construction on both the Big Island and Oahu. Even Drogo from the Game of Thrones, Jason Momoa,  is part of the protests:

On Monday, a few hundred students and faculty staged a walkout at University of Hawaii against the telescope.
The walkout happened at noon with students and professors, many from the Hawaiian Studies program.  After leaving their classes the protestors met at the Campus Center to stage a rally.  Protestors battled passing rain showers during the rally which lasted approximately 60 minutes. Both students and professors were unhappy with the university’s lack of responsiveness to their concerns over the construction of the state of the art telescope. 
There was also a walkout on Monday by the Native Hawaiian Council (Pūko'a Council):
At noon, hundreds gathered for a system-wide walk-out in front of UH Manoa’s campus center, saying the telescope is unnecessary and offensive to Native Hawaiians.
It was organized by the Pūkoʻa Council, the university’s Native Hawaiian council, which features representatives from all 10 system campuses. 
“The Board of Regents or the Office of Mauna Kea Management can no longer speak on behalf of the entire University for this issue. As we’ve seen in the past week, opposition to this issue is widespread and this includes opposition within the University itself. The Board of Regents needs to know this as do the TMT investors,” said UH Manoa representative for the Pūkoʻa Council, Dr. Lilikala Kameʻeleihiwa. 
The Pūkoʻa Council said it expressed opposition to the TMT project when representatives met with UH president David Lassner at Kapiolani Community College on April 6 and asked that construction be halted. 
“The combination of, how do you bridge western science with tradition and Hawaiian knowledge, is to really listen to native people who really understand Hawaii, who really understands the geography of this land and the stories of this land,” said Kaneohe resident Keali’i’olu’olu Gora.
The Thirty Meter Telescope consortium has launched an online campaign to counter these protests with a hashtag #WeSupportTMT. I think for the past seven years, the TMT folks had managed PR well, but they certainly have been caught off-guard with the current protests and are now playing catch-up. Here is the TMT website that provides clarification to many of the objections. The website has some issues as well. For example, the TMT site highlights an 1874 quote from King Kalākaua in support of astronomy on the island. I remember seeing that quote at the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii. I visited there a few years ago with my friend and historian of native religions, Tracy Leavelle. Tracy was furious because a quote from an Hawaiian authority was being appropriated selectively while ignoring other Hawaiian authorities who may have been more critical of US presence on the island. The TMT issue is not just about science. It is seeped in political and cultural history of Hawaii and astronomers have to be sensitive to those issues beyond simply a "check-box" approach.

I will leave you here first with a video of protest on the Big Island, and then below of protests in Honolulu:






Friday, April 10, 2015

An asteroid named Malala

by Salman Hameed

If you discover an asteroid, you get a chance to name it. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) gives it the official recognition. It is fantastic that Dr. Amy Mainzer decided to name Asteroid 316201 after Malala. Now we can say that Malala also lives in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter (far far away from the Taliban) and orbits the Sun every 5 and a half years (and will probably keep on orbiting the Sun for a few billion years).

From Malala Fund Blog:
It is a great honor to be able to name an asteroid after Malala. My postdoctoral fellow Dr. Carrie Nugent brought to my attention the fact that although many asteroids have been named, very few have been named to honor the contributions of women (and particularly women of color. 
 I've been an astronomer at JPL for about 10 years now, and it was my life's dream to be a scientist. 
My advice to young girls is that science and engineering are for everyone! We desperately need the brainpower of all smart people to solve some of humanity's most difficult problems, and we can't afford to reject half the population's. Plus, it is a wonderful feeling to learn about the world around you – it's a job you will fall in love with each day. 
Carrie and I read about Malala's amazing story and thought that if anyone deserves to have an asteroid named after them, she does!
Thank you very much for your work at the Malala Fund – it is inspiring to see all the great things that you all have done.
(Bold emphasis in original).

And what does the asteroid look like? It is about 4 km in diameter and it has a dark surface. Here is an image of the asteroid along with the description provided by Dr. Mainzer:


The formal designation of the asteroid is 316201 Malala, or 2010 ML48. The asteroid is the red dot in the upper right of the image. This is an infrared image of the asteroid, which means we are sensing the heat it emits rather than the sunlight it reflects off its surface.  
The stars appear blue in this image because they are extremely hot, thousands of degrees, whereas the asteroid is much cooler, so it appears red. Just as the hottest flames are blue, hotter temperatures appear as blue in this image, and cooler ones are red. 
From the heat emitted, we can also determine the size and reflectivity of the asteroid. It is about 4 kilometers in diameter, and its surface is very dark, the color of printer toner.
This particular asteroid was discovered by our team using a space telescope that orbits the Earth; it is called NEOWISE. I am the principal investigator of the mission.
And here is Malala's rough orbit and you can find more technical details about it here.


But overall, this is a nice and thoughtful gesture. Thanks to Amy and Carrie!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Some details on the protests that have halted the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

by Salman Hameed


Over the past few years, I have posted about the controversy over telescopes on top of Mauna Kea. For example, see the following posts:
Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval
Thirty Meter Telescope Approved on top of Mauna Kea
Update on Mauna Kea: Telescope project given green light
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

The telescope construction was supposed to start last week, but the protestors blocked the path to the site. Thirty of the protestors were arrested. Here is the news story about it and the footage of the actual arrests. While the arrests are terrible, it is touching to see cops first embracing the protestors before handcuffing them:


After these arrests, the protest gained even more momentum. And now the governor of Hawaii has asked everyone to take a "timeout" and has halted construction of TMT for a week:
Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday that construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop one of the most sacred sites for native Hawaiians would come to a halt, at least temporarily. Ige characterized the one-week pause in construction as a “timeout.” 
“There will be no construction activities this week,” the governor told reporters. “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward.” 
Reaction from native Hawaiians to Ige’s announcement was unmistakingly skeptical. Kahookahi Kanuha of Kailua-Kona believes the pause in construction of the telescope is a delay tactic. 
"They are looking for us to leave,” he said Tuesday in an interview with Oiwi TV. “The more down time they have, the more they think that we'll have to go back to work and go back to our kuleana (responsibilities). And the truth of the matter is we do. However, many of us are willing to drop that kuleana because those are jobs and this is our responsibility." 
TMT project manager Gary Sanders issued a statement shortly after the governor’s announcement to clear up what he says are misconceptions about the project. 
"The TMT site was selected with great care and respect," Sanders wrote. “There are no archaeological shrines or burial sites within TMT's project site. Comprehensive research by expert hydrologists confirm there is no threat to the aquifer. TMT agrees with Governor Ige's request for a timeout this week and an ongoing dialogue on issues." 
A group calling itself the Sacred Mauna Kea Hui released a statement of its own, saying the governor’s timeout should be made permanent, and that Ige should use the pause in construction to examine possible breeches of public trust. 
"Although the Sacred Mauna Kea Hui appreciates a welcome reprieve from the desecration of our sacred mountain summit and endangerment of our fresh water aquifer and endangered species environment, we know that these are still in danger unless a permanent moratorium is obtained,” the statement read. “This reprieve will also give the multi-billion dollar international TMT corporation, which has been allowed to circumvent the law, time to begin its process of identifying a new location outside of Hawaii for their TMT project.”
I was trained as an astronomer and have used a telescope on Mauna Kea. But my sympathies here are largely with the Hawaiians. There is too much injustice and toxic history linked to American actions in Hawai'i. Yes, astronomers had nothing to do with what happened in the late 19th or in the first half of the 20th century. But the large visible observatory domes (they were never supposed to be so prominent on the mountain), for some Hawaiians, did become a reminder of earlier US actions. I think most astronomers have failed to appreciate these historical injustices. Nor have astronomers fully realized the enormous power differential between the marginalized Native Hawaiian groups and state backed universities as well as state agencies like NASA. The TMT, after all, is a $1.4 billion project! To add to all this complexity, the project will and does bring a lot of money to this poor state.

But money is not the issue. The TMT folks did have a sophisticated team that spent seven years clearing all sorts of hurdles and court cases. But the process is not really the issue - even though that is what the protestors are focusing on. The battle over TMT is really about cultural identity and historical injustices. Money cannot erase those concerns and a compromise will be hard to find.

All said, I don't think TMT will be stopped - there is just too much state power behind them. But I just hope that when astronomers use any of the telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, they realize and appreciate that their presence on the mountain and their use of the telescopes is rightfully hurting at least some Hawaiians.

In the mean time, lets see how the drama over TMT construction unfolds.

If interested, here is the letter sent to the governor of Hawaii by the opponents of the telescope:


And here is the TMT response to some of the claims made by the protestors:
There have been inaccurate claims made about the project recently. The most common is that TMT is a danger to the Maunakea aquifer and drinking water on Hawaii Island. Comprehensive research by expert hydrologists confirms that TMT and the existing 13 telescopes pose no such danger. Furthermore, TMT is designed to be a zero waste discharge facility with all waste securely transported off the summit. There is also very little precipitation above 8,000 feet and the observatories are located well above that at the top of Maunakea at 14,000 feet. 
Download the TMT Environmental Impact Statement (pages 3–115) 
Another claim is that TMT did not meet the eight criteria for a conservation district use permit issued by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2011. The Third Circuit Court ruled that TMT did meet the criteria by being consistent with state laws governing the districts, not causing substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources, being compatible with the surrounding area, preserving the existing physical and environmental aspects, not subdividing or increasing the intensity of the land use and not being materially detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare. State regulations specifically identify astronomy as a permitted use in the Maunakea Science Reserve.
Stay tuned. 

Friday, April 03, 2015

Fifth episode of SkA: The Arabian Nights and Water Geysers on Saturn's Moon Enceladus

by Salman Hameed

[in Urdu] Here is the continuation of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique).

Why is there a crater named Sinbad on Saturn's moon Enceladus? Is there an underwater ocean on Enceladus and what are the chances of life existing on such a moon? In this episode of Science ka Adda (SkA), we talk about the connection between The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and one of the most mysterious, interesting, and puzzling objects in our solar system. Here is the episode:



Thursday, April 02, 2015

Another blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh

by Salman Hameed

27-year old blogger Washiqur Rahman

Things are turning darker still in Bangladesh. Just this past month, an American-Bangladeshi atheist blogger, Avijit Roy, was killed in Dhaka (see The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief). Now we have Washiqur Rahman who was killed couple of days ago after an attack with knives and meat-cleavers. I don't know if the similar manner of the two killings (machete and meat cleavers/knife) is meant to send an extra message about the brutality of the killers or may be it is just a matter of convenience. But the heartlessness and brutality, nevertheless, comes through. From BBC:
Mr Rahman was killed on a busy street in Dhaka. Two of the suspected attackers, armed with meat cleavers, were caught near the scene. 
The suspects told police they had targeted Mr Rahman because of his anti-Islamic writing, a police official told the Associated Press news agency. 
Mr Rahman blogged under a pen-name, Kucchit Hasher Channa, or Ugly Duckling. According to the Dhaka Tribune newspaper, he had criticised irrational religious beliefs. 
Imran Sarker, the head of a network of activists and bloggers in Bangladesh, told AFP news agency that Mr Rahman was "a progressive free thinker". 
Asif Mohiuddin, a Bangladeshi blogger who survived an attack in 2013, said he had often talked to Mr Rahman about "criticising fundamentalist groups". 
"I liked him for his satire, his sense of humour. He was a wonderful blogger and I'm very... upset right now," he said. 
Last month's attack on Mr Roy prompted massive protests from students and social activists, who accused the authorities of failing to protect critics of religious bigotry.
Lets hope the government steps in to curb these killings and that it doesn't turn into a systematic purge of secularists in Bangladesh.

Here is an CNN article that talks about Rahman's posts:
As shocking as Rahman's death was, the reaction from some quarters was equally disturbing.
On his Facebook page (for which he picked a custom URL that translates to "unbeliever"), Rahman had posted a picture with the hashtag #IamAvijit. 
After his death, someone left a comment, "Now you are." 
Another wrote, "I felt sorry when I first learned of your death. But then I saw what you wrote and I am not." 
On his page, Rahman reposted a cartoon depicting Prophet Mohammed from the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. He wished a happy birthday to author Taslima Nasreen, who was forced to flee Bangladesh due to death threats from fundamentalists. And he "liked" a picture of sausages wrapped in crescent rolls that someone had captioned, "Pigs in burqas." 
Posts threatening him were numerous. 
"Get ready for the afterlife," one person commented on one of his posts.
"See you in hell," said another. 
Absolutely shameful. But then it is often not about the content but broader political/cultural animosity:
The irony is that the people who killed Rahman weren't even familiar with his writings; they were simply following orders, police said. 
Of the three involved in the Monday morning attack, two were quickly caught by bystanders. 
In confessions to police, the pair -- both students at Islamic schools -- said they didn't know what a blog was, nor had they seen Rahman's writing. 
They said they were acting on orders from another person who told them killing Rahman was a religious duty, Police Commissioner Biplob Kumar Sarkar told reporters.
The third person is still to be apprehended. 
That appears to be par for the course in the killings of bloggers in Bangladesh.
The only person arrested in the killing of Roy, the U.S. blogger, is Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who had called for his death in Facebook posts. 
There has been no conviction in the January 2013 attack on Mohiuddin.
And no convictions in yet another case -- the hacking death of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, also in 2013. 
"The Bangladeshi government must urgently establish accountability in this murder case and others," the Committee to Project Journalists said after Rahman's death. "Otherwise the rest of the country's bloggers, commentators and journalists covering sensitive topics remain at grave risk of being attacked as well."
And these bloggers are in many ways vulnerable to this kind of violence:
Bloggers, unlike political parties, aren't an organized force -- and that makes them an easy target for radicals, said Imran Sarker, who heads the Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh. 
"They want peace, they talk of humanity. If you strike them with stones, they don't strike back. They try to reach you with flowers," he said. "So, if you want to sow fear and stifle progressive thought, they are easy to pick on." 
But the deaths -- of Rahman, of Roy, of Haider -- have emboldened the movement, rather than chill them into silence. 
"No one is cowering in their homes because this is happening. Because this has been happening regularly for a long time," he said. "We want to take the society forward. We know we have a lot left to accomplish."
Read the full article here.

Also see these earlier posts:
The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief
Standing with Bangladesh's secular bloggers!
Increasing number of cases of "insults to Islam" in Bangladesh and Egypt

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A new book out on science and religion in Victorian Britain

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Science has a review of Huxley's Church and Maxwell's Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science by Matthew Stanley. It looks quite good and you will see many parallels in contemporary debates over Islam and science in the Muslim world as well. For example, the review starts with two quotes from Maxwell and you can replace Bible with Quran and you will hear those arguments made today as well:
“But I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific
hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis,” wrote the devout Christian physicist James Clerk Maxwell to a friend in 1876. “The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such a hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.” Maxwell's words were characteristically subtle. His first sentence suggests that his major concern was in protecting the integrity of Biblical scriptures, implying that serious damage could occur should these texts be linked to speculative scientific hypotheses that subsequently proved untenable. His second sentence, however, strongly suggests that any such bonding of conjectural scientific hypothesis to scriptural text would actually damage the progress of science.
But then the book deals with the shift from a theistic science to a naturalistic one - and it is here that Huxley - and  the new professional class of "scientists" becomes important. But I also appreciate the explicit mention of the disconnect of theistic science of 19th century with the contemporary Intelligent Design (ID) movement:
With a long line of mainstream scientific practitioners, including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, theistic science, in recent decades, has been much investigated by historians. Natural philosophers regarded the laws of nature as divinely established for the orderly governance of the world, sustained as uniform and unchangeable, except by God's will. Rightly undertaken in a spirit of humility, scientific investigation was believed to reveal these laws to humankind, along with the manifold benefits that such knowledge of the natural order could provide. Thus, the uniformity of nature, resting upon faith in a divine being who never acted arbitrarily, made possible the advance of human science. Stanley argues that traditional theistic science is radically different from the present-day theory of “Intelligent Design,” which, he emphasizes, lies outside mainstream science and refuses to acknowledge methodological principles such as the uniformity of nature and the provisional character of scientific knowledge. 
Challenging the values of theistic science, Thomas Huxley represented a new and ambitious generation of scientists who interpreted uniformity as naturalistic rather than theistic. According to Stanley, Huxley believed that “one could only assume uniformity if there was no active deity able to disrupt natural processes.” Huxley had rich cultural resources on which to draw to challenge the established views. For example, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology offered a compelling model that explained Earth's history using only observable agents such as water and heat. 
Stanley's book draws upon a wealth of recent scholarship on Victorian science and religion. It is also extremely well grounded in a variety of primary texts, including private correspondence, public lectures, and published scientific papers. Its primary goal—to demonstrate how the scientific enterprise gradually shifted from a theistic to a naturalistic approach—is impressively pursued.
You can read the full review here (though you may need subscription to access it).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Talk at McGill University this Friday on Islamic Creationism in Europe

by Salman Hameed

I think it is not cold enough down here in Amherst. It was 8F last night and the temperature stayed well below freezing all day today. To search for some cooler weather, I will be heading up north to Montreal to give a talk at McGill University's Centre for Islam and Science. There are some fantastic people at the center (or centre) and I'm looking forward to seeing our old friends Anila Asghar and Ehab Abouheif and to meet Jamil Ragep for the first time. If you are in the Montreal area, come to the talk.


Here is the title and other information about the talk:

Friday, March 27, 4:30 pm
Arts Building, Room W-120
853 rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Montreal, QC H3A 0G5

Islamic Creationism in Europe:
Biological Evolution in Service of the “Clash of Civilizations” Narrative

There is an urgent need to understand the dynamic of cultural interactions that define Muslim minorities in Europe. Gender-related issues and radicalization of Muslims are two topics that frequent the headlines. But now science is also becoming one of the contested issues. For example, a rejection of biological evolution is increasingly being used by the media and the far-right groups in Europe to paint Muslim minorities as outsiders that threaten European education system. Furthermore, Muslims are often treated in a unitary manner with an assumption that evolution rejection is their default religious position. Conversely, many Muslims in Europe are embracing this rejection of evolution as an identity marker for being a Muslim. While religious objections to evolution are indeed at play in some cases, our understanding for the rise of Islamic creationism should also take into account socio-economic disparities and their impact on education for Muslim minorities in Europe. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism, and may also provide an insight into more politically charged subjects such as debates over free speech and women’s religious attire in Europe.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Three excellent lectures by John Hedley Brooke on Galileo, Darwin and Einstein

by Salman Hameed

If you are at all interested in the history of science and religion, then you should definitely spend some time listening to these three lectures by John Hedley Brooke. These will be your three hours very well spent. He is the author of a seminal book on the topic titled Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. I have had a chance to meet him couple of times and it has always been an absolute pleasure.

Here are the three lectures that Brooke gave at the University of Edinburgh last month:

Galileo: Nature as mechanistic creation


Darwin: From nature as machine to nature as historical process


Einstein: Nature recreated