Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Science Organizations and Universities speak up against Trump's travel ban

by Salman Hameed


First of all, there is a March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd. Apart from Washington D.C., there will be satellite marches as well. Here is the blurb for the March:
We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone. 
Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels - from local schools to federal agencies - throughout the world.
In another move, 151 science organizations and universities have denounced Trump's Muslim ban from seven countries. The list includes pretty much any science related organization you know of, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and International Council for Science (ICSU) that represents 142 countries (they also have a separate statement, and you can read it here). Here is the letter against the ban:


While these are utterly depressing times (see the conformation of Attorney General and Education Secretary for some of the low points in the last two days), it is great to see science organizations standing up both for immigrants and for science itself. And it makes sense. The US has become a scientific powerhouse by attracting the best minds from all over the world. The visa restrictions has started to get crazy even under the Obama administration. But now with this ban, it will take years to reverse the damage. Apart from impacting individuals and their families, this action will also have an impact on science conferences as well as the ability to do broader scientific collaboration work.

One of the organizations impacted more directly impacted by it is the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Its meetings always happen here in US (it is an American association). However, this year there had been calls to move the next MESA meeting outside of US. They have decided against it, but have issued the following statement:
MESA strongly condemns the Executive Order limiting the entry of Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants to the U.S. and urges the President and Congress to lift the ban. The ban impedes the mission of the Middle East Studies Association, which is to bring together scholars, educators, and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world. Further, the ban disproportionately discriminates against individuals from the Middle East, many of whom are members of our community. With other universities and academic associations, we call on the President and Congress to lift this Executive Order
The next four years are going to be long.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Middle East Particle Accelerator Success Story Amidst the Doom and Gloom

by Salman Hameed


In a topsy-turvy world, an unlikely scientific collaboration in the Middle East provides a ray beam of hope. This is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science in the Middle East or SESAME saw the first beam circulate around it just this past January. This accelerator, located in Jordan, was first proposed by Prof. Abdus Salam and established under the auspices of UNESCO. The most amazing part of SESAME is not the instrument itself, but the collaboration behind it: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. This is the Who's Who of who doesn't like each other. And yet, scientists and engineers from these countries have managed to work together to get this project to completion. As the Economist puts it:
 Proposals to build this device, the world’s most politically fraught particle accelerator, date back nearly 20 years. The delay is understandable. Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Authority, three of the project’s nine members, are better known for conflict than collaboration. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, but both have worked together on the accelerator. As well as Jordan, the other members are Bahrain, Egypt and Pakistan. Nonetheless, Sesame, a type of machine called an electron synchrotron, is about to open for business.
And on January 17th, it had its first beam:
“This is a great day for SESAME,” said Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, President of the SESAME Council. “It’s a tribute to the skill and devotion of the scientists and decision-makers from the region who have worked tirelessly to make scientific collaboration between countries in the Middle East and neighbouring regions a reality.”
The first circulating beam is an important step on the way to first light, which marks the start of the research programme at any new synchrotron light-source facility, but there is much to be done before experiments can get underway. Beams have to be accelerated to SESAME’s operating energy of 2.5 GeV. Then the light emitted as the beams circulate has to be channelled along SESAME’s two day-one beam lines and optimised for the experiments that will take place there. This process is likely to take around six months, leading to first experiments in the summer of 2017. 
Yes, yes. Things can change for the better. This is another version of Scientists' March for a Better Future.

You can learn more about the project from the SESAME website.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Back to the blog world...in the Trump era of Muslim travel bans

by Salman Hameed

Hello folks. For various reasons (not the least of it - the depressing political climate here in the US), I had taken a break from posting on Irtiqa. The landscape of blogs have also changed substantially in the past couple of years. One of my initial goals here was to highlight and comment on stories related to science in Muslim societies, and those science and religion stories that I think would be of interest to the readers here. But now it has become much more easier just to share it on Facebook or other sites like that. However, I think there is still a difference between passive sharing versus commenting on the specifics in the article, even if it is the highlighting of only a couple of paragraphs. Plus, in the Trump era, we need to get as many voices out there as possible - no matter how insignificant (I learnt that from reading Horton Hears a Who! to my 3-year old. Come to think of it, most of my life lessons  come from Dr. Seuss).

It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of things and hope that the posts will become regular again. In the mean time, here is the journal Science about the impact of last week's travel ban in scientists from Iran and other countries:

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.
Furthermore, it is not just the travel of immigrants in the US. It also isolates them. Their family members cannot travel to them either. This will have a tremendous long-term impact.
Scientists of all nationalities and religious persuasions are up in arms. An open letter signed by more than 7000 academics and counting, including 43 Nobel laureates warns that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” “We recognize the importance of a strong visa process to our nation’s security,” Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., said in a statement yesterday. But the order, she says, “is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible.”
...
Perhaps more Iranian academics will be hit by the order than any other nationality. The open letter notes that approximately 1500 students from Iran have received Ph.D.s from U.S. universities in the past 3 years. Hananeh Esmailbeigi, an Iranian-born biomedical engineer at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), says that many UIC faculty and department heads are Iranian. “I joke that you would be OK knowing only Farsi on campus,” she says. 
Now, Esmailbeigi’s mood is bleak. The green card holder says she teaches 300 students a year about how to design medical devices. “Now, I’m flagged as being a threat to the country. It just doesn’t make sense.” Iran’s foreign ministry yesterday labeled the executive order “a great gift to extremists” and vowed to take reciprocal measures that may include suspending issuance of visas to U.S. citizens. 
Scientists from the other six countries are suffering too. Wael Al-Delaimy, an Iraqi-born physician and chronic disease epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), travels six times a year to U.S.- or UCSD-funded projects in Ecuador, Mozambique, Jordan, and India that address topics such as indoor air pollution and refugee mental health. A green card holder, Al-Delaimy says he is now afraid to leave the United States, which will hobble his work. He takes no solace from the fact that the executive order’s ban on Iraqis entering the United States is limited to 90 days. “I am fearful that this is just going to be extended and extended. That this is just a litmus test to see the reaction, and once people are complacent they go ahead and [a permanent ban] becomes OK.”
Folks. Things are going to get far worse before they get better. The ban is expected to be expanded to other countries. Here is a New York Times article from yesterday talking about the centrality of anti-Islam views in the Trump White House policy:
Mr. Trump was echoing a strain of anti-Islamic theorizing familiar to anyone who has been immersed in security and counterterrorism debates over the last 20 years. He has embraced a deeply suspicious view of Islam that several of his aides have promoted, notably retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, now his national security adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s top strategist. 
This worldview borrows from the “clash of civilizations” thesis of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and combines straightforward warnings about extremist violence with broad-brush critiques of Islam. It sometimes conflates terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with largely nonviolent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots and, at times, with the 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. In its more extreme forms, this view promotes conspiracies about government infiltration and the danger that Shariah, the legal code of Islam, may take over in the United States. 
Those espousing such views present Islam as an inherently hostile ideology whose adherents are enemies of Christianity and Judaism and seek to conquer nonbelievers either by violence or through a sort of stealthy brainwashing. 
The executive order on immigration that Mr. Trump signed on Friday might be viewed as the first major victory for this geopolitical school. And a second action, which would designate the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement in the Middle East, as a terrorist organization, is now under discussion at the White House, administration officials say.

and here is Stephen Bannon himself:
Mr. Bannon has spoken passionately about the economic and security dangers of immigration and took the lead role in shaping the immigration order. In a 2014 talk to a meeting at the Vatican, he said the “Judeo-Christian West” is at war with Islam.
“There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” Elsewhere, on his radio show for Breitbart News, Mr. Bannon said, “Islam is not a religion of peace — Islam is a religion of submission,” and he warned of Muslim influence in Europe: “To be brutally frank, Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise.”
And here is an excellent article in Mother Jones: The Dark History of the White House Aides Who Crafted Trump's "Muslim Ban":
One of Bannon's guests on the show, Trump surrogate Roger Stone, warned of a future America "where hordes of Islamic madmen are raping, killing, pillaging, defecating in public fountains, harassing private citizens, elderly people—that's what's coming." 
Another frequent guest was Pamela Geller, the president of Stop Islamization of America, whom Bannon described as "one of the top world experts on radical Islam and Sharia law and Islamic supremacism." Geller told Bannon that George W. Bush's description of Islam as a "religion of peace" was something "we all deplore," that there had been an "infiltration" of the Obama administration by radical Muslims, and that former Central Intelligence Director John Brennan may have secretly converted to Islam. Bannon never pushed back against any of those unfounded claims. 
In other exchanges on the show, Bannon described the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that defends the rights of Muslims, as "a bunch of spin" and "a bunch of lies." He accused the mainstream media of "basically going along the lines of being Sharia-compliant on blasphemy laws." He warned of "Sharia courts taking over Texas" and said that he opened a Breitbart News bureau in London in order to combat "all these Sharia courts [that] were starting under British law." 
Sorry folks to leave you with these disturbing articles. But here we are...

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A talk by Zareena Grewal at Hampshire College on Dec 8th

by Salman Hameed

If you are in the area, then please join us for a talk at Hampshire College by Dr. Zareena Grewal. Here are the details:

"An Exceptional Umma?  The Media Mainstreaming of American Islam"
by Dr. Zareena Grewal
Thursday, December 8, 5:30pm
FPH, East Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Abstract: The argument focuses on a new American exceptionalism that increasingly shapes American Muslim religious discourses, drawing on a particular, troubling (and territorialized) constructions of race and Americanness/indigeneity through the analysis of intra-Muslim debates as they are represented in the mainstream US media.   What do we make of the fact  that as the War on Terror systematically undermines transnational charitable, intellectual, and migrational networks that connect American Muslims to the Muslim World, American Muslims are increasingly calling for the breaking of those same ties?  How are Muslim American religious leaders reproducing their own derivative discourses of Good and Bad Muslims in the course of promoting their own projects of Islamic reform?  How do Muslim American religious leaders respond to charges of religious opportunism by critics who accuse them of "jockeying" for religious authority on the stage of the media?  Case studies of mediatized religious figures will include Yasir Qadhi, Hamza Yusuf, Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani among others.

Zareena Grewal is a documentary filmmaker and associate professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Islam is a Foreign Country (2013) and creator of By the Dawn's Early Light: Chris Jackson's Journey to Islam (2004).

The talk has been made possible by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust (TRT).

If you can't make it to Hampshire College tomorrow, do check out her excellent book, Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. Here is the blurb from NYU press:

In Islam Is a Foreign Country, Zareena Grewal explores some of the most pressing debates about and among American Muslims: what does it mean to be Muslim and American? Who has the authority to speak for Islam and to lead the stunningly diverse population of American Muslims? Do their ties to the larger Muslim world undermine their efforts to make Islam an American religion?

Offering rich insights into these questions and more, Grewal follows the journeys of American Muslim youth who travel in global, underground Islamic networks. Devoutly religious and often politically disaffected, these young men and women are in search of a home for themselves and their tradition. Through their stories, Grewal captures the multiple directions of the global flows of people, practices, and ideas that connect U.S. mosques to the Muslim world. By examining the tension between American Muslims’ ambivalence toward the American mainstream and their desire to enter it, Grewal puts contemporary debates about Islam in the context of a long history of American racial and religious exclusions. Probing the competing obligations of American Muslims to the nation and to the umma (the global community of Muslim believers), Islam is a Foreign Country investigates the meaning of American citizenship and the place of Islam in a global age.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Strong reaction against the closing of Pak-Turk schools in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Erdogan is visiting Pakistan these days. He spoke to the Pakistan parliament for the third time. But he wanted the closure of Pak-Turk schools - and be got them. These schools have been running in Pakistan for 21 years and serve close to 20,000 students in several Pakistani cities They have an excellent reputation - but yes, they are also part of Gulen schools. Since Erdogan is going after Gulen with a vengeance, it is little surprise that he wanted these schools to be shut down in Pakistan as well. Pakistani government, for its part, resisted for a while. Their reasoning was correct and reasonable: There is no evidence for any illegal activity from any of the teachers of these schools. In addition, we cannot suddenly leave thousands of kids without teachers simply because Erdogan says so. However, now things have changed. Pakistan government has now asked the staff of Pak-Turk schools to leave within 3 days!! Here are some details:
In August this year, Pakistan promised Turkey’s visiting Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that it would honour his request to look into the matter of the Pak-Turk International Schools’ alleged links with US-based cleric Gulen. Now, finding themselves in the midst of a political battle they want nothing to do with, hundreds of Turkish citizens, many of whom have lived in Pakistan since 1995, move to wrap up their lives at a few days’ notice. 
Car dealers were called to the schools in Lahore on Wednesday to oversee the sale of vehicles owned by Turkish teachers and staff members. “We are selling them at throwaway rates after being ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. This is highly unfair,” said a Turkish teacher, who serves at an administrative post at a Pak-Turk school in Lahore.  
He said government officials had stopped taking their calls. “However, we have been told that the police will arrest us if we do not leave by Nov 20,” he said, adding that they feared that they could be detained upon arrival in Turkey.
Talking to Dawn, a woman Turkish teacher demanded to know how the Pakistani government could hand them a ‘marching order’ without framing a charge sheet. “My husband and I moved here 11 years ago. My youngest son was born here one-and-a-half- years ago and has never visited Turkey. Pakistan is his country now,” she said, requesting not to be named as it might invite trouble for the family.
This is truly unfortunate. Dawn has a strong editorial in response to this, but it starts quite politely:
Turkey's President Erdogan is a welcome and honoured guest to Pakistan this week and we hope his visit will deepen investment and development ties between the two countries. 
However, his visit has coincided with a controversial decision taken by the government here: the Pak-Turk Education Foundation’s Turkish staff and their families have been given three days to leave the country, causing the foundation’s management to move court against the orders. 
The Pak-Turk schools are administered by a foundation linked to Fethullah Gulen, once an ally of Mr Erdogan. However, since July’s abortive coup attempt, the Turkish leadership has blamed Mr Gulen for sponsoring the overthrow attempt, resulting in a global crackdown on the religious and educational network led by him. 
While the coup attempt in Turkey may or may not have been instigated by Mr Gulen, Islamabad’s arbitrary decision is uncalled for. There are thousands of Pakistani children who have benefited from these schools since the 1990s, and there are thousands who will now suffer if their teachers are sent home. 
True, there is nothing wrong with closer government scrutiny if it is felt that teaching methods or the syllabus content is flawed. But the sudden move to issue marching orders, and that too on the eve of Mr Erdogan’s visit, smacks of intentions that may have nothing to do with the quality of teaching or education. 
There are two aspects to the unfortunate situation that must be highlighted.
First, while the coup attempt in Turkey was an event that was justifiably condemned by all those who believe in democracy, the Turkish government’s response has been unduly severe in several aspects, including the pressure on Pakistan to close down the schools. 
Pakistan would have done well to dispassionately assess the situation, especially because it concerned the fate of so many students who might have been worse off in other schools, given the overall state of education here. 
Second, many among the staff now being asked to leave have been working in these schools for several years. They had no visa issues previously, and there was not even a hint of their being linked to any illegal activity. Many have now voiced concerns they might be victimised by Turkish authorities on their return. 
It would be better then for Pakistan and Turkey to see this issue as one impacting the studies of thousands of boys and girls, and address it keeping in mind the future of these students.
I think it is too late to hope for some sanity in this situation. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kuwait's DNA law scaled back for now...

by Salman Hameed

It would have been ready-made case for science fiction. Last year, Kuwait passed a law that would have mandated a collection of DNA information of all residents and visitors. Of course, it was about concerns regarding terrorism - and of course we can trust the government for not any purpose at all. When has any government lied to its people??

The law would have gone into effect from this November. However, its legality was challenged and it seems that it will probably now only apply to accused or convicted criminals. So here is a shout out to human rights groups and the group of lawyers who opposed and challenged the law. Here is Adel AbdulHadi who challenged the law:
“Compelling every citizen, resident and visitor to submit a DNA sample to the government is similar to forcing house searches without a warrant,” says AdbdulHadi. “The body is more sacred than houses.” 
He argues that the law means every single person is now considered a suspect until proven innocent 
The lawyers are funding the challenge themselves on the grounds that they personally object to it. “As a person subject to this law, I’ve decided personally, and with my law partners, to launch this challenge,” he says.
... 
The law was introduced following a bombing that killed 27 people in Kuwait last year. But critics say that DNA testing wouldn’t prevent incidents like this. 
“If a suicide bomber wants to come into the country, giving a bit of DNA is not going to scare him off,” says Martina Cornel, at the European Society for Human Genetics. “Also, if you find DNA at a specific place, you could say a person was there, but not necessarily that they committed a crime.” 
AbdulHadi also contends the law will be powerless to prevent terrorist acts. “Terrorism is in the mindset of the person, and you can’t minimise this by restricting the privacy of people,” he says. “I don’t think it will in any way assist in countering terrorism.” 
Another worry is that, once collected, the DNA samples could be used for other purposes, such as identifying illegal immigrants, or determining paternity in country where adultery is a punishable offence. However, the Kuwait government has said that the DNA will not be used to determine genealogy. 
Nevertheless, critics find the mandatory requirement concerning. “Whether for research, clinical use, or any other purpose, disclosure of this information by members of the public should be entirely voluntary,” says Derek Scholes, of the American Society for Human Genetics.
Here is the actual letter that challenged the legality of the law.

While this is a heartening victory, it is only a matter of time when another government tries the same thing. The need is for a universal protection of an individual's right to one's own DNA information. In the mean time, there are many science fiction storylines lurking in the headlines.  

Friday, November 11, 2016

"Arrival" is a good and thoughtful science fiction movie

by Salman Hameed


If Marvel and other superhero films have not yet beaten you to a pulp, you have a chance to see a thoughtful science fiction film, Arrival. It centers on communication with our extraterrestrial visitors. Actually more precisely, it deals with the role of language in the way we think and perceive the world around us. But the movie also has raises interesting questions about free will and predestination - and it is the exploration of these themes that give a justified weight to the film. Here is a trailer for the film:

Arrival joins ambitious recent science fiction films like Interstellar (see my review here) and Gravity (see my review here). What has struck me about all these films is that they are grounded to the Earth and are looking for wonder within. In contrast, movies like 2001: Space Odyssey, Contact, and less so, Solaris, look at wonder outside and then use that to reflect on humans and humanity. There is something in our cultural moment today that is driving this type of story-telling.

In any case, I don't to give too much information about the film except to say that you should check it out (a more detailed review will follow). But I should mention that even Pakistan shows up in the film, as one of the 12 ships land in Punjab (probably at Nawaz Sharif's house :)). There are also a few problems with the film (as usual with a few cardboard characters), but those are quite minor compared to the rewards of the film (and this may also be because I went in with sky-high expectations). The film is based on a short story, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. I haven't read the story but I have heard glowing things about it.

The movie is directed by the fantastic Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. You may know him through his recent film Sicario. But if you have a chance, see his fantastic Incendies, which is probably about Lebanese civil war, but set in a fictional country (and Prisoners is excellent too!). Here is a trailer for Incendies:

A few miles from White House, an exhibition on the art of the Quran

by Salman Hameed

I guess just in time for the Trump presidency (did I just write that??), there is an exhibition on The Art of the Qur'an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. It runs through Feb 20th. There is a glowing review if the exhibit in the NYT:

It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets.
Flying carpets, I should say. This is art of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s population.
The manuscripts, most on first-time loan from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries, and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.
You can also explore the exhibit virtually. So for example, here is a way of looking at a spectacular Lapis and Gold Qur'an completed in 1517:
Completed in September 1517, this luxurious manuscript is a triumph of illumination and calligraphy that showcases the skill of artists at the Ottoman court. At the time, the Ottoman dynasty ruled a vast territory, stretching from Egypt to Iraq, with its capital in Istanbul. Signed by both its calligrapher and illuminator—a relatively rare practice—the manuscript probably was meant for the Ottoman ruler Sultan Selim I (reigned 1512–20), perhaps to celebrate his conquest of Mamluk Egypt and Syria in 1517. Almost seventy years later, his great-granddaughter Ismihan (died 1585) dedicated the volume to the mausoleum of her father, Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566–74), and instructed that it should be recited over her father's tomb for the eternal salvation of his soul.

You can read the NYT article here and visit the exhibition site here

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A new book on the global politics of religion

by Salman Hameed


If you are interested in the ways religion gets defined and used in 'freedom of religion' debates, then check out this new book by Elizabeth Hurd titled Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. And of course, I learnt about it through the incredibly invaluable New Books Network podcast (this was part of the series on Middle Eastern Studies and Religion). Here is the interview podcast with Elizabeth Hurd (or download it here).

One of the things that really stood out for me from the interview was her discussion of "good" and "bad" religion as constructed by various international organizations - with their own agendas and goals - and how it skips all the messiness of the actual lived experiences (around 16 minutes in). I also found her discussion of Turkish Alevis, and the varied construction of their religious identity by the Turkish state and the European Union (in the latter half of the interview). She also discusses the book cover (see above) - which shows a photograph of a wall that the Moroccan government built to keep out and demarcate the Sahrarawi people of Western Sahara (for more on this, here is a brief article from Al Jazeera last year: Western Sahara's Struggle for Freedom Cutoff by a Wall).

In any case, listen to this fascinating interview (about 45 minutes long). Here is a blurb about the book from the New Books Network site:
Among the most frequent demands made of Islam and Muslims today is to become more moderate. But what counts as moderate and who will decide so are questions with less than obvious answers. In her timely and politically urgent new book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton University Press, 2015), Elizabeth Hurd, Associate Professor of Religion and Political Science at Northwestern University, explores the powerful global networks that seek to regulate and moderate religion in the name of promoting religious freedom. Through a careful examination of the discourses and activities of a range of state and non-state actors, in the US and elsewhere, Hurd demonstrates that international regimes of religious freedom advocacy actively participate in the labor of defining and generating particular notions of good and normative religion that privilege particular actors and institutions over others. However, as Hurd brilliantly shows and argues, such attempts to canonize good religion, which often corresponds to the articulation of religion most amenable to US imperial interests, remains thwarted and unsuccessful. This is so because the global industry of producing good, moderate religion cannot come to grips with the messiness and complexities of lived religion that is unavailable for neat, digestible, and ultimately misleading generalized categorizations. In short, this book represents a profound and meticulously documented argument for the unavailability of religion for projects of moderation, division, and bifurcation into good and bad religion. Hurd assembles this argument by discussing the discourse of the two faces of faith in international relations circuits, the politics of religion-making in international religious advocacy programs, overseas religious engagement programs sponsored by the US government, and the construction of religious minorities as endangered corporate bodies. Beyond Religious Freedom is as mellifluously written as it is analytically delicious. It will make an excellent reading for undergraduate and graduate courses on Islam, Secularism, and Modernity, Middle Eastern Politics, religion and politics, and on theories and methods in Religion Studies.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A new collaboration for Harun Yahya?

by Salman Hameed

Most of the recent news about Harun Yahya lately have been dominated about his TV channel and his "angels". However, in late August, his organization held a creationist conference at a hotel in Istanbul. The title of the conference was International Conference on the Origin of Life and the Universe. Now back in early 1990s, his organization held a series of conferences with creationists in the US, in particular, the Institute of Creation Research (ICR). In fact, much of Yahya's work has been a reworking of these US based creationists, and modifying their young earth creationism with an older earth narrative suitable for Muslim audiences. However, for the August conference, his organization collaborated with another US based group Reasons to Believe. As far as I know, they are old earth creationists, and their President, Hugh Ross, is a Christian version of Maurice Bucaille. In fact, here is the main blurb on Reasons to Believe (RTB) website:
RTB's mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature.
Now, of course, there have been other creationist conferences in Turkey (I reported on one a few years ago), but those have (or more likely "had") been organized by the Gulen group. With the current political situation, those are certainly impossible. Perhaps, Harun Yahya's groups sensed an opportunity to organize one by themselves. Not surprisingly, the audience looks different between the Yahya organized conference and the one organized by the Gulen folks: 
A conference in Istanbul from August 2016 - organized by Harun Yahya's group

A conference in Istanbul in 2012 - organized in part by the Gulen group

Here is a self-reporting blurb by the organizers on what happened at the creationism conference in August: 
The conference;
- Once again proved that genetics, biology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and astrophysics all answer the question ‘How did life begin?’ with ‘Creation’.
- Hosted leading academicians from the science world -all experts in their respective areas with many academic studies.
Some of the topics discussed by the prominent scientists during the conference were as follows:
- The true origin of man
- Why I say ‘God exists’
- Detailed examination and criticism of evolutionary theory
- Origins and creation of the universe
- Fossils: The conclusive evidence of the history of life 
The Reasons to Believe speakers were: 
Dr. Fazale Rana (Biochemist, Vice President of Research & Apologetics, Reasons to Believe) http://en.a9.com.tr/watch/228733Dr. Anjeanette Roberts (Molecular Biologist) http://en.a9.com.tr/watch/228732Dr Jeff Zweerink  (Astrophysicist) http://en.a9.com.tr/watch/228730
And here is Fazle Rana on the conference: 
Beginning his lecture, Dr. Rana said, "I am truly honored to be here today. It is refreshing to be part
of a project in where the goals is to show the world that Christians and Muslims can work together towards a common goal.  Showing that there is scientific evidence for God’s existence and also showing that there are genuine scientific challenges to the evolutionary paradigm. Both are objectives that Muslims and Christians can agree upon."

This is all fascinating. Initially I thought that Fazle Rana was a token Muslim at RTB. But that is not the case. He is the Vice President of Research & Apologetics at RTB, and here is an excerpt from his bio
I watched helplessly as my father died a Muslim. Though he and I would argue about my conversion, I was unable to convince him of the truth of the Christian faith. 
I became a Christian as a graduate student studying biochemistry. The cell's complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life's origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator. Reading through the Sermon on the Mount convinced me that Jesus was who Christians claimed Him to be: Lord and Savior. 
Still, evangelism wasn't important to me - until my father died. His death helped me appreciate how vital evangelism is. It was at that point I dedicated myself to Christian apologetics and the use of science as a tool to build bridges with nonbelievers.
I wish I could have attended the conference as it seems a fascinating amalgam of pseudoscience - both against science (evolution) and pro science (both Christian and Muslim I'jaz) at a particularly turbulent time in Turkey. 

And rest assured, our favorite creationist, Oktar Babuna, spoke over there as well (you may remember Babuna from his unintentionally hilarious presentation at the 2013 Deen Institute evolution conference in London. See my article on this here). And of course, there there were two giant faces of Harun Yahya on the screen - as well as some dancing. 



Friday, September 09, 2016

Friday Times article on astronomy in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed


Following up on an earlier post here, I have a longer article in today's Friday Times about the burgeoning astronomy scene in Pakistan. Here is the article
Pakistan does not have an enviable record in the sciences. The current Nature Index for research output places Pakistan at number 52 – just between Georgia and Bulgaria. However, there is currently a thriving amateur astronomy scene in several Pakistani cities, where the love of the sciences and the joy of sharing the knowledge of the night sky are in full display. Later this month, the various amateur astronomy societies in the country will gather together to launch a new umbrella organisation, The Astronomical League of Pakistan (ALOP). Given the state of the education and the sciences in the country, it is worth exploring the reasons for this unqualified success. 
I have been involved with and following the astronomy scene in Pakistan for close to thirty years. I was part of a group of FSc. Intermediate students in Karachi who started Amastropak, the first amateur astronomy society in Pakistan back in 1988. While there were ups and downs in the activities of the society over the years, it could never muster a critical mass of active members, and it eventually shut down in the late 1990s. But now things are different and I have never seen the state of amateur astronomy in Pakistan so lively and so strong. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting astronomy enthusiasts in Lahore and Karachi, and what a treat it was! Both the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and the Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS) boast an active membership of well over a hundred each and they are passionate devotees of the night skies. Most of the members have day jobs unrelated to astronomy, but they squeeze every last second of their free time (or not so free time) for astronomy.
Read the rest of the article here.  I also speculate on the reasons for the success of astronomy compared to many other scientific fields in Pakistan:
All this leads to the question: Why are we seeing such a flourishing interest in astronomy in Pakistan? After all, there is no significant State support for such an endeavor nor are there any organized activities at the school level. 
I think we can point to several reasons for this success. First, astronomy has an intrinsic broad public appeal. It doesn’t hurt that the spectacularly beautiful photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope garner worldwide attention, and force us, however briefly, to ponder about our place in the universe. Furthermore, science popularizers, such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, have globalized astronomical wonder, and their respective versions of Cosmos have been available to television audiences in Pakistan as well. My own path to astronomy was paved after watching Sagan’s Cosmos, when it aired in Pakistan in 1984. 
Second, the internet provides more than enough free information about astronomy. One of the challenges we had in the 1980s was the lack of astronomy books in our bookstores and libraries. Today, however, you can find not only the latest news about astronomy, but also, if you look carefully, detailed lessons about the foundations of astronomy online. 
The availability of telescopes in Pakistan has allowed people to go beyond simply learning about the skies from books, and gain practical experience. You can appreciate all the beauty of Saturn’s rings, taken by orbiting spacecraft, on your computer screen. But a glimpse of the rings through even a small telescope is a transcendental experience. If the government can make the import of telescopes and related accessories relatively pain-free, we may see a whole new generation of science and astronomy enthusiasts in the country. 
Perhaps the biggest reason astronomy is flourishing is that there is now a committed community of astronomers around and they are eager to spread their own knowledge and passion. This community did not materialise overnight. No one guided the process. No one pressed for any direction. But there has been a thread of continuity, sometimes tenuous and sometimes strong, over the past three decades, and it is that thread that provided comfort in knowing that are others who share common interests across local space and local time.
And if you are interested, the Astronomical League of Pakistan (ALOP) is holding its first symposium in Lahore on September 24th. 

Monday, September 05, 2016

SESAME: A fantastic science collaboration in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed




If you are looking for a miracle, then look no further than SESAME: the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications. It is an $80 million particle accelerator that is in the final stages of its completion. Physically located in Jordan, its collaborating partners can lead you through a deep history of Middle Eastern conflicts: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority, and Turkey. As a recent article in the Guardian puts it:
 Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats. 
Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad. 
“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” 
“I don’t know how many places there are where all these governments have representatives who have the opportunity to come and talk to each other,” he added.
In council meetings, representatives of governments meet and discuss technical issues, and come to agreements, the talks untainted by the perpetual enmity outside the conference halls.
Science also broke down the contributions from various countries, and Germany and the EU have played a major role as well (US is conspicuously absent...):
SESAME was founded in 1999 as a partnership of many Middle Eastern countries. Germany donated a big-ticket component: the injector that sends particles into the main storage ring. The initiative has attracted about $30 million in donations from outside the region, including $11 million from the European Union, supplementing the construction costs financed primarily by Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Iran has pledged $5 million, but sanctions have delayed its contributions.
The operation costs are shared by the members states. While the SESAME accelerator is much smaller than the Large Hadron Collidor that discovered the Higgs Boson, it is still expected to make significant contributions to physics when it opens up for science at the end of this year:
Sesame’s scientists plan to open the synchrotron with three main beamlines, though the project can house up to 20. The first is an X-ray beam which scientists say can be used to analyse soil samples and air particles, identifying contaminants in the environment, as well as, potentially, their sources, in a region suffering from high levels of pollution. 
The second will be an infrared beamline, which will allow researchers to study living cells and tissue. Some preliminary tests at the centre have focused on studying the evolution of breast cancer cells, potentially opening avenues that would help with much earlier detection. 
The last beamline, currently under construction, will be used in protein crystallography, a technique that would allow scientists, among other applications, to study in more depth the structure of viruses and develop drugs that are better able to target them.
This is one of the projects that everyone should be rooting for. Yes - designing accelerators is hard. But having a successful partnership of countries that consider each other mortal enemies is not only a miracle, but it also gives hope - however slim it is, for a peaceful future. Hats off to these physicists, engineers and the diplomats behind the project.

Read the full Guardian article here.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Three excellent "Great Courses" to recommend: Two on Middle East and one on the Higgs Boson

by Salman Hameed


I am a Great Courses addict (the picture above is my shelf for these courses gathered over the past 10 years or so). Rarely there is a time when I'm not listening to one in my car (oh-yes. I still use CD's!). In fact, one downside of us moving closer to Hampshire College is that it now takes me much longer to finish a course. I like these more than audio books as I prefer more structured material when I'm listening in the car.

So I thought I'll recommend three recent courses that I recently listened to and loved (and for bonus, I'll throw two of my all-time favorite ones as well). And no I am not being paid by the Great Courses for these recommendations. One word of caution: You should only get the courses when they are on sale - and every course is on sale at least once a year. Otherwise, you will end up paying a fortune.

The first one is United States and the Middle East: 1914-9/11 by Salim Yaqub. The course is relevant and sets the stage beautifully from late Ottoman era and World War I to trace the role of the US in the Middle East. Couple of things that struck me: First, the absolute tragedy of the people of Palestine. Yes, we hear about this more in contemporary terms. But the way the British played a role in their displacement is still shocking. Second, the history of various US administration vis a vis Israel is utterly fascinating. I was struck by the fact that Kennedy was quite critical of Israel's nuclear ambitions. But Israel hid from the US the work it was doing on building a bomb. Of course, all of this becomes more ironic considering Israel's stance towards the Iranian nuclear program. Third, I think the discussion of Iran in the course is fascinating. It talks about the disdain that US officials showed towards Iranians ("they are just slow to get out of the way") who got run over by US automobiles - when cars were still relatively new. Also, the efforts - again by Kennedy - to reign in the Shah, and the complete cozying up to the Shah in the 1970s. Perhaps, the most fascinating part is about the various misunderstandings/miscalculations that led to the Iranian takeover of US embassy and its aftermath.

And perhaps most crucially, Salim Yaqub has the perfect tone and demeanor for this tricky political subject. It is also appropriate for the election year, as the course provides a broader lens onto the US foreign policy.

Here is the description of the course:
At the dawn of World War I, the United States was only a rising power. Our reputation was relatively benign among Middle Easterners, who saw no "imperial ambitions" in our presence and were grateful for the educational and philanthropic services Americans provided. Yet by September 11, 2001, everything had changed. The U.S. had now become a "world colossus so prominent in the political, economic, and cultural life of the Middle East that it was the unquestioned target of those bent on attacking the West for its perceived offenses against Islam."
The second course is Turning Points in Middle Eastern History by Eamonn Gearon. I am currently going through these lectures. I was hesitant first that I will be familiar with much of the material. But I have been pleasantly surprised and it is spurring to read more about the various topics. Partly it is because Eamonn Gearon's specialty is North Africa and so he brings up parts of history that I'm not hat familiar with. Two examples regarding this: It was fascinating to learn that one of the graduates of the University of Qairouan - the world's first university - was Gerbert d'Aurillac, who introduced the decimal system and the Arabic numerals to Europe, and went on to become a pope (Sylvester II) in the year 999. Second example is that of the 14th century emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa. The Forbes magazine recently listed him as the richest man of all time. But it was fascinating to learn about his 2-year journey and how his philanthropy and other spending impacted the economies of the various regions he crossed, and created a myth about the riches of Mali, in particular, of Timbuktu. And needless to say, Eamonn Gearon is an excellent story teller.

Here is a brief description of the course:
In this riveting inquiry, you’ll witness world-changing occurrences such as the birth and phenomenal rise of Islam, the expansion and decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the dramatic discovery of Middle Eastern oil. You’ll accompany the armies of Islam as they invade North Africa and Spain, forever altering civilization in those regions, and witness the Battle of Karbala, where Muhammad’s heirs—the Sunni and Shia—split once and for all. 
In the course’s middle section, you’ll discover the wonders of the Islamic Golden Age, and marvel at the superlative advances in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and literature—and the preservation of classical Greek and Roman wisdom—that unfolded in global centers of learning such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. 
You’ll follow the dynamic empire building of the Persian Safavids, the Egyptian Mamluks, and the legendary Ottomans, among others. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire yielded most of the modern states of the Middle East. The far-reaching impacts of its rise and fall, plus the long-lasting influence of the 18th-century Saud-Wahhab Pact—between a desert ruler and a religious reformer, creating today’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—are two more expressions of how the past suffuses the present. 
Throughout the course, you’ll rub shoulders with numerous remarkable people, including the brilliant and famously chivalrous Muslim general Saladin; Shajar ad-Durr, the only female sultan in Islamic history to rule in her own right; and the dashing Lawrence of Arabia, a key player at the birth of Middle Eastern nationalism.
And I also wanted to recommend a short course (12 lectures) on The Higgs Boson and Beyond by Sean Carroll. This is of course a timely subject and it does a wonderful job of explaining why we should care about the Higgs Boson (and the Higgs Field). The subject matter can get a bit heavy in a one or two of the lectures in the middle - but don't give up - as it picks up again and provides a great overview of the state of current physics.

Here is the description of the course:
The search for, and ultimate discovery of, the Higgs boson is a triumph of modern physics—a global, half-century effort whose outcome would make or break the vaunted Standard Model of particle physics. The hunt for the Higgs was the subject of wide media attention due to the cost of the project, the complexity of the experiment, and the importance of its result. And, when it was announced with great fanfare in 2012 that
physicists has succeeded in creating and identifying this all-important new particle, the discovery was justly celebrated around the world.

Here are two bonus courses (again - I am focusing on history) that I think are just brilliant:

The Long 19th Century: European History from 1789 to 1917 by Robert I Weiner. The professor is outstanding and the course provides a great historical/political/sociological journey into the factors responsible for the world we live inhabit today. It is also provides a nice background context to the US and the Middle East course above. Here is the description for the course:
History at its most interesting is complex, a fascinating whirl of events, personalities, and forces, and few periods of history offer us such captivating complexity as Europe's 19th "century"—the often-broadly defined period from the French Revolution to World War I that formed the foundation of the modern world. 
How was that foundation built? And what did that transition to modernity mean for peasants, workers, the middle class, aristocrats, women, and minorities? 
Why did an era that began with the idealism of the French Revolution and the power of the Industrial Revolution culminate in the chaos of World War I, considered by most historians to be the greatest tragedy of modern European history? Did nationalism and imperialism inevitably lead in such a direction, or were there other factors involved?
Even these questions, as important as they are, can only hint at the complexity of this period, just as this course can really only put us on a path toward the answers.
And for the second bonus course, I recommend a trilogy of Middle Ages courses, The Early Middle Ages, The High Middle Ages, and The Late Middle Ages by Philip Daileader.


I absolutely loved these set of lectures partly because of the delivery of Daileader. He has a dry sense of humor and that works wonderfully for a material on the Middle Ages (I'm sure he is funny about contemporary events as well...but his passion comes out about the Middle Ages. If you want to live in the Middle Ages for a few months - and I highly recommend that you - then do through these set of lectures (I think you can buy them as a set as well).

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Following Ahmed Zewail's death, Egypt's Science City may be in trouble

by Salman Hameed



Early in August, Egypt lost its Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Ahmed Zewail. He was 70 years old. Apart from his scientific contributions, Zewail was heavily invested in improving the scientific infrastructure of Egypt. For this purpose, he was planning an elite research university within a science city. I was a bit reminded of Pakistan's Nobel prize winner, Abdus Salam, in this regard. He wanted to have a world class physics institute in Pakistan. However, in his case, the government had by then decided that his religious sect was no longer welcome in the country, nor really was any large-scale project spearheaded by him. Salam ended up creating the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and it now bears his name.

Zewail's project, on the other hand, has the full backing of the government - at least on non-monetary matters. In 2011, the project was deemed as a national project for scientific renaissance and was named Zewail City of Science and Technology. The project depends on outside donors, and Zewail's name provided the prestige. With his death, however, the future of the project is in doubt.

Here is a take from Nature in the project, and it highlights its existing and future challenges:
The institute had relied heavily on Zewail’s star name and contacts to attract the support of scientific luminaries and millions of dollars in donations and government loans. It is now running out of money, has not yet raised enough cash to support a planned move to a new campus and will probably have to rely on more state support, say researchers working there. 
“Fundraising has always been a challenge, and I think it is likely to be affected by the loss of Dr Zewail in the short term,” says Sherif El-Khamisy, a molecular biologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, who is also director of Zewail City’s Center for Genomics. “But the logistical support envisaged from the state is expected to override the initial fear or uncertainty.”
But the project is well behind the fundraising already:
Uncertainty has plagued Zewail City since its inception. While working at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Zewail proposed in 1999 to found the university and technology hub near Cairo as a flagship science project, essential for Egypt’s research development. But it was not until 2011 that the institute launched — a delay that Zewail has ascribed to political instability and bureaucracy. 
The young university was quickly plunged into controversy, after Egypt's first not-for-profit private research institution, Nile University — also outside Cairo — argued that it owned some of the buildings gifted to the science city. Nile University ultimately won the legal dispute — although it has allowed researchers from Zewail City to stay on in its buildings until a new campus is complete. 
Zewail City began accepting students in 2013; it currently has more 500 students and 150 academic professors and researchers. The first class of students will graduate next year, many of whom have received scholarships to cover their tuition fees. 
The project’s new campus is expected to be finished in 2019, at a cost of at least US$450 million; a first phase should be complete by July 2017, when many faculty and students are to move there. But Zewail City hasn’t raised enough money to finish even its first phase, says Sherif Fouad, a spokesperson for the institute. 
To pay for scholarships and campus construction, it has almost used up the 700 million Egyptian pounds (around US$80 million) raised from donors; its other funding comes in the form of a 1-billion-Egyptian-pound loan from the ministry of defence, which ultimately must be paid back. A shaky economy and the widely expected devaluation of Egypt’s currency is not helping matters. 
For the time being, it has the support of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. From the science perspective, a supporting president is a good thing, but his record in terms of stifling decent and democracy has been quite appalling. Lets see how things go:
How the state deals with that intervention could affect whether the institute can maintain the support of scientists whom Zewail sought to attract, says Ibrahim el-Sherbiny, joint director of the institute’s Center for Materials Science. “If they feel the reassurance on the ground, they will remain and attract others because they loved Dr Zewail, and I am sure they would love to support him after his death,” he says. 
Zewail City enjoys an unusual autonomy: unlike other Egyptian state-sponsored institutions, it has been granted a decree that allows the campus to outline its own structure and governance, guaranteeing its independence from the education ministry. Obayya says that he does not expect such autonomy to be affected by closer government intervention. 
At a meeting on 8 August, Zewail City’s board of directors vowed that their pioneer’s “national mission” would carry on. British-Egyptian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub of Imperial College London is widely tipped to take Zewail’s place at the head of the project, says Fouad.
Read the full article here.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Flourishing of Astronomy in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

I was in Pakistan earlier this month and I had the chance to meet a number of amateur astronomers in Pakistan. I have highlighted their activities on the blog before (for example see: Public Astronomy Flourishing in Pakistan). However, this time I had a chance to visit the centers of both the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS). These folks are doing some amazing work - both in astronomy and for the promotion of the love of sciences. I have been engaged with astronomy developments in Pakistan more or less for the past 30 years. I have never seen amateur astronomy so healthy in Pakistan before - and there is every chance that it has a spectacular future ahead. Here are some quick highlights on what is going on with LAST and KAS.

You need to get a critical mass in terms of active members to sustain a group. Both LAST and KAS have active members that number between 30-40 and their events can attract over a 100 members with ease. Furthermore, most of the people involved in these societies have day jobs other than astronomy (interestingly, most of the KAS active members present at our meeting had computer/IT related degrees). But astronomy is truly a passion of theirs. They are following their dreams in every second of their spare time.

Group photo of LAST members after my lecture in Lahore.
(and yes - sometimes you see doubles...)

Interestingly, the group in Lahore and the one in Karachi have different central focus. LAST, led by indomitable Umair Asim, has established a sophisticated observatory. They do imaging and spectroscopy from the light-polluted skies of Lahore. However, Umair believes (rightly so) that it is better to use the telescope regularly than worry about dark skies at the moment. LAST astronomers recently replicated spectral classifications of stars and have also taken the spectra of the gaseous giant planets in our own solar system. It is not unusual for me to receive an email from Umair from the observatory at 3 in the morning. They have also made beautiful movies of solar flares and prominences. But this is not why the observatory is great. Umair is also teaching others on how to use the telescope, take data, and get science out of it. Currently, he has four members (3 women and one man) who are doing internship with him - and they have the same level of enthusiasm for astronomy (remember - this is not for any job prospect. This is just to learn about astronomy). One member, Roshaan, recently dropped out of 4th year medical college (yes - only one year was left), to pursue astronomy full time. It will him some time, but this is the path he is now committed to taking. Umair and others routinely submit their results to Amateur Association of Variable Stars Observers (AAVSO).

LAST is pushing the scientific boundaries of amateur astronomy.

LAST astronomers are now doing spectroscopy. Here they replicate the classification system of stars

Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS), on the other hand, have been more focused on building telescopes and in regularly organizing observing sessions at dark locations outside Karachi. The center here is Kastrodome, an observatory that houses a 10-inch 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope. A team of three brothers, led by Mehdi, has been at the center of this effort, including designing and constructing a fully operational dome structure. But then, these brothers started experimenting with optics when they were young, and making a telescope out of their father's spectacles. Just like LAST in Lahore, members of KAS give classes on building telescopes as well as on the broader principles of astronomy. Another KAS member, Sajjad, has a solar telescope and specializes in taking images with that. Of course, he was being called Chacha Shamsi (Uncle Solar). Telescopes have proliferated in Pakistan because one KAS member decided to do a business of selling telescopes from his apartment. And no, the purpose is not here to make a lot of money, but to make telescopes available in Pakistan. Getting a telescope or any of the astronomical gadget through the customs is a herculean task and often they impose duty that is more than the equipment itself. In this context, having a local dealer is immensely helpful (now only one person has to do all the hassle...).


At the KASstrodome in Karachi - outside and inside. In the picture above, Mehdi is the first one on the left. In the picture below, the two people next to me are Umair Asim (from Lahore Astronomical Society) and Khalid Marwat, a pilot and one of the first serious amateur astronomers of Pakistan. 

I also appreciated this sign next to the observatory. Mangoes - after all are a serious issue!!

But it is observing from dark sites that is the hallmark of KAS. Once a month, KAS members would charter buses to go 2 hours out of Karachi. As Mehdi noted with good humor, the lack of development on part of the Sindh and Baluchistan governments offer plenty of dark skies for astronomers. These night time sessions, called Rutjuga, would attract more than a hundred members on each outing! This has also led to some spectacular photography of the night sky done by KAS members.

Rutjuga by Karachi Astronomers Society in December 2015

Perhaps, one of the most awesome part of amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan is that it is not selfish. It is easy to keep these fantastic telescopes to oneself and satisfy one's own interests. But it is clear that these guys love astronomy because they want to share everything they know. LAST has been doing some incredible public events for more than a decade, including taking telescopes to schools in small towns and villages. It is not uncommon for them to get a crowd of 500 or a 1000. KAS has a similar experience in Karachi, and they are holding public seasons in parks and at the Karachi Planetarium. They are all preparing the next generation of astronomy enthusiasts.

An astronomy session in Mardan, KP, led by LAST member Roshaan Bukhari

I am leaving out a lot here. But it is clear that the astronomy scene is only going to grow from now. There already was a news item recently of an astronomy enthusiast from Quetta. There are ongoing conversations about the formation of The Astronomy League of Pakistan (ALOP) - an umbrella organization that connects all the astronomy societies of Pakistan. We are also thinking of possibly having an annual meeting and a Pakistan Astronomy Day, where astronomy clubs all across Pakistan hold events for the public.

In 1988, I was part of a group of 11th-12th grade students who started the first astronomy society in Pakistan, called Amastropak. We had some great few years but it could never develop a critical mass, and ultimately ceased to exist in the late 1990s. Both LAST and KAS are clearly well beyond that stage and I can see a transition from serious amateur astronomy to the development of a thriving professional astronomy scene in Pakistan in  the next decade or so.

Stay tuned to this really fascinating astronomy chapter in Pakistan. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

New SkA Episode: Ibn-Sina and the Supernova of 1006

by Salman Hameed


Here is our new episode of Science ka Adda (in Urdu), and it focuses on a supernova that was observed by several Muslim astronomers (as well as others), including Ibn-Sina, in the year 1006:

Here is the description of the episode:
In the year 1006 C.E. Ibn-Sina observed a bright new star appear in the night sky. He diligently took notes as the star faded over the next 3 months. This was a supernova. Ibn-Sina did not know its nature, but his notes are shedding new light into the nature of these exploding stars! Join us in this episode of Science ka Adda, where we talk about one particular type supernovae, known as Type Ia. 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
I also did a radio segment on the same topic in English with Monte Belmonte for our local radio station, WRSI - The River. Here is the link to the podcast.

If you want to read more about it, you can find the relevant paper here: An Arabic About Supernova SN1006 by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).