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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief

by Salman Hameed

Avijit Roy with his wife

A few weeks ago, an American-Bangladeshi atheist blogger, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in Dhaka. He and his wife were returning from a Book Fair where he had his own book reading. This is a continuation of troubling attacks on secular bloggers and writers in Bangladesh (see my post from 2013: Standing with Bangladesh's secular bloggers!). Here is an excellent article by Raza Rumi on this murder and the growing religious intolerance in the secular Bangladesh. Raza brings a unique perspective, as he himself had to leave Pakistan after he was attacked by gunmen last year:
This incident left me deeply disturbed. As someone who was also subjected to (missed) bullets in 2014, Roy’s murder brought back memories of my close brush with death, subsequent exile and the fear of returning to my own country, Pakistan. Like Roy and many others, Islamist extremists found my views unacceptable to the extent that physical elimination was the only answer. I miraculously escaped the assassination attempt, but my driver was killed and another companion was injured. 
While a few gunmen were arrested, the trial lingers on. But from my experience as an analyst, Pakistani courts seldom punish attackers, and the masterminds are never apprehended or brought to book. 
I had never met Roy, but I was aware of his powerful work. It is not easy to profess atheism when you belong to a Muslim country. Roy lived in the United States and ran a blog called Mukto Mona, (free mind), and he was vocal in opposing religious bigotry and intolerance. While he remained in the relatively safer climes of the US, he was still part of the discourse in Bangladesh, and this is why he was a threat to Islamist extremists. 
He received regular threats on social media — an irony of the ostensibly postmodern 21st century. The online store that sold Roy’s books was also harassed, and later it stopped displaying them altogether. In 2014, an Islamist said that Roy would be killed when he returned to his native country. 
So the doomed blogger had gone back to Bangladesh for his book promotion when extremists found the right opportunity to attack and kill him. His latest book, Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), says it all.
One can disagree with the approach that some atheists take to matters of faith, but it is utterly disconcerting to note that the space for such ideas is shrinking in Muslim countries. And Bangladesh is no Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. Its liberation in 1971 from Pakistan was an act of defiance to preserve the political and cultural rights that the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan was trying to suppress. For Bangladesh to become more like Pakistan is even more tragic. 
Unfortunately, the trends all point to Bangladesh using more and not less religion in politics:
For decades, Bangladeshi governments, like their nemesis in Pakistan, have appeased religious passions. A clear case is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina covers her head. There is no Quranic injunction for women to wear a hijab (headscarf). This was true for Pakistan’s slain prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who also demonstrated similar acquiescence to religious fervor by not only covering her head with a scarf, but also donning Islamic rosary beads to prove piety and credentials of being a devout Muslim. 
Media freedoms have also been under threat as the incumbent Bangladeshi government has, on occasions, tried to muzzle critical commentaries on elections and the democratic evolution. But surely the religious opposition to free-thinking remains the most serious challenge, leading many to leave the country and not return. Taslima Nasreen, a writer, has been in exile for decades, scared of the radicals back home. Ironically, she is blamed for being too “extreme” in her views. 
I had always admired Bangladesh as a secular nation and even wrote about its cultural and intellectual space. Sadly, it is only following the country it left behind in 1971: Pakistan. But when it comes to religious bigotry, few Muslim countries are safe for writers, bloggers and those who challenge extremist interpretations of Islam. 
I am afraid of returning home to Pakistan. I was lucky to have narrowly escaped the fate of Roy and perhaps will not be as fortunate next time. The Taliban affiliate that tried to kill me number in the thousands, are well-organized and entrenched. Their level of intolerance is such that I am not even an atheist, yet I am a target. 
I mourn Roy’s loss and also lament the state of exile that pernicious extremist ideologies have forced me into.
Read the full article here.

And back here in the US, there are increasing number of cases where Muslims are being attacked - well for being looking like Muslims. You probably have heard of the murder of three students in Chapel Hill. But there are other cases that have not gotten much news. For example, just two nights ago, 18 bullets were fired at Abdul's house - also in North Carolina, and one of those hit the thigh of his sleeping wife:
According to the Charlotte Observer, the attack took place in eastern Mecklenburg County, just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. The home of Abdul, a Muslim man who asked the paper not to publish his last name, was riddled by as many as 18 bullets in the middle of the night. Most of the shots hit the fence, but one bullet traveled through Abdul’s bedroom window and struck his wife in the thigh while she was sleeping. Abdul said she woke up bleeding and screaming before being taken to a nearby hospital, where she is currently awaiting surgery while recovering in the intensive care unit. None of the other occupants of the house — which included Abdul, his mother, and his two children — were injured in the attack. 
Police are looking for multiple suspects near the neighborhood, which reportedly has only had infrequent break-ins in recent years. Officers initially reported that the incident was being treated as a random shooting, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Chuck Henson noted at a news conference Tuesday morning that police won’t know if it was hate crime until they make an arrest.
And then just two weeks ago, an Iraqi guy was shot dead in Dallas just outside his apartment, while he was taking pictures of snow:
In the quiet moments before Ahmed Al-Jumaili died, he and his wife stepped out of her family's apartment, in a small complex in a suburb of Dallas, to photograph the first
snowfall he'd ever seen. 
Al-Jumaili had hesitated to leave his home in Iraq, but his wife had urged him to come to the US, where he'd be safer. She'd gone ahead to Dallas not long after their 2013 marriage, but he stayed in Iraq to work and save for their new life. Finally, last month, he followed her to Texas, where she had family, and left behind the chaos of Iraq. 
On Thursday, the last night of his life, three and a half inches of snow fell on Dallas, the most since 1942. It was almost midnight when he and his wife stood outside to take photos of this new sight, in the country that was to be his new home. As they lingered, what residents would later describe to police as two to four men, moving on foot, entered the small complex. One or more of the men raised a rifle and shot Al-Jumaili. Police would later find bullets lodged in nearby cars as well. He died a few hours later at a nearby hospital; he was 36 years old and had been in the US for three weeks. 
Neither police nor Al-Jumaili's family are yet claiming a motive, but focus has naturally fallen on the growing trend of violence against Muslims in the United States. Dallas Police Major Jeff Cotner said police considered hate crime a "possibility." A local Methodist pastor, as well as a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have both said the local community already fears as much. 
And yet Al-Jumaili's killing has received strikingly little attention, other than a few mostly brief media reports, and the statements of faith leaders in Dallas hinting at a climate of hostility toward Muslims there.
Vox's article does a good job of placing it in the larger context of openly hateful commentaries against Islam and Muslims that may now be leading to growing violence against Muslim minorities as well:
The rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and attendant media coverage, has coincided with Islamophobia's growing acceptance in mainstream American discourse. 
Media outlets, particularly on TV, are increasingly promoting overt bigotry against Muslims, stating over and over that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that peaceful Muslims are somehow to blame for ISIS. Hateful stereotypes are treated as fair game; the question of whether Muslims are somehow lesser human beings is raised as a valid or even necessary debate. 
The politics of Islamophobia are ascendent as well. These attitudes initially spiked after President Obama's election — a continuation of the dogwhistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but are now resurfacing. State legislatures are passing laws banning "sharia" or "foreign law," a barely-veiled expression of official legislative hostility to Islam and to Muslim-American communities. 
Elements of the Republican party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a fringe group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up "no-go zones" that police refuse to enter and where sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an "invasion" and "colonization."
Read the full Vox article here.

From Avijit in Bangladesh to Ahmed in Dallas, we have to take a stand against bigotry - independent of belief or disbelief. This may seem obvious, but sometimes popular narratives dilute some of the murders. This is all the more important as it looks like that the conditions are going to get worse - perhaps far worse - before they get better. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

On the issue of letter to Iran by Republican senators...

by Salman Hameed

It would be easy laugh at the provocative actions of almost all of Republican senators regarding Iran. Their Open Letter to Iran was of course condescending. They want war. And they want war with an unequal adversary - preferably one that doesn't have a nuclear weapon. And they are not exactly alone. Here is an opinion piece in Washington Post titled War with Iran is probably our best option. And look how easy its going be:
Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary. Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Much the same may be said in reply to objections that airstrikes might not reach all the important facilities and that Iran would then proceed unconstrained by inspections and agreements. The United States would have to make clear that it will hit wherever and whenever necessary to stop Iran’s program. Objections that Iran might conceal its program so brilliantly that it could progress undetected all the way to a bomb apply equally to any negotiated deal with Iran.
Absolutely disgusting call for war. In fact, all this rhetoric and a very different reaction to Russia's actions in Ukraine can only lead countries to having nuclear weapons - at least those countries that are adversaries of the US. I can usually make a blanket statement that I'm against nuclear weapons. But the recent US actions on non-nuclear states have caused tremendous casualties. In a world where no nuclear country is going to give up their arms, it may be worth reevaluating the calculus of war prevention by having nuclear weapons. The problem is that with the proliferation of weapons, it is almost certain that the weapons are going to be used at some point or that there is going to be an accident. In an ideal world, we will have a system that prevents bullying of non-nuclear nations by nuclear countries. Ah - but then we don't live Gene Roddenberry's universe.

And yes, it is unclear whether to laugh or cry when the leader of anti-negotiations (and pro war) Republican senator, Tom Cotton, says that "Iran already controls Tehran". But then these are the people in the upper echelon of power.

For a more sobering look, here is an excellent discussion over Iran's nuclear program on Democracy Now. Hillary Mann Leverett makes two interesting points. One, that Obama has not made an effort to sell the nuclear negotiations as in America's own best interest. In this vacuum, conservative hawks can fill the space as Iran getting its way. Second, and something that I didn't know, that Israel used to oppose sanctions against Iran in the 1980s. It changed its stance after the degradation of Iraqi military. Also, hear Ali Gharib talk about Cotton - the Republican senator spear-heading the anti-negotiation effort in the US congress.

Fourth episode of SkA: Exploring baby solar systems to search for our own origins (Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

It has been a lot of fun doing this series. So here is the continuation of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique). In this fourth episode, we look at the discovery of a "protoplanetary disk" around a young star named HL Tau. This star is only a million years old - a blink of an eye in cosmic timescales - but it can tell us a lot about the origins of our own solar system some four and a half billion years ago. Here it is:

Jim Al-Khalili on Ibn al-Haytham's "Book of Optics"

by Salman Hameed

I didn't know this is the International Year of Light (IYL 2015). In one way we can celebrate IYL by celebrating astronomy. With the exception of landers and rovers, all of our information comes through light - and even with rovers, the communication is through light. Nevertheless, as part of IYL (I think), Nature published this pieced by Jim Khalili on al-Haytham's Book of Optics (unfortunately, Jim starts the article by declaring him to be a physicist - which is anachronistic):
The greatest physicist of the medieval era led a life as remarkable as his discoveries were prodigious, spending a decade in prison and at one point possibly feigning mental illness to get out of a tight spot. Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham (Latinized to Alhazen) was born in Basra, now in southern Iraq, in AD 965. His greatest and most famous work, the seven-volume Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manathir) hugely influenced thinking across disciplines from the theory of visual perception to the nature of perspective in medieval art, in both the East and the West, for more than 600 years. Many later European scholars and fellow polymaths, from Robert Grosseteste and Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, were in his debt. Indeed, the influence of Ibn al-Haytham's Optics ranks alongside that of Newton's work of the same title, published 700 years later.
And of course, whether true or not, you have to recount the story of his "mental illness":
As a young man, Ibn al-Haytham received an excellent education and was widely noted as a mathematical and scientific prodigy. Frustrated by his administrative duties working in a government post in the vast Islamic Empire — which at the time stretched from India to Spain — he was sacked owing to real or, as some speculate, faked mental illness. 
Sometime during the first decade of the new millennium, he proposed an ambitious project to dam the Nile. He was invited to Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi'amr Illah. However, on seeing the scale of the task, Ibn al-Haytham quickly realized that it was beyond him. He was promptly imprisoned in Cairo for wasting the caliph's time. 
Far from cowing him, the decade of imprisonment granted Ibn al-Haytham the seclusion to think and write, particularly on optics. After his release around the year 1020, he began working at a prolific rate, carrying out a series of famous experiments on the nature of light. For example, using a camera obscura, he proved that light travels in straight lines; he also mathematized the fields of catoptrics (reflection of light by mirrors) and dioptrics (refraction of light through lenses). This huge body of experiment and theory culminated in his Book of Optics.
Here are the specifics of his Book of Optics:
This treatise can be regarded as a science textbook. In it, Ibn al-Haytham gives detailed descriptions of his experiments, such as exploring how light rays are reflected off plain and curved surfaces. He includes the apparatus he used, the way he set it up, the measurements and his results. He then uses these observations to justify his theories, which he develops with geometrical models. He even urges others to repeat his experiments to verify his conclusions. Many historians of science consider Ibn al-Haytham to be the first true proponent of the modern scientific method. 
The work can be roughly divided into Books I, II and III, devoted to the theory of vision and the associated physiology of the eye and the psychology of perception; and Books IV to VII, covering traditional physical optics. The work's most celebrated contribution to science is its explanation of vision. 
At that time, scholars' understanding of the phenomenon was a mess. The Greeks had several theories. In the fifth century BC, Empedocles had argued that a special light shone out of the eye until it hit an object, thereby making it visible. This became known as the emission theory of vision. It was 'refined' by Plato, who explained that you also need external light to see. Plato's student Aristotle suggested that rather than the eye emitting light, objects would 'perturb' the air between them and the eye, triggering sight. 
Other philosophers around this time, including Epicurus, attempted a form of 'intromission theory' of vision (light entering the eye from outside), but it was Plato's theory that was given a mathematical basis by Euclid, who described light rays emerging in a cone from the eye. Several centuries later, Ptolemy expanded on this idea. 
Early Islamic scholars such as al-Kindi and Hunayn ibn Ishaq favoured a combined emission–intromission theory. They posited that the eye sends out light to the observed object, which then reflects the light back into the eye. 
It took the genius of Ibn al-Haytham to finally resolve the issue. He argued that if we see because rays of light are emitted from the eye onto an object (Plato and Euclid's 'sight rays'), then either the object sends back a signal to the eye or it does not. If it does not, how can the eye perceive what its rays have fallen on? Light must be coming back to the eye, and this is how we see. But if so, what use is there for the original rays emitted by the eye? The light could come directly from the object if it is luminous or, if it is not, could be reflected from the object after being emitted by another source. Rays from the eye, decided Ibn al-Haytham, are an unnecessary complication. 
He also went further than anyone before in trying to understand the underlying physics of refraction. He argued that the speed of light was finite and varied in different media, and he used the idea of resolving the path of a light ray into its vertical and horizontal components of velocities. He carried out all his work geometrically, and introduced many new ideas, such as the study of how the atmosphere refracts light from celestial bodies.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). You can also read more about al-Haytham on IYL 2015 website

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Video: Evolution via They Might Be Giants and The Simpsons

by Salman Hameed

On a lighter note of evolution, here is My Brother the Ape by They Might Be Giants (By the way, my 22 month old son loves this - and so begins the indoctrination :) ):

And while we are on the topic, here is evolution of Homer Simpson from the intro of a Simpsons episode: 

Friday, March 06, 2015

A somewhat strange opinion piece in Nature on Muslims and science

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Nature has an opinion piece by Indonesian science journalist, Dyna Rochmyaningsih.
The title of the piece is Focus on political Islamic groups to boost science. One of her key points - which I think is largely correct - is that science promoters should not ignore Islamist groups as they hold influence in some societies. She goes further and makes an excellent point that it is important to understand how political and ideological groups influence views about science:
Rather than reconciliation, it is important to monitor and understand the way in which political and ideological groups influence how young Muslims view science.
All well and good, and this is something that we are trying to do at SSiMS (Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies) at Hampshire. But there are some serious problems with the piece as well. For example, she -paints a picture that blurs the line between ISIS, European terror attacks, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This is how her article starts:
Recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the continued activity of the jihadist group ISIS in the Middle East have thrown the spotlight firmly back on radical Islam. Some studies blame the Muslim world's poor and unstable economies for the spread of this fundamentalism. Presumably then, improving the economy could help Muslim societies to tackle these radical movements. 
Science can play a big part in this economic development, as it has in other places. But because some Muslims see a conflict between science and their faith, the philosophical question of how to reconcile the two is at the heart of many efforts to advance scientific development in the Muslim world.
And here is the place where she brings in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir:
The radical Islamists of ISIS see science as an attribute of their enemies. They have denounced the great Medieval Muslim scientists Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Nafis as heretics and atheists. It is clear that such rhetoric — if influential — will hold back scientific development in Muslim countries. 
Here in Indonesia, for example, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir have a strong presence in high schools and universities, and this gives them profound influence on young Muslims' views of the world, including science. 
The influence is not all negative to science. The Muslim Brotherhood, although hostile to evolution, encourages talented scientists to develop their careers and helps to place them on postgraduate courses overseas, typically in Japan. Many of these people return to Indonesia as university lecturers.
I think this would be a fine line of argument. But by bringing in ISIS, it presents a picture not that different from Fox News or the one argued by General Sisi. This is a shame as I think she is making an important point. Another weird part is that she is writing this piece in response to a task force that just met in Turkey, where an Islamist government is in charge. The problem is that she is placing all Islamist groups under one banner when their attitudes and approaches to science may be completely different. Not to mention that European attacks have a very different context than what is taking place in Indonesia, and that is different from what is taking place in Turkey or in Mali. In the current political environment, such conflations are deeply counter-productive.

Plus, the use of science in her article is just too broad. In general, the attitude is positive in various parts of the Muslim world. Here is the Pew survey on this from 2013:

Indonesia and Iraq - two places mentioned in her article - both seem to have a broad support for science. Of course, the issue comes in with specific issues, like evolution or other questions of origins. Dyna's solution is to inculcate scientific thinking before they are exposed to political ideas:
Reconciliation is an individual process, and something that is intangible in the realm of policy-making. By contrast, hard-line groups can influence whole societies. To capitalize on this influence, we might need to reform science education in primary schools in the Muslim world, and teach young people to think for themselves before they are exposed to political ideas.
I don't know but something doesn't seem right here as politics is always embedded in the system. Plus, she now brings in the term "hard-line groups" and claims that they can "influence whole societies". Since she has been talking about political Islamist groups, my assumption is that "hard-line groups". What makes them "hardline" compared to say General Sisi or the secularists of Turkey in the not so distant past?

But I do agree with Dyna that the key here is the promotion of critical thinking more than anything else, and such critical thinking may lead us to see not only science but also culture in a nuanced and complicated way. In addition, we do not want students to grow up apathetic to politics (this is what General Zia in Pakistan tried to do in the 1980s). The full narrative of Arab Spring - and other equivalent springs in non-Arab Muslim countries - is yet to be written, and the ability to think critically and for oneself, will be crucial.

Read the full article here (you will need subscription for full access).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Third episode of SkA: Water and the Search for Life on Mars (Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

In this episode of Science ka Adda, we discuss the recent results from Curiosity rover suggesting the presence of liquid water on Mars. In fact, conditions on Mars - four billion years ago - may have been more suitable for the origins of life than even the Earth. If so, then life may have originated on Mars and may have seeded the Earth. If that is the case, then may be we are all ultimately Martians! This episode features original musical composition by Umer Piracha dedicated to Curiosity rover. For more SkA, visit www.sciencekaadda.com and for more detailed discussions on astronomy in Urdu, please visit Hamari Kainaat at hamarikainaat.com.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Science and Religion in Medieval Islamic Societies: A lecture by Dr. Nahyan Fancy on Feb 26th

Our next Science & Religion lecture at Hampshire College is this coming Thursday, February 26th. Our speaker is Dr. Nahyan Fancy and he will be talking about science in medieval Islamic societies. Back in 2013, I had highlighted his fascinating book on Ibn-Nafis' work on pulmonary transit of blood. We are excited to have him here and if you are in the area, join us for the talk.

Here are the details:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Re-examining the Science-Religion Dichotomy in Medieval Islamic Societies
Dr. Nahyan Fancy

Thursday, February 26, 2015
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Living in a post-Enlightenment age, historians have struggled to understand the meaningful ways in which science and religion interacted in pre-modern, particularly theistic societies. In the case of Islamic societies, historians have veered from claiming that religion suppressed and stamped out science, to claiming that religion subsumed science under religious dogma. In both cases, religion is seen as blunting the sword of reason leading to an inevitable "decline" of science. Historians have bought into the Enlightenment idealization of science as a secular, rational pursuit of knowledge that is free from external pressures, particularly those from religion. However, as I will show, such dichotomous understandings of science and religion prevent us from accessing the rich and complex ways in which pre-modern Islamic scholars engaged with rational and revealed knowledge. Using the example of Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288), we shall see how a commitment to the sanctity of revelation and specific religious dogmas could still lead one to develop novel scientific theories that themselves forced the scholar to assess and modify certain religious claims.

Dr. Nahyan Fancy is an Associate Professor of Middle East/Comparative History at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, USA. His research interests are in pre-1500 science, medicine, and
intellectual history. His book, Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt, examines the intersections of philosophy, theology and medical physiology in the works of Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th century physician-jurist who first posited the pulmonary transit of blood. The significance of this result is that it forms the basis of William Harvey's (d.  1657) theory of blood circulation, three centuries later. His new project examines the evolution of medical commentaries in post-1250 Islamicate societies, with an eye towards learning more about the specific trajectory of theoretical medicine in Islamicate societies, and the networks of exchange that gave rise to the appropriation of Islamicate trajectories by Latin Europe during the Renaissance.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Video II: The story of Pangea and Alfred Wegener

by Salman Hameed

Here is a wonderful 7-minute animation on the life of Alfred Wegener and his idea of continental drift that transformed 20th century geology. Enjoy!

Saturday Video: E.O. Wilson on "What does E.T. really look like?"

by Salman Hameed

Speculative? Yes, but then how can it not be? However, here is a smart way of thinking about possible types of extraterrestrial intelligence. E.O. Wilson, of course, gives a short lesson here on group selection as well. Enjoy!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A chance for a Pakistani to be on Mars...

Salman Hameed

I have written before about Mars One and its plan to send twenty-four humans on a one-way trip to Mars. They started with 200,000 applicants and just this past week, they narrowed down the list to 100. Whether Mars One will succeed in doing what is claiming to do or not is a separate question. But it is fascinating to see all the debates over the nature of one-way trip (is it suicide?) and the individuals who volunteer for it. The shortlist of 100 candidates also includes a retired helicopter pilot from Pakistan. I was asked write a blogpost on its impact on Pakistan from the Express Tribune and here is the post (but also see other videos at the bottom of the post):

If a Pakistani went to Mars...

Reginald Foulds is ready to go on a one-way trip to Mars. His dream may be a step closer as he is amongst the final 100 candidates chosen by Mars One, a private organization that is planning on sending humans to Mars by 2025. This is impressive. Initial applications for this Mars trip numbered close to two hundred-thousand. He is now the only Pakistani left in the pool. A retired helicopter pilot of Pakistan Air Force, Foulds has a 1 in 4 chance of being picked for the ambitious first human settlement on the Red planet. If selected, he will be pushing 70 by the time of the first proposed Mars One mission.

At this time we do not know if Mars One will even be successful in getting everything ready for a human mission to Mars. Nevertheless, this project has generated considerable amount of public interest in Mars exploration as well as some criticism. One of the most common criticisms deals with the one-way aspect of the mission. Many call it a suicidal mission as there are no plans to bring astronauts back to Earth. In fact, it is this very one-way nature that makes the mission affordable in the near future.

But I would not call this "suicidal". The plan is to have twenty-four individuals initiate a permanent human presence on Mars. Cargo vessels are expected to deliver habitats suitable for Martian living well before the first human mission leaves the Earth. The goal of going to Mars is not to die - but to live! Such an adventure is not for everyone. But there have always been explores amongst humans and it is probably because of such early adventurers that some of our ancestors left Africa and eventually established presence in almost every corner of the Earth. People like Reginald are just extending this tradition to a neighboring planet. Others in the future will take our descendants to outer planets and may be even to other stars.

What will be the impact on Pakistan's space program if Reginald Foulds is selected amongst the astronauts headed for Mars? On the face of it, nothing much. Mars One is a Dutch organization that plans on using primarily American aerospace companies to achieve its goals. The funds for the project are being collected through sponsorships with a promise to deliver - if it at all happens - the most watched reality show ever. As a scientist, the last sentence is as disheartening as it can get.

However, there are intangibles that can help science in Pakistan. Reginald's selection in the final batch of astronauts will certainly boost interest amongst school children in Pakistan. Even without Reginald, I can imagine a spike in interest about Mars, solar system, astronomy, and science, in general. How can it not? But the presence of a Pakistani astronaut on Mars can make that endeavor that much more personally identifiable.

But there is another aspect as well. There are 35 countries represented between the 100 candidates shortlisted for the Mars mission. The reality-show aspect aside, this is a stunning diversity for the case of exploration. Several of our neighbors are represented: India has three candidates and both Iran and China have two. It is almost a certainty that the final 24 candidates will be from several different countries, ethnicities, and religions. A successful permanent presence on Mars will necessitate overcoming prejudices that divide us here on Earth. This is the good side of humanity and Reginald's presence - if he is selected - will allow us to indirectly experience it as well. May descendants of the first batch of astronauts on Mars may create their own identity as 'Martians' and may develop a prejudice against humans on Earth.

All said, it is exciting to have a Pakistani represented in the shortlist of candidates for Mars. I hope he is among the astronauts that experience red sunsets and sunrises on Mars. Echoing Carl Sagan's message to future Martian explorers: "I wish I could be there with you".


Here is the video of Reginald talking about his candidacy:

Also, here is a flashy official video from Mars One about the 100 candidates:

And if you grew up in Pakistan in the early 80s, then you would remember the show Fifty Fifty. They had a hilarious take on the disco hit One Way Ticket to the Moon by the group Boney M. Here is the one-minute skit from Fifty-Fifty (trip from Nizam Arain):

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Damage to Libyan archaeology

by Salman Hameed

Libya seems to be descending into further chaos. Italy just closed its embassy there and I think US moved its operation in July of last year (with the closure of US embassy in Yemen as well - so much for the success of US policies in these areas).  But this Libyan civil war has its impact on science as well. A few months ago, I had posted a Science article that mapped damage to Syrian archaeological sites due to the ongoing conflict. Now Nature has an article on Libya:
Archaeological fieldwork in Libya is at a standstill. Four years after the Arab Spring and the February 2011 Libyan revolution that ended the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, violence remains rife. Recent escalations in fighting have injured and killed people and damaged the nation's cultural heritage, infrastructure and free press. Libyan monuments have been seriously damaged, including the Karamanli mosque, built in 1738 in the capital, Tripoli, and Islamic tombs that date to between the tenth and twelfth centuries at Zuwila, near the west-central town of Murzuq. This, along with concerns about the illicit trafficking of cultural materials, led Irina Bokova, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to call for greater protection of Libyan cultural heritage in November last year.
I have worked in Libya since 1990. My last field trip to the Messak plateau in the southwest ended abruptly in February 2011 with an emergency evacuation on a military aircraft. Before the revolution, I spent three months each year in the desert studying the prehistory of the Messak and nearby Tadrart Acacus mountains, which lie close to the border with Algeria, famous for their 9,000-year-old rock art. Since then, scientific and cultural relations between Libya and the international community have stagnated. Archaeological tourism — a major source of revenue and jobs for locals such as the Tuareg and Tebu people, the two major Saharan ethnic groups in Libya — has stopped.
Here is a map from Nature identifying some places where sites have been damaged:

Trafficking is the biggest concern and I hope that this can tackled at a broader international level:
Perhaps the greatest threat to Libya's diverse heritage is the trafficking of archaeological materials, for profit or to fund radical groups. This has already been documented in Syria and Iraq7. No one has been able to fully assess the situation in Libya. Going to work among the black smoke of grenades, the men and women of the Libyan Department of Antiquities are doing their best. But museums are closed and the little activity left in the field is limited to the north. 
The situation seems dire and the article understandably ends with a plea:
Fieldwork is vital to research and central to fundraising in archaeology. But in Libya — and other violence-wracked countries — archaeology as we have practised it has come to an end. Lengthy excavation campaigns will be impossible for years, if not generations. Researchers must imagine a different future based on other methods. 
International funding and attention must return to scientific studies of Libyan heritage. Research should focus on existing materials in museums and collections. Granting bodies should give greater priority to research that can be carried out on computers or in the laboratory. Sample analyses of archaeological materials can be done in international labs, where Libyan scientists should work and be trained. 
Building an online library of rock-art sites, with the involvement of Libyan students and colleagues from other countries, would help Libyan scientists to overcome their isolation and regain a sense of identity. Museum collections that span from remote prehistory to the Islamic cultures should be digitized and made freely available to a global audience. Unpublished collections held by international teams should also be digitized and shared online. Remote analyses of satellite imagery, for example, has been used to reveal lost Saharan cities (see go.nature.com/8y1gxh). 
International cooperation between local and foreign groups working in Libya must be supported. Travel funding and visas for Libyan scientists to work temporarily overseas should be found. And mobility programmes for scientists such as the European Union's Erasmus Mundus should be exploited — Libya's application numbers have been historically low. Energy companies and others with commercial interests in Libya should be encouraged to work with local stakeholders to help to train local personnel in scientific research. 
Without these steps, archaeological research in Libya, already moribund, will soon die. It would be gravely disappointing and paradoxical if after years of neglect under the Gaddafi regime Libyan archaeological heritage is once again be abandoned. As well as a failure of the 2011 revolution, it would be a missed opportunity for a generation of young Libyan archaeologists — and a tragedy for the safeguarding of monuments and sites of universal and outstanding value.
Here is a link to the full article but you will need a subscription to read it.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Second Episode of SkA: The reality of Blackholes as shown in the movie "Interstellar"

by Salman Hameed

In this second episode of Science ka Adda, we look at the science depicted in the movie, "Interstellar". In particular, we focus on "Miller's planet" that is shown to be orbiting a supermassive blackhole. Do such blackholes exist in the universe? We look at the center of our own galaxy, Milky Way, as well as Centaurus A, a galaxy located 13 million light years away. For more SkA, visit www.sciencekaadda.com and for more detailed discussions on astronomy in Urdu, please visit Hamari Kainaat at hamarikainaat.com

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Saturday Video: A History of Ideas - The Big Bang (via the X-Files)

by Salman Hameed

If you were an X-Files fan, then you are in for an additional treat. BBC has a wonderful series titled, A History of Ideas. Its videos on "How did Everything Begin" is narrated by Scully - I mean Gillian Anderson, and these are quite good. Here is one on The Big Bang. It is short but the animation goes really smoothly.:
And here is one on Thomas Aquinas' First Mover Argument:

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

SSiMS talk tomorrow: Explorations of Web 2.0: What's Video Got to Do with the Study of Science and Muslims?

by Salman Hameed

If you are in the area then join for a lunch talk (at noon) jointly hosted by Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) and the School of Cognitive Science. Okay - so "hosting" is a strong word for this talk, as it is being jointly given by SSiMS fellow, Vika Gardner, and me (in a supporting cast). It is about a project that we have been doing for the past 6-months on Islam and Science videos that are available online and some of the interesting findings coming out of it. The goal of the project, funded by a grant from The Templeton Foundation, has been to evaluate content of Islam and Science videos (more on it in a few months) and to create a portal where we can place these videos in a categorized manner. However, an exploration of these videos has taken us in a fascinating direction and the talk highlights some of these preliminary findings. Here is the abstract:

Explorations of Web 2.0:  What's Video Got to Do with the Study of Science and Muslims?

Abstract: We will be presenting preliminary results from our ongoing Islam and Science Video Portal project. We will discuss what we have learned thus far about videos addressing Islam and the natural sciences:  what are they, where are they, who's making them. But perhaps, even at a more basic level, what is a video on "Islam and science" and who would be crazy enough to try to catalogue the Internet?  Come learn what happens when you put together an astronomer and a medieval Islamic historian, both of whom are fascinated with new media and constructions of identity and are unafraid to dive off the bleeding edge of the study of Muslims and internet videos.

Biographical Information:
Vika Gardner: Dr. Vika Gardner is the Research Fellow for the Science and Islam grant at Hampshire College. She has taught courses on various aspects of Islam, Gender and Sexuality in the Islamic World, and Iranian cinema at several small liberal arts colleges, including Mount Holyoke College.

Salman Hameed: Salman Hameed is Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities in the School of Cognitive Science, and heads the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College. His research work focuses on understanding the reception of modern science in contemporary Muslim world. He teaches interdisciplinary courses including Biological Evolution in the Public Sphere; Science in the Islamic World, and Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind. This semester he is teaching Evolution, Islam and Modernity, and Creating Science Fiction Short Films Using Real Science (with Jason Tor).

In The ASH Lobby
A light lunch will be available at noon

Monday, February 02, 2015

Atheism and suppression of religious freedom in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

by Salman Hameed

I'm currently reading Arabs without God: Atheism and freedom of belief in the Middle East. It is an interesting read and I will have more to say on it when I'm done. In the mean time, Saudi Arabia continues is continuing its horrific practices - this time of flogging a blogger, Raif Badawi, for "insulting" Islam. Since we only know of the cases that gain international coverage, we have no idea how many such cases actually exist. This is the case for executions as well. I had blogged about a popular Lebanese host back in 2009 who was put on the death row for sorcery charges, but also discovered that several others had been executed more quitely for similar charges (also see Saudi government mulling spreading atheism as an act of terror). It was further disgusting to see world leaders lining up to pay tribute to a late Saudi king (does his name even matter - as their policies more or less remain the same).

Back to Badawi. He is a father of three and has already received 50 of his 1000 lashes in front of spectators. Here is the description of his flogging:
The witness said Raif Badawi’s feet and hands were shackled during the flogging but his face was visible. He remained silent and did not cry out, said the witness, who spoke to
the Associated Press on condition of anonymity fearing government reprisal. 
Badawi was sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. He had criticized Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics on a liberal blog he founded. The blog has since been shut down. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1m riyals or about $266,600.
His next two floggings were postponed - probably because of international pressure. But here is his sister talking about his flogging, and her lawyer husband has been put in jail as well for defending her brother.

And then we have Egypt where a 21-year old student, Karim al-Banna, has been sentenced to 3-year jail term for declaring himself to be an atheist:
It took one session on Jan. 10 for a court in the Nile Delta province of Beheira to sentence Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old student, to three years in prison for saying on Facebook that he was an atheist. The student’s lawyer complained that he was denied the right even to present a defense, but an equally chilling aspect of Mr. Banna’s case is that his father testified against him. 
Also telling is that Mr. Banna was originally arrested, in November, when he went to the
police to complain that his neighbors were harassing him. This was after his name had appeared in a local newspaper on a list of known atheists. Instead of protecting him, the police accused him of insulting Islam. 
Such tag teams of family, media and state are not uncommon in cases against atheists. Because atheism itself is not illegal in Egypt, charges are laid under laws against blasphemy or contempt for religion. In 2012, a 27-year-old blogger, Alber Saber, received a three-year sentence on charges of blasphemy for creating a web page called “Egyptian Atheists.” In 2013, the writer and human rights activist Karam Saber (no relation) was convicted of defaming religion in his short story collection “Where Is God?” 
Similar charges have been used for political purposes against Egypt’s Christian minority. In 2013, a Coptic Christian lawyer, Roman Murad Saad, was sentenced in absentia for “ridiculing” the Quran. From 2011 to 2013, Egyptian courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants on charges of contempt for religion. 
It is no surprise that Mr. Banna’s conviction occurred on the watch of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army general who led the ouster of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to become president. Regardless of which way the seesaw of power in Egypt tips — toward the Islamists or toward the military — it is always a heterosexual, conservative Muslim man who heads the moral hierarchy. The further from that identity you are, the more vulnerable you are.
There are couple of things to note in the Saudi and Egyptian stories: 1) These are both repressive regimes facing fast changing times and they are eager to - as have many who came before them - use religion as justification for their actions, 2) There are also changes taking place within these societies due to expanding higher education and having access to broader international discourse on these matters and one expression is that of a more assertive expression of personal religiosity or lack thereof, 3) such stories also provide fodder for Islamophobic groups and individuals who use these cases in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to paint Muslims in a unitary light (for example, see this righteous beginning from the Islamphobe website Jihad Watch for the Egyptian case: "In the enlightened West, Karim al-Banna would never have been sentenced to prison for insulting Islam. He just would have been excoriated as a racist, bigoted Islamophobe, and shunned by all decent folk.").

So yes, we have to keep on calling out governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to absolutely stand with Raif Badawi (and others like him in Saudi Arabia) and Karim al-Banna (and many others like him in Egypt), but doing this without giving platform to organizations like Jihad Watch and, unfortunately, to people like Richard Dawkins (whom I used to admire in the 1990s).

While we are at it, also check out this organization: Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV)