Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Moghul Emperor Jahangir's Interest in Science

by Salman Hameed


Growing up in Pakistan, I did hear a lot about the Moghul Emperors, but rarely about science. In fact, if science was brought up, it was to state their lack of interest in the subject and, thus, one of the big reasons for their fall. There were some exceptions. There is probably an embellished tale of Humayun, the second Moghul Emeperor, slipping down the stairs to his death after watching stars at night. There have also been stories of the Moghuls and their love of birds, especially pigeons. In fact, Akbar's court (the third Moghul Emperor) had 20,000 pigeons including 500 trained ones. And then there was Musavi's 18th century book of poems, Kabutarnamah, which included 163 couplets followed by prose explaining the differences in pigeons!

It seems that the fourth Moghul Emperor, Jahangir, also had interests in birds and also interested in biology and breeding experiments. Here is an excerpt from an interview with art and architectural historian, Ebba Koch:
In your paper Jahangir as Francis Bacon’s Ideal of the King as an Observer and Investigator of Nature (1998), you write that “Jahangir has indeed been something of a Cinderella of text-based Mughal historical studies because of the focus of Mughal historians has been on Akbar’s and Aurangzeb’s reign.” This was way back in 1998. Is the situation different now? 
Yes, the situation has changed somewhat because now, we do have historians who are getting interested in Jahangir. We have Corinne Lefevre, who is a student of Sanjay Subrahmanyam and she is doing her dissertation and writing a book on Jahangir. Also, Lisa Balabanlilar has recently come out with a book on Jahangir in London. So Jahangir is getting more attention from mainstream historians. But art historians were always interested in him. And scientists also, since he made important contributions to ornithology and biology. He is still quoted by Salim Ali in his book on Indian birds. 
Jahangir was self-taught as were Akbar and Babur before him. But what drew him to biology, botany, geology, ornithology and zoology? Is there something in his childhood and early years that triggered his interest in these disciplines? 
It is a very unique phenomenon and in a way, we can describe it as a dynastic interest of the Mughals. It starts with Babur. He gives us very vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Hindustan in the Baburnameh, his own autobiography, which is a unique text of the 16th century-world. The way he talks about his own experiences as a warlord—he wanted to be a successor to Timur and raise a new empire and finally, he directed his interest to Hindustan—he describes all this. In a way, Jahangir picks up from Babur. He tells us, “My ancestor Babur describes the phenomena (which I am describing) but I am also directing my painters to make illustrations so that these phenomena would not only be recorded in text but also visually, in images. And he did so. We have wonderful bird studies by Ustad Mansur, his court painter, who was a specialist in nature studies.
And then here is a bit about breeding experiments, including Akbar's experiment going not according to plan:
Why was Jahangir so interested in breeding experiments, like the one with a pair of Sarus Cranes and the one where he crossed two male Markhor with seven female Barbary goats? 
Jahangir did not believe in knowledge that was transmitted through to one through hearsay or literary sources. He rather believed in acquiring knowledge through experiments and practical application. This was also what Sir Francis Bacon in England suggested, should be done. It is extremely fascinating to know about what Jahangir did here in India but hard to explain. But here again, we know that it is a family tradition, a dynastic interest because Akbar also had experiments undertaken. In the late 1570s, Akbar started an experiment and had children brought up in a secluded house with nurses who were not allowed to talk to them, to find out whether they would speak on their own and in what language. The experiment failed tragically because the children remained dumb and some even died tragically.
... 
“Jahangir”, you write, “recorded, depicted, measured, enumerated and tested what he considered as noteworthy and outstanding.” Was Jahangir then, a true scientist or something else? 
Obviously, he was something of an amateur. But sometimes, we get better scientific research from amateurs. Take for instance, photography. The best photographs that you have of Agra and the Taj Mahal are not from a professional photographer, but a certain Dr. John Murray who was employed by the British East India Company. Jahangir was an amateur as he did not have training as a scientist. But other Mughal emperors were really talented personalities. So, in this way, he had a natural talent for these observations. Also, we do not know about the people around him. Though it is possible that he had advisors but he does not mention them. Only once in the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, he speaks about “men of superior knowledge” who advised him during the construction of his father’s tomb in Agra. So some people seem to have been around and it may also have been for science. But we do not get the notion. But he had an agent sitting in Goa, named Muqarrab Khan, who was tasked with sending exotic birds and animals to Agra. He sent a North American turkey and monkey once and Ustad Mansur drew the turkey, the painting of which survives till today.
Read the full interview here

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Please read this short story - "My Mother is a Lunar Crater"

by Salman Hameed



There are very few writers who can provide a nuanced critique of politics in different cultures, bring science into their stories, and write a beautiful prose. All of these elements are present in the short story, My Mother is a Lunar Crater by Uzma Aslam Khan. A full disclosure: Uzma is a good friend of mine and also a wonderful colleague at Hampshire College. Sometimes it can get tricky if you know a person but don't like their writing. Fortunately, Uzma always makes this really easy for me (plus, don't take my word for it alone. This story was awarded second prize in Zoetrope and was a runner-up for the Margarita Donnelly Prize for prose writing in Calyx magazine). The local setting of the story is an added bonus for those who live in Western Massachusetts.

You can also see Uzma's ability to beautifully weave science into her prose via her 2009 novel, The Geometry of God (if you have a chance, please read it). While the protagonist in the novel is a paleontologist, her current short story is centered on a Pakistani-American astronomer. What is really cool here is the way she anchors her story around a crater named after an 11th century Muslim polymath, Al-Biruni. And along the way, you also get to learn about lunar libration. As you will notice after reading the short story, I have not said anything about the central theme that is urgent, important, and also tragic.

Here is the beginning of the story:

My Mother is a Lunar Crater
by Uzma Aslam Khan
My mother is a lunar crater by the name of Al-Biruni. The crater lies on the far side of the moon, away from Earth. It can only be glimpsed by a loving eye when the moon sways. As I watch my mother on our way to the science museum, I want to tell her the name for this slow oscillation: lunar libration, from our zodiac sign libra, Latin for scales. 
     She sits in the passenger seat, tense, nodding very slightly from the tremors that doctors say are nothing serious, her right hand clutching the armrest, her left clutching prayer beads. A libration, I want to say, permits us to peer just beyond the moon’s eastern edge. Even then, however, Al-Biruni appears only in profile, never head-on. 
     “You drive well,” she says after a time. Moments earlier she had sucked in her breath at the speed of cars at that tricky intersection between Springfield and Chicopee where interstates merge and the GPS says to turn right and then left and the lanes go from three to two to four. I was in the wrong lane and the man passing us gave me the finger. Because she was there, I did not give him the finger back. “How scary,” she had said, releasing her breath. That’s when she began to clutch the armrest and the beads. 
     “Thank you,” I reply. 
     This is her first time visiting me in western Massachusetts. This is my second time seeing her since the deaths of my father and sister in Karachi. I could not make it for the funeral. By the time I arrived, they were already buried. While I was there, each time our friends came to the house to condole, my mother said how glad she was that the bodies had been identified, sometimes they never are. When she had kissed them on the cheek—first my father, then sister—they seemed to smile, she told the guests. I wondered if she shared this detail only when I was present. I wondered if she knew what it was to not be able to touch the faces of those you love to say goodbye. 
     I cannot remember which exit I am to take. My iPhone rests to my right, in the cup holder beside the hand brake, charging. It is hard to see, and the GPS voice is mysteriously silent. I decide it is Exit 7 not 8 and stay in a middle lane.
Read the full story here.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Launching a new initiative: Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu

by Salman Hameed


I have been making popular astronomy videos in Urdu for the past couple of years. I, myself, got hooked onto astronomy after watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos - on Pakistan, and it dramatically altered the direction of my life. For this reason, I have always appreciated the power of visual media. I am now making an effort to bring astronomy videos to audiences in Pakistan and other places that understand Urdu. There are three YouTube series that I am engaged in:

Science ka Adda+ (Café Scientifique): An in-studio episode about recent discoveries in astronomy.

Kainaati Gup Shup (A Chat About Our Universe): A video podcast about astronomy recent astronomy news.

Hamari Kainaat (Our Universe): A more detailed discussion about astronomy between me and Pakistan's leading amateur astronomer, Umair Asim.

Now all these series will be under the same channel: Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu

So first of all, please subscribe to the channel. It is free - but with subscriptions, we can say that there are others who interested in the channel.

Setting this up has been a fascinating experience. I used to think that all you have to do is make good content videos, upload them, and people will get to them. But that was so 2016 thinking! There is a whole YouTube ecosphere that you now have to understand and appreciate the fact that close to 300 hours of content is uploaded on YouTube every minute!! I think this is completely nuts - and the number is going up fast. And I am not helping!

One more thing: If you don't understand Urdu, that is okay as well. The video podcast, Kainaati Gup Shup will soon (January 2019) be in both English and Urdu. This will not be dubbed or sub-titled - but rather recorded separately. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, here is a recent Video podcast about Oumuamua - an asteroid from outside our solar system:

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

An excellent new book on doubt in 19th century Victorian England

by Salman Hameed


This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I am again reading it right now and I am again reminded of how good it is. There is also plenty of science and religion in there, especially as we are dealing with the creation of (intelligent) life by a human. Most of the movies have not really done justice to the true philosophical themes addresses in the book. Danny Boyle's (of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionare fame) stage production of Frankenstein is outstanding. But the point is that there are many themes in the book that pertain to science and religion.

There is a new book out Genres of Doubt: Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Crisis of Victorian Faith that directly addresses science and religion of the era. Apart from Frankenstein, it focuses on The Island of Dr. Moroe, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Alice in Wonderland, etc.  It even even has a place for Edwin Abbott's Flatland: A romance of many dimensions - a book that we love to talk about in astronomy when talking of dimensions of the universe. As an aside, here is a clip from Carl Sagan's Cosmos on Flatland:


I really digress. My point is that the Genres of Doubt looks fascinating. You can listen to the interview with the author, Elizabeth Sanders on the New Books Network (it is a long interview but really interesting). Here is the description:
The Victorians left an indelible stamp on culture that continues to be in evidence today, not least of which is their refinement of the realist fiction medium known as the novel and their innovations, which led to the birth of fantasy and science fiction – two of today’s most popular genres. This period also gave rise to a Victorian “crisis of faith,” as the traditional Christian beliefs that had underpinned British society for centuries faced new challenges from scientific discoveries, the writings of Charles Darwin, and exposure to other cultures. In her book Genres of Doubt: Science Fiction, Fantasy and the Crisis of Victorian Faith (McFarland & Co. Publishers, 2017), Elizabeth M. Sanders argues that these two shifts—one literary and one cultural—were deeply intertwined. She writes that the novel, a literary form that was developed as a vehicle for realism, when infused with unreal elements, offers a space to ponder questions about the supernatural, the difference between belief and knowledge, and humanity’s place in the world. She revisits familiar, representative works from the period, organizing her analysis around how they exemplify particular responses to or strategies for dealing with the problems raised by the new questioning of the supernatural. 
Elizabeth M. Sanders holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Iowa. She works in corporate and foundation relations at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and speaks at conferences about career transitions for Ph.D. graduates. She was recently a speaker at the Beyond the Professoriate online conference and her book was recently nominated for the Mythopoeic Society’s Scholarship Award in Myth and Fantasy Studies.
Listen to the interview here.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Anti plagiarism efforts in Nigeria

by Salman Hameed

Plagiarism in scientific publication is not a Nigerian issue alone. There have been high profile cases from all around the world. Plagiarism is also not the only issue worth worrying about in science publications: There are key retractions on fabrication of data and then there is the problem of low-quality for-profit journals that would publish anything (for your amusement, here is a paper defending an Earth-centered universe published in the International Journal of Science and Technoledge).


However, it is good to see young researchers in Nigeria taking an initiative to combat some of these issue. From Science:
The experience led Unuabonah to become a leader in a growing movement to combat academic plagiarism in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and home to more than 150 public and private universities and colleges. Since 2012, the Nigerian Young Academy (NYA)—an off-shoot of the Nigerian Academy of Sciences (NAS) for
scientists younger than 45 that Unuabonah helped found—has made educating academics about the pitfalls of plagiarism a major focus of its work. The group will hold a session on preventing plagiarism in August at its annual meeting in Ondo City, Nigeria. This past February, a record 350 participants showed up for a daylong, NYA-run plagiarism workshop, and the group soon hopes to arrange at least six more, one in each of Nigeria's six geopolitical regions. 
The fledgling group, which has just 36 members, is also encouraging universities to make greater efforts to detect plagiarism—such as by installing software that can detect plagiarized material—and to penalize those who copy. Last year, NYA itself ejected a member for plagiarism, and it has formally made improper copying a dismissible offense.
One of the problems is that students are often not trained to know what is and isn't plagiarism. We see this issue quite frequently in undergraduate classes. Because of the internet it has also become easy to copy material,  but search tools also make it easy to catch such cases. Nevertheless, this is a real problem and Nigeria's efforts are commendable:
Many Nigerian researchers believe few plagiarists get caught, Okonta's survey suggested. But that may change. In 2013, a group of Nigerian vice-chancellors negotiated discounted subscriptions to the antiplagiarism software Turnitin, which screens documents for borrowed material. And Okonta's university and others have made plagiarism checks a part of faculty promotion reviews. 
Campaigners also want to institute stiffer consequences for copying. “We need to do a lot more sensitization, telling people about the awful side of being caught,” Unuabonah says. “That will send some fear into their hearts.” Recent dismissals of Nigerian academics for plagiarism are helping that cause, says Charles Ayo, former vice-chancellor of Covenant University in Ota, Nigeria. 
Nigeria's two-pronged effort to raise awareness about plagiarism and penalize wrongdoers is a good model for change, says malaria researcher Virander Singh Chauhan, who chairs India's National Assessment and Accreditation Council in Bengaluru and helped write that country's new antiplagiarism rules. “This is not an Indian or Nigerian problem,” he says. “It is a global issue, and technology has made it so very easy and tempting.”
Fellow scientists: lets not cheat!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Elaine Howard Ecklund lecture on "Science and Religion in Global Public Life"

by Salman Hameed


Elaine Howard Ecklund has done some of the most extensive empirical sociological work on public perceptions of science and religion. If you are interested in the subject, you should check out these two books on the subject: Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think and the one that came out just a few months ago, Science vs Religion: What Religious People Really Think. You can also follow her publications here.

But here is an opportunity to see her deliver the prestigious Gifford Lecture: Science and Religion in Global Public Life.  Enjoy!

Friday, June 08, 2018

Pre-print server for Indonesian research

Salman Hameed

When I was in graduate school, astronomy pre-print server (astro-ph) had just started. It was an incredible source of articles and we would get those in a timely manner as well. There were many legitimate concerns as well. For example, if authors upload "submitted" articles, then you may miss on potentially significant changes after peer-review. Or what about the submission of low-quality articles that will never be published in a reputable journal? Ultimately, the good of astro-ph far outbalanced the bad and now it is a flourishing site for many scientific disciplines.

Interestingly, a new pre-print server has started that focuses on research of a single country rather than on a discipline. INA-Rxiv is all about Indonesia and it is a getting a good response from researchers. From Nature:
The server hosts manuscripts in multiple disciplines — most in the natural sciences, followed by engineering, social and behavioral sciences and arts and humanities; and accepts material written in Bahasa Indonesian and English. It operates in partnership with the Open Science Framework, a service from the non-profit Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia. 
Computer scientist Robbi Rahim at Indonesia’s Medan Institute of Technology has uploaded 26 manuscripts. An article he submitted, about multimedia learning in mathematics and written in Bahasa, has been downloaded 330 times. Rahim says that the preprint server helps his research reach a bigger audience, because he can upload articles in both languages.
There is also a recently launched government system that ranks researchers and institutions. But this is where the quality of research papers submitted on INA-Rxiv will become an issue. On the other = hand, it will provide a boost for articles published in Bahasa:
In January 2017, the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education of the Republic of Indonesia in Jakarta launched the Science and Technology Index (SINTA), which ranks researchers and institutions by various metrics, such as number of peer-reviewed papers and citations in national and international journals indexed by citation databases, including Scopus and Web of Science. It also includes papers indexed by Google Scholar. 
The ministry says that SINTA measures researchers’ publication productivity, and will be used to inform future promotions for government-supported scientists and funding decisions. 
But Irawan says SINTA does not index many open-access Bahasa-language journals, which disadvantages academics who use them, particularly those researchers who struggle to write English well enough to publish in international titles. 
Irawan says some researchers seem to use INA-Rxiv to get around SINTA's limitation. That's because articles on the preprint server are automatically indexed on Google Scholar, which is recognized by SINTA.
On the other hand, Indonesian government is planning additional regulations on international collaborations. Also from Nature from a few weeks back:
Scientists in Indonesia fear that a government plan to introduce strict rules for foreign researchers will scare off potential collaborators and hamper experiments. The proposals also suggest tough new penalties, including prison sentences, for foreign scientists who break some existing rules, such as the requirement to have research permit. 
Next month, representatives from two science academies will meet with politicians in the hope of convincing them to reconsider the proposals. 
“The new regulations will only repel foreign scientists to do research in Indonesia, and this is not good for Indonesia’s science,” says Berry Juliandi, a member of the Young Academy of Sciences and a biologist at Bogor Agricultural University. The contribution of international scientists is crucial for Indonesian research because foreign science agencies have larger budgets and more sophisticated technology, he says. 
Government documents state that the proposed regulations for international science are designed to protect Indonesia’s natural resources and to increase local science capacity.
If it is about protecting natural resources, then it is not a bad idea. But this is not exactly clear and the this may end up deterring collaborations as well. Lets see how things develop. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Four new Pakistan related books

by Salman Hameed

You should know that podcasts for New Books Network (NBN) are an amazing resource! This is the place you hear the authors not only talk about their books, but also what got them interested in their field to begin with. It introduces cutting-edge research and scholarship. So here are a couple of interviews that might be of interest:

The Pakistani Middle Class by Ammara Maqsood. I am finishing up reading the book and it is set in Lahore and is an interesting look at contemporary Pakistan and - for some - a nostalgic imaginary Pakistan of the 50s and 60s. Here is a blurb from NBN:
The relationship between class and religious piety represents a theme less explored in the study of modern Islam in general, and in the study of South Asian Islam in particular. In her incredibly nimble and nuanced recent book The New Pakistani Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2017), Ammara Maqsood, Lecturer in Social Anthropology at
the University of Manchester, addresses this lacunae by offering a fascinating narrative of the intersection of religion, class, and piety among the urban Pakistani middle class. With a focus on the history and present of older and the new middle-class communities in Lahore, this book charts with remarkable analytical precision, the interaction of global and local politics, and the choreography of everyday religious life among the urban middle class in Pakistan. Theoretically sophisticated, historically grounded, and ethnographically vivacious, The New Pakistani Middle Class represents a groundbreaking contribution to the study of post-colonial Muslim societies, South Asian Islam, and to the anthropology of religion and Islam. In addition to its intellectual merits, this book also reads lyrically making it eminently usable in undergraduate and graduate seminars on religion and class, Urban Studies, South Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, and Anthropology.

We back further in history to look at Indian Muslim minorities after the fateful mutiny/rebellion/uprising/war-of-independence (pick your favorite) of 1857. Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuesrst has a new on the subject titled Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad - and she spends a lot of time with the writings of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Here is the blurb from NBN for this:
In her fascinating and path paving new book, Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels and Jihad (I. B. Tauris, 2017), Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Vermont reorients our understanding of the 1857 rebellion in India, while offering a nuanced theorization of religion, religious identity, and questions of violence. The title of this book announces the key terms and conceptual pillars that sustain it throughout: religion, rebels, and jihad. The brilliance of this book lies in the way it raises and addresses a number of critical questions regarding memory, formations of religious identity, and conceptions of religion as a category through the close and energetic reading of a single event. This book is intellectual history at its fiercest. Nimbly written, it will also make an excellent text for undergraduate and graduate seminars.

If you are interested in the formation of languages and their relation to national identity formations, then you should check out Walter N. Hakala's Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia. Here is the blurb from NBN:
For many people language is a central characteristic of their social identity. In modern South Asia, the production of Urdu and Hindi as national languages was intricately tied
to the hardening of religious identities. South Asian lexicographers, those folks who were most intimately working with language, were at the center of this political realignment. In Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia (Columbia University Press, 2016), Walter N. Hakala, Associate Professor of South Asian languages and literature at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, traces the long history of the construction of Urdu as a language of cultural and national identity. Dictionaries are the key source for understanding the changing social and political landscape of South Asia. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Negotiating Languages offers an episodic genealogy of the ideological underpinnings and political consequences of dictionary production. In our conversation we discuss South Asia’s multilingual premodern literature, linguistic authority, “Urdu’s oldest dictionary,” the influence of colonial knowledge production, the changing social and material challenges in 20th century lexicographical production, British lexicographers and their relationship with local linguists, Islamicized Urdu literary culture, and questions of whether non-Muslims could sufficiently produce Urdu dictionaries.

And no NBN interview yet, but I just got Muhammad Qasim Zaman's Islam in Pakistan: A History. This looks fantastic and I have read some earlier work of Zaman - and it is fantastic. Here is the blurb for this:
The first modern state to be founded in the name of Islam, Pakistan was the largest Muslim country in the world at the time of its establishment in 1947. Today it is the second-most populous, after Indonesia. Islam in Pakistan is the first comprehensive book to explore Islam's evolution in this region over the past century and a half, from the British colonial era to the present day. Muhammad Qasim Zaman presents a rich historical account of this major Muslim nation, insights into the rise and gradual decline of Islamic modernist thought in the South Asian region, and an understanding of how Islam has fared in the contemporary world.  
Much attention has been given to Pakistan's role in sustaining the Afghan struggle against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, in the growth of the Taliban in the 1990s, and in the War on Terror after 9/11. But as Zaman shows, the nation's significance in matters relating to Islam has much deeper roots. Since the late nineteenth century, South Asia has witnessed important initiatives toward rethinking core Islamic texts and traditions in the interest of their compatibility with the imperatives of modern life. Traditionalist scholars and their institutions, too, have had a prominent presence in the region, as have Islamism and Sufism. Pakistan did not merely inherit these and other aspects of Islam. Rather, it has been and remains a site of intense contestation over Islam's public place, meaning, and interpretation.
Examining how facets of Islam have been pivotal in Pakistani history, Islam in Pakistan offers sweeping perspectives on what constitutes an Islamic state. 

Happy reading/listening. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Talk today on evolution and 'Clash of Civilizations'

by Salman Hameed

If you happen to be in Western Massachusetts today, come to Union Station in Northampton at 6pm. I am giving a talk as part of Sci-Tech Cafe: A Scientist Walks in to a Bar... Here are the details:

…and decides to bring up a politically charged topic.

Monday, April 23rd, 6pm
***Union Station , Northampton***

Dawkins walks into a madrassa:
How evolution is used in promoting ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative
  • How does biological evolution sometimes feed into the ”clash of civilizations” narrative?
  • Do Muslims accept biological evolution?
  • Is evolution even taught in Muslim-majority countries?
  • How can scientists make positive contributions to discussions over biological evolution?
Salman Hameed, aka “Mr. Universe” on Monte Belmonte’s WRIS radio program, is Charles Taylor Chair and associate professor of integrated science & humanities in the school of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College. His primary research interest focuses on understanding the reception of science in the Muslim world and how Muslims view the relationship between science & religion.
SciTech Cafe events are open all those with curious minds regardless of age and background.  Our events, prizes and snack are free, but donations are appreciated.

I should mentioned that one of prizes is Uzma Aslam Khan's novel, The Geometry of God, which is about a Paleontologist growing up in Pakistani in 1980s. What even cooler is that Uzma will be at the talk and will give three signed copies of the book. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

New Open Access Journal for Research in Africa

by Salman Hameed


There are two big challenges in scientific publishing right now: 1) Global access to high quality journals, and 2) Predatory fake journals. This latter category has all the trappings of science sounding names, but when you closely look at them, it turns out to be a scam to get money and publish anything. In this context it is fantastic to know that researchers in Africa are getting an open-access "mega-journal", Scientific African, that will focus on scientific research in Africa and help build a strong research community there. Here are the aims and scopes of the journal:
Scientific African is a peer reviewed, open access, inter- and multidisciplinary scientific journal that is dedicated to expanding access to African research, increasing intra-African scientific collaboration, and building academic research capacity in Africa. The journal aims to provide a modern, highly-visible platform for publishing pan-African research and welcomes submissions from all scientific disciplines. 
The journal welcomes submissions of full text research articles, reviews but also publishes invited perspectives and critical policy papers.
The Guardian also wrote about the journal, and here is quote from the editor of Scientific African:
Its editor, Dr Benjamin Gyampoh, said the journal would address the problem of African scientists going unrecognised for pioneering work because they lacked access to quality publications. 
“There are many reputable journals but there is a low number of Africans publishing in them partly because the costs are so high,” Gyampoh said. “We are reducing these costs while providing a platform for world-class research, across different disciplines and on par with any published around the world.”
This is all excellent and I think these kind of efforts can have genuine positive impacts.

Not directly relates science in Africa, but NYT's weekly music highlights included a single from Ras G. & the Afrikan Space Program, called The Arrival. This is how NYT described it:
The Los Angeles-based producer Ras G makes futurism feel like comfort, especially on his new album, “Stargate Music.” The tracks here seem like they might’ve been built in a lab full of microscopes and mirrors: He zeros in on small elements, giving them a sharp clarity even in the darkest environment; beats and little patterns ricochet and build on each other, like a mosaic of reflections. An avowed Afrofuturist, Ras G is making music for your soul and for your imagination, inviting a combination of close inspection and expansive thinking.
This is pretty cool stuff. But I wanted to highlight their really cool 2013 track, BLAST-OFF! featuring Eagle Nebula. Enjoy!


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Live telecast of Breakthrough Discuss conference on Astrobiology later today...

Salman Hameed


A quick note here to let you know that Breakthrough Initiatives - yes the same group that wants to send small unmanned spacecrafts to Alpha Centauri, is hosting its third annual conference on April 12-13. The theme of the conference is Alien Life - Diversity in the Universe. Better still, the whole conference will have a live telecast on YouTube: 

Day 1 here: youtu.be/nFoTyKGHdLc

Day 2 here: youtu.be/3GiN-tWAV_k

The lineup of speakers looks really good. In a timely manner, there is a paper that just published in the journal, Astrobiology, that looks at the possibility of life in the acidic clouds of Venus. And in the conference, David Grinspoon will be talking about this very possibility.

In any case, here is the program for this year's Breakthrough Discuss conference:

Day 1 Schedule: Presenters/Panelists

Live on YouTube: youtu.be/nFoTyKGHdLc
Pacific Time USA
09:00
Welcome to Breakthrough Discuss 2018: Hosts Charles Alcock, Penelope Boston, Jamie Drew, Peter Michelson, S. Pete Worden
09:15
Keynote: Carolyn Porco, “Enceladus: Little Moon, Big Possibilities”
10:00
Session One: Search for Life in our Solar System: Chairs Penelope Boston, Chris McKay
10:10
David Smith, “Why Aren’t Clouds Green?”
10:30
David Grinspoon, “The Case for Venus: Life in Acid Clouds?”
10:50
Britney Schmidt, “Robots Under the Ice, and One Day, In Space?”
11:25
Alfonso Davila, “Search for Life Beyond Earth: Motive, Means and Opportunity”
11:45
Morgan Cable, “Dragonfly: In situ exploration of Titan’s prebiotic organic chemistry and habitability”
12:05
Penelope Boston, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: The Questions That Drive the Destinations”
13:40
Panel One: Search for Life in our Solar Systems: Chairs Penelope Boston, Chris McKay, Panelists Dale Anderson, Steven Benner, Nathalie Cabrol, Cynthia Philips, Carol Stoker
15:10
Session Two: Possibilities for Non-Terran Life in the Universe: Chairs Svetlana Berdyugina, Lisa Kaltenegger
15:20
Lynn Rothschild, “Universal Biology: Investigating Life as it Must Be”
15:40
Steve Benner, “Chemical Constraints on Non-Earth Life”
16:00
Sara Seager, “A New View of Life's Journey Through Chemical Space”
16:30
Charles Ofria, “Using Artificial Life to Uncover Universal Evolutionary Dynamics”
16:50
Emilio Enriquez, “Searching for lifeform-independent technosignatures
17:10
Lee Cronin, “The Evolution of Inorganic Life in the Universe

Day 2 Schedule: Presenters/Panelists

Live on YouTube: youtu.be/3GiN-tWAV_k
Pacific Time USA
09:00
Welcome Remarks, S. Pete Worden
09:10
Keynote: Martin Rees, “Will SETI Detect Organic or Electronic Intelligence?”
10:05
Panel Two: Possibilities for Non-Terran Life in the Universe: Chairs Svetlana Berdyugina, Lisa Kaltenegger, Panelists Penelope Boston, Chris McKay, Anders Sandberg , Clara Sousa-Silva, Sara Walker
12:30
Session Three: Progress in Novel Space Propulsion: Chairs Sigrid Close, Zachary Manchester
12:40
Sonny White, “Pilot Wave Model for Impulsive Thrust from RF Test Device”
13:00
Ryan Weed, “Scaled Radioisotope Positron Propulsion for Interstellar Spacecraft”
13:20
Geoffrey Landis, “Sails: From the Solar System to the Stars”
13:50
Robert Zubri, “Dipole Drive for Space Propulsion”
14:10
Kevin Parkin “Progress in Beamed Energy Propulsion”
14:30
Les Johnson, “Solar and Electric Sailing: Stepping Stones to the Stars”
15:00
Panel Three: Progress in Novel Space Propulsion: Chairs Sigrid Close, Zachary Manchester, Panelists Elena Ancona, Harry Atwater, Heidi Fearn, Mateusz Józefowicz, Kelvin Long
16:20
Conference concluding remarks

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Morocco's giant Solar Farm Looks Promising

by Salman Hameed


If you are looking for natural resources, then an unblocked Sun is definitely a good one. Here in Massachusetts, we keep waiting for it. But Morocco is taking advantage of it. It has built a huge Solar plant called Noor Power Station near the city of Ouarzazate, located on a plateau in the Atlas Mountains. The Plant uses moveable concave mirrors to follow the Sun and to concentrate the light to central processing system. It is built for $9 billion and the question is how long will it take to pay it back? The project seems promising (they are on the 3rd stage of the project that involves a huge tower - the largest structure in Africa) and is part of a larger scheme to power not just North-Africa, but also Europe (the plant is built primarily by a Spanish company). Below is a nice short (seven minute) clip from PBS that covers the promise and perils of this project. Oh - and one of the many cool things about the city if Ouarzazate: You may already be quite familiar to it. It is a favorite spot for movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, among many others, were shot here.

Even Daenerys Targaryen passed through the city. 


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Protest at an Italian museum over discount for Arabic speakers

by Salman Hameed



This is a new one for anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. The largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside Cairo are hosted at the Egyptian Museum in the Italian city of Turin (wait - I presume that we can also see the Shroud of Turin here too). I am surprised that Italy has one of the largest Egyptian collection. In any case, the museum is giving discounts to Arabic speakers - which makes sense since Egypt has the largest population of Arabic speakers.

However, an Italian far-right party, The Brothers of Italy, is upset and calls it discrimination against Italians (from NYT):
The Brothers of Italy, a small but vocal far-right party that is a member of the coalition headed by Silvio Berlusconi, took offense at the offer for “discriminating against Italians” and staged a protest on Friday. 
“This is a specific case directed to a specific religion,” Giorgia Meloni, secretary of the Brothers of Italy, said in Turin, where she led the protest carrying a “No Islamization” banner. 
“There is racism in Italy — against Italians,” Ms. Meloni proclaimed.
The museum director, Christian Greco, left his office inside the building to confront the chanting protesters. 
“The museum belongs to everybody,” Mr. Greco explained calmly to Ms. Meloni, in an exchange that was captured on video, and then widely circulated on social media and on Italian television stations over the weekend. 
Mr. Greco made the point that the museum belonged to everyone and had various promotions to lure many types of visitors — including discounts for couples on Valentine’s Day.
Here is the video of the exchange (unfortunately not subtitled in English - or in Arabic... :) )


This is a relatively small thing but a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Read the full story from NYT here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Science in Sudan after sanctions

by Salman Hameed

Sanctions have a broad impact. Even when science is not specifically targeted, it becomes harder to get scientific equipment that can support research. In the country ratings for science (it is an imperfect measure - and we should take that caveat seriously), Sudan is at no. 99, sandwiched between Senegal (surprisingly low) and Moldova. In any case, Science has a good story about the efforts to revive Sudanese science now that some of the sanctions have been lifted (you will need subscription to read the full story):
When Dia-Eldin Elnaiem flies to Sudan next month, it will be with a light heart. For the first time in 2 decades, he will be able to study disease-carrying sand flies in the nation of his birth without fear of breaking the law in his adopted country, the United States. “It will be such a relief,” says Elnaiem, a parasitologist at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. “I am finally free.” 
In October, the U.S. government, citing Sudan's humanitarian advances and its progress in fighting terrorism, lifted economic sanctions on the African nation. Applied in the 1990s to punish Sudan's government for human rights abuses, the sanctions did not explicitly target science. But by prohibiting bank transfers to Sudan and placing stringent controls on exports of materials and equipment to the country, the sanctions essentially severed Sudanese science from international partnerships and funding. They also forced scientists in the Sudanese diaspora in the United States to run an almost impossible gauntlet to get permission to conduct research in Sudan. The restrictions “became a part of our DNA,” says Mahmoud Hilali, a 34-year-old now at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel who left Sudan in 2015 to do a Ph.D. in Switzerland on mycetoma, a disease caused by a flesh-eating fungus that's rife in his homeland.

And here is a brief background of Sudanese science - starting with the British:
Modern science took root in Sudan in the early 1900s, when British colonists set up a scientific outpost in Khartoum, the capital, to study diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, and rabies. In the 1940s a Sudanese-U.K. team made a landmark find: that sodium stibogluconate can cure visceral leishmaniasis. Sold under the name pentostam, the drug is still in use today. After independence in 1956, Sudan's small science community enjoyed a “golden age,” says Suad Sulaiman, a parasitologist with the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences in Khartoum. For 3 decades, she says, the country's universities and labs were among the best in Africa. 
In the 1980s, however, a civil war broke out between the largely Muslim north and the mostly Christian south (what is now South Sudan), and Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup. The rest of the world largely ostracized his increasingly repressive regime. International research funding dried up. Then came the sanctions, which made it almost impossible to purchase reagents or instruments from abroad, pay publication fees, or travel overseas for conferences, Sulaiman says.

Image from Science

It is no surprise then that many of the scientists left the country, and the numbers are staggering considering Sudanese population:
According to UNESCO, more than 3000 Sudanese researchers emigrated between 2002 and 2014. By 2013, the country had a mere 19 researchers for every 100,000 citizens, or 1/30 the ratio of Egypt, according to the Sudanese National Centre for Research.
The Sudanese government has promised an increase in S&T spending to 1% of GDP. I think this is a broad number recommended by UN. However, there are two things to be cautious about. First, just because it is promised doesn't mean that it is going to happen. Second, just throwing money at a problem doesn't necessary solve the problem, and Pakistan serves as a cautionary tale.

Nevertheless, it is good to see sanctions lifted on Sudan and hope to see good science coming out of the country as well. 

Saturday, February 03, 2018

A Dystopian Graphic Novel from Egypt

by Salman Hameed


Ganzeer is a graphic artist from Egypt. The picture above is one of the protest graffitis against the Egyptian military after the Egyptian Arab Spring of 2011. He later fled to the US and is busy with his brand of protest art. He has also been working on a graphic novel, The Solar Grid. Three chapters are available and he planning on finishing the book by 2019. Here is a trailer for the novel:

THE SOLAR GRID – a graphic novel (trailer 2) from ganzeer on Vimeo.

Slate has a nice article on Ganzeer and this novel:
Ganzeer’s graphic novel begins when night is eliminated forever on Earth. A network of satellites capable of farming the sun’s light and energy to redistribute it to the dark side of the Earth enables corporations to run their solar-powered factories around the clock, but it also causes insurmountable ecological disasters around the globe. Although it comes in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Ganzeer’s comic isn’t a shot at the young Trump administration but a criticism of corporate greed going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Ganzeer explained that the idea for The Solar Grid originally came from a real ecological catastrophe in Egypt. The Aswan High Dam was created to harness the power of the Nile, but the ecosystem that had nourished animals, fish, and soil that for thousands of years was altered significantly, devastating Mediterranean fishing industries and displacing more than 100,000 locals. In his retelling, Ganzeer expanded the idea from the Nile to the Earth’s sun, and working from the idea that revolution sparking from the most unassuming characters was universal, he left up to two orphans, the main characters, to restore the natural order.
Read the full article here and also check out The Solar Grid.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Political Unrests and the Upcoming Water Crisis

by Salman Hameed

The recent Iranian protests have several components. Some of it is definitely political. However, another component has to do with the water crisis. And Iran is not the only country that has faced political unrest with water shortage. More recently, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria have all had water shortages leading to unrests and uprisings. Here is from a recent NYT article on this particular matter:
A water shortage can spark street protests: Access to water has been a common source of unrest in India. It can be exploited by terrorist groups: The Shabab has sought to take advantage of the most vulnerable drought-stricken communities in Somalia. Water shortages can prompt an exodus from the countryside to crowded cities: Across the arid Sahel, young men unable to live off the land are on the move. And it can feed into insurgencies: Boko Haram stepped into this breach in Nigeria, Chad and Niger. 
Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, lasting roughly 14 years. 
A water shortage can spark street protests: Access to water has been a common source of unrest in India. It can be exploited by terrorist groups: The Shabab has sought to take advantage of the most vulnerable drought-stricken communities in Somalia. Water shortages can prompt an exodus from the countryside to crowded cities: Across the arid Sahel, young men unable to live off the land are on the move. And it can feed into insurgencies: Boko Haram stepped into this breach in Nigeria, Chad and Niger. 
Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, lasting roughly 14 years.
But this is just the beginning. According to World Resources Institute, at least 33 countries are in the category of high stress regarding water. Here is a map of water crisis around the world and you can find your own favorite country:


The map also overlaps with much of the Muslim world population:

And this population is young - with half of the population under the age of 25! The reasons for water crisis are complex, but climate change is one of the most important variables. I know that there have been serious concerns about melting glaciers in the Indian subcontinent as water management issues between India and Pakistan are delicate and can easily lead to a catastrophic war. 

But apart from climate change, the NYT article points to efforts by governments to be self-sufficient regarding food supplies: 
Like many countries, from India to Syria, Iran after the 1979 revolution set out to be self-sufficient in food. It wasn’t a bad goal, in and of itself. But as the Iranian water expert Kaveh Madani points out, it meant that the government encouraged farmers to plant thirsty crops like wheat throughout the country. The government went further by offering farmers cheap electricity and favorable prices for their wheat — effectively a generous two-part subsidy that served as an incentive to plant more and more wheat and extract more and more groundwater. 
The result: “25 percent of the total water that is withdrawn from aquifers, rivers and lakes exceeds the amount that can be replenished” by nature, according to Claudia Sadoff, a water specialist who prepared a report for the World Bank on Iran’s water crisis. 
Iran’s groundwater depletion rate is today among the fastest in the world, so much so that by Mr. Michel’s calculations, 12 of the country’s 31 provinces “will entirely exhaust their aquifers within the next 50 years.” In parts of the country, the groundwater loss is causing the land to sink. 
Water is a handy political tool, and to curry favor with their rural base, Iran’s leaders — and particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — dammed rivers across the country to divert water to key areas. As a result, many of Iran’s lakes have shrunk. That includes Lake Urmia, once the region’s largest saltwater lake, which has diminished in size by nearly 90 percent since the early 1970s.

Read the full article here

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What to make of the NYT UFO story? Read it with a dose of skepticism

Salman Hameed


UFO's have again crossed over into the mainstream. New York Times had a front page story on Sunday about a secret Department of Defense program that investigated reports of UFOs from 2007-2012 (and may be it is still active). Politico also has an independent article on the same UFO program. I have been teaching a class called Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind for the past ten years. In the class we look at the claims of UFOs and alien abductions from a historical, sociological, psychological, astronomical, and religious perspectives. It is a lot of fun and a story like this pretty much hits the bullseye for the topics we discuss.

So what do we make of the claims in the NYT article?

I think there are two key stories here. First, it is about the allocation of at least $22 million from late 2008 to 2011 and the second is about the investigation into UFO claims.

For the first one, $22 million is a lot of money for academics, but the DoD has an annual budget of $600 billion! Nevertheless, the powerful Democratic senator Harry Reid managed to get this money to fellow Nevadan Harold Bigelow - who owns a hotel chain and also an aerospace company:
Mr. Reid said his interest in U.F.O.s came from Mr. Bigelow. In 2007, Mr. Reid said in the interview, Mr. Bigelow told him that an official with the Defense Intelligence Agency had approached him wanting to visit Mr. Bigelow’s ranch in Utah, where he conducted research.
Nevertheless, Pentagon was involved and via its secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP):
For years, the program investigated reports of unidentified flying objects, according to Defense Department officials, interviews with program participants and records obtained by The New York Times. It was run by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring, deep within the building’s maze. 
The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties. 
Where did the money go?
The funding went to Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, which hired subcontractors and solicited research for the program. 
Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of strange aircraft.
Well - this is the part that piqued my interest. There have been earlier claims of "recovered" metal alloys from alien spacecrafts. It is part of Roswell mythology as well (for example, see a few minutes here from the movie Roswell: The UFO Coverup). From that perspective, the military has been hiding this since 1947. Of course, these alien metal alloys are always "top secret" and have not been subjected to any peer-review study. And for some weird reason have not revolutionized the world either (unless, of course iPhone is an alien technology). My point is that these type of claims are standard part of UFO contact mythology for 60-70 years. But this time, the New York Times is reporting on it and so my assumption is that it may have more backing to the reported story.

Alas - when you dig a bit deeper, you find a lot of red flags that suggest that you will be wise to take these claims with a healthy dose of salt (and earthly salt will do - you don't need salt from the mineral planet Crait from the latest Star Wars).

Here are a few reasons that have made me skeptical of the claims:
1) Association with other fringe ideas: Bigelow - whose company got most of the money - also bought Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. This ranch is one of favorites for people who believe in all sorts of paranormal activities. There are claim of cattle mutilations (yes - aliens travel lights years to mutilate earthly cows), poltergeist, and bullet-proof wolves on the ranch, and have been part of stories of Coast to Coast AM.

A number of people associated with this program have joined together to be a part of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Humanities (TTS/AAS). It is founded by UFO enthusiast and former Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge. The person who ran the AATIP initiative at Pentagon, Luis Elizondo has now joined this venture as well. The Vice President of Science & Technology, Hal Puthoff, was the founder of CIA's psychic program in the 1970s and also believed that Uri Geller had real psychic powers (despite the prominent debunking of Geller's claims by Johnny Carson - see this fantastic clip). One of the authors of a book on the Skinwalker Ranch, Colm Kelleher, is a biotech consultant of TTS/AAS.

A major major red flag comes up when you look at the Science section of TTS/AAS website. Just look at their approach to claims of telepathy. They are not even questioning if the phenomenon of telepathy is real. Instead, they are already going forward to "Explore the location in the brain where this phenomenon is centered, and develop protocols for its enhancement and use". This tells you a lot about the people involved in the project. Instead of taking of a skeptical stance (hallmark of any good science), they are already believers. For a contrast, look at how claims of microbial lifeforms in Viking Lander experiments on Mars were treated or in the meteorite from Mars, ALH84001.

I haven't looked into all the members associated with this group. But already we can see that it is not just about UFOs, but that now it involves other paranormal phenomena as well. And that is a pretty good sign that we are now heading to the crazy town.

2) Alien technology - always just 1-step beyond reach: There have been claims of alien spacecrafts since 1896-1897. There were multiple sightings of cigar shaped alien crafts. Of course, airship designs were known at the time and interestingly "aliens"  already that those in our skies. A few decades later, when humans had propeller planes, alien spacecrafts were advanced enough fly without propellers. Now that we have supersonic planes, the alien spacecrafts look slicker than our planes they move vertical and at a very high speed. It is just interesting that aliens are usually just 1-step ahead of us - but then this could just be a coincidence.

And of course, as mentioned above, alien artifacts haven never been subjected to any peer-review studies or have had any discernible influence on the human technology.


3) For-profit venture and the closed cycle of credibility: Many of these stars of research are now part of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (as mentioned above). It is a for-profit venture in what its founder calls it a "Public Benefit Corporation" and they have a button to "invest" right on their front page. They have so far sold $2 million in stock shares so far and the NYT story is a perfect boon for such an organization - which already has plastered quotes from the article on its website. In its launch video, the founder Tom DeLonge talked about making this venture a "perpetual funding machine".

Both Politico and NYT stories detail how Harry Reid bypassed the Senate and got support from Alaskan senator, Ted Stevens, and the then head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawai'i) to appropriate this "black money" channeled for this questionable research. But then Tom DeLonge and others used the fact that they have been funded by DoD as way to argue for their credibility. This is a closed cycle of credibility without much due process or any minimal peer review by scientists (if they consider this research scientific).

But what do we do about the video of an "encounter" of F/A-18 pilot released by DoD's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP)


It is intriguing. The right answer is - we don't know what this is. I would love to know more about it and have the data analysis being open for a peer-review process by scientists. But just because we don't know what it is, doesn't mean that it is a spacecraft from another planet. That is a huge leap that is not justified by the data. Pilots have reported seeing lights since the early days of flight. Foo Fighters (not the band - but wandering lights) have been reported at least since WWII. Are these ionized gases in the atmosphere? Are these things that people imagine in a low oxygen environment at 15,000 feet? Are these refractions off our atmosphere? Are these spacecrafts from other planets? Are these ethereal beings imagined in numerous folk stories? 

Well - we don't know and we do need to find out what is being seen on the radar. 

If you want a good example on how to approach aliens then look no further than the way astronomers have approached the weirdness of Tabby's Star (KIC 8462852). Astronomers detected a strange pattern in the dimming of this star. Something that had never been seen before and that could not be explained easily with any natural astronomical phenomenon. The presence of a possible Alien megastructure was/is being suggested as a far-fetched possibility. While this is an amazingly exciting possibility, astronomers have been trying their best to to find a natural explanation. This is not because they don't want to believe in presence of intelligent beings out in the universe - but rather that the presence of intelligent beings elsewhere is such a huge claim that we have to be absolutely sure that we are missing out something more simple.  "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence", as Carl Sagan used to say. 

I will leave it up to you to see if the UFO claims made by DoD's AATIP program or the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTS/AAS)

Also, here is my conversation on this topic with Monte Belmonte on Monday for our fantastic local indie radio station, The River - 93.9FM