Monday, July 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Discovery of Earth’s Bigger, Older Cousin

by Salman Hameed

An artist conception of Kepler 452b (Credits: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

Hold the celebrations: We will find an even better one soon!

While we wait, here are some thoughts on the newly discovered older, bigger, (badder?), cousin of Earth (you can also listen to my conversation with Monte Belmonte for our local radio station, WRSI, here):

The light from the star Kepler 452 dimmed just a fraction. Then, 385 days later, it did it again. Astronomers now know that a planet - only a little bigger than the Earth - is causing the dimming as it blocks some of the light heading our way. It is orbiting a sun-like star and is the closest analog to Earth discovered yet.

This way of detecting planets is called “Transit Method” and it has turned out to be one of the most successful ways of identifying other worlds. So far astronomers have detected 5583 planetary candidates around stars other than our Sun, with 1879 already confirmed (you can track the latest number of planets from Planet Quest.

Wait. Take a deep breath. Now imagine almost 1900 confirmed planets outside our solar system! To put this in perspective, though the entire history of humanity, save the last two decades, we knew of planets only in our own solar system (we even managed to demote one of them!). It was only in 1995, that astronomers confirmed the existence of the first extrasolar planet – 51 Peg and the number of planets is now steadily increasing.

Most of the planets discovered so far are much bigger than the Earth and often lie quite close to their parent star (much of this is a selection boas as detection techniques are better in detecting these kinds of planetary systems). But, of course, we want to find Earth-like planets – small, rocky worlds, orbiting sun-like stars at a distance where water can exist in liquid form. This last bit is potentially important for life. Neither too hot, nor too cold. This is called the Goldilocks zone or more formally, the Habitable Zone. In our own solar system, Venus is too close to the Sun and Mars just a little too far. But Earth is in the middle of the habitable zone and has ably supported life for the past four billions years!

If we can find earth-sized planets in their respective habitable zones, the thinking goes, then these may be the likely places where life may have also originated. And on at least some of these worlds, biological evolution would have led to the development of complex organisms as well.

But wait. One step at a time. First we have to detect earth-sized planets in habitable zones. In 2011, astronomers discovered an earth-sized planet, Kepler 20e. But its orbit was only 6-days long and therefore too close to the Sun. The same year came the discovery of Kepler 22b. This time the planet was in the habitable zone of a sun-like star, but it was double the size of the Earth and it is quite likely that it is made of predominantly gases (like Jupiter and other big planets of our own solar system). Then in April of last year, astronomers discovered Kepler 186f. It is an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. It is a promising candidate but with just one potential catch. It orbits a star that is smaller and dimmer than our Sun. Its habitable zone, therefore, is closer to its star. I think this is a great candidate for a planet that might host life. The only thing is that it does not orbit a sun-like star.

That brings us to Kepler 452b. This planet is 60% bigger than the Earth. It orbits a sun-like star and it takes 385 days to go around its star. Astronomers think that it has an atmosphere thicker than the Earth and that it also has active volcanism on its surface. So far so good. However, it is located 1400 light years away. Even if we were to find a way to travel fast, this will still be a little too far away. In addition, the planet is 1.5 billion years older than the Earth. This can be both good and bad. This older age gives the planet plenty of time for life to develop. On Earth, life started early, but then it took several billion years to develop complex species like the Turtles, the elephants, and the species that are looking for life on other planets. Just because it happened this way on Earth is no guarantee that it will happen the same way on another planet. But having more time – 1.5 billion more years – nevertheless is probably good when it comes to possible diversity of life.

On the other hand, the central star of Kepler 452b is also 1.5 billion years older, and it means that it is also a bit brighter than our Sun. Stars like our Sun brighten up a little as they age and that can have potentially devastating impact on the habitability of planets. Our own Sun will get 10% brighter in the next billion years or so, and this extra heat will probably result in the evaporation of oceans on Earth making our planet inhospitable to life as it exists today. It is impossible to predict the future of humanity – or whatever our future descendants will be called – that far into the future. Nevertheless, relocation will be the only option for survival, if they still reside on our planet. But we don’t know for sure if the slightly larger size and being slightly farther away from the sun will give Kepler 452b some extra time for habitability or not.

Kepler 452b is a great candidate for life. But hold the celebrations. Astronomers estimate that 10% of stars in our galaxy host Earth-sized planets that may exist in the habitable zone. In a galaxy of 200 billion stars, that leaves us with 20 billion potentially habitable planets! I am quite sure – no, I am certain that within the next few years, we will find even more promising candidates much closer to home. And I am quite sure that on at least one of these worlds, we will detect an atmosphere that has been transformed by the existence of life on that planet.

Now that will be something worth celebrating. Stay tuned. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A new episode of "Hamari Kainaat" on evolution of stars and HR Diagram

by Salman Hameed

Here is our latest episode of Hamari Kainaat (Our Universe) on evolution of stars. In particular, we spend time discussing the Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram. It is a tool of understanding how stars function and evolve over their lifetime. We are still not done with HR diagram. I think we have at least two more episodes in the future dealing with it. In the mean time, here is an introduction on this in Urdu. For more episodes, please visit the website of Hamari Kainaat.

"Hamarai Kainaat" (Our Universe) is an Urdu Podcast about Astronomy, published by Umair Asim and Dr Salman Hameed. One of our main purpose for this podcast in Urdu, is to share the knowledge about our Universe to anyone relating to any walk of life in Pakistan and beyond.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Saudi supercomputer joins the list of most powerful computers

by Salman Hameed

I have posted about King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) mostly from a skeptical lens (for example see Coed Saudi University for Saudi Elites?). It is a rich university (the second biggest university endowment in the world!) and that lends to the perception that it is buying its prestige. Plus, the campus is shielded from some of the more abhorrent Saudi laws (for example, the prohibition of women from driving - still!!) and appears to be catering either to the elites or to researchers from abroad. Nevertheless, KAUST is now starting to make some headlines and we should give credit where credit is due. Here is a blurb about Saudi Arabia from Nature's analysis of publication of articles in top journals:
Strong research output requires more than big investments. Saudi Arabia has poured billions into new universities, particularly with the 2009 opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is believed to have a US$15 billion endowment, and has attracted top talent for research. From 2012 KAUST has increased its article output in the Nature Index by 40%. Given its more moderate increase in WFC over the same time period, it seems that KAUST researchers are actively contributing more to collaborative papers than working in isolation. 
Performance in the Nature Index is also greatly dependent on collaboration — and this is where the Arab states are doing well. Saudi Arabia reaches out extensively to other countries for scientific collaboration, with 79% of its output being the result of international collaborations. Israel and Turkey collaborated internationally on 46% and 59% of their papers, respectively, showing that scientists in Saudi Arabia collaborate much more than their colleagues in neighbouring countries. This high collaboration rate, however, may be due in part to the practice at some universities — although not KAUST, which opposes such an approach — of bringing in foreign researchers for a short amount of time to add a local affiliation to papers.
In case you are wondering, here is how the region looks like (I will have more on Iran and Turkey separately):

This is how Fractional Weighted Count (WFC) and Nature Index is described:
The Nature Index is a unique database that tracks affiliations in research publications in a select group of scientific journals. The Index can provide an indicator of high-quality research contributions from institutions, countries, regions and disciplines. In this Global Nature Index supplement, we present a snapshot of the Index for the calendar year 2014. 
We have grouped countries into nine regions. The strongest performances come, not surprisingly, from North America, North & West Europe, and East & Southeast Asia. In fact, these three regions accounted for 91% of the Index's weighted fractional count (WFC), a metric that apportions credit for each article according to the affiliations of the contributing authors.
It is good to see that KAUST has substantially improved its article output. And now there is also news that a KAUST supercomputer has joined in the list of top 10 most powerful supercomputers (tip from Vika Gardener):
For the first time, a system in the Middle East earned a Top 10 spot on the list of most powerful supercomputers. Shaheen II, located at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), in Saudi Arabia, placed 7th in the the semi-annual competition, the results of which were announced earlier today. Shaheen II is a Cray XC40 system that cranked out 5.536 petaflops per second on the Linpack benchmark. 
Shaheen II replaced the Shaheen I in April 2015. The 16-rack IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer system and has 6,100 sets of 32 processor cores. At KAUST, 25 percent on the university’s faculty, students and researchers rely on Shaheen II, the university said in a press release. The system is used for and small- and large-scale scientific research, including global climate projects and visualizations of the brain and DNA.
In case you are wondering, Chinese supercomputer is the most powerful in the world:
At the top of the list, China and U.S. battled it out for the number one position. But, Tianhe-2 did it again. The supercomputer developed by the National University of Defense Technology in Guangzhou, China, held its number one title for the fifth consecutive time. No other supercomputer was able to beat Tianhe-2’s max calculation capacity of 33.86 petaflops per second. The top supercomputer in the United States, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Titan, remained at its number two spot achieving 17.59 petaflops per second.    
"Made in China" is now getting a new meaning! Read the full article here (you will need subscription for the full article). 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Time for Pluto has come...

by Salman Hameed

I have been behind on writing here (there are many many backlogged posts). But I had to say something about Pluto. So couple of things: First, here is an excellent video from Slate that shows the evolution of images of Pluto since 1930 (yes - not much until this month):

Then also see this video from NYT from last week:

And then finally, see this image of Pluto taken on July 12th: 

Pluto appearing as a world. This picture was taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 12th, when the spacecraft was still 2.5 million kilometers away. On July 14th, it will see Pluto from mere 12,500 kms away. Image credit NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

And here are some thoughts on this encounter with Pluto:

Pluto: Smile - we are ready to snap your picture!

If you are out and about in the morning of July 14th or you are sitting at home reading this article. At 7:49am Eastern Daylight Time, symbolically look up at the sky (please don’t stare at the Sun). At this precise moment, a machine built by humans will be making its closest approach to Pluto – at the frontiers of our Solar system. This spacecraft, New Horizons, has been traveling at the incredible speed of 50,000 km/hour (if you are not impressed, check your speedometer when you are driving on a highway and compare with this Pluto probe)! And yet, it has taken nine long years to get to Pluto. Don’t blame the spacecraft. Pluto is currently 5 billion kilometers away and even one of fastest spacecrafts ever built by humans has taken this long to get there.

An American astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, discovered Pluto in 1930. For the past 85 years, Pluto was seen as a small fuzzy object. Even the best telescopes could not make out much detail. In fact, four of its five moons have been discovered in the last ten years. In the last few days, however, Pluto has become a real world. Look at the photograph above. This is our best image of Pluto yet. It was taken on July 12th, when the New Horizons spacecraft was 2.5 million kilometers from Pluto. We can already see a couple of craters on the surface, as well as some cliffs (see the annotated image below).

But hold your breath. The spacecraft will take pictures of Pluto from a distance of only 12,500 kilometers – its closest approach. What kind of secrets will Pluto reveal then? Will there be ice volcanoes? Or evidence of sub-surface ocean? Or perhaps the spacecraft will find things that we have not even imagined about this cousin of ours living in the outskirts of the Solar system? Whatever it will be, it will be different and stunning. This is the lesson we have learned from explorations of eight planets and their moons.

Until recently, Pluto was the ninth planet of our Solar system. However, in a contentious decision, its status was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006. I have my own bias in keeping its status as a planet. I obtained by doctorate from the astronomy department at New Mexico State University in the US. Clyde Tombaugh founded this department, and I had a chance to meet him and to be present at his 90th birthday in 1996. He died the next year, but Pluto retained a special place for astronomers in our department. With the renewed interest in Pluto, I hope its status will be restored as a planet.

Once New Horizons flys past Pluto, it will take a picture of Pluto in the shadow of the Sun. An eclipse. This will happen at 8:51am Eastern Time. The goal of the image is get information about the atmosphere of Pluto. But this picture will also tell us that this machine built by humans, has successfully gone past one of nine major bodies in the Solar system.

So today, at 7:49am (EDT), take a deep breath. Then look up in the sky and appreciate what humans can do at their best.

You can follow the latest about the Pluto encounter at

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mauna Kea TMT update: 12 arrested as construction vehicles are blocked by protestors

by Salman Hameed

Picture of protestors from Hawaii Tribune-Herald

Picture of protest from Hawaii Tribune-Herald

The Hawaii Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Mauna Kea in late August. So it was surprising this Monday to hear about the resumption of construction of the telescope accompanied by this statement (you can read it as "we will say anything to have our telescope built on the mountain") by the Chairman of the TMT board, Henry Yang: 
Our period of inactivity has made us a better organization in the long run," Yang said. "We are now comfortable that we can be better stewards and better neighbors during our temporary and limited use of this precious land, which will allow us to explore the heavens and broaden the boundaries of science in the interest of humanity.
This is a long standing issue. And to be fair to TMT, it also has held over two dozen hearings over the past 5 years. But to say that they have learnt to be "better stewards" over the past two months sounds disingenuous. In any case, the construction was supposed to start yesterday (Wednesday) but about 300 protestors blocked the access road and 12 people were arrested as a result:
Mauna Kea Access Road remained closed Wednesday evening after opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope again halted construction of the $1.4 billion observatory following a highly coordinated protest. 
About 300 protesters used their bodies and large rocks to prevent construction crews from traveling more than a mile past the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, and about a dozen continued to block access above Hale Pohaku after the group claimed victory for the day. 
Twelve arrests were made by Hawaii County police and state Department of Land and Natural Resources conservation officers. Some of the officers wore ti leaf lei given to them by protesters. 
Mike McCartney, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff, said in a press release that construction of the state-of-the-art telescope will remain on hold until further notice. The project faced a nearly three-month timeout following arrests of 31 protesters April 2.
McCartney said the arrests Wednesday were unfortunate but acknowledged that protesters have a right to peacefully assemble. Ige was in Washington, D.C., for an energy forum. 
“We are disappointed and concerned that large boulders were found in the roadway leading to the summit of Mauna Kea,” McCartney said. “This action is a serious and significant safety hazard and could put people at risk. 
“Because of this, we are making an assessment to determine how to proceed.”
McCartney said the road will be cleared of obstructions today. 
Dan Meisenzahl, a spokesman for University of Hawaii, which manages the Mauna Kea Access Road and Mauna Kea Science Reserve, said protesters later pushed aside boulders covering 2 miles of the access road but kept three rock walls in place about 3 miles past the visitor center. 
The road above Hale Pohaku was officially closed Wednesday evening after TMT security staff and the remaining protesters came down, he said. 
Reached by phone, protest organizer Kahookahi Kanuha, who was among those arrested, said he tried to put a stop to rocks being placed on the road when he received word about it. 
“That’s a strategy for a different time,” he said. 
Protesters had planned to avoid arrests until they reached the summit. 
Kanuha said he was on his way back up the mountain after posting bail.
Much like arrests in April, there are mixed emotions for Native Hawaiians on both sides of the debate. Look at this video of the protest and here is a statement from DLNR chief before the arrests:
The confrontation initially ended with an emotional statement from DLNR branch chief Lino Kamakau to the protesters. 
“From myself, I apologize to you guys,” he said, his eyes full of tears and his voice cracking with emotion. “I hope you guys understand what I got to do. You may not accept it. I got to do my job. I’m really, really sorry. Our No. 1 thing right now is public safety, and we’re not going up (the mountain).”
All of this is likely to continue at least in the short rum. Lets see how this standoff unfolds in the next couple of days. 

A new episode of Hamari Kainaat on stars and spectroscopy [in Urdu]

by Salman Hameed

I have been away for the past two weeks and I'm catching up on a number of things. But first, for Urdu speakers, here is our latest episode of Hamari Kainaat (Our Universe). This deals with properties of stars and how spectroscopy revolutionized astronomy in the late 19th century. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Mauna Kea TMT case is headed to the Hawaii Supreme Court

by Salman Hameed

The issue of TMT has now moved on to the state supreme court (for previous posts on the issue, see here). I don't know what the time frame is, but this could drag on for a while especially if you include the appeals process as well. In any case, here is the current status (you can watch a video of the local newscast here):
The Hawaii Supreme Court on Friday granted the Mauna Kea Hui's application to transfer their case from the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
The Hui, made up of individuals and groups on Hawaii island, applauded the decision.
"Obviously the court feels that this is a case of fundamental public importance, and we're very encouraged by their ruling today," said Mauna Kea Hui attorney Richard Wurdeman.
The Hui will try to convince the justices that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources was wrong to grant a conservation district use permit to the University of Hawaii-Hilo for construction of the TMT.
"In this case, a huge, 18-story, eight-acre monstrosity on top of Mauna Kea is certainly, we would submit, not be consistent with conservation district use," said Wurdeman.
Hawaii's supreme court has a history of upholding the state's environmental laws, including shoreline protections and water rights. It also hasn't shied away from controversy.
Read the full article here.

Monday, June 08, 2015

If you have a chance, check out "The Salt of the Earth"

by Salman Hameed

Summer is a time for blockbusters. But take a break and see The Salt of the Earth. It is a stunningly beautiful documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado. But it is also a haunting film about the humans and what they are capable of doing. Salgado is a social photographer from Brazil who has documented, among other things, famine in Africa, massacres in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and conditions of workers across the globe. The beauty of his black and white photographs makes the plight of humans stand out even more. He wants you to see these harsh human conditions. In fact, he almost gave up on humans as species on this planet and worked on a project of photographing nature away from any human influence (see his project, Genesis). The film is by Wim Wenders who recently did Pina based on the works of German choreographer, Pina Bausch. Just like Pina, he lets the artist speaks for his own work. But I was wishing for a commentary by Werner Herzog on Salgado's own thought processes while taking these beautiful and yet haunting pictures. But then that would have been a different film.

In any case, this is an excellent film. Here is the trailer and below that are some of Salgado's photographs, including from the polio campaign in the Thar desert on the border of Pakistan with India:

Le Sel De La Terre - The Salt Of The Earth (2014) (Trailer) (HD) from FILMARTI Film on Vimeo.

Polio campaign in the Thar desert, Pakistan

Church Gate Station, Bombay, India

Serra Pelada gold mine, Brazil

Famine in Africa from Sahil

Another picture from Africa - from Sahil

Oil fields on fire during the first Gulf War - from Kuwait

An iguana paw in the Galapagos from Genesis

Penguins from Genesis

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Urdu and secular nationalism in early 20th century

by Salman Hameed

Here is a fascinating book by Kavita Datla that looks at the interaction of Urdu with Indian nationalism and secularism: The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India. In particular, the book focuses on Osmania University in the state of Hyderabad and the discussions over how to translate various subjects into Urdu and on the relative emphasis on Persian, Arabic, or Hindi. These decisions were intertwined with the way the role of Urdu was being imagined in Hyderabad and beyond. Modern science, of course, features in these discussions of translations as well. Kavita is actually is right here in the 5-College area (at Mount Holyoke College) but I haven't had a chance to talk to her in detail about her research.

If you have 50 minutes, you should check out this excellent discussion with her on New Books in Religion podcast. Also, here is an excerpt from a review of the book from The Hindu:
The possibility of Urdu being a secular language that could unite India’s
diverse communities may come as a surprise to many because of the mistaken belief that it is a “Muslim language.” But an attempt to forge a “common secular future” for Indian citizens through Urdu was indeed made in the 19th century in the princely state of Hyderabad.
Kavita Saraswathi Datla’s brilliantly researched The Language of Secular Islam takes us through the twists and turns of this amazing venture which led to the establishment (in 1918) of India’s first vernacular (Urdu) institution of higher education, Osmania University, to challenge the imposition of English by the British. The desire was, says Datla, to create a systemised and uniform vernacular that would rival English as a language of business, science, and learned conversation and ultimately “democratise the effects of Western education.”
To dispel the notion that Urdu is a Muslim language, Datla writes that as far back as the 1830s, Urdu replaced Persian as the official language of administration over a large swathe of British territory, including Bihar, the North-West Provinces, parts of the Central Provinces, Punjab, and the princely states of Kashmir and Hyderabad. This official language policy continued beyond 1900 (when Hindi was added to Urdu in some territories) till Partition. Muslim advocates of Urdu never used it to articulate identitarian claims and saw the language as a product of Hindu-Muslim interaction. Their main concern was securing a secular national culture for India through a language that they believed was a product of Hindu-Muslim interaction.
As further proof, Datla quotes from Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Early Urdu Literary Culture and History to assert that Urdu served as the tool to knit together a diverse set of Mughal functionaries which included both Hindus and Muslims. According to Faruqi, the word Urdu came about from the phrase zaban-e-urdu-e-mu’alla-e-shajahanabad (the language of the exalted City/Court of Shajahanabad, that is, Delhi) which soon got shortened to zaban-e-urdu-e-mu’alla, then to zaban-e-urdu and finally to Urdu. Before that it was called Hindvi, Hindi, Dihlavi, Gujri, Dakani and Rekhta.
There was of course tension in the way Urdu was being imagined (and that tension still persists in Pakistan today). But here is a case that lays out at least one prominent position from Osmania:
Datla cites an interesting encounter between Gandhi and Maulvi Abdul Haq, who headed the famous literary organisation “Anjuman-e-Tarraqi-e-Urdu”, to show why Indian nationalism of the early 20th century needs to be re-evaluated. Abdul Haq was upset with Gandhi for favouring Hindi over Hindustani (in the 1936 Nagpur meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad). Gandhi told him: “Muslims can hold on to Urdu. It is a language of religious value for them. It is written in the script of the Quran. It was propagated by Muslim Kings.”
Although Gandhi later expressed regret for these comments, the Maulvi was annoyed that a person of Gandhi’s stature should speak of Urdu in such terms. Datla describes this feeling of the famed educator of the Osmania University as “the experience of being minoritised”, and makes the important observation that we need to see such political disagreements “not as the result of the competition between communal and secular agendas but as the product of different and competing secular agendas.”
Datla is right. For Osmania University was neither a communal nor theological project despite the fact that it did have a faculty of Theology. According to statistics provided by Datla, by 1935 there were 1,806 students in the Osmania system: 771 in arts, 731 in sciences, 102 in medicine, 97 in law, 47 in engineering, 26 in education and only 32 in theology. In other words, theology was not a popular course a fact that indicates Muslim eagerness to be part of the secular mainstream.
Read the full article here, listen to the podcast interview with Kavita Datla here, and you can get the book here. And below is the description of the book from the University of Hawaii Press:
During the turbulent period prior to colonial India’s partition and independence, Muslim intellectuals in Hyderabad sought to secularize and reformulate their linguistic, historical, religious, and literary traditions for the sake of a newly conceived national public. Responding to the model of secular education introduced to South Asia by the British, Indian academics launched a spirited debate about the reform of Islamic education, the importance of education in the spoken languages of the country, the shape of Urdu and its past, and the significance of the histories of Islam and India for their present. 
The Language of Secular Islam pursues an alternative account of the political disagreements between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, conflicts too often described as the product of primordial and unchanging attachments to religion. The author suggests that the political struggles of India in the 1930s, the very decade in which the demand for Pakistan began to be articulated, should not be understood as the product of an inadequate or incomplete secularism, but as the clashing of competing secular agendas. Her work explores negotiations over language, education, and religion at Osmania University, the first university in India to use a modern Indian language (Urdu) as its medium of instruction, and sheds light on questions of colonial displacement and national belonging.
Grounded in close attention to historical evidence, The Language of Secular Islam has broad ramifications for some of the most difficult issues currently debated in the humanities and social sciences: the significance and legacies of European colonialism, the inclusions and exclusions enacted by nationalist projects, the place of minorities in the forging of nationalism, and the relationship between religion and modern politics. It will be of interest to historians of colonial India, scholars of Islam, and anyone who follows the politics of Urdu.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

A lot of nothing, Fermi's Paradox, Monty Python, and the Thirty Meter Telescope

by Salman Hameed

It is hard to link the four things in the title together - though not impossible. However, these are four brief conversations I had with Monte Belmonte of our fantastic radio station, The River (no seriously, check out their music playlist!). Here are the four segments from our weekly series, Mr. Universe (hey - Monte came up with the name...):

Fermi's Paradox: The question is: if there are aliens, where are they? Hampshire College astronomer, Dr. Salman Hameed, helps us look at the paradox from some sad, terrifying and even hopeful angles.

The Nothing: Astronomers have found the largest something and the largest something is essentially nothing.  Terrifying.

Not Okay-a on Mauna Kea: Should the extremely boringly named Thirty Meter Telescope be built on one of the best places on Earth to observe the cosmos, even if the mountain is sacred to Hawaiians and  Polynesians? (Monte’s answer: no)

Monty Python's "Galaxy Song": How scientifically accurate is the classic Monty Python ‘Galaxy Song’ and what did cosmologist Stephen Hawking do to correct their math for better or for worse? Hamphire College Astronomer Dr. Salman Hameed knows. He is Mr. Universe!

And here is the original Galaxy Song which is absolutely wonderful!

And here is the Stephen Hawking version:

While we are at it, here is a bonus discussion on space coffee:
Space coffee: Or espresso to be more specific.  Hampshire College Astronomer, Dr. Salman Hameed, on the extremely important gastronomic (and less so astronomic) development that brought espresso to space.  And watch the boringly beautiful mission that brought the astronauts their java. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

TMT update: Governor of Hawaii gives a go ahead to Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea...

by Salman Hameed

Governor David Ige

Hawaii's governor, David Ige, has announced some new rules for Mauna Kea along with a go ahead to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). He announced that some of the telescopes on the mountain to be decommissioned on the mountain. It is at least a nod to the protestors. Furthermore, he explicitly said that "we have failed the mountain" and pointed a finger at University of Hawaii for its poor stewardship. One important thing to note is that a state audit in the late 1990s was also scathing in its evaluation of university's management of the mountain. Here is more:
Ige said the university must make a commitment that there will be no more construction beyond the area where the Thirty Meter Telescope is planned for and called for at least one-fourth of the existing telescopes to be decommissioned by the time TMT is completed. He also wants the university to return all lands not needed for astronomy to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which he said included more than 10,000 acres. 
The govenor also called on the university to revisit prior lease terms for the existing telescopes, and to explore whether greater payments were due. 
Ige plans to create a Mauna Kea Cultural Council that he said would add significant value in providing a cultural aspect to the management of the mountain. Supporting TMT would not be required for those who serve on the council, he said, adding that they would work with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the governor’s office to make sure the host culture is respected in the future.
I think that the telescope closure proposal is still relatively modest but it may give him the necessary political breathing space. Some of the major opponents of the telescopes are still not convinced but we will see if Ige's announcement will break the momentum of the protestors. In the mean time, here is the reaction from one of the main TMT opponents:
Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime Big Island critic of the Thirty Meter Telescope, said she's disappointed in Ige's comments, which she said lacked substance. "It created this illusion that we're going to do something without really doing much," she said, adding that his words will not prompt protesters to leave the mountain. 
"He affirmed that they will move forward," she said of telescope construction. "The deep sadness I feel is that means our people will be arrested."
In related news, charges against 10 of 31 anti-TMT protestors will be dropped. This again seems to be an action to assuage the protestors, but I'm surprised that it is not against all protestors, as the protests were peaceful:
Hawaii County’s top prosecutor said Friday he will dismiss charges against about 10 of the 31 protesters who were arrested while blocking construction of a giant telescope on a mountain held sacred by Native Hawaiians. 
Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth told The Associated Press he will drop the cases against those charged with trespassing, though his office might decide to re-file them later. 
The remaining people arrested last month were charged with obstruction of government operations.
And here is Pisciotta again along with one of the arrested protestors:
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the Big Island leaders behind the effort to stop the telescope, said she’s happy to hear some of the cases will be dismissed. “Fundamentally and morally, how can it be trespassing in our house of worship and prayer?” she said. 
Kuuipo Freitas said being arrested for trespassing affected her “emotionally, spiritually, culturally.” 
“Honestly, I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t intend on getting arrested that day,” she said. “It really didn’t make sense to be arrested on our own aina (land).” 
It’s unclear if Freitas is among those whose trespassing charge will be dropped. Her attorney, Dexter Kaiama, who also represents eight others, declined to comment on specifics until a judge has signed off on the dismissals.
Here is a report from Nature about Governor's Ige plan for Mauna Kea:

Perhaps most significantly, “the university must decommission as many telescopes as possible, with one to begin this year and at least 25% of all telescopes gone by the time the TMT is ready for operation,” Ige said. The first to go will be the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, whose closure was announced in 2009; it will start to be dismantled later this year. 
But none of the other 12 telescopes had immediate plans to shutter. The submillimetre-wavelength James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is just beginning a new life under the operation of the East Asian Observatory. The 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infrared Telescope was similarly transferred from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council to the University of Hawaii in Manoa last year. 
“This is all new to us,” says Peter Michaud, a spokesman for the Gemini Observatory based in Hilo, Hawaii. “Until we learn more about it, we’re not really able to say much of anything.” 
A 2010 plan commissioned by the university lays out a framework for how various observatories could be taken down. The governor's announcement is likely to accelerate those scenarios, says Günter Hasinger, director of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy in Manoa. “In principle this is nothing new,” he says. “We have always made the point that the space on top of the mountain should only be populated by the best telescopes.” 
Ige’s changes all push toward reducing impact on the mountain’s 4,200-metre summit. The University of Hawaii leases more than 45 square kilometres as a science reserve. The current lease is good until the end of 2033, but Ige said that when that is up the university must return more than 40 square kilometres — all the land not needed for astronomy — to the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. The university must also agree that the TMT location, which is a few hundred metres below the actual summit, is the last area on the mountain where any telescopes will ever be built.
Lets see how things shape in the coming weeks. Will keep you posted.

Saturday Video: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

by Salman Hameed

For your Saturday, here is one of the best Twilight Zone episodes: The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. The episode is wonderfully constructed and the central theme is as relevant today as it was in 1960. In fact, below this I will post a 2003 version of the episode which updates it for a post 9/11 US.

Here is the opening narration to whet your appetite:
"Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street — in the last calm and reflective moment — before the monsters came."

And here is the 2003 remake: The Monsters are on Maple Street (but do see the original - as that is quite spectacular!):

Monday, May 25, 2015

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

by Salman Hameed

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

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

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

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Video: Steven Wise on rights for chimps

by Salman Hameed

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

UAE planning a mission to Mars by 2021

by Salman Hameed

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

Here is the video of the UAE Mars Mission:

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Third secular blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh!

by Salman Hameed

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

Ananta Bijoy Dash

Washiqur Rahman 

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

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

Friday, May 08, 2015

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

by Salman Hameed

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

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

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

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

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

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

by Salman Hameed

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

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