Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Carl Sagan's daughter on lessons about life and death

by Salman Hameed

In Carl Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions, he had an amazingly powerful article titled In the Valley of Shadows. He wrote the article when the doctors had told him that he had 3-months to live. And yet, the chapter is honest about his desire to have an afterlife and the reason why he might think otherwise. But ultimately, it is about the celebration of the life we have. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the piece:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Sagan already knew that the book's final editing will be done by his wife, Ann Druyan. This is what she had to say about his death in the Afterward of the book:
Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.
Now their daughter, Sasha Sagan, has a wonderful article in the new issue of New York Magazine. Here she recounts of her father's explanation of death - a subject indeed difficult to address with children:
After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on skeptical
thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner table conversation at a time. My parents would patiently entertain an endless series of "why?" questions, never meeting a single one with a “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is.” Each query was met with a thoughtful, and honest, response — even the ones for which there are no answers.

One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.
“Because they died,” he said wistfully.
“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.
He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.
Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.
And then again, there is a message of hope and celebration of life: 

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way. 
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.

All of this doesn't mean that there is no sense of loss or grief when one loses someone so close. This is a sentiment that is present all too clearly in the article itself. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see a life through this cosmic perspective.

Read the full article here

Saturday, April 19, 2014

This is fantastic! Here is the first episode of "Your Inner Fish"

by Salman Hameed

When it comes to science documentaries, all of the attention is currently focused on the new Cosmos. This is good. But in all this, people might be missing a superb series on PBS called Your Inner Fish. It is based on the excellent book of the same title, and the show is hosted by its author, Neil Shubin. What I like about the show is that there is an enormous emphasis on "how" we know what we know about evolution. Shubin is well known for his discovery of a flat-headed fish named Tiktaalik which is considered to be the transitionary animal from water to land. The first episode talks it and that whole segment is very well done. But I loved the bit about the study of chickens eggs to understand how our limbs might have formed (it starts about 35 minutes into the first episode, but you should watch the full episode anyways). This is absolutely riveting stuff! Here is the first episode (the embedded video is on Youtube - but for folks in Pakistan, where Youtube is still banned, you can go and watch the videos here):

The second episode focused on "Your Inner Reptile". I will embed it when it is available. It also had an excellent segment on egg yolks (didn't know that humans have the egg part, but the genes that regulate the yolk are no longer functioning) and another fantastic one on our skins and its reptilian origins. You can watch the full episode on the PBS website. But here is a short segment from episode 2 that talks about the way smaller bones from reptilian jaws were later accommodated into mammalian ears. Fascinating stuff!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Public astronomy flourishing in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

I have posted many times about astronomy in Pakistan (see links below), which I think is maturing nicely. There still aren't that many professional astronomers, but the amateur astronomy scene seems to have attained a critical mass. I know that there are active groups both in Lahore and Karachi, and there is growing interest in Islamabad as well. I don't know when is a good time, but may be they should think about forming a national body (Pakistan Astronomical Society?) that can coordinate astronomy outreach, facilitate annual or bi-annual gatherings, and can even launch some systematic observing projects. While there have been many efforts to build professional telescopes as well, the formation of such an organization may also streamline that process. In balance, there is a downside as well. Some of the wonderful energy that is driving the current astronomy scene may get diverted into dealing with organizational matters of the more boring side. I think the formation of a larger umbrella organization will have benefits in the long run - unless it gets mired into pointless bureaucracy.

In any case, here are some wonderful pictures from a public event in Lahore held on April 12th (you can see more images from Umair Asim's website here):

And they are not wasting their time during the day either. Here are some pictures from March 25th:

Here is a trip to Lahore Grammar School on February 22nd:

And here is a spectacular image from Umair Asim's solar telescope:

Not to be left behind, Karachi Amateurs Astronomers Society (KAAS) also held public functions in the last couple of weeks. Here are some pictures:

And from an event on April 6th: 

Recently, Dawn newspaper provided a wonderful photographic essay on one of KAAS's observing excursions. I will here add only two photographs, but you should check all of these out here:

Related posts:
Astronomy catching on in Pakistan
Pakistani Astronomers Shine During the International Year of Astronomy
Another Astrofest by Khwarizmi Science Society
More Astronomy News from Pakistan
International Year of Astronomy in Pakistan

Monday, April 14, 2014

Video: Quasicrystals in Medieval Islamic Architecture

by Salman Hameed

Back in 2007 I had posted about the discovery of a particularly complex mathematical pattern (quasi-crystalline Penrose patterns) in 15th century tiles in Isfahan, Iran (see Islamic Tiles and Modern Mathematics). Actually the discovery is indeed quite stunning!

Here is a lecture on this topic by one of the original authors of the study, Peter Lu (tip from 3quarksdaily):

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A look at the anti-vaccination movements in the US and in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent article that looks at the deeply problematic anti-vaccination movement in the US (yes, measles is back and the cases are on the rise in the US) and the physical attacks in Pakistan on polio vaccination teams: Someone should introduce anti-vaxxers to children with polio in Pakistan (full disclosure: the article is by my nephew):
The argument of these so-called “anti-vaxxers” is simple: vaccinations in infancy can cause autism and auto-immune diseases, so you shouldn’t vaccinate your children. That argument is also very wrong. The link between vaccines and autism has been disproved repeatedly, and studies continue to reiterate their safety and effectiveness. 
Most anti-vaxxers are unmoved by the research. And as measles cases mount around the country, I’m reminded of another disease, similarly resuscitated from the brink of eradication by ignorance and paranoia, although under very different circumstances. 
Ten years ago, Pakistan was poised to become the next country to eliminate polio, the devastating paralytic illness that crippled millions of children around the world throughout the 20th century. An aggressive immunization campaign powered by the World Health Organization and thousands of local citizens had reduced polio cases globally from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to just a few hundred in the early 2000s. 
But as conflict enveloped the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, paranoia came with it. Rumors and conspiracy theories about the vaccine, once only the territory of the most superstitious extremes of society, gained volume and attention: the vaccine was a Western formula to sterilize our children, the vaccination would infect our children with other diseases, the vaccine’s ingredients were against Islam.
While the focus often goes on a simplistic "Muslim opposition to polio" (for example biologist Jerry Coyne often sees religion as the sole cause), what is important is to not only point out the complex set of reasons that have led to polio opposition in Pakistan, but also the tremendous bravery and sacrifices of those individuals (many of the them also Muslims - and also from Pakistan) who are risking everything to eradicate polio in Pakistan. Here is Mustafa again:
Still, as those barriers to eradication arose in Pakistan, the WHO and its Pakistani partners continued their work. They launched campaigns to educate local authorities about the polio vaccine. They gathered religious leaders to dispel rumors of the vaccine being anti-Islamic. The vaccination program was steadily put back on track—only 49 cases of polio were recorded in 2011, when the government declared the disease a national emergency to be wiped out within two years. 
In Pakistan, though, it was never enough just to beat back superstition. The Taliban, who had previously enforced a vaccination ban in the Swat Valley in 2008 and 2009, combined anti-vaccine paranoia with outrage over drone strikes and a CIA-sponsored fake hepatitis B vaccine drive to impose a blanket ban on polio vaccinations in Waziristan and Taliban-controlled districts of Karachi. In December 2012, they began targeting health workers for assassination. 
Dozens of health workers and police officers protecting them have now been killed in bomb blasts and machine gun attacks around the country, a campaign of violence without precedent as a challenge to global health. Two weeks ago, a lady health worker named Salma Farooqi, who was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home in a suburb of Peshawar, was found dead. “The body was taken to a hospital where doctors said it bore bullet injuries and marks of torture,” Dawn reported. “The woman had been hit by rifle butts and knives.”
This last paragraph is heartbreaking and shows the viciousness of the Taliban campaign. Nevertheless, as Mustafa points out, the roots of anti-vaccination movements in both Pakistan and in the US lie in a rejection of reason:
And as this vital battle against disease and ignorance rages on half a world away, armchair anti-vaxxers in New York and D.C. and Kansas and California continue their defiance of science and reason, fighting, in effect, to bring disease back into the world. I wonder how many of them realize that their rhetoric is a reworking of the same kind of superstition that kindled the Taliban’s ban. And I wonder—if they were to meet a child crippled by polio or parents who wanted to protect their children but could not, would that change their minds?
Read the full article here.

Related posts: 
An Obama apology may save polio campaign in Pakistan
Pakistan's polio eradication problem
Polio may be the winner between the Taliban and the CIA
Is there ever a justification for a fake vaccination program? 
Between fatwas and polio
Anti-vaccination idiocy at a Texas megachurch

Friday, April 11, 2014

A multiverse suggestion from the 13th century?

by Salman Hameed

It is generally a good practice to be highly skeptical of people claiming to find ideas from modern science in literature written centuries or millennia before. However, here is an interesting inter-The Ordered Universe Project, that deserves more attention. It deals with a 13th century treatise, De Luce (On Light), by English scholar Robert Grosseteste (1170-1253 CE). What is interesting in Grosseteste's work is his idea that the same physical laws govern both the Earth and the heavens - something that went against the accepted wisdom of the time. Here is a bit from Nature:
disciplinary project,
De Luce (On Light), written in 1225 in Latin and dense with mathematical thinking, explores the nature of matter and the cosmos. Four centuries before Isaac Newton proposed gravity and seven centuries before the Big Bang theory, Grosseteste describes the birth of the Universe in an explosion and the crystallization of matter to form stars and planets in a set of nested spheres around Earth. 
To our knowledge, De Luce is the first attempt to describe the heavens and Earth using a single set of physical laws. Implying, probably unrealized by its author, a family of ordered universes in an ocean of disordered ones, the physics resembles the modern 'multiverse' concept. 
Grosseteste's treatise was translated and interpreted by us as part of an interdisciplinary
project led by Durham University, UK, that includes Latinists, philologists, medieval historians, physicists and cosmologists (see ordered-universe.com). Our experience shows how science and humanities scholars working together can gain fresh perspectives in both fields. And Grosseteste's thesis demonstrates how advanced natural philosophy was in the thirteenth century — it was no dark age.

By the late twelfth century, Aristotle's observation-oriented science had burst afresh onto the European scene, transmitted in a long series of cross-cultural translations from Greek to Arabic to Latin. Great questions arose in the minds of scholars such as Grosseteste, Averroes (in Cordoba) and Gerard of Cremona (in Toledo). What is colour? What is light? How does the rainbow appear? How was the cosmos formed? We should not underestimate the imaginative work needed to conceive that these questions were, in principle, answerable. 
Grosseteste (c.1175–1253) rose from obscure Anglo–Norman origins to become a respected theologian and Bishop of Lincoln. He was one of the first in northern Europe to read the newly translated scientific works of Aristotle, attempting to take forward the big questions of what we can know about the natural world (ontology) and how we know it (epistemology). The late thirteenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon called him “the greatest mathematician” of his time. Grosseteste's work on optical physics influenced mathematicians and natural philosophers for generations, notably in Oxford during the fourteenth century and in Prague during the fifteenth.
The authors provide several examples of Grosseteste's work dealing with science. However, the most interesting one deals with something that looks like an idea for the Big Bang. But I think here we also have to be very careful. Remember, that Grosseteste is working in a geocentric universe - and a universe that is dominated by planets that are visible to the naked eye (separate spheres for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and yes, the Moon and the Sun). Here is the bit about the Big Bang:
The third remarkable ingredient of De Luce to modern eyes is its universal canvas: it suggests that the same physics of light and matter that explains the solidity of ordinary objects can be applied to the cosmos as a whole. An initial explosion of a primordial sort of light, lux, according to Grosseteste, expands the Universe into an enormous sphere, thinning matter as it goes. This sounds, to a twenty-first-century reader, like the Big Bang. 
Then Grosseteste makes an assumption: matter possesses a minimum density at which it becomes 'perfected' into a sort of crystalline form. Today, we would call this a phase transition. The perfection occurs first at the thinnest outer edge of the cosmos, which crystallizes into the outermost sphere of the medieval cosmos. This perfect matter radiates inward another sort of light, lumen, which is able to push matter by its radiative force, piling it up in front and rarefying it behind. An analogous process in today's physics is the inward propagation of shock waves in a supernova explosion. 
Like a sonata returning to its theme, that finite ratio of infinite sums reappears, this time as a 'quantization condition' — a rule that permits only discrete solutions such as the energy levels in atoms — that limits matter to a finite number of spheres. Grosseteste needed to account for nine perfect spheres in the medieval geocentric cosmos: the 'firmament', the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. By requiring that the density is doubled in the second sphere and tripled in the third, and so on, a nested set of spheres results. 
In an impressive final stroke of unification, he postulates that towards the centre of the cosmos, the remaining unperfected matter becomes so dense and the inwardly radiating lumen so weak, that no further perfection transitions are possible. He thus accounts for the Aristotelian distinction between the perfect heavens and the imperfect Earth and atmosphere. 
To our knowledge, De Luce is the first worked example showing that a single set of physical laws might account for the very different structures of the heavens and Earth, hundreds of years before Newton's 1687 appeal to gravity to unite the falling of objects on Earth with the orbiting of the Moon. Our translation has also cleared up a misconception in some previous studies that the light in Grosseteste's treatise travelled both inwards and outwards.
This is an interesting work. You can read the Nature article here (you may need subscription to access it). 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Bunch of Postdoctoral Positions in Science & Religion at Coventry University

by Salman Hameed

If you are looking for a postdoctoral position in science & religion, check out this fantastic opportunity at Coventry University. There are also some opportunities for doctoral studies as well. All of this is part of an interesting and promising project. I have worked (and still working) with some of the individuals spearheading the project, and I think this will be a great learning experience for both predocs and postdocs.

Here is the announcement with links to individual positions:
Full-Time, Permanent Research Associate, Three-Year Research Assistant, and PhD Studentship Posts in Social Science and Humanities study of Science and Religion.  
We are looking to recruit four full-time permanent contract postdoctoral research associate posts to work on the 'Clash Narratives in Context: Uncovering the Social and Cultural Drivers of Contemporary Science vs. Religion Debates' project within the newly created University Research Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. We welcome applications from experienced, enthusiastic and creative humanities and social science early career researchers.  
This large scale multidisciplinary project will build an empirical and theoretical understanding of what social and cultural factors have driven, and are currently driving, the narrative in the public domain that there is a necessary clash between religious belief and belonging and acceptance of evolutionary science. It will employ four intersecting approaches: qualitative social science field research; oral history, historical and media discourse analysis; social psychology experimental research; and a large scale quantitative survey of public perceptions, attitudes and identity formation in the UK and Canada.
 Post 1: Qualitative Social Sciences Research Associate 
Post 2: History, Philosophy or Social Studies of Science Research Associate 
Post 3: Social/Experimental or Psychology Postdoctoral Research Associate 
Post 4: Quantitative social studies Postdoctoral Research Associate  
Closing date: 28th April 2014Interviews: 6th-9th May 2014 We are looking to recruit an experienced three-year research assistant to assist with the overall delivery, communication and management of the project. 
Post 5: Project Research Assistant  
Closing date: 28th April 2014Interviews: 6th-9th May 2014  
We are also looking to recruit two PhD studentships exploring contemporary debates surrounding ‘science and religion’ by undertaking relevant research in: 
PhD 1: Social Sciences/Humanities; 
PhD 2: Social/Experimental Psychology.  
Closing date: 25 April 2014.Interviews in May 2014.  
In addition the university will offer two competitive two-year postdoctoral follow on research positions dependent on the successful submission of PhD thesis within three years/by September 2017 to enable successful PhD students to be retained and develop further as early career professionals in this field of research.  
Coventry University will lead this 3-year research project funded by the Templeton Religion Trust in partnership with York University (Canada) and National Life Stories at the British Library and British Science Association. The research team is led by Principal Investigators Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker (Coventry) and Prof. Bernard Lightman (York, Canada), and Co-Investigators Dr Carola Leicht (Coventry) and Dr Rebecca Catto (Coventry). The project will commence 1st October 2014. 
Applicants should apply online, making explicit reference to how they meet the person specification provided.  Specific questions can be directed to Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker by email only (Fern.Elsdon-Baker@coventry.ac.uk)

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Just for giggles, Saudi Arabia considers spreading atheism as an act of terror

by Salman Hameed

Here is the headline from the Independent (and many other news papers and websites): "Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents". My immediate thought was that well Saudi Arabia indeed has the potential to pass this kind of law in the 21st century. Heck, women still can't drive there and people have been executed and/or placed on death-row for much less charges (for example, see earlier posts here and here). But on the other hand, newspapers, especially in the UK (but elsewhere as well) are also capable of exaggerating issues concerning Muslims and sensationalizing utterings of any obscure Muslim cleric they can find. So what is the deal here? Well, lets say that both groups (Saudis on one hand, and a sensationphilic media on the other) have stayed true to their form.

Here is how the Independent story started:
Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
This - if true is indeed crazy and awful. But this is not true (as accurately pointed out by Mufta's Muftic Musings). A little down the same Independent article, it says this:
Yet last month further regulations were issued by the Saudi interior ministry, identifying a broad list of groups which the government considers to be terrorist organisations - including the Muslim Brotherhood. 
Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".
Okay - so the headline and the opening lines of the article were clearly an exaggeration, and it is the spreading of atheism that is considered terrorism. Whoa!? I mean exaggeration was quite bad but then equating "calling for atheism" as terrorism isn't exactly the most enlightened of thinking. What kind of a terror does it cause? How many instances of such "terror" have been experienced by Saudi Arabia?

I doubt that there are that many open atheists in Saudi Arabia, let alone those that are "calling for atheism" (though there are some- see an article link below). However, this a throwaway crowd-pleaser to be included in the new provisions, and it gives the authorities one more way to execute dissenters (charges of sorcery have already been used for executions).

While in this instance there is some truth to the headline, use your skeptical goggles for much of the news stories about Muslims these days.

In the mean time, there indeed were couple of news stories about atheism in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Here is a BBC news story that covers atheists in Egypt (about 3 minutes in length):

And here is an article from Al-Monitor that includes some quotes from Saudi atheists, Gulf Atheism in the Age of Social Media. The article does cite a poll on religion/atheism, but I don't know its reliability (even though it's name is Gallup - it is not the same as Gallup poll):

Although accurate figures on the number of atheists in the Gulf are nearly impossible to come by, a 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International titled “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” published a surprising number of self-professed Saudi atheists. The researchers found that up to 5% of the Saudi respondents declared themselves to be atheist, a figure comparable to the United States and parts of Europe.

I would go with Pew survey results that show a high level of religiosity (Saudi Arabia was not included in the Pew survey, but I can imagine that it would be in the way upper 90s). This does't mean that there are no atheists - but that those that are willing to say so in anonymous polls are still negligibly small in most of the Arab world (Egypt is at 100% - even though we know that there are vocal atheists there):

You can find the Pew Forum report here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Back to earth and a short story about a heavenly corporation

by Salman Hameed

Posts are back. I was away on a break and then it took me a bit to catch-up on things. And yes, I was away to a warmer place (Hawai'i - the Big Island) to escape from the awful winter that that we have been having here in Massachusetts (though today was  finally a bit nice) and I did not want to come back.

Now that I'm back, check out this picture from the trip below. I took it in early afternoon when it was uncharacteristically cloudy but it was just starting to clear-up. Then there was this interesting rainbow pattern that appeared at the edge of the clouds way out on the horizon (this is not a traditional rainbow). A portal to another dimension? :)

Also, the temperature of the water was just perfect on the beaches. So to compensate for this and perhaps to keep visitors from becoming too complacent, there is this sign as you enter Hapuna Beach State Park:

Unfortunately, the picture didn't come out cleanly. But it says:

Former Military Training Area. 
Unexploded Ordinance (UKO) May be Present.

[a scary grenade sign]


So much for a relaxing day at the beach.

So to get back into things, check out this witty and creative short story from Nature titled Market Forces by Ian Stewart. Here is the beginning of the story:
When Andrew Gordon was crossing the railway lines and failed to notice the approaching InterCity express, he didn't have time to think about death. But if there had been time, he would, as an atheist, have thought: “This is the end.” 
Clearly it wasn't. 
He found himself standing in an eerie, luminous landscape. A narrow path wound its way through banked clouds to an elaborate gateway, where a figure in gleaming white robes waited. He wore a halo. Short stubby wings sprouted from his shoulders. 
This may require a rethink. “Saint Peter?” 
“Security pass, please, sir.” 
Andrew managed a shaky “Sorry, I don't have a pass.” 
“Ah. New soul in the Cloud.” The man cocked his head, as if listening. “Gordon, Andrew Donald? 15 Wysteria Way, Dorridge?” Andrew nodded. “We don't always get notified, you see. Omniscience is all very well, but ... too much information. Accident, was it?” 
“No idea. Never saw it.” 
Another cock of the head. “Train. 10:43 from Wolverhampton. Running late. Hard luck.” 
Something here wasn't right. “You are Saint Peter? These are the pearly gates?” 
The man shook his head. “You're thinking of the previous administration, son. We don't do sainthood any more.” 
“But — your halo. Wings.” 
“Retro look. This month's promotional initiative from Marketing. This is the Security Entrance, and I'm Pete the Security Guard. We don't let any old riff-raff in.” 
“Only true believers? I have a horrible feeling —” 
“Belief? No, that's obsolete. What matters now is added value on your soul.” 
“I always thought souls were a mistaken reification of patterns of brain activity. You mean I really do have a soul?” 
“It's more a case of your soul has got you.” Seeing Andrew's baffled stare the guard added, “You're a Christian atheist, that's your problem.” 
“I'm not a Christian!” 
“No, but the God you don't believe in is the Christian God.” 
Andrew bristled. “I don't believe in any gods.” He looked sheepish. “Well, I didn't.” 
“Sure. But the main one you disbelieved in was the one your culture tried to get you to believe in. That coloured your expectations for the afterlife that you also don't believe in. Not total nonsense, but ... anyway, omnipotent or not, the Old Man adopted a new business model. He's now CEO, Chairman and CFO of Paradise Group. Holy Trinity, right? The afterlife is now a business, not a public service. The archangels have become the board of directors; archbishops and the Pope are relationship managers down in the Mundane. We had to let the cherubim and seraphim go, of course.” 
“What about Hell?” 
“Hades Inc.? Our main competitor before Belle's new strategic vision.” Seeing Andrew's puzzlement, he added: “Belle Z. Bubb, Hades' former Director of Human Resources, now CEO, Chair, CFO and Director of Inferno Technology as well.” 
“The Devil is female?” 
“Belle's not exactly — look, there's no glass floor any more.” 
“You mean glass ceiling,” Andrew said in reflex. 
“No, I don't,” said Pete, looking down through the clouds. “Where were we? Oh, yeah, souls. A soul isn't a thing, Andy. It's a spiritual instrument. An option on you, realized at death. Could be a call option, could be a put option.” 
“Sorry, I don't understand the jargon.” 
“Call option gives the right to buy at a set price; put option gives the right to insist that the other party buys.” 
“What caused the changes?” 
“Lack of regulatory oversight, lavish bonuses, loss of stakeholder power, loss of employee power, third deadly sin ...” He leaned closer to whisper in Andrew's ear. “Actually, mate, I reckon the new corporate structure's worse than the old ways. Dodgy accounting, perverse incentives. Most trade now is in derivatives. Conduct Default Swaps, Innocence Rate Caps ... not enough actual souls to justify the bonuses, you see. So the whole enterprise is built on sand, to quote the Chairman. A few years ago both companies nearly went belly-up because they'd accumulated a speculative bubble in CDOs.”
Ah - read the rest of the story here

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cosmos Episode 1: The good, the bad, and the problematic stuff

by Salman Hameed

The rebooted Cosmos has started with a bang. But bangs can go in many different directions. Here are some thoughts on the first episode. But with some caveats first: I was enamored with the first Cosmos. So it is always tempting to compare the rebooted version to the original one. But I watched the original when I was thirteen - and it is impossible for me to be in the same state of mind while watching Cosmos 2.0. Second, the idea of Cosmic Calendar was original in Sagan's Cosmos - and while it has been updated, the new Cosmic Calendar is now a copy. As is the phrase, "we are made up of star stuff". Plus, because of the hype, publicity, and the team behind Cosmos 2, we have to raise our standards of evaluation - and that may not be that fair. With some of these limitations in mind, here are some things that stood out for me:

The Good Stuff: The visuals are spectacular! I also enjoyed the addition of animations in story telling. In particular, I absolutely loved the animated sequence of the development of human civilization at the end of the Cosmic Calendar. Similarly, the pacing of the Bruno segment was perfect (though it had historical problems - see below). The tour of the universe and the Cosmic calendar could have been better with less "information" and more context. For example, there were too many stops in the early part of the Cosmic Calendar - and I think that diluted the overall impact. Oh and a big missed opportunity towards the end of the Calendar when Tyson was talking about the early hominid species. As I remember, the background had the famous 3.5 million year old Laetoli footsteps, possibly of three individuals, preserved in the volcanic ashes of Tanzania. It would have been amazing to have imagined where those three individuals might have been headed - while leaving these footprints that not only have lasted over 3 million years, but also have provided us with the evidence of bipedalism before the development of modern brain. One could have also jumped from these footprints to the importance of Neil Armstrong's footprint on the Moon. Okay - I didn't write the show and it may be unfair to start bringing up new additions.

The Bad Stuff: There already has been criticism for the animated story centered on Giordano Bruno. So lets get it out there: Cosmos 2.0 did not do a good job with history. Here are two reasons why this is a problem: a) It provides unnecessary fodder to places like the Discovery Institute (see here), and b) There is no excuse for bad history. After all, we all complain when bad science is depicted in TV shows and movies. Heck, Tyson was even upset with Sandra Bullock's zero-gravity hair in Gravity. Considering this, they should pay the same respect to other fields, including history. So what was wrong with the Bruno story? Well, the story implied that he was primarily burnt for his 'heretical' view of an infinite universe (with infinite number of worlds) and his belief in Copernicanism. Like the Galileo Affair, this is often depicted as a clash between science and religion, or at least science and catholicism (though Cosmos 2.0 correctly pointed out opposition to Copernicanism from Lutherans and Calvinists as well). Reality is more complicated, and this particular narrative of Bruno vs the Church was created in the 19th century  (See this Irtiqa post from 2008:   Why was Giordano Bruno Burnt at the Stake?). As Corey Powell explains very nicely in his post, Did 'Cosmos' pick the wrong hero?, Bruno was accused of several heresies, and a belief in an infinite universe was just one of them:
The Roman Inquisition listed eight charges against Bruno. His belief in the plurality of worlds was just one. The others involved denying the divinity of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, denying transubstantiation, practicing magic, and believing that animals and objects (including the Earth) possessed souls. You could fairly call Bruno a martyr to the cause of religious freedom, but his cosmic worldview was neither a deduction nor a guess. It was a philosophical corollary of his heterodox belief that God and souls filled all of the universe.
Oh and he thought that most of the Church officials were idiots - and called them "asses". So while, technically it is true that he was burnt at the stake for his belief in plurality of the worlds, to have a story that makes it the only thread is a bit misleading. And just as we don't like bad science in the name of simplicity, we should not like bad history in the name of simpler narratives.

Perhaps the worst thing in all this is that this can become a divisive issue. Similarly, Tyson at one point says that if you are ready to accept scientific methodology (I'm paraphrasing here), then join me in this voyage. I would have guessed that everyone should be invited to join in this adventure, and hopefully, all viewers will come out with a deeper appreciation of science and the universe.

I also thought that after the soaring rhetoric of Cosmic Calendar, where humans are literally insignificant, it was a letdown to end the show with Tyson's meeting with Sagan. Yes, yes, it is about passing the torch. But that was already done at the beginning of the episode. The original Cosmos left us pondering about the future of humanity (what will we do in the next second of the Cosmic Calendar?), whereas the first episode of Cosmos 2.0 left us firmly planted on Earth with Tyson.

The Problematic stuff: In Reflections on the Pale Blue Dot, Sagan wrote:
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
And yet, Cosmos 2.0 started with glorifying one of the current leaders: President Obama. I have no idea what Sagan would have thought about Obama's drone program, NSA spying, and the long solitary confinement by the government of Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning). Sagan opposed many of President Reagan's policies and even declined an invitation to meet with him at the White House. Unlike seeking a Presidential endorsement for his show, I wonder if he would have wooed the audience just by focusing on the grandeur of the universe - like he did in 1980. I think the very beginning of Cosmos 2.0 succumbed to the celebrity culture, and thus became a bit smaller.

Waiting for episode 2. I know that one of the episodes will also feature al-haytham (Alhazen) as one of the major animated characters. Hope they get the history right.

Related post: 
Watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos in Pakistan in 1984

Excellent article on the current political struggle in Turkey

by Salman Hameed

It is a pleasure to post this article from my friend and research collaborator, Berna Turam. Things have been messy and complicated in Turkey. She provides a nice primer to understanding the current crisis, which in large part, is due to a struggle between the ruling AKP party in Turkey and the Gulen Movement (GM):
Turkey has recently been shaken up by the tumultuous altercation between the globally active Muslim community-movement, the Gulen movement (GM) and the pro-Islamic
Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power for over a decade. Both Western and local audiences have been stunned by the intensity of the clash, which peaked in the last couple of months. 
Previously, most observers had wrongly assumed that these groups were inherent allies because of their faith-based worldview. In sharp contrast to this misperception, these groups came from entirely different pasts and political orientation, although they share a common interest in free market economy and cherished upward socio-economic mobility. 
In fact, these two pious Muslim groups have not cooperated with each other with the exception of a five-year period during the first term of the AKP (2002-2007). Historically, they come from two different branches of Islam in Turkey. The leader, Fethullah Gulen, and his followers have never approved of - or stood close to - Necmettin Erbakan's more radical Islamism, embodied by Milli Gorus (National Outlook). 
Although the GM at large shifted their votes from centre-right parties to the AKP in the 2002 election, Gulen never truly trusted Erbakan's tradition and his protege Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has served as the prime minister since 2002. 
Nevertheless, similar to the liberal democrats of Turkey, the GM stood close by the AKP during its first term, when the AKP was conducting consistent political reform and respecting principles of secular democracy. This conditional partnership started to weaken in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, and cracked in the last term of the AKP (2011-present), when the latter developed an increasingly self-confident and authoritarian attitude in the absence of a strong opposition.
There is now little doubt about Erdogan's increasing authoritarian measures (some comical, as the threat to ban YouTube and Facebook because they host some of the leaked corruption wiretaps - a measure rejected by Turkish President), but the Gulen Movement is not completely innocent either:
Power struggles are caused by the inability to share power, and are fuelled by contradicting political and economic interests. Hence, they are organic parts of power politics and can be played out entirely legitimately, as long as the rules of democracy are protected. However, in the current Turkish case, we recently witnessed persisting violation of these rules with increasing speed and frequency. 
No doubt, this is hurting the young democracy in Turkey and its relatively fragile democratic institutions. Acts of corruption committed by the members of the government are being revealed frequently through the release of tapes, some of which have been illegally produced through unpermitted wire-tapping. Neither the corruption nor some of the methods used in making and releasing the tapes qualify as democratic practices. 
This situation is turning a promising pattern of positive state-society interaction achieved in the first years of the millennium into a war zone of destruction. It is destroying positives steps that have been made in politics, economics, art and other spheres. 
More importantly, as in most power struggles, there are also unintended consequences. Both the AKP and the GM are trespassing over the borders they previously promised not to. On the one hand, the AKP is violating the firm boundary between religion and politics. Erdogan used to preach his fondness of a secular state to Egypt and Middle Eastern democracies during the Arab Spring. 
Secularists and the leading followers of the GM have objected against the AKP's decreasing commitment to secularism. These worries are not to be discarded easily, as the PM and his government continue to take fatwas from religious figures. It is not surprising then to witness the frustrations of the GM about the radicalisation of the AKP. In fact, the GM has a good record of secularism by separating religion from education in their scientifically oriented schools.
On the other hand, however, the GM has trespassed over the boundaries of civil society, within which it emerged and expanded across the world as a self-defined non-state "civic" entity.  Consistent with this image, the GM has refused to form a political party. 
For decades, the leader and his followers took clear stance against mixing religion and politics, by clearly displaying this principle in their confinement of politics to civic engagements with the state. However, when GM's individual members began taking important offices in the branches of the state, they entered a different zone of politics. Understandably, both the AKP and the democrats of Turkey are concerned about the formation of a parallel state by the GM.
But more importantly, where is all this going?
The right thing to do for the GM is to contribute to a strong democratic opposition against the over-empowered authoritarian AKP through the ballot box. The local elections in the end of March 2014 and national elections in a few years will provide a major litmus test for the GM to illustrate and prove its ultimate intentions and goals.
Electoral politics, however can be divisive. Just as the AKP's voters have disagreed in the face of the government's freedom violations and corruption, the GM may also face divisions. 
Two factors may contribute to this. First, the GM has a large grass-root inside and outside Turkey, and a globally influential leadership in the community who are not in the state bureaucracy. Second, the prioritisation of competitive education in the movement created a new educated elite with civil sensibilities and political and economic leverage. 
The near future will show if the GM will transform this power struggle and merge its votes with the secularist opposition for the Republican People's Party (RPP). Voting for RPP is a difficult choice, not only for pious Muslims but even for some liberal and leftist democrats, as RPP has historically not cultivated democratic credentials and practices. 
To the contrary, the party has been closely associated with military coups and violations of human rights. Hence, in the upcoming elections the RPP will also be tested on its capacity to transform its radical secularist and anti-democratic edges, which have formerly excluded and discriminated against pious Muslims, Islamists and other minorities. 
The upcoming local and national elections will put both the Gulen movement and the RPP to a test and will give them an opportunity to change old habits.   
Surely, the present political chaos did not pop up erratically out of nowhere. Before the Taksim-Gezi protests broke out in June 2013, Turkey was already dealing with these very difficult experiments on the ground. In the aftermath of the Gezi protests, one thing is clear: If Turkey comes victorious out of this political crisis, it will stand as an historical example for the future of the Muslim world. 
It will be a showcase of shifting the axis of conflict from the ancient Islamist-secularist dichotomy to a struggle between those who defend democracy and those who infringe on it in the Middle East. 
Read the full article here

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A new book on the reception of Darwin's work in the Arab world

by Salman Hameed

I had been waiting for this book for a while. I had read parts of Marwa Elshakry's dissertation on the reception of Darwin and evolution in the Arab world and found her work to be fascinating and outstanding. Well, now her book Reading Darwin in Arabic: 1860-1950 is out and I'm currently reading it. In the mean time, here is a review of the book from the Times Literary Supplement (tip from Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad):
The title Reading Darwin in Arabic notwithstanding, most of the men discussed in this
book did not read Charles Darwin in Arabic. Instead they read Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Gustave Le Bon, Henri Bergson and George Bernard Shaw in European or Arabic versions. They also read popularizing accounts of various aspects of Darwinism in the scientific and literary journal al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”, 1876–1952). The notion of evolution that Arab readers took away from their reading was often heavily infected by Lamarckism and by the social Darwinism of Spencer. Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, but Isma‘il Mazhar’s translation of the first five chapters of Darwin’s book into Arabic only appeared in 1918. 
For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”. 
The reviewer makes an interesting point that much of the discussion on evolution in the Arab world centered on politics rather than in works of fiction etc. I can imagine that the educated elites of the colonized world would be thinking more or less on political matters. Nevertheless, I have to finish the book to comment on that, but it is an interesting point:
The debate was prolonged and bitter, yet, on the showing of Elshakry’s thoroughly researched book, it strikes me as lacking in exhilaration. The vast vistas of time conjured up by Lyell and Darwin, the molten landscapes, the reign of the great monsters, the excitements of the fossil hunts and the quest for the missing link, none of these things seems to have struck an imaginative chord in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon. There is little or nothing in the Arabic literature of the Nahda, or “Renaissance”, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that can be compared to Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men and nothing, I think, to parallel the subtler exploration of Darwinian themes in George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, or, for that matter Darwin’s own rhetoric. The Origin of Species had concluded with these words: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”. 
The embrace of evolutionary ideas was closely bound in with political considerations. 
Instead theologians, scientific popularizers, polemicists and journalists sought either to reconcile the new ideas with the Qur’an or to deny their validity on the grounds that they could not be so reconciled. In these debates Darwin’s The Descent of Man was more fiercely attacked and defended than The Origin of Species. Muslim polemicists against Darwinism gratefully borrowed the Protestant theologian William Paley’s analogy of a watch found abandoned on a beach, since the intricate design of such an instrument surely argued irrefutably for a designer. The Islamic reformer and activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97) produced an early and intemperate attack on Darwin that was clearly not based on any direct acquaintanceship with his ideas (though Afghani later softened, and claimed that there was not a lot that was new in Darwinism, the Arabs having got there first). On the other hand, his leading disciple and pioneer of Islamic modernism, Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) became an enthusiast for the social Darwinism of Spencer and he was actually introduced to the great sage by his friend, the poet, Arabist and anti-imperialist Wilfrid Blunt. 
As was the case with reception of Darwinism in China, embrace of evolutionary ideas was closely bound in with political considerations, especially the challenges posed both by the West’s ideology and its military might. Science was now understood to be primarily Western science. Those who, like Abduh, broadly supported the theory of evolution were accused of being accomplices of cultural imperialism avant la lettre. The scramble for Africa was seen as the product of a political version of natural selection. Darwinism was denounced as part of the ideology of empire and something that underwrote the Anglo-Saxon claim to supremacy. In particular, the editors of al-Muqtataf, who drew so heavily on British publications, Ya‘qub Sarruf and Faris Nimr, were regarded with suspicion by Egyptian nationalists and, in fact, the editors seem to have had good contacts with Lord Cromer, the proconsul in Egypt from 1883 to 1907. In 1952, the year Nasser came to power, al-Muqtataf was forced to close. On a non-political level there was much that was peculiarly British in The Origin of Species and some Arab readers were probably repelled by Darwin’s intense interest in dog breeding. 
On the other hand, prominent supporters of Darwin and Spencer enthusiastically embraced the new foreign ideas as tools that might free them not only from the British presence in Egypt, but also from Ottoman and Khedivial despotism, as well as the shackles of what was seen as an outworn religious tradition. Spencerian social Darwinism, with its application of the concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics, could be read as offering hope for the regeneration of the Arab world. 
Okay, this should whet your appetite for the book. Read the full review here

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in Pakistan in 1984

by Salman Hameed

It was sudden. It was unexpected. I was in 9th grade when my life took a dramatic turn. Like many of my peers at school, I was planning on pursuing electrical or computer engineering at N.E.D. University. My father is an engineer. My eldest brother is an engineer. The path seemed to have been laid out. But then, on a fateful night, Cosmos got aired on Pakistan Television (PTV). By the time the first episode ended, I had decided to become an astronomer. In less than an hour, a science poet from Brooklyn had fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life in Pakistan!

I don’t remember the exact date, but this was some time in 1984. I had heard of neither Carl Sagan or of his Personal Voyage in the form of the show Cosmos. In fact, when I sat down to watch the first episode, I was initially disappointed to find out that it was a documentary. I loved science fiction films, but used to run away from documentaries. I was thirteen. But the name of the show, “Cosmos”, fooled me. It sounded cool and mysterious.

And then Carl Sagan, in his inimitable accent and style, invited us all to join him in the voyage:

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we've learned most of what we know. Recently we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

I was hooked. The first episode ended with Sagan’s famous Cosmic Calendar, where the entire history of the universe was compressed into one year. The Big Bang happened on January 1st. In this calendar, the Sun and the planets formed only in September, and life arose on September 21st. Modern humans appear at 11:52pm on December 31st, and the entire written history would lie within the last 13 seconds of the cosmic year. The episode ended, but I remember sitting in stunned silence for a little while. For the first time, I had encountered the true enormity of space and time. My jaw stay dropped for the coming weeks and months, and I was an annoying teenager who was trying to explain the Cosmic Calendar to anyone who would listen (and even listening was not exactly a precondition). 

I had fallen in love with astronomy. Through Cosmos, I found out that one could be a professional astronomer. This was a revelation: You can get paid to do what you really love to do! Seventeen years after the airing of Cosmos in Pakistan, I obtained my doctorate in astronomy in the US. Carl Sagan died in 1996, and I never got a chance to thank him personally for transforming my life via only a picture tube. 

I routinely watch clips of Cosmos for writing inspiration. I have the series on iTunes, DVD, and, yes, even on VHS. I want to make sure that in case of a technological apocalypse, one of these formats will allow me the continued pleasure of being awed by Sagan’s personal voyage into the cosmos.

Now I await the premiere of the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. By all accounts, it looks dazzling. Tyson, himself, is an outstanding communicator of science and a worthy successor of Sagan. I’m excited to see this updated Cosmos. So much has happened in astronomy since the first Cosmos. Planets around other stars. An accelerating universe. Dark Matter. Dark Energy. But in all honesty, I’m also a bit apprehensive. Sagan is often portrayed primarily as a science communicator. But I think his biggest contribution was to provide us with a rich and sensitive humanistic view of the universe. He managed to balance awe and humility in the face of the enormous cosmos uncovered by science. I hope the new Cosmos finds a way to retain this spirit.

The wait is almost over. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiers tomorrow. Here is the trailer: 

Cosmos - A Spacetime Odyssey With Neil deGrasse... by Michael500ca