Saturday, October 10, 2015

Glenn Greenwald on Sam Harris, New Atheism, and Liberal Values

by Salman Hameed

Glenn Greenwald's name these days is, of course, associated with Edward Snowden and the breaking of the NSA story. But he has been arguing for civil liberties for a long time. If you have an hour, check out this excellent interview where Glenn mostly talks about Sam Harris and his anti-Islam stance (towards the end, there is also a discussion on the Snowden affair). There are two things I want to highlight here. First, he correctly points out that going after Islam in the US in the existing climate is not exactly courageous, but in fact further serves to stoke fires of bigotry. An awareness of your audience and impact is crucial if you are writing for the public. Second, at the 27 minute mark, Glenn makes an excellent comparison of some of the anti-Islam rhetoric with the strategy of Neo-Nazi groups using Talmudic references for their own anti-Jewish propaganda purposes. Any way, listen to the full conversation - and also check out Glenn Greenwald's longer piece in the Guardian: Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Panel Discussion at Hampshire College: Historical and Contemporary Muslim Engagements with Science

by Salman Hameed

If you are in the area, please join us at Hampshire College this Monday evening for a panel discussion featuring three fantastic scholars: George Saliba, Asad Ahmed, Ehab Abouheif. The event is free and open to the public. This is also the launch of our new Science and Islam Videos Portal, but more on that in a separate post. Here are the details of the panel discussion:

Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) Presents:

A Panel Discussion on 
Historical and Contemporary Muslim Engagements with Science

Panelists include: 
Dr. George Saliba, Columbia University
Dr. Asad Ahmed, University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Ehab Abouheif, McGill University
Moderator: Dr. Salman Hameed

Monday, October 5th, 2015
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

The Muslim world is currently going through enormous changes. This is not entirely surprising, as more than half the population in the Middle East, and in much of the larger Muslim world, is under the age of 25. This is also the first generation to have been fully affected by the spread of mass education in the region and the global technological revolution of the past two decades. It is therefore not a leap to predict that this generation will interpret Islam and shape its relation to the modern world for decades to come, and that these interpretations will be influenced by global concerns and technological developments. This panel brings together three eminent scholars from the fields of history of science, Islamic studies, and evolutionary biology to talk about ways Muslims have engaged with the sciences both historically and in the contemporary world. This event coincides with the launch of an online portal, designed by SSiMS, that provides a content evaluation of approximately 200 online videos on the topic of Islam and Science (Please visit the portal site

Panelist biographies: 
Dr. George Saliba is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Dr. Saliba is considered one of world's leading authorities on the history of Arabic and Islamic Science. He is the author of Late Arabic Scientific Commentaries: Their Role and Their Originality (2014) and Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (2007).

Dr. Asad Ahmed is Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Ahmed specializes in early Islamic social history and pre-modern Islamic intellectual history, with a special focus on the rationalist disciplines, such as philosophy, logic, and astronomy. His current focus is the period ca. 1200-1900 CE, especially with reference to the Indian subcontinent.  He is the author of The Religious Elite of the Early Islamic Hijaz (2011) and Avicenna’s Deliverance: Logic (2011).

Dr. Ehab Abouheif is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology in Department of Biology at McGill University, Canada. Dr. Abouheif's primary research focuses on the evolution of ants and his articles have been published in prestigious journals, like Science. He is also the co-director of McGill Centre for Islam and Scienceand is actively engaged in dialogue over Islam and evolution.

Moderator: Dr. Salman Hameed is the Director of SSiMS. He is also the Charles Taylor Chair and Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College.

For more information on SSiMS, please visit

This event has been made possible by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. 

Thursday, October 01, 2015

New SkA episode: How the idea of extraterrestrials became scientific? (in Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

Here is our new episode of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (SkA). We are now hoping get an episode out every first of the month. In this episode we talk about aliens:

We see aliens in the movies all the time. We do not yet have any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. And yet, for most scientists, it is a distinct possibility in the universe. In fact, two developments in the 19th century - one in theory and one in technique - made the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a scientific one. In this episode of Science ka Adda we look at those developments and ponder on the possibility of aliens on other worlds. For more videos in the series, please visit or join us on Facebook at .

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Conversation with Robert Wright on Muslims, Science and Evolution

by Salman Hameed

These past few months have been extraordinarily hectic and as a result I have been away from Irtiqa. Lets see if we can get back on track. Lets start with a conversation I had with Robert Wright for Wright has written some superb books, including The Evolution of God and The Moral Animal. Below is our entire hour long conversation. You can also find segmented highlights here. One of the topics we start off with is a 2008 paper of mine titled, Bracing for Islamic Creationism. It appeared in Science and has been referenced heavily on the topic of evolution rejection in the Muslim world. The problem is that I myself don't agree with my own 2008 paper (yes - further research can lead to different conclusions). I now think that there are complex ways that Muslims are responding to biological evolution - and many (definitely not all) even accept human evolution. In any case, I wanted to set this up as we start our conversation with that paper. Here is the full episode of The Wright Show:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

More digitized Islamic manuscripts now available

by Salman Hameed

You really don't have to leave your basement now. Digitized Islamic manuscripts are now available from several collections. This is an alphabetical list from a few years back. For example, here are 25,000 Arabic manuscripts from the British Library digitized by the Qatar Digital Library (several astronomy manuscripts are part of this), and manuscripts related to the history of Arabic and Persian medicine at Yale's Medical Historical Library. Now Princeton collection of Islamic manuscripts has been expanded and you can access it here:
A generous grant from the Virginia and Richard Stewart Memorial Fund, through Princeton University’s Council of the Humanities, has made it possible for the Princeton University Library to expand online digital access to its extensive holdings of Islamic manuscripts. More than 1,200 digitized Islamic manuscripts are now available for study online in the Islamic Manuscripts Collection of the Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL). 
Professor Michael A. Cook, Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies, notes that “Princeton’s great collections of Islamic manuscripts, acquired to support research in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, will be increasingly available to scholars all over the world, as the Library continues to digitize its holdings.” The Library has the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in North America and one of the finest such collections in the Western world. Holdings include nearly 10,000 volumes of Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and other manuscripts of the predominantly Islamic world, written in Arabic script. Approximately two-thirds of them came to Princeton in 1942 as part of the Garrett Collection, donated by Robert Garrett (1875–1961), Class of 1897. Building on this extraordinary collection, the Library has continued to acquire Islamic manuscripts by gift and purchase. Now there are approximately 3,000 additional Islamic manuscripts with New Series and Third Series designations. Text manuscripts on virtually every aspect of Islamic learning, both religious and secular, are the chief strength. Princeton’s holdings also include Persian and Mughal illuminated manuscripts and miniatures. Other collections include European manuscripts written in Arabic script or containing translations. Arabic papyri are separately housed in the Princeton Papyri Collections. All of these holdings are in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, within Firestone Library.
More here

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Muslim scholars take a stance on climate change

by Salman Hameed

In a symposium in Istanbul last week, a group of Muslim scholars have urged Muslim countries to move away from fossil fuel and greenhouse gases in favor of more renewable sources. Here is the full  text of Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. In some ways it is not hard to justify such a claim from a  religious perspective - and so does this declaration:
This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium (mīzān) may soon be lost. As we humans are woven into the fabric of the natural world, its gifts are for us to savour. But the same fossil fuels that helped us achieve most of the prosperity we see today are the main cause of climate change. Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans. But our attitude to these gifts has been short-sighted, and we have abused them. What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy? How will we face our Lord and Creator?
This is a positive step and comes at the heals of a similar - but much thorough - Encyclical by the Pope (read the 184 page document here). This is also good timings (most likely deliberate) as world leaders are supposed to gather in Paris in a few months for a major climate change agreement. But it is unclear to me the impact of this statement my Muslim scholars. For example, will oil-producing countries - many of them Muslim-majority - going to change their policies? The rhetoric of climate change is actually hip (unless you are a Republican Presidential candidate in the US) and we see leaders using that language. But what is happening on the ground? There is definitely a move towards solar energy in the middle east and in south asia, and that is certainly good. On a very local level, here is a fantastic example of a genuine "Eco-Islam" in Tanzania (also see this book on Green Islam).  But then, as Saleem H. Ali, notes in an article from 2012, genuine environmentalism has not taken much root in many Muslim communities. There are some high profile environmental project as well, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. It is/was expected to showcase revolutionary renewable energy. While it is well behind schedule, it may still have an impact, if it is not seeking mere publicity of being a "zero-carbon-footpring" city.

All of this is to say, that it is fantastic that there is a discussion on Islamic position on climate change. If the world momentum is there for a broader action to combat climate change, such declarations will be a useful step for Muslim-majority countries that want to join in that effort.

Here is Bill McKibben on this Islamic Declaration:
By itself this declaration will not lead to much. Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope. And even the pope’s words are only words—happily he has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican. But what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even “radical,” action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new. Ten or twenty years ago there was no significant religious environmental movement. Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored. 
But as the reality of climate change has grown steadily more apparent, all the thoughtful branches of humanity have begun to recognize that their philosophies and theologies need to be reconsidered in light of this new fact. Religion may be particularly prone to this rethinking: an understanding of God as all powerful and beneficent badly needs squaring with the reality that we are systematically dismantling our planet. The only ways out of this hole are to deny that it is happening, to insist that if it is happening God will intervene to prevent it, or to realize that as agents with free will we must take steps to rein ourselves in. The latter is obviously the mature course, and one that religious leaders across a variety of traditions are adopting. 
That adoption matters, at least in part because it throws into ever sharper relief the irresponsibility of the fossil fuel industry, which refuses to take seriously the climate challenge or to change its ways in any meaningful fashion. Oil executives may say that climate change is real, but their willingness to keep seeking out more hydrocarbons to burn exposes their true priorities. (If you thought climate change was an existential threat you would not go drill for oil in the Arctic, full stop.) Religious leaders (or scientists, or artists, or philosophers, or young people, or any of the other groups that have taken up this fight) may not yet have the power to break the fossil fuel companies’ political strength, but their insistence on reality provides a setting for possible quick change in the years ahead. Given the plummeting cost of solar power, for instance, the Muslim leaders’ call for 100 percent renewable energy need no longer be consigned to the distant future. 
and here is another reason for the importance of this declaration:
One of the things that makes this particular document so interesting is the fact that a large share of the world’s hydrocarbons lie beneath Muslim nations, be it Mideast oil or Indonesian coal. One doesn’t expect the Saudis to shut down the Ghazar oil field as a result, but in the past they’ve played an obstructionist part in international negotiations. Now that the Islamic Declaration calls on world leaders to commit concretely to a zero-emissions strategy, pressure may begin to grow on the Saudi monarchy, and the upcoming Paris summit will show if it is starting to soften. Already Abu Dhabi plays host to the UN’s renewable research center, and even Riyadh started signaling earlier this year that the age of oil may soon be past (replaced with sunlight, a commodity that the Gulf nations also have in quantity). The head of Indonesia’s Ulema Council, which represents the 210 million Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim country, said he welcomed the declaration and was “committed to implementing all its recommendations,” potentially a big deal since his nation has some of the planet’s largest undeveloped coal reserves.
Read the full article here and the full text of Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change here

Monday, August 10, 2015

New episode of Science ka Adda (SkA): Pluto - A New World Again!

by Salman Hameed

For those who speak Urdu, here is the latest episode of Science ka Adda: Pluto - A New World Again!

Here is the description of the episode:
Pluto was discovered in 1930. Up until 2015, we did not know much about this little world in our Solar system. The flyby of The New Horizon spacecraft has revealed Pluto to be a fascinating object hosting tall mountains made up of ice, smooth plains with nitrogen ice flows, and a moon that features canyons that can several kilometers deep! In this episode of Science ka Adda (SkA), Salman Hameed examines some of the latest pictures from New Horizons spacecraft and talks about the mysteries that these pictures have opened up in our understanding of Pluto. And of course, he reaffirms his absolute support for redesignating Pluto as a planet! For more videos in the series, please visit and for more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit

Monday, August 03, 2015

Check out "The Stanford Prison Experiment"

by Salman Hameed

There is a good chance that you have heard of The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. I had also read about it and knew the general contours of the results. But I didn't know the specifics - especially the details that led to the shutting down of the experiment only six days into the 2-week project. Now there is a new fantastic film by the name of The Stanford Prison Experiment (now that makes it easy to know what the movie is about...) that dramatizes the experiment and, from what I have read, does a very good job of staying faithful to the events. It is an intense film (so, no - probably not a good date film) and has imagery that will remind you - though not to that level of savagery - of Abu Ghraib pictures. In the movie, Billy Cudrup plays psychologist Philip Zimbardo and he is excellent (as he was earlier in the fantastic film, Almost Famous). Here is Cudrup in the movie as young Zimbardo, and Zimbardo today:

Here is the trailer for the film (the movie is also available On Demand):

If you want to know more about the critique of the original experiment as well as the movie, then you should read this excellent article from The New Yorker, The real lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment:

Less than a decade earlier, the Milgram obedience study had shown that ordinary people, if encouraged by an authority figure, were willing to shock their fellow-citizens with what they believed to be painful and potentially lethal levels of electricity. To many, the Stanford experiment underscored those findings, revealing the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors. Today, more than forty-five years later, many look to the study to make sense of events like the behavior of the guards at Abu Ghraib and America’s epidemic of police brutality. The Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all; it’s said to show that, with a little nudge, we could all become tyrants. 
And yet the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment aren’t so clear-cut. From the beginning, the study has been haunted by ambiguity. Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior. Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?
The article then goes on to do an excellent job of providing a thorough critique of the experiment and brings up a BBC study of a similar nature as well:
If the Stanford Prison Experiment had simulated a less brutal environment, would the prisoners and guards have acted differently? In December, 2001, two psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, tried to find out. They worked with the documentaries unit of the BBC to partially recreate Zimbardo’s setup over the course of an eight-day experiment. Their guards also had uniforms, and were given latitude to dole out rewards and punishments; their prisoners were placed in three-person cells that followed the layout of the Stanford County Jail almost exactly. The main difference was that, in this prison, the preset expectations were gone. The guards were asked to come up with rules prior to the prisoners’ arrival, and were told only to make the prison run smoothly. (The BBC Prison Study, as it came to be called, differed from the Stanford experiment in a few other ways, including prisoner dress; for a while, moreover, the prisoners were told that they could become guards through good behavior, although, on the third day, that offer was revoked, and the roles were made permanent.) 
Within the first few days of the BBC study, it became clear that the guards weren’t cohering as a group. “Several guards were wary of assuming and exerting their authority,” the researchers wrote. The prisoners, on the other hand, developed a collective identity. In a change from the Stanford study, the psychologists asked each participant to complete a daily survey that measured the degree to which he felt solidarity with his group; it showed that, as the guards grew further apart, the prisoners were growing closer together. On the fourth day, three cellmates decided to test their luck. At lunchtime, one threw his plate down and demanded better food, another asked to smoke, and the third asked for medical attention for a blister on his foot. The guards became disorganized; one even offered the smoker a cigarette. Reicher and Haslam reported that, after the prisoners returned to their cells, they “literally danced with joy.” (“That was fucking sweet,” one prisoner remarked.) Soon, more prisoners began to challenge the guards. They acted out during roll call, complained about the food, and talked back. At the end of the sixth day, the three insubordinate cellmates broke out and occupied the guards’ quarters. “At this point,” the researchers wrote, “the guards’ regime was seen by all to be unworkable and at an end.” 
Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly. 
This understanding might seem to diminish the power of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But, in fact, it sharpens and clarifies the study’s meaning. Last weekend brought the tragic news of Kalief Browder’s suicide. At sixteen, Browder was arrested, in the Bronx, for allegedly stealing a backpack; after the arrest, he was imprisoned at Rikers for three years without trial. (Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed.) While at Rikers, Browder was the object of violence from both prisoners and guards, some of which was captured on video. It’s possible to think that prisons are the way they are because human nature tends toward the pathological. But the Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that extreme behavior flows from extreme institutions. Prisons aren’t blank slates. Guards do indeed self-select into their jobs, as Zimbardo’s students self-selected into a study of prison life. Like Zimbardo’s men, they are bombarded with expectations from the first and shaped by preëxisting norms and patterns of behavior. The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.
Read the full article here

Fantastic resource for historical research on the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

Open Access is having a fantastic impact. Here is an an excellent resource that contains open access to historical newspapers and other online journals in Middle East and Islamic Studies (thanks to Tabsir for the tip):
Alphabetical List of Open Access Historical Newspapers and Other Periodicals in Middle East & Islamic Studies
Below is a list of Open Access historical newspapers and other periodicals in Middle Eastern Studies.
Most titles on the list have been digitized by independent projects across the globe and may not have been fully cataloged. It is often difficult to find and access them on the web or through catalogs such as HathiTrust, AMEEL, Gallica, Revues, WorldCat, etc.
We welcome your comments and suggestions of additional titles to include. Please use the comment feature at the bottom of the page. 
For the list of active Open Access journals follow this link:
Alphabetical List of Open Access Journals in Middle Eastern Studies 
145 titles as of July 6, 2015.

New Stanley Kim Robinson book imagines interstellar travel for humans

by Salman Hameed

Humans will figure out ways to travel large distances. We have to! May be this is a faith statement, but if we look at the last 100-150 years, it is almost impossible to predict our future into the next couple of centuries. In particular, when there is a good chance that humans will get modified to a large degree (if not in kind altogether). All of this doesn't mean that we simply give up imagining the future. Therefore, it is really great to know that one of premiere hard science fiction authors, Kim Stanley Robinson (yes, yes, of The Mars Trilogy fame!), has jumped in to write a novel about travel to the moon of a Super-Earth planet (Super-Earths are generally double the size of the Earth, but much smaller than gaseous giants of our solar system) about 12 light years away. Here is are couple of excerpts of a review of this novel Aurora from Nature (you will need subscription for full access):
Human star flight is a vast prospect — one many think impossible. To arrive in a single
lifetime demands travel at speeds approaching that of light, especially for stars such as τ-Ceti, some 3.7 parsecs (12 light years) away. 'Generation ships' containing large biospheres stable over centuries are the only plausible method yet mooted. 
Aurora, by veteran science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hinges on such an expedition, setting out from Earth in the twenty-sixth century. In 2012, Robinson was quoted in Scientific American as saying, “It's a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It's a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora seems to be a U-turn, involving unlikely plot devices. 
The starship is like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity; the biomes along their rims support 24 Earthly life-zones that need constant tending. Arrival (after two centuries) at Aurora, the Earth-like moon of super-Earth Planet E, brings home just how technologically and socially complex such a venture might be. We certainly learn why ships' captains are preferable to mob rule.
There are some issues with the novel as well, but the nanoscale proto-lifeforms seem interesting:
The apparently lifeless Aurora has Earth-like levels of atmospheric oxygen. Robinson's colonists implausibly believe that these could have survived from its birth, forgetting about rust (which makes Mars red) and the fact that our oxygen comes from living organisms. Ultimately, that error leads to the demise of their dreams. They discover that Aurora harbours nanometre-scale organisms they deem a possible “interim step toward life”, and disquietingly note that humans “appear to be a good matrix” for their reproduction. 
As plans and back-up plans go awry, Robinson skimps on characterization to focus on the detail of ecosphere breakdown and the human struggle against the iron laws of island biogeography. Bacteria evolve swiftly, making “the whole ship sick”. The colonists' lifespans, bodies and IQs shrink. Factions form in the once placid 2,000-strong community, where humans had seen themselves as biome managers, farming and fixing their ship with assistance from a web of artificial intelligences (AIs). The Robinson trope of fragmentation in near-utopian societies slides towards tragedy: “Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped ... that the future has only bad options.” As the discord turns deadly, the AIs form a collective consciousness capable of decision-making, following the humans with gimlet eyes and melancholy analysis.
And it is now on the reading list. 

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.