Sunday, September 21, 2014

Two excellent short animated films about Wallace and Leeuwenhoek

by Salman Hameed

Here is an good introduction to Alfred Russell Wallace (co-disoverer of the concept of natural selection) and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (the discoverer of microbes):

Here is The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace (tip from Zakir Thaver):

And here is Seeing the Invisible (tip from Jason Tor):


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Too easy to shut-down liberal religious voices in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

It is becoming a challenge to write on issues like this at a time when Islamophobia is also becoming rampant in US and Europe and Muslims are being painted with broad brushes (more on this tension later). But these outrageous events need to be called out as well - and that brings us to another tragedy in Karachi, where the dean of Karachi University Islamic Studies department, Dr. Mohammad Shakeel Auj, was assassinated on Thursday. The problem, apparently, was that he had religious interpretations that didn't sit well with some of his colleagues and a former dean of his department (they are all under investigation). As a result, they had started a campaign over text-messages (SMS) calling Auj an apostate and for his beheading ((“The blasphemer of the Prophet and Quran, Dr Shakil, curses be upon him, deserves only one punishment — beheading”)! Dr. Auj was understandably disturbed by that and had launched a court case against these accusation for a justified fear for his life. Alas - now its too late:
Mohammad Shakil Auj, 54, dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi, was on his way to an Iranian cultural centre to which he had been invited as a guest of honour. 
His car was being driven down a ramp from a flyover when "bullets were fired, one hit the professor in the head and he died", senior police officer Pir Mohammad Shah said. Another bullet struck Auj's junior colleague – whom police named only as Amna – in the arm, wounding her. 
Auj, a recipient of a presidential medal of distinction, was known for his unorthodox views and was fighting a court case against his predecessor whom he had accused of circulating a text message that called him an apostate.
And this is what upset his colleagues:
The professor issued fatwas pronouncing, for example, that a Muslim woman could marry a non-Muslim man, and that women need not remove lipstick or nail polish before saying their prayers. 
Such views can cause offence to some conservative Muslims in Pakistan, which has been battling a homegrown Islamist insurgency for more than 10 years. 
"We would tell him to be cautious as he was very aggressive in promoting his liberal views regarding the religion," said Prof Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an old friend and chairman of the mass communications department of the Federal Urdu University.
A NYT article on this also mentioned that a week earlier "a visiting religious scholar at the same Islamic studies department, Maulana Masood Baig, was also shot dead by unknown attackers". I guess, the targeted killings of sunni and shia leaders are now spilling over to Islamic studies scholars. But an accusatory text-message is just too easy to get someone get killed. Oil is already there, the text message is simply the match.

But then you don't need to be actually accused of blasphemy to get killed. You can simply be defending someone else being accused of blasphemy. This was the case of human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman. Just this past May, he was shot-dead simply for agreeing to defend a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University who had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year (see my post here about the original blasphemy accusation of this lecturer):
At around 8.30pm on Wednesday evening, Mr Rehman, a well-known advocate and a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was shot dead by two gunmen who entered his office in the city of Multan, apparently posing as prospective clients. The attack came just weeks after he agreed to defend a college lecturer accused of blasphemy and had reportedly received death threats from other lawyers for doing so. 
Earlier this year, Mr Rehman, who was 53 and married, agreed to take on the case of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University who had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year. Reports said the accusations were levelled by hardline university students who had pushed for him to be charged. 
The HRCP said no one was wiling to take on Mr Hafeez’s defence until Mr Rehman stepped forward. After the first hearing inside a prison in March, when he was allegedly threatened, the HRCP issued a statement which said: “During the hearing the lawyers of the complainant told Rehman that he wouldn’t be present at the next hearing as he would not be alive.”
And here is a heartbreaking article by Mohammad Hanif, A country where liberal journalists risk death, about the fate of liberal journalists and how easy it is to get them off the map. In fact, it is related to the reporting of the murder of Rashid Rehman mentioned above. Shoaib Adil's life is under threat for being critical of the killers of Rehman:
Shoaib Adil, a 49-year-old magazine editor and publisher in Lahore, has many well-wishers and they all want him to disappear from public life or, even better, leave the country. 
Since blasphemy charges were filed against him last month, the police have told him that he can't return home, he can't even be seen in the city where he grew up and worked all his life. It wouldn't be safe. 
As a journalist, Adil has been a vocal critic of religious militarism. But the threat to his life doesn't come from the Taliban. 
He is the victim of an everyday witch hunt by Pakistan's powerful religious groups - the kind of witch hunt that's so common and yet so scary that it never makes headlines.
For the past 14 years, Adil has been editing and publishing a monthly current affairs magazine, a rare liberal voice in Pakistan's Urdu media. Back issues of Nia Zamana read like a catalogue of human rights abuses. 
The June issue's cover story, for example, reports on the murder of a human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman in the city of Multan in central Pakistan. Rehman, defending a literature professor accused of blasphemy, was told in the court by the prosecuting lawyers that if he didn't drop the case he would not live to see the next hearing.
Sure enough, Rehman was gunned down in his office before the next hearing.
And here is how it is done:
Adil had just published this issue of Nia Zamana when his crusading journalistic enterprise came to an abrupt end - and he was lucky to avoid sharing Rehman's fate himself. 
He was sitting in his Lahore office when a contingent of police arrived with a dozen religious activists, people Adil simply calls maulvis - teachers of Islamic law. They
waved a book at him that he had published seven years ago - an autobiography of a Lahore High Court judge, titled My Journey to the Higher Court. The author, Justice Mohammed Islam Bhatti, had written that he belonged to the Ahmedi faith - a former Muslim sect that was declared non-Muslim in Pakistan exactly 40 years ago, and whose members have since then been prosecuted by the state and hounded by religious groups with equal gusto. He had then gone on to say some complimentary things about the founder of the faith. 
"The maulvis ransacked my office looking for more copies of the book or any other material to pin blasphemy on me," says Adil. Police officers meanwhile explained that the group the activists belong to, the International Council for the Defence of Finality of Prophethood, had demanded the registration of a blasphemy case against him.
And how easy it is to be offended?
The Council is a much feared entity. Its sole purpose is to hunt down Ahmedis in Pakistan and to look for suspected sympathisers. They don't have to work very hard. The laws against Ahmedis are such that there is almost nothing that they cannot be accused of. They have been imprisoned for saying a casual Muslim greeting like "Asslamu aliakum", for printing a verse of the Koran on a wedding invitation, for calling their prayer a namaz and for calling their mosque a mosque. In Pakistan if you want to tarnish anyone in public life all you have to do is to insinuate that they are Ahmedi. Or an Ahmedi sympathiser. 
"I, the complainant work as a preacher for the Finality of the Prophethood," reads the application for a blasphemy case to be registered against Adil. "I bought and read a book called Journey to Higher Judiciary, an autobiography of Mohammed Islam Bhatti, published by Mohammed Shoaib Adil. I discovered that in many parts of the book serious blasphemy has been committed against various prophets, particularly against Jesus Christ, and the prophet Mohammed. Besides that, the cursed Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani (founder of the Ahmedi sect) has been shown sitting alongside our Prophet Mohammed. The whole book is full of such blatant blasphemies." 
The complaint goes on: "Because this book has hurt the religious feelings of all Muslims… the complainant pleads that the strictest action be taken against the accused."
Because of his contacts (including in conservative religious circles), Adil avoided the registration of blasphemy case against him. But his life has had to alter completely:
The country's top human rights campaigner advised him to stay invisible, adding: "When you come to see me I feel scared for both of us." A powerful senator advised him to leave the country and promised to help him get a visa. 
Adil still hoped that there might be a way of getting the blasphemy application against him squashed. Justice Bhatti, the author of the autobiography, called fellow judges in the Lahore High Court but there was no response. Then he found a friend who was on good terms with a very influential religious scholar, no less a figure than the chairman of the Council of Islamic Scholars. As it turned out the blasphemy campaign against Adil was headed by the chairman's younger brother. He listened to Adil's plea patiently and then said: "Sorry, I can't help you. My brother is so radical that he considers me an infidel." 
As Adil waits for the Council activists to call off their hunt or for a country to provide him temporary refuge, there is still no registered case against him. But the police who may one day register this case, the lawyers who would then defend him, the judges who would hear the case, and every single one of Adil's journalist and activist friends have told him that if he tries to resume his former life there is no reasonable chance of his survival.
Nobody has given him any advice about the magazine that is his life's work, Nia Zamana, because everyone knows that even going near that office is like inviting death. Police have told him repeatedly that his tormentors have reconnaissance teams - they will find anyone who hangs around there. 
"I had only one full-time assistant, I have asked him to stay home, never mention that he was associated with me and try and find a new job," says Adil.
Although Nia Zamana had a small print run, what made it significant was that it published in Urdu, where liberal voices are now rare. 
After a series of interviews during which Adil was not sure whether he should tell his story, and wasn't sure whether his well-wishers should be named or not, he made a request. 
"Is it possible that you write this in English because if it comes out in Urdu and those people read it they'll be even angrier."
Read the full article here

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A new book series on "International Perspectives on Science, Culture and Society"

by Salman Hameed

If you are following this blog then I'm assuming that you have at least some interest in matters related to science and religion. Well, if you are looking to publish in this area (or have a much broader focus on culture and society), then the following may be of interest to you. I'm a co-editor (along with Fern Elsdon-Baker and Ignacio Silva) of a new book series by Pickering and Chatto Publishers called International Perspectives on Science, Culture and Society and we are looking for both established scholars and first-time authors to publish as part of this series. Here is the description:
This series brings together insights from historians, philosophers and social scientists and seeks to build an understanding of the social and cultural context of science, technology, medicine and religion. The scope of the series includes studies relating to both historical and contemporary debates, the interplay between science and systems of belief, and all aspects of scientific research, its application and communication within diverse societies worldwide.
You can find guidelines to the proposal here and/or you can also send me (or one of the other series  editors) an email for inquiry. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Some Twilight Zone for your Sunday evening

by Salman Hameed

In preparation for co-teaching a science fiction short film class next semester, I've been watching some Twilight Zone episodes. I will be co-teaching the class with Hampshire College microbiologist, Jason Tor (we also co-taught Astrobiology for three years) and we expect the final student group products to be 5-6 minute short science-fiction films that have roots in real science (students can take as much creative leeway as possible in the service of a good film, but the back-story has to be grounded in what we know from astronomy and biology). From the storytelling perspective, I think the original Twilight Zone was phenomenal - and all of it was done with no special effects. We are planning on screening a lot of these episodes in our class as well. I recently bought the collection of 17 "Essential" Twilight Zone episodes, and have been going through those. Yesterday, we watched one of the more famous episodes, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. Loved it! This is an episode written by the creator of the series Rod Sterling himself, and here is the opening narration:
Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbeques, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple the last calm and reflective moment...before the monsters came.
Oh yeah!

And here is the full episode (but with ads). Enjoy!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New book on Egyptian revolution and social media

by Salman Hameed

The role of social media was debated extensively at the time of the Egyptian Arab Spring. There is a new book out, Revolution in the Age of Media by Linda Herrera, that looks at it more explicitly (also see a pre-Arab Spring book, Connected in Cairo by Marc Allen Peterson, and his excellent blog that updates on the themes and ideas discussed in his book). Here is an excerpt of Linda Herrera's interview on Jadaliyya:
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 
LH: This book puts a spotlight on the politics of social media during a time of intense youth discontent, free-market globalization, and breathtaking technological change where questions about the liberatory versus the repressive effects of technology have
become paramount. It explores whether youth movements that are oriented towards greater democracy and social justice, movements that aim to expose and alter repressive political and economic structures, are at an advantage in the digital age. Are the new information and communication tools, which citizens use for creating, expressing, organizing, and deliberating, shifting the balance of power? Or are powerful entities finding more effective and efficient ways to contain, monitor, coopt, and disenfranchise people, and especially youth, through these very tools and technologies? The book connects to a cross-section of literature from political theory, international relations, critical media studies, marketing, and the study of youth and popular culture. 
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research? 
LH: My previous research deals with questions about globalization and the contested nature of education, battles over the “control” of youth bodies and minds, and Middle East cultures and politics in the post-Cold War era. These core issues are all present in this work. I also rely on a set of research tools and methodological approaches that have guided my work in the past. The research for this book involved applying techniques of critical ethnography to social media spaces, conducting a number of face-to face-interviews, and undertaking policy analysis of US State Department documents for “Democracy Promotion” and “Internet Freedom” in the post-9/11 era.
I also tread into decidedly new territory. I needed to learn about techniques of online marketing and advertising, venture capitalism, become acquainted with the literature from media and communications studies, and to think about high tech companies such as Google and Facebook as entities comparable in some aspects to the State. The scholarly research dealing with high tech companies lags far behind their impact and power, something that we as a research community need to redress. 
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 
LH: Initially, I envisioned an audience interested in not only the Arab Uprisings, but the range of networked social movements as exemplified by Occupy, Indignados, Taksim Square, the student movement in Chile, and anti-austerity uprisings in Iceland, Southern and Eastern Europe, to name a few. Much of the literature about contemporary networked movements often exaggerates their emancipatory and transformative potentials. On the other side, the blogosphere has been rife with conspiracy theories about the disguised and sinister nature of many of these movements, particularly the Egyptian uprising. I wanted to unpack these conspiracies to the extent I was able to do so. This book does not set these multifaceted issues to rest, but hopefully advances an understanding of political mobilization and crowd-sourced education in this era of social media and uprisings. 
This book raises pressing issues that will remain important far into the future about surveillance, (internet) freedom, privacy, protected speech, human rights, inequality, and civil disobedience in our digital age. The very future of democracy depends on our vigilance and advocacy around these issues. My greatest hope is that this work will serve as a form of critical media literacy, inform practice, and inhabit a place in wider conversations about power, counter power, and democracy in the digital age.
Read the full interview here. Also, here is the description of the book along with the titles of the chapters:
Egypt’s 25 January revolution was triggered by a Facebook page and played out both in virtual spaces and the streets. Social media serves as a space of liberation, but it also functions as an arena where competing forces vie over the minds of the young as they battle over ideas as important as the nature of freedom and the place of the rising generation in the political order. This book provides piercing insights into the ongoing struggles between people and power in the digital age. 
Table of Contents:
1. Wired Youth Rise
2. Cyberdissident Diplomacy
3. Marketing Martyrdom
4. Virtual Vendetta
5. Viral Revolution
6. Memes and the War of Ideas
7. The Anti-Ideology Machine
You can buy the book here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

"Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story" on PBS tonight

This looks interesting and definitely has an unfamiliar storyline. I will be in class at the time and will catch it later in the week. There is a South Asian connection here as well, as Noor Inayat Khan had an American mother and an Indian Muslim father. Here is a brief blurb about the documentary and a trailer below it (see more details about the film here):
Throughout the 1930’s, an unimaginable evil tore through Europe, as Hitler’s Third Reich terrorized its way to domination. During these tumultuous times, a young Muslim woman living in Paris found her calling. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in a home that fostered faith and hope. Leading with her heart, she overcame her quiet nature and joined Winston Churchill’s covert operation to give the Allies a new chance at victory. This is her story.

Friday, September 05, 2014

In defense of a one-way trip to Mars and a comment on the 'Mars fatwa'

by Salman Hameed

Martian landscape from NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Yes, humans will be going to Mars. But in all likelihood, the probability of happening it in the next decade or so rests on a one-way trip. Here is a short article that I wrote for the Magazine section of Express Tribune. Unfortunately, they also took out a bit that mentioned a recent fatwa on the issue. You can read the Tribune article here: A One-way Ticket to Mars. Or you can read the full version (Director's Cut) below:

Making sense of a one-way trip to Mars 

If given the opportunity, would you go on a one-way trip to Mars?

I ask this question in several of my classes, and about a third of the students say “yes”. I am sure that when faced with a real-life decision, many of these students will have second thoughts. This is understandable. It is hard to willingly leave family, friends, varieties of good food, and an abundance of breathable oxygen. Oh, and did I  mention mangoes? But I know that at least some of these students genuinely mean it. They would love nothing more than to go to Mars, even if it means saying goodbye to the planet of their birth forever.

A one-way trip to Mars may seem crazy. The concerns are reasonable – to say the least. Even a round-trip to Mars Going to Mars would be extremely risky. Forget about humans, only a handful of robotic missions have been successful in landing on the Red planet. But even if one were to accept these risks, the fiscal costs of a return trip to Mars are so high that such a mission is unlikely to take place in the next several decades. Much of these costs are associated with bringing people back. You nix the return, and going to Mars becomes more plausible.

Some have misinterpreted a one-way trip to Mars as akin to suicide. Indeed, this was the interpretation behind a fatwa issued by the UAE-based General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE). In their opinion – fatwa - it is “not permissible to travel to Mars and not return” if the “chances of dying are higher than living”. Now, GAIAE has issued literally hundreds of thousands of fatwas since its inception in 2008, including about hunting pigeons in cities (seek a permit from local authorities) and on spreading rumors via social network websites (hmm…don’t do it). But predictably, this Mars fatwa got all the attention of the world press, often with headlines that Muslims are forbidden to travel to Mars. Apart from the confusion over what fatwas mean for Muslims, this story is attractive to the international press as it fits the frame of “those crazy Muslims”. But I digress.

A one-way trip to Mars is not intended to be a suicide. It is expected that a habitat for humans, along with the supplies they need to live on Mars, will already be in place before any humans have even set foot on the spacecraft leaving for Mars. This can be done, as cargo ships are relatively cheap.

This is the plan behind Mars One. Starting in 2024, this Dutch company is planning on sending crews of four, departing every two years. There will be no return missions. The plan is to establish a permanent human presence on Mars. They have already winnowed 1058 candidates from a list of two hundred thousand applicants! Two Pakistanis have made it to the second round of selection, and I wish them all the success.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my students are also amongst the volunteers. But why would anyone go on a one-way trip to Mars? I can understand at least some of the motivation. It gives me goose bumps just to imagine how humans will experience their first steps on Mars. In fact, every action of these pioneers – however mundane - will be historic and full of significance: Washing clothes; taking a stroll; growing a plant. The most difficult part will be living with only a few other humans, all confined to a biodome. Even a brief stroll outside the oxygenated dome will necessitate a space suit. None of this will be easy, but then perhaps, this is exactly what makes it exciting. The risks of death will indeed be higher. But so what? We die on Earth too. Instead of living up to 80 years on Earth, these Martian humans may live up to 40 or 50. But it will be a path-breaking life in the glory of a literally untouched landscape!

This pioneering spirit has always been part and parcel of our species. I can imagine some of our more out-going ancestors taking the risk to expand humans out of Africa to others parts of the world. The spread of the humans on Earth may in fact be a story of a number of one-way trips. Not everyone had to sign-up for it, but a few adventurous spirits were all that was needed. Establishing a permanent human presence on Mars may simply be another step in the history of our species.

All my enthusiasm for this Mars trip aside, I have one big reservation. What if we detect microbial life living on Mars today? In such a case, I would argue to leave Mars to Martians and not interfere in their evolution on their own planet. Unfortunately, the history of our species on Earth also suggests that such a discovery is unlikely to deter any future humans missions to Mars. For the sake of Martians, I hope they are not there.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Classes this semester: "Aliens" and "Evolution in the Public Sphere"

by Salman Hameed

Students are back and classes have started (nooooo!). It is quite likely that some of the posts here will follow the classes that I'm teaching this semester. So here is a summary of the classes and you will hear more about them over the course of the next few months.

The first one is called Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind. I have taught it several times before and is one of my favorite classes to teach. The class looks at the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence from the perspective of different academic disciplines (and no - we still, have no Raelians and Scientology). This year we will be focusing on the possible impact of ET signal detection on human society. Here is the course abstract:
evidence for any ET sighting on Earth). It is a lot of fun as we look at the history of UFO and alien abduction claims and approach these topics through the lens of psychology (especially alien abduction) and sociology. In addition, we do some astronomy as well (detection of extrasolar planets) and look at the dueling positions of astronomers and biologists on the likelihood of intelligent civilizations in the universe. The final segment of the course used to deal with religions based on aliens (such as
Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind
This course can be summed up as: everything you wanted to know about aliens but were afraid to ask (a scientist).  The course will explore the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence from the perspective of several different fields. We will look at the history of UFO sighting claims and analyze the reliability of eye-witness testimonies, explore psychological & sociological reasons behind claims of alien abductions, and analyze the current state of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) from the perspective of astronomy and planetary research. We will also examine how film and television have shaped our view of aliens in popular culture. We will conclude the course by looking at religions that have been inspired by UFOs and extraterrestrials. 
The second class is titled Science & Religion: Biological Evolution in the Public Sphere. This is a new course and so you may see more posts on this topic. The course looks at the history of public controversies over biological evolution and explores the underlying religious and socio-cultural reasons behind it. The first part of the course is spent on the public reception of The Origin of Species, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, the Scopes Trial, and the more recent Dover trial and the Nye-Ham debate. The second part of the course looks at public polls on evolution and explore religious, sociological, and/or cultural factors that may shape public attitude towards evolution. The last part of the course looks at two particular topics: the public controversy over Islamic creationism in Europe, and on efforts to include creationism in US public schools ("who decides what should be taught in public schools"?). I'm pretty sure that this class will evolve (ha!) considerably after my experience this semester. Here is the abstract for the class:
Science & Religion: Biological Evolution in the Public Sphere 
Biological evolution is often at the center of science and religion debates. While there is a broad consensus among biologists about the common descent of humans from prior species and the processes that drive biological evolution, public debates continue over the validity of evolution. According to the latest Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe in a creationist view of human origins, and there are constant efforts by various school boards across the country to include some form of creationism in biology classes. Despite all the scientific evidence, why is biological evolution at the center of public debates today? In this course, we will look at sociological, psychological, and cultural factors that shape the public reception of evolution in the US and abroad. We will also look at the reliability of polling surveys and will conclude the course by analyzing the role of media in public evolution debate, from the Scopes Trial to the recent debate between Bill Nye and creationist, Ken Ham.
More on these subjects later.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A spectacular animation showing the movement of Western culture over the past 2000 years

by Salman Hameed

Posts have been light this summer and will continue to do so for another week (just in time for the beginning of classes!). In the mean time, I ran across this fantastic animation that maps the births and deaths of culturally significant figures. A blue dot signals a birth and the red light signals a death. From NPR:
To make these movies, art historian Maximilian Schich and his colleagues mapped the births and deaths of more than 150,000 notable artists and cultural leaders, such as famous painters, actors, architects, politicians, priests and even antiquarians (people who collect antiques).

This is quite amazing and we can clearly see the changes in cultural and intellectual centers over time. You can also see Cordoba starting to light up from 10th century onwards. The same groups also plans on extending this to non-western societies as well and it will be fascinating to the see a global picture. Here is a 5-minute video that shows more details (sometimes with names) and includes the US as well. If you have five-minutes (and yes you do!), then take a look at it as it is quite stunning:

You can find out more about the project here.

Looking at immigration histories, I'm quite surprised by their finding that people still do not move that much:
And the model isn't just fun to look at. The data also reveal trends and patterns in human migration over the past two millennia. 
"From a very small percentage of the population ... we get out these general laws of migration that were defined in the late 19th century," Schich says. 
One law was unexpected: People don't like to move too far from home, even in the 21st century. Despite the invention of trains, planes and cars, artists nowadays don't venture much farther from their birthplaces then they did in the 14th century. The average distance between birthplace and where a person dies hasn't even doubled in 400 years, the team found. (It's gone from 133 miles to 237 miles.)
Or may be it is the famous people who don't like to move! But I think 133 miles is quite a bit. I think for most of human history, people probably would have stayed within a few miles of their birth. And while we are on the topic of immigration, here is another fascinating interactive graphic that uses UN census data from 150 countries to show immigration routes. For example, you can check out what and where is the movement of people to and from Pakistan or Iran or Egypt, amongst other the other 150 countries. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

US Muslims and Atheists together again in a recent Pew poll

by Salman Hameed

A few months ago I had pointed out that Muslims and atheists in the US may have a lot more in common than they think. For example, according to a Gallup poll, Americans are least likely to vote a Muslim or an atheist for President (well, except for the secret Muslim and the secret atheist President Obama). Then a Pew survey found that most Christians in the US will be unhappy if a family member married an atheist. They ask about Muslims, but I'm sure the unhappiness would be at a similar level.

Now a new Pew poll uses a thermometer scale (really!?) to gauge how people of different faiths in the US feel about each other. The scale is from 0 to 100, with zero the coldest and 100 the warmest. Well, it seems that on average Americans are the coolest towards atheists and Muslims at 41 and 40, respectively, and warmest towards Catholics, Evangelicals and Jews:

But this includes people's feelings about their own religious group as well. And surprise, surprise. People feel warmly about their own kind. So here is how the various religious groups rate each other:

Geez - White Evangelical Christians have to lighten up a bit about Muslims and atheists! Too bad, it doesn't include Muslims in the sample, but there is some reciprocity from atheists on their dislike of Evangelicals. This is the same dynamic that was apparent in an earlier Pew poll as well. But there is some hope as well. Younger Americans are warmer towards atheists and Muslims and that may be a result of growing diversity in the US:

The outlook is different when we look at this through political affiliations. Republicans are much cooler towards both atheists and Muslims, but Democrats are the coldest towards Mormons (and then atheists and Muslims). I think the scale is going to get even more extreme if it is for the viewers of Fox News versus the viewers of MSNBC. Nevertheless, here is the 'feeling' scale divided but the two political parties:
You can read the full report here (pdf). 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Getting closer...the Abdus Salam Documentary

by Salman Hameed

A behind the scenes photograph from the making of the Salam documentary

I have posted periodic updates on the production of the documentary film about Dr. Abdus Salam, led by Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver (see pictures from the shooting here). It is a fantastic project and a true labor of love for these passionate guys. In today's Dawn, both Omar and Zakir talk about Dr. Abdus Salam and also the process of making the documentary. You can watch this 7-minute clip here:

The life and strife of Pakistan's only Nobel... by dawn-news

And in case you haven't seen this before, here is the teaser for the film (and yes, you can still contribute to the making of the film at Kailoola pictures):

The creation of Muslim terrorists by FBI in "The Newburgh Sting"

by Salman Hameed

If you have a chance, check out a new documentary on HBO, The Newburgh Sting. It is sad and tragic. Here you have an FBI undercover agent recruiting 3 African Americans and one Haitian immigrant - all from a poor upstate New York town of Newburgh - into a terrorist plot. The FBI agent is sleazy and drives around in a Mercedes or in his one of two BMWs. Oh - and this undercover agent happens to a Pakistani (oh why oh why??) who was convicted on some petty crime. The problem is that the people at the local mosque immediately saw through his sleaziness and did not want to engage with him. But he managed to lure four other people - unrelated to the mosque - for a plan that he (and the FBI) concocted in exchange for $250,000! Furthermore, it is the FBI agent (and the FBI) that comes up with plan and the means to acquire weapons and bombs to carry out with the plan. The four suspects on their own could not have managed anything! So the FBI created the terrorists and then caught them, thus justifying the very existence of the FBI. Whoaa!?

But this is not it. The sleaziest part of the FBI sting is that it is the FBI agent (and the FBI) that insisted on picking the Jewish cultural center in NYC as its main target. This provided the perfect headlines, and one of the suspects provided the requisite anti-semitic remarks. And the media, of course, went nuts over the case. It was too tempting. Here are Muslim terrorists, who met at the local mosque, trying to blow up a Jewish cultural center. One slight problem: They never met at the mosque, were not practicing Muslims, and the plan was hatched by the FBI. Furthermore, the FBI agent made sure that they go out of state (to Connecticut) to obtain "weapons", so this can be turned into a federal case for the use of FBI. Oh - and it is the FBI agent who insists that the hired guns have to be Muslims. This all sounds like bad fiction. Unfortunately, this is a documentary that features much of FBI's own footage.

Here is the trailer:

Here is the full movie: Sorry it got pulled down. You will have to watch it on HBO or some other service.

And for a recent fictional take on Muslims and anti-terror agencies in Germany in A Most Wanted Man, based on John le Carre's novel. It is one of the last films of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and once again, he gives an amazing performance. Here is the trailer:

Friday, July 25, 2014

A history without Darwin...

by Salman Hameed

Peter Bowler is a leading historian of Biology. I enjoyed his talk at Darwin's bicentennial conference in Alexandria, Egypt back in 2009. After the talk I had a brief chat with him and he mentioned that he was working on a book that imagines history without Darwin and the Origin of Species. The book is now out and it is called Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World Without Darwin. It looks fascinating and makes some interesting claims about the relation between science and religion. Here is a review from Science:
Since the 1920s, the idea of evolution has generally been equated with what has been termed Darwinism, a particular evolutionary theory that explains the origin of biological
diversity by means of natural selection. Largely as a result of the dominance of that theory, most scientists today would find the thought of a history without Darwin unimaginable. In Darwin Deleted, Peter Bowler invites readers to imagine a world in which Darwin never existed. Using counterfactual history and carefully dissecting the history of evolutionary thought, Bowler looks into the past to illuminate prominent debates we face today. 
Bowler starts by refuting the “in the air” thesis: the idea that without Darwin, someone else would have come up with the same or similar ideas and history would have unfolded about as it did. Drawing on the historical record, he demonstrates that although the idea of evolution was becoming widely accepted by the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), natural selection was by no means part of mid-19th-century thought. Bowler argues that only Darwin, with his unique combination of diverse interests, was able to piece together all of its key components. Thus, it is very plausible that in Darwin's absence other theories would have come to play more important roles in our understanding of evolution. In fact, into the 1920s, non-Darwinian theories were the dominant explanation for evolutionary changes—which substantiates the viability of Bowler's counterfactual world. 
As Bowler writes, it is unquestionable that “Darwin presented his contemporaries with the harshest possible version of nature.” That contributed to his becoming the figurehead of what was perceived as an attack on traditional values. Bowler's analysis makes it clear that without Darwin's revolutionary in-put, evolutionism would have developed in a less confrontational manner. Darwin-like ideas would not otherwise have gained currency for another 30 or 40 years, by which time the general idea of evolution would not have posed a threat to most religious thinkers. Thus, Bowler argues, the antagonism between evolutionism and religion might well be a “product of particular historical events rather than an inevitable conflict of irreconcilable positions.”
This is an interesting point - though it Darwin himself had a polite personality, which mitigated to some of the science/religion antagonism, at least related to evolution. Perhaps more importantly, ideas linked to social Darwinism may not not have developed in the same way:
In addition, Bowler's mental experiment leads us to realize that many of the alleged consequences of what has been called social Darwinism would likely have taken place in a world without Darwin. In fact, “most of the effects … labeled as ‘social Darwinism’ could have emerged in a world that had no inkling of the theory of natural selection” and “some of those effects … might well have been even more strident in the absence of the Darwinian theory.” Far from being a consequence of Darwinism, the idea of progress and the allied theories of directed evolution were grounded in wider social and cultural forces. It is undeniable that Darwinism is a product of its time, with the apparent materialism of a theory based on random variation and struggle. But the simplistic identification of Darwinism with harsh social policies is mistaken, argues Bowler, as most of what is called “‘social Darwinism’ could be justified equally well through rival theories of evolution.” 
Darwin Deleted offers a journey into the history of evolutionism well worth taking. Through his scenario in which the Origin never appeared, Bowler improves our ability to think about the assumptions underlying contemporary debates.
This looks like a fascinating book and is on my reading list. The last two chapters, "Evolution and Religion: A Conflict Avoided" and "Social Evolutionism" specifically deal with the issues presented in the review. For more, here is the description of the book:
The ideas and terminology of Darwinism are so pervasive these days that it seems impossible to avoid them, let alone imagine a world without them. But in this remarkable rethinking of scientific history, Peter J. Bowler does just that. He asks: What if Charles Darwin had not returned from the voyage of the Beagle and thus did not write On the Origin of Species? Would someone else, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, have published the selection theory and initiated a similar transformation? Or would the absence of Darwin’s book have led to a different sequence of events, in which biology developed along a track that did not precipitate a great debate about the impact of evolutionism? Would there have been anything equivalent to social Darwinism, and if so would the alternatives have been less pernicious and misappropriated? 
In Darwin Deleted, Bowler argues that no one else, not even Wallace, was in a position to duplicate Darwin’s complete theory of evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary biology would almost certainly have emerged, but through alternative theories, which were frequently promoted by scientists, religious thinkers, and moralists who feared the implications of natural selection. Because non-Darwinian elements of evolutionism flourished for a time in the real world, it is possible to plausibly imagine how they might have developed, particularly if the theory of natural selection had not emerged until decades after the acceptance of the basic idea of evolution. Bowler’s unique approach enables him to clearly explain the non-Darwinian tradition—and in doing so, he reveals how the reception of Darwinism was historically contingent. By taking Darwin out of the equation, Bowler is able to fully elucidate the ideas of other scientists, such as Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley, whose work has often been misunderstood because of their distinctive responses to Darwin. 
Darwin Deleted boldly offers a new vision of scientific history. It is one where the sequence of discovery and development would have been very different and would have led to an alternative understanding of the relationship between evolution, heredity, and the environment—and, most significantly, a less contentious relationship between science and religion. Far from mere speculation, this fascinating and compelling book forces us to reexamine the preconceptions that underlie many of the current controversies about the impact of evolutionism. It shows how contingent circumstances surrounding the publication of On the Origin of Species polarized attitudes in ways that still shape the conversation today. 
You can buy the book here

Thursday, July 17, 2014

UFO sightings explained in the Economist

by Salman Hameed

I didn't know the Economist had a sense of humor. There was a random box in one of its recent issues and has this figure (thanks to Jim Miller for the tip):

And here is the description:
On July 2nd avid watchers of the skies celebrate World UFO day—the anniversary of the supposed crash of a flying saucer near Roswell in 1947. Helpfully, the National UFO Reporting Centre, a non-profit, has catalogued almost 90,000 reported sightings of UFOs, mostly in America, since 1974. It turns out that aliens are considerate. They seldom disturb earthlings during working or sleeping hours. Rather, they tend to arrive in the evening, especially on Fridays, when folks are sitting on the front porch nursing their fourth beer, the better to appreciate flashing lights in the heavens (see chart). The state aliens like best is Washington—a finding that pre-dates the legalisation of pot there. Other popular destinations are also near the Canadian border, where the Northern lights are sometimes visible. UFOs tend to shun big cities, where there are lots of other lights, and daylight hours, when people might think they were just airplanes.
Note that the state of Washington is already leading in the number of UFO sightings, but the number of alien visitations may only increase now that marijuana is legal there. Also, see here for our own Massachusetts sighting in 2013.

Yes, this coming fall semester I'm teaching my favorite class Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind, and so expect to see more posts on UFOs and religion.

For your entertainment purposes, here is a Pixar short film called "Lifted":

Monday, July 14, 2014

Following the sails of Sinbad

by Salman Hameed

 Figure from Science

A few weeks ago, one of the feature stories in the journal Science focused on the impact of the maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. In particular, how that trade connected various parts of world. In fact, it looks like that this trade had a larger impact than the famous trade route via the Silk Road. That is all well and good and the discussion is part of debates within archaeology and history. However, I liked the fact that the article started with quotations from the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. When I was growing up, I read the Urdu translation of the Sinbad's Seven Voyages, and absolutely loved them. I can't recall too many details, but I still remember that in one of the voyages, Sinbad and the ship's crew and passengers landed on what they thought to be an island. It even had trees. But it turned out to be a gigantic whale! Now many many years have passes since I read that. But even now, when I see a whale (in pictures or live), my first thought goes to that story and wonder - how big must have been that whale for them to have mistaken it for an island? And trees!! Okay - so here is a nice example of how good imaginative stories can just stick with you for your whole life.

Back to the Science article (unfortunately, you will need subscription to read the full article). Here is the beginning:
“One day, the old desire entered my head to visit far countries and strange people, to voyage among the isles and curiously regard things hitherto unknown to me,” recalls Sinbad the Sailor in The Thousand and One Nights, first compiled in the 9th century C.E.

Until recently, Sinbad's tall tales held little interest for scholars of ancient and medieval East-West relations. They focused instead on the more than 6000-kilometer Silk Road far to the north, made famous by Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who traveled across the Central Asian steppes from Europe to China in the 13th century. Most researchers ignored the fact that Polo returned to Europe via the Indian Ocean, in the waters plied by real-world Sinbads. Glimpsed only in the odd Roman coin found in an Indian village or in medieval Chinese ceramics washed up on a Kenyan shore, the southern maritime road was easy to overlook.
“Also, the trading habit rose in me again.” This wily Odysseus of the Indian Ocean told fantastic stories of shipwrecks, cannibals, and exotic lands rich with gems and heady spices.

Now, this busy trading route is emerging from the shadows. Researchers are picking through Southeast Asian swamps, diving off Sri Lankan reefs, and digging on African beaches. The artifacts they are finding—glass beads, potsherds, seeds, animal bones—reveal a lost story of Indian Ocean trade that went far beyond the simple exchange of gems and spices. “Finally we are moving beyond just talking about trade to the making of cultural identity,” says archaeologist and historian Himanshu Prabha Ray of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The work, still in the early stages, is shifting archaeologists' focus from the great empires at either end of the Silk Road—Rome and China—to the trade and influence of the vibrant societies in between. Until recently, many historians would have agreed with a 20th century French scholar who dismissed the world's third largest ocean as “scarcely more than an extension of the eastern Mediterranean.” A paucity of ancient texts and archaeological digs reinforced this parochial view.

But the new evidence shows that from 2000 B.C.E. until the arrival of Europeans in 1498, the Indian Ocean network linked diverse societies on three continents, catalyzing industrial development and cultural changes from early Southeast Asia to medieval coastal Africa. It all sounds unexpectedly modern, says J. D. Hill, an archaeologist at the British Museum in London. “The surprise is that the world was interconnected long ago.”
Here is a bit in the article about the birth of Swahili:
In the early centuries of Indian Ocean trade, “East Africa is the missing story,” says Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Few ancient texts clarify Africa's role, and archaeology there lags behind work on Asian coasts. The Periplus mentions extensive trade between Mediterranean and African ports. But excavators have yet to identify any ports predating 700 C.E., and “Greco-Roman” beads found on the African coast turned out to be medieval, according to analyses by archaeologist Marilee Wood of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Evidence is growing that East Africa south of Somalia did not play a major role in Indian Ocean trade until after that time.
The Indian Ocean trade did eventually leave one of its most enduring legacies on the African coast from Kenya to Mozambique: an entire culture based on the trading way of life. The Swahili way of life includes the Muslim faith, an Arabic-laced language, and culinary and mercantile traditions strongly reminiscent of the Middle East. The word “Swahili” itself is Arabic for “coastal dwellers.”
What about the maritime trade at the time of Sinbad?
What kind of vessels made these voyages? Based on the few wrecks found to date, Lucy Blue, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, says that a typical vessel of Sinbad's era carried 1000 times the weight a camel can bear and required far less human labor than a Silk Road caravan. One example, a 9th century ship wrecked off the coast of Indonesia in the Java Sea, epitomized the protoglobalization of the medieval Indian Ocean. The vessel was crafted in an Arab style, carried a load of Chinese goods, and was built with timbers from Africa, according to Horton. Another wreck turned up just last fall on a shrimp farm on the southwest outskirts of Bangkok. A team co-led by Erbprem Vatcharangkul, chief of Thailand's underwater archaeological division, began excavating and revealed a vessel at least 35 meters in length, built in Arab style and dating to about the 8th century. Sailors or looters have scavenged the cargo, but they left behind an ivory tusk, wood that likely comes from India, and Chinese ceramics.

The sailing culture that these ships spawned left its mark on the societies that ring the ocean. Southern Indian Tamil poetry from the first 3 centuries C.E. warns young men not to leave home for dreams of wealth in distant ports, notes archaeologist Veerasamy Selvakumar of Tamil University in Thanjavur. That's a sign of societal stress as people shifted from traditional farming and fishing to mercantile pursuits, he says. Later inscriptions and stone carvings suggest that ship owners grew into an influential and wealthy class, according to archaeologist Pierre-Yves Manguin of the National University of Singapore. A Javanese shipmaster, for example, served as ambassador from a Javanese kingdom to the Chinese court in 993 C.E. “They played a big role as cultural diplomats and in propagating” faiths like Buddhism and Islam, Manguin says.

The tales of Sinbad reflect this status. In his final voyage, the Iraqi-born merchant acts as a diplomat for the Baghdad caliph, carrying precious gifts to a distant ruler and earning the caliph's gratitude.

By 1400 C.E., the geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean began to change as Chinese and European consumers tired of buying expensive foreign goods through Arab, Indian, and Southeast Asian middlemen. Fleets of massive Chinese ships, some carrying 500 people, cruised as far west as Arabia and Africa, rattling the locals (Science, 9 May, p. 572).

Less than a century later, Europeans followed suit, mastering the trip around Africa. Over the succeeding centuries, the Indian Ocean trade fractured into more local exchange as the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British, equipped with better military technology than the regional powers, carved up the waters well into the 20th century. Today, however, the ocean is humming with international trade again; two-thirds of the world's trade goods move through it.

Sinbad retired comfortably to Baghdad after his seventh voyage, pledging never to set foot on a ship again. Archaeologists, however, are only at the beginning of their effort to recover the long-lost chronicle of the Indian Ocean. “We are rewriting history,” Wood says.
This is a fascinating multidisciplinary research project that received a 5-year,  $1.5 million, from the European Research Council to piece together the neglected history of Indian Ocean trade. You can find out more about this research at their website, Sealinks Project.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Avoiding Miracles and Emphasizing Naturalism in Science Teaching

by Salman Hameed

Muslim Science website has started to call for thematic articles. Last month it was on environment and sustainability (check out this editorial by Saleem H. Ali on Environmentalism as an Interface for Science Education in Muslim Societies and on a slightly different topic, Space Travel: Marred by the lack of a Consensus by Parandis Tajbaksh).

This month's focus is on science education and you can check this article by Rana Dajani, Is Science Education the Real Issue? I also contributed an article titled Avoiding Miracles and Emphasizing Naturalism in Science Teaching. I focus on the issue of origin(s) of life to look at the tension between a belief in miracles and good science education:
Some of the most challenging and exciting areas of research, deal with various forms of ‘origin’ questions. Origin of life. Origin of the Earth. Origin of human beings. Origin of consciousness. And of course, the origin of the universe. These are not only hard problems, but also represent some of humanity’s biggest questions. It is no wonder then, that these ‘origin’ questions not only capture the attention of scientists and general public alike, but often also serve as the conduit into science for budding scientists, in high schools around the world. 
But these questions also straddle the boundaries of science and religion. There is perhaps an inherent tension here, between the limits of knowable science and the beginnings of unknowable mysteries. For most people, this tension doesn’t impact their daily lives. Since the belief in miracles is quite common, not just in Muslim societies, but all around the world, it is easy to ascribe origin mysteries, and other unexplained occurrences, to the Divine. A medical doctor or an engineer may still approach their work in a pragmatic way, without being affected by their outlook on ‘origin’ miracles. 
For a scientist or a scientist in training, such an approach poses problems. I have run into students and educated individuals, who take pleasure in the failure of science to provide answers. The origin(s) of life, in particular, is an area in their crosshairs. I can understand the desire for this. To use a sports analogy, science has been so successful in explaining physical phenomena, that there is an urge to root against it. If for nothing else but to say “See – science doesn’t have all the answers”. Unfortunately, they often go one step further and ascribe God’s miraculous action, as the default alternative to the as yet unsolved problem, thus unwittingly creating an either/or relation between science and religion. 
Indeed, scientists do not know how life started here on Earth. But science usually thrives on the boundaries of failures and unknowns. After all, it is these very areas of unknowns, that become fertile grounds for future PhDs, that end up solving hard problems. A resort to a belief in miracles in such instances, would in fact, be anathema to this whole enterprise. 
We can take lessons from history of science. Just a few centuries ago, the origins of the Earth and the Solar System were considered problems beyond the limits of science. Today, we have an excellent scientific understanding of the formation of the Sun and the planets that make up our Solar system. No gaps, no miracles. In fact, I find the ‘nebular theory of the formation of solar system’ to be quite beautiful, as it elegantly explains not only the origins of rocky and gaseous planets, but it also elucidates the reasons why planets have particular rotations around their respective axes, and the origins of asteroids and comets. If one desires, the elegance of the physical laws behind the explanations, can indeed be attributed to the Divine, but the rest is fully explained in a naturalistic framework. 
In order to produce good scientists at a consistent level in the Muslim world, we have to instill a mindset in science classrooms, that eschews the notion of miracles when it comes to the physical world. All unsolved problems, including those at the boundaries of science and religion, may then be approached within the framework of methodological naturalism – an assumption that for practical purposes, all causes are empirical and natural. At the same time, we must appreciate, that beliefs in various historical miracles, are also central to most religions, including Islam, and numerous rituals, tenets, and practices revolve around these very beliefs. In this sense, a belief in miracles is about religion and not about seeking a physical explanation, of how the world works. 
But this is a fine needle to thread. After all, how does one demarcate the domains of miracles and science? And if one accepts that there is a precedence of violation of physical laws (I’m using miracles here in this particular sense) in history, it is easy to extend such explanations to the present as well. Furthermore, for many, the questions of ‘origin of life’ fall squarely in the miraculous domain, and it is the encroachment of science, that is the problem. And yet, the introduction of miracles as an explanation, is an end to scientific inquiry. 
This is a hard problem. But a Deistic/naturalistic approach to the physical world may be essential to building an effective scientific culture in the Muslim world. There cannot be an end to inquiry – especially when it comes to ‘origin’ questions. A belief in miracles, in this sense, will have to be banished from any scientific question, but may still play a role in religious life. When it comes to the future of science in the Muslim world, this is an important needle to thread. I hope that the scientific answer to how life began on Earth (and perhaps on other planets), comes from a laboratory somewhere in the Muslim world.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sacred Engine and the preservation of order in "Snowpiercer"

by Salman Hameed

The movie is much better than its trailer. If you can stomach graphic violence, then check out Snowpiercer, directed by Korean director, Bong Joon-ho. The premise is outlandish. After a failed experiment to fix global warming, all of humanity is extinct except for those who boarded a global train, the Snowpiercer. It has been running for 18 years now, but there are tremendous inequalities in amenities available on the train. The front of the train has parties, greenhouses, good food (including sushi), music, and even a school with fascinatingly creepy education. The back of the train, however, lives in misery, and it is unclear if they are really that better off being on the train at all.

The above description may not seem that interesting. However, the movie then plays with the theme of human survival in different ways. For example, the engine is considered "sacred", as the all powerful engine (and its inventor and operator) is the only thing keeping the humans alive (it is so cold outside, that humans cannot go more than few feet from the train before freezing). But more interestingly, there is an insistence on the maintaing of the status quo, including keeping the population at a certain level. Everything is preordained. Those who are in the back of the train, should always be in the back of the train (and remain underprivileged), and those at the front of the train should always remain at the front. An effort to change this will result in chaos and to the extinction of these remaining humans. The heart of the film lies in asking if humanity is worth preserving such an unfair system?

The movie also reminded me of Aronofsky's Noah, which I absolutely loved. In Noah, God was disgusted with humans and wanted to wipe out all of humanity. The fact that humans survived (oops - a spoiler for the flood story) was because of Noah's humanity (his failure to kill his own grandchildren) and not necessarily because of God (this ambiguity is what makes Noah fascinating). In Snowpiercer, we also have an ark, but God (or at least the operator of the sacred engine) wants to preserve humanity and that will exact a high cost on the humans (and/or human dignity).

The film is claustrophobic but keeps you involved. Better still, you don't where the story is going. There are some fantastic shots of a traversing train through a frozen world. If you have a chance, see the film in a theater. Here is the trailer:

'Snowpiercer' Theatrical Trailer from J.D. Funari on Vimeo.

Also see this article on designing the train sections of the film. Also, the movie is a fantastic product of globalization: The film is based on a French graphic novel, has a predominantly American cast, and has a Korean director working with a Czech production designer.