Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Video: The truth about Abdus Salam (Part Two)

by Salman Hameed

Here is the second part of Pervez Hoodbhoy's video on Abdus Salam (see the first part here). This directly deals with science and religion. In particular it focuses on the belief and unbelief of Salam and Weinberg, respectively, and on how they both still reached the same conclusions about the electroweak unification theory that got them the Nobel prize. The sentiment here is on the separation of science and religion - something that I also happen to agree with (though inspiration for science can indeed come from religion).

Here is the second part:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mauna Kea TMT Update: More protests, walkouts and a counter-campaign by the TMT

by Salman Hameed

It seems that the movement against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is growing (see this post from last Thursday). The governor of Hawaii has now postponed the construction until April 20th. On Sunday, there were more protests against the construction on both the Big Island and Oahu. Even Drogo from the Game of Thrones, Jason Momoa,  is part of the protests:

On Monday, a few hundred students and faculty staged a walkout at University of Hawaii against the telescope.
The walkout happened at noon with students and professors, many from the Hawaiian Studies program.  After leaving their classes the protestors met at the Campus Center to stage a rally.  Protestors battled passing rain showers during the rally which lasted approximately 60 minutes. Both students and professors were unhappy with the university’s lack of responsiveness to their concerns over the construction of the state of the art telescope. 
There was also a walkout on Monday by the Native Hawaiian Council (Pūko'a Council):
At noon, hundreds gathered for a system-wide walk-out in front of UH Manoa’s campus center, saying the telescope is unnecessary and offensive to Native Hawaiians.
It was organized by the Pūkoʻa Council, the university’s Native Hawaiian council, which features representatives from all 10 system campuses. 
“The Board of Regents or the Office of Mauna Kea Management can no longer speak on behalf of the entire University for this issue. As we’ve seen in the past week, opposition to this issue is widespread and this includes opposition within the University itself. The Board of Regents needs to know this as do the TMT investors,” said UH Manoa representative for the Pūkoʻa Council, Dr. Lilikala Kameʻeleihiwa. 
The Pūkoʻa Council said it expressed opposition to the TMT project when representatives met with UH president David Lassner at Kapiolani Community College on April 6 and asked that construction be halted. 
“The combination of, how do you bridge western science with tradition and Hawaiian knowledge, is to really listen to native people who really understand Hawaii, who really understands the geography of this land and the stories of this land,” said Kaneohe resident Keali’i’olu’olu Gora.
The Thirty Meter Telescope consortium has launched an online campaign to counter these protests with a hashtag #WeSupportTMT. I think for the past seven years, the TMT folks had managed PR well, but they certainly have been caught off-guard with the current protests and are now playing catch-up. Here is the TMT website that provides clarification to many of the objections. The website has some issues as well. For example, the TMT site highlights an 1874 quote from King Kalākaua in support of astronomy on the island. I remember seeing that quote at the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii. I visited there a few years ago with my friend and historian of native religions, Tracy Leavelle. Tracy was furious because a quote from an Hawaiian authority was being appropriated selectively while ignoring other Hawaiian authorities who may have been more critical of US presence on the island. The TMT issue is not just about science. It is seeped in political and cultural history of Hawaii and astronomers have to be sensitive to those issues beyond simply a "check-box" approach.

I will leave you here first with a video of protest on the Big Island, and then below of protests in Honolulu:

Friday, April 10, 2015

An asteroid named Malala

by Salman Hameed

If you discover an asteroid, you get a chance to name it. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) gives it the official recognition. It is fantastic that Dr. Amy Mainzer decided to name Asteroid 316201 after Malala. Now we can say that Malala also lives in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter (far far away from the Taliban) and orbits the Sun every 5 and a half years (and will probably keep on orbiting the Sun for a few billion years).

From Malala Fund Blog:
It is a great honor to be able to name an asteroid after Malala. My postdoctoral fellow Dr. Carrie Nugent brought to my attention the fact that although many asteroids have been named, very few have been named to honor the contributions of women (and particularly women of color. 
 I've been an astronomer at JPL for about 10 years now, and it was my life's dream to be a scientist. 
My advice to young girls is that science and engineering are for everyone! We desperately need the brainpower of all smart people to solve some of humanity's most difficult problems, and we can't afford to reject half the population's. Plus, it is a wonderful feeling to learn about the world around you – it's a job you will fall in love with each day. 
Carrie and I read about Malala's amazing story and thought that if anyone deserves to have an asteroid named after them, she does!
Thank you very much for your work at the Malala Fund – it is inspiring to see all the great things that you all have done.
(Bold emphasis in original).

And what does the asteroid look like? It is about 4 km in diameter and it has a dark surface. Here is an image of the asteroid along with the description provided by Dr. Mainzer:

The formal designation of the asteroid is 316201 Malala, or 2010 ML48. The asteroid is the red dot in the upper right of the image. This is an infrared image of the asteroid, which means we are sensing the heat it emits rather than the sunlight it reflects off its surface.  
The stars appear blue in this image because they are extremely hot, thousands of degrees, whereas the asteroid is much cooler, so it appears red. Just as the hottest flames are blue, hotter temperatures appear as blue in this image, and cooler ones are red. 
From the heat emitted, we can also determine the size and reflectivity of the asteroid. It is about 4 kilometers in diameter, and its surface is very dark, the color of printer toner.
This particular asteroid was discovered by our team using a space telescope that orbits the Earth; it is called NEOWISE. I am the principal investigator of the mission.
And here is Malala's rough orbit and you can find more technical details about it here.

But overall, this is a nice and thoughtful gesture. Thanks to Amy and Carrie!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Some details on the protests that have halted the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

by Salman Hameed

Over the past few years, I have posted about the controversy over telescopes on top of Mauna Kea. For example, see the following posts:
Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval
Thirty Meter Telescope Approved on top of Mauna Kea
Update on Mauna Kea: Telescope project given green light
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

The telescope construction was supposed to start last week, but the protestors blocked the path to the site. Thirty of the protestors were arrested. Here is the news story about it and the footage of the actual arrests. While the arrests are terrible, it is touching to see cops first embracing the protestors before handcuffing them:

After these arrests, the protest gained even more momentum. And now the governor of Hawaii has asked everyone to take a "timeout" and has halted construction of TMT for a week:
Gov. David Ige announced Tuesday that construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop one of the most sacred sites for native Hawaiians would come to a halt, at least temporarily. Ige characterized the one-week pause in construction as a “timeout.” 
“There will be no construction activities this week,” the governor told reporters. “This will give us some time to engage in further conversations with the various stakeholders that have an interest in Mauna Kea and its sacredness and its importance in scientific research and discovery going forward.” 
Reaction from native Hawaiians to Ige’s announcement was unmistakingly skeptical. Kahookahi Kanuha of Kailua-Kona believes the pause in construction of the telescope is a delay tactic. 
"They are looking for us to leave,” he said Tuesday in an interview with Oiwi TV. “The more down time they have, the more they think that we'll have to go back to work and go back to our kuleana (responsibilities). And the truth of the matter is we do. However, many of us are willing to drop that kuleana because those are jobs and this is our responsibility." 
TMT project manager Gary Sanders issued a statement shortly after the governor’s announcement to clear up what he says are misconceptions about the project. 
"The TMT site was selected with great care and respect," Sanders wrote. “There are no archaeological shrines or burial sites within TMT's project site. Comprehensive research by expert hydrologists confirm there is no threat to the aquifer. TMT agrees with Governor Ige's request for a timeout this week and an ongoing dialogue on issues." 
A group calling itself the Sacred Mauna Kea Hui released a statement of its own, saying the governor’s timeout should be made permanent, and that Ige should use the pause in construction to examine possible breeches of public trust. 
"Although the Sacred Mauna Kea Hui appreciates a welcome reprieve from the desecration of our sacred mountain summit and endangerment of our fresh water aquifer and endangered species environment, we know that these are still in danger unless a permanent moratorium is obtained,” the statement read. “This reprieve will also give the multi-billion dollar international TMT corporation, which has been allowed to circumvent the law, time to begin its process of identifying a new location outside of Hawaii for their TMT project.”
I was trained as an astronomer and have used a telescope on Mauna Kea. But my sympathies here are largely with the Hawaiians. There is too much injustice and toxic history linked to American actions in Hawai'i. Yes, astronomers had nothing to do with what happened in the late 19th or in the first half of the 20th century. But the large visible observatory domes (they were never supposed to be so prominent on the mountain), for some Hawaiians, did become a reminder of earlier US actions. I think most astronomers have failed to appreciate these historical injustices. Nor have astronomers fully realized the enormous power differential between the marginalized Native Hawaiian groups and state backed universities as well as state agencies like NASA. The TMT, after all, is a $1.4 billion project! To add to all this complexity, the project will and does bring a lot of money to this poor state.

But money is not the issue. The TMT folks did have a sophisticated team that spent seven years clearing all sorts of hurdles and court cases. But the process is not really the issue - even though that is what the protestors are focusing on. The battle over TMT is really about cultural identity and historical injustices. Money cannot erase those concerns and a compromise will be hard to find.

All said, I don't think TMT will be stopped - there is just too much state power behind them. But I just hope that when astronomers use any of the telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, they realize and appreciate that their presence on the mountain and their use of the telescopes is rightfully hurting at least some Hawaiians.

In the mean time, lets see how the drama over TMT construction unfolds.

If interested, here is the letter sent to the governor of Hawaii by the opponents of the telescope:

And here is the TMT response to some of the claims made by the protestors:
There have been inaccurate claims made about the project recently. The most common is that TMT is a danger to the Maunakea aquifer and drinking water on Hawaii Island. Comprehensive research by expert hydrologists confirms that TMT and the existing 13 telescopes pose no such danger. Furthermore, TMT is designed to be a zero waste discharge facility with all waste securely transported off the summit. There is also very little precipitation above 8,000 feet and the observatories are located well above that at the top of Maunakea at 14,000 feet. 
Download the TMT Environmental Impact Statement (pages 3–115) 
Another claim is that TMT did not meet the eight criteria for a conservation district use permit issued by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2011. The Third Circuit Court ruled that TMT did meet the criteria by being consistent with state laws governing the districts, not causing substantial adverse impact to existing natural resources, being compatible with the surrounding area, preserving the existing physical and environmental aspects, not subdividing or increasing the intensity of the land use and not being materially detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare. State regulations specifically identify astronomy as a permitted use in the Maunakea Science Reserve.
Stay tuned. 

Friday, April 03, 2015

Fifth episode of SkA: The Arabian Nights and Water Geysers on Saturn's Moon Enceladus

by Salman Hameed

[in Urdu] Here is the continuation of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique).

Why is there a crater named Sinbad on Saturn's moon Enceladus? Is there an underwater ocean on Enceladus and what are the chances of life existing on such a moon? In this episode of Science ka Adda (SkA), we talk about the connection between The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights and one of the most mysterious, interesting, and puzzling objects in our solar system. Here is the episode:

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Another blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh

by Salman Hameed

27-year old blogger Washiqur Rahman

Things are turning darker still in Bangladesh. Just this past month, an American-Bangladeshi atheist blogger, Avijit Roy, was killed in Dhaka (see The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief). Now we have Washiqur Rahman who was killed couple of days ago after an attack with knives and meat-cleavers. I don't know if the similar manner of the two killings (machete and meat cleavers/knife) is meant to send an extra message about the brutality of the killers or may be it is just a matter of convenience. But the heartlessness and brutality, nevertheless, comes through. From BBC:
Mr Rahman was killed on a busy street in Dhaka. Two of the suspected attackers, armed with meat cleavers, were caught near the scene. 
The suspects told police they had targeted Mr Rahman because of his anti-Islamic writing, a police official told the Associated Press news agency. 
Mr Rahman blogged under a pen-name, Kucchit Hasher Channa, or Ugly Duckling. According to the Dhaka Tribune newspaper, he had criticised irrational religious beliefs. 
Imran Sarker, the head of a network of activists and bloggers in Bangladesh, told AFP news agency that Mr Rahman was "a progressive free thinker". 
Asif Mohiuddin, a Bangladeshi blogger who survived an attack in 2013, said he had often talked to Mr Rahman about "criticising fundamentalist groups". 
"I liked him for his satire, his sense of humour. He was a wonderful blogger and I'm very... upset right now," he said. 
Last month's attack on Mr Roy prompted massive protests from students and social activists, who accused the authorities of failing to protect critics of religious bigotry.
Lets hope the government steps in to curb these killings and that it doesn't turn into a systematic purge of secularists in Bangladesh.

Here is an CNN article that talks about Rahman's posts:
As shocking as Rahman's death was, the reaction from some quarters was equally disturbing.
On his Facebook page (for which he picked a custom URL that translates to "unbeliever"), Rahman had posted a picture with the hashtag #IamAvijit. 
After his death, someone left a comment, "Now you are." 
Another wrote, "I felt sorry when I first learned of your death. But then I saw what you wrote and I am not." 
On his page, Rahman reposted a cartoon depicting Prophet Mohammed from the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. He wished a happy birthday to author Taslima Nasreen, who was forced to flee Bangladesh due to death threats from fundamentalists. And he "liked" a picture of sausages wrapped in crescent rolls that someone had captioned, "Pigs in burqas." 
Posts threatening him were numerous. 
"Get ready for the afterlife," one person commented on one of his posts.
"See you in hell," said another. 
Absolutely shameful. But then it is often not about the content but broader political/cultural animosity:
The irony is that the people who killed Rahman weren't even familiar with his writings; they were simply following orders, police said. 
Of the three involved in the Monday morning attack, two were quickly caught by bystanders. 
In confessions to police, the pair -- both students at Islamic schools -- said they didn't know what a blog was, nor had they seen Rahman's writing. 
They said they were acting on orders from another person who told them killing Rahman was a religious duty, Police Commissioner Biplob Kumar Sarkar told reporters.
The third person is still to be apprehended. 
That appears to be par for the course in the killings of bloggers in Bangladesh.
The only person arrested in the killing of Roy, the U.S. blogger, is Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who had called for his death in Facebook posts. 
There has been no conviction in the January 2013 attack on Mohiuddin.
And no convictions in yet another case -- the hacking death of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, also in 2013. 
"The Bangladeshi government must urgently establish accountability in this murder case and others," the Committee to Project Journalists said after Rahman's death. "Otherwise the rest of the country's bloggers, commentators and journalists covering sensitive topics remain at grave risk of being attacked as well."
And these bloggers are in many ways vulnerable to this kind of violence:
Bloggers, unlike political parties, aren't an organized force -- and that makes them an easy target for radicals, said Imran Sarker, who heads the Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh. 
"They want peace, they talk of humanity. If you strike them with stones, they don't strike back. They try to reach you with flowers," he said. "So, if you want to sow fear and stifle progressive thought, they are easy to pick on." 
But the deaths -- of Rahman, of Roy, of Haider -- have emboldened the movement, rather than chill them into silence. 
"No one is cowering in their homes because this is happening. Because this has been happening regularly for a long time," he said. "We want to take the society forward. We know we have a lot left to accomplish."
Read the full article here.

Also see these earlier posts:
The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief
Standing with Bangladesh's secular bloggers!
Increasing number of cases of "insults to Islam" in Bangladesh and Egypt

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A new book out on science and religion in Victorian Britain

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Science has a review of Huxley's Church and Maxwell's Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science by Matthew Stanley. It looks quite good and you will see many parallels in contemporary debates over Islam and science in the Muslim world as well. For example, the review starts with two quotes from Maxwell and you can replace Bible with Quran and you will hear those arguments made today as well:
“But I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific
hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis,” wrote the devout Christian physicist James Clerk Maxwell to a friend in 1876. “The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such a hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.” Maxwell's words were characteristically subtle. His first sentence suggests that his major concern was in protecting the integrity of Biblical scriptures, implying that serious damage could occur should these texts be linked to speculative scientific hypotheses that subsequently proved untenable. His second sentence, however, strongly suggests that any such bonding of conjectural scientific hypothesis to scriptural text would actually damage the progress of science.
But then the book deals with the shift from a theistic science to a naturalistic one - and it is here that Huxley - and  the new professional class of "scientists" becomes important. But I also appreciate the explicit mention of the disconnect of theistic science of 19th century with the contemporary Intelligent Design (ID) movement:
With a long line of mainstream scientific practitioners, including Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, theistic science, in recent decades, has been much investigated by historians. Natural philosophers regarded the laws of nature as divinely established for the orderly governance of the world, sustained as uniform and unchangeable, except by God's will. Rightly undertaken in a spirit of humility, scientific investigation was believed to reveal these laws to humankind, along with the manifold benefits that such knowledge of the natural order could provide. Thus, the uniformity of nature, resting upon faith in a divine being who never acted arbitrarily, made possible the advance of human science. Stanley argues that traditional theistic science is radically different from the present-day theory of “Intelligent Design,” which, he emphasizes, lies outside mainstream science and refuses to acknowledge methodological principles such as the uniformity of nature and the provisional character of scientific knowledge. 
Challenging the values of theistic science, Thomas Huxley represented a new and ambitious generation of scientists who interpreted uniformity as naturalistic rather than theistic. According to Stanley, Huxley believed that “one could only assume uniformity if there was no active deity able to disrupt natural processes.” Huxley had rich cultural resources on which to draw to challenge the established views. For example, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology offered a compelling model that explained Earth's history using only observable agents such as water and heat. 
Stanley's book draws upon a wealth of recent scholarship on Victorian science and religion. It is also extremely well grounded in a variety of primary texts, including private correspondence, public lectures, and published scientific papers. Its primary goal—to demonstrate how the scientific enterprise gradually shifted from a theistic to a naturalistic approach—is impressively pursued.
You can read the full review here (though you may need subscription to access it).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Talk at McGill University this Friday on Islamic Creationism in Europe

by Salman Hameed

I think it is not cold enough down here in Amherst. It was 8F last night and the temperature stayed well below freezing all day today. To search for some cooler weather, I will be heading up north to Montreal to give a talk at McGill University's Centre for Islam and Science. There are some fantastic people at the center (or centre) and I'm looking forward to seeing our old friends Anila Asghar and Ehab Abouheif and to meet Jamil Ragep for the first time. If you are in the Montreal area, come to the talk.

Here is the title and other information about the talk:

Friday, March 27, 4:30 pm
Arts Building, Room W-120
853 rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Montreal, QC H3A 0G5

Islamic Creationism in Europe:
Biological Evolution in Service of the “Clash of Civilizations” Narrative

There is an urgent need to understand the dynamic of cultural interactions that define Muslim minorities in Europe. Gender-related issues and radicalization of Muslims are two topics that frequent the headlines. But now science is also becoming one of the contested issues. For example, a rejection of biological evolution is increasingly being used by the media and the far-right groups in Europe to paint Muslim minorities as outsiders that threaten European education system. Furthermore, Muslims are often treated in a unitary manner with an assumption that evolution rejection is their default religious position. Conversely, many Muslims in Europe are embracing this rejection of evolution as an identity marker for being a Muslim. While religious objections to evolution are indeed at play in some cases, our understanding for the rise of Islamic creationism should also take into account socio-economic disparities and their impact on education for Muslim minorities in Europe. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism, and may also provide an insight into more politically charged subjects such as debates over free speech and women’s religious attire in Europe.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Three excellent lectures by John Hedley Brooke on Galileo, Darwin and Einstein

by Salman Hameed

If you are at all interested in the history of science and religion, then you should definitely spend some time listening to these three lectures by John Hedley Brooke. These will be your three hours very well spent. He is the author of a seminal book on the topic titled Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. I have had a chance to meet him couple of times and it has always been an absolute pleasure.

Here are the three lectures that Brooke gave at the University of Edinburgh last month:

Galileo: Nature as mechanistic creation

Darwin: From nature as machine to nature as historical process

Einstein: Nature recreated

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief

by Salman Hameed

Avijit Roy with his wife

A few weeks ago, an American-Bangladeshi atheist blogger, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in Dhaka. He and his wife were returning from a Book Fair where he had his own book reading. This is a continuation of troubling attacks on secular bloggers and writers in Bangladesh (see my post from 2013: Standing with Bangladesh's secular bloggers!). Here is an excellent article by Raza Rumi on this murder and the growing religious intolerance in the secular Bangladesh. Raza brings a unique perspective, as he himself had to leave Pakistan after he was attacked by gunmen last year:
This incident left me deeply disturbed. As someone who was also subjected to (missed) bullets in 2014, Roy’s murder brought back memories of my close brush with death, subsequent exile and the fear of returning to my own country, Pakistan. Like Roy and many others, Islamist extremists found my views unacceptable to the extent that physical elimination was the only answer. I miraculously escaped the assassination attempt, but my driver was killed and another companion was injured. 
While a few gunmen were arrested, the trial lingers on. But from my experience as an analyst, Pakistani courts seldom punish attackers, and the masterminds are never apprehended or brought to book. 
I had never met Roy, but I was aware of his powerful work. It is not easy to profess atheism when you belong to a Muslim country. Roy lived in the United States and ran a blog called Mukto Mona, (free mind), and he was vocal in opposing religious bigotry and intolerance. While he remained in the relatively safer climes of the US, he was still part of the discourse in Bangladesh, and this is why he was a threat to Islamist extremists. 
He received regular threats on social media — an irony of the ostensibly postmodern 21st century. The online store that sold Roy’s books was also harassed, and later it stopped displaying them altogether. In 2014, an Islamist said that Roy would be killed when he returned to his native country. 
So the doomed blogger had gone back to Bangladesh for his book promotion when extremists found the right opportunity to attack and kill him. His latest book, Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), says it all.
One can disagree with the approach that some atheists take to matters of faith, but it is utterly disconcerting to note that the space for such ideas is shrinking in Muslim countries. And Bangladesh is no Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. Its liberation in 1971 from Pakistan was an act of defiance to preserve the political and cultural rights that the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan was trying to suppress. For Bangladesh to become more like Pakistan is even more tragic. 
Unfortunately, the trends all point to Bangladesh using more and not less religion in politics:
For decades, Bangladeshi governments, like their nemesis in Pakistan, have appeased religious passions. A clear case is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina covers her head. There is no Quranic injunction for women to wear a hijab (headscarf). This was true for Pakistan’s slain prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who also demonstrated similar acquiescence to religious fervor by not only covering her head with a scarf, but also donning Islamic rosary beads to prove piety and credentials of being a devout Muslim. 
Media freedoms have also been under threat as the incumbent Bangladeshi government has, on occasions, tried to muzzle critical commentaries on elections and the democratic evolution. But surely the religious opposition to free-thinking remains the most serious challenge, leading many to leave the country and not return. Taslima Nasreen, a writer, has been in exile for decades, scared of the radicals back home. Ironically, she is blamed for being too “extreme” in her views. 
I had always admired Bangladesh as a secular nation and even wrote about its cultural and intellectual space. Sadly, it is only following the country it left behind in 1971: Pakistan. But when it comes to religious bigotry, few Muslim countries are safe for writers, bloggers and those who challenge extremist interpretations of Islam. 
I am afraid of returning home to Pakistan. I was lucky to have narrowly escaped the fate of Roy and perhaps will not be as fortunate next time. The Taliban affiliate that tried to kill me number in the thousands, are well-organized and entrenched. Their level of intolerance is such that I am not even an atheist, yet I am a target. 
I mourn Roy’s loss and also lament the state of exile that pernicious extremist ideologies have forced me into.
Read the full article here.

And back here in the US, there are increasing number of cases where Muslims are being attacked - well for being looking like Muslims. You probably have heard of the murder of three students in Chapel Hill. But there are other cases that have not gotten much news. For example, just two nights ago, 18 bullets were fired at Abdul's house - also in North Carolina, and one of those hit the thigh of his sleeping wife:
According to the Charlotte Observer, the attack took place in eastern Mecklenburg County, just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. The home of Abdul, a Muslim man who asked the paper not to publish his last name, was riddled by as many as 18 bullets in the middle of the night. Most of the shots hit the fence, but one bullet traveled through Abdul’s bedroom window and struck his wife in the thigh while she was sleeping. Abdul said she woke up bleeding and screaming before being taken to a nearby hospital, where she is currently awaiting surgery while recovering in the intensive care unit. None of the other occupants of the house — which included Abdul, his mother, and his two children — were injured in the attack. 
Police are looking for multiple suspects near the neighborhood, which reportedly has only had infrequent break-ins in recent years. Officers initially reported that the incident was being treated as a random shooting, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Chuck Henson noted at a news conference Tuesday morning that police won’t know if it was hate crime until they make an arrest.
And then just two weeks ago, an Iraqi guy was shot dead in Dallas just outside his apartment, while he was taking pictures of snow:
In the quiet moments before Ahmed Al-Jumaili died, he and his wife stepped out of her family's apartment, in a small complex in a suburb of Dallas, to photograph the first
snowfall he'd ever seen. 
Al-Jumaili had hesitated to leave his home in Iraq, but his wife had urged him to come to the US, where he'd be safer. She'd gone ahead to Dallas not long after their 2013 marriage, but he stayed in Iraq to work and save for their new life. Finally, last month, he followed her to Texas, where she had family, and left behind the chaos of Iraq. 
On Thursday, the last night of his life, three and a half inches of snow fell on Dallas, the most since 1942. It was almost midnight when he and his wife stood outside to take photos of this new sight, in the country that was to be his new home. As they lingered, what residents would later describe to police as two to four men, moving on foot, entered the small complex. One or more of the men raised a rifle and shot Al-Jumaili. Police would later find bullets lodged in nearby cars as well. He died a few hours later at a nearby hospital; he was 36 years old and had been in the US for three weeks. 
Neither police nor Al-Jumaili's family are yet claiming a motive, but focus has naturally fallen on the growing trend of violence against Muslims in the United States. Dallas Police Major Jeff Cotner said police considered hate crime a "possibility." A local Methodist pastor, as well as a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have both said the local community already fears as much. 
And yet Al-Jumaili's killing has received strikingly little attention, other than a few mostly brief media reports, and the statements of faith leaders in Dallas hinting at a climate of hostility toward Muslims there.
Vox's article does a good job of placing it in the larger context of openly hateful commentaries against Islam and Muslims that may now be leading to growing violence against Muslim minorities as well:
The rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and attendant media coverage, has coincided with Islamophobia's growing acceptance in mainstream American discourse. 
Media outlets, particularly on TV, are increasingly promoting overt bigotry against Muslims, stating over and over that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that peaceful Muslims are somehow to blame for ISIS. Hateful stereotypes are treated as fair game; the question of whether Muslims are somehow lesser human beings is raised as a valid or even necessary debate. 
The politics of Islamophobia are ascendent as well. These attitudes initially spiked after President Obama's election — a continuation of the dogwhistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but are now resurfacing. State legislatures are passing laws banning "sharia" or "foreign law," a barely-veiled expression of official legislative hostility to Islam and to Muslim-American communities. 
Elements of the Republican party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a fringe group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up "no-go zones" that police refuse to enter and where sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an "invasion" and "colonization."
Read the full Vox article here.

From Avijit in Bangladesh to Ahmed in Dallas, we have to take a stand against bigotry - independent of belief or disbelief. This may seem obvious, but sometimes popular narratives dilute some of the murders. This is all the more important as it looks like that the conditions are going to get worse - perhaps far worse - before they get better. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

On the issue of letter to Iran by Republican senators...

by Salman Hameed

It would be easy laugh at the provocative actions of almost all of Republican senators regarding Iran. Their Open Letter to Iran was of course condescending. They want war. And they want war with an unequal adversary - preferably one that doesn't have a nuclear weapon. And they are not exactly alone. Here is an opinion piece in Washington Post titled War with Iran is probably our best option. And look how easy its going be:
Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary. Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Much the same may be said in reply to objections that airstrikes might not reach all the important facilities and that Iran would then proceed unconstrained by inspections and agreements. The United States would have to make clear that it will hit wherever and whenever necessary to stop Iran’s program. Objections that Iran might conceal its program so brilliantly that it could progress undetected all the way to a bomb apply equally to any negotiated deal with Iran.
Absolutely disgusting call for war. In fact, all this rhetoric and a very different reaction to Russia's actions in Ukraine can only lead countries to having nuclear weapons - at least those countries that are adversaries of the US. I can usually make a blanket statement that I'm against nuclear weapons. But the recent US actions on non-nuclear states have caused tremendous casualties. In a world where no nuclear country is going to give up their arms, it may be worth reevaluating the calculus of war prevention by having nuclear weapons. The problem is that with the proliferation of weapons, it is almost certain that the weapons are going to be used at some point or that there is going to be an accident. In an ideal world, we will have a system that prevents bullying of non-nuclear nations by nuclear countries. Ah - but then we don't live Gene Roddenberry's universe.

And yes, it is unclear whether to laugh or cry when the leader of anti-negotiations (and pro war) Republican senator, Tom Cotton, says that "Iran already controls Tehran". But then these are the people in the upper echelon of power.

For a more sobering look, here is an excellent discussion over Iran's nuclear program on Democracy Now. Hillary Mann Leverett makes two interesting points. One, that Obama has not made an effort to sell the nuclear negotiations as in America's own best interest. In this vacuum, conservative hawks can fill the space as Iran getting its way. Second, and something that I didn't know, that Israel used to oppose sanctions against Iran in the 1980s. It changed its stance after the degradation of Iraqi military. Also, hear Ali Gharib talk about Cotton - the Republican senator spear-heading the anti-negotiation effort in the US congress.

Fourth episode of SkA: Exploring baby solar systems to search for our own origins (Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

It has been a lot of fun doing this series. So here is the continuation of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique). In this fourth episode, we look at the discovery of a "protoplanetary disk" around a young star named HL Tau. This star is only a million years old - a blink of an eye in cosmic timescales - but it can tell us a lot about the origins of our own solar system some four and a half billion years ago. Here it is:

Jim Al-Khalili on Ibn al-Haytham's "Book of Optics"

by Salman Hameed

I didn't know this is the International Year of Light (IYL 2015). In one way we can celebrate IYL by celebrating astronomy. With the exception of landers and rovers, all of our information comes through light - and even with rovers, the communication is through light. Nevertheless, as part of IYL (I think), Nature published this pieced by Jim Khalili on al-Haytham's Book of Optics (unfortunately, Jim starts the article by declaring him to be a physicist - which is anachronistic):
The greatest physicist of the medieval era led a life as remarkable as his discoveries were prodigious, spending a decade in prison and at one point possibly feigning mental illness to get out of a tight spot. Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham (Latinized to Alhazen) was born in Basra, now in southern Iraq, in AD 965. His greatest and most famous work, the seven-volume Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manathir) hugely influenced thinking across disciplines from the theory of visual perception to the nature of perspective in medieval art, in both the East and the West, for more than 600 years. Many later European scholars and fellow polymaths, from Robert Grosseteste and Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, were in his debt. Indeed, the influence of Ibn al-Haytham's Optics ranks alongside that of Newton's work of the same title, published 700 years later.
And of course, whether true or not, you have to recount the story of his "mental illness":
As a young man, Ibn al-Haytham received an excellent education and was widely noted as a mathematical and scientific prodigy. Frustrated by his administrative duties working in a government post in the vast Islamic Empire — which at the time stretched from India to Spain — he was sacked owing to real or, as some speculate, faked mental illness. 
Sometime during the first decade of the new millennium, he proposed an ambitious project to dam the Nile. He was invited to Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi'amr Illah. However, on seeing the scale of the task, Ibn al-Haytham quickly realized that it was beyond him. He was promptly imprisoned in Cairo for wasting the caliph's time. 
Far from cowing him, the decade of imprisonment granted Ibn al-Haytham the seclusion to think and write, particularly on optics. After his release around the year 1020, he began working at a prolific rate, carrying out a series of famous experiments on the nature of light. For example, using a camera obscura, he proved that light travels in straight lines; he also mathematized the fields of catoptrics (reflection of light by mirrors) and dioptrics (refraction of light through lenses). This huge body of experiment and theory culminated in his Book of Optics.
Here are the specifics of his Book of Optics:
This treatise can be regarded as a science textbook. In it, Ibn al-Haytham gives detailed descriptions of his experiments, such as exploring how light rays are reflected off plain and curved surfaces. He includes the apparatus he used, the way he set it up, the measurements and his results. He then uses these observations to justify his theories, which he develops with geometrical models. He even urges others to repeat his experiments to verify his conclusions. Many historians of science consider Ibn al-Haytham to be the first true proponent of the modern scientific method. 
The work can be roughly divided into Books I, II and III, devoted to the theory of vision and the associated physiology of the eye and the psychology of perception; and Books IV to VII, covering traditional physical optics. The work's most celebrated contribution to science is its explanation of vision. 
At that time, scholars' understanding of the phenomenon was a mess. The Greeks had several theories. In the fifth century BC, Empedocles had argued that a special light shone out of the eye until it hit an object, thereby making it visible. This became known as the emission theory of vision. It was 'refined' by Plato, who explained that you also need external light to see. Plato's student Aristotle suggested that rather than the eye emitting light, objects would 'perturb' the air between them and the eye, triggering sight. 
Other philosophers around this time, including Epicurus, attempted a form of 'intromission theory' of vision (light entering the eye from outside), but it was Plato's theory that was given a mathematical basis by Euclid, who described light rays emerging in a cone from the eye. Several centuries later, Ptolemy expanded on this idea. 
Early Islamic scholars such as al-Kindi and Hunayn ibn Ishaq favoured a combined emission–intromission theory. They posited that the eye sends out light to the observed object, which then reflects the light back into the eye. 
It took the genius of Ibn al-Haytham to finally resolve the issue. He argued that if we see because rays of light are emitted from the eye onto an object (Plato and Euclid's 'sight rays'), then either the object sends back a signal to the eye or it does not. If it does not, how can the eye perceive what its rays have fallen on? Light must be coming back to the eye, and this is how we see. But if so, what use is there for the original rays emitted by the eye? The light could come directly from the object if it is luminous or, if it is not, could be reflected from the object after being emitted by another source. Rays from the eye, decided Ibn al-Haytham, are an unnecessary complication. 
He also went further than anyone before in trying to understand the underlying physics of refraction. He argued that the speed of light was finite and varied in different media, and he used the idea of resolving the path of a light ray into its vertical and horizontal components of velocities. He carried out all his work geometrically, and introduced many new ideas, such as the study of how the atmosphere refracts light from celestial bodies.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). You can also read more about al-Haytham on IYL 2015 website

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Video: Evolution via They Might Be Giants and The Simpsons

by Salman Hameed

On a lighter note of evolution, here is My Brother the Ape by They Might Be Giants (By the way, my 22 month old son loves this - and so begins the indoctrination :) ):

And while we are on the topic, here is evolution of Homer Simpson from the intro of a Simpsons episode: 

Friday, March 06, 2015

A somewhat strange opinion piece in Nature on Muslims and science

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Nature has an opinion piece by Indonesian science journalist, Dyna Rochmyaningsih.
The title of the piece is Focus on political Islamic groups to boost science. One of her key points - which I think is largely correct - is that science promoters should not ignore Islamist groups as they hold influence in some societies. She goes further and makes an excellent point that it is important to understand how political and ideological groups influence views about science:
Rather than reconciliation, it is important to monitor and understand the way in which political and ideological groups influence how young Muslims view science.
All well and good, and this is something that we are trying to do at SSiMS (Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies) at Hampshire. But there are some serious problems with the piece as well. For example, she -paints a picture that blurs the line between ISIS, European terror attacks, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This is how her article starts:
Recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the continued activity of the jihadist group ISIS in the Middle East have thrown the spotlight firmly back on radical Islam. Some studies blame the Muslim world's poor and unstable economies for the spread of this fundamentalism. Presumably then, improving the economy could help Muslim societies to tackle these radical movements. 
Science can play a big part in this economic development, as it has in other places. But because some Muslims see a conflict between science and their faith, the philosophical question of how to reconcile the two is at the heart of many efforts to advance scientific development in the Muslim world.
And here is the place where she brings in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir:
The radical Islamists of ISIS see science as an attribute of their enemies. They have denounced the great Medieval Muslim scientists Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Nafis as heretics and atheists. It is clear that such rhetoric — if influential — will hold back scientific development in Muslim countries. 
Here in Indonesia, for example, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir have a strong presence in high schools and universities, and this gives them profound influence on young Muslims' views of the world, including science. 
The influence is not all negative to science. The Muslim Brotherhood, although hostile to evolution, encourages talented scientists to develop their careers and helps to place them on postgraduate courses overseas, typically in Japan. Many of these people return to Indonesia as university lecturers.
I think this would be a fine line of argument. But by bringing in ISIS, it presents a picture not that different from Fox News or the one argued by General Sisi. This is a shame as I think she is making an important point. Another weird part is that she is writing this piece in response to a task force that just met in Turkey, where an Islamist government is in charge. The problem is that she is placing all Islamist groups under one banner when their attitudes and approaches to science may be completely different. Not to mention that European attacks have a very different context than what is taking place in Indonesia, and that is different from what is taking place in Turkey or in Mali. In the current political environment, such conflations are deeply counter-productive.

Plus, the use of science in her article is just too broad. In general, the attitude is positive in various parts of the Muslim world. Here is the Pew survey on this from 2013:

Indonesia and Iraq - two places mentioned in her article - both seem to have a broad support for science. Of course, the issue comes in with specific issues, like evolution or other questions of origins. Dyna's solution is to inculcate scientific thinking before they are exposed to political ideas:
Reconciliation is an individual process, and something that is intangible in the realm of policy-making. By contrast, hard-line groups can influence whole societies. To capitalize on this influence, we might need to reform science education in primary schools in the Muslim world, and teach young people to think for themselves before they are exposed to political ideas.
I don't know but something doesn't seem right here as politics is always embedded in the system. Plus, she now brings in the term "hard-line groups" and claims that they can "influence whole societies". Since she has been talking about political Islamist groups, my assumption is that "hard-line groups". What makes them "hardline" compared to say General Sisi or the secularists of Turkey in the not so distant past?

But I do agree with Dyna that the key here is the promotion of critical thinking more than anything else, and such critical thinking may lead us to see not only science but also culture in a nuanced and complicated way. In addition, we do not want students to grow up apathetic to politics (this is what General Zia in Pakistan tried to do in the 1980s). The full narrative of Arab Spring - and other equivalent springs in non-Arab Muslim countries - is yet to be written, and the ability to think critically and for oneself, will be crucial.

Read the full article here (you will need subscription for full access).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Third episode of SkA: Water and the Search for Life on Mars (Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

In this episode of Science ka Adda, we discuss the recent results from Curiosity rover suggesting the presence of liquid water on Mars. In fact, conditions on Mars - four billion years ago - may have been more suitable for the origins of life than even the Earth. If so, then life may have originated on Mars and may have seeded the Earth. If that is the case, then may be we are all ultimately Martians! This episode features original musical composition by Umer Piracha dedicated to Curiosity rover. For more SkA, visit and for more detailed discussions on astronomy in Urdu, please visit Hamari Kainaat at

Monday, February 23, 2015

Science and Religion in Medieval Islamic Societies: A lecture by Dr. Nahyan Fancy on Feb 26th

Our next Science & Religion lecture at Hampshire College is this coming Thursday, February 26th. Our speaker is Dr. Nahyan Fancy and he will be talking about science in medieval Islamic societies. Back in 2013, I had highlighted his fascinating book on Ibn-Nafis' work on pulmonary transit of blood. We are excited to have him here and if you are in the area, join us for the talk.

Here are the details:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Re-examining the Science-Religion Dichotomy in Medieval Islamic Societies
Dr. Nahyan Fancy

Thursday, February 26, 2015
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Living in a post-Enlightenment age, historians have struggled to understand the meaningful ways in which science and religion interacted in pre-modern, particularly theistic societies. In the case of Islamic societies, historians have veered from claiming that religion suppressed and stamped out science, to claiming that religion subsumed science under religious dogma. In both cases, religion is seen as blunting the sword of reason leading to an inevitable "decline" of science. Historians have bought into the Enlightenment idealization of science as a secular, rational pursuit of knowledge that is free from external pressures, particularly those from religion. However, as I will show, such dichotomous understandings of science and religion prevent us from accessing the rich and complex ways in which pre-modern Islamic scholars engaged with rational and revealed knowledge. Using the example of Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288), we shall see how a commitment to the sanctity of revelation and specific religious dogmas could still lead one to develop novel scientific theories that themselves forced the scholar to assess and modify certain religious claims.

Dr. Nahyan Fancy is an Associate Professor of Middle East/Comparative History at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, USA. His research interests are in pre-1500 science, medicine, and
intellectual history. His book, Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt, examines the intersections of philosophy, theology and medical physiology in the works of Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th century physician-jurist who first posited the pulmonary transit of blood. The significance of this result is that it forms the basis of William Harvey's (d.  1657) theory of blood circulation, three centuries later. His new project examines the evolution of medical commentaries in post-1250 Islamicate societies, with an eye towards learning more about the specific trajectory of theoretical medicine in Islamicate societies, and the networks of exchange that gave rise to the appropriation of Islamicate trajectories by Latin Europe during the Renaissance.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Video II: The story of Pangea and Alfred Wegener

by Salman Hameed

Here is a wonderful 7-minute animation on the life of Alfred Wegener and his idea of continental drift that transformed 20th century geology. Enjoy!