Monday, May 28, 2007

A glimpse into the University of Baghdad

In less than two minutes, this puts life (especially in academia) in perspective. This is the first part of a web series called Hometown Baghdad. It follows the lives and thoughts of three students at the university trying to survive in Baghdad. Most of these episodes are under 2 minutes and have been shot by an all Iraqi crew. You can watch other episodes here. Please also check out The Perils and Promise of Higher Education at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

$10 billion donation for education and research: Can Dubai become a leading research center?

The ruler of Dubai, Shiekh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is donating 10 billion dollars to set up an educational foundation. This is thought to be one of the largest charitable donations in history - and amazingly its for research and education!
Sheikh Mohammed, known as a successful racehorse owner as well as ruler of Dubai, said his personal initiative was aimed at creating what he called "a knowledge-based society" in the Middle East.

At the moment, he explained, there was high illiteracy in the region - where more than 40% of Arab women cannot read or write.
The whole Arab world publishes fewer books than the country of Turkey. And spending on scientific research is only a tiny fraction of that in developed countries.

"There is a wide knowledge gap between us and the developed world in the West and in Asia. Our only choice is to bridge this gap as quickly as possible, because our age is defined by knowledge," the sheikh said.


Sheikh Mohammed hopes to increase education and research, and also to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the region.

"In order to realise these objectives, I have decided to establish the Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation to focus on human development, and have I decided to endow a fund of $10bn to finance its projects," he said.

This is quite encouraging, It also has serious potential as Dubai has already shown to be one of the more progressive states in the region. Read the full story here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Anger (mis)management: BBC and the Scientology controversy

A BBC reporter completely lost his head during the filming of a documentary about Scientology - the UFO religion of Ron L. Hubbard and has several high profile followers, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Yes, Scientology is a bit scary (and so is Sweeney in this video)...but whatever the reason, there is no excuse for such an outburst. It raises other issues also: How does one go about defining religion? Who makes that decision? And should the treatment of its members be different simply because of nomenclature?

So is Scientology a cult or a religion? Does it really matter?

Here is the BBC story on the controversy and here is coverage from Telegraph

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The meaning of life...for a bunch of monkeys

This is a cool video. Yes, yes, we are apes and not monkeys. Eh...close enough.

The Proof of God - Tipler and his pseudoscience

Here is a great example of bad science, bad religion, and bad journalism. For your amusement, please check the news clip at this website about Frank Tipler's proof of God.

So what is the proof?
Tipler calls God the cosmological singularity--stemming from ancient theologians definition of God. Tipler uses hard core science, Einstein's principals of general relativity, and quantum mechanics.

"You can show using physics forces this universe to continue to exist, " Tipler says, "as long as you're using...general relativity, and quantum mechanics, you are forced to conclude that God exists."
So he is redefining God as a "cosmological singularity" (point of infinite density from where our universe started with a Big Bang), and I guess then he is showing that it has to exist. But apparently if you use "hard core" physics (this means you have to use "general relativity and quantum mechanics" in the same sentence) then you have to conclude that God exists - and God ends up on the right side of the equation.
Professor Tipler knows there is skepticism in the church and among some of his colleagues.

"I am not being blasphemous," Tipler says, "I'm just following the ancient tradition that says science put the tenant of religion to the experimental test and we find God exists." only "some" of his colleagues (I imagine physicists) are skeptical about his ideas??? They didn't even interview a token physicist about it in the piece. In fact Tipler's ideas are presented in the news report as the view of science. And just in case you were wondering if there are any experiments we can perform to test his ideas, the statement towards the end of the news report takes care of that: "even science cannot touch him - Tipler says God is the divine substance outside space, time and matter". Ok...

And, I guess, the news report tried to end on a lighter note:

Tipler's latest book, "The Physics of Christianity", takes his principals even further. In it, he says physics can justify the birth of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead and the spiritual body and the incarnation.

There you go..."hard core" physics at work. I wonder if he applies for NSF funding to do this work...

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ok with evolution - as long as it supports my (political) ideology

Apparently this is the message that is coming out from debates amongst conservatives (in the US). But first the more scary stuff: During the first debate amongst Presidential candidates for Republicans, three of the 10 candidates indicated that they did not believe in evolution (just let go of the problem for now that one does not really believe or disbelieve in evolution). So just to make sure, the three candidates are: Sam Brownback of Kansas; Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas; and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado. Thankfully, their chances for winning the Republican nomination (let alone the Presidency) are slim to none - but its still scary that 30% of Republican candidates do not accept evolution.

However, New York Times has a broader story about how views about evolution are splitting the conservatives.
For some conservatives, accepting Darwin undercuts religious faith and produces an amoral, materialistic worldview that easily embraces abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other practices they abhor. As an alternative to Darwin, many advocate intelligent design, which holds that life is so intricately organized that only an intelligent power could have created it.

Yet it is that very embrace of intelligent design — not to mention creationism, which takes a literal view of the Bible's Book of Genesis — that has led conservative opponents to speak out for fear their ideology will be branded as out of touch and anti-science.
Ok...this is quite reasonable. But wait...
Some of these thinkers have gone one step further, arguing that Darwin's scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today's patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances.
and here is a more traditional view that Darwinism is to blame for all social problems:
"The current debate is not primarily about religious fundamentalism," Mr. West, the author of "Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest" (2006), said at Thursday's conference. "Nor is it simply an irrelevant rehashing of certain esoteric points of biology and philosophy. Darwinian reductionism has become culturally pervasive and inextricably intertwined with contemporary conflicts over traditional morality, personal responsibility, sex and family, and bioethics."
The technocrats, he charged, wanted to grab control from "ordinary citizens and their elected representatives" so that they alone could make decisions over "controversial issues such as sex education, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and global warming."

The linking of evolution to political ideologies, to say the obvious, will lead to problems. I had posted a few months back that belief in evolution in US is higher amongst political liberals than political conservatives and we have to make sure that we de-link the theory of evolution that successfully explains the biological diversity found in nature with its use for justifying political ideologies.

And who knew, that the most sensible words would in the end be coming from The Weekly Standard:
To many people, asking whether evolution is good for conservatism is like asking if gravity is good for liberalism; nature is morally neutral. Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard and Carson Holloway in his 2006 book, "The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy," for example, have written that jumping from evolutionary science to moral conclusions and policy proposals is absurd.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Of fluids and people: Modeling crowd movement in Mecca

Every year there are deaths due to accidents during the annual Pilgrimage to Mecca. But crowd models appear to be helping reduce these accidents.

From Science (April 20, 2007):
The annual Pilgrimage, or haj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia offers one of the world's greatest challenges in crowd control. The millions in attendance create a volatile environment in which pilgrims have been trampled to death performing a ceremony on the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, where they hurl stones at pillars representing the devil. In January 2006, more than 360 people were killed in a stampede near the bridge. Haj officials have since instituted new safety rules and enlarged the bridge; they have also sought advice from experts in traffic and crowd flow.

One of these experts is Dirk Helbing, a physicist at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, who was asked to suggest safe routes for crowd movements. Last week, he reported on this work at a physics conference at the University of Leicester, U.K. He and co-workers analyzed videotapes of the 2006 disaster, observing how thick crowds of people, like high-density flows of fluids, can turn "turbulent," causing groups to move erratically. When this happens, people fall and get trampled. Helbing described how it is possible to identify changes in crowd behavior in advance of the turbulence and thus pinpoint danger spots.

So next time you are in a crowd, you can ask people to be less "turbulent."

The changes have apparently been effective: At the latest haj, from 29 December to 1 January, there were no major incident.