Saturday, December 06, 2008

Talking about "origins" in Pakistan

I had a fantastic time giving two public lectures in Pakistan on this trip (I'm in Rawalpindi/Islamabad for another week before getting back to the US). I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I will get while talking about cosmology (and also briefly about evolution) - but the reaction has mostly been quite positive and with lot of interaction with the audience at the end. The reaction from the audience was quite different at two places. The first lecture was organized by the Physics Club at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad (thanks Zahid) and the questions were heavily focused on cosmology, nature of time, multiverses, etc. The issue of the origin of life was brought up, but the discussion stayed within the confines of our scientific understanding of the topic. The level of questions was very good and surprising to me, evolution was not really brought up in Q&A - perhaps a reflection of audience predisposition towards physics.

The talk at Karachi was a totally different experience. First of all, the Karachi talk was part of Science ka Adda (Karachi's version of Cafe Scientifique) and was held at a coffee shop (The Second Floor) that also acts as a base for non-profit work (PeaceNiche), holds regular screening of documentaries (it showed God on the Brain recently), provides space for art exhibitions, and even hosts small concerts (check out glimpses of T2F). So indeed, I was very excited to give a public lecture there (Thanks Sabeen for organizing it).

The focus of questions here was more on science and religion conflict (or at least on the possibility of conflict). The point of my talk was that Big Bang, evolution, origin of life questions etc. are descriptions of physical phenomena irrespective of one's belief. The question of the ultimate origins (First Cause) is dependent on faith - whether one believes that physical laws have been put in place by God or by no one (also a faith statement). However, we should always seek natural causes when seeking an explanation for all physical events (methodological naturalism). Many of the questions were accurately focused on the boundary between known and unknown and how to approach science when we get to that point - and what to do when religion comes in conflict with known explanations for science. A few people raised strong objections to evolution (with the usual - that "it is only a theory"), but the over all discourse remained very civil and productive (as can be seen from the post Q&A discussions on the right - picture from T2F).

But the main point is that we can talk and discuss in public these sensitive topics in Pakistan (ok - at least at universities and coffee shops). Not everyone will agree with the conclusions - but a dialogue about these topics is crucial.

14 comments:

Atif said...

It was indeed a nice lecture. I really liked the details you presented about Big Bang and that Super Turtle concept was great. I hope we would see you more often whenever you visit Pakistan again.

Nizam said...

Hey Salman, I'm glad to hear your trip is going smoothly and that your talks were well-received ... was there any audio or video recording?

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Atif and I will try to give a talk at T2F and QAU again on my next visit also.

Nizam - yes, it was being recorded. I will let you know if they put it online.

farhan said...

Hi Salman,
The presentation was great! would like to see more of these so please keep coming back here :)

Hey, where can we find the Saturn picture you showed in your presentation? I would like to make it my desktop wallpaper, just to keep things in perspective :)

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Hello Salman Sb,

Its good to know that the lectures were well recieved. I wonder if we can get to see these lectures on youtube or vidpk (paki version of youtube)? I really miss these...

I totaly agree w you, that we should discuss n debate such topics. Only then we would b able to bring positive change in people 's thinking towards evolution n origin.

Cheers

Salman Hameed said...

Farhan,

The Saturn image can be found at:
http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap061016.html

In fact, I would suggest you bookmark "Astronomy Picture of the Day" any way. :)

Ali: I will let you know when its online. Here is a story from The News covering the lecture:
http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=150850

Hira Hanif said...

It was a great gathering all together. I loved the former part of the presentation but I do think that Hameed spoke less about the topic itself saying that merging religion and science together wouldn't be a cool idea.

As for evolution, I can't digest the statement that we were evolved from a pair of apes and developed into such tremendously 'refined' creatures like human beings. Not using any bloody religion, it just doesn't match how my brain works. Plus, what could be the answer to the 'undeveloped' generation of apes that is around us? The match of DNA is a good statement so to sound but basing that to be the descent of the human race - not so cool.

Plus, saying that the theory of evolution is taken as valid as the theory of gravity is illogical too because there are certainly many disagreements given out by scientists against the theory of evolution. There might be some given against that of gravity as well but at least as Hameed said it's 99.99999% 'taken' valid, which isn't so in the case of the theory of evolution.

Hira Hanif said...

PS. That comes from the girl who continually called you "professor" and asked ridiculous deal of questions.

Regards.

Umair said...

ah..people really missed you here at Lahore this time :( Anyways, it was nice meeting you at Islamabad though.

Umair said...

Hira, we did not evolve from apes; infact we (apes and human) had a common ancestor probably 8 million years ago.

For millions of years, many branches of homonids evolved; only one is surviving today.

Hira Hanif said...

I talked in reference to the theory of evolution in which ape's DNA is given as a rationale for it being the medium of human evolution. Apes and us thus having a common ancestor is very apparent.

Salman Hameed said...

Not using any bloody religion, it just doesn't match how my brain works.

Hira - Oh sure. There are many things that are difficult to comprehend - for example the incredible age of the universe (13.7 billion years) or even the age of the Earth (4.5 billion years). As humans, we have a really hard time to fathom this really long passage of time. But we know from various means that this is indeed the case (yes, we really know the age of the Earth to a high degree of accuracy). This is the descriptive process - independent of whether one likes it or not.

In the same way, evolution simply explains the diversity of life on Earth - irrespective of whether one likes the idea of being related to jelly fish or not. For me, it is absolutely phenomenal that simple life forms can produce such enormous diversity (given 4.5 billion years!!), including humans, and that we have an intimate connection with all other beings on the planet (the star fish, the zebra, the whale - not directly - but we share a common ancestor long time back).

Plus, what could be the answer to the 'undeveloped' generation of apes that is around us?

As Umair pointed out, we did not descent from apes (or monkeys) as is usually portrayed. We had a common ancestor 8-9 million years ago. Some apes are not "underdeveloped" at all. Remember evolution is not a ladder with humans on top. Evolution is better visualized as a branching tree with humans on one branch, apes on another. Jelly fish also occupy another branch - but they are further away from us than the apes.

Xoff said...

Look forward to your next talk.

I haven't been able to find where Islam stands on evolution, is it a similar stance to the one taken by the Christian creationists?

I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction?

Thank you and keep up the good work

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