Monday, September 29, 2008

Creationism with Harun Yahya and Sarah Palin

It seems that Harun Yahya is offering 10 trillion Turkish liras (about 8 trillion dollars - yes, yes, fill in your own "bailout" joke here) to anyone "who produces a single intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution" (hat tip Pharyngula):
Adnan Oktar said that he has "issued a call to all evolutionists" that he will give "10 trillion Turkish lira to anyone who produces a single intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution" – a sum roughly equal to £4.4trn.
...
"Evolutionists are at a dead-end in the face of the fossil record," he said. "Not one [fossil] belongs to strange-looking creatures in the course of development of the kind supposed by evolutionists."
Ok..so this is just silly and there is no need to comment on it. But should this crap even be reported in a newspaper? After all, this serves to give publicity to a seemingly unbalanced man - and this is exactly what he wants. I think newspapers (and blogs like the one you are reading) should be more discreet in picking up stories like this.

However, the case is different when it comes to Sarah Palin. Here is a good story from the LA Times about her religious beliefs and public policy. It appears that she has never officially spoken about creationism and all the evidence, while probably true, is anecdotal. When it comes to policy, she hides behind "teach the controversy":
During an October 2006 debate in the Alaska governor's race, Palin urged that evolution and creationist ideas be taught together in state schools. "Don't be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides," she said.

But since taking office in December 2006, Palin has made no moves to impose the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design," the modern version of creationist thought, in Alaska schools.

"As far as teachers are concerned, we haven't seen any push," said Joan Sargent, a Fairbanks teacher who heads the Alaska Science Teachers Assn. Teachers already have the flexibility to introduce creationist views, as an addendum to the mainstream study of evolution, Sargent said.
Yes, but here it is important for newspapers to push her more about evolution. It is not a matter of personal beliefs. If she believes that dinos and humans at one point mingled together - we should know. It is not just about policy but how she views science in the 21st century. But possible good news for Ken Ham of the Creation Museum fame - if she actually ends up with the presidency, then he may get a cabinet position.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Islamic Creationism talk at Creighton University

I'm currently at Creighton University, Omaha, working with Tracy Leavelle on the issue of observatories on top of Mauna Kea - the mountain-top held sacred by native Hawaiians. More on this later as we work towards finishing our paper. However, if you are in the area or own a private jet, here is a bit of self-promo: I will be giving a public talk on Tuesday, September 30th, titled Bracing for Creationism in the Islamic World. It is at 7:00pm in the Skutt Student Center room 105 and it is being sponsored by the Kripke Center for the study of Religion and Society and the Henry W. Casper Professorship in History.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Steven Weinberg on life without God

I'm currently in Omaha working on a project and so the postings have been running a bit slow. Here is the second part of Weinberg's article. I had earlier posted comments on Weinberg's views on the sources of tension between science & religion. The second part of his excellent article talks about the decline of religion and how to think about life in the absence of God. But is it true that religion and religious beliefs are on the decline?
The weakening of religious belief is obvious in Western Europe, but it may seem odd to talk about this happening in America. No one who expressed doubt about the existence of God could possibly be elected president of the United States. Nevertheless, though I don't have any scientific evidence on this point, on the basis of personal observation it seems to me that while many Americans fervently believe that religion is a good thing, and get quite angry when it is criticized, even those who feel this way often do not have much in the way of clear religious belief. Occasionally I have found myself talking with friends, who identify themselves with some organized religion, about what they think of life after death, or of the nature of God, or of sin. Most often I've been told that they do not know, and that the important thing is not what you believe, but how you live. I've heard this even from a Catholic priest. I applaud the sentiment, but it's quite a retreat from religious belief.
And it is this retreat that his article has really focused on. But he also takes into account other social factors associated with religion:
I have been emphasizing religious belief here, the belief in facts about God or the afterlife, though I am well aware that this is only one aspect of the religious life, and for many not the most important part. Perhaps I emphasize belief because as a physicist I am professionally concerned with finding out what is true, not what makes us happy or good. For many people, the important thing about their religion is not a set of beliefs but a host of other things: a set of moral principles; rules about sexual behavior, diet, observance of holy days, and so on; rituals of marriage and mourning; and the comfort of affiliation with fellow believers, which in extreme cases allows the pleasure of killing those who have different religious affiliations.
...
The various uses of religion may keep it going for a few centuries even after the disappearance of belief in anything supernatural, but I wonder how long religion can last without a core of belief in the supernatural, when it isn't about anything external to human beings. To compare great things with small, people may go to college football games mostly because they enjoy the cheerleading and marching bands, but I doubt if they would keep going to the stadium on Saturday afternoons if the only things happening there were cheerleading and marching bands, without any actual football, so that the cheerleading and the band music were no longer about anything.
This last analogy is fantastic. But is Weinberg's premise true? I'm curious how big of a role does supernatural play in the survival of religions. What about group selection as proposed by David Sloan Wilson and others (also see this Science & Religion lecture by Wilson). In any case, Weinberg believes that religion is on the way out but also warns of other substitutes. Furthermore, he believes that "the worldview of science is rather chilling":
Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
But I think this is where Sagan was much better at using our curiosity and wonder about the universe in creating an uplifting narrative. He traced the history of individuals from the Big Bang to the present via stars (yes, unfortunately his spiel about "star-stuff" has become cliche'd, but it is still effective) and the 4.5 billion year evolutionary history of the Earth (for a fantastic illustration of this point, see this clip from Cosmos). We can see the contrast between Sagan and Weinberg in the way they look at life and death. Here is Weinberg:
The more we reflect on the pleasures of life, the more we miss the greatest consolation that used to be provided by religious belief: the promise that our lives will continue after death, and that in the afterlife we will meet the people we have loved. As religious belief weakens, more and more of us know that after death there is nothing. This is the thing that makes cowards of us all.
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Living without God isn't easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God.
and here is Sagan on the same topic:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Instead of lamenting the losses, he is appreciating the gains. The over all message is the same - but I find Sagan's tone so much more uplifting.

Read the full Weinberg article here, and here is an earlier post about Sagan.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Steven Weinberg on tension between science and religion

I really like Steven Weinberg. Whether you agree or disagree with him, his comments always insightful and make you think. He has this excellent article in The New York Review of Books (tip EvolutionBlog) that talks about the sources of tension between science & religion and then he presents his views about how to live without God. I have divided the post in two: This deals with his perspective on science & religion tension and the next will focus on his views of life after God.

He starts with the idea of conflict between science & religion, but then correctly (though reluctantly) demphasizes a bit (its not that there has not been any conflict, but rather that this may not be the only or even the dominant mode):
The idea of a conflict between science and religion has a long pedigree. According to Edward Gibbon, it was the view of the Byzantine church that "the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind." Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this conflict is a book published in 1896 by Cornell's first president, Andrew Dickson White, with the title A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In recent times there has been a reaction against talk of warfare between science and religion. White's "conflict thesis" was attacked in a 1986 paper by Bruce Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, both well-known historians of science, who pointed out many flaws in White's scholarship.
A quick point here: It is too dangerous to apply a single definition of "science" and "religion" throughout history or for that matter, a single line of relationship between the two. It becomes too easy to cherry-pick evidence in one's support and/or to ignore counter-arguments and other contextual factors. This is the reason why Andrew White's history, while influential in popularizing the current conflict thesis, also had serious problems as were pointed out, among others, by Lindberg & Numbers.
But if the direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, there are at least four sources of tension between science and religion that have been important.
Here are his 4 points (I have added numbers to Weinberg's text). I will mostly comment on the 3rd one, as Weinberg attributes that tension specifically to Islam:
1) The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being.
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Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding (such as our ignorance about the origin of life) as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.
This is an excellent point. Indeed, the domain of understanding nature now rests solely with science. Even with unexplained phenomena, we know that these are problems for science. The Dark Matter problem is not going to be resolved by religion. Perhaps we can use the analogy of astrology. Up until the 17th century, astrology was used for weather predictions, fires in the city (yes, cities like Baghdad and London had horoscopes based on the date their foundation was laid and astrology predicted when fires would break out), and of course on personal matters. It is all about the illusion of control in an unpredictable world. Now we have much better ways to determine weather and fires are relatively rare, so we have astrology predominantly for personal matters. Thus, the domain of astrology has been reduced dramatically. The same argument can be made for religion.
2) There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, "The theory that it's all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate." Most important so far has been the discovery by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace that humans arose from earlier animals through natural selection acting on random heritable variations, with no need for a divine plan to explain the advent of humanity.
Another excellent point. Astronomy is really good for this - once you appreciate the vastness of the universe, it becomes really hard to argue any specialness for humans. And biology provides the final nail in the coffin.
3) A third source of tension between science and religious belief has been more important in Islam than in Christianity. Around 1100, the Sufi philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued against the very idea of laws of nature, on the grounds that any such law would put God's hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smolder because of the heat of the flame, but because God wants it to darken and smolder. Laws of nature could have been reconciled with Islam, as a summary of what God usually wants to happen, but al-Ghazzali did not take that path.

Al-Ghazzali is often described as the most influential Islamic philosopher. I wish I knew enough to judge how great was the impact on Islam of his rejection of science. At any rate, science in Muslim countries, which had led the world in the ninth and tenth centuries, went into a decline in the century or two after al-Ghazzali. As a portent of this decline, in 1194 the Ulama of Córdoba burned all scientific and medical texts.

Couple of comments here. First, yes, al-Ghazali's points definitely create problems for scientific thinking and I don't want to defend his arguments (he didn't much care for philosophers/scientists or mathematicians). However, I should say that his comments were grounded in a radical form of atomistic philosophy (Occasionalism) which argued that not only all matter can be reduced to fundamental units of atoms (not the modern view of electron, proton, neutron, but rather the view of pre-Socratic philosophers such as Epicurus and Democritus), but that time is also discreet. Thus, every instant, the world is destroyed and new one is created by God - and that leaves God responsible for every action in the world, including the direct source of fire for the burning cotton.

Second, yes, the impact of al-Ghazali is not clear. Ibn-Rushd (Averroes) in al-Andalus, wrote a devastating critique of Al-Ghazali only a few decades after Ghazali's death. But Rushd's work had a bigger impact on the philosophical discourse in Europe (especially on Aquinas) than in the Islamic world. Ghazali, on the other hand, did have big influence in shaping the direction of sufism - but I don't know about the case of understanding events in the natural world.

We do know one thing: contrary to Weinberg's claim, science in the Muslim world did not die out a "century or two after al-Ghazali." There is strong evidence now, based on the discovery of manuscripts in the past 20-30 years, that science in the Muslim world continued to flourish at least well into the 14th century and may be into the 15th century. In fact, the golden age of Islamic astronomy is now attributed to 13th and 14th centuries (check out George Saliba's lecture on Islam and the transformation of Greek science - and his book, A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories during the Golden Age of Islam). The decline of sciences in the Muslim world is an unsolved and complicated matter. It would make things much easier if we could all blame al-Ghazzali's anti-science attitude for the decline. But evidence doesn't seem to support this idea.

All that said, I agree with Weinberg that if one has a worldview that includes an intervening God, then such a view will fundamentally be in opposition to science. I feel that the constant use of "Inshallah" (God-willing) by contemporary Muslims must have some impact on scientific reasoning.

Nor has science revived in the Islamic world. There are talented scientists who have come to the West from Islamic countries and do work of great value here, among them the Pakistani Muslim physicist Abdus Mohammed Salam, who in 1979 became the first Muslim scientist to be awarded a Nobel Prize, for work he did in England and Italy. But in the past forty years I have not seen any paper in the areas of physics or astronomy that I follow that was written in an Islamic country and was worth reading. Thousands of scientific papers are turned out in these countries, and perhaps I missed something. Still, in 2002 the periodical Nature carried out a survey of science in Islamic countries, and found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellent science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding.

He is absolutely correct about this. And I should also mention that even Abdus Salam doesn't officially make the Pakistani official list of a Muslim Nobel prize winner, as he belonged to the Ahmaddiya sect - who were constitutionally declared to be non-Muslims by Pakistan government in 1974. The joke was that the government wanted to keep the record of Muslims clean in terms of science Nobel prizes.

4) here is a fourth source of tension between science and religion that may be the most important of all. Traditional religions generally rely on authority, whether the authority is an infallible leader, such as a prophet or a pope or an imam, or a body of sacred writings, a Bible or a Koran. Perhaps Galileo did not get into trouble solely because he was expressing views contrary to scripture, but because he was doing so independently, rather than as a theologian acting within the Church.

Of course, scientists rely on authorities, but of a very different sort. If I want to understand some fine point about the general theory of relativity, I might look up a recent paper by an expert in the field. But I would know that the expert might be wrong. One thing I probably would not do is to look up the original papers of Einstein, because today any good graduate student understands general relativity better than Einstein did. We progress. Indeed, in the form in which Einstein described his theory it is today generally regarded as only what is known in the trade as an effective field theory; that is, it is an approximation, valid for the large scales of distance for which it has been tested, but not under very cramped conditions, as in the early big bang.

This is a fantastic point - and his Einstein example is a great illustration of the workings of science. The same is true of Darwin's work - and critics of evolution keep on commenting on his books and his life.

This is not the end of his article, but I think his first topic can have this excellent ending:

We have our heroes in science, like Einstein, who was certainly the greatest physicist of the past century, but for us they are not infallible prophets. For those who in everyday life respect independence of mind and openness to contradiction, traits that Emerson admired—especially when it came to religion—the example of science casts an unfavorable light on the deference to authority of traditional religion. The world can always use heroes, but could do with fewer prophets.

My minor quibbles aside, I like Weinberg's thoughtful comments on the subject (here is the full article). Now onto the second part of this piece - living without God.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Off-topic: Fresh Air on "extraordinary renditions"

Here is a Fresh Air interview of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, who was picked up by Americans as a suspect and then sent for interrogation to Syria as part of the program of extraordinary rendition. This is a sad and sorry state of affairs. Please check out this interview. Here is a brief intro of Maher Arar:
Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship, was detained during a stop-over in JFK Airport in 2002 and deported on suspicion of being a member of Al Qaeda. He wound up in a Syrian prison where he was locked up and beaten for almost a year before protests from his wife led to his release.

Arar is pursuing a federal lawsuit charging that the United States government violated his constitutional right to due process as well as his right to choose a country of removal other than one in which he would be tortured, as guaranteed under the Torture Victim Protection Act.

Here is the full interview.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Vodka-Hashish Line

On my drive to Hampshire, I have been listening to lectures by Kenneth Harl on the Era of the Crusades. I found an amusing point in the lecture today and I thought I'll share it here. While talking about the Turks and their conversion to Islam in 9th-10th centuries, Harl mentioned a Vodka-Hashish line to see whether tribes converted to Christianity or Islam. Here is his description:
Some scholars have argued that Central Asian steppe nomads were almost destined to convert to Islam because of their religious tradition and their location relative to the “vodka-hashish” dividing line. In the forest zones of Russia, where vodka was consumed, Christianity prevailed. The steppe nomads who used hashish inclined to Islam.
Yup - an alcohol ban cost Muslims not only some fun but also Russia. Ok, so hashish balanced it out a bit. By the 11th century most of the Turkomen people had embraced Sunni Islam who found certain elements of Islam congenial such as devotion to ancestors and the tradition of the Shaman. I guess some aspects of Sufism match in this direction. In any case, this vodka-hashish line works quite well with one exception: The Khazars. This was a Turkomen nomadic tribe on the hashish side of the line, but they decided to accept Judaism as their religion - probably to keep later historians on their feet. They have their own really fascinating history.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Saved by a guardian angel? Huh!?

What can you really say to this?? From Time Magazine:
More than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives, according to a new poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion. In a poll of 1700 respondents, 55% answered affirmatively to the statement, "I was protected from harm by a guardian angel." The responses defied standard class and denominational assumptions about religious belief; the majority held up regardless of denomination, region or education — though the figure was a little lower (37%) among respondents earning more than $150,000 a year.
May be those earning more than $150,000 have robots from the future - and thus they don't need this angel fantasy.
The guardian angel encounter figures were "the big shocker" in the report, says Christopher Bader, director of the Baylor survey that covered a range of religious issues, parts of which are being released Thursday in a book titled What Americans Really Believe. In the case of angels, however, the question is a little stronger than just belief. Says Bader, "If you ask whether people believe in guardian angels, a lot of people will say, 'sure.' But this is different. It's experiential. It means that lots of Americans are having these lived supernatural experiences."
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Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at New York's Barnard College, says that the Baylor angel figures are one in a periodic series of indications that "Americans live in an enchanted world," and engage in a kind of casual mysticism independent of established religious ritual, doctrine or theology. "There is," he says, a "much broader uncharted range of religious experience among the populace than we expect." Just possibly, Baylor has begun to chart it.
"Americans live in an enchanted world" - I like this - is this a polite way of saying slightly crazy? Unfortunately, these American will soon be casting votes in a very non-enchanted world. May be a guardian angel will take charge of the American foreign policy.

If you really want, you can read the full article here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What did Darwin say about religion and God?

The Times has an interesting collection of Darwin's quotations on religion. I don't think there is any real surprise here. He was a thoughtful and polite Agnostic (close to the atheist spectrum) who respected views of others. I think it is cute(?) and modest when he says, "My theology is a simple muddle". How well will he do in the culture wars of today? What will be his reaction to the clear deception of ID-folks or to the idiocy of creationists like Ken Ham? What would he think of the strategy of the New Atheists? (actually, this answer is in his quotation #7 below). Or for that matter, what would the New Atheists think of him?

Here are the quotes (hat tip richarddawkins.net)

1. “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” (Autobiography)

2. “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.” (Letter to John Fordyce, May 7 1879)

3. “I hardly see how religion & science can be kept as distinct as [Edward Pusey] desires… But I most wholly agree… that there is no reason why the disciples of either school should attack each other with bitterness.” (Letter to J. Brodie Innes, November 27 1878)

4. “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” (Letter to John Fordyce, May 7 1879)

5. “I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” (Letter to John Fordyce, May 7 1879)

6. “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God.” (Letter to Frederick McDermott, November 24 1880)

7. [In conversation with the atheist Edward Aveling, 1881] “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind?” (Edward Aveling, The religious views of Charles Darwin, 1883)

8. “Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Letter to Graham William, July 3 1881)

9. "My theology is a simple muddle: I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent Design." (Letter to Joseph Hooker, July 12 1870)

10. “I can never make up my mind how far an inward conviction that there must be some Creator or First Cause is really trustworthy evidence.” (Letter to Francis Abbot, September 6 1871)

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stem cell research in Iran

There is a piece in yesterday's Washington Post that talks about the Iranian work. Iran is, in fact, not the only Muslim country with ongoing stem cell research. It is also taking place at least in Malaysia, Egypt, and Turkey. The article, however, has an unfortunate title, Islamic science makes a comeback. From the piece itself, it is clear that the author is not referring to some pseudoscience, but rather regular science being conducted in Iran - indeed a Muslim country. But please don't call it Islamic Science (from this logic we will have to go with Catholic Science in Chile, Hindu Science in India, Shintoist and Buddhist Science in Japan, and Scientology Science in California). From the article:

On a recent visit to Iran with a BBC film crew while making a television documentary series, I was allowed unrestricted access to a thoroughly modern research laboratory. The Royan Institute in Tehran is a place that is carrying out, by any sensible measure, world-class work in genetics, infertility treatment, stem cell research and animal cloning, all in an atmosphere of openness that was quite dramatically at odds with my expectations.

What struck me most was the way the state authorities overseeing the research - for it is certainly closely watched - seem to have dealt with the ethical minefields of parts of the work, in stark contrast to the vociferous opposition to it from some quarters in the West.

All well and good. But here comes trouble:

While at the Royan, I spoke with one of the imams who sits on their ethics committee. He explained that every research project proposed must be justified to and vetted by his committee to ensure that it does not conflict with Islamic teaching. Thus, while issues such as abortion are still restricted in Iran (it is allowed only when the mother's life is in danger), research on human embryos is encouraged.

I was certainly taken aback when he quite rightly pointed out that the only thing produced in embryonic stem cell research is a clump of cells, which is far from what could be defined as a human fetus.
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According to Islamic teaching, I discovered, the fetus becomes a full human being only when it is "ensouled". This takes place anywhere between 40 and 120 days after conception, depending on various interpretations of the Qur'an. So the research at Royan is not seen as playing God, since it takes place long before the soul has entered the body of the unborn fetus.

But this kind of religious interference is precisely the problem. Sure, here this Imam and his committee has declared that this does not conflict with Islamic teaching. But what about other areas which they may find more controversial? Lets take, for example, work on early hominid species and human evolution. What if this research is interpreted by this committee to be in opposition to the story of Adam and Eve in the Qur'an. Will it be permitted? Will they allow research that clearly assumes that there is no such thing as a soul? Indeed the US lawmakers are being idiotic when they oppose stem cells research (and wait till we get Imam Palin in the White House). But science cannot really flourish when it is constantly at the mercy of some imam's decision to declare which projects conflict with Islamic teachings and which don't. So, yes, its great that Iran has this fantastic stem cell research program - it is certainly doing better than most Muslim countries, with the exception of perhaps Malaysia and Turkey - but lets not kid ourselves about the flourishing of science there. May be Iran is providing more freedom to researchers than we think it is. In that case, we will start seeing more Iranian names in basic sciences. Until then, its ok to skeptical of big claims.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Onion on Existentialism from Football

And now the Jaguars are 0-2.

Unneccessary ouster by Royal Society

A follow-up from yesterday's post: Michael Reiss, Royal Society's Education Director, has now resigned because of his comments regarding creationism (the headline in this news-story gives a wrong impression):
Last week Prof Reiss - a Church of England minister - said creationism should be discussed in science lessons if pupils raised the issue. He was criticised by other scientists - though misquoted as saying creationism should be "taught" in science classes. The society said some of his comments had been "open to misinterpretation".
It was quite clear that he was not talking about teaching creationism in classrooms. In any case, here is the statement from Royal Society on this matter:

Some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society's Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.

The Royal Society's position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.

The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss's efforts in furthering the Society's work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.
And before this resignation took place, Richard Dawkins had sent a letter to New Scientist about this row and had considered this affair close to a witch-hunt (tip Pharyngula):

Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take.

Scientists divide into two camps over this issue: the accommodationists, who 'respect' creationists while disagreeing with them; and the rest of us, who see no reason to respect ignorance or stupidity.

The accommodationists include such godless luminaries as Eugenie Scott, whose National Center for Science Education is doing splendid work in fighting the creationist wingnuts in America. She and her fellow accommodationists bend over backwards to woo the relatively sensible minority among Christians, who accept evolution.
...

The official line of the US National Academy, the American equivalent of the Royal Society, is shamelessly accommodationist. They repeatedly plug the mantra that there is 'no conflict' between evolution and religion. Michael Reiss could argue that he is simply following the standard accommodationist line, and therefore doesn't deserve the censure now being heaped upon him.

Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prize-winning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.

Nevertheless – it's regrettable but true – the fact that he is a priest undermines him as an effective spokesman for accommodationism: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he!"

My sympathies generally lie with accommodationists, however, I like the way Dawkins ends his letter:

Accommodationism is playing politics, while teetering on the brink of scientific dishonesty. I'd rather not play that kind of politics at all but, if the Royal Society is going to go down that devious road, they should at least be shrewd about it. Perhaps, rather than resign his job with the Royal Society, Professor Reiss might consider resigning his Orders?

Read the complete letter here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Anglican Church for Darwin

The Church of England launched a new website today in connection with various Darwin celebrations next year. What a refreshing change from the usual creationist nonsense. This is from the front page of their site:

What is extraordinary is that Darwin was surrounded by the influence of the Church his entire life. Having attended one of the best Church of England boarding schools in the country in Shrewsbury, he trained to be a clergyman in Cambridge; was inspired to follow his calling into science by another clergyman who lived and breathed botany; and married into a staunch Anglican family (see the section Darwin and the Church).

Despite this exposure to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Darwin showed his human side by slowly losing his personal Christian faith, the erosion made complete by a need for evidence and no doubt the sad death of a beloved daughter (see Darwin and faith which collects Darwin’s thoughts on faith in his own words, initially penned for his family members, and reproduced with the kind permission of William H Darwin).

And from an article from The Times about this website:

The Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, one of the inspirations for the website, said: “We felt there would be public interest, particularly because of the rise of creationism in the US.

“Christian attitudes don't have to be either a complete swallowing of Darwin and everything that has been done in his name, on the one hand, and, on the other, the complete rejection of scientific method with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

“A culture that doesn't have a great deal of historic understanding of the Christian faith can easily characterise all Christians as being like the most noisy ones.”

A church spokesman added: “Creationism should not be taught as a scientifically based theory but could be included in discussion of the development of scientific ideas down the ages or in RE.”

Ok..so the last comment has generated some controversy (hat tip Secular Outpost and also see Edis's commentary on that). But over all lets give them some credit for acting in a sane manner regarding science.

See the new Anglican Church website here and read the Times article here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Lunacy around Islamic Lunar Calendar

Every year there is uncertainty among Muslims around the world about the beginning and the ending of the fasting month of Ramadan. A new Muslim month starts with the first sighting of a crescent Moon. The problem is that most Islamic scholars insist on actually seeing the Moon rather than use calculations. As a result there are official Moon sighting committees in Muslim countries and more informal groups in the US, the UK, and in several European countries. In an age when we can calculate positions of the Sun and the Moon for thousands of years and have actually landed humans on the Moon, it is amusing to see a group of unsure people gazing up at the sky looking for the Moon determine a calendar. Sure some defend this practice using doctrinal arguments, but ultimately it says a lot about the Muslim attitude towards science and nature.

I remember the Moon sighting committee in Pakistan. The committee was paid by the government to search for the crescent Moon each month. Ignored for 11 months, they would come into spotlight for the start of each Ramadan. They would set up telescopes on top of a tall building in downtown Karachi and search for the Moon. They searched even on days when it was astronomically impossible to see the Moon. I guess they could not rule out the Moon simply speeding up to show up a day earlier than what its usual path would predict.

Some Muslim groups, to their credit, have started to incorporate calculations for their lunar calendars. For example, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has issued a calendar for the next ten years (also see here and here for calendar efforts). However, they have also come under intense attack for this decision and most Muslim groups in the US have decided not to follow them. As a result, Ramadan this year started on two different days in the US - September 1st for ISNA and September 2nd for the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) - that follows the rule of actual Moon sighting. Local mosques and Islamic centers in the US usually follow one of these two groups.

And if you think this problem is going to be resolved soon – think again. Perhaps the best example of lunacy comes from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) - an organization of 57 Muslim countries. They want to spend $10 million to build and launch a satellite to keep track of those pesky phases of the Moon. You might think (or wish) that this was from the Onion or that I was simply making this up. But alas - there really are plans for such a satellite. Why can’t they simply Google for the phases of the Moon for free and invest those millions in the much needed basic science research.

An acceptance of a calculation-based calendar by the Muslim world will be an important step for them. It will show a willingness to reinterpret and adapt doctrines for modern times and perhaps more importantly, it will show a trust in our understanding of nature as revealed by science. I hope the resolution happens before the establishment of a permanent colony on the Moon – it will be mighty hard to look for these phases from the lunar surface.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Loosing faith...

Last week's This American Life was on The Devil in Me. The last story in the show deals with faith and rationality. It is very entertaining. Here is the description:

Act Three. The Devil Wears Birkenstocks.

Some people battle inner demons, but contributor Dave Dickerson went one step further. Dave tells the story of the time he took on an actual demon in his college classroom.

The radio podcast is here, and Act three starts about 45 minutes into the show (its about 10 minutes long). Also don't miss the song at the end, Jesus and the Devil by David Karsten Daniel.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Islamic financing: Some savings on faith

Last week's The Economist has an article on Islamic Financing. But a full disclosure first: I find issues of finance and economics excruciatingly boring. I have a hard time staying awake while reading articles like these. However, what caught my attention here was the way in which banks and other financial institutions in the Islamic world are trying to apply Sharia to the finance system. But it is very clear, that when it comes to the bottom-line, people are very charitable in their interpretations. But first an introduction to Islamic Financing (from a companion article in the same issue of the Economist):
The modern history of Islamic finance is often dated to the 1970s, with the launch of Islamic banks in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But its roots stretch back 14 centuries. Islamic finance rests on the application of Islamic law, or sharia, whose primary sources are the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Sharia emphasises justice and partnership. In the world of finance that translates into a ban on speculation (or gharar) and on the charging of interest (riba). The idea of a lender levying a straight interest charge, regardless of how the underlying assets fare in an uncertain world, offends against these principles—though some Muslims dispute this, arguing that the literature in sharia covering business practices is small and that terms such as “usury” and “speculation” are open to interpretation.

Companies that operate in immoral industries, such as gambling or pornography, are also out of bounds, as are companies that have too much borrowing (typically defined as having debt totalling more than 33% of the firm’s stockmarket value). Such criteria mean that sharia-compliant investors steer clear of highly leveraged conventional banks, a wise choice in recent months.

Despite these prohibitions, Islamic financiers are confident that they can create their own versions of the important bits of conventional finance. The judgment of what is and is not allowed under sharia is made by boards of scholars, many of whom act as a kind of spiritual rating agency, working closely with lawyers and bankers to create instruments and structure transactions that meet the needs of the market without offending the requirements of their faith.

Since they have to contort the system so much, it almost seems like this is meant to lessen the guilt of the rich by claiming that this is all in the name of religion. In any case, Islamic financing is indeed growing:

As the buzz around the industry grows, so do expectations. The amount of Islamic assets under management stands at around $700 billion, according to the Islamic Financial Services Board, an industry body. Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, thinks that the industry could control $4 trillion of assets. Others go further, pointing out that Muslims account for 20% of the world’s population, but Islamic finance for less than 1% of its financial instruments—that gap, they say, represents a big opportunity. With tongue partly in cheek, some say that Islamic finance should by rights displace conventional finance altogether. Western finance cannot service capital that wants to find a sharia-compliant home; but Islamic finance can satisfy everyone.

And now for some reality check:

Confidence is one thing, hyperbole another. The industry remains minute on many measures: its total assets roughly match those of Lloyds TSB, Britain’s fifth-largest bank (though some firms that meet sharia-compliant criteria may attract Islamic investors without realising it). The assets managed by Islamic rules are growing at 10-15% annually—not to be sniffed at, but underwhelming for an industry that attracts so much attention. Most of all, the industry’s expansion is tempered by its need to address the tensions between its two purposes: to serve God and to make as much money as it can.

That is a stiff test. A few devout Muslims, many of them in Saudi Arabia, will pay what Paul Homsy of Crescent Asset Management calls a “piety premium” to satisfy sharia. But research into the investment preferences of Muslims shows that most of them want products that benefit their savings, as well as their souls—rather as ethical investors in the West want funds that do no harm, but are also at least as profitable as other investments.

Ha! I love the term "Piety Premium" - I think this should be levied universally and not just for financial matters (oops...did I say this loud?). In any case, read the full article here and a more readable introduction to Islamic Financing here)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Just in case...

It's now 11:30pm Eastern time. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is going to start in a few hours. I'm going to sleep now. But if some crackpots are right then this is my last post and the world is soon going to be destroyed by a black hole created by the LHC. I can only quote Douglas Adams at this point: So long and thanks for all the fish.

You can spend your last hours reading about why we are fascinated by the talk of last hours or about all the other ways we can kill ourselves (also see this). Or better yet, you can follow live blogging of the start of the LHC at Cosmic Variance and also read Sean Carroll's take on some of these crackpot ideas and what will the LHC find (also see this excellent Scientific American article on the LHC).

Good night and may be Earth wasn't such a bad place to live.

UPDATE: Still alive and the weather is much much better today. Hmm...so it appears that the LHC (and its mini black holes) has had a positive impact on the weather in New England!

Susan Blackmore on evidence versus understanding

Susan Blackmore on the issue of teaching evolution:

But many religious believers are simply not interested in evidence. I have now got used to debating with Muslims and Christians, but at my first meeting of the University of the West of England Islamic Society I simply couldn't believe that wonderful, detailed, scientific evidence was of no interest to them whatever. If something is in the Koran, they said, then no evidence changes anything.

What about understanding theories though? In my experience it is understanding, not evidence, that opens minds. If someone really understands how natural selection works then … gulp, jaw drop, stare, think … suddenly the world looks different. All previous ideas are thrown up in the air.

On science teaching:

I don't mean that science teachers should belittle religious beliefs, or scoff at them, or even tell students they are wrong. They need not even mention religion or creationism. What they must do is explain so clearly how natural selection works that those students, like one or two in Dawkins' series, begin to feel the terrifying impact of what Darwin saw. This realisation will change them. It will challenge what mummy and daddy told them, it will cry out against what they heard in chapel or synagogue or mosque. It will help immeasurably in their ponderings on human nature, the origins of life and the meaning of existence. This is growing up. This is learning. This is the process that skilful science teachers need to initiate, encourage, and help sensitively to guide.

They should never shy away from challenging their students' religious beliefs and opening their minds, because understanding the world through science inevitably does just that.

I agree with her emphasis on understanding over evidence and also on not being afraid of challenging student's beliefs. But this is where the balancing act comes in. If science teaching comes off as an explicit mission (crusade?) against religion, as is often the case with Dawkins, then it will backfire and many will regard science as the enemy. Teachers need to convey the excitement and wonder of science independent of any stance on religion. Bring up evidence, methodology, and understanding when challenged by students on religious grounds - but avoid a pre-emptive attack that will alienate students from science. Of course, we will still have religious nuts. But lets isolate them against the more reasonable believers.

Read the full article here.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Suicide bombings and the Taliban in Pakistan


The Magazine section of NYT has a long piece on the Taliban movement in Pakistan. The article, as expected, paints a scary picture of the frontier parts of Pakistan. To his credit, the author interviewed Taliban leaders in places where not many journalists venture. Full disclosure here: even in peaceful times, I thought Peshawar was scary and I never visited there. However, more relevant for this site, the article brought up the issue of suicide bombings (Pakistan had 60 in 2007 alone). Sam Harris has often argued that religion provides the primary motivation. However, usually there are other more relevant reasons (also see this post on motivations for female suicide bombers). Here is a segment from the article about an 18-year old suicide bomber and his brother:
Mudasar and Abu Omar were both part of the tide of young Pakistani men that has been surging across the Afghan border to fight the Americans. Abu Omar described his brother as intensely religious, without hobbies — unlike Abu Omar himself, whose passion was playing fullback on the soccer field. “Mudasar would lie awake at night crying for the martyred people in Afghanistan,” Abu Omar said.

What finally drove Mudasar to want to kill Americans was a single spectacular event. In January 2006, the Americans maneuvered a Predator drone across the border into Pakistan and fired a missile at a building they thought contained Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s deputy leader. The missile reportedly missed Zawahiri by a couple of hours, but it killed his son-in-law and several other senior Al Qaeda members. A number of civilians died as well, including women and children. Television footage from the scene, showing corpses lying amid the rubble, sparked protests across Pakistan.

“My brother saw that and resolved to become a martyr,” Abu Omar told me.

We have to realize how locals view these attacks and the steep price of collateral damage. The recruitment of suicide bombers is driven by these stories and pictures more than any thing else. Read the full (depressing) article here.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Onion on Darwin stain

No need to say more. From the Onion, Evolutionists Flock to Darwin-Shaped Wall Stain:

DAYTON, TN—A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.

"I brought my baby to touch the wall, so that the power of Darwin can purify her genetic makeup of undesirable inherited traits," said Darlene Freiberg, one among a growing crowd assembled here to see the mysterious stain, which appeared last Monday on one side of the Rhea County Courthouse. The building was also the location of the famed "Scopes Monkey Trial" and is widely considered one of Darwinism's holiest sites. "Forgive me, O Charles, for ever doubting your Divine Evolution. After seeing this miracle of limestone pigmentation with my own eyes, my faith in empirical reasoning will never again be tested."

Added Freiberg, "Behold the power and glory of the scientific method!"

And of course, my favorite part:

A smaller minority contend it is the face of Carl Sagan, and should be viewed as a warning to those nonbelievers who have not yet seen his hit PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Its true. Read the full article here. In case you missed the Muslim version of these claims, here is a story of meat in Nigeria (no this is not from the Onion), which appears to spell out "Allah" in Arabic. Oh - the miracle!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Some more Kosher gadgets

Some time back I had a posting on Shabbos toothbrushes. Well, here an article (hat tip Laura Sizer) about a whole lot of other products, including lamps, ovens, refrigerators, etc. And of course, metal detectors and products that don't disrupt military operations:

Zomet created the metal detectors used to screen worshippers at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in a manner that uses electricity in a way not prohibited on the Sabbath. It also developed pens that use ink that disappears after a few days, based on a rabbinic interpretation that only forbids permanent writing, and Sabbath phones, which are dialed in an indirect manner with special buttons and a microprocessor.

According to Mr. Marans, the Israeli army bought 1,000 of these phones in 2007, so that Orthodox soldiers can take part in military operations on the Sabbath and holidays. Hospitals and medical personnel also use these technologies. “Obviously they are needed to protect the country, but we want to limit the desecration of Shabbat as much as possible,” Mr. Marans said.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

End of the world by an asteroid impact

Here is a scientific eschatology. This is a cool simulation of what would happen to Earth if a 500 km asteroid collided with it. Of course, only Pink Floyd can provide the appropriate commentary on that. Here is the video (hat tip Open Culture) and some comments below that:



The simulation is fantastic. However, there are couple of things that need clarification. First, we are not in danger of running into a 500km asteroid. Such impacts happened early in the history of the solar system. In fact our Moon was formed when a Mars sized object collided with the Earth soon after the formation of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago. Today, there is no such danger. Such large bodies either have already crashed into other bodies or are in a stable orbit around the Sun. The danger now comes from asteroids and comets that have diameters between 1 and 10 km. Of course, one of these was responsible for the demise of dinos, 65 million years ago.

Second, I'm not sure about their claim of Earth having been hit 6 times by 500km asteroids. As far as I know, there is no direct evidence for that. To the right is a plot that looks at the size and frequency of asteroid impacts (horizontal axis is size, and vertical axis is frequency). As expected, small impacts are more frequent than the large ones. The dino-killing impact (10km object) is identified as Chicxulub on the plot and it happens roughly once every 100 million years (see the bottom right part of the plot). My guess is that the makers of the video used this relation to estimate that collision with 500km objects must have happened roughly once every billion years. But, I think, it ignores the fact that such potential impactors have not been around since the early days of the solar system. By the way you can create your own asteroid scenario here and read about the consequences. I plugged in a 500 km object and it correctly stated that "Such impacts could only occur during the accumulation of the Earth, between 4.5 and 4 billion years ago". I gave my position 1000 km from the impact site and guess what? I was ejected into space: "Your position was inside the transient crater and ejected upon impact". Now this is so cool!! Some Pink Floyd please as I float into space.

So the take home lesson is: This is a very cool simulation of something that happened way in the past but is unlikely to happen in the future.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Why was Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake?

After Galileo, Giordano Bruno's name features quite prominently in the science vs religion narrative. And just like the Galileo Affair, his story is also more complicated than commonly believed. Now a new biography of Bruno is out that addresses some of these questions. Here are two reviews of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic from Salon (hat tip Laura Sizer) and the New Yorker:

The bronze figure of Giordano Bruno that stands at the center of Rome's Campo de' Fiori may be the most successful commemorative monument in the world. The average statue in a park or square usually rates no more than a glance: Either you already know who the guy is, or you don't care. But the hooded and manacled effigy of Bruno, with its haunted stare, immediately catches the eye, and the gruesome story attached to it -- Bruno was burned at the stake in that very spot, for the crime of heresy -- cements him in memory. Practically every tourist who comes to Rome tromps through the Campo and hears that story, even if they've never heard of Bruno before. The students who commissioned the statue in the 1880s, as an emblem for freedom of thought and the division of church from state, really got their money's worth.

But who was Giordano Bruno, and why was he executed in the Campo de' Fiori in 1600? A common misperception mixes him up with Galileo, who ran into trouble with the church 16 years later for embracing the Copernican model of the solar system instead of endorsing the Aristotelian belief that the sun revolves around the Earth. (In fact, the two men shared an Inquisitor, the implacable Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, canonized by the Catholic Church in 1930.) Bruno, too, thought that the Earth circled the sun, and subscribed to many other than heterodox ideas as well: that the universe is infinite and that everything in it is made up of tiny particles (i.e., atoms), and that it is immeasurably old. But as Ingrid Rowland demonstrates in her new biography of the renegade thinker, "Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic," Bruno was no martyr for science. What got him killed was a murky mixture of spiritual transgression and personal foibles, combined with a large dose of bad luck.

Well, part of the problem was that he thought most of the Church officials were idiots (or "asses" in his own words) and he had low tolerance for stupidity. However, more interestingly, he was fascinated with large numbers and he believed in an infinite cosmos with multitudes of solar systems. Very cool! Some of these ideas, of course, also led to problems with the orthodox Catholic beliefs. From the New Yorker review:
If there were countless worlds besides ours, this sidelined the Christian story. Creation, expulsion, salvation: such things might have happened, but somewhere off in a corner, while other things were happening on other planets. Also eliminated was God’s difference from humanity. If, as Bruno saw it, God was present in every atom of the universe, then transubstantiation became a silly idea. (God was already in the wine.) Ditto incarnation. Bruno later said that he started having doubts about Jesus at the age of eighteen; in his mature philosophy, the Messiah has no place. Nor does original sin, or pretty much any sin. God “makes his sun rise over good and bad,” Bruno wrote. Even devils were going to be pardoned. To lead a virtuous life, you had only to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As the reader may have noticed by now, much of this constitutes liberal Christian thought in our time. (What Bruno discarded was the Church’s literalism—exactly what many of today’s believers have done.) Likewise, Bruno’s cosmology anticipated modern physics and astronomy. But it did not accord with the views of the sixteenth-century Church. It sounded like Protestantism, or worse.
Ultimately, there was a combination of factors, including his personality, that did him in (from Salon):
It was what Rowland calls Bruno's "combative personality" that finally did him in. The Roman Inquisition, in an especially insecure and punitive mood on account of widespread Protestant agitation against the church, had only the Venetian nobleman's testimony against the philosopher. Then one of Bruno's former cellmates, a man he'd slapped during a dispute and who feared that Bruno had informed on him as well, stepped forward to relate the various blasphemies and heretical convictions Bruno had spouted during their time together behind bars.
...

The last straw was Bruno's refusal to accept the authority of the Inquisition itself. Even so, his rebellion was peculiarly Catholic: He kept insisting he'd recant if the pope personally confirmed to him that his beliefs were heresy. This infuriated Cardinal Bellarmine, known for his conviction that harsh punishments make good teachers. Sixteen years later, Galileo managed to elude the more extreme penalties meted out by Bellarmine and company with a public (and essentially politic) repudiation of his heliocentric views; he lived to fight another day under a relatively comfortable house arrest. Bruno was characteristically less prudent, and died naked and gagged (by some accounts with an iron spike through his tongue), in flames.

As Rowland points out, Bruno, irascible as he was, had committed no crime, not even the disruption of mass, a common practice by militant Protestants of the day (and also punishable by death). He "had done nothing in his life except talk, write and argue." When his fate was pronounced, he told his condemners, "You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it." It took a long time for that to prove true, yet thanks to those idealistic 19th-century students, everyone who comes to Rome to behold the splendor of the Vatican is also presented with a reminder of its bloody, repressive past. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, free-thinking Romans cover his statue with flowers. While the church has since expressed "profound regret" for his persecution (which it simultaneously tries to palm off on "civil authority"), this can't be comfortably reconciled with the canonization of Bellarmine a mere seven decades ago. Dead 400 years and largely unread but immortalized nevertheless in bronze, Giordano Bruno is still a thorn in their side.

Read the reviews from Salon and the New Yorker. Both of these reviews are excellent. The New Yorker review is longer and provides more details about his philosophical ideas and his work in the arts of memory (this also played a role in his downfall).