Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blogging from Pakistan: Fielding questions after public lectures

I had a chance to give two public lectures in Karachi yesterday - and they were both a lot of fun. The first one was at Aga Khan University (AKU) - which includes a prestigious medical college, and the other as part of the Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique) at the delightful coffees shop T2F 2.0 (it is a lot more than just a coffee shop - please see this media gallery (12/24)). The lecture at both places was titled Humans in the Cosmos: How 400 years of telescopes have changed the way we look at ourselves (see abstract here). Last Friday, I also gave this talk as part of the physics colloquium at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad.

Couple of quick comments here: A few words about the different settings. Both QAU and AKU lectures were in an academic environment and the audience was drawn mostly from the respective universities. The AKU lecture was part of a new Faculty of Arts and Sciences seminar series aimed at bringing in speakers of diverse academic backgrounds, especially to the AKU medical school. Thus, the settings at both universities were formal and perhaps not much different from a university or a college in the US. T2F, on the other hand, has a very different atmosphere. Unlike a lecture hall, here I was surrounded by people. Plus, one can expect literally any type of question and nothing if off-limits (this was my second Science ka Adda -the last one in 2008 was on Science, religion, and the search for our origins). If you are familiar with tennis tournaments, then you can see the university lectures as a Wimbledon or the French Open (formal and prestigious), and the T2F lectures as the night matches at the US Open in New York (formality is gone, the atmosphere is electric, and any thing can happen).

For my talk I picked three kinds of telescopic discoveries that have influenced the way we think of humanity's place in the universe: a) Imperfections in heavenly bodies, such as the Sun (sunspots) and the Moon, as revealed by Galileo's observations and the resultant demystification of the sky, b) The discovery of Uranus and the subsequent mathematical prediction and discovery of Neptune, solidifying the power of natural science and providing support for a clockwork universe, c) The measurement of distance to Andromeda and the realization that "spiral nebulae" are individual galaxies, and consequently revealing a universe of an enormous scale.

Of course, a number of questions after the talk(s) focused on astronomy and concepts regarding large distances and how can we understand the early universe. Dark matter, dark energy, fate of the universe, prospects for life elsewhere, were the reliable favorites. Some went into subtle details, such as the radius of the observable universe compared to the size of the universe, the shape of the universe, causes for sunspots cycle, etc.

But of course, this is a topic that touches on religion as well. My last year's talk on Origins dealt with religion more directly. But there was an interesting mix of questions this time. Some dealt with the larger science & religion issues: What about the role of God (or some Divine force) in this type (more a clockwork) of universe, what about the fine-tuning argument? etc. Now these are fair and important questions and I am happy to engage on these topics even if I happen to disagree with the person asking the question. However, I also received some odd questions this time: The issue of world coming to an end in 2012 was raised at each of the three venues. Now this is an example of a loony pop-culture import from the US. However, there were also chuckles from the audience each time the 2012 question was asked. May be there is still hope for critical thinking. Perhaps it is good to engage with the topic to dispel at least some of the crazy rumors.

Here is a sampling of some other science & religion questions: One person was of the opinion that there is no point in wasting money and looking for life elsewhere, since the Qur'an doesn't mention any alien beings in the text. Another doubted biological evolution. This topic was brought into the question by talking about the possibility of life on other planets. One person accused me of skipping over Muslims when talking about telescopes. Now this is odd since I especially brought in Al-Haytham (Alhazen) and mentioned that telescopes would not have been possible without his work on optics. Not enough. This person was insistent that Muslims had actually not only invented the telescope centuries before the accepted date of 1608 but that they had also come up with a heliocentric universe much before Copernicus. These views are mistaken but these misconceptions, perhaps, have an interesting reason. Sure enough there were medieval astronomical observatories run by Muslims. In fact, one of the famous ones is the Maragheh Observatory built in the 13th century. However, there were no telescopes in there. Rather, these medieval observatories were built to house instruments that can measure positions (angles) of stars to a high degree of precision. Similarly, there is growing evidence to suggest that medieval Muslim astronomers resolved may of the problems with the Ptolemaic geocentric system and Copernicus borrowed some of these corrections (especially a mathematical solution of al-Tusi). However, at present, there is no evidence that Muslims removed the Earth from the center before Copernicus.

But here are two of the strangest question/comments I received at the lectures: A young (10-11 years old) girl came after the talk and asked me about the fate of "giants" (humans - not animals like dinosaurs) that she claimed are mentioned in the Qur'an. This was a tricky one to respond to. After all she is interested in astronomy and is bold enough to ask a question. Plus, it involves a sensitive topic. I did not challenge her on whether is in the Qur'an or not - because that is not the point - but I did say that there is no evidence of the existence of giant humans. Furthermore, if anything, humans were a bit shorter than today (plus I briefly mentioned other hominid species). Her reaction: she simply dismissed my answer and said that yes, they did indeed exist. Here is a case where I find hard to communicate further. She already knows the answer (her version of the answer) and she is not really asking the question to know any thing new.

But she is young and if she keeps her interest, hopefully she will find out more about human history, etc. However, I also encountered a grown-up who told me that Mars is not really red. Instead, that NASA has been hiding its blue skies from us. Okay....before I bias your general opinion, I should remind you that there were many other fantastic and thought-provoking questions from audience members. But then you get this. How to respond? At first I didn't really understand the question. So I told him that there is nothing special that the sky is blue here on Earth - its simply the way light scatters off our atmosphere (I may have even uttered Rayleigh scattering in there somewhere) - and Martian sky is red because of the color of its dust. But then I realized the tone of his question and asked him - why would NASA change the color of Martian sky in the first place? To hide the presence of an alien civilization, he replied. Ah - but of course. Why didn't I think about it? He claimed that he has a document that shows that NASA is hiding this information along with the fact that Mars has a thick methane atmosphere. Okay - so now again we get to the issue of how to respond to this? There are some interesting elements to talk about. For example, a few years ago some methane was detected in the atmosphere. Initially it wasn't clear if this Martian methane detection was real, but now the detection has been confirmed. But we are still talking about a very small fraction in the atmosphere and there is still much debate about the source of methane: biological (may be from microbial life forms) or from geological processes. So yes, this could have been an interesting conversation. But, no. He was more interested in conspiracy theories and alien civilizations. So I politely turned to another person with a question. But wait: This aliens on Mars person is a CEO of a private "research center"! (it may simply be a home-based operation). In fact, he also offers help on education resources. With educators like this, who needs enemies?

I should be clear that these last few examples were anomalies and over all I had a phenomenal time at all these lectures. For every crank question, there were many that were inspiring and thought-provoking.

P.S. Congratulations Sabeen and others for getting the new location of T2F 2.0 in a fantastic shape in such a short time!


Dr. Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Asking question is the first step towards looking for an answer. Asking a silly question is better than asking none. I am skeptical about the guy who says there is no mention of any extraterrestrial life in Quran. He is only making a false referral to Quran to 'strengthen' his view point. To me, even the first verse of Quran points towards something 'out there' as it introduces God as a lord of the worldS.
About the 10 years old girl, well, I used to ask even sillier questions when I was of her age. Now I am an amateur astronomer (though quite a junky one).

farzal said...


Great lecture, and an equally nice wrap-up in this post.

I am very glad I came and learned almost a semester's worth of Astronomy in 1 hour.

Salman Hameed said...

Thank you Farzal.

Akbar: Absolutely, I'm not worried about the 10-year old's question and here opinions are going to change as she will grow up. My concern is not the question (there are no silly questions) but rather her attitude - which was not about inquiry at all but was looking for an affirmation of her own answer (this I found a bit surprising for a kid of her age). But I don't want to dwell on it too much - it was just a quick observation from the talk.

Atif Khan said...

Nice summary and wrap up. I missed the event due to official business. Would appreciate if I get some of the slides you presented there.

ali said...

Thanks for stopping by t2f!
I was one of many, i presume, casual listeners at the event. But was blown away by your thoroughly eye opening and inspiring talk!

I have since been scrounging the net for information...and your blogs a great place to get it!!:)

Unknown said...

A very interesting lecture Salman made even more lively that way you deliver. Congrats.
and by the way, i was the one who asked you about life beyond earth and its mention in Quran. However my motive was not how you or some people may perceived.
i did not and cannot dare to make any sort of claim. It was just a point which popped up in my mind which i still think was a valid one so i asked.
Sorry if it caused any inconvenience to you or other audience.
However trust this wont stop me for asking any such type of "skeptical, silly or insane" questions from you :).
I am proud that we have such talented gems like you in our society and i wish you all the best.
Asif Shaikh

Ramla Akhtar said...

Dear Salman:

I attended but the last bits of your densely-packed lecture at the T2F. Later on, I observed precisely how you 'field the questions' which were interesting to say the least.

Questions are significant, for the answers that we find in our life are shaped by both our questions, and our attitude with which we find answers to our questions.

I want to thank you for this lecture and the follow-up. There is a need for a greater and rigorous critical inquiry, particularly at the grassroots level.


Salman Hameed said...

Atif, Ali, Asif, and Ramla,

Thank you for your kind words and as you can tell, I immensely enjoy the terrific audience and atmosphere at T2F and hope to visit it again some time in 2010.


No, there was absolutely no inconvenience from your question. And as I have mentioned above, there are no silly questions. My point of bringing up Mars conspiracy question (not from you) was not to highlight the question, but the attitude associated with the question - i.e. he already knew the answer and was not really interested in hearing any other point of views. But questions are always welcome and that usually is the best part of the talk = both for the audience and for the person giving the talk. I think Ramla is making a similar comment above and I agree with her.

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Hmm... it seems like a very interesting lecture/debate. Well done Salman Sb. We need more lectures like these.

zakir said...

“The telescope has made us humble, but it has also made us wonderful,”
says Dr Salman Hameed, Assistant Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities, Schools of Natural Science and Cognitive Sciences, Hampshire College, USA...

AKU - News and Events: Humans in the Cosmos

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