Friday, January 30, 2009

Forget Taliban - here is some public science in Pakistan

I had couple of postings about Swat and Taliban's affection for schools. Well - we need to see the other side too. Khwarzimic Science Society kicked off its activities for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) yesterday in Lahore. Their speaker was Pervez Hoodbhoy talking about The Usefulness of Extra Dimensions of Spacetime - and they had a fantastic turnout for the lecture. Also, see Umair Asim's website about his telescope (a nice Celestron C14) and his astrophotography through Lahore's light pollution.

About eight hundred miles away, as part of The Year of Science, The Second Floor (T2F) was holding a Science ka Adda talk in Karachi on the Large Hadron Collidor. Mason Inman was the speaker and his talk was titled the Big Bang Machine.

And here is Zakir Thaver on News Weakly (a desi version of the Daily Show) talking about building a Science Multimedia Library in Pakistan and the power of science documentaries (hey - after watching the segment, I'm in no position to disagree :) ):

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Art from evolution

Some deadlines are facing me. So I will leave you here with some Colbert - an interview with Denis Dutton on the origins of our artistic instincts:


If there are some things that are bothering you after the interview, you can check out this review of Dutton's book by Jonah Lehrer. I think the end of the review sums it up nicely:

His second explanation, which leans heavily on the work of Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, involves sexual selection. Like Miller, he sees the arts as a tool of seduction, an intellectual version of the peacock's tail. Consider poetry, which for Dutton is little more than a way of showing off to potential mates. (He cites Cyrano de Bergerac as an example of poetic courtship, although he fails to note that Cyrano doesn't get the girl. His eloquent genes are never passed on.) According to Dutton, this process of mate selection -- chicks dig big vocabularies -- is responsible for the propagation of genes that lead to "the most creative and flamboyant aspects of the human personality," including artistic expression.

On the one hand, this explanation of art is just common sense. It doesn't take an evolutionary psychologist to know that a lot of poetry is written to impress the opposite sex, or that Lord Byron and Elvis Presley seldom slept alone. However, arguing that the sex lives of poets explains the origins of poetry makes about as much sense as using the bedroom exploits of Wilt Chamberlain to construct a biological explanation of basketball. Yes, poets have sex, perhaps even more sex than normal. That still doesn't explain Shakespeare.

Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science. It really is time that art critics learn about the visual cortex, musicologists study the inner ear and evolutionary psychologists unpack Jane Austen. Unfortunately, like so many other aesthetic theories, Dutton's ideas are ultimately undone by what they can't explain. This is the irony of evolutionary aesthetics: Although it sets out to solve the mystery of art, to explain why people write poems and smear paint on canvases, it ends up affirming the mystery. The most exquisite stuff is what we can't explain. That's why we call it art.

Read the full review here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Another school blown up by militants in Swat

It is depressing to see areas of Pakistan literally moving back to the Middle Ages in a short period of time. Another school was blown up by militants in Swat yesterday (also see an earlier post on schools in Swat). Its not just about the school or the hundreds of schools that have been burnt or destroyed - but about the mindset that is leading to pure savagery against other humans (hey - I don't even want to know how they treat animals). All Things Pakistan has a post on Pakistan at war, that lists some of these activities in the last couple of days. Here are some snippets related to schools and women (even in Quetta - a major city in Pakistan):
January 25, 2009. Daily Times. “An increasing number of restaurants in Quetta have stopped serving women apparently after being pressured by religious elements, and the practice is being seen as a spill-over of the Swat problem to the rest of Pakistan. Certain popular restaurants have now begun to display boards saying, ‘For gentlemen only. Women not allowed.’ Located on the city’s most crowded Jinnah Road, Baig Snack Bar has been one of the most popular eating places in Quetta.

January 23, 2009. The News. “Militants gunned down Amjad Islam, teacher of a private school who himself waged a Jihad against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, for not hiking up his shalwar (trouser) above his ankles. However, the issue did not end here but the militants went to the slain teacher’s house and gunned down his father, Ghani Akbar, a lawyer by profession. The militants later hung Amjad’s body from a pole in the Matta College Square.”

January 22, 2009. The News. “Continuing their attacks on schools, the militants destroyed two more schools in Khwazakhela and Matta areas. A government boys school was blown up in Sherpalam area of Matta, while a primary school was torched in Mangaltan village of Khwazakhela. Some unknown assailants attacked a police armoured personnel carrier (APC) in Saidu Sharif, the capital city of Swat district. The attack caused injuries to an official, Chinar Gul.”
Read the full post here. Also see this op-ed in Washington Post: A war on Pakistan's schoolgirls. And for an illustration of their mindset, here is a bit from a NYT article about Swat this past Sunday:

Few officials would dispute that one of the Pakistani military’s biggest mistakes in Swat was its failure to protect Pir Samiullah, a local leader whose 500 followers fought the Taliban in the village of Mandal Dag. After the Taliban killed him in a firefight last month, the militants demanded that his followers reveal his gravesite — and then started beheading people until they got the information, one Mandal Dag villager said.

“They dug him up and hung his body in the square,” the villager said, and then they took the body to a secret location. The desecration was intended to show what would happen to anyone who defied the Taliban’s rule, but it also made painfully clear to Swat residents that the Pakistani government could not be trusted to defend those who rose up against the militants.
...

Gruesome displays like the defilement of Pir Samiullah’s remains are an effective tactic for the Taliban, who have shown cruel efficiency in following through on their threats.

Recently, Shah Doran broadcast word that the Taliban intended to kill a police officer who he said had killed three people.

“We have sent people, and tomorrow you will have good news,” he said on his nightly broadcast, according to a resident of Matta, a Taliban stronghold. The next day the decapitated body of the policeman was found in a nearby village.

Even in Mingora, a town grown hardened to violence, residents were shocked early this month to find the bullet-ridden body of one of the city’s most famous dancing girls splayed on the main square.

Known as Shabana, the woman was visited at night by a group of men who claimed to want to hire her for a party. They shot her to death and dragged her body more than a quarter-mile to the central square, leaving it as a warning for anyone who would flout Taliban decrees.
Pakistan is indeed at war - and this is what it is facing. Read this NYT article here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The value of words

Scott Atran has an interesting op-ed piece in yesterday's NYT (tip Lee Spector). He finds that solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may lie in...words. By the way, Atran has also done some fascinating work on understanding the logic and motivations of suicide bombers(pdf) and on the origins of religious beliefs. His argument regarding the Middle East is also connected with sacred values:
Across the world, people believe that devotion to sacred or core values that incorporate moral beliefs — like the welfare of family and country, or commitment to religion and honor — are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Our studies, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest that people will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.
And they work across the whole spectrum of political beliefs:

In our research, we surveyed nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis from 2004 to 2008, questioning citizens across the political spectrum including refugees, supporters of Hamas and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. We asked them to react to hypothetical but realistic compromises in which their side would be required to give away something it valued in return for a lasting peace.

All those surveyed responded to the same set of deals. First they would be given a straight-up offer in which each side would make difficult concessions in exchange for peace; next they were given a scenario in which their side was granted an additional material incentive; and last came a proposal in which the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.

For example, a typical set of trade-offs offered to a Palestinian might begin with this premise: Suppose the United Nations organized a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians under which Palestinians would be required to give up their right to return to their homes in Israel and there would be two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, we would sweeten the pot: in return, Western nations would give the Palestinian state $10 billion a year for 100 years. Then the symbolic concession: For its part, Israel would officially apologize for the displacement of civilians in the 1948 war.

Indeed, across the political spectrum, almost everyone we surveyed rejected the initial solutions we offered — ideas that are accepted as common sense among most Westerners, like simply trading land for peace or accepting shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Why the opposition to trade-offs for peace?

Many of the respondents insisted that the values involved were sacred to them. For example, nearly half the Israeli settlers we surveyed said they would not consider trading any land in the West Bank — territory they believe was granted them by God — in exchange for peace. More than half the Palestinians considered full sovereignty over Jerusalem in the same light, and more than four-fifths felt that the “right of return” was a sacred value, too.
And monetary incentives actually backfire:
As for sweetening the pot, in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.
Interesting stuff. There are obvious implications for this work on the issue of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and many other political and cultural disputes. But I was also thinking about its application (and analysis) for the issue of telescopes on sacred Mauna Kea - a project that I have been working on with Tracy Leavelle.

Read the full article here. Here is a related Policy paper (pdf) by Atran et al from Science.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Creationist mess in Texas and Evolution in texbooks in Pakistan

Mutation of creationism in the US continues. But it seems that crap with any new clothes is still crap. Efforts to change biology curriculum have seen the presentation of creationism evolve (yes, yes, I know) from "creation science" -> "scientific creationism" -> "intelligent design" -> "teach the controversy" and now to the latest "strengths and weaknesses". Texas is now at the center of this battle and Texas school board is currently conducting hearings on the topic (check out latest updates and live blogging from Josh Rosenau here).

It seems that, at least for the time being, some sanity has prevailed and the Texas Board of Education will not be inserting a "strengths and weaknesses" statement (the new creationist catchphrase) in the education standards. The vote for the amendment to add the statement was 7-7 (yikes! too close) - and thus it failed. The final decision will take place in March. Read the full story here.
Update: Creationists on the board did succeed in making some amendments - including one on the discussion of fossil record in education - and so Texas is not out of hot water yet.

Fig: Chapter on Evolution in 12th grade biology textbook in Pakistan. There is a verse from the Qur'an at the top - but rest of the chapter presents evolution as a fact of science and there are no religious references.

By the way, I find it interesting that biology textbooks in Pakistan present evolution as a fact. To be sure, they don't talk about human evolution at all - but still it is nice to see evolution in there. What's more interesting is the fact that biology textbooks have a number of verses from the Qur'an. In fact, the epigraph to the chapter on evolution is a Qur'anic verse - but the rest of the chapter goes on without any reference to religion (the above image is from a 12th grade biology textbook). I don't know how many students actually take note of the Qur'anic verse - but at least they get to learn about evolution. This is not to say that things are all rosy in Pakistan - only 14% accept evolution (see my paper on Islamic Creationism here (pdf)) - but at least on the issue of presenting evolution in textbooks, surprisingly, Pakistan is not doing that bad. Paradoxically, the lack of separation of mosque and state in Pakistan is, perhaps, keeping the controversy over textbooks at bay.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Robots of war

Here is an absolutely fascinating but totally frightening Fresh Air interview about robots of war. This will remind you of (fill in your favorite sci-fi film here). More disturbingly, it also reminded me of Ender's Game (great - but also a disturbing book). Teenage video gamers are apparently not only the best drone pilots - but they are also teaching others. Also check out the end of the interview about the consequences for democracy and legal issues. Here is the description of the interview:
Robot soldiers are no longer just the stuff of sci-fi fantasy. As technological warfare expert P.W. Singer explains in his new book, Wired For War, some military tasks previously assigned to humans are now being handled by machines.

But, says Singer, the new technological battleground — in which robots fly spy planes and search out IEDs — raises a host of ethical and legal quandaries.

Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His previous books include Corporate Warriors and Children at War.

Now here to lighten the mood a bit: Check out this very cool evolution of robots video - won't mind if all robots end up looking like that (tip from badastronomy):

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Science and Islam: Part 3 - The Power of Doubt

Below are the links to the third and final episode of the BBC series, Science and Islam (see episode 1: Language of Science and episode 2: Empire of Reason). This episode focuses on astronomy and is very well done. It traces the roots of the Copernican revolution - and does a great job of not only explaining Tusi-Couple but of linking it to the work of Copernicus. (For more details, you can also watch George Saliba as part of Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion). This episode also brings up the causes of the decline of sciences in the Muslim world - and thankfully does not pin all the blame on the Mongols. Rather it talks about the discovery of the New World in 1492 and the resultant economic boom in Europe as one of the main factors in the shift of scientific power to the West.

The discovery of the New World was indeed a major factor. But why did the Muslim world fail to create and maintain universities (yes - with very few exceptions such as Al-Azhar) from 12-15th centuries? The rejection of the printing press is brought up - but not the fact that this rejection lasted well into the 18th century. And one of the more intriguing questions for me: why didn't science truly develop in the Ottoman empire? After all, the Ottomans were directly competing with the Europeans (so surely they must have been aware of the scientific and technological developments taking place there), they had strong naval presence and access to trading routes in the Mediterranean from 15-17th centuries, the height of their empire coincided in time with European Renaissance and early scientific revolution, and this was a rich and relatively stable empire (weak at the end - but they did last until the early 20th century).

But minor quibbles aside, this episode is very well done. Here are the first 10 minutes of the third episode:


Here are the remaining parts of the this episode: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6. Also of interest, the last five minutes talk about Stem cells research in Iran (see an earlier post about this).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Kepler on God and the physical world

Historian of science, Owen Gingerich, has a nice essay in Nature (Jan 1st, 2009) on the early impact of telescope on understanding our place in the universe. One of the key departures from the past: observations of stars and planets tell you something real (physical) about the world - and are not simply for calculations:
Galileo's persuasiveness was helped along by Kepler, whose landmark volume of theoretical astronomy was also published in 1609. His aptly named Astronomia nova or 'New Astronomy' relied heavily on looking at the physical causes of planetary motion — a critical departure from the past, when astronomers used strictly geometrical modelling to explicate the heavens. Even Kepler's teacher and mentor, Michael Maestlin, urged him to forget about physics and stick to astronomy (that is, geometry). But Kepler believed in a physically real cosmos, and even ahead of Galileo advocated the Sun-centred system.

Heliocentrism as it had come down from Copernicus, however, was flawed. Copernicus used entirely different geometrical models for the latitudes of planets than for the longitudes, whereas for a physically real system, the same model should work for both coordinates. According to Copernicus, the planets moved in circles (the main ones eccentrically placed with respect to the Sun), and Earth did not move faster when closest to the Sun. It was Kepler's requirement for plausible physical explanations that drove him ultimately to postulate an ellipse as the basic form of planetary orbits, ironing out these difficulties.

And here is a fantastic quote from Kepler that is equally applicable to evolution-creation debates today. In the introduction to Astronomia nova, Kepler wrote:
"Perhaps there is someone whose faith is too weak to believe Copernicus without offending his piety. Let him stay at home and mind his own business. Let him assure himself that he is serving God no less than the astronomer to whom God has granted the privilege of seeing more clearly with the eyes of the mind".
All we have to do here is to replace Copernicus with Darwin (or evolution) and astronomer with biologist, and we are all set for the 21st century. Ok - so science has become more professionalized in the last 400 years - but the quote is still applicable for many.

If you have subscription to Nature, you can read the full article here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Taliban, education, and diary of a 7th grade school girl from Swat

Perhaps there can be no greater irony than the intrinsic linkage of education in the name of Taliban - meaning literally "students". The Taliban movement mostly grew out of madrassas in the mid-1990s on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Not content with old fashion book burnings, they are taking their hatred of education to the next level by leading acid attacks on students or by threatening to kill them. Now Pakistan's northern areas are experiencing Taliban's despicable attitude towards female education. In the Swat Valley, for example, a local Taliban leader threatened to kill girls if they go to school after January 15th. Indeed, schools are now closed for an indefinite period (winter vacation with no reopening date). Swat, by the way, is a beautiful valley and it used to be a major tourist destination before Taliban started exerting their influence in the last couple of years. Here is an overview of this depressing picture for Swat school girls:
Contempt for female education has been a basic tenet of extreme ideology of Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric who is waging an armed campaign since 2007 to impose Taliban-style rule in Swat, formerly a popular tourist destination.

The revolt has taken the lives of hundreds of people, including dozens of security personnel. Fazlullah's followers bombed or torched more than 170 schools, most of them for girls, over the last year and a half, depriving over 20,000 students of their basic right to education. But late December they put the final nail in the coffin. In his daily broadcast on a pirated FM frequency, Fazlullah's deputy Shah Dauran set a January 15 deadline to shut all the schools, saying they promoted Western values and a culture of obscenity. He warned educators of dire consequences if any girl was seen attending a school and ordered school van drivers to stop transporting girls.

The Taliban later softened their stance and allowed girls' education only up to fourth grade. With little trust in thousands of government troops, who have so far been unable to quell the Taliban rebellion despite months of a fierce campaign, Private Schools' Management Association Swat closed some 361 institutions, including 20 girls' colleges, across the district.
BBC is running a diary of a 7th grade school girl from the Swat valley (it was originally reported on BBC Urdu). Here are just a couple of snippets:

From January 15th:
The night was filled with the noise of artillery fire and I woke up three times. But since there was no school I got up later at 10 am. Afterwards, my friend came over and we discussed our homework.

Today is 15 January, the last day before the Taleban's edict comes into effect, and my friend was discussing homework as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Today, I also read the diary written for the BBC (in Urdu) and published in the newspaper. My mother liked my pen name 'Gul Makai' and said to my father 'why not change her name to Gul Makai?' I also like the name because my real name means 'grief stricken'.

My father said that some days ago someone brought the printout of this diary saying how wonderful it was. My father said that he smiled but could not even say that it was written by his daughter.

From January 5th about uniforms:
I was getting ready for school and about to wear my uniform when I remembered that our principal had told us not to wear uniforms - and come to school wearing normal clothes instead. So I decided to wear my favourite pink dress. Other girls in school were also wearing colourful dresses and the school presented a homely look.

My friend came to me and said, 'for God's sake, answer me honestly, is our school going to be attacked by the Taleban?' During the morning assembly we were told not to wear colourful clothes as the Taleban would object to it.

I came back from school and had tuition sessions after lunch. In the evening I switched on the TV and heard that curfew had been lifted from Shakardra after 15 days. I was happy to hear that because our English teacher lived in the area and she might be coming to school now.

Read other entries here. New York Times also had an editorial last Saturday about an acid attack on a 17 year old school girl in Afghanistan:

Ms. Husseini is a student at the Mirwais School for Girls outside Kandahar. Two months ago, as she was walking to school with her sister, a man on a motorcycle sprayed her with acid, burning her face and eyelids. Fourteen other students and teachers were attacked that day in an attempt to shut down the school. It failed.

As Ms. Husseini told our colleague Dexter Filkins, “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.” Ms. Husseini’s parents told her “to keep coming to school even if I am killed.”

The Taliban denied responsibility for the assaults at the Mirwais school. But one of the group’s signature and most shameful repressions during the years it ran Afghanistan was its ban on educating girls. As it has regained power and territory, it has been attacking schools and female students.
Sorry for such a downer post to start the week - but we should at least be informed about these incidents. Things are such a mess over there that I also think that solution to the Pakistan-Afghanistan problem lies in at least some negotiating with the Taliban. I just hope that Pakistan government realizes that education for girls in the area is not up for any compromise.

Friday, January 16, 2009

E.O.Wilson on science & religion and ants

Here is an interview with E.O. Wilson where he talks about his beliefs, how he sees science and religion interaction, and of course, ants. But, lets start with ants:

Q. Your first passion was ants. Over many decades, your research on ants has taken you all over the world and has led to the discovery of hundreds of other species. How has your work helped form your views about how animals and humans evolve, and what has it taught you about human nature?

E.O. Wilson: The work on ants has profoundly affected the way I think about humans. Not that ants are in any sense much like humans, or any kind of a model for them; how could they be if all the colonies are females, and if they constantly are at war with one other? But the study of ants has informed science a great deal about the origins of altruistic behavior – that's what binds the colony together – and about the impact of a dominant animal group on the environment.

Ants are the dominant insects of the world, and they've had a great impact on habitats almost all over the land surface of the world for more than 50-million years. So they're very interesting as subjects for ecological study, particularly about how abundant creatures affect the globe – which of course is something that we're doing – and therefore anything we can learn from that might shed light on the general principle.

On his personal beliefs:

Q. You were brought up Southern Baptist but now consider yourself a secular humanist. Can you explain your religious beliefs, how they evolved, and how they've influenced your work?

E.O. Wilson: It's very simple. The biological evolutionary perception of life and of human qualities is radically different from that of traditional religion, whether it's Southern Baptist or Islam or any religion that believes in a supernatural supervalance over humanity. In the case of fundamentalism, that also includes the view that humanity was specifically designed by God in his own image and that we are here sort of at his service.

The evolutionary viewpoint introduced by Darwin in 1859 was genuinely revolutionary because it contradicted that in every important respect. It showed that organic systems can build – and do build – by themselves through a process of change and natural selection.

Q. And where do you stand personally on the God question?

E.O. Wilson: I tend to believe that religious dogma is a consequence of evolution. Religious belief and the firm adherence to it – and the intense dislike of apostates, people who abandon it – has a very important biologic origin, probably through natural selection, namely the cohesion of the group and the persuasion of people to be more altruistic. So in my view, most dogmas concerning the creation are myths of creation and are not believable. They're just different from one religion to another.

When the question comes up, "If it's not true, why does practically everybody believe in God?" the answer is that it's true in a Darwinian sense. That is, it provides cohesion, it provides personal peace and rites of passage, and it promotes altruism, which are all invaluable and necessary for the survival of human societies.

This is in line with the work of David Sloan Wilson. In fact they recently wrote an article together for New Scientist on Survival of the Selfless (pdf). Back to E.O. Wilson and his beliefs:

Q. And so is it correct that you consider yourself neither atheist nor agnostic?

E.O. Wilson: That's correct. I'm not an atheist, because who am I to say there is no such thing as a supervalance? I just think that most of what we think about God is something we've invented for the benefit of humanity. I'm not agnostic, someone who believes the truth is unknowable. Who am I to say we will never know the truth? I have called myself a provisional deist. That is to say I'm willing to consider the possibility of an ultimate cause. But we haven't really come close to grasping what that might be.

Judging from his above answers, it is not too surprising that he departs from Dawkins on how to approach religion. But he goes a bit further - and wants to forge an alliance with the Evangelicals to save the planet:

Q. You've also said that the only way Earth can be saved is if science and religion join forces. Can you explain what you mean by that?

E.O. Wilson: Unlike some authors who are extremely strident – I call them the military wing – I don't think the way for scientists, for secular humanists like myself, is to approach religion with that spirit. I believe that Dawkins, and those who adhere to what I call the Dawkins school of thought, underestimate the power of religion, the power of its social function.

Even as we may disbelieve the creation myth, it's better to recognize that most of the world is religious, and in fact highly religious, and that people in these religions are by and large wonderful people. That's certainly true in the Evangelical society, which has been the focus of so much controversy. I know so many of those people. I grew up Evangelical. It just seems to me inordinately sloppy and selfish to just assault them and their beliefs frontally. Much better it is to do what I've done, which is the classic step in conflict resolution: finding common ground and putting aside for the moment fundamental disagreements. Put them aside for a while and then ask for help.

Scientists better than anyone have understood what's happening to the Earth. Religious believers in the country, 75 percent of Americans at least, are beginning to understand what's happening, and they're increasingly concerned. So this is a common ground on which we can meet. There have been meetings between scientific leaders and Evangelical leaders. I was invited for a meeting with the leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.

I've given talks on the whole subject at Sanford University at Birmingham, which is called the Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference. I've discovered that these wonderful people mean to do well, they mean to solve the problems as much as scientists and secularists. We can put aside our differences for a while because we do have a crisis situation on our hands.

I think this is important. He doesn't agree with Evangelicals - but he can still work with them for achieving a common goal. It helps that he doesn't insult them or believe that they have an inherently low I.Q. It is possible that his approach is different because he grew up as a Southern Baptist - and he can recognize the myriad of reasons why people cling to religion. But this is a great example of science & religion cooperation without sacrificing any principles of science.

Read the full interview here (there is lot more on the controversy over sociobiology and on his biodiversity project).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science and Islam: Part 2 - The Empire of Reason

Below are the links to the second episode of the BBC documentary Science and Islam. Here are the first ten minutes of the second episode:

Here are the remaining parts of the second episode: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.
(you can find the first episode, The Language of Science, here)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

History and genetic tests to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

So it seems that Palestinians are the descendants of Jews - so goes one theory. And if this is the case, then it can solve the Middle East crisis - so goes a second theory. Well - I guess both are testable ideas, but I think the first theory has a better chance of being right. Middle East crisis can be resolved - but I doubt that it will be because of this genetic relationship. So here is a wishful piece at a time of (another) crisis:
In a bustling fish restaurant in Jaffa, the ancient sea port just south of Tel Aviv, an Israeli Jewish man tries to convince the eatery's Arab owner that everything he has ever thought about his Palestinian heritage is wrong - that the conflict that has killed so many and which is claiming hundreds more right now in Gaza - has been nothing more than a tragic case of mistaken identity. Khamis Aboulafia, a well-known figure in the Israeli Arab community, listens politely as Tsvi Misinai, a retired computer expert and pioneer of Israel's IT sector, reveals the burning vision that has consumed him for years. He believes that the Palestinians with whom Israel is at war are, in fact, descendants of Jews who stayed on the land when the Roman legions sent most of their countrymen into exile 2,000 years ago.
This idea has been brought up before, but now it can actually be verified through genetic testing (though - I don't know the reliability of such tests..):
The theory was originally developed by David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. But it has gained a new lease of life since a study into a rare blood disorder shared by Jews and Palestinians revealed a closer genetic match between the communities than between Palestinians and other Arabs. “It's all a tragic mistake, a tragic misunderstanding,” said Misinai, who divides his time between tracking down Palestinians who acknowledge their Jewish heritage, and lobbying ministers, ambassadors, religious leaders and activists in both communities.
And here is how Mininai connects it with history:
According to his theory, when Jewish fighters waged a series of unsuccessful campaigns against the occupying Roman forces in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Romans exacted a heavy price: they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and exiled the vast majority of Jews.

Those who ended up in the Diaspora - mostly city dwellers - were determined to keep their Jewish identities during exile. But according to Misinai, many were allowed to stay behind to work the fertile uplands of Judea and Samaria - now known as the West Bank - to supply Rome with grain and olive oil.

Gradually, these people lost their ethnic identities, converting first to Christianity under Byzantine rule and then to Islam, as power in the land changed hands and rulers sought to homogenise the population, either through force or the offer of social privilege and tax incentives.

“We, the Jewish people, have kept our Israeli or Jewish identity by the book, by our religion, but we disengaged from the country,” said Elon Yarden, a lawyer and close associate of Misinai, who has also written on the subject. Those who stayed behind, in what became Palestine, “did not leave the country, but lost their identity”.

Hmm...ok - But can't we live and let live simply by the fact that all humans are in a sense related to one another? Yes, yes, there is the land issue - but then we have land issues every where on the planet - and Palestinian and Israeli area is no more special than Congo or Sri Lanka. But to be fair, I doubt that thinking in the Middle East will change simply because of this genetic link. In any case, read the full article here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Safety and Pakistan's nuclear program

About a year ago, I had a post on the (lack of) safety of Pakistan's nuclear program (see Pakistan's Nuclear Program or: How I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb). Now, there is a piece in yesterday's Sunday Magazine that brings up the safety again. Nothing is really new in there. I do find it interesting that nuclear weapons are usually for deterrence against an external attack. But in the case of Pakistan, everyone is worried about its internal stability because of its nuclear arsenal. But then we also have the crazies? When I was in Pakistan last month, it was scary to see "pundits" on talk shows exhibit such a cavalier attitude towards the use of nuclear weapons against India (this was soon after the Mumbai attacks). It wouldn't be so scary if I believed that this was just rhetoric. The problem is that many still consider atomic bombs just a bigger version of regular bombs and have not really considered the consequences - both for Pakistan and India (up to 12 million immediate casualties - if it gets real bad). In this context, it was scary to read about Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood - a Pakistani nuclear scientist - and his belief in the "end of days" and of finding science in the Qur'an:
Soon after Kidwai took office, he also faced the case of the eccentric nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who helped build gas centrifuges for the Pakistani nuclear program, using blueprints Khan had stolen from the Netherlands. Mahmood then moved on to the country’s next huge project: designing the reactor at Khushab that was to produce the fuel Pakistan needed to move to the next level — a plutonium bomb.

An autodidact intellectual with grand aspirations, Mahmood was fascinated by the links between science and the Koran. He wrote a peculiar treatise arguing that when morals degrade, disaster cannot be far behind. Over time, his colleagues began to wonder if Mahmood was mentally sound. They were half amused and half horrified by his fascination with the role sunspots played in triggering the French and Russian Revolutions, World War II and assorted anticolonial uprisings. “This guy was our ultimate nightmare,” an American intelligence official told me in late 2001, when The New York Times first reported on Mahmood. “He had access to the entire Pakistani program. He knew what he was doing. And he was completely out of his mind.”

While Khan appeared to be in the nuclear-proliferation business chiefly for the money, Mahmood made it clear to friends that his interest was religious: Pakistan’s bomb, he told associates, was “the property of a whole Ummah,” referring to the worldwide Muslim community. He wanted to share it with those who might speed “the end of days” and lead the way for Islam to rise as the dominant religious force in the world.

Eventually Mahmood’s religious intensity, combined with his sympathy for Islamic extremism, scared his colleagues. In 1999, just as Kidwai was beginning to examine the staff of the nuclear enterprise, Mahmood was forced to take an early retirement. At a loss for what to do, Mahmood set up a nonprofit charity, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, which was ostensibly designed to send relief to fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. In August 2001, as the Sept. 11 plotters were making their last preparations in the United States, Mahmood and one of his colleagues at the charity met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, over the course of several days in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that Mahmood talked to the two Qaeda leaders about nuclear weapons, or that Al Qaeda desperately wanted the bomb. George Tenet, the C.I.A. chief, wrote later that intelligence reports of the meeting were “frustratingly vague.” They included an account that there was talk of how to design a simple firing mechanism, and that a senior Qaeda leader displayed a canister that may have contained some nuclear material (though almost certainly not bomb-grade).
...
Musharraf tried to tamp down American alarm. He told Tenet and Mowatt-Larssen that “men in caves can’t do this.” He had Mahmood and his colleague rearrested, though they were never prosecuted. Pakistan did not want to risk a trial in which the country’s own nuclear secrets came out. Today, Mahmood, like Khan, is back home, under tight surveillance that seems intended primarily to keep him a safe distance from reporters.
First of all, whoa!!?? The role of sunspots in the French and Russian Revolutions?? Now I wasn't going to be too upset about Bashiruddin Mahmood's seeming willingness to blow up the world - but such bad astronomy. That is offensive!

Regarding the nuclear issue, Pakistanis need to see this as a threat to themselves. Actions from any such nut-job can lead to an annihilation of Pakistan itself (either through self-terrorism or via a reaction from India after first-use). Lets really hope Bashiruddin was an aberration. Read the full NYT article here.

On an aside, here is a disturbing story about militants in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Pathetic and sick individuals!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Kelvin is Lord and a bit of Colbert

There is a forecast for another snow storm here tonight. So to make life bearable, first, here is Colbert about God talking to individuals:


And then here is a perfect connection to science & religion: Here is a website Kelvin is Lord and it makes a compelling case that Lord Kelvin is the only one who can conserve us from entropy (ok ok - I admit that I'm a geek and I appreciate geek-humor - hat tip from another geek, Kate Wellspring). Loved the bit about his laws:

LORD KELVIN: Giver of Laws

The Lord Kelvin, in His infinite wisdom, has given the Universe Laws by which to govern itself THERMODYNAMICALLY:—

The Laws of Thermodynamics

Law The Zeroth:

Two systems in Thermal Equilibrium with a third are in Thermal Equilibrium with each other

The property that characterizes Thermal Equilibrium is Temperature. The Lord Kelvin tells us that there is an ABSOLUTE Temperature! Since bodies that are in contact with each other will eventually reach Thermal Equilibrium, it follows that by being in contact with the Lord Kelvin we may come to be one with Him.

Law The First:

Energy Is Conserved

The Lord Kelvin, in His infinite benevolence, has deigned that the total Energy Content of the Universe shall remain constant; never being Created nor Destroyed, but only Transformed from one form to another.

Law The Second:

Universal Entropy Increases

Over the Universe as a whole, Entropy will increase. Entropy is that Energy that no longer is Ordered. It is Death of the most Absolute kind! All is susceptible to its Chilly Grasp: plants, animals, information, even The Human Soul! Sure, all those things, even our Souls, will have time until that happens; until the Universal Entropy consumes everything in the Great Heat Death, but THEN what? What will you do?

Law The Third:

A Pure Crystal's Entropy Is Zero At Zero Kelvins

The Purest Crystal of them all is The Lord Kelvin himself! The Lord Kelvin is without Entropy. Furthermore, since Absolute Zero is unattainable via a finite series of processes, it follows that the Lord Kelvin is Infinite! This implies that His powers are also Infinite, meaning that the Lord Kelvin can transcend His own Law The Second and Conserve you from Entropy!

Here is the link to Kelvin is Lord. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Video: Lawrence Krauss - Science & Religion: Two Ships in the Night

Lawrence Krauss was our Science & Religion speaker this past October. Here is the video of his talk, Science and Religion: Two Ships in the Night (abstract is below the video):

Abstract:
At best , science and religion have very little to do with one another. At worst, they are completely incompatible. And what little connection between the two even in the best of cases involves a one-way street. Science may enrich faith, but not vice versa. Dr. Krauss will discuss modern misunderstandings of this limited connection, coming both from science as well as religion, as well as modern abuses that demean both science and faith. The origin and evolution of the universe will serve as a good (or bad) example.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Science and Islam: Part 1 - The Language of Science

Here are the links to the first episode of BBC documentary, Science & Islam. I must say that it is very well done - part history, part science, part travelogue - shot beautifully with a nice pacing. I will comment more on the content when I have seen these episodes in entirety. In the mean time, here are the first 10 minutes (hat tip to Zakir Thaver):


Here are the remaining parts of the first episode: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

Monday, January 05, 2009

BBC documentary on Science and Islam

BBC has a new 3-part documentary on Science and Islam. It is hosted by physicist Jim Al-Khalili. I haven't seen it but it looks good (hope its not over-sentimental). The first part is being aired today (next episodes will be shown on Jan 12 and Jan 19). Here is the description of the first part, The Language of Science: (I will post these here once I have a link)
Physicist Jim Al-Khalili travels through Syria, Iran, Tunisia and Spain to tell the story of the great leap in scientific knowledge that took place in the Islamic world between the 8th and 14th centuries.

Its legacy is tangible, with terms like algebra, algorithm and alkali all being Arabic in origin and at the very heart of modern science - there would be no modern mathematics or physics without algebra, no computers without algorithms and no chemistry without alkalis.

For Baghdad-born Al-Khalili this is also a personal journey and on his travels he uncovers a diverse and outward-looking culture, fascinated by learning and obsessed with science. From the great mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, who did much to establish the mathematical tradition we now know as algebra, to Ibn Sina, a pioneer of early medicine whose Canon of Medicine was still in use as recently as the 19th century, he pieces together a remarkable story of the often-overlooked achievements of the early medieval Islamic scientists.

And here is a BBC article by Jim Al-Khalili on Ibn al-Haytham:

For, without doubt, another great physicist, who is worthy of ranking up alongside Newton, is a scientist born in AD 965 in what is now Iraq who went by the name of al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham.

Most people in the West will never have even heard of him.

As a physicist myself, I am quite in awe of this man's contribution to my field, but I was fortunate enough to have recently been given the opportunity to dig a little into his life and work through my recent filming of a three-part BBC Four series on medieval Islamic scientists.

Popular accounts of the history of science typically suggest that no major scientific advances took place in between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.

But just because Western Europe languished in the Dark Ages, does not mean there was stagnation elsewhere. Indeed, the period between the 9th and 13th Centuries marked the Golden Age of Arabic science.

Great advances were made in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and philosophy. Among the many geniuses of that period Ibn al-Haytham stands taller than all the others.

Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method.

And on his work on light:

He was the first scientist to give a correct account of how we see objects.

He proved experimentally, for instance, that the so-called emission theory (which stated that light from our eyes shines upon the objects we see), which was believed by great thinkers such as Plato, Euclid and Ptolemy, was wrong and established the modern idea that we see because light enters our eyes.

What he also did that no other scientist had tried before was to use mathematics to describe and prove this process.

So he can be regarded as the very first theoretical physicist, too.

He is perhaps best known for his invention of the pinhole camera and should be credited with the discovery of the laws of refraction.

He also carried out the first experiments on the dispersion of light into its constituent colours and studied shadows, rainbows and eclipses; and by observing the way sunlight diffracted through the atmosphere, he was able to work out a rather good estimate for the height of the atmosphere, which he found to be around 100km.

Of course, he was also a colorful character. We often have this urge to runaway and hide right before an exam (ok - so may be it is only me who has this urge...) or a major talk, but Ibn al-Haytham actually faked madness in order to escape admitting failure in front of a temperamental Caliph:

While still in Basra, Ibn al-Haytham had claimed that the Nile's autumn flood waters could be held by a system of dykes and canals, thereby preserved as reservoirs until the summer's droughts.

But on arrival in Cairo, he soon realised that his scheme was utterly impractical from an engineering perspective.

Yet rather than admit his mistake to the dangerous and murderous caliph, Ibn-al Haytham instead decided to feign madness as a way to escape punishment.

This promptly led to him being placed under house arrest, thereby granting him 10 years of seclusion in which to work.

A-ha - an enforced sabbatical. Read the full article here.

Update: The first episode here. The second episode here. The third episode here.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Good Pope, Bad Pope

First the good Pope:

The Pope praised Galileo's astronomy:

Pope Benedict XVI has paid tribute to 17th-Century astronomer Galileo Galilei, whose scientific theories once drew the wrath of the Catholic Church.

The Pope was speaking at events marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo's earliest observations with a telescope.

He said an understanding of the laws of nature could stimulate appreciation of God's work.

There may also be a Galileo's statue in the works at the Vatican. Ok - so the Vatican seems to be correcting an earlier mistake (also see this image rehabing clip from BBC about the Vatican Observatory at Castle Gandolfo).

And now on to the bad Pope:

The Vatican has released a new bioethics document, Dignitas Personae, and well -- it is again looking back in time:

The broad 32-page document, from the Catholic Church's highest rule-making authority, condemns as immoral the destruction of human embryos to obtain stem cells or treat infertility, and denounces any attempts at more futuristic possibilities such as cloning people or using gene therapy to enhance the human race.

But the church also decries procedures already commonly used to help couples have children, such as the freezing of unfertilized eggs and embryos, the injection of sperm into eggs, and genetic testing of embryos to identify those with defects. In addition, the document condemns the morning-after pill and the RU-486 abortion pill.

While many of the arguments in "Dignitas Personae" -- Latin for "the dignity of a person" -- have been made before by Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, a church "instruction" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is far more authoritative and made a number of new declarations. It reflects the Vatican's desire to focus attention on ethical questions raised by a new generation of technologies that are becoming increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere.

"This is significant in the sense that the church has now laid down a marker on these important issues," said Thomas H. Murray of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank. "The church has now dug in and committed itself to an official position."

And this is an unfortunate position - and as science will progress, it will have to dig itself out again. Or the Church will become irrelevant. Read the full story here. For its impact on US politics, see this NYT op-ed piece, The Pope's real message for Obama:

Of course, many Catholic bishops and many ordinary Catholics in America believe that while Mr. Obama’s positions on abortion and stem cell research are troubling, there are also important areas of common ground.

That seems to be the balance the Vatican is trying to strike. Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram of congratulations to Mr. Obama calling his election a “historic occasion,” and the two men later spoke by telephone. A papal spokesman said the Vatican hopes to work with him on Iraq, the Holy Land, Christian minorities in the Middle East and Asia, and the fight against poverty and social inequality.

To be clear, the Vatican yields to no one in its pro-life commitments. In effect, “Dignitas Personae” is a reminder that there will be no “truce,” no strategic silence, about the defense of human life from the moment of conception. The question now is whether the Vatican will find an equally effective way to mobilize those Catholics who hope to build bridges.
Read the full op-ed here.