Friday, April 30, 2010

Tilism-e Hoshruba: "Magic that will blow your senses away"

I was hooked onto reading via Hamzanama - as written in Urdu for young adults. It has 10 parts and, to place it broadly, is the Lord of Rings for South Asia - though it preceded Tolkien. Its not just me. It is quite common to hear people describe Hamzanama as their starting point for their love of books. Two years ago I posted about a new and excellently reviewed English translation of the adult version called The Adventures of Amir Hamza (see Hamzanama: Homer meets Tolkien in Medieval Islamic World).

Now there is a translation out for the sequel (well - a kind of a sequel) to Hamzanama, titled, Tilism-e-Hoshruba. It is far longer, far-more magical, and with far more action than Hamzanama. How long is it? Well, the first volume is about 400 pages - and there are plans to publish 24 volumes over the next eight years!! This is an interesting project and I have posted below a recent review. However, I must confess, that while I adored Hamzanama (the young-adults version), I did not like the young-adult version of Tilism-e-Hoshruba. It felt like a forced sequel - centered on the most popular side-kick of Hamzanama, Amar Ayyar. Well, I did not know about it then, but it seems that this exactly was the intent - and it has an interesting story behind it (details below). Here is an excellent review by Bilal Tanweer on 3quarksdaily:

Can you think of a book you’ve read that begins with a warning? This is probably a first, for its exuberance if nothing else:

[This tale] has consumed whole generations of readers before you. And like all great tales, it is still hungry—ravenous, in fact—for more. You may not return from this campaign. Or come back so hardened you may never look at stories in quite the same way again.

It might seem an exaggeration, but here are the facts: this yarn was spun by two generations of storytellers and it is spread over eight thousand pages in its original Urdu language. At the height of its popularity in North India, it attracted legions of followers all the way from the aristocratic class down to the ordinary folk of the bazaar. In other words: this is a bloody carnival of a book, and everyone is invited.

Reading it, you immediately think of Borges’ remark on The Thousand and One Nights: “one feels like getting lost in [it], one knows entering that book one can forget one’s own poor human fate; one can enter a world, a world made of archetypal figures but also of individuals.”

That sums it up, really. Except, during the course of this narrative, our poor fate is in the hands of five tricksters, who are the heroes of the tale: they are spies, assassins, chameleons, and commandoes all rolled into one and their tricks usually involve elaborate plots to overcome the astounding magic of enemy sorcerers.

And here is how this looong story came into being:

During the mid-nineteenth century in Lucknow, India, where oral storytelling was still a viable career – lucrative, even promising, in some cases, popular stardom and privileged access to the royal courts – two storytellers decided to use an immensely popular oral epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, to their own advantage. The two storytellers claimed that they had discovered a ‘lost episode’ of Amir Hamza and appended to it their own ornate edifice: Tilism-e Hoshruba (the usual spiel: grandpa’s trunk, old manuscripts, amazing secrets, etc). But here’s what made them special: they were men with monstrous ambitions and they set out to create the mother of all tales. A clue lies in how they named their epic: Tilism-e Hoshruba i.e., magic that will blow your senses away.

Their scheme worked well, and their magical fantasy epic was a smashing success. Tilism-e Hoshruba rose to glory with its cataclysmic wars, ornate descriptions of feasts, coquetries of lovers and beloveds, a dazzling array of fearsome sorcerers battling the sly tricksters, their miraculous devices and ingenious plots. The next two generations of readers were entranced by this tale and the Hoshruba storytellers ran a thriving business in the oral storytelling districts of India. The tale was later published in print to immense acclaim: eight editions from Lucknow alone, to say nothing of other North Indian cities.

But during the last century, oral storytelling lost its charm as a popular medium of adult entertainment, and the last professional storyteller in India died in 1928, having already abandoned his family profession, taking to selling paan (betel leaf) instead. But Tilism-e Hoshruba survived through a reincarnation in children’s literature: it is still in print in Pakistan in a ten-volume abridged version which is popular with adults as well. Hoshruba’s tricksters and sorcerers are commonly found in pop-lit spinoffs which were a flourishing cottage industry in the nineties, up until the advent of Cartoon Network.

Now Tilism-e Hoshruba has finally reappeared, thanks to the labors of Musharraf Ali Farooqi, the premier translator of Urdu into English. His last venture brought us a first-rate translation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza – hailed variously as a “gift to world literature” (Time), “a wonder and a revelation – a classic of epic literature” (New York Times), “a true marvel of literary and intellectual engineering” (Washington Post). Now he has come out with Hoshruba—The Land & the Tilism, the first volume of a translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba with the next two lined up for this year.

And I like the concluding remarks in the review for the larger context:

But here’s the real problem: after a while, even the action becomes repetitive and seems little more than a reenactment of the same action with different names. What do you do then? Muddle through, like you do with Tolstoy or Mann. The book is four hundred pages and the periods of exertion are necessarily brief.

The Tilism-e Hoshruba project is valuable because it introduces to the Western audience something unique, new and strange; something that shakes up the established expectations from fiction and meanings of the ‘literary.’ It would not be entirely wrong to claim that this work fits uncomfortably in the form of a book. It is better imagined as something like a talisman whose function is not to teach, but to charm.

Like all great fiction, Tilism-e Hoshruba promises its readers a perpetual dream. It gives us a glimpse of something we find entirely missing from our contemporary condition of disenchantment from the world, i.e., a world enchanted with itself, perpetuating its meaning through an unmitigated belief in imaginative storytelling to bewilder, dazzle, and entertain us. And if fiction is supposed to take us where we haven’t been before, then this “magical fantasy epic” is undoubtedly among the highest imaginative expressions of fiction. But yes, slack is the stuff it’s made of.

This translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, is beating his kettledrum for this enormous, marvelous, ravenous tale. We must heed his call. And here’s friendly advice: don’t skip the introduction. You will be better prepared to undertake the journey. God speed.

Read the full review here.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TED talk by Shermer on apparitions and Led Zeppelin

Here is a short (about 13min) TED talk by Michael Shermer from couple of years ago. It is a quick, fun talk and 3quarksdaily recently reminded me of that. Probably much of it would be familiar to you - but the segment with Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven is pretty neat. Also check out the ending with Katie Melua's song Nine Million Bicycles. I didn't know the song - but it is very cool that she modified her lyrics (you should check this out yourself). Here is the talk:

University professor killed in Quetta

It saddens me to report another incidence of violence against a university professor in Pakistan. Just last week I had posted about the brutal beating of an environmental science professor at Punjab University by members of Jamiat (the student wing of Jamat-e-Islami). Now we have an instance of targeted killing of a communications professor, Nazima Talib, at the gate of University of Baluchistan in Quetta. It seems that she was targeted because of her ethnicity.

I know that there are also many fantastic things taking place at educational institutes in Pakistan. But it is hard to notice them when even the lives of faculty members are not safe. Universities are supposed to provide safe space for free inquiry and are meant to be sites for the development of intellectual ideas. What can we expect when professors are being beaten or killed. Here is the report from today's Dawn:

QUETTA: Gunmen on Tuesday shot dead a woman university professor in southwest Pakistan, where targeted killings blamed on tribal insurgents, sectarian groups and militants are increasing, police said.

Nazima Talib, 48, had just stepped into a rickshaw at the gate of Balochistan University in Quetta city when gunmen riding a motorbike sprayed her with bullets, senior police officer Tariq Manzoor said.

“She received multiple bullet wounds and died before she could be taken to hospital,” Manzoor told AFP.

“It was a targeted killing,” he said. Talib came from Pakistan's central province of Punjab that regional insurgents in Balochistan accuse of siphoning off their resources and denying them independence, police said.

She was a senior teacher in the mass communications department.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Afghan schoolgirls targeted again?

Dozens of schoolgirls in Kunduz, Afghanistan, have fallen ill. The cause of the illness is unclear - but local authorities suspect foul play. This is not so far-fetched as the Taliban have in the past attacked schoolgirls in Afghanistan - including throwing acid on the faces of fifteen girls, and have bombed hundreds of schools in Pakistan. The resilience of Afghan girls is amazing! But going to school should not be such an ordeal. Here is the news report from the BBC:

Scores of schoolgirls in the Afghan province of Kunduz have fallen ill over the past week, in what authorities allege is mass poisoning by insurgents.

On Sunday, 13 girls were taken ill. This follows two separate incidents earlier in the week when about 70 girls complained of dizziness and nausea. An inquiry has already begun, health officials told the BBC.

The Taliban - which oppposes female education - denies carrying out an attack, the Reuters news agency says. The girls said they noticed a strange smell in class before the onset of their symptoms, but health officials said the gas remains unidentified. None of the symptoms experienced by the girls are reported to to be serious.

Read the full story here. Also check out these earlier posts:

Poisoning of schoolgirls and a map of conflict

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

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Havasupai tribe and the ethics of DNA research

When will we ever learn? Because of the US history, scientists here have to be extra careful when dealing with culturally sensitive issues involving native tribes. Trust should be the center-piece in all cases. It seems that this very trust was breached in the DNA research involving the Havasupai Indians who live in the Grand Canyon:

At issue in the Havasupai case was whether an Arizona State geneticist had obtained permission from tribal members to use their DNA for anything other than finding clues to Type 2 diabetes. More than 200 of the 650-member tribe signed a consent form stating that their blood could be used to “study the causes of behavioral/medical disorders,” but many said they had believed they were donating it only for the study of diabetes, which tribal members suffer from at extraordinarily high rates. When they learned years later that the DNA samples had been used to investigate things they found objectionable, they felt betrayed.

There are couple of issues embedded here: First, can scientists use blood for research purposes other than the reasons stated at the time of collection? This is a bit complicated as sometimes research can end up taking a different direction. But then the donors, perhaps, should be informed of the new direction and asked for a new permission. And this was the basis of the settlement reached between Arizona State University and Havasupai Indians. But this can also become quite cumbersome - and problematic, especially when anonymity of specific donors is also being protected.

Some have proposed an international tribunal akin to the Helsinki human rights agreement, which would lay out the ethical obligations to research participants. Others suggest staying in touch with subjects so they can be consulted on new projects — and because under current practices they tend to learn of breakthroughs based on their own DNA only if they become close readers of scientific journals.

Courts have ruled that individuals do not have a property right to their cells once they are taken in the course of medical care, but they do, under federal guidelines, have a right to know how they will be used. Complicating matters is the increasing impossibility of ensuring that DNA data can remain anonymous. Do participants need to be told that their privacy cannot be guaranteed? Can “blanket” consent up front do the trick, or is even that misleading because researchers can’t adequately describe the scope of studies they have yet to design? Is it O.K. to use DNA collected for heart research to look for genetic associations with intelligence, mental illness, racial differences?

For one thing, “we have to communicate a hell of a lot better to the public what is going on when we put their specimens in our biobanks,” said Stephen J. O’Brien, a geneticist who runs the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Institutes of Health.

But what caught my attention here was a larger issue. The DNA research showed that the ancestors of the Havasupai originated in Asia, contradicting the origin story of the tribe originating in the canyon and, thus, being assigned as its guardians. What if the Havasupai did not want to subject their DNA for migration studies? What if their origin story plays an important role in their identity and they want to protect that? Well, I guess this should be their right. This got me thinking about young earth creationists or Muslim creationists who reject evolution. Can they argue for a similar protection from a scientific view of the origin of humans? I guess this would be okay (though suicidal for development) in their own private schools - which they can still do. This demand would also be reasonable if crucial evidence for evolution dependent on the cooperation of these creationists (say if their DNA was really unique). Phew! I'm glad there is sufficient evidence without that.

Back to the Havasupai case:

Another article, suggesting that the tribe’s ancestors had crossed the frozen Bering Sea to arrive in North America, flew in the face of the tribe’s traditional stories that it had originated in the canyon and was assigned to be its guardian.

Listening to the investigators, Ms. Tilousi felt a surge of anger, she recalled. But in Supai, the initial reaction was more of hurt. Though some Havasupai knew already that their ancestors most likely came from Asia, “when people tell us, ‘No, this is not where you are from,’ and your own blood says so — it is confusing to us,” Rex Tilousi said. “It hurts the elders who have been telling these stories to our grandchildren.”

Others questioned whether they could have unwittingly contributed to research that could threaten the tribe’s rights to its land. “Our coming from the canyon, that is the basis of our sovereign rights,” said Edmond Tilousi, the tribe’s vice chairman.

Oh boy - the last issue adds a whole other layer of political complications. Combine it all together and we return to the basic issue of trust. My fellow scientists - lets be careful and open about how we present our research.

Read the full article here and another one here. Also see this earlier post on Science, tissue-ethics, and faith-healers.

Sibat's life may be spared...

This is an update on the sad, tragic, insane case of Lebanese TV host, Ali Hussain Sibat, and his death sentence on "sorcery charges" in Saudi Arabia (the mode of execution is beheading). There are indications that his life may now be spared - thanks to intense international pressure. As a scientist, I'm usually annoyed by psychics, astrologers, etc. But a death sentence for practicing pseudoscience?? This is crazy. He has already spent two years in jail and the last few weeks under the constant threat of beheading. It is time for Saudi authorities to let him go. But as a popular TV host and a Lebanese citizen, Sibat may have been the lucky to attract international attention to his plight. How many others have been, and will be, executed in Saudi Arabia for frivolous charges, such as sorcery?

Also check out earlier posts on the topic:

Also here are some bits from an article in today's NYT that further highlights the plight and agony of him and his family:

For more than two years, Ali Hussain Sibat of Lebanon has been held in a prison in Saudi Arabia, convicted of sorcery and sentenced to death. His head is to be chopped off by an executioner wielding a long, curved sword.

His crime: manipulating spirits, predicting the future, concocting potions and conjuring spells on a call-in television show called “The Hidden” on a Lebanese channel, Scheherazade. It was, in effect, a Middle Eastern psychic hot line.


Several times in recent months, Mr. Sibat’s lawyer, his wife and his four children were told he would, any day, be escorted to a public square for his beheading. And several times, the execution was postponed after an outcry from international human rights groups and the Lebanese government.


“It’s been two years of this mental anguish,” said his wife, Samira Rahmoun, during a telephone interview from their home in the Baalbek area of Lebanon. “Two years of torture. They are killing an innocent man, and they are slowly killing a whole family.”

There has been little public outcry in Saudi Arabia over the case, which is considered rather ordinary, according to political experts in the capital, Riyadh. But the international attention and criticism has cast a harsh light on the ultra-religious side of Saudi Arabia as the kingdom is working to improve its reputation, especially in the West.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Claims of stunning medical "discoveries" by Muslims - Today

This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

A few days ago (April 20, 2010), the
Algerian daily Echorouk (with the largest circulation in the country, and some say in the Arab world: over a million copies sold each day), published a story titled “An Algerian (female) researcher discovers a plant-based cure for cancer”. This in itself was a stunning announcement, though it would not have shocked me so much, did it not come just three days after a Lebanese media outlet published a story titled “Obstruction to the Invention of the Century: a gift from Lebanon to the whole world – discovery of a cure for cancer”. All of this reminded me that other Arabs/Muslims have also been making the greatest of medical breakthroughs, with, in particular, the announcement by Sheikh Al-Zindani (not an obscure figure by any measure) a few years ago of the discovery of a cure for AIDS Sheikh Al-Zindani, along (as a bonus) that for Hepatitis B and C

Let’s look at these claims in a bit more detail now, just to make clear that we are not talking about some obscure assertions by fringe crackpots somewhere in the wilderness of the web.

The Algerian researcher, Echorouk tells us, received a B.Sc. in Biology in 1982 (in Algeria, it is implied) and then went to the UK and the US (we are not told whether she received Master’s or Doctorate degrees) where “she trained in the largest labs and worked with the greatest European biologists”. As the story goes, she went back home where, after 20 years of work at the Pasteur Institute in Algiers (the most renowned medical center in Algeria), she was able to “decode cancer in all its forms”, and she has now “helped cure hundreds of Algerians from various cancers, including leukemia, breast cancer, and stomach cancer”… She adds that in addition to producing a cancer-preventing potion, she successfully treats patients of various infections, neurological disorders, etc.

The newspaper tells us that she has filed a patent in Switzerland and in Algeria for her plants-based cure, which has made her “the focus of strong interests and requests of many European pharmaceutical labs, not to mention offers from the most important hospitals in France and Belgium to have her participate in the treatment of cancer patients”. But she insists that she is only interested in helping the poor and the stricken, and so she will remain in Algeria and do her humanitarian medical work there.

The Lebanese case is even more startling. First, the claimant is not a medical doctor or even a biologist; he is a chemical engineer, albeit with a Ph. D. degree. He too has come up with a potion, which, he tells us, “in 2005 he registered in the USA according to the norms, then had it ‘corrected’ by American experts and published in final form in Switzerland in 2007”… We are given no reference to such “expert corrections” and “publications”; in fact, the claimant refuses to divulge his formula or have it examined by the community at large. Instead, he has called for an “in-camera” (private) debate with Lebanese cancer doctors before he makes public his discovery/invention as a gift to humanity…

But the biggest such story has got to be Sheikh Al-Zindani, the Yemeni fundamentalist leader, who is both a politician and head of a militia and a proponent of I`jaz (“miraculous scientific content of the Qur’an”), the president of the Al-Eman University, and whose two years of pharmaceutical studies many years ago have allowed him to claim some “expertise” on science issues, both conceptual and practical.

A few years ago he stunned the world by announcing that his team of researchers at Al-Eman University had discovered the cure for AIDS... by correctly interpreting a hadith (a statement by Prophet Muhammad)! In fact he runs a “Prophetic Medicine Center” at his university - “prophetic medicine” referring to the belief by many Muslims that some of statements made by the Prophet (over 1400 years ago) contain much important and still useful medical information; Al-Zindani’s center is thus dedicated to doing medical research by analyzing… statements!

Like the other two “discoverers”, Al-Zindani has refused to divulge his cure formula, stating only that it is from “floral extracts”. (Most Muslims, including many highly educated people, strongly believe that plants and flowers are much better bases of medicines than chemical compounds…)

I remember watching – totally dazed –Al-Zindani being interviewed at length on Al-Jazeera, hearing him claim that his team had “completely cured” at least 13 AIDS patients and that he would not even submit his formula for examination for fear of having it stolen through some back-door legal procedures by the big pharmaceutical companies. (Here is an English-subtitled excerpt of one of the Al-Jazeera interviews he gave on the subject.) It has been a few years now, and he has yet to divulge any further information on his historic claim…

What conclusions can we draw from these stunning stories? That there are some crackpots, charlatans, or at least self-deluded people in the Arab-Muslim world? That would hardly be worth reporting on; there are impostors and fools everywhere in the world, including – perhaps particularly – on medical and serious-illness “discoveries”. No, two things shock me most in these stories: (a) the fact these are matter-of-factly reported on by the mainstream media with no attempt to critically examine the claims (not one bona fide expert was interviewed or cited on the above stories); (b) that such claims are coming from both influential leaders and (presumed) members of the scientific community… Clearly we still have much work to do in the field of science education and in promoting and ingraining critical thinking even among educated people…

Happy 20th birthday to Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is 20 today! Happy Birthday. I still remember from grad school days the thrill from seeing some of its earliest images (after the 1993 repair). I don't know how much time we spent gawking over the Hubble Deep Field or the Eagle Nebula or the Cartwheel Galaxy - all of these were taken between 1995-1996. Just imagine, each image transforming the area of astronomy it represented (see a mini-documentary about HST's contributions here). We have now indeed grown accustomed to being amazed by Hubble images. Here is one more. The image at the top of the post is a new one released for the 20th anniversary - and shows a close-up of a stellar nursery located 7500 light years away.


Here is the press release associated with the image:
This craggy fantasy mountaintop enshrouded by wispy clouds looks like a bizarre landscape from Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" or a Dr. Seuss book, depending on your imagination. The NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, which is even more dramatic than fiction, captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks.

This turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch and deployment into an orbit around Earth.

Scorching radiation and fast winds (streams of charged particles) from super-hot newborn stars in the nebula are shaping and compressing the pillar, causing new stars to form within it. Streamers of hot ionized gas can be seen flowing off the ridges of the structure, and wispy veils of gas and dust, illuminated by starlight, float around its towering peaks. The denser parts of the pillar are resisting being eroded by radiation much like a towering butte in Utah's Monument Valley withstands erosion by water and wind.

Nestled inside this dense mountain are fledgling stars. Long streamers of gas can be seen shooting in opposite directions off the pedestal at the top of the image. Another pair of jets is visible at another peak near the center of the image. These jets (known as HH 901 and HH 902, respectively) are the signpost for new star birth. The jets are launched by swirling disks around the young stars, which allow material to slowly accrete onto the stars' surfaces.

Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 observed the pillar on Feb. 1-2, 2010. The colors in this composite image correspond to the glow of oxygen (blue), hydrogen and nitrogen (green), and sulfur (red).

You want a wallpaper of this image? Download it from here.

Radiolab: Killing Babies, Saving the World

Here is another fascinating short episode (about 20 min) from Radiolab (from last year). The show is about how we think about what is right and wrong, and the difference between our emotional and the rational part of the brain. The program starts with a moral puzzle of asking if one would kill his or her baby, if this act would result in saving the lives of many (you have to listen to the podcast to get the proper scenario). The discussion here is fascinating and I like Jad's response that, of course, no father could ever think of doing that (the results actually suggest that 50% would choose to save many lives). However, this got me thinking about honor-killings - the despicable act of killing a son or a daughter (usually daughters) for the sake of saving the honor of the family. Here is a case where cultural issues perhaps short-circuit the rational part of the brain so much that one is willing to kill one's offspring simply over a disagreement (usually associated with marriage choices). While socially despicable, this may be an interesting premise to explore in testing the limits of such moral puzzles (and just to be clear, unlike the scenario presented above, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever regarding honor-killings!).

The most fascinating part of the program dealt with our increasing ability to deal with abstract thoughts - and how it is changing the way we use our brain. Josh Greene, here, is certainly hopeful that we can learn to think about long-scale problems, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation and is optimistic about about our the future of our species. Also, I totally loved the experiment where the task of remembering large numbers resulted in an overwhelming choice of eating a chocolate cake over fruit salad. Confused about how all of this related to saving the world? Well check out the full podcast.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Intolerance and violence at Punjab University

What if some students from my class decide to attack and beat me up with metal rods and hockey sticks? I was thinking about this after reading the harrowing account of the beating of an environmental science professor at Punjab University by members of Jamiat, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. Professor Baloch first locked his office and then tried to hide in the washroom, but the hooligans broke open both doors and physically assaulted him with metal rods and hockey sticks:
The professor was working in his office here on the campus of Pakistan’s largest university this month when members of an Islamic student group battered open the door, beat him with metal rods and bashed him over the head with a giant flower pot.

Iftikhar Baloch, an environmental science professor, had expelled members of the group for violent behavior. The retribution left him bloodied and nearly unconscious, and it united his fellow professors, who protested with a nearly three-week strike that ended Monday.

The attack and the anger it provoked have drawn attention to the student group, Islami Jamiat Talaba, whose morals police have for years terrorized this graceful, century-old institution by brandishing a chauvinistic form of Islam, teachers here say.

But the group has help from a surprising source — national political leaders who have given it free rein, because they sometimes make political alliances with its parent organization, Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest and most powerful religious party, they say.

What a shameful act! But, then this also mirrors many of the problems that Pakistan is facing in general:

The university’s plight encapsulates Pakistan’s predicament: an intolerant, aggressive minority terrorizes a more open-minded, peaceful majority, while an opportunistic political class dithers, benefiting from alliances with the aggressors.

The dynamic helps explain how the Taliban and other militant groups here, though small and often unpopular minorities, retain their hold over large portions of Pakistani society.

But this is the University of the Punjab, Pakistan’s premier institution of higher learning, with about 30,000 students, and a principal avenue of advancement for the swelling ranks of Pakistan’s lower and middle classes.

The battle here concerns the future direction of the country, and whether those pushing an intolerant vision of Islam will prevail against this nation’s beleaguered, outward-looking, educated class.

Please read the full article here. Also, please check out this short (5 min) video that provides some shots of Punjab University as well as interviews with a few faculty members, including Iftikhar Baloch. By the way, this is not a new thing for Jamiat. It has been terrorizing students for at least a few decades now and are an exemplar of intolerance in the name of religion. Can this lead to the banning of this fascist group? I would like to hope so - but the likelihood is small. This group is well connected and people, in general, seem to have a high tolerance for religious intolerance - and I doubt this incident will change the status quo. I don't the current situation, but Jamiat lost its power in Karachi in the 80s to an equally violent student wing of the secular, but ethnic, Mattahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). So much for universities as safe spaces for intellectual inquiry!

If you follow urdu, here is a news report that covered the original attack on Iftikhar Baloch:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

UFO studies and a TED talk on SETI

The Guardian had this headline recently: UFO studies should be 'legitimate university subject', claims American professor. Well, first of all, Hellllo!! I have been teaching Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind at Hampshire for the past couple of years (pdf syllabus here). We look at the history of UFO and alien abduction claims, look at psychology of human perception and the fickle nature of our memories, scientific search for life in the universe, and the social and cultural context of UFO-based religions. And I think all of these are still in the broad umbrella of "legitimate". But no love from the Guardian. Oh - wait. But this American Professor that the Guardian found is an anthropologist who seems to think that UFOs might be, or are, actual spaceships from other planets. Hmm...the evidence regarding that is a wee bit thin. On the contrary, evidence for the belief in UFOs is quite real, and that can be the source for a "legitimate" university subject. But to make it into the Guardian, I may have to crazify my course a bit more ;)

While we are on the subject, here is Jill Tartar's TED talk from last year. However, it was posted on CNN today alongside her article. If you are familiar with SETI, then you won't find anything specifically new in here. However, I liked her strong insistence on letting go of our species-specific ego and, what it would mean to us as humans, to look into an alien eye (of course, assuming that the evolution of our contactee aliens have also resulted in an organ for visual perception. Reasonable guess - but who knows). Much of this is in between 9 and 13 minutes of this 20min talk. Enjoy!

Hall of human origins at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Last week's Nature had an editorial (you may need subscription to access the full article) that brought up the importance of learning science in informal settings, such as museums, planetaria, documentaries, etc. I remember going to the Planetarium in Karachi when I was in my 9th grade and it was a very cool experience. But such educational opportunities are relatively rare in much of the Muslim world. In fact, the planetarium in Karachi kept on showing the same show for years to come. There was later even an effort to close it down in favor of some commercial buildings, but it was fought-off successfully by local astronomy enthusiasts and other concerned citizens. There is clearly much interest in the general public. Just look at the tremendous response that Khwarizmi Science Society got when they arranged a series of star-gazing night for the general public (see an earlier post: Pakistani astronomers shine during the International Year of Astronomy). But how fantastic would it be if Dubai was known for the world's most amazing science museum - instead of the world's tallest building (or may be it can host the science museum in The Burj Khalifa - that would be okay).

In any case, this is what Nature has to say about the research into learning science via informal settings:
Their evidence strongly suggests that most of what the general public knows about science is picked up outside school, through things such as television programmes, websites, magazine articles, visits to zoos and museums — and even through hobbies such as gardening and birdwatching. This process of 'informal science education' is patchy, ad hoc and at the mercy of individual whim, all of which makes it much more difficult to measure than formal instruction. But it is also pervasive, cumulative and often much more effective at getting people excited about science — and an individual's realization that he or she can work things out unaided promotes a profoundly motivating sense of empowerment.

This suggests that policy-makers who focus exclusively on the classroom are missing an opportunity: even modest investment in informal science education could help to make the very large investment in formal instruction considerably more effective. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place: museums and zoos, for example, have been around for generations. Likewise, government funding mechanisms — agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — have been funding science exhibits, television specials and other informal science-education projects for many years.
Well, apropos of that, here is a review of a new permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. The exhibit is about human origins and it looks fantastic! You can check out its multimedia, interactive website here:
A permanent exhibition exploring what it means to be human opened last month at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. The US$20.7-million David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins depicts how human traits evolved out of our ancestors' struggle to survive changes in climate over the past 6 million years.

The exhibit focuses on six evolutionary milestones of early humans: walking upright, experimenting with new tools and foods, changing body sizes and shapes, developing bigger brains, increasing social networks and communicating using symbols.

Visitors can compare their stride to the 3.6-million-year-old footsteps of Australopithecus afarensis. This species of hominin, which includes the fossilized partial skeleton named Lucy, walked upright and climbed trees, adapting as climate fluctuated between wet and dry, cool and warm. Walking on two legs helped A. afarensis to pick fruit and left their hands free to carry babies. In a striking comparison of body size, a child skeleton of Homo erectus named Turkana Boy stands next to the adult composite skeleton of Homo neanderthalensis, which is only marginally taller. Whereas H. erectus was adapted to hot climates, having a long, narrow body for dissipating heat, H. neanderthalensis had a shorter, wider body to conserve heat in colder European climes.

I haven't been to the exhibit, but from the review it seems that it provides an intimate look at our ancestors. In fact, it seems that the most popular segment is "also the least scientific: a photo booth that transforms your picture into a portrait of your prehistoric ancestor." I think it is a cool idea. But they also tried something interesting with smiles also:

Seven reconstructed busts — including that of a 1-metre-tall female 'hobbit', Homo floresiensis, from Indonesia and a male H. neanderthalensis — allow a more personal connection than the blank gazes offered by their skulls, 76 of which are bolted to a huge wall display, representing 15 species. To determine whether they could turn up the corners of the mouth like modern humans, “we looked at where smile muscles attach”, says Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program. “Their smiles look different from ours and are more like the grimace of a chimpanzee.”

And there is a constant reminder that our species may have survived, but there is no guarantee for the future. Just ask any neanderthal:

Above the skulls, a label reads: “Fossils of more than 6,000 individuals discovered so far. More than a dozen species identified. Only our species, Homo sapiens, remains.” The exhibition gives constant reminders that life is precarious — whether through suspenseful music, in a short video playing the chimp-like squeals of an early human attacked by a leopard or in displays of hominin bones etched by crocodile teeth or eagle talons. Although we have survived, “our species has also been fragile”, says Potts. H. sapiens almost became extinct 70,000 years ago when vast swings in climate reduced the population to a few thousand breeding adults. Potts adds: “Our intentions, the decisions we make, make a difference.”

The exhibit looks great! Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access the full article).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Earth's magma, once again, sensitive to how women dress...

The power that women hold over natural events is quite incredible. Flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes - often we find that women are to blame for them. Thus, it comes as no surprise that a senior Iranian cleric, Sedighi, has found a correlation between women's immodest dressings in Tehran and the increase in earthquake activity. I sense a Nature paper here...
"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Sedighi is Tehran's acting Friday prayer leader.
"What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?" Sedighi asked during a prayer sermon Friday. "There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes."
He is right. We don't have many other options. If this "promiscuous
women theory for the causes of earthquakes" fails, then we may have to start trying human sacrifices to appease the magma. This is true and tried classic ancient wisdom. How can that be wrong? Let us all hope that this works, because then we are really out of ideas.

On the other hand, there are some idiot seismologists that keep on talking about their fairy tales about plates and faults:

Seismologists have warned for at least two decades that it is likely the sprawling capital will be struck by a catastrophic quake in the near future.

Some experts have even suggested Iran should move its capital to a less seismically active location. Tehran straddles scores of fault lines, including one more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) long, though it has not suffered a major quake since 1830.

Yeah right! Plus, if these highfalutin seismologists are correct, wouldn't we find that most earthquakes correlate with plate boundaries? Of course not, and we should not even bother looking for these natural causes.

Read the full article here.

Update (april 20th): For a hilariously irreverent commentary on this state of affairs, check out the plans for boobquake here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mixing of religions in sub-Saharan Africa

Nidhal Guessoum and I were supposed to be in Istanbul right now for a meeting. But Iceland is really making life miserable for everyone. Really, what is the point of this particular volcanic island? Hawaii'an islands, at least have spectacular beaches - so we can tolerate its eruptions a bit more - but Iceland? C'mon. Plus, just to mess things up a bit more, they have given an unpronounceable name to the volcano: Eyjafjallajokull. Damn you Eyjafjallajokull!!

Back to the blog.

A new survey by the Pew Forum reveals sub-Saharan Africa to be very religious. The dominant religions are Christianity and Islam, but there is plenty of mixing with local religious traditions. Thus, witch doctors are in demand as much as regular religious prayers. The results from the survey are not entirely surprising - but the degree of religiosity is still quite striking:
The vast majority of people in many sub-Saharan African nations are deeply committed to the practices and major tenets of one or the other of the world's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam. Large majorities say they belong to one of these faiths, and, in sharp contrast with Europe and the United States, very few people are religiously unaffiliated. Despite the dominance of Christianity and Islam, traditional African religious beliefs and practices have not disappeared. Rather, they coexist with Islam and Christianity. Whether or not this entails some theological tension, it is a reality in people's lives: Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam yet also believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements of traditional African religions.1
Here is a figure comparing religiosity in 19 sub-Saharan African countries and comparing it with data from various countries across the world (click on the image to see a less-blurry image - I couldn't fix it):
Here is a second figure about the belief in the protective power of sacrifices to spirits or ancestors - and we see a wide support here:

I don't know why places like Rwanda, Nigeria, Zambia, etc, have such lower numbers compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, especially because they don't really stand out from religiosity numbers.

Fascinating numbers. I could not help but remember another Pew study that showed that people in the US were mixing up religions by picking and choosing various aspects of different religious traditions. In Africa, however, the mixing has happened because of strong local cultural elements encountering large expansionist religions. Will more globalization bring more religions into the mix in Africa?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Guest Post: Science, Education, and Women in the Arab World

This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

Arab science educators like me were jolted, about eighteen months ago, when the results of TIMSS 2007 were announced. TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is an international, standardized test administered to students of Grades 4 and 8. A number of countries have participated in it since its inception in 1995; it is run every 3 or 4 years.

The results for 2007 showed dismal performances by almost all the Arab states that took part in it. In the Grade 4 tests, Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia, and Yemen participated, in addition to Dubai (one of the UAE’s states). In the Grade 8 tests, in addition to these 7 countries, the following took part: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. All Arab results were below average, sometimes far below. For example, in Grade 4 Science, the six participating full Arab states were all at the very bottom, and while Dubai/UAE had the best results among Arab states, it was still significantly below the international average. In Grade 8, seven of the worst ten countries were Arab ones, with Dubai/UAE again better than its brethren states and only slightly below the international average. In Mathematics, the situation was similarly bad...

These depressing results were a harsh reminder that while Arab states have made huge efforts and progress in general literacy and enrollment at all levels, the quality of education still leaves much to be desired. It was also interesting to note that when the results were broken by gender, practically all Arab/Muslim states (particularly in the Gulf, but also in Jordan and Palestine) girls outperformed boys by leaps and bounds. For example, in Qatar, girls in Grade 8 Science outscored the boys by 70 points (where the average score was 319)…

How far we have come, and yet how far we still have to go?

Figure 1- Percentages of female enrollment at Arab universities

I here wish to highlight the one aspect that is the least noticed and appreciated, the one which breaks stereotypes and preconceptions about the contemporary Arab society: higher education of women and female enrollment in science fields.

Figure 2- Percentages of female enrollment at universities in various world countries

As can already be seen from my remark above on TIMSS results of Arab students broken by gender, girls are fast achieving much higher performance than boys in most Arab countries. Below are histograms (from recent World Bank data) showing the percentages of female general enrollment at Arab universities (Figure 1), compared with universities in other world countries (Figure 2).

Figure 3- Percentages of females enrolled in Science fields

Even more interesting is the data shown in Figure 3: percentages of females enrolled in Science fields at Arab universities, compared with other countries. It is immediately striking that girls make up as much as 80 % of science students in some Arab countries! It is also interesting to note that the “traditional” Gulf states (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) are where girls are going to universities – and to science fields – in droves! This, in my view, shows that the matter is not related to religion or even tradition, but rather affluence. The richer a country is (at least in the Arab world), the more its female population will get to universities and outnumber the boys in Science fields…

Another example is the number of graduates in Science subjects in a country like Saudi Arabia: in 1999-2000, 372 graduates were awarded M. Sc. degrees in those fields, 39% of them were women; 52 graduates were granted Ph. D. degrees, 79% of them were women!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Calling creationism a Biblical myth...

Here is a news story from Fox News making rounds: A father in Tennessee is upset that the science textbook used in his kids' schools refers to creationism as a Biblical myth. Even if someone takes offense to this characterization, I can imagine having a good conversation about the use and meaning of the word myth, or about alternative possibilities, etc. However, and as expected, the anchors here do no such thing and simply egg him on (the father here still seems to be the most reasonable person of the three). Here is the video:

Looking at this situation, here are some quick thoughts:

a) Why be offended by the word "myth"? Yes, sometimes in common language, myth gives the impression of being a lie or a misconception. But technically, myth is a broader term and can encompass social and cultural values within it. In this context, calling something a myth does not really diminish the value (we are not talking about scientific accuracy here). I like the definition of myth provided by Elizabeth Vandiver as "traditional stories a society tells itself that encode or represent the world-view, beliefs, principles, and often fears of that society".

Would this father be less offended if the word myth is replaced by "story"? I don't know.

b) I don't know what was the motivation to include the mention of Creationism in this science textbook. It is quite possible the authors wanted to diffuse the tension by mentioning the origin story in the Judeo-Christian (and also Islamic) tradition - and their use of the word "myth" backfired. May be it is better to keep any mention of creationism out of science classroom.

c) It seems that we are talking literally about the creation story here. If we were talking about "scientific creationism", the idea that the world was created in the last 10,000 years and that this claim comes from geological evidence, then perhaps "pseudoscience" would be a better suited term than either myth or a story (in reality, "nonsense" would be far more appropriate)

I'm sure that Fox News will keep us up to date about this non-story.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lots of Islamic Folk Astronomy at Tabsir

If you are interested in good scholarly articles focusing on Islam and the culture, politics, and society of the Middle East, check out

As for science & religion are concerned, here is an excellent series of articles on Islamic Folk Astronomy at Tabsir. These are written by our friend in the Department of Anthropology at Hofstra University, Daniel Martin Varisco:

When the Quran was revealed in seventh century Arabia as the basis for Islam, references were made to the sun, moon and stars as evidence of the creative power and practical foresight of God. The idea that God, or a particular god or goddess, had created the visible heavens was not unique. Creating stories about astronomical phenomena is as old as the first civilizations that appeared in the ancient Near East. Some of these survived, in highly edited variants, in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. As Muslim science evolved, a variety of religious and scientific knowledge from classical Greek texts, as well as Zoroastrian and Hindu sources, was encountered. While the influence of these classical and textual traditions on Islamic astronomy has been the focus of much previous study on the history of Islamic science, little attention has been paid to the oral folk traditions of peoples who embraced Islam. How ordinary Muslims viewed the same heavens visible to educated scientist or illiterate shepherd is the subject of this chapter. For practical reasons the focus here will be on the Middle East, especially the textual information on the pre-Islamic Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula and contemporary tribal groups in the region. More here
Our understanding of how ordinary Arabs at the beginning of Islam measured time is complicated by references in the texts that refer both to formal astronomical reckonings, which were not necessarily widely known or used, with folk knowledge. Ibn Qutayba (1956:1-3) states that the traditional Bedouin Arabs of the peninsula did not divide up the year according to the formal four-season model of the astronomers, but rather from what they knew locally about the timing of hot and cold weather, and the presence and disappearance of plants and pasture. Thus, he notes, they began their year with the autumn rain called rabı‘, followed by a sequence of recognized rain periods. Other Arabs were said to separate the year into two parts: shitâ’, which is male because of the rain in it, and sayf, which is female because of the pasture. The clear message is that telling time seasonally was adapted to local contexts and reflected a symbolism of natural fertility. A major problem in reconstructing such local seasonal systems with any degree of specificity is that the terms used may refer to different times or seasons from one system to another. Added to this is the general lack of information as to which tribe or group used a particular seasonal reckoning system. More here
Astronomy was relevant to Muslims in large part because of several of the ritual duties proscribed in the Quran and Islamic tradition. The three most important of these are determining the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadân, reckoning the times for the five daily prayers, and determining the proper direction of the qibla or sacred direction toward Mecca. While Muslim astronomers later worked out mathematical solutions to some of these problems, correct timing and orientation could be achieved by those untrained in astronomy and with virtually no computation skills beyond simple arithmetic (King 1985:194). More here
The most famous star in Islamic folklore is undoubtedly the Pleiades. Commentators regard the reference in surah al-Najm (#53) of the Quran as the Pleiades; in fact the Arabs often referred to the Pleiades simply as al-najm (the star par excellence), a usage parallel to that in Sumero-Akkadian (Hartner 1965:8). In a well-known tradition, Muhammad links the early summer heliacal rising of the Pleiades with the beginning of the heat, crop pests and illnesses. In another tradition, more political than weather-related, Muhammad is supposed to have told his uncle Abbas (for whom the Abbasid caliphate was later named) that kings would come from his descendants equal to twice the number of stars in the Pleiades. This would imply that Muhammad thought there were 13 stars in the asterism, since the Abbasid caliphs numbered twenty-six (Ibn Mâjid in Tibbetts 1981:84). More here
One of the indigenous calendars from the Arabian Peninsula is based on the monthly conjunction of the Pleiades with the moon. The moon conjuncts with the Pleiades about once every 27 1/3 days. This conjunction was visible monthly from autumn through spring and occurred about the same time each year; thus it coincided with the main parts of the pastoral cycle on much of the Arabian Peninsula. According to Abû Laylî (in al-Marzûqî 1914:2:199), these conjunctions began at the time of the autumn wasmı rain. This observation is still found among contemporary Sinai Bedouins (Bailey 1974:588). Ibn Qutayba (1956:87) noted that when the moon conjuncts with the Pleiades on the fifth day of the lunar month, winter goes away. The new moon coincides with the Pleiades during the month of Nîsân or April during the naw’ of simâk. This was considered to be one of the most fortunate star movements in the sky, perhaps because of its unique annual character. Shortly thereafter the Pleiades disappears from view at the start of the heat. More here.
This series of Folk Astronomy articles are excerpted from Daniel Martin Varisco, Islamic Folk Astronomy, in The History of Non-Western Astronomy: Astronomy Across Cultures, pp. 615-650. Edited by Helaine Selin. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.
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