Monday, May 31, 2010

Antimatter, God, and Existence…

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

I’m an astro-physicist, one who’s research has for almost twenty years now been in large part focused on antiparticles in our galaxy, so when headlines – or at least news stories – bring these antiparticles to the front and put them in the same sentence with ‘God’ and ‘our existence’, I am not only interested, I find matter (no pun) for commentary. Oh, and for once, there won’t be any reference to Islam…

What’s the story? You may not have heard, but the physics community got all excited last week because Fermilab (one of the big accelerators out there) found some hints of why there are more particles than antiparticles in the universe. Indeed, that has been a serious mystery, because all matter (the particles that constitute atoms and molecules, i.e. electrons, protons, neutrons, and other less well-known fundamental particles) came from the energy that was expanded in the Big Bang, but it could only come out in particle-antiparticle pairs, which sooner or later “annihilate” when they meet their opposites in the universe. But somehow there was some “excess” matter over antimatter, just a tiny bit, 1 extra for every 30,000,000 pairs! And those “extras” ended up forming all the matter structures that exist, from atoms to galaxies, and of course you and me. And that’s why you read that “our existence” is owed to that “matter-antimatter asymmetry”, and I don’t want to use the fancy vocabulary (like “baryogenesis” or “baryon asymmetry”).

There have been proposals and particle physics models to account for that asymmetry (the most well-known among students of physics is “CP violation”, where C stands for “[electric] charge conjugation” and P for “parity”, i.e. left-right), and laboratory (accelerator) experiments have long found some particles which exhibit that kind of violation, but it has also been shown that the process would not have produced enough excess to account for, yes, “our existence”… In fact, there are many proposals for particle-antiparticle asymmetry, but none have been confirmed experimentally, and certain not at any appreciable level – until now.

And that’s where last week’s news story comes in, with physicists at Fermilab announcing that they have seen a heretofore unobserved violation effect that could produce a substantial level of excess (of particles over antiparticles). And, of course, it wasn’t enough for the paper to appear in Science (one of the most, if not the most prestigious journal out there), they had to throw in the buzz words “existence” and “God” to make sure the announcement would resonate around the blogosphere. Dennis Overbye, New York Times science reporter, titled his report “A New Clue to Explain Existence”; in it he quoted Joe Lykken, a theorist at Fermilab, saying “I would not say that this announcement is the equivalent of seeing the face of God, but it might turn out to be the toe of God.” Wow!

First, it is way premature to claim any trophies over this experiment; as all scientists know, this result needs to be ascertained (it is only tentative right now) and confirmed (by other teams and instruments). Indeed, in our fields, a “2 to 3 sigma” result is statistically bordering on the marginal, and I (with many) can recall important results that were presented with much greater statistical confidence but got retracted later or were just never confirmed by anyone else.

Secondly, I don’t know whether the exaggerated usage of such ‘God’ metaphors (the previous one was the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background that was described as “seeing the face of God”) says more about the media, the scientists, or the general public. Why does everyone feel obligated to not only hype a discovery (which, granted, can often be important) but also describe it in grand metaphors? Why can’t we just present the results in context, with some background, and perhaps a nice Sidney Harris cartoon? Why does a genetic engineering feat like Craig Venter’s replacement of a bacterium’s DNA with a synthetic one have to be announced as Scientist Craig Venter Has Created Artificial Life”? Again, I am not downplaying the achievements, just complaining about the hype…

Anyway, I wish that my positrons (anti-electrons) were really directly linked to “my existence” (then I could use that idea in seminars) or that matter-antimatter excess was a toe-print of God’s, but I don’t believe one can raise the science to such levels, and I don’t think it serves science or education to adopt such hyping and buzzing approaches.


Also see a related post, God is in the Metaphor.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

David Sloan Wilson on evolution

David Sloan Wilson was our Science & Religion Lecture Series speaker at Hampshire College couple of years ago and gave a fantastic talk on the evolutionary origins of religion and on his own ideas of group selection leading to religions. Check out the video of his talk here.

Here is a recent Nature interview where he talks about the importance of understanding evolution and also about his own work on religion:

You wrote a book called Evolution for Everyone. Why is it important to you that the public understand evolution?

Because it is useful. The way most people understand evolution, it is not consequential, and so they don't need to believe it. The 50% figure — how many people in the US don't accept evolution — doesn't impress me. Close to 100% of people don't connect it to matters of consequence in their own lives.

And that includes scientists?

The long view of the history of evolutionary theory is that, although in some sense it is obvious that it has profound implications for the way we think about ourselves, it became confined to the biological sciences for most of the 20th century. Now what is taking place at the level of research and scholarship is the rethinking of entire disciplines. But this is not yet reflected in higher education. At virtually every college and university, if you are not a biology major, you are not going to hear about evolution.

But can thinking about evolution really improve policy?

Every policy has a surface logic, but like wishes in folktales they have unforeseen consequences that we don't keep track of. And so we continue the same polices. At the Evolution Institute we take subjects that have been combed over from other perspectives, but when you take an evolutionary perspective, you see things differently and a new common sense emerges.

Take childhood education. If you look at hunter-gatherer societies, there is very little that resembles formal education. Education takes the form of play, and adults provide explicit instructions more or less when asked. And yet this spontaneous education system is not only not exploited by formal education, it is subverted.

But we in the modern West aren't raising our children to be hunter-gatherers. Why should we educate our children like them?

This question is an empirical issue. We need to do experiments. It could be that the skills we need today are so different that you need different educational methods, that you can't make it fun, that you can't make it like hunting. Or maybe there really isn't such a big difference between an American kid learning his times tables and an Australian kid learning his songlines [songs that function as maps and must be memorized each generation].

Studying evolution can tell us something about how human behaviours came to be, but can we really harness it to improve our behaviour?

You have to think about the environment. If you want to change a practice or implement something, you need to create the environment which will cause that thing to win the Darwinian contest. When you start thinking like this, evolution becomes an indispensable tool.

Take risky adolescent behaviours, for example. Instead of regarding them as pathological, which is the typical model, they are better regarded as adaptive responses to harsh environments that enhance immediate fitness, however damaging to others or even the individual over the long term.

And on Religion:

You also study religion from an evolutionary perspective. Why would religion be adaptive for humans?

The empirical evidence points to substantial group-level benefits for most enduring religions.

Benefits include defining the group, coordinating action to achieve shared goals and developing elaborate mechanisms to prevent cheating. The same evolutionary processes that cause individual organisms and social insect colonies to function as adaptive units also cause religious groups to function as adaptive units. Religious believers frequently compare their communities to a single body or a beehive. This is not just a poetic metaphor but turns out to be correct from an evolutionary perspective.

As we speak, we are establishing our first consulting relationship with a religious congregation in Binghamton to explore their religion and spirituality and to help them be more effective as an organization [by using evolutionary tools]. I think the benefits we provide will be so great that we will be sought after by other congregations.

Read the full interview here and the lecture video here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A love affair between an archaeologist and a mummy

Here is a fantastic song by Josh Ritter about a love affair between an archaeologist and a mummy. It is called The Curse, and it is simply gorgeous. This is from his new album, So Runs the World Away. Here are the lyrics to The Curse and here is the song:

I have seen Josh Ritter live couple of times and he is fantastic. I was introduced to him music via Kathleen from his first album. Do check out Kathleen.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mauna Kea Update: MK Management Board recommends TMT

Last week the Mauna Kea Management Board (MKMB) unanimously recommended the approval of plans for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea. There is a long history of controversy here and there is opposition to new construction from some Native Hawaiian groups as well as some environmental groups. But, as usual, this is a complicated issue with multiple views on each side. However, it seems that the TMT - one of the largest of the next generation of telescopes - will be located on Mauna Kea. After the MKMB recommendation, the TMT proposal will now go for approval to the UH-Hilo chancellor and then to the UH Board of Regents. And if you are not tired of reading acronyms, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR), will then decide on the permit. Phew.

If you want to catch-up on the controversy, check out the following posts:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Darwin that can kick some ass...

This is absolutely hilarious! It has everything: violence, sex, and a dodo [And yes, DarLOSE joke is definitely the winner here. Hey - it matches perfectly well with the juvenile humor I like]. Enjoy!

By the way, I did get a chance to see the real Darwin biopic, Creation. It was okay. The first half is very good and it presents both Darwin's ideas and his struggles in a nuanced and interesting way. In particular, there is a fascinating time-lapse sequence that highlights Darwin's famous Tangled Bank passage from Origin of Species. Furthermore, the movie does not back away or soften up Darwin's atheism. The second half of the film, however, is moody & dark and suffers from too much focus on his daughter's death (yes, I know the movie is based on Annie's Box) and it almost completely forgets about Darwin's intellectual development and his exchanges with other scholars of the time. Paul Bettany is fantastic as Darwin, and Jennifer Connelly is also good as Emma. However, I'm not too crazy about the actress that plays Annie.

If you are watching at home, watch the first half - it is definitely worth the rental. But a good Darwin biopic is yet to be made.

Oh - and there was nothing really controversial in the film. I'm still not sold on the idea that film had a hard time finding a distributor in the US solely because of its subject matter. As I have said before, it got the distributor in about a month after its premiere at Toronto Film Festival, and the delay may also have been due to the not-so-great quality of its story telling (for an indie film distributor).

See earlier posts on Darwin biopic here:

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Astronomy of Prayer and Fasting Times

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

A conference dealing with astronomical solutions to the prayer and fasting times for Muslims will take place in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) from May 30 to June 1, 2010. Organized by the Islamic Crescents Observation Project (ICOP) and the Emirates Astronomical Society (EAS), this conference is expected to gather about 200 registered participants from about 20 countries plus dozens more local attendees, not counting the twenty or so “Islamic personalities”, i.e. muftis and religious scholars.

This conference, the second of its kind to be organized in Abu Dhabi over the last few years, aims at addressing issues of relevance to the religious life of Muslims, issues that are directly related to Astronomy. In particular, the longstanding “Ramadan problem”, i.e. the determination of the dates for starting and ending the month of fasting (Ramadan), has yet to find a solution that can satisfy all. (I will come back some other time to explain the problem in more detail and to summarize the solutions that have been proposed to date.) This problem is related to the more general issue of the Islamic calendar.

Recently, another issue has begun to seriously worry millions of Muslims, the question of the prayer times in high-latitude regions of the globe, e.g. Canada, the UK, Scandinavia, etc. What is the problem there? In Islam, prayer times are set with respect to the Sun’s position in the sky, above the horizon (during the day) or below it (for the sunset and evening/night prayer). In particular, the moments of the first and last prayers are defined by when the first rays of the Sun are refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere, which has been generally agreed to occur when the Sun is about 18 degrees below the horizon. The problem is that the Sun does not go so low below the horizon in high-latitude places during certain periods of the year, and so the moment of first prayer, which is also the moment of the start of fasting in Ramadan, is sometimes undefined. Now, since Ramadan is a lunar month, thus it shifts through the seasons (by about 11 days each year), it is about to start occurring in the summer (in the northern hemisphere), so there will be – for Muslims living in the UK, Canada, and most of northern Europe, no clear time for the start of fasting or for the first prayer.

These are a few of the serious issues that have continued to face Muslims and which astronomers have been contending with (including several non-Muslims who have found some of these issues fascinating and worthy of study). And conferences like this upcoming one in Abu Dhabi have been gathering experts who present novel solutions; the question is usually the extent to which such solutions are both applicable without difficulty and acceptable to the religious authorities. Indeed, about a dozen Muslim scholars have agreed to attend the conference and discuss the topics with the astronomers. I have attended several such conferences in the past, and I can attest that they tend to be a complicated exercise of balance, between the necessity of scientific rigor (papers are refereed, etc.) and the requirement to abide by the “religious rules”, which sometimes are rather subjective and vary depending on the school of jurisprudence and on the group’s general Islamic outlook (e.g. salafi vs. reformers)…

I will report back to you after the conference on what promises to be a very interesting meeting of astronomers (including a few non-Muslim ones) and religious scholars…

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Geek Sunday with Star Trek

This is the end of the semester - so you have to excuse me for this.

It is not entirely my fault, but while clearing up my Google Reader, I ran into two Star Trek related posts - one at Bad Astronomy and the other at 3quarksdaily. These are not really related to the blog - but then how could I resist William Shatner singing Rocket Man. As far as the conversation between Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis is concerned, I've always had a soft spot for ST-TNG. I was at Stony Brook for undergraduate when it was being aired, and I remember going to the student union every Sunday night to watch it with a bunch of other Trekkies (hey - what did you expect? I was an astronomy and physics major). Oh - I can make it even geekier. I admit it - I saw Marina Sirtis speak at one of the big science fiction conventions (ICON) at Stony Brook in the early 1990s (ST-TNG was still running) - and yes, she was great answering questions in front of over 600-700 doting Trekkies jammed into a lecture hall.

FYI: Apart from the Borg episodes, Yesterday's Enterprise, Ship in a Bottle, and All Good Things were some of the best TNG episodes :)

So, first here is William Shatner singing(?) Rocket Man:

And here is a chat from 2008 between Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis (this is actually funny):

A bill to support scientific research in the Muslim world

In the past few months I have posted several items about science and education initiatives in the Muslim world. Some of this follows from Obama's Cairo speech and his appointment of science envoys. Even if there is no immediate impact, these efforts, I think, are going to have a net-positive impact if employed with long-term effects in mind. Yes, there is a danger of US appearing to be a patronizing power or being perceived as coming in with some sinister motives. However, there is also the real need in much of the Muslim world of scientific intellectual input and the development of an infrastructure that can sustain high-quality research in the long-run. Since there are economic benefits also tied in with this development, my guess is that a positive engagement will, in the end, win out against trepidation over the US involvement. I may sound like a broken record here, but I hope that this engagement goes beyond applied sciences and that there is a serious effort to invest in pure sciences as well (and the related issue of providing safe space for free speech and tolerance of other ideas).

A bill has now been introduced in the House of Representatives, cosponsored by a Democrat (Howard Berman, D-CA) and a Republican (Jeff Fortenberry, R-NE), that wants to provide grants for scientific research to universities, businesses, and institutes in the Muslim world (see full text of bill H.R.4801 here). From Nature Medicine:
The Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness and Diplomacy Act, co-sponsored in March by Berman and Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, would provide grants of up to five years to universities and businesses and fund infrastructure for research in a number of specific fields, including multi–drug-resistant and water-borne diseases, renewable energy and nuclear nonproliferation, among others. Research into sensitive subjects such as bioterrorism and select agents would not be funded. The bill, which does not specify a budget, also aims to create a 'global virtual science library' that would make scientific journals available at little to no cost.

Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-born chemist at the California Institute of Technology and a member on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, applauds the legislation. “This is about creating the infrastructure, exchanges and management” in science between the US and the Muslim world, says Zewail, who was one of three science envoys appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November.

Still, he concedes that some countries in the region do not have the capacity to support research, even if paid for by US taxpayers. “Some countries are at different levels,” he says. “Some will only be able to contribute human resources,” but others should produce concrete results.

Read the full story here. This bill is in its early stages and has to first go through the foreign affairs committee as well the relevant science committees of both the House and the Senate, before it can be brought up for a vote in the respective chamber of the Congress.

Looking forward to "Agora" and its story of Hypatia

It has all the trappings of a big, dumb, summer movie. However, I have some hope. The movie is about Hypatia, a woman astronomer/mathematician, living in Alexandria in late Roman Empire. She was killed in 415 AD (oh - c'mon. I didn't give away the ending. This is history :) ). So now comes Agora. Why do I have hope for the film? Hypatia is being played by Rachel Weisz - who is smart, intelligent, and is usually quite selective in her choice of films (okay - Mummy 2 was a mistake, but she was quite new at the time). In fact, she has been active in shaping the depiction of Hypatia in this film as well. In her own words, she does not want Hypatia to come off simply as "a brain on two legs". The second reason why I'm hopeful about he film is that is directed by Alejandro Amenábar, whose earlier work includes The Others and The Sea Inside - both independent and highly acclaimed films. In fact, he was thinking of making a film about the history of astronomy, when he stumbled onto the fascinating character of Hypatia.

But the film is also a commentary on religious intolerance. It seems that the film, while set in 5th century Alexandria, makes a deliberate comparison with the Taliban of the 21st century (though the Taliban would rather be living in the 10th century AD). Here is a bit from an article in today's NYT:

“The hot topic these days is Islamic fundamentalism,” Ms. Weisz said recently over tea at an East Village restaurant near her home. “But in ‘Agora,’ it’s the Christians who are the fundamentalists” whose zealotry leads them to destroy one of the libraries of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest center of learning in the ancient world.

Some of those scenes evoke the Taliban’s demolition of statues of Buddha in Afghanistan in 2001, and Ms. Weisz, British born and educated at Cambridge, said such parallels were deliberate. In another scene, Hypatia has a veil put over her head, “and it said in the script that this should be reminiscent of the burqa,” she recalled.

“The very first thing I thought when I read the script was that this is a story about today, a very contemporary, 21st-century story,” she said. She mentioned opposition to stem cell research and to the teaching of evolution as examples of “a wall between science and religion” that still stands, and then concluded her thought: “That we’re still killing people in the name of God is primitive but true.


“She was an exceptional woman, a virginal intellectual who managed to impose herself as an important figure, a reference point in the philosophical and political life of Alexandria during a crucial epoch” Mr. Amenábar said. “We are accustomed to seeing lions devouring Christians in films, but not the transformation of Christians from a persecuted group to one that is powerful and armed.”

C'mon - it better be good, and I hope they do justice to the topic. Read the full article here. Here is the trailer for Agora:

By the way, Hypatia also captured Sagan's imagination and was brought up multiple times in Cosmos. Here is a clip about the last days of the Library of Alexandria and the death of Hypatia:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Science and Democracy

Timothy Ferris is an excellent science writer. If you haven't read his books, check them out. I particularly like Coming of Age in the Milky Way. He usually places science in a larger humanistic context. His new book is The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature and as you can guess from the title, it looks the influence of science in the shaping of the US constitution. This argument, to a certain degree, was also made in the excellent book, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison (yes, the title is really this long) by I. Bernard Cohen. If you get a chance, read Cohen's book.

Back to Ferris' book. Here is a review by Michael Shermer (you may need subscription to access the article) in this week's Nature, and he starts with Richard Feynman (I personally think that every review should start with Feynman):

In a 1963 lecture, Nobel-prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman opined on the nature of politics, arguing that the US governmental system “is new, it's modern, and it is scientific”. Feynman reasoned that the way in which the system had been designed from scratch in the eighteenth century made it flexible enough to evolve as ideas were “developed and tried out and thrown away”. The writers of the Constitution, he noted, knew of the value of doubt.

Most science historians attribute the rise and success of the scientific enterprise to the Enlightenment values of reason, empiricism and anti-authoritarianism. Ferris reverses the causal vector. Most of the founding fathers were serious amateur scientists who deliberately adopted methods of data gathering, hypothesis testing and theory formation. Thomas Paine, for example, was an amateur astronomer who speculated that every star is a sun like our own, with orbiting planets. Assuming that science is universal, he believed that inhabitants of other worlds would discover the same natural and social laws as ours. “All the great laws of society are laws of nature,” Paine wrote in his 1791 treatise The Rights of Man.

These laws are discovered through experiment. Paine protested against ridiculing unsuccessful experiments because through trial and error comes progress. Moreover, political elections are scientific experiments. “I smile to myself when I contemplate the ridiculous insignificance into which literature and all the sciences would sink, were they made hereditary,” Paine growled, “and I carry the same idea into governments.”

This idea of equating the ever-changing error-correcting mechanism of science with governance and laws of society is fascinating. Of course, this is also challenging as we also have to find ways of evaluating the results of experiments - and this is certainly easier in science than in politics. But the idea of an ever-changing or an evolving political structure is certainly very powerful.
The 1776 US Declaration of Independence, Ferris says, is steeped in the language of science. Its opening reference to “the laws of nature and of nature's God” echoes René Descartes' and Isaac Newton's laws of motion and nature. The assertion that there are “self-evident” certain truths — among them that all men are created equal — was added to Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the declaration by Benjamin Franklin. Both men were schooled in the axioms of Euclid's geometry, an axiom being a statement that is self-evidently true.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Another sane article by Roger Cohen on Iran

Currently, there are very few writers in the US who understand the complexity of Iran and who can provide valuable and pragmatic solutions. Roger Cohen of the New York Times belongs to this very small group of sane writers. After there have been news that Turkey and Brazil had brokered a deal with Iran over the shipment of enriched uranium outside Iran (a deal similar to the one US proposed last year, and Iran later rejected it), the US is pressing ahead for tougher sanctions through the UN. This is unfortunate - as this could have provided an opportunity for breakthrough. But this is perhaps a good example of domestic politics in an election year affecting international relations. Last year Iran rejected the deal in its own turbulent election year, and now Obama is returning the favor.

Here is Cohen in today's NYT on the US reaction to the Turkish-Brazilian deal:
If all the mistrust needed further illustration, it has just been provided by the Brazilian-Turkish deal on Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU), the peevish U.S. reaction to it, and the apparent determination of the Great Powers, led by the Obama administration, to burrow deeper into failure.

I believed Obama was ready to think anew on Iran. It seems not. Presidents must lead on major foreign policy initiatives, not be bullied by domestic political considerations, in this case incandescent Iran ire on the Hill in an election year.

And Turkey seems to be rightly upset about it:

Well, Turkey and Brazil have now restored the core elements of the October deal: a single shipment of the 1,200 kilograms of LEU to a location (Turkey) outside Iran and a one-year gap — essential for broader negotiations to begin — between this Iranian deposit in escrow and the import of the fuel rods.

And what’s the U.S. response? To pursue “strong sanctions” (if no longer “crippling”) against Iran at the United Nations; and insist now on a prior suspension of enrichment that was not in the October deal (indeed this was a core Obama departure from Bush doctrine).

Obama could instead have said: “Pressure works! Iran blinked on the eve of new U.N. sanctions. It’s come back to our offer. We need to be prudent, given past Iranian duplicity, but this is progress. Isolation serves Iranian hard-liners.”

No wonder Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, is angry. I believe him when he says Obama and U.S. officials encouraged Turkey earlier this year to revive the deal: “What they wanted us to do was give the confidence to Iran to do the swap. We have done our duty.”

Yes, Turkey has. I know, the 1,200 kilograms now represents a smaller proportion of Iran’s LEU than in October and it’s no longer clear that the fuel rods will come from the conversion of the LEU in escrow. But that’s small potatoes when you’re trying to build a tenuous bridge between “mendacious” Iranians and “bullying” Americans in the interests of global security.

The French and Chinese reactions — cautious support — made sense. The American made none, or did only in the light of the strong Congressional push for “crushing” sanctions. Further sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear behavior; negotiations might. I can only hope the U.S. bristling was an opening gambit.

Last year, at the United Nations, Obama called for a new era of shared responsibilities. “Together we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides,” he declared. Turkey and Brazil responded — and got snubbed. Obama has just made his own enlightened words look empty.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lecture Video: Scott Atran - For Friends and Faith

Scott Atran was our Science & Religion Lecture Series speaker at Hampshire College on March 25th. His topic looked at political, religious, and social motivations for violence. In particular, he looked at motivations of suicide bombers and the conflict in the Middle East. If you want to know how terrorism cells are formed, check out his long and detailed description of the group that was responsible for the terrible 2004 Madrid train bombings (you have to be patient to get all the details). This is all the more relevant when we are all trying to understand the transformation of Faisal Shahzad, a seemingly well-settled immigrant from Pakistan, into the Time Square bomber. This is a thought-provoking talk even if you end up disagreeing with his conclusions. Here is the video of his talk For Friends and Faith: Understanding the Paths and Barriers to Political Violence (video of Q&A and abstract for his talk is below). Enjoy!

For Friends and Faith: Understanding the Paths and Barriers to Political Violence from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

And here is the Q&A video:

Q&A with Dr. Scott Atran from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Many creatures will fight to the death for their close kin, but only humans fight and sacrifice unto death for friends and imagined kin, for brotherhoods willing to shed blood for one another. The reason for brotherhoods-- unrelated people cooperating to their full measure of devotion--are as ancient as our uniquely reflective and auto-predatory species. Different cultures ratchet up these reasons into great causes in different ways. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end... especially for young men, mortal combat in a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and glory to gain maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. This century's major terrorist incidents are cases in point.

Dr. Scott Atran is a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan and presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City. Dr. Atran's books include Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and The Native Mind: Cognition and Culture in Human Knowledge of Nature (co-authored with Douglas Medin).
Please check out videos of earlier lectures at our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion website.

Also, here are few earlier posts about Scott Atran's work:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Michigan State in Dubai and NYU in Abu Dhabi

NYU-Abu Dhabi campus

I had posted earlier about KAUST (Xanadu for nerds?), liberal arts education at the American University of Cairo, and Education City in Qatar. Here is another NPR story (about 5 min long) on American university campuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In particular it talks about Michigan State in Dubai and NYU in Abu Dhabi. I guess I had not realized the small scale of these campuses, but what struck me was that the Michigan State Dubai campus has only 100 students (compared to 47,000 at its Lansing campus).

NYU, on the other hand, is trying to become a truly global university, with branch campuses in 15 other places. I don't know the size of NYU-Abu Dhabi, but I really like their plans for the undergraduate curriculum. Here is from their FAQs:

Describe the undergraduate curriculum.
The NYU Abu Dhabi curriculum, in the tradition of a liberal arts and science college, will expose students to challenging ideas, bodies of knowledge, cultural traditions, and transformative achievements. It will deepen reflection about the human condition to help students develop their abilities and realize their potential.

The core liberal arts curriculum of NYU Abu Dhabi will provide broad introductions to the major questions, research protocols, thought processes, and practices that drive the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, Social Sciences, and Engineering. Students will choose two core courses from each of four major areas:

  • Pathways of World Literature
  • Structures of Thought and Society
  • Art, Technology, and Invention
  • Ideas and Methods of Science

Additionally, students in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences will specialize in a Major that is declared no later than the fourth semester. Science and Engineering students will normally begin the Major during the first year. Students will also take at least three courses in a Multi-Disciplinary Concentration that is declared no later than the sixth semester. They will have a broad choice of electives, including up to three courses in a Pre-Professional Track. Every student will complete the undergraduate degree with an independent Capstone project or thesis.

This sounds really good. I hope this style of core-curriculum becomes standard for undergraduate education across the middle-east.

Listen to the NPR story here.

Mussolini's Brain and a review for "Vincere"

I recently had a chance to see the new Italian film, Vincere (watch the trailer here). It is a fascinating film, but for some reason, it has not gotten much publicity. While the movie does not touch upon science & religion, the theme of politics & religion is certainly prominent.

Well, if you are interested in the film (or have already seen it), you can listen to the review posted below (about 12 minutes long). Perhaps more accurately, this is a conversation about the film between Kevin Anderson and I (this beats out typing a post :) ). Kevin is a lecturer in anthropology and film studies at UMass-Amherst and knows a lot about films. You can also check out our earlier written review of the film, Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. It is quite possible that you will be inflicted upon with more podcast reviews of recent films...

Here is the review of Vincere:

Just a day after watching Vincere, I ran into a CNN/Time slide-show about Top 10 Stolen Body Parts (yes, CNN is willing to do anything to catch attention). However, Galileo's fingers are not included in the top 10!!! But the list does include this amusing bit about Mussolini's brain:
In 1966, twenty-one years after Benito Mussolini was executed, America gave
part of the former Italian dictator's brain back to his widow. In Rachele Mussolini's memoir, she writes that, to her horror, she discovered Americans had "taken away half of his brain," explaining that the Americans must have "wanted to know what makes a dictator." It turns out the U.S. government had requested a sample of Il Duce's brain ostensibly to study it, but also as a macabre trophy. Forty-three years later, Mussolini's granddaughter Alessandro tipped off police that someone was selling glass vials alleged to hold the remaining brains and blood of Mussolini on eBay for 15,000 Euros. eBay promptly removed the listing.
Please note that he did have a very big head. See the top 10 stolen body parts here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Islam and Technology - From Nanotechnology to Ringtones and Facebook

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.

“Islam” and “Technology” are two very broad fields, and for a short blog piece to be so titled is somewhere between meaningless and overly ambitious. I’ll try to be neither. The intersection of these two fields is itself very broad, and I’m here only setting the table for the many items that will be placed upon it (in the future) by me and others. Indeed, we are now all too familiar with the “Science and Religion” discourse and debates, but one seldom hears about “Technology and Religion”, except perhaps in areas of ethics (applications of Science with some input from Religion). And yet Technology pervades our lives (I mean the lives of humans very generally, not just the educated ones) so much more than Science, and some of its effects are directly relevant to religious concepts and principles.

Technology has of course existed since the dawn of humanity, starting with hand-axes and hunting spears and the invention/discovery of fire, and reaching all the way to nuclear bombs, genetic engineering, and Wi-Fi. Technology, often – though not necessarily – understood as the application of Science, has more and more often called upon human thinkers (ethicists, sociologists, lawmakers, and religious leaders) to present views and guidelines on what we should accept and allow; technology – unlike science – should not have a free reign to explore whatever it can…

And technology has now started to “disturb” the religious lives of the faithful. In a recent survey I did among a hundred students at my university, one of the statements on which I asked them to state their degree of agreement/disagreement was “Modern Technology has made it harder for people to live a religious life”; it was very interesting to see that responses were largely spread from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”, with female students largely agreeing with the statement, while male students largely disagreed with it. I know, the statement itself is very broad and fuzzy, and so perhaps each of my student respondents interpreted it differently, hence reaching a different conclusion…

I also recently took part in a seminar on Islamic Theology and Modern Issues, where the field of Science and Technology was discussed at some length. It was interesting to note that the question of technology and ethics took a large fraction of the discussions, starting from nuclear bombs to genetic engineering, particularly focusing on issues of life and death, the prerogatives of God (hence the theological interest).

But I am equally interested in how Technology changes the mindset of people, their worldviews and outlooks toward life. And in this respect, Modern Technology has definitely affected society(ies). For example, in mosques (as, I am sure, equally in churches and synagogues), the faithful are constantly disturbed by phones ringing in the middle of prayers and sermons. Someone (a westerner) once said that the worst invention of the 20th century was the telephone for it seemed to give people the right to invite themselves at will into others’ living rooms…

On a related note, a few months ago, the Egyptian High Authority for Fatwas issued a decree prohibiting the usage of Qur’anic verses and such holy material as ringtones of phones; indeed, those were deemed “inappropriate, misleading and demeaning to God's words.”

At the afore-mentioned Islamic Theology seminar, one religious scholar told me that the Egyptian Islamic authorities had recently been debating whether Second Life (the famous virtual world) should be embraced, perhaps by setting up mosques and sending in preachers. The scholar also told me that nanotechnology, with its potential ground-breaking applications, was the subject of high interest to the religious authorities. And on a lighter note, you may have heard that Al-Azhar (the oldest Islamic university and arguably the most influential Sunni institution in the world) recently denied that its fatwa committee had issued a ruling against Facebook (a number of Muslim critics had insisted that it “increased illicit relations between unmarried men and women”).

As I said above, there are so many sub-fields and issues to the interface between Technology and Religion/Islam, and these are just a few recent occurrences. I have no doubt that we will very soon be looking at this subject from many perspectives.

Taking an education lens to Pakistan-terrorism problem

Following Hoodbhoy's article on Faisal Shahzad and Pakistan's terrorism problem, here is one by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times and he points to the lack of quality education as one of the key problem. Of course, Faisal Shahzad was well-educated - but Kristoff's comment is about the society at large. I think this is definitely part of the problem but there are many more factors embedded in this problem (one example would be what some people call jihadi cool - for those seeking thrill and meaning in life).

Back to Kristoff's article. Like Hoodbhoy, he also traces major problems back to the Zia years and then draws an interesting comparison with Bangladesh (former East Pakistan):
Why does an ostensible “ally” seem to constitute more of a threat than, say, Iran? Or Lebanon or Syria or Iraq? Or Egypt, birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood brand of militant Islam? Or the West Bank and Gaza, where resentment of America’s Middle East policies is centered?

One answer, I think, is that Pakistan’s American-backed military leader of the 1970s and 1980s, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, drove the country off course, seeking to use fundamentalism as a way to buttress the regime. Instead of investing in education and infrastructure, he invested in religious sanctimony.

The public education system, in particular, is a catastrophe. I’ve dropped in on Pakistani schools where the teachers haven’t bothered to show up (because they get paid anyway), and where the classrooms have collapsed (leaving students to meet under trees). Girls have been particularly left out. In the tribal areas, female literacy is 3 percent.

There’s an instructive contrast with Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan until it split off in 1971. At that time, Bangladesh was Pakistani’s impoverished cousin and seemed pretty much hopeless. Henry Kissinger famously described Bangladesh as an “international basket case.”

But then Bangladesh began climbing a virtuous spiral by investing in education, of girls in particular. It now has more girls in high school than boys, according to Unicef. This focus on education has bolstered its economy, reduced population growth rates, nurtured civil society and dampened fundamentalism.

Educated girls formed the basis of a garment industry, making shirts for Americans. This brought in currency, boosted employment and provided an economic lifeline to the country. Those educated girls went to work for poverty-fighting organizations like BRAC and the Grameen Bank.

Can't say it any better. Then he is right on the money when critiquing military solutions:

In Pakistan’s tribal areas, you can hear American drones buzzing faintly overhead, a reminder of our focus on military solutions. Drones and hard power have their place, but not to the exclusion of schools and soft power. An important 2008 study from Rand, “How Terrorist Groups End,” concluded that “military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups.”

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is on visits to rural Pakistan to see fundamentalist Wahabi-funded madrassas as the only game in town. They offer free meals, and the best students are given further scholarships to study abroad at fundamentalist institutions so that they come back as respected “scholars.”

We don’t even compete. Medieval misogynist fundamentalists display greater faith in the power of education than Americans do.

Let’s hope this is changing under the Obama administration. It’s promising that the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package provides billions of dollars for long-term civilian programs in Pakistan, although it’s still unclear how it will be implemented. One useful signal would be for Washington to encourage Islamabad to send not only troops to North Waziristan but also teachers.

This is sensible and I just hope that the ratio of schools to drones increases substantially soon. Apart from all the ethical issues associated with drone attacks, I'm not even sure if there is a net-positive or net-negative for the US. Yes, it has crippled Al-Qaeeda in the tribal areas - but if this comes at a cost of creating many more low-level Faisal Shahzad's - then I'm not so sure about its eventual effectiveness.

But there is room for other positive measures as well. For example, Pakistan has been requesting cuts in tariffs for textiles since 2002 - but to no avail. This is crazy! US has to establish this level of trade to enhance trust and cooperation:

We continue to be oblivious to trade possibilities. Pro-American Pakistanis fighting against extremism have been pleading for years for the United States to cut tariffs on Pakistani garment exports, to nurture the textile industry and stabilize the country. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told me that his top three goals are “market access, market access, market access.” But Washington wants to protect North Carolina textile mills, so we won’t cut tariffs on Pakistani goods. The technical word for that: myopia.

Education and lower tariffs are not quick fixes, sometimes not even slow fixes. But they are tools that can help, at the margins, bring Pakistan back from the precipice. It has been reassuring to see the work of people like Greg Mortenson, whose brave school-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan was chronicled in “Three Cups of Tea.” Ditto for Developments in Literacy, or D.I.L., which builds schools for girls in Pakistan that are the most exhilarating things I’ve seen there.

It costs $1,500 to sponsor a D.I.L. classroom for a year, and that’s just about the best long-term counterterrorism investment available.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hoodbhoy on Faisal Shahzad's anti-Americanism

I will have more to say about the whole Time Square bombing thing. Of course, everyone is trying to find why Faisal Shahzad, well educated and married with two children, took the path he took. I don't think we have a really good handle on it. It seems to me that he was looking for meaning in life. This crisis may have been triggered by the loss of his job or even before that. But the solution to doing something "meaningful" may have been provided by the conspiracy-laden private TV talk shows in private channels in Pakistan. Below is a thoughtful article by Pervez Hoodbhoy. He rightly points to the dark decade of 1980s under Zia as the turning point for a whole generation of Pakistanis - and, in many ways, we are reaping those fruits (and yes - US policies have been equally to blame, especially when it comes to the support for military dictators). More interestingly, however, he also looks at the larger Pakistan-US relation and how it impacts the culture as a whole. Here is the uninterrupted article by Hoodbhoy (it was published in Dawn on May 8th):
Faisal Shazad's Anti-Americanism
by Pervez Hoodbhoy
The man who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square was a Pakistani. Why is this unsurprising? Because when you hold a burning match to a gasoline tank, the laws of chemistry demand combustion.

As anti-US lava spews from the fiery volcanoes of Pakistan’s private television channels and newspapers, a collective psychosis grips the country’s youth. Murderous intent follows with the conviction that the US is responsible for all ills, both in Pakistan and the world of Islam.

Faisal Shahzad, with designer sunglasses and an MBA degree from the University of Bridgeport, acquired that murderous intent. Living his formative years in Pakistan, he typifies the young Pakistani who grew up in the shadow of Ziaul Haq’s hate-based education curriculum. The son of a retired air vice-marshal, life was easy as was getting US citizenship subsequently. But at some point the toxic schooling and media tutoring must have kicked in.

There was guilt as he saw pictures of Gaza’s dead children and related them to US support for Israel. Internet browsing or, perhaps, the local mosque steered him towards the idea of an Islamic caliphate. This solution to the world’s problems would require, of course, the US to be destroyed. Hence Shahzad’s self-confessed trip to Waziristan.

Ideas considered extreme a decade ago are now mainstream. A private survey carried out by a European embassy based in Islamabad found that only four per cent of Pakistanis polled speak well of America; 96 per cent against.

Although Pakistan and the US are formal allies, in the public perception the US has ousted India as Pakistan’s number one enemy. Remarkably, anti-US sentiment rises in proportion to aid received. Say a good word about the US, and you are labelled as its agent. From what TV anchors had to say about it, Kerry-Lugar’s $7.5bn may well have been money that the US wants to steal from Pakistan rather than give to it.

Pakistan is not the only country where America is unpopular. In pursuit of its self-interest, the US has waged illegal wars, bribed, bullied and overthrown governments, supported tyrants and undermined movements for progressive change. Paradoxically America is disliked more in Pakistan than in countries which have born the direct brunt of its attacks — Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why?

Drone strikes are a common but false explanation. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi implicitly justifies the Times Square bombing as retaliation but this does not bear up. Drone attacks have killed some innocents but they have devastated militant operations in Waziristan while causing far less collateral damage than Pakistan Army operations.

On the other hand, the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were carpet-bombed by B-52 bombers and Vietnam’s jungles were defoliated with Agent Orange. Yet, Vietnam never developed visceral feelings like those in Pakistan.

Finding truer reasons requires deeper digging. In part, Pakistan displays the resentment of a client state for its paymaster. US-Pakistan relations are transactional today but the master-client relationship is older. Indeed, Pakistan chose this path because confronting India over Kashmir demanded big defence budgets. In the 1960s, Pakistan entered into the Seato and Cento military pacts, and was proud to be called ‘America’s most allied ally’. The Pakistan Army became the most powerful, well-equipped and well-organised institution in the country. This also put Pakistan on the external dole.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, even as it brought in profits, deepened the dependence. Paid by the US to create the anti-Soviet jihadist apparatus, Pakistan is now being paid again to fight that war’s blowback. Pakistan then entered George W. Bush’s war on terror to enhance America’s security — a fact that further hurt its self-esteem. It is a separate matter that Pakistan fights that very war for its own survival and must call upon its army to protect the population from throat-slitting fanatics.

Passing the buck is equally fundamental to Pakistan’s anti-Americanism. It is in human nature to blame others for one’s own failures. Pakistan has long teetered between being a failed state and a failing state. The rich won’t pay taxes? Little electricity? Contaminated drinking water? Kashmir unsolved? Blame it on the Americans. This phenomenon exists elsewhere too. For example, one saw Hamid Karzai threatening to join the Taliban and lashing out against Americans because they (probably correctly) suggested he committed electoral fraud.

Tragically for Pakistan, anti-Americanism plays squarely into the hands of Islamic militants. They vigorously promote the notion of an Islam-West war when, in fact, they actually wage armed struggle to remake society. They will keep fighting this war even if America were to miraculously evaporate. Created by poverty, a war culture and the macabre manipulations of Pakistan’s intelligence services, they seek a total transformation of society. This means eliminating music, art, entertainment and all manifestations of modernity. Side goals include chasing away the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs and Hindus.

At a time when the country needs clarity of thought to successfully fight extremism, simple bipolar explanations are inadequate. The moralistic question ‘Is America good or bad?’ is futile.

There is little doubt that the US has committed acts of aggression, as in Iraq, and maintains the world’s largest military machine. We know that it will make a deal with the Taliban if perceived to be in its self-interest — even if that means abandoning the Afghans to bloodthirsty fanatics. Yet, it would be wrong to scorn the humanitarian impulse behind US assistance in times of desperation. Shall we write off massive US assistance to Pakistan at the time of the earthquake of 2005? Or to tsunami-affected countries in 2004?

In truth, the US is no more selfish or altruistic than any other country. And it treats its Muslim citizens infinitely better than we treat non-Muslims in Pakistan.

Instead of pronouncing moral judgments on everything and anything, we Pakistanis need to reaffirm what is truly important for our people: peace, economic justice, good governance, rule of law, accountability of rulers, women’s rights and rationality in human affairs. Washington must be resisted, but only when it seeks to drag Pakistan away from these goals. More frenzied anti-Americanism will produce more Faisal Shahzads.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Alabama politics devolving...

Idiocy vs Idiocy. I wish this story was part of the MAD magazine rather than an actual political campaign in Alabama.

Evolution has made a dubious appearance in a political ad in Alabama. Here is the ad attacking Bradley Byrne for supporting the teaching of evolution:

But Bradley Byrne is fighting back and is winning the battle for greater ignorance. He released a response statement, in effect saying that, wait, he is a proud creationist too:
I have a long and proven record when it comes to opposing tax increases on the people and businesses of Alabama. In 2003, I joined many other Republican lawmakers in supporting our Republican governor in voting to allow the people of Alabama to vote on a constitutional amendment that included a restructuring of our tax system, education enhancements and government accountability measures. Every vote my attackers mention were included in that constitutional amendment and none of them could be implemented without the people’s approval.
Thank you Alabama. You are keeping us entertained. Read Bradley Byrne's full statement here (tip Lee Spector).

Education City in Qatar

Lecture halls at Cornell Medical College in Education City, Qatar

Following from posts on liberal arts education at the American University of Cairo and on KAUST (KAUST: Xanadu for nerds?), here is another NPR story (about 7 min) on campuses of prestigious American universities located in Education City, Qatar. This is an effort in the right direction. However, I wish there was also some focus on pure sciences and the liberal arts. Even universities like Cornell and Northwestern have very specialized program offerings here. One of the wonderful things about Bachelors programs in large universities is that it exposes you to fields other than your intended major. This is essential for good education. The offerings in Qatar, while commendable in bringing high quality education to the region, seems neutered to me. Here are programs of study associated with American universities (from Wikipedia):
  • Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUQ). Since 1998, VCUQ has offered students the opportunity to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in communication design, fashion design or interior design through a four-year curriculum.
  • Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q). The Medical College was established by Cornell University in 2001 and offers a two-year pre-medical program followed by the four-year medical program leading to a Doctor of Medicine degree.
  • Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ). TAMUQ was established in 2003 and offers undergraduate degrees in chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering. In 2007, TAMUQ added masters programs in engineering and science.
  • Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q). CMU-Q has since 2004 offered undergraduate degrees in business, computer science programs, and as of 2007 an undergraduate degree in information systems.
  • Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar (SFS-Qatar). SFS-Qatar has, since 2005, offered a four-year program leading to a bachelor's degree in foreign service.
  • Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) began degree programs in journalism and communication in fall 2008.
Plus, there is one Qatar university, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS), offering a degree in Islamic Studies. If you add NYU in Abu Dhabi and Michigan State in Dubai, and we are talking about a good concentration of good universities in the region. Again, I just hope they broaden their scope a bit - but then this may take some time:
Schools here hope their presence will nibble away at prejudices about the West. They have been promised that the local administration will not interfere with the curriculum. That might not be much of a problem for engineers or doctors.

Richard Roth heads the Northwestern program here. Do his journalism students run into interference?

"Oh, all the time," Roth says. "There's no Freedom of Information Act here. The reporters here don't ask questions of government. These are the things we are trying to teach."

That's just one of many things that might discourage top faculty from wanting to teach here. Why give up a cushy job with tenure in a leafy suburb to teach in the desert?

Majd Sakr came from the Pittsburgh campus because he wanted a new challenge. "Here there was nothing a few years ago when it comes to this type of education and research," Sakr says. "The impact that you have on the society, on education, is quite significant."

Sakr is originally from Lebanon. Members of the Arab diaspora see U.S. campuses here as a chance to come home again and help establish the region's flagging education credentials.
Even with these issues, all these campuses are bound to have a positive cultural impact. Listen to the full NPR story here
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