Thursday, July 29, 2010

Noah's ark and the missing luggage problem...

So I'm in Malaysia, but my luggage isn't. Hence this post may appear a bit scruffy - like my current state. My first impressions of Kuala Lumpur: Modern and tidy. Sky scrappers and modern mosques. Generally courteous. Some chaos, but relatively calm traffic (okay - so I usually set this bar quite low with the traffic in Karachi - or worse, Rawalpindi/Islamabad). The train service from the airport (KLAI) to the city center was fantastic and fast - it got me there (70 kms) in 28 minutes (hey - when are we getting a fast train service from Boston to Amherst?).

No, I'm not here to only sing praise - remember, my bags are still sitting somewhere in Hong Kong. So I also happen to walk into a decent-size bookstore today (I think it was called MPH books) in Selangor (about 20 km from the city center). Apart from the regular fiction books, there were many technical books - computer-science, IT, Finance, Business. There was also a full section titled "Statues". I was initially quite impressed - that there was a full section devoted to a particular form of art. As it turns out, they misspelled "Statutes" - and this was the legal-studies section. There were two section devoted to religion, and two equal-sized sections for New-Age. science section! I even inquired with the customer service - in case they had again misspelled it as "New-Age" - but no luck. They just didn't think it was important enough to have a section. Sigh...

So while I await for the bags (and the much-needed shaving kit), you can enjoy this 14th century Persian artwork depicting Noah's ark (tip from Tabsir). I'm sure luggage problems must have been a nightmare on the ark. Please also note the comment below the picture:

From Tabsir:

The story of Noah is shared in the three main monotheisms and still inspires creationists who are convinced that opportunist quasi-Neptunist forces from the great Deluge laid down almost all sedimentary layers on Earth. Above is an illustration from the Jami‘ al-tawarikh, produced in 1314/1315 for the Iranian vizier Rashid al-Din. In this case the ark was not the biblical box but a typical Arab dhow of the time with two masts, two steering oars and a rudder. The manuscript is housed in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art in London.
Illustration from Art of the First Cities, edited by Joan Aruz (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), p. 491.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh boy - he knows how to make us realize our smallness...

I'm en route to Malaysia right now (sitting at JFK in NY) for a research trip. I have never been been to Malaysia so I'm really looking forward to it. In the mean time, I wanted to keep you busy pondering about our existence. Here is another 9 minute excerpt from Sagan's Pale Blue Dot (see earlier post Sagan on Science, Religion, and the Universe). I think Pale Blue Dot was the only book that Sagan read for an audio book, and the person putting these clips out is doing a great job of utilizing it. I also have it somewhere on a cassette - but don't have any means to play it anymore (a "morbid obsession with Sagan"? ;) ).

So here is Sagan - Consider again that pale blue dot:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Satellites for the Arab-Muslim world

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
In past few weeks or months, I have encountered a number of interesting “episodes” related to satellite technology.

First, a few months ago there was a news item in an Egyptian online paper stating that Iran and Qatar were collaborating on a project to put two telecommunications satellites that would compete with the Egyptian Nilesat, which carries hundreds of Arab (and some non-Arab) TV channels. Why? Because Nilesat had just dropped the Iranian (Arabic-speaking) news channel Al-Alam (which is similar to the English-language Press TV, for those who know that one).
Secondly, in the first few days of the Football World Cup, which was to be exclusively broadcast by Al-Jazeera Sports for the whole Arab world, there was that piracy/interfering operation, which prevented millions of Arab football fans from watching large parts of the first few games – an episode that has (unofficially) been placed on the back of the Nilesat operators.
Thirdly, just two weeks ago, Algeria had its second satellite launched, this time by India’s ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) – more on that below. And a few months ago, Iran took a quantum leap by showing that it now could both construct satellites and place them in orbit with its own rockets.
Finally, when I took part in COSPAR-10 (the UN’s “Committee on Space Research” Conference, which every two years draws a few thousands space and astrophysics researchers for a whole week of talks, exhibition, etc.), which ended just a few days ago, I noticed that this time not only did ISRO have a booth there (the only non-western organization to be displaying its achievements – and they are many), it will be sponsoring the next COSPAR meeting, in July 2012, in Mysore (close to Bangalore).
I could go on citing satellite “episodes” in my life, some more centrally than others… For example, that a colleague and I have a few students setting up a receiving station for a meteorological/environmental satellite. Also, the fact that Dubai (my neighbor-emirate) had its first satellite placed into orbit almost exactly a year ago, that Abu Dhabi has now for two consecutive years held a large Space Exhibition and Conference (in January of 2009 and 2010), etc.
Clearly, satellites have been on my mind – particularly in relation to the Arab-Muslim world – for some time now.
India became a “space power” in 1975 when it made its first launch. Before that it had for a decade developed missile and launching capabilities.
The Arab world first focused on telecommunications satellites in the seventies, with Arabsat (Arab Satellite Communications Organization) and (later) Nilesat paying for satellites to be placed in orbit and renting slots for TV and Radio channels. Arabsat was established in 1976 by the member states of the Arab League with a goal of serving the telecommunication, information, culture and education sectors; its first satellite was placed in orbit by Ariane in 1985. It has since had a good half dozen satellites operating on and off.
Somewhat similar to Arabsat, MEASAT (Malaysia East Asia Satellite) is a communications satellite operator with at least three geostationary satellites (MEASAT-1 and MEASAT-2 were launched in 1996 and MEASAT-3 in 2006).
In terms of individual countries, Iraq was the first Arab state to launch a satellite (in December 1989), becoming the tenth nation in the world to put one in orbit. Other Arab countries later had some satellites placed in orbit for them; they largely focused on remote sensing, e.g. Morocco (Maroc-Tubsat, launched in Dec. 2001) and Algeria (with its Alsat-1, developed by Surry and launched in Nov. 2002), or GSM-telephony, e.g. the UAE’s Thuraya (built by Boeing for 1 billion dollars, the first being launched in Oct. 2000, the second in Jan. 2003).
Finally, I should also mention Pakistan: in 2005 it tested its Shaheen II missile, which with a range of some 2,000 km is capable of putting a satellite in space – not to mention military applications.
So we see that except for Iran, which has lately signaled its serious will to become a regional space power, talking to the OIC (the Organization of the Islamic Conference) about designing and placing satellites for Muslim countries, either collectively or individually, we see lots of interest and some movement on the space technology front but little homegrown effort.
Contrast that with India, which has launched some 30 satellites, sometimes several at once, like it did two weeks ago when it delivered 5 satellites, including the Algerian Alsat-2 and the Indian Studsat, which was built by students of engineering colleges from Bangalore and Hyderabad… India is indeed a full-fledged space power, with a suite of high-resolution remote sensing satellites as well as others of various applications. India also, one may recall, sent a spacecraft to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, and found water there, probably the first real confirmation of that. And if this all is not enough, ISRO has announced its intention to develop a manned space program within the next several years…
Clearly this is a very broad topic, and attempting to cover the Arab and Muslim worlds in a short piece is practically impossible – I am guaranteed to have left out one important item or another. Please do fill in the missed spots…

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Eco-Islam and a "green Imam" in Tanzania

I have posted earlier about several movements that are using religion (in this case - Islam) to teach and practice environmentalism. For example, check out this post from a few months ago: Green Muslims. Now PRI has a story about an island off the eastern coast of Africa, where its inhabitants are using Islam to foster better environmental habits. I think a green movement within Islam has a real potential of taking off, and apart from a good PR move, it may also have a good, positive impact on the climate. But there is one thing I found fascinating in this story: The locals on the island were suspicious when the environmental message was seen as coming from the "west". They suspected a hidden agenda associated with it. However, when it was reframed as something already in the Qur'an, then the support went up. Well, this is something we worry about scientific concepts as well - especially for something like biological evolution. When Muslim scholars accept evolution, they often appropriate the concept and either assign it to medieval Muslim scholars of the 12th and 13th centuries or find supporting verses in the Qur'an. While there are problems with these approaches, perhaps another way would be to highlight the works of Muslim evolutionary biologists & paleontologists, as well as pointing to important evolutionary discoveries on the territories belonging to Muslim countries - such as the recently discovered primate fossil from Saudi Arabia.

In any case, listen to the PRI story here (it is about 5 min long):
Green is the color commonly associated with Islam and some scholars say the Koran also commands Muslims to be green in the modern environmental sense. In East Africa, a development project using Islamic ethics has taught locals the Koranic imperatives of conserving natural resources. Some say eco-Islam has taken root. From Pemba Island in Tanzania, Matthew Brunwasser reports. 

Dancing Soul - A trippy Sunday, courtesy of Werner Herzog

Usually there are sappy scenes when movies depict departing souls (Raiders of the Last Ark being an exception). So here is Werner Herzog's take on it in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Calls - New Orleans. If you like Herzog, you'll love the idiosyncrasies in the movie. And Nicholas Cage is at his weird best (in fact, I was reminded of the dancing soul scene in an interesting Slate article on Nicholas Cage's movie choices). But if you like non-fiction Herzog, then definitely check out the wonderful Encounters at the End of the World (see an earlier post here).

Here is a short scene involving a dancing soul from The Bad Lieutenant (warning: this clip contains profanity/crude language, violence, and drug-use):

See Roger Ebert's review here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sayyid Qutb liked "Gone with the Wind"?

Here is a plug for a new Sayyid Qutb biography by John Calvert: Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. I had a chance to meet John when I visited Creighton University couple of years ago. While I was there, he gave a talk about Qutb's days in Greeley, Colorado in the 1940's. First of all, the topic was fascinating. But what stuck out for me was the way John gave the talk: It was like a story-telling session as he created for us, in great detail, the Greeley that Qutb must have seen and his (Qutb's) reaction to it. If that talk is any indication, this book will be a fascinating read. By the way, one of John's earlier works provided the inspiration for a musical performed in Denver - and I think the title was "Qutb in Jahiliyya" (I have to confirm the title).

In any case, here is a review for the book from this week's Economist:

Pre-eminently among the pioneers of 20th-century Islamism, Sayyid Qutb has come to be seen as the evil genius who inspired today’s global jihad. As John Calvert argues in a persuasive new biography, Qutb’s reputation is not entirely undeserved, but it does less than justice to a complex and enigmatic figure.
One of the challenges any biographer faces is to explain Qutb’s evolution from romantic nationalist to mainstream Islamist, and finally to ardent revolutionary. Mr Calvert’s answer is to place his subject firmly on Egyptian soil. Like countless others in the years that followed the first world war, Qutb was a child of rural Egypt who migrated to Cairo as a young man to join the swelling ranks of the effendiyya, the new urban educated class. An intense, proud, rather melancholy man, he worked as a civil servant. In his spare time he struggled to establish himself as a writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism.
In this early phase Qutb, a Muslim who had come under the spell of Sufism, subscribed to the essentially secular nationalism of the day, the focus of which was opposition to British rule in Egypt and to Zionist colonisation in Palestine. But by the late 1940s, disillusioned with the failings of the nationalist parties, he had become an Islamist and—as exemplified in his first important book, “Social Justice in Islam”—an Islamist of originality and power.
And here is the bit about Qutb's experience in America:
Shortly after finishing the manuscript, Qutb set off for the United States on a visit that was to last almost two years. The trip affected him deeply. Although he was impressed by America’s material accomplishments (and confessed to liking “Gone with the Wind”), he felt an abiding contempt for the materialism, racism and sexual promiscuity of what he saw as a debased Western culture. Was the encounter with America, as some have argued, the turning-point in Qutb’s radicalisation? Did the sight of scantily-clad women on the dance floors of Greeley, Colorado, turn the sexually repressed Egyptian into an Islamist zealot? Mr Calvert doubts it; the visit, he believes, confirmed the radical turn in Qutb’s thinking, rather than inspiring it.
Qutb returned to Egypt and was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually hanged by Nasser. But it is in the prison that he wrote his influential book:

 Imprisonment and torture turned him into an impassioned and embittered revolutionary. His book “Milestones”, written in prison to chart a future course for his crushed and demoralised movement, became an internationally influential manifesto of the Islamic revolution—not least because in 1966, two years after it was published, Qutb was hanged for treason, becoming a martyr for the cause.
Part of the originality of “Milestones” was Qutb’s use of the term jahiliyya to depict the abject condition of the Muslim world. Literally meaning ignorance, the term was originally used to describe the benighted condition of Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. But Qutb used it to condemn Muslim governments and societies which, in his eyes, had been corrupted by Western culture and secularism to the point where they had abandoned Islam. 
But Qutb's character is more complex and it seems that John has been able to bring this out in his book:

 Mr Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.
But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.
Looks great. Read the full review here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Galileo's middle finger rises again in Florence

Galileo's bits and pieces (okay only bits) are on display at a newly renovated history of science museum in Florence. I had posted on this last November (see Galileo's fingers to be reunited!). Here is some of the fascinating history behind the way his body parts got to where they did - and be treated as "relics":
Now a particularly enduring Catholic practice is on prominent display in, of all places, Florence’s history of science museum, recently renovated and renamed to honor Galileo: Modern-day supporters of the famous heretic are exhibiting newly recovered bits of his body — three fingers and a gnarly molar sliced from his corpse nearly a century after he died — as if they were the relics of an actual saint.  
The scientist’s troubles did not end with his death in 1642.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence’s cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist’s remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.
According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo’s body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, “symmetrical to a beatification,” said Mr. Galluzzi.
After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo’s remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence’s Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany’s powers that they were outside the Vatican’s control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo’s permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.
Galileo’s vertebra wound up at the University of Padua, famous for its medical school, while his middle finger wound up in the collection that formed the basis for the Galileo Museum. But the thumb, index finger and tooth disappeared in 1905, only to re-emerge last October, in an auction of reliquaries in Florence.
Alberto Bruschi, a Florence collector, bought what turned out to be Galileo’s digits and tooth at the urging of his daughter Candida, who collects reliquaries. She also happened to be writing her senior thesis on Galileo’s tomb.
After she observed that the figure on top of the reliquary resembled Galileo, the family called an expert who contacted Mr. Galluzzi, and the match was made.
A spokeswoman for the Pandolfini auction house, which sold the reliquaries, said it could not reveal their provenance but said it had no idea they were Galileo’s.
Mr. Bruschi credits providence with the find. “More than by chance, things are also helped along a bit by the souls of the dead,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think they could not have wound up in better hands.”
(A dentist who examined the tooth for the museum said it showed signs of gastric reflux and indicated that Galileo ground his teeth in his sleep.)
But although the relics may be the museum’s sexiest draw, they are a small part of the museum, which reopened last month after a high-tech renovation that transformed it into one of Italy’s best boutique collections, a veritable curiosity cabinet of beautifully wrought scientific instruments.
Read the full article here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Film Autopsy (Review) of Inception

Go see it! And see it on the big screen - (even IMAX - if you have the option). See the trailer for the film here.

Inception is a visual treat with a challenging plot line. I wish it was half-an-hour shorter with some reduced chases and gunfights. But then again, Christopher Nolan was making a summer blockbuster, and it would have been hard for him to convince the studios to shell $200 million for a movie about dream invasions.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. What I say will not exactly be a plot-spoiler, but it does address the theme of the film. So if you don't want to know any thing more about the film, avoid the next few lines (you can listen to the spoiler-free autopsy below). [for more reviews, see our Film Autopsy Blog]

So what is this movie about? When I saw the film the first time, I was caught up in the complex layering of dreams. I was struck by the fact that Nolan, who is amazing at creating atmosphere, did not take much advantage of surrealism afforded by the world of dreams. So I was initially disappointed to see no references to Dali (it would have been so cool to see a random molten clock on the beach...) or to Luis Bunuel, etc. But thinking about the movie afterwards, and after seeing it the second time, it is quite clear that Inception is not really about dreams. Yes, dreams serve as a premise - but that's about it.

If it's not really about dreams - then what is it about? I think it is movies themselves - the art of making films and the experience of watching them as individuals. As Kevin Anderson puts it nicely in our No-glove autopsy of Inception, when we go to a movie, we share a collected dream, but the experience and meaning of the dream is often shaped by our own past experiences and prejudices that we bring to the film. We discuss more on these themes in the two autopsies below.

My appreciation of the film grew enormously after my second viewing. Despite its complex plot, I think the movie is very consistent with the world it creates. I also love the music. The characters, like in other Nolan films, are quite a bit wound-up - and they could have used a bit more sense of humor - especially with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page at Nolan's disposal (they do share a splendidly sweet moment - but it appeared to me to have been improvised and likely not in the script. You'll know when you see the scene). But then again, Nolan seems to be fascinated by the dark side of human nature - ala Stanley Kubrick - but he is not there yet. This may not be a perfect film, but this is still a fantastic film that reaffirms the magic of big-screen cinema.

Kevin Anderson and I had two autopsies for Inception: One with spoilers and one without. So first, here is the regular autopsy (spoiler-free review) of Inception:

And here is the No-glove autopsy (with spoilers) of Inception:

Of course, you can find autopsies of other recent films at the Film Autopsy Blog.

Crucial primate fossil find from Saudi Arabia

The cover of this week's Nature announces the discovery of the fossilized remains of a previously unknown primate that provides clues to the divergence from monkeys to apes. The discovery was made in Saudi Arabia - and I hope this spurs further interest in paleontology and other related sciences within the region. Just as Pakicetus (a whale ancestor) points to its discovery in Pakistan, this new fossil has been named Saadanius hijazensis, owing to its location of discovery. You can read more about the discovery here, and access the full journal article here
Now very interestingly, Nature Middle East in collaboration with Nature Videos, has produced a short video in Arabic to explain the discovery to a wider audience. I think this is a splendid effort! It humanizes researchers by adding faces to names. In addition, it also shows the collaborative nature of this work. Here is the Arabic version (thanks to the House of Wisdom blog - you should check it out):

And here is the english version:

Here is the cover of Nature and the description below:

This fossil cranium of a new stem catarrhine from western Saudi Arabia allows palaeontologists to place a more accurate date than previously possible on the divergence of cercopithecoids (Old World monkeys) and hominoids (apes and humans) within Old World higher primates (Catarrhini). The new specimen dates to the mid-Oligocene, around 29 million to 28 million years ago, and has no crown catarrhine specializations other than the presence of a tubular ectotympanic, suggesting that the divergence of Old World monkeys and hominoids happened after that date. The cover shows the anterior view of the cranium, which has its lateral incisors, canines and broad molars in situ. The size of the cranium indicates a medium-sized primate, between 15 and 20 kilograms in body mass. Photo credit: Daniel Erickson/Bonnie Miljour, University of Michigan.
Read the full article here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

‘God & Physics’ Conference in Oxford

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

The Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion (at the University of Oxford, UK) organized a conference between July 7th and 10th, 2010 on the theme ‘God and Physics’ in collaboration with the International Society for Science & Religion (ISSR) as a celebration of the 80th birthday of John Polkinghorne.

Polkinghorne is a famous scientist-priest; he is famous for several things: perhaps first and foremost for having resigned his position as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge (back in 1979) to become a formally ordained and practicing priest (in 1982); secondly, for having written so much on issues relating to Religion & Science; thirdly, for having won the Templeton Prize in 2002 for “exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension”.

Polkinghorne has stressed the idea that moving from the field of Science to that of Religion (as a practice) did not stop his quest for truth; on the contrary, he describes his new situation as seeing through a binocular. His philosophy is often referred to as “critical realism”, basically that some of what we can perceive of the external world is objective and accurate, while some of what we get from other senses is not accurate; in other words: reason and science are limited.

To encourage the study of Polkinghorne’s body of work, and on the occasion of the ‘God & Physics’ conference, the ISSR organized an essay competition on topics relating to (and honoring) his works. Four prizes were announced: two joint first-prizes, each worth £6000 (about $9,000), two joint third-prizes, each worth £3000 (about $4,500), and one essay awarded “a special commendation by the judges”; the list of winner and their topics can be found on the ISSR’s website.

The conference itself had two dimensions: the (invited) lectures and the (contributed) short papers. Among the invited lecturers, I should mention (with my own bias): Philip Clayton, Ian Barbour, and Keith Ward; and I should make a special note of Fraser Watts’sThe Interface Between Theology and Scientific Cosmology”. Among the short papers, I should note the contributions of two Muslim intellectuals: Munawwar Anees with “God and Physics in Abdus Salam's Worldview”, and Usama Hasan with “Allah & the New Physics: a review of Polkinghorne's Belief in God in an Age of Science from an Islamic perspective”. I am delighted to note the return of Munawwar Anees to the field of Science and Religion/Islam and the entry of Usama Hasan in the discussions – more on them some other time.

Finally, I should say that I have had the chance of meeting Polkinghorne several times, most particularly a year ago in Cambridge when we were both invited as lecturers in the Faraday Institute’s summer course on Religion and Science. In fact, Polkinghorne and I were scheduled on the same day, which put us together in the evening’s open discussion session, leading to some spirited debate (and disagreement) on the issue of divine action in the world. (This is a major and difficult topic, and I can’t address it here, for it would lead me too far away from the subject of this piece, but I should come back to it sometime.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Falling trees and spilling oil: Acts of God?

Last week's New Yorker has a nice tongue-in-cheek (or is it?) article about the responsibility for action or inaction - be it God's or human's:
Last month, after a limb fell from an elm tree near the Central Park Zoo, critically injuring a woman and killing her infant daughter, citizens wondered, as citizens will, how such a thing could be allowed to happen. When trees kill, as trees will, you blame it either on the tree pruners or on “an act of God.” You are supposed to choose one or the other—last week, Mayor Bloomberg cited the latter—rather than detect any trace of God’s will in the fallibility of arborists and bureaucrats. This assumption owes something to the fact that “act of God” is a legal term specifically deployed to absolve human beings of any fault or indemnity. When God acts, apparently, the rest of us do not. He’s a little like the Balladeer, the Waylon Jennings voice-over, in “The Dukes of Hazzard”: the picture freezes when He weighs in.
Okay - one has to be careful with any article that mentions The Dukes of Hazzard :) (But Waylon Jennings brings back some credibility). But now back to the blame game:
Questions of agency, divine or otherwise, dog us these early-summer days, amid a pileup of ill tidings: an intractable war; hints, once again, of economic depression; the deep-sea oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Who’s to blame? Who’s in charge? On the day of the Mayor’s pronouncement, a technician who is working with British Petroleum to drill relief wells told the Times, in response to questions about the state of the damaged well, and about the prospects for fixing it, “No human being alive can know the answers.” A line like that could put a man in a theological mood—especially on the heels of the technician’s previous remark, a triumph of the triple negative: “I won’t say there haven’t been relief wells that haven’t worked.”
Did the technician, with his assertion of earthly ignorance, mean to invoke the omniscience of the divine? Probably not. Was he putting his money on a dead engineer, or a well-informed squid? Hard to imagine. But he had, at least subconsciously, echoed the efforts of B.P. and many others to distance themselves from responsibility and, more to the point, liability. B.P. wishes—prays—that it could call the Deepwater Horizon blowout an act of God. But it is an act of man, no matter how primal, eternal, Biblical, or infernal it may seem.
Okay now we have to put theologians to work out the appropriate theodicy
A half century ago, the Oxford theologian and philosopher Austin Farrer, a friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, advanced the concept of “double agency,” which has nothing to do with Russian spies pretending to be Portuguese. Oversimply put, the idea seeks to reconcile faith and science, and divine agency and free will. In Farrer’s rendering, God creates creatures and phenomena, which, as agents themselves, then create and act freely. In “Saving Belief: A Discussion of Essentials,” he wrote, “God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it.” In other words, it’s a collaborative effort. God is Phil Spector, and we are the Ronettes.
But what about the world’s destruction? Are we collaborating with God on that album, too? Last week, a call to the prominent Farrer scholar Edward Hugh Henderson, a seventy-one-year-old professor of philosophy at Louisiana State University, scared up a defense. Like B.P.’s Tony Hayward, God, through his good agent Professor Henderson, was distancing himself from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
“God does not smash in from outside to overthrow creatures, to put out of gear the order of nature that God has over eons of evolution brought to its present state,” Henderson said. “What the oil is doing to the Gulf and its denizens is what oil, being oil, would do.” (Incidentally, Farrer’s 1966 work, “A Science of God?,” was originally issued in the United States under the title “God Is Not Dead.”) “In one sense, divine agency is everywhere,” Henderson went on. “In another, you wouldn’t want to say that accidents and carelessness are examples of double agency.”
Hmm...okay so we have to pick and choose events or actions that really qualify as "double agency". Of course.
Henderson, a native Alabaman who has lived in Baton Rouge for forty-five years, has lately found himself to be in an apocalyptic mood, as he considers the havoc wrought just to his south. As a believer (“I was raised a Presbyterian, but Farrer made an Anglican out of me”), he can only have faith that God acts through people’s response to calamity, rather than through, say, the suffocation of a fishery and the death of a sea. “It’s at the level of human freedom that you can distinguish between action that is or isn’t underwritten by the pervasiveness of divine will,” he said. Good Lord.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Solar Eclipse from Easter Island

Easter Island, along with other small remote Pacific islands, has always fascinated me. Check out chapters on the demise of population on these islands in Jared Diamond's Collapse. I would definitely love to visit it some day. In the mean time, here is a spectacular photograph of the Solar eclipse from Easter Island from this past July 11th (from APOD):

and here are two bonus pictures of the island:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Is "Islamic Fundamentalism" on the rise in Turkey?

I was calmly reading an article yesterday about Turkish palaeoanthropology in last week's Nature. The article was titled, Disputed Grounds (you may need subscription to access it), and it is primarily focused on how bitter personal conflicts amongst Turkish palaeoanthropology community are holding back significant progress in research. And Turkey has amazing sites to offer - from providing clues about early humans to hosting tools and remains of Neanderthals. So it was unfortunate to read about this academic infighting. However, then I read this after the first few paragraphs:
On top of those issues, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey has made the working environment uncomfortable for palaeoanthropologists in much of the country.
Now, I know when writing science papers we have to be very careful not only with numbers but also with the language we use, so that we don't mislead readers or misrepresent our results. Journals like Nature or Science or the Astronomical Journal double-check each claim to ensure accuracy. If we go by that standard, this article in Nature (yes, I know this is not a regular research is a news feature) is casually mentioning the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (not just public piety) in Turkey.

Here is the problem I see with this statement: Islamic fundamentalism is a loaded term - and hard to exactly pin down (unlike American fundamentalism - that is rooted in the early 20th century publication of the Fundamentals pamphlets). Technically, Islamic Fundamentalism only means those who believe in the fundamentals of Islam. However, usually it is associated with ideas of al-Qaeeda, and/or the Muslim Brotherhood (Sayyid Qutb et al), and/or the Jamaat Islami (Maududi), and/or varied forms of violent political/religious movements. Is it accurate to use this term for Turkey? It is true that the current ruling party (AKP) has an Islamic identity and that there is a general rise in public piety, but does this constitute as a rise of "Islamic fundamentalism". In addition, the Muslim world is so broad that it is hard to justify the use of such a loaded term without at least some qualifications (none were offered in the Nature piece). For example, the religious "right" party of Turkey would still be to the left of most secular parties in Pakistan.

Later, the article spends two more paragraphs on the issue:
Recently, a new problem for palaeoanthropologists has emerged. As the country has grown more religious, particularly in its eastern and central regions, Islamic creationists are rejecting the work of anthropologists, particularly that relating to evolution.
This is creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for researchers and may be retarding Turkey's capacity to build up an anthropology infrastructure at central and eastern universities. Young graduates, who have studied and lived in cosmopolitan cities, are reluctant to move their families to these regions. Seventeen years ago, several dozen people died in Sivas, when Islamic extremists set fire to a hotel where intellectuals were staying. More recently, researchers have worried that local religious groups are watching dinner parties to determine whether scientists are violating Muslim tenets, for example, by drinking alcohol.
Couple of issues here. My impression was that Central and Eastern parts of Turkey were always more religious and conservative. I can imagine cosmopolitan scientists not willing to move to these areas because of its conservative nature (and public piety), in general, and it may also include people frowning over alcohol (minus the alcohol frowning, I can see the same problem for a New Yorker to move to Alabama or Mississippi). Now it is also completely possible that these Turkish areas have become even more religious over the last decade or so. However, again, does that warrant the label of "Islamic Fundamentalism"?

I know we have Turkish readers of the blog. May be they can let us know their thoughts on the subject.

Let me be clear: I would also be worried if Islamic fundamentalism (in its usual usage of the term) was on the rise in Turkey - and I want to get an idea if this is true. But I also want writers to be careful when using loaded terms like "Islamic fundamentalism" - and to be privy of the diverse political and cultural landscape of the Muslim world (at least when writing about the region). Plus, we want to represent the situation as accurately as possible. We often demand and appreciate nuance and complexity in science. We should extend the same courtesy to places where science and society interacts. What do you think?

Sagan on Science, Religion, and the Universe

This is absolutely fantastic! This excerpt is from Sagan's book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (the chapter is titled, A Universe not made for us). The segment is about 9 minutes long - and Sagan can say a lot (with the prefect choice of words) in 9 minutes.

(Tip from

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

If you are looking for movies...

I'm trying to keep my expectations realistic. But I can't help it, and I'm excited about Christopher Nolan's new film Inception - that is starting this Friday. He has a pretty clean and incredibly impressive record: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and Dark Knight (I haven't seen Following - his first film). So yes, I was burnt by disappointing Avatar before. But I really can't see a way Nolan can disappoint at the same level (plus Inception has a great cast!).

In any case, while we are waiting for Inception, you can check out other movies as well. I had earlier mentioned that I have been recording short film autopsies with Kevin Anderson of UMass - and I posted an autopsy of Splice last month. Well, we have reviewed 6 more films and you can find them at Film Autopsy, and 3 more will be up by next week. These are the films we have opened up so far (you can click on them to listen to the visual podcast):

Solitary Man
Winter's Bone (if you like well-crafted human drama, check this one out)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a good thriller, and the sequel is also now out)
The Square
Terribly Happy

In addition to these, autopsies are coming up for Harry Brown, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Micmacs (you can also of course link to our Film Autopsy Facebook page, and you can get updates directly).

For a sample, here is a Chainsaw Autopsy of Solitary Man (chainsaw autopsies are about 3 minutes in length - whereas, regular autopsies are about 7 minutes in long):

More autopsies here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Early Life on Earth: a Moroccan makes a historic discovery

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
A week ago, Nature (the premiere science journal) published a paper to which it devoted its cover page. Probably because the main team of the discovery was from France, the newspapers here in France (where I am spending a few weeks on various types of work) echoed it with front-page stories and interviews of the lead author, the Moroccan Abderrazak El-Albani. I have not searched the blogosphere and other media outlets thoroughly, but I have had the distinct impression that the discovery was not given its dues, either because it was not deeply appreciated by everyone or because it was not made in the "usual places" (US-UK centers of high-level research).
What is this discovery that I am calling "historic" and that everyone should have reported and commented on much more largely? Quite simply, El-Albani and his collaborators found hundreds of multi-cellular life fossils dating back to 2.1 billion years, while the earliest such complex life form had previously been only 670 million years old. Unicellular life forms (and thus the earliest appearance of life per se) dates back to about 3.8 billion years ago, but more complex multi-cellular organisms had never been found from such old epochs. As Le Monde wrote: "a new history of life -- biology textbooks would have to be rewritten..."
Why is it such a surprising discovery? First, this defies essentially what the whole scientific community had come to believe, though this is not a strong argument at all -- paradigms change and the scientific community has been known to go wrong on major issues. But more specifically, because the "molecular clock", which measures the timescales for mutations and thus can construct phylogenetic trees of life, would have to be seriously reworked. Moreover, as some skeptical observers have pointed out, 2.1 billion years ago Earth's atmosphere was very toxic and had very little oxygen (so important for life's energy generation to proceed). Other unconvinced scientists stress that these fossils (numbering close to 250 specimens, some up to 12 centimeters long) could, instead of real multi-cellular organisms, be mere stacks of simple unicellular life forms. But if, as the discoverers insist (they exhibit a suite of technical tests, including x-ray microtomography of the fossils showing complex internal structures), the fossils are really multi-cellular, then serious questions arise: what happened to these organisms later? did they die out? did life restart independently elsewhere on earth? why the huge 1.5 billion-year gap before the later life explosion? etc.

It is interesting that this discovery was made in Gabon (West Africa), in a region that had been known for its geological and mineral -- but not biological -- richness. It is also noteworthy that the main discoverer is a Moroccan young researcher, who went to France for graduate studies in 1990 and got his doctorate in Geology in 1995; he is currently a CNRS fellow (French national research institution), and with his colleague Paul Sardini and his Gabonese student Frantz Ossa Ossa made this historic discovery. I should also stress the fact that the team brought in the expertise of some 20 specialists from various fields (paleontology, biology, chemistry, etc.) representing 17 institutions from 6 countries (France, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Germany, Belgium). It is also worth noting that, unfortunately, like Abdus Salam and Ahmed Zewail (the only two Muslim Nobel Prize winners in the sciences), El-Albani did his undergraduate studies in his home country, but his Ph. D. and research in the west. Am I putting El-Albani in the same league as those two great scientists? If this discovery is confirmed, the Nobel Prize could be a real possibility, but that's a big IF..

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Stem-cells debate in a play

With Obama in the White House, the debate over stem-cells research has quietened down a bit. Nevertheless, this is a controversial topic in the US. On the other hand, stem-cells research is progressing without much controversy in several Muslim countries, such as Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. From what I've read about it, in Iran, they have a religious cleric who oversees ethical concerns about the research (yes, this also creates problems - see an earlier post here). I don't know how these other countries are dealing with the possible ethical challenges.

In any case, here is a review of an interesting play, Staminalia: A Dream and a Trial, that addresses some of the controversy surrounding stem-cells research:
The production is based on philosopher Armando Massarenti's Italian-language book Staminalia (Guanda, 2008; see Nature 456, 444445; 2008), which describes the fierce political disputes that have erupted over stem-cell research in Italy. The play was also inspired by Elena Cattaneo, a leading stem-cell scientist at the University of Milan who is a prominent voice in the Italian public debate.
The play is in two parts: a trial and a dream. The trial unfolds as a dialogue between a stem-cell scientist and her religious fundamentalist daughter. The walls of the scientist's university have been tarnished with graffiti equating stem-cell labs with Auschwitz, and the harsh confrontation between mother and daughter exposes two incompatible views of the world and of our place within it.
And the second part looks fascinating:
The dream is the most convincing section of the play; drama thrives when clashes are whispered rather than shouted, when tension is evoked rather than declared. A tense piece of modern ballet conveys the unease unleashed in the sleeping mother by her daughter's accusations. Two dancers — playing supportive angels and doubt-mongering demons — sculpt the space, while images of stem cells and Catholic clerics flash onto the screen behind them.
The contrast between the near-naked dancers and the shrouded cardinals with faces distorted as if in a Francis Bacon painting powerfully conveys the clash between two views of the flesh — joyful and liberated versus sinful and oppressed. A further contrast is in scale, between the macroscopic bodies on stage and their molecular equivalents on the screen, the latter a dance of cells lit up with the markers that have become the epistemic and aesthetic canon of stem-cell science.
Here is the main issue:
These juxtapositions highlight how, in modern biology — from genome sequencing to synthetic biology — we understand life through the same tools that allow us to redesign it. Science has developed beyond mere observation, beyond the paltry task of discerning “the seed from the oak tree”, as the mother describes it in the trial. The dream reminds us that we understand bodies by breaking them apart into components and that this microscopic gaze brings with it the power of molecular intervention. The more we learn about cells, the more we are able to manipulate them — and the more options society has to use them.
Which options should we choose? In the age of simple observation, nature was considered a source of moral norms. With the advent of molecular intervention, nature has become a source of tools with which to transgress its own limits. Staminalia captures this tension well. The dancers' bodies are natural both in their near-nakedness and in the perfection of their movements, achieved through years of training. The play prompts us to ask whether our response to them would be different if artificial enhancement of our bodies could replace countless hours in the gym. In the age of synthetic genomes and cell-fate reassignment, will we be able to tell natural from unnatural? And does that matter?
Read the full review here. Also check out its freaky trailer here.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Jon Stewart on NASA's outreach to the Muslim world

Couple of days ago I had posted about Charles Bolden's interview with Al-Jazeera and the NASA outreach to the Muslim world. Well, as expected, the Daily Show has a take on it (and the not so surprising reaction from Fox News). Here is the clip (apologies to readers not in the US - it is probably playable only in the US):

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Wish You Weren't Here
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party


Thursday, July 08, 2010

A "Miracle" in Chakwal, Pakistan?

It is great that miracles usually stay within ones own religion. So for example, images of Jesus or Mary usually only appear to Christians and Islamic miracles (usually with no human images) appear only to Muslims (and respectively for other religions as well). There usually is no cross-over confusion. I would say that this religious bifurcation of miracles, by in itself, is quite a miracle. For a taste, check out this very funny (and relevant) compilation of Jesus sightings and here is an example of Allah written on a piece of meat.

Pervez Hoodbhoy recently encountered such a claim of a miracle in Chakwal, Pakistan. Here is his take on the issue (it also appeared in Dawn in May of this year):

Is Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in Chakwal?
 Pervez Hoodbhoy

The sudden appearance of Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) alleged footprint in the sleepy village of Dharabi near Chakwal has sent a wave of religious excitement across Pakistan. At a three-hour drive from Islamabad, Dharabi is now attracting tens of thousands of visitors from Swat to Karachi. They seek blessings, spiritual enlightenment, miracle-cures, and relief from life’s other stresses. A road that is sparsely traveled in normal times is now clogged with traffic, vendors of food and drink are having a field day, new businesses selling pictures and holy paraphernalia have sprouted, and a permanent shrine is under construction. The village could not have hoped for better.

My encounter in mid-March with this phenomenon was accidental and preceded the heavy rush that came in subsequent weeks. While on the way to Chakwal, I became curious about the heavy police presence. Upon inquiring, I was told of a recent momentous event – a giant footprint was said to have suddenly appeared, which the local ulema promptly declared as belonging to the Holy Prophet. But this had ignited a fierce war of words between various religious factions in the larger Chakwal area. Some believers insist that the Prophet had left the earthly world once and forever, while others contend that he revisits it periodically to remind followers of his presence. The police had been called to prevent physical violence.

Conversations over tea with the Dharabi’s inhabitants gave me some facts. However, the entire story soon receded to the back of my mind. It was revived several weeks later when it hit the national press and television. To augment my understanding I made phone calls to several villagers I had met, but discovered that new embellishments and inventions are being added by the day to the original narration of events. Village skeptics, on the other hand, are being silenced and speak only on the condition that their identities not be revealed.

The story begins on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal, the Prophet’s birthday, when celebrations were held as per village custom. This involves cooking sooji ka halwa in large flat iron dishes called karahis. Since there are no stoves large enough for the purpose, shallow holes are dug and then filled with twigs, charcoal, or other flammable material. After the cooking is done and the fires had dimmed, the holes are filled with loose earth. On that particular evening, I learned that there was a heavy rain shower. 

And now the story goes like this: that evening a woman looked out into her backyard and saw a glow that appeared to move. In her excitement, she summoned her mother-in-law who says she also saw the glow. It appeared very briefly and was not seen subsequently (although a six-week later version is that it lasted for three days and was so bright that the house did not need electric lights!). The women also claimed that the glow was accompanied by a sweet smell. In the morning, the cooking area was discovered to have a mysterious ground impression. The rest is history.

What scientific explanation exists for this phenomenon? As a starter, readers of this article are invited to Google the “Dharabi miracle” where they will see countless uploads of photographs and hastily made celebratory videos. By straining one’s imagination, some may be able to see a footprint. But its enormous size – between 3-4 feet long – would indicate that it belongs to the long-sought mythical Himalayan Yeti rather than any human. The shape of the impression can be more plausibly explained as that of loose earth, brought together by rainwater, from two adjacent irregularly rounded cooking holes. It could also be the water-distorted image of two heavy round karhai’s of different sizes placed on the soft earth. Or it could simply be deliberate fraud.

Assuming that the women had their wits about them, and had not been overpowered by the devotional intensity of the day’s celebrations, the softly glowing ephemeral light could have multiple explanations. First, it is possible that a swarm of phosphorescent insects was somehow attracted to the cooking area. Bioluminescence in insects is a well known phenomenon. As in the common firefly known as jugnoo, “cold light” is produced via chemiluminescence.

It could also be that the organic matter buried in the holes, assisted by the heat of imperfectly quenched coals or twigs, could have converted into methane and phosphine gases. The latter is known to oxidize spontaneously upon coming into contact with air and can burn at a low temperature causing glowing light. Appearances of apparitions in western folklore, such as Jack-o'-the-Lantern or Will-o'-the-Wisp, have been traced by scientists to various flammable gases and insects.

A detailed investigation would involve looking at the soil composition, local entomology, and recorded statements of different witnesses. It seems, however, that the Dharabi event will be ignored by Pakistan’s scientific institutions, of which there are well over two dozen. With exorbitant budgets but zero or little scientific output, some are housed in shiny new buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. These include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science and Technology in the Islamic World (COMSTECH), COMSATS, Pakistan Science Foundation, Pakistan Council on Science and Technology, etc.

Unfortunately not one of the above or, for that matter, any other Pakistani scientific institute, has ever debunked the unreasonable and anti-scientific attitudes that one sees all around. For example, after the October 2005 earthquake that killed nearly 100,000, none challenged the view in the public media that this tragedy was a consequence of our bad deeds such as, for example, watching television or allowing unveiled women to go out of the house. 

To be sure, superstitious beliefs exist in other countries as well. One recalls the hysteria in 1995 following the discovery that Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, would “drink” milk if a spoon of milk was held up to his trunk. Even minor temples in India overflowed with superstitious devotees. So great was the rush of devotees that a traffic gridlock resulted in New Delhi and sales of milk jumped up by 30%.

Fortunately for India, an independent body, the Indian Rationalists Association, was quick to show that Ganesh’s milk drinking had a simple physical explanation. It was shown to be simple capillary action – what everyone learns about in school science books. The surface tension of the milk was pulling the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity caused it to run down the front of the statue. To its credit, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology confirmed the explanation and the country’s religious craziness slowly abated. With such precedents, surely it is time for Pakistan’s Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the so-called Chakwal miracle, as well as the many similar superstitions that delude our people and keep them in a state of stupor and backwardness.

POSTSCRIPT: After this article was published in Dawn on 18 May 2010, the police authorities in Chakwal telephoned me to say that my version of events was accurate. Moreover, the authorities had poured cement upon the alleged footprint but “miraculously” it had been removed by some divine agency the very next morning. Mr. Tanvir’s house, which houses the phenomenon, had a market value of Rs 250,000 a few months earlier but has just been sold at Rs. 2,000,000. He, and those of his family members who claim to have witnessed the light, have become pirs and pirnis with people queuing up for days to receive blessings. The family has hit the jackpot.

 The author is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad
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