Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gliese 581g: An extrasolar planet sitting in a "habitable zone"

Okay - so astronomers are getting close. Up until the mid-1990s, we did not have any confirmed detection of planets outside our Solar system. And now the number is close to 500 planets (and in the mean time we even managed to take away the planetary status of one of our own planets. Pluto is still a planet, Dammit! :) ). But then all of the detections were of planets much bigger than the Earth, with most of them orbiting close to their parent stars (this was mostly the consequence of the wobble detection technique being used - the parent star wobbles because of the tug from a big planet, orbiting close by).

Now astronomers have detected a planet, Gliese 581g, only three times the mass of the Earth and located smack in the middle of the habitable zone. Habitable zone only means that the planet is orbiting at a distance where water can potentially exist in liquid form. And water, we think, is essential for life.

Very cool! We are not talking about any intelligent lifeforms here - but simply the potential of simple life (though, of course, it would be absolutely amazing if there was complex life there - but we can't say any thing about it from the information we have).

Couple of quick things: This is the sixth planet discovered orbiting the star Gliese 581 (yes, such names are very sexy for astronomers) - in fact this is the most planets discovered (so far) around a star other than the Sun. Gliese 581 is located only 20 light years form us or about 200 trillion kms (crap - it sounds much closer in light years - so lets stick with that).

But here is the cool thing (literally). Gliese 581 is a red dwarf - which means that it is relatively cooler than the Sun (couple of thousand degrees on the surface, versus 6000 degrees for the Sun). The newly discovered planet, Gliese 581g, is quite close to its parent star and it takes only 37 days to make one full orbit. One consequence of this is that the planet is tidally-locked with its star - i.e. the same side of the planet always faces the star and the other star never sees any light from the star (our Moon is tidally locked with the Earth - this is the reason we only see the same side of the Moon from the Earth - and thus Pink Floyd could come up with their cool album name).

Here is a schematic of the habitable zone before the discovery of Gliese 581g. It would sit smack in between the planets c and d:

So can there be life on a planet - where there is perpetual light on one side and perpetual darkness on the other? Very hot on one side and very cold on the other. We don't know (yet). Some have speculated that the border between the shadow and light may be a good place for life to originate and evolve. One can also imagine local terrestrial features, such as mountains, cracks, or crevices that may shield organisms from the blazing heat and may provide a suitable environment to thrive.

Okay, we'll have to eventually take a field trip there. But this is certainly the first of many planets discovered that will be good candidates for hosting other lifeforms.

Read the press release here and a story from the Washington Post here. If you are interested in Gliese 581, you can more information here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Restrepo: An unflinching look at the Afghan war

I had a chance to see the documentary Restrepo today. It is about the current war in Afghanistan and it follows one US Battle Company for 15 months - from its deployment in 2007 to its leave - in the Korangal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Is it great film-making? Probably not. However, this provides a unflinching look at the Afghan war (and the war, in general) and I really liked it. It is made by war photographer Tim Hetherington and author Sebastian Junger - who followed the Company for 15-months. There are many fire-fights in the film, as this Company came under fire almost daily. But these fire-fights are real and not staged or acted. It is an haunting film. There is no real narrative arc (apart from the 15-month duty of the Company) nor is there a voice-over from the director. Instead, you only get to hear the voices of the soldiers.

There are many ways to talk about the film. But I will make only couple of points here: It is interesting that we (and the US soldiers) never see the enemy fighters. They do shoot at the targets, but apart from one instance, they don't see the individual they are shooting at. This is perhaps the nature of the modern war that even when you are face-to-face, you can't see the face of the enemy.

For me the most fascinating part of the film was the meeting of US soldiers with the local Shura of the elders. The elders were all very old - and the US soldiers were all very young. In fact, there is a whole lifetime written on the faces of the elders. Most elders had long beards, red with henna, and many of them with only a few teeth left in their mouths. These shura sessions in the film highlight the communication gap between the US troops and the local Afghans - and one of the reasons why the war has been going the way it has been going.

If you are interested in understanding the Afghan war (not necessarily the politics behind it), or if you want to see the impact of such conflicts on individuals, or if you want to have some idea of the tough terrain at the Afghan-Pakistan border, then check out Restrepo.

Here is the trailer of the film:

Is money the answer for universities? The Pakistan experiment

Lack of funding is often cited as a cause for low research and education standards in the developing world. Well, Pakistan this notion has now been challenged by Pakistan's experiment in higher education. From 2002-2008, Pakistan's budget for higher education increased 900% (no - this is not a typo) - with 474% just in 2002-2003 alone. It also led to the formation of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). However, now it all seems to have crashed down - and funding has again petered out. So what did we learn from this experiment?

This week's nature has an editorial and an article on the Pakistan's boom and bust cycle. Pervez Hoodbhoy also has an opinion piece for Dawn on the same topic.

So should we look at it? Was this enormous increase of funding good or bad for the Pakistani education system? The verdict is decidedly mixed. This level of funding provided opportunities for building institutes and for buying research equipment previously considered unaffordable. Similarly, numerous monetary incentives were given to improve publication records and to increase the number of PhDs in the country. However, many of these institutes remain unbuilt, either because of university mismanagement or because of the current security situation. There is anecdotal evidence that some of the research instruments bought were of no use for the faculty at the relevant university*. Similarly, publications were often just for the sake of monetary incentives (by either publishing in obscure journals - or, in some cases, there were also charges of plagiarism) and the same was true for churning out PhDs. The check for quality was missing. From Nature:
But critics say that the numbers don't tell the entire story. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, was initially supportive of Rahman's plans, but grew increasingly sceptical. One day in 2005, he opened his newspaper to discover that his university had bought a particle accelerator. "I rubbed my eyes and said, 'This can't be true'," says Hoodbhoy, who was head of the physics department at the time. The accelerator, an obscure device known as a pelletron, was ordered at the behest of other physicists at the university without a clear idea of how it would be used. "That machine has arrived, it's working perfectly, and for the last year and a half since it's been installed, it hasn't been used," he says.

The incident highlights how the flood of cash has led to profligacy, and ultimately to corruption, says Hoodbhoy, who is now one of the most outspoken critics of Rahman's plan. "I began to smell fish, and then it turned out there was a lot of fish." Among other problems, Hoodbhoy says that professors have enrolled PhD students simply for the cash stipends they can claim, that plagiarism has increased and that standards have dropped.
There is anecdotal evidence to support his claims. In 2007, the HEC cut off funding to the University of the Punjab in Lahore after administrators refused to take action against faculty members and students who were caught plagiarising. Salal Humair, a public-health scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, a private university, says he has heard of many cases of professors enrolling PhD students for the money. "I think there was a lot of manipulation to try and get HEC funds," says Humair. The money "bred a culture of plagiarism and a culture of, I would say, incompetent PhDs".
Even the new tenure-track system, designed to boost funding for the best of Pakistan's academics, has shown signs of corruption. Irfan Chaudhry, an electrical engineer at the University of Engineering & Technology in Lahore, who returned to Pakistan from the United States in 2008 on an HEC grant, says that he saw many professors playing the system. For example, says Chaudhry, a certain number of peer-reviewed publications are required to qualify for the tenure-track system. But many researchers "were publishing in completely random journals that were published in Lahore or somewhere like that. They definitely got around it."
So what to make of all this experiment? I think the intentions were good. This program started under Musharraf - despite his other hideous actions, credit goes to him for this - and he picked Ata-ur-Rahman, perhaps, the best choice that he had. But then you run into other realities. In the absence of a general scientific culture, it is unrealistic to change the quality of education and research simply by the injection of more cash. Funding is indeed essential - but it has to come with severe checks and balances. I realize that this is easier to say this in hindsight. Perhaps, the development of few institutes with high quality (both for education and for research) may not have dramatically increase the numbers of publications and PhDs, but it would have provided a foundation for the next generation of researchers. Similarly, there has to be an effort to improve education at all levels - and not just at the universities. There are no short-cuts. India and China are not doing well because they suddenly turned a corner. Instead, a long-term belief in the quality of institutions, like the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), are now paying off.

I don't think it is smart to drastically cut-off the funding for higher education in Pakistan - something that has been done by the current government. The Nature editorial correctly observes that "[i]n a country where only half the population can read, higher education does not have strong support from voters, but politicians must recognize its value. They should look to neighbours such as India and China, which have made large investments in higher education as part of their broader development". It then calls for the World Bank and other donors to step in and help with education funding at a time floods, recession, and internal turmoil in Pakistan. But for any meaningful progress, education institutes must maintain high quality and the government should ensure a long-term commitment.

Read the Nature article here, the editorial here, and the opinion piece by Pervez Hoodbhoy here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Students in the Arab World Today

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 academic year started yesterday at my university. (That’s quite late, but this year all schools here in the UAE decided to start after Ramadan.) So with the new school year, I thought I would bring you a quick round up of student views and university news from the region.
The first item that recently caught my (surprised) eye was the report from surveys and interviews of students in the UAE, according to which: (1) many want the educational system to move more toward a co-ed (mixed male-female) situation; and (2) many want web censorship to be tightened more. (Right now, throughout the Gulf region, all websites are filtered by the national communications authorities or providers, at least for the sexual elements, and oftentimes for political issues, at least articles related to national leaders, the country’s history and politics, etc.)

The request for co-education, surprisingly, came more strongly from female students. Traditionally, it has always been thought that it’s the boys who want more girls around, while the girls feel the weight and pressure of social norms and traditions and thus prefer to be in a totally female environment in order to be free to behave as they wish and thus to learn more comfortably.  But it turns out that many female students realize that being shielded from interactions with young males is, in the end, counterproductive for them, as they need to be more fully prepared socially and professionally for their adult lives. Paradoxically, in reporting the survey on this issue, Gulf News noted that despite the efforts being made by these young women to mix with the opposite sex, some men in the colleges purposely try and avoid mixing with women because they are not traditionally used to doing so.” Incidentally, of the main universities in the UAE, the American University of Sharjah is only co-ed institution.
The other surprising news from a survey of Arab students is that almost 50 percent of them want web censorship to be increased; the main reason mentioned for this view is that illegal downloading is rampant in the region; the trend will not be reversed or even slowed without forceful intervention by the authorities. The other half of the surveyed population believes there is nothing wrong in downloading anything (movies, music, software) from the web, which they regard as a “free exchange” domain (free here meaning no-cost).
Other surveys have shown the degree (reaching 85 %) to which men and women in the Gulf use the web from home. The following may sound very stereotypical and male-oriented, but the survey actually claims that the number one usage of the web by (Arab) women is chatting and Facebook, while for men it is reading newspapers and magazines. (My experience is not statistically significant enough to allow me to criticize these reports, however surprising they may be to me.)

On a more important, national, and generational level, Saudi Arabia has released figures on university enrollment in the Kingdom, showing a huge increase in recent and future years: 636,000 students in 2006, 850,000 in 2009 (that’s a 34 % increase in 3 years!), and 1.7 million students expected in 2014 (doubling in 5 years). (According to the World Bank, the total population in KSA is 26 million today, and it is expected to be 28.6 million in 2015.)
The report adds: “As part of its ninth five-year development plan, for 2010-14… [t]here will be an expansion of facilities including the building of 25 technology colleges, 28 technical institutes and 50 industrial training institutes… And Up to US$240 million a year has been earmarked in grants for science and technology research projects. In addition, the plan is to establish 10 research centres, 15 university technological innovation centres in association with King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), and at least eight technology incubators at KACST and other universities… Under the development plan, the 24 government universities will admit 278,000 secondary school graduates in the new academic year (2010-11) and private universities and colleges will provide an additional 15,000 places. [Additionally,] Saudi Arabia has sent more than 88,000 students abroad to study under the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Programme.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How do students at elite Pakistani universities view the world?

I have recently returned from Pakistan, so some of the upcoming posts will be on Pakistan. I should first point to this absolute must-read article in last month's Newsline by Ayesha Siddiqa: The Conservatively Hip. The article cites results from a recent study that tabulated the opinion of 608 students from Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. The objective of the study was to "determine the socio-political attitudes of youth in elite institutions in the country's three major cities".

The study is crucial as madrassas - catering mostly to the lower and lower-middle income class - are often solely blamed for the radicalization of Pakistan. But how do the students belonging to middle and upper-middle class view the world? On the one hand we see the proliferation of 24-hour music channels, hip coffee shops, and even fashion shows. On the other hand, we also see many pop-icons and cricket stars sporting long-religious beards as well as a general increase in public piety.

So what did the study find? It appears that the new and upcoming generation from the elite universities is quite conservative - both politically and religiously. A majority of the respondents (56%) are against Pakistan being a secular state, and 62% versus only 26% agreed with the government's declaration of Ahmedies (a religious sect routinely suppressed and persecuted in Pakistan) as non-Muslims. Yes, you read it correctly. In 2010, only 26% had any issue with a whole group of people being declared non-Muslims by the state (in order to get a Pakistani passport as a Muslim, one has to swear that Ahmedies are non-Muslims. Instead of standing up against this state-sponsored discrimination, only a handful see this as being wrong). In case you are wondering, 18% also considered Shias to be non-Muslims (Pakistan has about 20-25% Shia population).

Perhaps, what comes as a bit of relief is that a majority of these students at elite universities have a negative view of terrorism. At the same time, they predominantly ascribe the causes of terrorism in Pakistan to poverty - and do not necessarily see a link with radical worldviews (remember, Faisal Shahzad - the Time Square bomber, was not exactly poor). Furthermore, US, Israel and the West, beat out India to be the "greatest threat to the Muslim ummah".

We have to keep in mind the challenges in interpreting societal trends from such a study. Nevertheless, here are a few trends that have come out:
1) First, Pakistan’s young adults abhor violence especially that which is directed against their own circle. 
2) Second, they do not necessarily understand the link between their particular worldview and latent radicalism. 
3) Third, they see terrorism mainly as a class issue rather than as a product of a peculiar mindset. 
4) Fourth, there is a great affinity for religious norms and religious identity. 
5) Fifth, there is greater political conservatism than earlier studies suggest, and this is reflected in a certain acceptance of the military’s role in politics. While these respondents did not totally accept the military as being reliable, they were even more vociferous in rejecting politicians and politics. 
6) Finally, the youth were more accepting of the religio-political and geo-political norms established by the state on issues such as the status of Shias and Ahmedis and the country’s foreign relations. These trends were ascertained from the responses, some of which are being presented here.
But what has been responsible for shaping these attitudes. Ayesha lists a few below - and I think the shaping/merging of Pakistani identity with Islam and viewing all conflicts solely through the lens of the "clash of civilizations", are perhaps two of the most important factors shaping these attitudes:

The basic idea behind the study was to explore the social and political attitudes of youth beyond the pre-conceived notion that all those who are highly educated are naturally liberal or reject militancy. It must be enunciated that while the majority rejected the very obvious symbols of radicalism and extremism, the mindset reflected a propensity towards latent radicalism. The trends uncovered here are influenced by the overall shift of societal attitudes towards latent radicalism as explained by the following four factors.
Firstly, the greater emphasis on religious identity is a result of what the renowned scholar Farzana Sheikh describes as the Pakistani state’s bid to define citizenship according to the citizen’s putative relationship with religion. Consequently, the selection process has continued to narrow down from the general to the more specific. All minority groups, who do not meet their requirement, are hence dismissed as peripheral to the state and society. The dominant groups then engage in violence against them. The process of the definition and re-definition of a citizen sharpened during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule. A society that seemed fairly liberal and pluralistic began to cave in before the systematic campaign launched by the military dictator to Islamise society. Presently, the worry is not that the youth are more Islamic but that they have begun to relate to each other within the narrow confines of a peculiar interpretation of religious principles.
Secondly, latent radicalism is also a product of Islamic social movements that grew or expanded during the 1990s through outfits like Al-Huda and the Tableeghi Jamaat (this is not to suggest that the Tableeghi Jamaat started during the 1990s). We saw children from the upper-middle and middle classes get inducted into these movements and change their perspectives about life and other people. These movements do not necessarily encourage jihad, but they shape the mind according to a certain theological interpretation, which can help create the likes of Faisal Shahzad and Omar Saeed Sheikh.
Third, latent radicalism in society is owed to the so-called “clash of civilisations” that seems to have taken off in a big way after 9/11. George W. Bush’s reference to the “crusade” and the subsequent policies that the US adopted created a general sense of abandonment and insecurity among the elite. Having to take off their shoes at airports and being subjected to extremely humiliating body searches created a feeling of hostility, especially among the educated youth, to the western socio-political system. 
According to Dr Muhammad Waseem, who is a professor at LUMS, students hate the US, but at the same time they desire to go there for studies.
Fourth, the above factors have added to the impact of militarisation on the Pakistani mindset. Militarisation begets further militarisation.
 These are worrisome factors and trends. Nevertheless, systematic studies like this one are essential in understanding how Pakistanis are viewing the world. If you have time, please do read the full article.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lunacy still reigns at the Texas Board of Education

The Texas Board of Education keeps its monopoly on idiocy. After repeatedly trying to introduce creationism in textbooks and attacking social sciences, the Texas Board today passed a resolution against the "pro-Islamic" and "anti-Christian" bias in textbooks. The vote passed 7-5, but it has no meaning as it is non-binding. Yes, it is easy to laugh at this (at this rate, the Texas Board of Education may render The Onion out of business) - but we should not underestimate the influence of such measures both in and outside the US.

The Texas State Board of Education adopted a resolution Friday that seeks to curtail references to Islam in Texas textbooks, as social conservative board members warned of what they describe as a creeping Middle Eastern influence in the nation's publishing industry.
The board approved the one-page nonbinding resolution, which urges textbook publishers to limit what they print about Islam in world history books, by a 7-5 vote.
Critics say it's another example of the ideological board trying to politicize public education in the Lone Star State. Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for religious freedom, questioned why the resolution came at a time when "anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country has reached fever pitch."
"It's hard not to conclude that the misleading claims in this resolution are either based on ignorance of what's in the textbooks or, on the other hand, are an example of fear-mongering and playing politics," Miller said.
Future boards that will choose the state's next generation of social studies texts will not be bound by the resolution.

Read the full story here.

P.S. Just a note to the writers of the resolution: They keep on mixing Middle-Easterners with Muslims. Actually a majority of Muslims do not live in the Middle East. For example, the largest Muslim country by population is Indonesia. Oh - but then this is something that they could have learnt in textbooks.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Daily Show on Religious Conflict

Yes, I'm catching up on the Daily Show episodes I missed while I was in Pakistan. Here is a more or less accurate one on religious conflict. Enjoy.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Team Mohammed vs. Team Jesus - Religious Conflict
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Gorillas and God" - Science & Religion Lecture on Sept 22nd at Hampshire College

As part of our Science & Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire College, we will have anthropologist Barbara J. King as our speaker on September 22nd (tomorrow!). The title of her talk is Gorillas and God: The Evolutionary Roots of Religion. This promises to be a fascinating talk and you should check out her book, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. She also runs the Friday Animal Blog

If you are in the area, please join us tomorrow for the lecture (yes, there will be cookies too). If you can't make it, we will be posting the video of the lecture in the next couple of weeks (see this link for past lecture videos). 

Here is the full announcement with the abstract for the talk:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Gorillas and God
Evolutionary Roots of Religion
Dr. Barbara J. King

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Anthropologists routinely seek evidence for the primate origins of human technology, language, and culture. In this illustrated talk, anthropologist Barbara J. King reviews the findings to date from the search for an aspect of our primate past even more elusive: the deepest roots of human religiosity. Using modern African apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees as a guide, she reflects upon the earliest evolutionary manifestations of compassion, imagination, thinking beyond the here-and-now, and ritual. She traces the first evidence for spirituality in human material culture by consideration of archaeological sites such as the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves in France, and Gobekli Tepe and Catalhoyuk in Turkey. King reflects as well on how we may, via a focus on the plasticity and contingency of our becoming-human trajectory (instead of on a heavily biologized account of our past), come to grasp more fully when it means to be human.

Dr. Barbara King is a biological anthropologist and Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at The College of William & Mary. Professor King’s research interests include primate behavior, especially ape communication, culture, and cognition; hominid evolution, especially evolution of language, culture, and religion; religion and science; dynamic systems theory;. She has studied ape and monkey behavior in Gabon, Kenya, and at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University. The recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, her books include The Information Continuum: Social Information Transfer in Monkeys, Apes, and Hominids, The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion, and Being with Animals.

For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit

Monday, September 20, 2010

Muslim Humanoid Robots

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 the category “Science and Technology in the Muslim World”, I would like to briefly report some efforts at developing “human-like” robots by researchers in Iran and in the United Arab Emirates.
First, in early July it was reported that a robot equipped with artificial intelligence was developed in Iran. Named Surena, he (the name sounds like a she, but it refers to an ancient Persian warrior, so I guess it’s a he) stands 1.45 m tall, weighs 45 kg and walks slowly like a man (or a boy), with “characteristic […] regular arm and leg movements.”
Not to belittle the efforts of the Iranians, who – it must be recalled – rely almost entirely on their own resources (human and material), but if that’s what makes it “human-like”, I am afraid that’s not much of a (technical) development; as we all know, such robots (see picture below) have been around for decades…

Then in August it was announced that researchers at the UAE’s national university had produced a new, advanced humanoid robot, one that not only walks like a human, but looks like a human being, and talks like a human being (responds, in artificial-intelligence manner, to human questions, via a voice synthesizer). Now that’s much better, as far as I’m concerned.
Named Ibn Sina (after the great medieval polymath Avicenna, and that too is a much better choice), the robot is claimed to be “one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots” – for indeed there have also been others like this one, including an Einstein-looking humanoid robot. (Actually, when I was looking for info on such humanoid robots, I came across youtube clips of female-looking androids that do various massages. You can imagine what else will be coming soon…)
Ibn Sina, however, can recognize faces, understand people who speak Arabic, move to face them, gesture (shake hands and touch noses, an Arabian tradition), and respond with full sentences (in either Arabic or English). It uses software developed by Acapela, a French company, but it can also connect to the internet and retrieve information for its purposes (that’s impressive, if the claim is true). Earlier versions of Ibn Sina had been developed, as can be found through Google and youtube searches, but this one is clearly a much improved version. Watch Ibn Sina video here (in Arabic)
Although its budget was a modest $200,000, this project, from the UAEU College of Information Technology’s Interactive Robots and Media Lab, was supported by the highest authorities in the UAE. Now plans and efforts are being made to find sponsors and investors and turn it into a commercial venture.
It is encouraging to note that researchers in the region are exploring all such scientific and technological fields and making noteworthy progress. Let us hope that bureaucracy, stress, friction (dissipation of energy), and lack of recognition and support don’t end up driving these researchers away to either less creative but more lucrative areas (locally) or to greener pastures (globally)…

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A new book on Al-Kindi's works

Ethics, existence of soul, psychology, existence of God, astrology, causality, cosmology (in the medieval sense), and the beginning of everything. There is a new book out that looks the views of Al-Kindi, considered as one of the first Muslim philosophers. If you are interested in medieval philosophy and/or the history of science, then you should check out Al-Kindi by Peter Adamson. Here is a review by Daniel Davies (tip from Tabsir):

Al-Kindī is widely known as the first of the Islamic philosophers. In ninth century Baghdad he gathered around himself a circle that was highly active in translating the Greek sciences into Arabic. As well as being the first of the Arab philosophers Al-Kindī is now the first of the Arab philosophers to be included in the Great Medieval Thinkers series. Al-Kindī was expert in a vast array of scientific disciplines and in this book Peter Adamson concentrates on the philosophical topics on which Al-Kindī wrote, as is appropriate for the series: metaphysics; ethics; psychology; medicine; cosmology. One of the many virtues of the book is that it focuses on elucidating the philosophical arguments themselves, in a way that is both sympathetic and critical, rather than only seeking their provenance or tracing their after-effects. Certainly, al-Kindī has long been recognised as a creative and voluminous writer, though, until now, the extent and nature of his originality had yet to be mapped. Adamson shows that al-Kindī deserves a place amongst the great philosophers in his own right and not only because of the pervading presence of his work in later Islamic and Arabic thought.
Mediaeval Islamic philosophers are increasingly being recognised for the value inherent in their work, rather than simply as conduits for the transfer of ancient Greek ideas to the Latin West. Al-Kindī was such an important figure in the history and development of Arabic philosophy that there may be a risk of relegating his role to an equivalent channelling of Greek ideas into Arabic. This danger is accentuated by the fact that even many Arabists find al-Kindī’s language strange and difficult to penetrate. Maybe some obscurity is inevitable for one like al-Kindī who worked at a time when the tradition of Arabic philosophy was beginning to find its feet. Terminology needs time to crystallise and idioms might not always be found to transfer the meaning of the source adequately. Furthermore, it might not always be apparent exactly which works were available to an author writing in such a situation. So Adamson’s book plays the dual role of rescuing al-Kindī from the sidelines of philosophy in general and of presenting him to Arabic scholars and philosophers. It is also extremely accessible and, along with texts currently being co-translated by the author and meant as a companion to this volume, should open up study of al-Kindī as philosopher to many more students as well.

And of course, I have to include a bit the beginning of everything (though "everything" was contained much less than what we know about the universe today). But what is interesting here is that Al-Kindi's views on this were related to the fascinating debate over the nature of the Qur'an that took place amongst Muslim philosophers and theologians in the medieval times (read more about Mu'tazilla and these debates here - though it is still hard to find a clear-cut group definition).
Whether the world is with or without beginning is a question that occupied many in later Arabic philosophy and became, at times, a controversial issue. Al-Kindī may have set the agenda for this debate when he supported the view that the world was created with a temporal beginning. Adamson argues that al-Kindī’s concern probably arises from the disagreements of his time over whether the Qur’ān is created or eternal. In this context, one side argued that if it is eternal it cannot be differentiated from God’s eternality. In order to secure the transcendence of God, and a correct answer to this question, al-Kindī would have been justified in generalising the argument to the entire created order. Much of this chapter is dedicated to the Greek background of al-Kindī’s arguments, particularly the works of Philoponous who, like al-Kindī, opposed the Aristotelian view that the world had no beginning. Here too, however, Adamson convincingly argues that al-Kindī’s arguments are more original than has previously been credited.
Read the full review here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lynchings in 21st century?

I'm not sure exactly what to say about this and I'm sorry to post such a downer story here. A traffic incident (not even an accident) led to the brutal killing of one person in Gujrat (Pakistan). It is the details that are so horrific. From today's editorial in Daily Dawn (please be warned of the disturbing nature of the post below):
One of these was Thursday’s incident in Gujrat, when a man was bludgeoned to death over a minor traffic row. Eyewitnesses say that the victim, Tariq Mahmood, narrowly avoided a collision with a motorbike. An argument ensued after which the bikers, whose apparel indicated their association with the legal fraternity, started hitting the car driver. Mahmood took refuge in his car but the enraged bikers, joined by three of their colleagues, broke the car windows, pulled him out and beat him with bricks until he was dead. 

Couple of things to note here: There was no actual accident - only a near miss. Then, those attacking the car drive are lawyers!! Yes, you read it correctly. This public lynching was done by those who at least have some knowledge of the law, and probably appear in at least some courts. And then what kind of rage are we dealing here? This is not simply the fact that the argument got heated. The car driver took refuge in his car, but the attackers pulled him out and beat him until he was dead. One may excuse this as a one-off incident and we can call them monsters. But what about the bystanders?? No one intervened to stop this brutality? What about the cops? Eye witnesses say that they refused to intervene as their duties were limited only to checking vehicles. Forget about the cops: I'm just curious here: Would you allow a person battered to death in front of your eyes? Will you at least make an effort to intervene (remember, the assailants did not have any guns)?

Unfortunately, this is not a unique incident. Pakistan is already reeling from the video-taped lynching of two teenage brothers in Sialkot earlier this month, when they they were mistaken for robbers. They were "beaten with sticks and rods before being strung up on metal poles in broad daylight as a large crowd and several policemen looked on." Forget about those who had sticks and rods and lets forget about the cops. The former can be described as monsters and the latter as massively corrupt. What about the onlooking "large crowd"? Why didn't people step-in from the crowd to stop this insanity? What kind of society can produce such a silent crowd in the face of lynchings of teenage boys?

Lynchings have taken place even in Karachi. In 2008, three robbers were beaten and then burnt alive in front of a crowd (two died on the spot and the third died in the hospital). Pakistaniat (A fantastic blog about happenings in Pakistan), after some contemplation, posted the pictures of the burning human bodies - with a crowd of onlookers (reader discretion is advised).

Absolutely appalling.

Read the Dawn editorial here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

IMANA ethics symposium at Hofstra University

There is an interesting conference at Hofstra later this week. I would have attended it, but I'm in Pakistan right now. The details below:

The Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) and the Muslim Chaplain’s Office of Hofstra University invite you to attend the 2010 IMANA-Hofstra Ethics Symposium, September 17-18, 2010. The symposium’s theme is End of Life Issues: Ethical and Religious Perspectives.
Intended audience are physicians, especially those in critical care medicine, emergency medicine, maternal fetal medicine and neonatology, medical bioethicists, chaplains, students in these fields and interested individuals.
Contact the conference co-director Dr. Hossam E. Fadel.

Monday, September 13, 2010

God, the Universe, and French Scientists

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 French weekly magazine Le Point (roughly analogous to Newsweek) devoted some 20 pages of its August 5 issue to the topic “Does God Exist? What scientists say; their latest discoveries”.
In my very first post on Irtiqa, last January, I had noted that it is a rarity and something of a cultural gamble for a French magazine to put God on its cover. Le Monde des Religions in January devoted half its issue to Science and Religion, and one had to go back at least 5 years to find any other magazine devoting a number of pages to a similar topic: “God and Science”.
It is even more interesting that Le Point’s dossier came a month before the publicity-seeking declarations of Hawking claiming that cosmology had all but ruled out God. Indeed, it is paradoxical that the French, who are known for their staunch secularism, bordering on the overtly anti-religious, would have a mainstream magazine where the dossier begins as follows: “Shake Up: The idea of God is no longer taboo among scientists. Their latest discoveries push them to reflect.” The magazine’s general thesis, presented in the opening article, is that some recent scientific developments (mainly the cosmic fine-tuning and some research in biology – see below) not only allow many scientists to openly ask the God question but also to find no conflict between faith and science, as long as things are not taken to extremes and no intermingling confusion is allowed.
There were 3 parts in this dossier: (1) interviews of 8 scientists on their views of faith; (2) a two-part exploration of the Vatican’s view of and interaction with Science; (3) a two-page interview with the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, a soft atheist with subtle views on issues of Science/Reason and Religion/Faith. In this post, I will focus on the first part of the dossier, the interviews with the 8 scientists, which make up more than half the material of the topic. I will probably come back to the other two parts, which were equally as interesting, some other time.
Below I will summarize very briefly the views of the 8 scientists, who range from a Muslim convert to a staunch atheist.
  • Trinh Xuan Thuan, 62, is an astrophysicist who teaches at the University of Virginia (USA) and spends a couple of months each year in France doing research and writing books (several of his have been best-sellers there); he is a Buddhist. His views (in a nutshell): “I feel connected to the cosmos… Astrophysics led me to Metaphysics when I considered the origin of the universe. I believe in the strong version of the Anthropic Principle. I do not believe in a god who would have created our universe ex nihilo, but rather in a creative principle that manifests itself in the physical laws of nature – the pantheistic vision of Spinoza and Einstein.”
  • Michel Morange, 59, is a biologist and historian of science; he is catholic. His views: “Science cannot settle the question of the existence of God. Science and belief are two parallel discourses that cannot converge… God is not needed for an understanding of the living world…”
  • Etienne Klein, 52, is a materials physicist; he is agnostic. His views: “Belief in God cannot be disproven… The question of the origin of the universe is often presented as a zone of conflict between science and religion, where the realms of believing and of knowing would clash… I believe in a ‘third way’: the origin of the universe is an absolute mystery, and no one can provide a [full] answer for it. Because explaining the origin of the universe is to explain the jump from nothingness to being, which neither science nor religions can perform; each starts from an ‘already there’: God, the Word, the quantum vacuum, etc.”
  • Jean-Pierre Luminet, 58, is an astrophysicist; he is an atheist. His views: “In science, when a researcher is awed, it is not because he has found God [in his work]…Why do we find in the Universe some intangible laws? Was the history of the Universe written from the start in matter, and while getting more and more complex, matter was bound to produce life? We would all like to believe that. But that does not imply the existence of an initial project…”
  • Anne Dambricourt-Malassé, 51, is a researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris; she is ‘a believer’. Her views: “Natural selection does not, alone, explain the simultaneous emergence of so many changes [in organisms], nor that of conscious beings capable of analyzing the consequences of their actions… When we see in humans the appearance of spirituality, art, funeral rites, etc., we are forced to seek an understanding of all that…”
  • Pascal Picq, 56, is a human paleo-anthropologist; he is an atheist. His views: “There is neither a universal law nor a goal in evolution... ‘What I believe’ has no place in science…”
  • Bruno Guiderdoni, 52, is an astrophysicist, presently director of the Lyons observatory; he converted to Islam 23 years ago. His views: “It is the need to find meaning that led me to exploring religious questions… Religion does not block science; only certain readings of religion can constitute a roadblock in front of science… Of course there can be materialistic interpretations of science, but it is also possible to have a ‘theistic’ reading of it… In the Muslim world today, science is caught in an ideological battle between the fundamentalists who want to monopolize the interpretation of the Qur’an and those who claim to find miraculous scientific knowledge in the Qur’an… Between these two extremes, Muslim scientists try to push for a real scientific research tradition, as it once flourished in the Muslim culture.”

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Poverty and Religiosity

There is a new Gallup poll out that looks at religiosity as a function of a country's GDP. Not surprisingly, the poorest countries are also the most religious. Here is a helpful plot from Charles Blow of the New York Times:

The upper left corner (poor and religious) is populated with several Muslim countries. In fact here is the table for some of the top 10 most religious countries:

wow - look at the 99%+ countries. I'm actually surprised that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not up there (they are at #35 and #38 respectively, with Saudi Arabia at 93% and Pakistan at 92%). It is a bit surprising to see Sri Lanka up there as well, but then 90% of Indians also think that religion is an important part of their lives. Given my recent trip to Malaysia, I will also include it in here: 96%. Wow! And this is inclusive of non-Muslim minorities as well.

If you look at religiosity as a function of median per-capita income, then you also get a pretty clear trend:

Well, explanation for these numbers is one thing. But this, perhaps, also has lessons for the recent tensions over freedom-of-speech in the West versus respect for religion (read Muslims). This is indeed a tough issue - but we don't take into account that, because of global communications, we are now having these debates across cultures with values far far different from each other. An understanding and appreciation of these differences may help in diffusing tensions related to hot-button controversies, such as the recently aborted Qur'an burning stunt in Florida.

As far as the possible explanation for the religiosity-poverty link:
Social scientists have put forth numerous possible explanations for the relationship between the religiosity of a population and its average income level. One theory is that religion plays a more functional role in the world's poorest countries, helping many residents cope with a daily struggle to provide for themselves and their families. A previous Gallup analysis supports this idea, revealing that the relationship between religiosity and emotional wellbeing is stronger among poor countries than among those in the developed world.
Now US is an obvious outlier. A few years ago I had a post on a fantastic Atlantic Monthly article analyzing results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project - and the author of the article had made some interesting observations about the connection of wealth with an increasing level of secularization (see Secularization, Wealth and Religiosity, and the discussion therein). But regarding the US issue, the author had suggested that it is the free-market competition of religions in the US (in particular, amongst the various Protestant denominations) that has led to creative innovations with enormous success, both in the US and abroad. I think this is a very interesting point. However, in the same time, there has also been a notable increase in the number of people who do not adhere to any religion ("Nones") in the US. The Atlantic article takes an optimistic approach towards an increasing level of secularism in the world, and despite these new Gallup results, I agree with it, and I think that the ease of cross-cultural exchanges will eventually dilute out these sharp numbers (overall, perhaps a geographically more religiously pluralistic world). But how will that interplay with the poverty-religiosity connection?

Good stuff and fascinating issues. Check out this earlier discussion here, and the new Gallup results here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Creationism at 35,000 feet

I have been traveling to Pakistan for the past few days (yes, plane delays, missed flights, and detours have made this into a multi-day odyssey). On the flight from London to Dubai, an Iraqi/British pilot was sitting next to me (no - I was not sitting in the cockpit). We struck a conversation and when talking about research, the topic of evolution came up. And oh-boy - he turned out to be a full blown creationist with all the bells and whistles (Adam was made by Allah using "hands" and Eve was literally made out of Adam's ribs, they were brought to Earth from the outside, etc). He did not know much about evolution, but he was thoroughly convinced that he opposed it. Okay - so I have encountered these kind of views before. But, perhaps not surprisingly, he also believed that humans never went to the Moon, was a believer in astrology and ghosts, and had our flight not landed, I'm sure he would have told me about the Lochness monster and the Big Foot too. 

So what's the big deal? I don't know. It bothered me that he is a pilot - and flies some of the most amazing technology developed on the principles of science. Plus, we were having this discussion while above the clouds at 35,000 feet. If all humans displayed this much lack of critical thinking, we would still be only talking about mythological figures flying in the skies. I don't know - his utter lack of critical thinking and this level of creationism really bugged me. He is a pilot after all! (yes, I know, the same applies to medical doctors as well...)

Oh and I was also admonished by a young bearded dude (a fellow passenger for the Pakistan-bound flight) for drinking coffee openly during Ramadan. It was 9am and we were waiting for the plane to board. Since there was still time to kill, I asked him for his precise reasons (I'm also aware of the fact that fasting is not an obligation for travelers. One may still choose to fast, but it is not a requirement). And he said he was worried about the temptation for the weak willed believers (weak "iman"). I asked him if he was being tempted. He said, no, no, his "iman" is strong, but others don't have the same "iman". Aah...but of course. To be fair, he was quite polite - apart from actually asking me to drink coffee in hiding. 

Next few posts will be from Pakistan (this is a family trip - so no talks and no research business). I should be back in the US by Sept 21st.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A New Yorker article on Francis Collins

Francis Collins has become an interesting figure for debates over science & religion. He is an outspoken Evangelical christian as well as the director of the National Institutes for Health (NIH), and his professional credentials are impeccable. After leading the Human Genome Project, he went on to write a book The Language of God. When Obama appointed him as the director of NIH, many questioned this choice - since Collins believes in at least some (past) religious miracles, and questioned if he should be in one of the most prominent posts for American science. I think this was a good choice purely from a professional view point. Now there is an interesting article about Francis Collins in last week's New Yorker. Apart from talking about the controversy over Collins' appointment and his journey to Christianity, the article also does a nice job of addressing the recent stem-cells ruling that has halted federal funding for embryonic stem-cells research. Hopefully, this ruling will get reversed, but the Congress may have to step in for this one. Here are some bits from the article about the reaction to Collins' appointment and about his upbringing:

When the geneticist Francis Collins was named director of the National Institutes of Health, last summer, he became the public face of American science and the keeper of the world’s deepest biomedical-research-funding purse. He was praised by President Obama and waved through the Senate confirmation process without objection. There also came a peer review of a sort that he’d never experienced, conducted in the press and in Internet science forums. Collins read in the Times that many of his colleagues in the scientific community believed that he suffered from “dementia.” Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, questioned the appointment on the ground that Collins was “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, complained, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.”
Collins’s detractors did not question his professional achievements, which long ago secured his place in the first rank of international scientists. As a young researcher at Yale, Collins conceived a method of hastening the laborious process of hunting disease-causing genes by skipping across long stretches of chromosomes until the suspect gene’s neighborhood was located. As an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, in the nineteen-eighties, he and collaborators at the University of Toronto employed this method to find the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and, a year later, the genetic flaw responsible for neurofibromatosis. These breakthroughs brought him fame and, eventually, the job of director of the Human Genome Project, which promised to revolutionize medicine by identifying and mapping all the approximately twenty thousand human genes that code for protein.
President Obama’s choice of Collins for the N.I.H. touched a nerve. The George W. Bush era had been an extraordinarily fractious time in public science, beginning with Bush’s first prime-time address to the nation, in which he announced restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research. That move, and others that followed, convinced Bush’s critics that the religious right had become the final arbiter of public policy, an impression that Bush seemed little inclined to dispel. “Well, we thought we’d seen the last of the theocracy of George W. Bush, but it apparently ain’t so,” Dr. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago professor, wrote when Collins was appointed. “I am funded by the N.I.H., and I’m worried. Not about my own funding (although I’m a heathen cultural Jew), but about how this will affect things like stem-cell research and its funding.” 
A year later, Obama’s appointment of Collins seemed an inspired choice. The President had found not only a man who reflected his own view of the harmony between science and faith but an evangelical Christian who hoped that the government’s expansion of embryonic-stem-cell research might bring the culture war over science to a quiet end. On August 23rd, however, Judge Royce C. Lamberth, of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, halted federal spending for embryonic-stem-cell research, putting hundreds of research projects in limbo and plunging the N.I.H. back into a newly contentious national debate. 
At the N.I.H., the ability to deal with controversies, as a generation of Collins’s predecessors learned, matters at least as much as credentials; political combat comes with the job. Collins does not seem a likely combatant. His physical aspect—gray mustache and hair (cut in an early-Beatles mop top), thin-rimmed eyeglasses, and a distinct pallor—suggests a man best acquainted with a sunless existence in some laboratory. Yet, in a relatively colorless town, Collins has come to be known as something of a character, a model of geek cool. He likes big, noisy motorcycles, and, despite a mild manner, he is famously unself-conscious. At the unlikeliest moments, he will strap on a guitar and accompany himself in song, often a tune he has composed for the occasion.
Okay - I knew about his motorcycle, but not about his singing. But he has a quite an interesting background:
The man who holds the most powerful job in American science came from an unusual background. During the Depression, Collins’s parents, Fletcher and Margaret Collins, became part of a short-lived West Virginia project—sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and with financial help from Bernard Baruch—that attempted to create an ideal community for a group of impoverished miners near Morgantown.
Fletcher was the project’s music director, with the mission of helping the homesteaders recover their cultural heritage. He had a gift for coaxing from the mountain people the nearly forgotten old fiddle tunes, folk songs, and square-dance calls that had been, he wrote, “very much in their blood,” but “layered over by coal dust.”
After the war, the Collinses bought a ninety-four-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, near Staunton, Virginia, determined to derive a livelihood from the land without modern agricultural machinery. They kept chickens, sheep, cows, and two workhorses, who pulled the plow and old wagon that carried the harvest from the hilly fields to the barn. The four Collins children, all boys, served as farmhands, collecting eggs, milking the cows, and shucking corn. When the alfalfa needed to be mowed and baled, amused neighbors would stop by with their tractors and help out. Once a week, the family drove into Staunton, where Margaret’s parents lived, and the boys had a bath; in the summertime, they bathed in the cow trough. After a few years, Fletcher took a position as drama instructor at the local women’s college, Mary Baldwin (“My cash crop,” he’d say), but the family was relatively poor. The younger boys wore their brothers’ hand-me-downs, and by the time the clothes reached Francis, the youngest, they were threadbare.
The Collinses’ household, known as Pennyroyal Farm, became the center of a vibrant arts community in Staunton. (It’s still thriving.) “Musicians would come and crash there for a couple of weeks because they’d run out of money,” Collins recalls. “They’d play great music, and then finally they’d move on.” Bob Dylan was among those who came to Pennyroyal. “Margaret and Fletcher were sort of hippies before there were hippies,” the singer Linda Williams recalls. “They were back-to-the-landers, and saw things the way people did in the seventies, only they’d done it in the thirties.”
For Francis, it was an enchanting, if arduous, childhood, part Boys’ Life and part Woodstock. He could set a barn door and knew how to predict weather by reading the sky over the distant Alleghenies. He did not see the inside of a schoolroom until sixth grade, because Margaret taught her boys at home. “There was no schedule,” Francis recalls. “The idea of Mother having a lesson plan would be just completely laughable. But she would get us excited about trying to learn about a topic that we didn’t know much about. And she would pose a question and basically charge you with it, using whatever resources you had—your mind, exploring nature, reading books—to try to figure out, well, what could you learn about that? And you’d keep at it until it just got tiresome. And then she’d always be ready for the next thing.”
Read the full article here
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