Friday, December 31, 2010

How is history viewed in Saudi Arabia?

Last August I had a post about the gigantic clock in Mecca. The main focus of my post was to address some of the bizarre pseudoscientific geological claims about Mecca. Just in passing, I had also mentioned the oddity of the presence of such a large structure next to a serene and spiritual center for Muslims. Indeed, it is not just the clock that is the problem, but it is also the construction of other high rises and luxury hotels:
It is an architectural absurdity. Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. Its muscular form, an unabashed knockoff of the original, blown up to a grotesque scale, will be decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on.
The tower is just one of many construction projects in the very center of Mecca, from train lines to numerous luxury high-rises and hotels and a huge expansion of the Grand Mosque. 
While this commercialization is appalling, the destruction of history around the city is completely nuts. Then there was this in the article (tip from Laura Sizer):
And, they add, it has been facilitated by Saudi Arabia’s especially strict interpretation of Islam, which regards much history after the age of Muhammad, and the artifacts it produced, as corrupt, meaning that centuries-old buildings can be destroyed with impunity.
Now I know that many of the graves, tombs, and historical monuments in Arabia were destroyed (sigh!) by Wahabis in the early 19th century. But I didn't know about this particular idea of a corrupt history after seventh century AD. Does any one know more about it? This is truly medieval thinking (no pun intended). Even so, people like al-Tabari and Ibn-Khaldun must be rolling in their graves after hearing such disregard for history.

No wonder Saudi Arabia needs a big clock. They are completely stuck in time.

I'm curious about this ahistorical fetish, as I did not hear about it in Pakistan, and ancient as well as recent history is taught in schools. From my recent trip to Egypt, it was clear that they are proud of both their pre-Islamic and post-Islamic sites. Though, I do think it was nuts that Saladin's son, Al-Aziz, tried to dismantle the great pyramids at Giza in the 12th century. After several months of trying, he gave up. He did leave one of the pyramids a little damaged. But then, conquerers at the time used to do these type of things. The wonderful temple at Luxor has Greek and Roman modifications, as well as a 16th century mosque in its compound. Similarly the spectacular beauty of a palace of Alhambra is interrupted by an intrusive palace built by Charles V. But in all these cases, they are at least going after the artifacts of their rivals. Saudis, on the other hand, are showing disregard for their own history; they seem to be considering history itself as a rival. So I'm now curious about how history is taught in Saudi Arabia.

In any case, you can check out pictures of the construction of the clock. Please also check out this entertaining post at Tabsir: Ibn Big Ben.

Here is a view of Kaaba from the top of the clock tower:

Also see:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bruno on the stake again...

Giordano Bruno is again getting burnt for his beliefs in the plurality of worlds. For example, an article in last week's Science about the discovery of extrasolar planets started this way (you may need subscription to access it):
For holding firm to this idea of plural worlds, Giordano Bruno spent 7 years in a dungeon; then, on 17 February 1600, he was led to a public square in Rome and burned at the stake. If Bruno had had the power to summon the future, his best shot at survival might have been to show his inquisitors the Web page of the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, circa 2010. Evidence from the year 2000, when the planets in the encyclopedia numbered a mere 26, might not have done the trick. But the latest tally, 505 and counting, surely would have stayed their torches.
Yes, indeed, one of the reasons for his burning was his belief in the plurality of the worlds, but this isn't the full story. Not that burning anyone is a good thing, but there were a host of other reasons as well that ended up costing Bruno his life (please see an earlier post: Why was Giordano Bruno Burnt at the Stake?). From a review in Salon of a recent Bruno biography:

It was what Rowland calls Bruno's "combative personality" that finally did him in. The Roman Inquisition, in an especially insecure and punitive mood on account of widespread Protestant agitation against the church, had only the Venetian nobleman's testimony against the philosopher. Then one of Bruno's former cellmates, a man he'd slapped during a dispute and who feared that Bruno had informed on him as well, stepped forward to relate the various blasphemies and heretical convictions Bruno had spouted during their time together behind bars.
The last straw was Bruno's refusal to accept the authority of the Inquisition itself. Even so, his rebellion was peculiarly Catholic: He kept insisting he'd recant if the pope personally confirmed to him that his beliefs were heresy. This infuriated Cardinal Bellarmine, known for his conviction that harsh punishments make good teachers. Sixteen years later, Galileo managed to elude the more extreme penalties meted out by Bellarmine and company with a public (and essentially politic) repudiation of his heliocentric views; he lived to fight another day under a relatively comfortable house arrest. Bruno was characteristically less prudent, and died naked and gagged (by some accounts with an iron spike through his tongue), in flames.
As Rowland points out, Bruno, irascible as he was, had committed no crime, not even the disruption of mass, a common practice by militant Protestants of the day (and also punishable by death). He "had done nothing in his life except talk, write and argue." When his fate was pronounced, he told his condemners, "You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it." It took a long time for that to prove true, yet thanks to those idealistic 19th-century students, everyone who comes to Rome to behold the splendor of the Vatican is also presented with a reminder of its bloody, repressive past. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, free-thinking Romans cover his statue with flowers. While the church has since expressed "profound regret" for his persecution (which it simultaneously tries to palm off on "civil authority"), this can't be comfortably reconciled with the canonization of Bellarmine a mere seven decades ago. Dead 400 years and largely unread but immortalized nevertheless in bronze, Giordano Bruno is still a thorn in their side.
Read the full review in Salon here. But also see the Science article on extrasolar planets that looks at the progress in this direction over the past decade (astronomers have started to detect earth-sized exoplanets, have taken direct images of at least one, and have started to analyze atmospheres of some also). And the next few years should certainly be exciting - especially with Kepler space telescope now in orbit:
Astronomers expect Kepler to find several Earth-like planets in the next few years. Already, researchers are planning new ground- and space-based instruments to take spectra of the atmospheres of some of those habitable planets. Those atmospheres may bear signatures of life, such as oxygen, which researchers believe can be produced only by biological processes. If and when that happens, it would be the ultimate vindication of Bruno's fatal vision of a cosmos teeming with worlds.
Okay, I agree with the Bruno sentiment here.                

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Damn you - Evolution!

I'm in the middle of recovering from travel and from dreading the start of the next semester. So to fill in the recover-dread vacuum, here is Smithsonian on the Top 10 Daily Consequences of having Evolved. This is just a nice way of showing the broad (and sometimes entertaining) ways we are connected with other species on the planet. Here are three of my favorites on the list:
1. Our cells are weird chimeras 
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).
This is just fascinating and really links us with the long history of life on Earth. But my favorite example here is that of hiccups and why we can't really control them:
2. Hiccups 
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.
Wait a minute. Growing up, I was told that hiccups signify that someone is thinking of you. I'm so confused now...

And since I recently saw the fantastic, but very intense and somewhat scary, Black Swan, I will add the origin of the useless goosebumps here: 

7. Goosebumps don't really help 
When our ancestors were covered in fur, muscles in their skin called “arrector pili” contracted when they were upset or cold, making their fur stand on end. When an angry or frightened dog barks at you, these are the muscles that raise its bristling hair. The same muscles puff up the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals on cold days to help keep them warm. Although we no longer have fur, we still have fur muscles just beneath our skin. They flex each time we are scared by a bristling dog or chilled by a wind, and in doing so give us goose bumps that make our thin hair stand uselessly on end.
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A new book on religion and culture in the modern world

Here is a review of what looks like a fascinating book, Holy Ignorance: When Culture and Religion Part Ways by Olivier Roy. It seems that it takes a more nuanced approach to the causes attributed to the rise of fundamentalism (of all sorts) and also to the role of religion in contemporary societies. Couple of his earlier books dealt with Islam and modernity (for example, Globalized Islam: The Search for New Ummah, and Secularism Confronts Islam), but here he looks at contemporary religion, in general. Since much of the modern world is shaped and deeply influenced by modern science, the book has relevance for science and religion debates as well.

Here are some bits from the review by Alan Wolfe:
Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy’s biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.
Two tectonic shifts have produced the gap that fundamentalism fills. One concerns the question that has dominated the sociology of religion for more than a century: Will faith decline as modernity advances? The great thinkers of another era — Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber — believed that in one way or another it would. Today’s leading sociologists point to Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden to claim that it will not. Roy stands with yesterday’s giants. It is true, he concedes, that conservative religion is growing. But any talk of a religious revival is “an optical illusion.” Religion, he writes, “is both more visible and at the same time frequently in decline.” It cedes so much to the secular world that it can no longer offer a transcendental alternative to it.
We are, in addition, witnessing the severing of religion from the cultures within which it was once embedded. Religion and culture have long existed in an uneasy embrace. Catholicism is presumably a universal faith, yet long before the reforms of Vatican II allowed Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, Brazilian Catholicism owed as much to its South American roots as Polish Catholicism did to its Eastern European ones. Islam sought to conquer the world, or as much of it as it could, yet it was intimately connected to the Arab culture in which it was born. The only reason we do not find the term “secular Jew” puzzling is because we appreciate that Judaism is both an ethnic and a religious category. Much the same can be said for many of the other world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
Perhaps more importantly, he places many of the current Islamist movements in the context of nationalism rather than in the mode of, hyperbolic but catchy phrase, clash of civilizations.
Roy’s “Failure of Political Islam,” published in French in 1992 and English in 1994, infuriated those who viewed radical Islam as the major enemy of the West. Roy maintained in that book that Islamism, the perversion of Muslim faith into a utopian political movement, had little to offer ordinary Muslims and would therefore be unable to remain in power very long. (In subsequent work, Roy argues, I believe convincingly, that the ideology currently governing Iran or motivating Hamas has more to do with nationalism than with religion.) This is not a point of view that sits well with those who consider something they call Islamofascism the greatest threat to the West since Hitler. But Roy knows Islam (and Islamism) inside out. It is a shame that his views did not receive the attention in the United States given to those of Bernard Lewis, whose more belligerent take on Islam helped persuade the Bush administration to invade Iraq. 
Sounds very interesting. It is now in the mail. Read the full review here.      

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Choice Science Stories of 2010

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
2010 is almost over, and this will be my last post of the year, so let me take part in that tradition of “Top 10 stories” which most publications, print or online, carry at the end of each year.
The following list, though ranked from 10 to 1 is very subjective and personal. Indeed, I don’t claim any substantial knowledge in many fields of science to appreciate and compare developments from various disciplines, and I am obviously partial (by training and by inclination) toward Astronomy and Physics, so my list is automatically biased. Still, as you will see below, there are a few non-Astro/Physics topics I have found important, and – a little spoiler – my “Number One” story of the year is from Biology…
One more caveat before we start the tour: some of the following developments have yet to be confirmed, so they come with a “TBC” label. They may potentially be of great importance, and they drew my (and others’) attention when they were announced, but they may turn out to be erroneous after additional scrutiny. That’s the nature of Science. Hence the list below reflects my immediate impression of developments in 2010 rather than their long-term importance or impact.
So here goes.
10.  Our Sun has stolen many comets from other stars
Do you know how many comets there are in our solar system? Billions and billions, as Carl Sagan would say (I know – he never used that expression, but it was such a neat characterization of his style). No seriously, and reality is often more striking than fiction, the number of comets in our solar system is estimated at almost a trillion! Do you know how much volume they occupy? They extend about half-way to the nearest star, that is about 100,000 times farther than we are from the Sun, so they occupy a volume about 10 billion times larger than the 8 planets occupy! And so, as my students invariably do at this point, one wonders how they are still kept in by the Sun’s gravity.
It turns out, from work published this year, that a substantial fraction of those comets, at least the outer ones (in the Oort Cloud) came from matter which originally belonged to other stars that used to be in the same cluster as our Sun; our bright and strong guy just pulled them in… The conclusion was reached by a simulation of the dynamics of such a star cluster and the formation of its objects (planets, comets, etc.). Fascinating…
9. Biggest and coolest stars of all
You may not have known that stars cannot be smaller than a certain size (about one tenth of the Sun’s mass) or larger than a maximum limit (until now thought to be about 150 solar masses). The lower limit is simply because you need a minimum amount of pressure to raise the temperature in the core to above some 10 million degrees in order for fusion reactions to take place between hydrogen nuclei (otherwise you don’t have a star). The higher limit is due to the instability that too much mass will produce, thus preventing the formation of a star. Well, it turns out that bigger stars exist: one was found with a mass of 265 solar masses, which forces astrophysicists to review their models.
Also, when a blob of mass is too small to form a star, it may become a “brown dwarf”, the color being produced by the heat generated from the gravitational energy. The smallest bona fide stars (with masses larger than one tenth of a solar mass) have surface temperatures of about 2,000 degrees (compared to 6,000 for the Sun). Brown dwarfs are much cooler (little energy radiated), and a record breaker was found this year with a surface temperature of barely 200 degrees C!
The universe will not cease to amaze us, even with objects we thought we knew so well. Speaking of such…
8. O Moon, we hardly knew ye…
The Moon is at least a hundred times closer to us than any other object in the heavens. So close, we’ve reached out and touched it, several times, and brought back hundreds of kilograms of rocks from it. And yet, we keep discovering new, important things about it…
For one, water was found in much greater quantities than previously believed. How much? As much as can be found in all of North America’s Great Lakes! Of course, there are no lakes of that sort; the water is all spread out in minuscule amounts through the rocks.
Secondly, the Moon is now believed to be shrinking! This was concluded from images showing cliffy scarps all across the lunar surface, which are thought to be the result of contractions from when the Moon’s core lost heat and contracted. How much contraction, you ask? A few hundred meters… Over the past 4.5 billion years? Yes, I know, not very impressive. Still, interesting, no?
7. Early Life on Earth: a Moroccan makes a historic discovery
Regular readers of Irtiqa may remember that I wrote at some length about this TBC discovery last July. It made the cover of Nature, but it didn’t produce the kind of blogosphere hurricane that the Arsenic-loving bacteria story had a few weeks ago (widely criticized since). Still, in France at least, where the main team of scientists, led by the Moroccan Abderrazak El-Albani, works.  As I reported then, Le Monde then wrote: "a new history of life -- biology textbooks would have to be rewritten..." Why? Because the hundreds of multi-cellular life fossils that had been found (in Gabon) were dated to 2.1 billion years ago, while the earliest such complex life form had previously been only 670 million years old.
This is a potentially “historic” discovery for its obvious implications, but as always we shall await further work, by this team and others, both on these samples and other ones elsewhere.
6. Baby picture of the universe
A new map of the universe, from almost 13.7 billion years ago, was produced and released by the European Space Agency this past July. It shows the universe at its baby age of 300,000 years (0.002 per cent of its present age, or the first day in the life of a human being). In the image (below), which was produced by the Planck space telescope (launched just a year before), one can see some tiny lumps of gas, those which would many millions of years later produce galaxies and clusters of galaxies.
The present picture is still not “clean” enough to be used for cosmological purposes, being tainted by local clouds of gas and dust from our own galaxy. Once those are removed, one should be able to get a deeper understanding of the state of the universe at those earliest times. Such a perfect picture is not expected to be released before another year or two, so for now we’ll content ourselves with this pretty one.

5. Super-Earths (looking for smaller and smaller planets)
The search for an Earth-like and habitable planet continues. So far, much progress has been made, but the goal, though perhaps near, has not been reached yet. Smaller and smaller planets are now found, and with Kepler (the NASA space telescope launched last year and dedicated to this task) now fully operational, more and more impressive discoveries are being made.
In January, an exoplanet with a mass four times that of Earth was found by the 10-meter Keck I telescope atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. It was then the second smallest exoplanet to ever be found (among some 400); it orbits its star in only four days, and lies some 80 light-years from here.
And finally, also in August, the Kepler team announced the discovery of a super Earth of 1.5 times the diameter of Earth, which would make its mass about 3.5 times that of Earth; it orbits its star every 1.6 Earth days, and so its temperature would be around 1000 degrees, if not more (depending on its rotation rate and atmosphere).
Clearly, we do not have anything resembling Earth at this stage, but we are fast approaching the discovery of Earth-size planets. Whether any of those will be habitable is another (complicated) story.
4. Early diagnosis for Alzheimer’s
My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease earlier this year. Her mind had slowly deteriorated over the past several years, until the last stage where she could not recognize almost anyone… It’s a very taxing illness, for the patient and everyone around him/her. And that is why I, and many people, pray for a treatment, or at least an early diagnosis technique, to come soon.
An important development occurred this year when researchers reported that two tools had been developed, with – so far – a 100 % success rate of early detection. In the first technique, the patient is injected with a radioactive dye, which will color a plaque in the brain (seen by radio-imaging), thus indicating an early development of Alzheimer’s. The second technique takes cerebral fluid from the patient’s spine and analyzed for the presence of “markers” (some specific proteins) related to the disease.
These tools will now allow researchers to try new drugs on early patients and study their effectiveness over longer time periods, thus largely increasing the chances of the discovery of the best treatment.
3. New ancestors and relatives
The story of human evolution has not been fully uncovered, far from that. This year, new important pieces of the puzzle were discovered. And I’m not even counting Ardi, which was presented to the world in 2009…
First there was that discovery in South Africa of an “ancestor” of ours that seemed to have “jumbled” parts: a head the size of an Australopithecus africanus, the pelvis of a Homo erectus, and the arms of a Miocene ape. Those all came from a 12-year-old boy (named Karabo) who lived 1.9 million years ago, and who may represent an important bridge between the Australopithecus and the Homo species (walking upright the same way humans do, etc.).
Then, new cousins of ours, called the Denisovans, actually closer to the Neanderthals, were introduced to us (“nice to meet you!”). They lived in Asia from roughly 400,000 to 50,000 years ago. All we have found (so far) of the Denisovans (in a Siberian cave) are a broken finger bone and a tooth. That was enough for researchers to construct the entire genome of the Denisovans, the analysis of which (published last week in Nature) showed the following amazing story: half a million years ago, the parent tribe of both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans emerged from Africa and split, the first ones heading west toward Europe, the others going East to Asia; then some 50,000 years ago, the Denisovans encountered humans coming out of Africa along the southern coast of Asia and interbred with them, so that the DNA of people in New Guinea today contains about 5 % of the Denisovans’…
I am sure the human evolution saga will be further refined in the future with more stunning discoveries…
2. How matter defeated antimatter
This is another story I had commented on, or at least on some aspects of it, back in May.
I had then explained that matter (or particles) was (were) actually created in the early universe from “pure” energy, which can be converted to particles and antiparticles. The problem is that first, the matter and the antimatter must come out in equal amounts, and secondly they all will sooner or later meet their nemeses and “annihilate” each other back to “pure energy”. So how come there is matter today, and so little antimatter?
The physicists answer that at some point in the process of formation of matter (the above pair creation, followed by some decays of one particle or another), the symmetry gets “broken” and some extra matter (1 particle for every 30 million pairs) is produced and left over. And particle physicists have proposed various models of this symmetry-breaking process, but none have had their predictions confirmed by experiment. Until now – maybe!
Researchers at Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator have looked at 8 years of data (high-energy collisions between particles) and say they have found a previously unobserved symmetry violation that could be just enough to explain “our existence” (that of all matter). Obviously, this will need to be confirmed, so this is another TBC case, and indeed new experiments are being planned both at Fermilab and at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to see if the effect can be confirmed. Stay tuned.
1. Bacterium with a synthetic DNA
This scientific breakthrough was overhyped and often mis-presented as “artificial life”, yet I still think it was the most important development of the year. In May, Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer, announced that a pre-existing bacterium functioned perfectly when its DNA was replaced by a new, synthetic, though closely related one; it replicated according to its new genome and lived normally after the “operation”. Venter referred to it as “the first self-replicating species… whose parent [its designer] is a computer.”  The achievement took 15 years of work and $40 million of resources.
Reactions ranged from wild enthusiasm (at the prospects of an entirely artificial cell that may be made “soon” and its implications with respect to ethics and human worldviews, and also in regard to its probable benefits) to strong criticism (over potential dangers from mistakes that could escape into our environment and the ethics of newly acquired god powers). President Obama referred the matter to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, asking for a report on the implications of this work.
Venter is already pursuing the commercial benefits of his line of work. In October he started a company that will collaborate with Novartis (the pharmaceutical giant) to create new synthetic flu vaccines. Also, Synthetic Genomics, the company he created in 2005, is working on synthetic fuel-producing microbes in a $300 million project with ExxonMobil…

Friday, December 24, 2010

Increasing number of Muslim students at Catholic universities in US

Washington Post ran a story a few days ago about the increasing number of Muslim students attending Catholic universities in US. I think it is interesting, though not really surprising, that some of these Muslim students relate to the more overt religious environment they find at these universities. Second, it also appears that these Catholic universities are also courting these students, which is also not surprising for private universities given the current economic situation in the US.

There are some definite positives with this. For example, this kind of synergy can certainly develop religious tolerance for both sides and gives an opportunity to encounter each other in normal university circumstances (though that is also true for other universities as well). But there can also be some negatives, as students may only get to see the more conservative side of US education (for example, the same article mentions that Catholic University refuses to officially recognize student groups, such as the gay rights advocacy organization, that they don't agree with).

So for better or for worse, here are some reasons for this synergy:
Muslim students say they enroll at Catholic schools for many of the same reasons as their classmates: attractive campuses, appealing professors and academic programs that fit their interests. But there is also a spiritual attraction to the values that overlap the two faiths.
"Because it is an overtly religious place, it's not strange or weird to care about your religion here, to pray and make God a priority," said Shabnan, a political science major who often covers her head with a pale beige scarf. "They have the same values we do." 
 Echoing Islam's conservative culture, the school separates men and women in its dorms and imposes visiting hours. The university prohibits sex before marriage. Daily prayer and periodic fasting are common concepts.
At the same time, Muslim students find themselves immersed in what can seem at times alien iconography. Almost every classroom is adorned with a crucifix. Statues of the Virgin Mary and Holy Child dot the campus. Professors often open their classes with an appeal to Jesus. Courses in theology are an undergraduate requirement.
That's how Shabnan found herself buying her first Bible, for a required Old Testament class. It's also the reason, she said with a smile, that she registered for an introductory course on Islam.
"I was looking for an easy course," she said. "I learned a lot that was new to me . . . and just seeing how someone completely outside our religion views it was fascinating." 
Read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blackburn and Pinker on "Can science tell us right from wrong?"

These couple of talks are part of a workshop and a panel at ASU on Can science tell us right from wrong. The panel had both scientists and philosophers, and yet I was surprised at the way philosophy was denigrated by some on the panel (you have to see the panel discussion for that or the opening talk by Sam Harris). Nevertheless, there is some fascinating discussion on this very tricky topic. Here are two talks that especially stood out for me. The first one is by Simon Blackburn, where he brings up places where it is hard for science to provide adequate answers, unless one defines science in a very broad term that incorporates reason and rationality more broadly - and be inclusive of philosophy. The talks here are relatively short (about 10-12 minutes in length). So here is Blackburn (tip from Laura Sizer):

And here is the talk by Steven Pinker:

The discussion that followed runs up for about 45 minutes, and you can watch it in three parts (part 1, part 2, part 3). If you are interested in some good discussion of whether an ought can be derived from an is, tune in to 10 minutes into part 2, and keep watching into the first 5 minutes of part 3 (Blackburn's takedown of Krauss here is entertaining).

In any case, these are fascinating talks and you can watch them all here.

One other note: When you go to the link above, you will also find a lecture by Sean Carroll at the bottom (I could not embed it here, nor could I find a separate link to it). The lecture is titled, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, and is about the voyages of Wallace, Bates, and Darwin in the nineteenth century. The lecture is very good and provides some fascinating details of Wallace's trips to the Amazon and southeast Asia. Perhaps, more importantly, it captures the spirit of wonder in these three important figures of biology. I highly recommend this lecture (it is about 50 minutes long, but is entertaining)! So scroll down to the bottom to find Sean Carroll's lecture.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

International Congress on Psychology, Religion, and Culture in Tehran

This can be a really interesting gathering. The International Congress on Psychology, Religion and Culture will meet in Tehran from May 14-16, 2011 (tip from PsyRel). The deadline for papers is January 7, 2011. Please let me know if any of the readers here are planning on going.

The purpose of the Congress is to contribute to the establishment of the field of Psychology, Religion and Culture, and to provide an opportunity for interreligious, intercultural and interdisciplinary conversation.
This conference is an attempt to explore the progresses and challenges concerning the studies of relations between the domains of religion, culture and psychology.
We expect creative and critical presentations and discussions and welcome scholars and students from all related scientific disciplines, religious and cultural backgrounds to participate at the congress and exchange their views.
Here is the call for papers

A website on Islam and Science Fiction

One of my all time favorite sci-fi books is Frank Herbert's Dune. When I read it, I remember that it made some subtle connections to Arabs/Muslims in the future (some of these vague references appear in names and customs of the dune inhabitants. You can find short details in the notes at the end of the book). So it is interesting to see an impressive website on Islam and Science Fiction (tip from Amina Steinfels) collecting on the depiction of Muslims in science fiction. The website is run by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, who is a doctoral student at University of Minnesota. In fact, he is also responsible for an anthology of sci-fi depicting Muslims/Islam called, A Mosque Among the Stars. As an example from his website, here is a brief entry on Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. In addition, if you are interested in the topic, here is a literary review on Islam in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

While on the topic, also check out this Guardian article on the popular Muslim superhero series called The 99. Of course, a cape can easily turn into a burqa:
Even if you deliberately set out to try to dream up the least probable superhero ever, it's unlikely that you'd manage to come up with a character as far-fetched as Batina the Hidden. Forget Wonder Worm, or a man born with the powers of a newt, Batina is a superhero of a kind the world hasn't until now seen. It's not just that she's a Muslim woman, from a country best known for harbouring al-Qaida operatives – Yemen – but that she wears an altogether new kind of super-person costume: a burqa.
She, along with her fellow crime-fighters, a vast team of characters from around the world, including Jabbar the Powerful from Saudi Arabia and Hadya the Guide from London, collectively known as "The 99", are the world's first Islam-inspired superheroes. And this week, in what is perhaps the ultimate comic-book accolade, they will join forces with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. DC Comics, the US publishing giant, will publish the first of six special crossover issues in which The 99 will be fighting crime alongside the Justice League of America, the fictional superhero team that includes Superman and Batman.
What's even more remarkable is that The 99 only came into being in 2007 with some remarkable firsts: the first comic book superheroes to have Muslim names and be directed at an international audience and the first to come out of the Middle East. Crossovers don't happen often and even less often with characters that are just three years old. Even The 99's creator and mastermind, a Kuwaiti-born, American-educated psychologist and entrepreneur called Naif al-Mutawa, seems to be having some trouble believing the Superman link-up.
And here is the thing about superheroes and religion:
It was only much later that he realised there were certain parallels between his creation and that of Superman and Batman. They were dreamed up by Jewish young men in the 1930s as fascism threatened to engulf the world: super-beings who were sent to save the world from evil. And they, too, seemingly drew their inspiration, whether consciously or not, from certain religious archetypes. Superman, for example, was sent to Earth in a pod, a device that academics and fans for years have argued echoes Moses in a basket.
But like Superman and Batman, there's no overt religion in The 99. Characters never pray. No one's religion is ever mentioned. And although Batina wears the burqa, as most women in Yemen do, and a couple of the other female characters wear headscarves, it's planned that the majority won't (half the characters will eventually be female, but only a handful have so far been introduced).
Read the full article here. You can also read an interview with the creator of The 99, Naif Mutawa at the Islam and Science Fiction website. Oh and if you would like to read a fantastic book about comic book creations, check out Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The book is fiction but not fantasy, but it will take you into the world that created some of the 20th century superheroes. If you have some time, do read it (if it is an incentive, this book also won a Pulitzer Prize).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Qatar leads the discovery of a new exoplanet

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
Qatar has helped discover a new exoplanet, a “hot Jupiter” which has been called Qatar-1b, orbiting around the star 3UC311-087990, now dubbed Qatar-1, which lives some 550 light-years away from here. Qatar’s contribution has been in the form of an astronomer, Dr. Khalid Al-Subai, as well as some of the technical resources.
Dr. Al-Subai was in fact the leader of an international team of 22 scientists from 6 countries (Qatar, USA, UK, Germany, Spain, and Denmark). The instruments they used included a Qatar-supplied camera system, which was installed in New Mexico, USA. The Qatari side of the project was funded by the Qatar Foundation (QF), which mission is to support development in three social dimensions: education, scientific research, and community development (see QF’s Science and Research page here). Dr. Al-Subai himself is a research director at QF; see the webpage for his exoplanet-search project here.
Let me give some details about the search and the discovery before commenting on what I find significant in the project as a whole. The first phase consisted of images taken by the Qatari wide-angle 5-camera CCD imaging system (see image below) in New Mexico through most of 2010, whenever the night was clear.

Those images were then processed by some members of the team, including Al-Subai and colleagues of his at the Universities of St Andrews and Leicester, in the UK, bringing out a few hundred star candidates that showed some dipping in their luminosities. (The search used the “transit method”, where a planet going in front of its star will block some of the light coming to us, thus producing a slight and temporary “dip” in its luminosity.) The most promising candidates were then observed again, measuring the dimming more accurately with the KeplerCam instrument on the 1.2-meter-diameter telescope of the Whipple Observatory (Arizona) as well as using a different (spectroscopic) technique with the 1.5-m telescope at Whipple. And once the results indicated the presence of a planet around the star 3UC311-087990, additional observations were performed using two UK-based telescopes, the 1-meter Gregory Telescope at St Andrews and the 0.6-m telescope at Keele, to confirm the Qatar-1b transits as well as refine the orbital period and pin down the planet’s radius.
The star is of type K, a bit smaller and cooler than our Sun, of orange color, and is 550 light-years away, in the constellation of Draco, the Dragon. The planet orbits very close to the star, at only 6 stellar radii (compared to 215 solar radii for Earth and about 80 solar radii for Mercury, on average); it only takes 1.4 days (34 hours) to complete its orbit (compared to a year for Earth). These types of stars, which are the easiest exoplanets to find, are thus dubbed “hot Jupiters”. Moreover, in such orbital situations, the planet is largely expected to be “locked” with its star, taking the same time to rotate around its axis as it orbits around the star, like our Moon does, this being due to tidal forces which, over time, will have slowed the object’s rotation until “resonance” is established. This planet, like the Moon does with Earth, thus always presents the same side to the star it orbits around.
The paper giving the full technical details and other results of the search has been submitted to the highly regarded UK journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society; it is still in the refereeing stages; a preprint can be found here.
The team’s scientists are promising additional searches and discoveries, hopefully of greater importance, particularly smaller planets: “hot saturns”, “hot neptunes”, i.e. in the 10-20 range of earth masses, and perhaps even “cool earths” down the line, though for that to be achieved, other techniques will have to be used…
Though there have now been some 500 exoplanets discovered, a majority of them being of this “hot Jupiter” type, this is still a significant discovery, as evidenced by the submission of the paper to a major Astrophysics journal. Indeed, the more statistics and variety of cases we have, the better we will understand the conditions under which these worlds exist out there.
More importantly, however, as far as I see it, is the fact that such “pure research” has been funded and led by an institution and an astronomer from the Gulf. Oftentimes, research in this region is encouraged in the applied fields (“beneficial to society”), and though astronomy is liked and often discussed by people, I have rarely seen such support and push for research in this field.
Another important issue for me is the participation of researchers, scientists and students, from the region in such projects. It was great to see Al-Subai’s name at the top of the author list in the paper reporting the discovery in a prime journal, but in the future I will be even happier if I see colleagues from the region among the team members, and ecstatic if local/regional students were to take part in such research.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

New Gallup poll on US acceptance of evolution

Here is a new Gallup poll on the acceptance of evolution in the US. Okay - so the numbers have more or less stayed the same for the last three decades (Only a small effect, but creationism seems to be at its lowest in 2010). I agree with those who say that this is no longer simply a misunderstanding of science issue - but rather this is a religious/ideological issue. There is, however, still a correlation with the level of education - with more educated having a higher level of acceptance for evolution.

And here is the table on education levels:

Will we find a similar trend in the Muslim world? Perhaps to a first order of degree. After that I think it will vary tremendously from country to country. We hope to have some answers at the high end of the education level by the end of summer 2011. So stay tuned.

In the mean time, read the full Gallup report here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Four years of Irtiqa!

The first post of Irtiqa was on December 16, 2006. It was on a new religious video game from the creators of the Left Behind Series. Well, just like the name "Irtiqa", I hope this blog has evolved as well - and hopefully for the better. At the time I didn't expect the blog to continue for more than six months. But it has turned out to be a fantastic learning experience and it has introduced me to some wonderful and smart people. Then earlier this year (January 20th, 2010), Nidhal joined Irtiqa for his weekly posts on Monday mornings. He brings in a unique perspective to the blog and I have enjoyed his writings tremendously.

But most of all, THANK YOU for sticking around, reading, and commenting on the blog. Your encouraging words, both on the blog and over e-mails, have been a fantastic source of inspiration. So thank you!

Okay enough about this. Here is a total non sequitur. Since Coen Brothers' True Grit is starting next week, and their last film A Serious Man was not only a fantastic film, but it also addressed science and religion issues (see earlier posts "A Serious Man" and Physics and Accept the mystery - go see "A Serious Man"), here is an hommage to Joel & Ethan Coen and Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino vs Coen Brothers from Leandro Copperfield on Vimeo.

and for the heck of it, here is another hommage of Kubrick and Scorsese (I like this one even better - perhaps because Kubrick kicks some serious ass!):

Kubrick vs Scorsese from Leandro Copperfield on Vimeo.

Self-mutilating angels

I haven't seen Bill Plympton's Idiots and Angels, but it looks interesting. Here is a trailer of the animated film and a brief description below:

And here is a brief description:
“Idiots and Angels” is a dark comedy about a man’s battle for his soul.
Angel, a selfish and morally bankrupt man, wakes up one morning with wings on his back. He tries to hide them, but eventually everyone at Bart’s Bar, where he hangs out, discovers them and ridicules him about his bizarre appendages.
Angel visits a doctor to try to have the wings removed, and the doctor realizes that the wings could be his ticket to fame and fortune. But before the doctor can remove the wings, Angel escapes from his office in fear.
As Angel tries to adapt to the wings, he discovers that now that he can fly, he has greater opportunities to abuse others. However, the wings seem to have a will of their own, and they foil all of his greedy plans.
Read the full long synopsis here.

Now this reminds me of the movie Legion that came out earlier this year. Legion had an interesting premise: God sends his archangel Michael (played by Paul Bettany) to destroy the human race, but Michael disagrees with the decision and sides with the humans and cut-off his wings. This results in a showdown between Michael and a Gabriel-led army of angels in an out of the way diner in the southwest. The movie is mainstream, but it had an interesting (and very cool) premise to explore the problem of evil. The movie stays somewhat interesting (despite some plot problems) until the last 15 minutes of the film - where it just decides to cop out from addressing any hard problems. We'll have to wait for some other movie to tackle this issue well. Nevertheless, the director - Scott Charles Stewart - is definitely interested in this theme, and his next movie, Priest, is about a priest (again played by Paul Bettany) who disobeys church law to track down vampires. Okay - so he is also interested in vampires and gore in general. No, no - I still have faith (ha!) in him. I think he can make a film without a cop-out ending.

Just in case you are interested, here is the trailer for Legion:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More on Green Islam

There is definite traction in this idea. In the past I have posted about Eco-Islam in Tanzania, a conference on environmental Islam, and about plans for a green city near Abu Dhabi. There is now a new book out titled,  Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, where the topic of Islam and environmentalism is dealt more directly. Hers is an excerpt from an interview with the author:

What does Green Deen mean?
Green has become the catch-all word for being environmentally friendly. Deen in Arabic means religion but can also be translated to path or way. So a green deen is literally an environmentally friendly religion.
I use green deen to also mean finding inspiration in one’s faith to become more conscious about humanity’s effects on the planet. Islam is a green deen in many ways. First and foremost, Islam recognizes that while God is all-powerful, humans can and do impact the Earth.

Therefore, Islam provides guidance by way of the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) on how to make that impact positive. This is basically what my book is about - what Islam teaches about protecting the planet.
How does your book contribute to changing perceptions of American Muslims?
 This is a core mission of my book. Look, everyone wants to know where the moderate Muslims are. They’re everywhere. They go to work, they go to school. Frankly, they’re boring - which is why the media doesn’t do any stories about them.  Why would CNN do a story on Ali the doctor who spends his evenings watching ESPN?
So I’m creating the story by writing this book. I’m highlighting Sarah the Muslim who believes in recycling. As more and more Muslims come forward, describing the positive ways they are contributing to society - and they are, they’re just not advertising it - I believe people will stop focusing on the tiny percentage of Muslims who are extremists.
I hope my book will re-label Muslims from terrorist to activist or, even better, environmentalists. I want Muslims to be known as the people who save water.
Read the full interview here.
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