Sunday, January 31, 2010

Guest Post: ‘Avatar’ and the Evolutionary Discussions in France

This is the second guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his first post here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

by Nidhal Guessoum:

The Double-Anniversary Year of Darwin is certainly not over, not in France at least! As in the (most of) the rest of the world, throughout 2009 France had its share of magazine cover stories, newspaper articles, and “dossiers” (special sections) in various publications. But what seems to have characterized the discussions around Evolution in France is not the clash with creationism that manifested itself in other parts of the world (the US, the Muslim world, and to a lesser extent the UK), but rather a new, more technical and nuanced debate about Darwinism (the current standard theory of evolution) vs. non-Darwinian Evolution (other theories, sometimes small variations and other times radically different ones).

First, Jean Staune, the multi-faceted thinker (philosopher of science with a degree in paleontology, among several others), published “Beyond Darwin – for a new vision of life” in October, wherein he argued that new evidence, and new work published in Nature and Science, from the past few years seem to have given an impetus to the theories of biological organisms advocating either adding new factors to Evolution besides natural selection or viewing things in a fresh new way, particularly the fact that there may be (so-far hidden) laws of nature which push for the emergence of particular biological features or organisms. People interested in the whole subject of Evolution should remember the new buzz word “structuralism”, which succinctly represents the idea that forms are more important than “functions” in determining which organisms will emerge and have a chance to prosper and which will be disfavored (in an inherent manner).

A one-day conference was organized on this theme at (but not by) the UNESCO (the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris in late November 2009. In it took part some important Non-Darwinian Evolutionists, including Michael Denton, the British-Australian geneticist at New Zealand's University of Otago, who is quite famous with his book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis” (and others) but is somewhat controversial (wrongly, in my view).

Last but not least, ‘Avatar’ came out and gave a new impetus to these discussions. Why? Because the Na’vis (the aliens) looked “structurally” very similar to humans, though they had other features that were quite different (their abilities to “connect” and interact with other life forms through their threads), and their biology was perhaps different too (Sigourney Weaver’s character said “there’s something biologically very interesting down there…”). Now the fact that aliens are portrayed as very similar to humans is nothing new in Science Fiction. But in the case of ‘Avatar’ there was a twist: most other animals had six limbs instead of four, which seemed to make the Na’vis fundamentally different.

And that prompted discussions on whether James Cameron was doing a disservice to Evolution by not espousing a very randomly evolutionary view of nature. That debate appeared in blogs around the world, in English as well as in French, and probably in other languages, though not Arabic (not surprisingly). And then it was taken up by Le Monde (the intellectuals’ newspaper), which published an opinion piece on January 17-18, 2010 by Thomas Hearns titled “James Cameron: a bit more effort to be Darwinian”, which was rebutted by Jean Staune a few days later with a piece titled “The visionary non-darwinism of James Cameron”. The two articles remained among the top-10 most-viewed and most emailed articles from the Le Monde website for several days…

Amusing but quite scary: The gun markets of Pakistan

Growing up in cosmopolitan Karachi, conservative Peshawar and the way-more conservative north-western tribal areas of Pakistan always intimidated me. To make things worse, I had heard of large gun markets there (Charlton Heston would have been thrilled to be there!). These markets have been thriving since the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 80s. Here is a short film (about 9 minutes), mostly shot in 2006, that takes you inside one of the largest illegal gun markets in the world. Now, I don't have much sympathy for the regressive Taliban - I like to read about the middle ages, but definitely don't want anyone in the 21st century to live in one. However, I found it incredible that some of the guns and the bullets are being made by hand, often using scrap metal from abandoned Soviet armored vehicles! Also check out the shooting range - a perfect collision of amusement and scariness. While I appreciated the fact that the film takes us into an area not accessible any more, I felt a bit put-off by the seeming joy of the film-maker and the cameraman shooting a Kalashnikov. May be it was the persona essential for having an access to this remote area. At the end, however, the difference in tone between the 2006 footage (somewhat joyous, bordering on romantic) and the solemn bookend comments from 2009, is perhaps the real story behind the film.



The film is produced by Saroosh Alvi. He is the founder of Vice Magazine - an intriguing independent media company, VBS.TV. By the way, Spike Jonze (of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation fame) is a creative director there.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar script

But of course! Here is the source of the Avatar script (tip from Hugh Crowl):


Yup - this pretty much sums up the plot of Avatar. I really liked a comment in one of the reviews for the film that James Cameron never lets a good story come in the way of special effects. Though, when I first saw it a few weeks ago, the inanity of the story did prevent me from appreciating its visual craft (even in IMAX 3-D). But I plan to see it again, with much downgraded expectations, before its 3-D version leaves the theaters.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hoodbhoy on the GRE requirement for PhDs in Pakistan


Here is a recent article by physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy on the subject GRE requirement for PhD students in Pakistan: Universities - A new war. On the one hand, this is a higher education issue specific to Pakistan. On the other hand, this problem of quality control plagues much of the developming world. Pervez has been a vocal critic of initiatives that simply increase monetary incentives without monitoring quality. While the numbers of PhDs have increased, the checks on quality are not really there. Hence, we come to this fight where students and their advisors are challenging the implementation of subject G.R.E as part of their PhD. Well, these are indeed complex issues and it may be hard to find easy solutions with the existing undergraduate educational infrastructure.

The pictures above are both from protests at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, possibly in front of the physics department. As an aside, here are two things that came to my mind after seeing these pictures (these observations may not be of any interest to you...): first, there is a relative gender segregation at the protests (though not complete on the women's side), and second, it gives a glimpse of average beard/no-beard and hijab/no-hijab ratios in a run-of-the-mill (i.e. relatively conservative) public university in Pakistan. And, yes, its Pervez in the second picture engaging with the protesters.
Dark clouds are gathering over Pakistan’s universities, portending a conflict that is likely to be long, bitter and uncertain in outcome. On one side are those who say that PhD degree holders must have, at the very minimum, undergraduate-level knowledge in the relevant discipline.

On the other side are PhD aspirants, together with their supervisors, who demand unearned degrees. They hold that passing examinations and taking courses is unnecessary and an affront to their dignity. The first volleys have already been fired. Earlier this month about 100 students, registered for the PhD degree at Quaid-i-Azam University, angrily mobbed the executive director of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) as he entered the campus. Their demand: cancel the current requirements of passing the international Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) as well as taking and passing graduate level courses. They say that producing research papers entitles them to receive the highest degree in their chosen discipline.

To his credit, the HEC officer stood his ground. He pleaded that removing essential graduation requirements would make their degrees meaningless, that they really did need to know subject basics before doing research etc. But these obvious and sensible arguments cut no ice with those who believe that PhD degrees are a birthright. Rhythmic cries of “hum nahin mantay zulm kay zabtay” (we will not tolerate tyranny!) reverberated across the campus. This leads one to wonder: for how long can the HEC withstand such pressures? What if the floodgates give way?

Some background: a tidal wave of cash hit Pakistan’s universities between 2002-2008. The 10 to 12 times budgetary increase set a new world record while the accompanying hype touched the skies. Advised by the HEC’s newly appointed chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, Gen Pervez Musharraf grandly declared that the annual production of PhD degree holders would be boosted from 150 per year to 1,500 per year. Incentive schemes encouraged teachers — often of doubtful academic merit themselves — to take on PhD students by the score. Academic quality, already low, nose-dived.

In 2006, pressed by persistent critics to include at least some minimal quality checks, the authorities finally made the right decision. They declared that a PhD candidate must ‘pass’ the international GRE undergraduate-level subject test administered by the Education Testing Service, Princeton. But the meaning of ‘pass’ was a hot potato that was not touched upon for another two years. Finally, in 2008, passing was declared as achievement of 40 percentile or better in the subject test.

Even this ludicrously low pass mark drew howls of protest. PhD students saw their degrees endangered while their supervisors saw their incomes threatened: every single registered PhD student was a cash cow worth Rs5,000 per month. The money went into the teacher’s pocket. Banded together by common interests, teachers and students lobbied to get the pass mark reduced still further. Others demanded that if testing was to be done at all, allow it to be done locally. Proponents of international testing were dubbed as ‘foreign agents’ and passionate arguments of national ghairat (honour) being at stake were thrown around.

But international tests of subject competence are simply indispensable. First, science is a global enterprise and rules for assessing competence in a particular discipline are universal. Local evaluations and testing mechanisms cannot compete in validity and quality. Second, in a society where ethical standards in the teachers’ community are no higher than among politicians or shopkeepers, the impartial and cheating-free nature of international testing is absolutely vital.

There is nothing particularly difficult about these international tests. As some readers may know, they are pitched at the bachelor’s level (i.e. 16 years of education). Chinese, Indian and Iranian students easily score in the 80-90 percentile range. American universities use them as entrance requirements, with medium-quality universities requiring results in the 70-80 range and the very good ones in the 80-95 range.

But achieving even 40 percentile has proved to be too difficult for most Pakistani PhD students even at the end of their PhD studies. This is especially alarming since they have had the advantage of three to four years of additional study. The pathetic quality of undergraduate education in Pakistan is surely responsible for this unfortunate fact. The intensity of the opposition to testing becomes understandable.

Better-equipped Pakistani students, however, welcome international testing. Faced with a meaningful challenge, some of our students have laboured long and hard — and increased their scores spectacularly. About 15 students from my department have cleared the 40 percentile hurdle, and the best have scored around 80. This shows that Pakistani students too can compete — if pushed in the right direction.

For the first time in their lives our students are being confronted head-on with a hard fact: science is all about problem-solving. They have to shape up if they want to play ball. For a change, cheating in examinations is impossible and cramming does not help. The heartening thing is that most students, whether they do well or otherwise, say they learned a great deal of subject matter in preparing for this challenge and felt more educated. Surely this by itself is enormous success.

After years of criticising trends in higher education and the shenanigans of the HEC’s former leadership, I feel that the HEC is now doing the right thing. Now it needs to stand by its guns. Of course, there is much more to be done than to merely raise the bar from time to time. A different direction is badly needed.

Broadly speaking, higher education reform must prioritise improvement of teaching quality, particularly in colleges. Numbering about 1,000, they are in a desperate condition. Instead of pampering universities, the government must help colleges improve their infrastructure and teaching quality. The previous model of rewarding so-called research in universities must be drastically revised. This policy has resulted in a flood of papers, the bulk of which are worthy of the trashcan even if published in some ‘international’ journal.

The fact is that students need sound basic knowledge of their subject if they are to benefit from higher education, as well as to do meaningful research. Genuine research must not be confused with data gathering; it requires strong skills and solid comprehension. For this, the next generation of university students must have good teachers at the college and school level. This, in turn, needs improved teacher recruitment and training.

Hence there is an urgent need to create large, high-quality, degree-awarding teacher-training academies in every province. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as master trainers from across the country and from neighbouring countries. Rather than waste precious resources on frivolities, this is the direction to go.

The author teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Capricology: The Pilot (First) Episode

If you liked the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica (BSG), you may want to follow its prequel series, Caprica. Instead of humans in flight, the prequel is set on the home planet 58 years before the Cylon attack that set the stage for BSG. I saw Caprica pilot last Friday (you can still see it here), and if that is any indication, the series will be a fascinating ride. Perhaps of more relevance here, there is ample material on the theme of science & religion.

If you decide to follow the series, I want to draw your attention to a weekly online discussion at Religion Dispatches about Caprica. I'm participating in it alongside Diane Winston, Henry Jenkins, and Anthea Butler. It promises to be a lot of fun. Here are some of the details, and then a short taste of the discussion of the pilot (yes, there are lots of spoilers. So please watch the pilot episode before reading the discussion):

Capricology: Television, Tech, and the Sacred
Welcome to the first installment of our ongoing coverage of television's latest contribution to the cultural intersection of science and religion — with bonus themes to include: the body, artificial intelligence, paganism, original sin, immigration, and race. Join Diane Winston, Anthea Butler, Salman Hameed and Henry Jenkins every week as they delve into deep exegesis of Caprica.

---------------------------------------------

Pilot (First) Episode Discussion

Religion. Robots. Immigration. Race.

The first episode of TV's Caprica takes science and religion, layers on family drama in full Greek tragic mode, and throws in a dose of dystopic anthropology. And where better to engage all of these themes than in televised science fiction? Margaret Atwood once wrote that "within the frequently messy sandbox of sci-fi fantasy, some of the most accomplished and suggestive intellectual play of the last century has taken place." In that spirit, we've convened a club of media and religion experts —Diane Winston, Henry Jenkins, Salman Hameed, and Anthea Butler—to take the pulse of the show every week, and to share their readings with us. Tune in every Tuesday morning for a roundup of the discussion of the previous Friday's episode.

So Say We All.

[Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers, follow. If you haven't yet, you can watch the full-length first episode here.]

Here is a sampling of comments from the four contributors. See Religion Dispatches for the full discussion:

Diane Winston:

We loved BSG because In the post 9/11 moment, it captured our consternation and confusion. Why do they hate us? Can we justify torture? What makes us human? When can we stop fighting? Moreover, it lodged these questions in the space between human passion and species survival, mediating the religious quest for meaning with the political will to win.

Caprica, going back to how this came to be, meets us in the present. This is what we face, too: religious extremism, economic inequality, anti-immigrant fervor, a military increasingly dependent upon drones, the lure of the virtual worlds, and the comfort of slick surfaces. Like BSG, Caprica asks, “What makes us human.” But this time, the answers seem a lot closer to home.

Henry Jenkins:

I was most taken though by the plight of Adama's daughter — who is brought back from the dead not through an act of self-creation but against her will, who is inserted into an empty world, a purgatory space, which she doesn't recognize and understand, and is abandoned there, treated as an unnatural abomination, as a monster, by her own father and forgotten by the man who created her. (Shades of Frankenstein, but also some suggestions here of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the series Jane Espenson worked for before Caprica, where Buffy's friends bring her back from the dead, like Lazarus, and she finds herself experiencing deep pain and trauma at being ripped from paradise and plunged back into our imperfect world. In fact, Espenson wrote "After Life," a key episode in the exploration of this theme in Buffy. I hope the series will explore more fully what happens to this girl and how her experiences differ from Zoe's.

Anthea Butler:

What I believe will be compelling about the back story of how the Cylons came to be is the emphasis on morals, ethics, ethnicity, and the search for meaning. Caprica, a society of privilege and wealth, obviously has problems. Rich white kids from Caprica like Zoe hate their accomplished selfish parents, while nice ethnic middle class families from Tauron have obedient children trying to assimilate into the broader culture. Stereotypes blow into oblivion however, when a terrorist bombing by Zoe’s handsome young friend Ben—anxious, but looking very Middle Eastern in appearance—blows the train Zoe and Tamara are riding on, and both girls “die” in the crash.

Although I am a bit perturbed by the racial stereotyping (damn it, can’t a bomber just be other than Middle Eastern? Swedish, maybe?) What I believe is Caprica’s genius is to use the stereotypes and add another type of hybrid life form into the mix.

Salman Hameed:

The pilot of Caprica brought about the same level of messiness (and a definite promise of more) that made Battlestar Galactica such a captivating series. Whereas BSG dealt with the survival of humanity and the instincts that make us do good and the bad, Caprica delves into the question of what makes us human in the first place. ...
At a time when we are seeing the growing effectiveness of prosthetic limbs and artificial organs, it is fascinating to explore the limits (if any) of these body part replacements. At what point do we say that this is a different "person" than the original? Should we draw the line at the brain (a la the jar heads in Futurama)? Should it even matter? Perhaps, the best twist I liked in the pilot was the fact that Zoe's virtual creation (not her own avatar, but a copy of her avatar) knows that she has all the memories and life-experiences of her creator, and yet, that she is different. She is now also aware that her "real" world creator is dead, and she is on her own. Will the knowledge of her creator's death drive her "personality" in a particular direction? This self-awareness of a virtual creation also reminded me of issues raised in Solaris (also the Soderbergh version) and in last year's fantastic Moon.

Read the full discussion here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Plant analogies for nebulae and star clusters

In communicating astronomy we often use terms such as "birth" and "death" of stars. Other than that, we have a mechanistic way of looking at the universe. But I like the William Herschel thought of the universe: as a garden, with nebulae and star clusters, in effect, as 'species of plants at various stages of growth and decay. I ran into this while reading the fascinating Richard Holmes book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (please read it if you have time. It is fantastically written and quite deservedly was on almost all the lists of best non-fiction books of 2010). Here is the relevant paragraph from the Holmes book (the Herschel quotes are from his 1789 paper, Catalogue of Second Thousand Nebulae with Remarks on the Construction of the Heavens):
This method of viewing the galaxies...presented the entire universe in a new kind of light, with the most radical implications. 'The heavens are now seen to resemble a luxuriant garden which contains the greatest variety of productions, in different flourishing beds...and we can extend the range of our experience [of them] to an immense duration.' In a garden we may live 'successively to witness the germination, blooming, foliage, fecundity, withering, and corruption of a plant'. Just so, the universe presented 'a vast number of specimens, selected from every stage through which the plant passes in the course of its existence,' but brought 'at once to our eyes', and viewed at one particular moment from the earth.
Very nice analogy. But Holmes points to a larger implication: that "astronomy changed decisively from a mathematical science concerned primarily (for practical purposes) with navigation, to a cosmological science concerned with the evolution of the stars and origins of the universe." A few years later (in 1796) Laplace would solidify the latter view with the publication of his nebular hypothesis of solar system formation. Fascinating time!

While we are at it, here is a portion of Joseph Haydn's oratorio, The Creation. Hayden claimed that a visit to Herschel's home and observatory helped him compose the oratorio. Here is The Creation with the London Symphony Orchestra:

Darwin biopic, Creation: What controversy?

Darwin biopic Creation peacefully premiered in the US this past Friday (so far only in major cities). But back in September, the blogosphere (and even some newspapers) was abuzz with the view that Creation is too controversial for US (as it turns out most of the comments were based on this one Telegraph story: Charles Darwin film 'too controversial for religious America'). For the life of me I couldn't figure out why would Hollywood run away from such a (mild) controversy (see this earlier post: Is Darwin a problem for Hollywood?). Sure enough the movie found a distributor and the movie is now playing in the US without any controversy. But this non-controversy is now not any news and I haven't seen many articles written about the fact that a movie about Charles Darwin and his religious beliefs has received good press coverage in the US. Ah....the conflict narrative sells.

Here is the beginning of a more or less a good NYT article about the movie - but the author could not resist bringing in the controversy (again based on speculation), Making Darwin the legend a man again:
PALE, winded, a blanket draped across his twitching knees, a sick, despondent man confides his woes to the minister who has stopped by. Stretching a sympathetic arm around the man’s shoulders, the minister murmurs, “God moves in mysterious ways.”

Yes, yes, the man agrees with a glower, adding that “he has endowed us — in all his blessed generosity — with not one but 900 species of intestinal worm.”

As a comeback the line may not rank with “Make my day.” But “900 species of intestinal worm” is a pretty fair rebuttal to the idea of a beneficent creator, and the minister doesn’t try to argue. He retreats, insulted by his old friend’s hostility.

It’s not the only moment that finds the forces of religion in retreat in “Creation,” Jon Amiel’s new film about Charles Darwin. And if arguments about the existence of God were not enough to mark “Creation” as, well, highly unorthodox, the movie also dares to be unapologetically eclectic in style, incorporating elements of historical drama, psychological thriller, horror, romance and ghost story in recounting, with minimal fictional flourishes, how Darwin came to publish his landmark theory of evolution by natural selection.

Depicted (by Paul Bettany) as an illness-plagued, middle-aged family man, Darwin wrestles not only with the clergyman (Jeremy Northam) but with his own devout wife (Jennifer Connelly), the spirit of his inquisitive daughter (Martha West) and Darwin’s tortured psyche as he struggles to come to terms with the implications of his scientific studies.

Okay - this sounds like an interesting movie and the article is doing a good job of bringing up some of the underlying issues. But then here is a paragraph that alludes to the controversy:

Whether or not movie executives share Mr. Amiel’s view of “Creation” as evenhanded, they didn’t exactly rush to release it in the United States, where Gallup researchers found last year that only 39 percent of those polled accepted evolution as fact. The movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, opened in Britain the following month and languished without an American distributor until Newmarket Films, the company that released “The Passion of the Christ,” came along and scheduled a Friday opening in New York, Los Angeles and selected cities — just barely making it into the 200th anniversary year commemorating Darwin’s birth.

First of all, it is not unusual that movies released in UK get a delayed release in US, and vice versa. For a recent example, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (the new Terry Gilliam film), was released in UK in October and in US in December. No controversy. Second, if you have any doubts, check with the movie executives and then report it back. But here is just speculation feeding unnecessarily into the conflict narrative (save it for a time when there really is a controversy).

(Side note: If you like creative films, do check out Imaginarium. Its story may not all click well, but it is still a highly enjoyable experience. Plus, how can you go wrong in seeing Tom Waits as the devil? But also, please support the works of creative, ambitious directors like Gilliam - so we are not left with only Transformers 2 to watch).

Read the full NYT article here. If you are interested in another interview related to the film, check out this this excellent Fresh Air interview with Randal Keynes, author of Annie's Box, the book that the movie is based on. Randal Keynes provides thoughtful responses about Darwin and his religious views (please listen to the last 15 minutes if you are only interested in science & religion issues).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frans de Waal on empathy, morality and science & religion

Here are Frans de Waal and David Berreby on bloggingheads.tv. If you are interested in the issues of science & religion, check out the discussion between 30-45 minutes. Frans has the appropriate tone to address not only the sensitive issue of the origins of morality, but also about science & religion, in general. He is empathetic (ha!) to believers but has a no-nonsense approach towards crazy claims, such as creationism, or that one cannot be moral without God. Good stuff.

I'm not completely sold on the bloggingheads format (sometimes the discussion can simply drag on), but I like this one, in particular the last half hour.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Solar Eclipse report from Pakistan

Judging by the news reporting here in the US, Pakistanis spend most of their time praying, dodging or making bombs, chanting anti-American slogans, and thinking about ways how to con the US into giving them money without having to really fight the Taliban. So it may come as a surprise to see several members of the Pakistani public, armed with telescopes and solar filters, gather outside on January 15th simply to look at the the dimming of the light from the Sun. Here is a news report in English and then below that in Urdu about event organized by Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS) (see my earlier posts about their events here, here, here, and here):



And if you are fluent in Urdu, you can check out this one (for those familiar with the 80s TV serial, "Aangan Taerah", 'zara zabaan per uboor daikhiyay'):


I'm glad the bit about superstitions is brought out clearly. After the July solar eclipse in Pakistan, I had seen this heartbreaking picture on Pakistaniat:

Here is the caption that goes with the picture:
A physically paralyzed girl lies half-buried in sand at the banks of river Indus. Local mythology suggests burying paralyzed children in sand and exposing them to solar eclipse helps overcome paralysis.
It is the job of educators and science communicators to prevent these unfortunate incidences from happening - a particularly challenging, but necessary, task in a country with a literacy rate hovering around 50%.

Great job, Sabieh, Umair and others, for addressing this issue explicitly in the report.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Humanizing ants

E.O.Wilson has a fictional story, Trailhead, about a colony of ants in this week's New Yorker. This is a phenomenal way of learning about about the behaviour of ants (oh and please relax about anthropomorphism in the story - we have now seen enough Pixar films to be upset about this). But perhaps more importantly for us, here is a great example of cooperation among the members of its own species. This is a gripping tale of the rise and fall of the Trailhead ant colony. Here is the beginning of the story, and then later I have two more bits to highlight. But if you have time, do read the full story:
The Trailhead Queen was dead. At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.
And here is a nice description of the colony a superorganism and examples of cooperation between ants. And, yes, the queen can live for upto 20 years!

As the months passed, the Queen, growing heavy with egg-filled ovaries, retreated ever deeper into the earth, distancing herself from the still dangerous nest exterior. She had become an extreme specialist: she laid eggs, while the workers performed all the labor necessary to raise her offspring, their sisters. They were the Queen’s hands and feet and jaws, and increasingly they replaced her brain. They functioned together as a well-organized whole, dividing up the tasks without regard to their own welfare. The Trailhead Colony began to resemble a large, diffuse organism. In a word, it became a superorganism.

By the time the colony had reached its full mature size, two years after the nuptial flight of the Queen, it contained more than ten thousand workers. It was able, in the following year, to rear virgin queens, and males, and through them to give birth to new colonies. By that time the Queen was producing eggs at the average rate of one every fifteen minutes. Heavy and torpid, she lay in the royal chamber at the bottom of the subterranean nest, five feet below the surface, a distance of four hundred ant lengths. By human scale, the ant city was the equivalent of two hundred underground stories. The mound of excavated soil capping the nest added another fifty stories aboveground.

The Queen may not have been the leader of this miniature civilization, but she was the fountainhead of all its energies and growth, the key to its success or failure. The metronomic pumping out of fertilized eggs from her twenty ovaries was the heartbeat of the colony. The ultimate purpose of all the workers’ labor—their careful construction of the nest, their readiness to risk their lives in daily searches for food, their suicidal defense of the nest entrance—was that she continue to create more altruistic workers like themselves. One worker, or a thousand workers, could die and the colony would go on, repairing itself as needed. But the failure of the Queen would be fatal.

Now, after twenty more years, the catastrophe had occurred. The death of the Queen was the greatest challenge the colony had faced since the days of its founding.

The story goes on describing the various aspects of the colony, but what was fascinating to me was the description of how ants get rid of corpses and how they act past the queen's death:

Within a week, the constant licking of the royal corpse in the Trailhead Colony began to break it into pieces. The pheromones that had bonded the Queen to the workers now hastened her funeral. One by one, the fragments, reeking of oleic compounds, were carried out of the royal chamber. Unknowingly, the ants bade farewell to their mother. No ceremony was performed. Instead the workers bearing the body parts wandered alone through the nest galleries in search of the Trailhead cemetery. This place had no special shape, nor did it contain any token of remembrance, even for a queen. It was merely a chamber at the periphery of the underground nest. The ants dumped all kinds of debris into it, including discarded cocoons shed by newly emerged adults, inedible pieces of prey, and deceased colony members. When the corpse carriers came close to the refuse chamber, they turned their burdens over to cemetery workers. These specialists were ants who constantly rearranged and added to the refuse piles. They stayed close to their work and were for the most part avoided by their nest mates.

In cemetery work and all other activities, the guiding principle of the Trailhead Colony was self-sacrifice. The dominance of the colony over its individual members was total. A worker’s life story was programmed to be subordinate to the superorganism’s needs. If a worker died, the colony was weakened to some measurable but relatively inconsequential extent; the deficit could be quickly made up by rearing another worker in the nursery. If, on the other hand, a worker behaved selfishly, consuming for a good part of her life more resources than she contributed, this weakened the colony far more than if she had the decency to desert or die.

The colony’s members had given up the chance to reproduce, at least as long as the Queen was alive and healthy. They willingly accepted tasks—foraging, soldiering—that would almost certainly lead to early death. The sick and the injured did not seek help; they moved on their own to the outermost nest chambers. Dying workers often left the nest completely, thereby avoiding the spread of infectious diseases. Older workers who were healthy but approaching the end of their natural life span also emigrated to the nest perimeter. From there, they often became foragers, exposing themselves to a much higher risk from enemies. When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive. They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Guest Post: Science & Religion - The French Way

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce Professor Nidhal Guessoum as a guest blogger on Irtiqa. I met Nidhal at the recent Darwin's Legacy conference at Alexandria. He is an Algerian astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah. Nidhal received his MS and PhD in physics from University of California at San Diego. His astronomy research focuses on gamma-rays from the Milky Way (and from other sources in the universe), but he has also been writing about science and religion issues, with an emphasis on Islam. Oh - and he is fluent in English, French and Arabic (at least these are the three I know of...). It was a delight meeting him in Alexandria and I'm grateful that he accepted my invitation to guest-blog here. We may not agree on everything regarding science & religion, but we do share a common interest in promoting science in the Muslim world and in understanding the ways Muslims are responding to modern science.

Here is Nidhal Guessoum's first post:

Science & Religion - The French Way
Nidhal Guessoum

France is arguably the country where Science-and-Religion discussions are most controversial, for anything but a separationist stance. Whereas Oxford and Cambridge have S&R centers (The Ian Ramsey Center and The Faraday Institute for Science & Religion, respectively), in France the phrase “Science and Religion” hardly ever appears in the public discourse of intellectuals. And anyone attempting to import the anglo-saxon debates of S&R will quickly face accusations of “accomodationism”, if not of downright stealth attempts to reinject religion into the intellectual arena.

That is why it is quite an event to see the highly respected magazine Le Monde des Religions devote 30 pages (of about 90) of its January-February issue to “God and Science”. Readers of this blog may be puzzled at my surprise; after all, this magazine is clearly dealing with religious issues, so it would be natural for it to address the science question. But one should note that this magazine belongs to the Le Monde institution, which is flagged by its high-brow newspaper, largely regarded as the mirror of intellectual views in France. And one must go back at least 5 years to find any other magazine devoting a number of pages to the topic: Le Nouvel Observateur had a series of articles on “God and Science” in its issue dated Dec. 23, 2004 – January 5, 2005...

Now, how does a magazine like Le Monde des Religions treat the question of God (or Religion) and Science? The 30 pages were divided into two parts: (a) high-level scientists who prone a dialogue with religion or find no conflict in being religious; (b) the view of the philosophers
.

It is interesting to note that a large majority of the scientists who presented their pro-religious views are anglo-saxon, including Simon Conway-Morris (evolutionary convergence and predictability) and the Nobel-prize winners Charles Townes and William Phillips. One may add Trinh Xuan Thuan, a US citizen of Vietnamese origin who spends several months a year in France and has published such best sellers as “La Melodie Secrete” and “Le Chaos et l’Harmonie”. The two big French exceptions to the group are Bernard d’Espagnat (who won the Templeton Prize last year for his “veiled reality” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics) and Thierry Magnin (a doubly practicing scientist and catholic priest)
.

On the philosophical side, I should highlight the 6-page debate between Jean Staune and Andre Comte-Sponville: the first one sees in recent scientific “paradigm changes” (quantum entanglement, fine tuning in the universe, convergence and other developments in evolution, studies in neuroscience) grounds for rapprochement between the scientific worldview and those of the great spiritual traditions and insists that materialism is now untenable; the second one believes there is nothing new (philosophically) in these advances and, while he admits that there is some “mystery” in nature, rejects the need for a religious worldview (he calls for “spiritual atheism”). Other complementary views are provided by Dominique Lecourt, a philosopher of science, and Jean-Claude Ameisen, an immunologist and ethics specialist.

One last word: the absence from the dossier of any mention of Islam, something which could be interpreted in various ways, and I’ll leave that question open…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Symphony of Science: The Unbroken Thread

This is very cool! (Sagan, Attenborough, and Goodall).



For another Symphony of Science, here is We Are All Connected.

Highest flip-cam/participant ratio at ScienceOnline 2010

The blogging has been on a few day hiatus here as I was attending the ScienceOnline 2010 conference and facing some deadlines. Life is back to normal now: classes are about to start next week, and panic about the syllabi set for the next couple of days. Couple of quick thoughts about ScienceOnline 2010:

This was the 4th year of the conference. It was bigger, better, and was running as a well-oiled machine. The best way to gauge the quality of a conference: Its attention to providing coffee for participants (see this earlier post about coffee at the same conference in 2008). This time they not only had free, unlimited coffee, but they had a big-ass coffee truck parked next to the Sigma XI conference center providing lattes and cappuccinos on request.

I'm also quite confident that this conference had the highest number of flip-cams per capita. In fact, I'm sure most people interviewed had flip-cams in their hands waiting to interview the interviewee (you can see some videos here and check out blogposts about the conference here).

However, I was chastised at the conference by several people, especially by a certain Cognitive Science Librarian (see her 9-take aways from the conference), for not having a facebook or a twitter account. Okay, okay. I will try those out (my apologies to Laura - but this non-virtual conference pressure really broke my resistance).

Please check out the program of the conference here. The conference didn't have anything directly related to science & religion. But there was a fascinating session on Science & Entertainment: Beyond Blogging by Jennifer Ouellette and Tamara Krinsky. Jennifer, who is the director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange, talked about collaborations that are taking place between Hollywood writers and scientists (okay - so the writers still don't really listen to the scientists...but still...) for movies and programs such as Avatar (actually, here the writers should have listened to other better writers), The Mentalist, The Big Bang Theory, etc. In an age when media is fragmented and new ways have to be found to communicate science, perhaps, we have to think of science, perhaps, as product-placement: An exploding coke with a lesson in thermodynamics.

The conference was, as usual, lots of fun and I had chance to meet new people and catch-up with others. Yes, for next year too. Congrats to Bora & Anton (and others) for running it so spectacularly!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nature and Natural Disasters: On Pakistan's earthquake of 2005

In 2005, an earthquake in northern Pakistan resulted in the death of roughly 100,000 people. Now we are looking at a comparable destruction in Haiti (To donate, here is a link to American Red Cross International Relief Fund for Haiti and here is one for UNICEF). The question about the role (or the absence) of God in these events is never far behind. I discussed some of this in an article I wrote for Chowk on the first anniversary of the Pakistan earthquake. Here is a reposting from 2006:

Earth has been moving and shaking indifferently for billions of years. One of its sudden motions jolted the northern areas of in 2005, resulting in the of roughly a hundred thousand people. Natural disasters of this magnitude always elicit reflections on life and the meaning of the world around us.

It is quite natural to look for causes for such a calamity. Up until recently, the best causal explanation available was some sort of Divine act in response to the actions of the victims. This not only provided order from a chaotic event but it also reinforced the centrality of humans in the happenings of the cosmos.

The last few hundred years, however, have seen the development of modern that can successfully explain the causes of many natural disasters, such as earthquakes, without resorting to the Divine. While there is order in a scientific explanation, it is rather indifferent when it comes to ascribing meaning to an event. This tension between a theistic and a naturalistic explanation for disasters played a central role in Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and is becoming important in the discourse of modern Islamic societies.

It was another earthquake 250 years ago that shook not only the Earth but also the intellectual landscape of the time. At 9:20am on November 1st, 1755, a devastating earthquake struck the Portuguese capitol of Lisbon, one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world at the time. A tsunami struck the heart of the city within an hour and fire broke out in areas unaffected by the tsunami.

Out of a of 275,000, about 90,000 perished in Lisbon. Some preachers, as usual, invoked Divine actions for the disaster. But public intellectuals of the day, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, rejected this as a Divine act and instead attributed the quake to a neutral natural world. This was the high point of Enlightenment and perhaps it opened the gates for scientific studies of disasters that will save lives in the centuries to come.

Compared to Voltaire and Rousseau we know a lot more about the causes of earthquakes today. We know that Earth’s crust is divided up into plates that are floating on top of molten magma. Earthquakes usually occur at the intersection of these plates. In fact a map of past earthquakes matches the outline of plate boundaries. This theory of plate tectonics is the backbone of modern geology and can explain virtually all of the geological features of the world. If we want to save lives, it is vital to understand the behind earthquakes.

At the beginning of the new millennium, it is thus astonishing to hear some Muslim scholars invoke supernatural explanations for the earthquake. While it was refreshing to see some open debate about treating earthquakes as purely natural phenomena, the dominant discourse continued to be about some sort of Divine warning or retribution. A few have gone as far as to blame the victims of the earthquake. It is as if the magma, which has been driving plates naturally and indifferently for billions of years, has suddenly become sensitive to the intentions of human inhabitants.

On the other side of the intellectual spectrum, even the idea of a scientific explanation appears threatening. For example, Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal has this to say in the winter 2005 volume of the journal and : “… if earthquakes can be explained away in terms of the movement of plate tectonics, and all that happens on earth in terms of randomly occurring processes, then life on this ravaged planet itself becomes terminus ad quem, without any of a future life”.

Instead of seeing the potential for saving lives, Dr. Iqbal would rather shoot the messenger. , in fact, is the process that removes randomness from human perception. We no longer attribute lightening to Divine wrath. Rather, we put rods on top of tall buildings and direct the flow of electrons into the ground.

Hurricanes and cyclones are routinely predicted ahead of time and towns and cities evacuated. Thus, the disaster in the wake Hurricane Katrina has been blamed on the ineptness of the US in the presence of ample warnings. And while it is awe-inspiring to know that the mighty Himalayas have been lifted because of the slow persistent push of the Indian plate against Asia, the same information can identify places of higher tectonic activity perhaps prompting the construction of safer buildings.

Far from losing , there is joy in discovering the workings of nature. Isn’t it uplifting to know that oxygen in our blood was once part of a star that exploded as a supernova – underscoring our profound relationship with the universe? What could be more intimate than our symbiotic relationship with the mitochondria – the once independent organisms billions of years ago that now provide to our cells in exchange for a safe haven?

It is indeed that provides us with a deep connection to our surroundings. Some see a Divine hand in creating these connections and some see them as purely natural. But in both cases we gain an understanding of the natural world, appreciate its complexity, and in the case of plate tectonics, potentially save lives from this understanding.

For centuries, societies around the world ascribed Divine motives behind eclipses. Today, astronomers can predict eclipses with high precision for thousands of years. One day we will be able to do the same for earthquakes. Such an understanding will only come when we stop seeking supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon. The Lisbon earthquake prompted such an intellectual shift in Europe. Will we see a similar shift in Muslim thinking around the world or did the Earth move too soon for an Islamic enlightenment?

Pat Robertson on Haiti's earthquake

Large scale natural disasters force us to reevaluate our view of the world. Voltaire's Poem on the Lisbon Disaster still resonates with us 250 years after the devastating earthquake that leveled the Portuguese capital in 1755. "All" is not well in Haiti . To donate, here is a link to American Red Cross International Relief Fund for Haiti and here is one for UNICEF).

Pat Robertson, predictably, has made idiotic statements about the Haiti earthquake. Here is a short clip where he sees massive rebuilding of Haiti as a blessing in disguise:


In case you are wondering about Robertson's statement about the Haitian pact with the devil, here is a bit more from CNN:
The legend of a Haitian deal with the devil dates back to the decades following its independence in 1804, Ramsey said. It began with a Roman Catholic campaign against Vodou, the Afro-Haitian religion widely practiced in Haiti, and spread as anti-slavery movements gained ground in the Caribbean, Europe and America, she said.

"They did become mobilized to discredit what was called the first black republic by outsiders, especially in the context of debates over abolition in the Caribbean and elsewhere," Ramsey told CNN.

European colonists in the Caribbean and the Americas believed that the Haitian slaves "could not have possibly pulled this off themselves" and must have had outside help, Ramsey said. Evangelical Christians have evoked the Haiti legend more recently and elaborated on it, "but it's drawing on a much longer history," she said.

"It's utterly a fabrication, and it's an extremely offensive one," she added.

There is no point in wasting more time on Pat Robertson. Here is an oped piece in NYT today, Haiti's Angry God, that is looking for a God - perhaps in hiding:

The day after, as the sun exposed bodies strewn everywhere, and every fourth building seemed to have fallen, Haitians were still praying in the streets. But mostly they were weeping, trying to find friends and family, searching in vain for relief and walking around in shock.

If God exists, he’s really got it in for Haiti. Haitians think so, too. Zed, a housekeeper in my apartment complex, said God was angry at sinners around the world, but especially in Haiti. Zed said the quake had fortified her faith, and that she understood it as divine retribution.
...

No one knows where to go with their injured and dead, or where to find food and water. Relief is nowhere in sight. The hospitals that are still standing are turning away the injured. The headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping force, which has provided the entirety of the country’s logistical support, has collapsed. Cell and satellite phones don’t work. Cars can’t get through many streets, which are blocked by fallen houses. Policemen seem to have made themselves scarce.

“If this were a serious country, there would be relief workers here, finding the children buried underneath that house,” my friend Florence told me. Florence is a paraplegic who often sits outside her house in the Bois Verna neighborhood. The house next to hers had collapsed, and Florence said that for a time she heard the children inside crying.

Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.

Read the full article here. I'll leave you here with the opening of Voltaire's poem - perhaps a stronger indictment of an absentee God:

UNHAPPY mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

Read the full poem here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

George Saliba on Islamic Science & European Renaissance

Here is an interview with George Saliba and a summary of his book, Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance. Tip for this interview comes from Tabsir. This is a good informative site if you are interested in general issues regarding Islam and the Middle East.

Here is Saliba talking about the practical needs in the Islamic empire driving the early interest in science:

The first two chapters of the book tell the story of the birth of science as a response to the sheer needs of the new empire, and explain why this science flourished; they take account of the competitive conditions that the new empire created. It is all economic, political, to the bone.

Religion remains important. Islam, as a new religion to the empire, spurred also new questions that were never anticipated in the Greek tradition.

For example, as a Muslim, you have to pray, five times a day. And you have to pray in a specific direction to Mecca. Both of those are simple things. But they are very complicated if you take them seriously. Because one of those five prayers is defined by the length of your shadow on the ground. Originally, the time for the afternoon prayer was supposed to commence when your shadow was equal to your height and to terminate when your shadow was equal twice to your height. It was during that range that the afternoon prayer was supposed to be performed. That was good enough in Mecca, and maybe up to Medina. But when you reach Damascus, there will be many times, many days per year when your shadow will never be equal to your height, no matter what time of the day it is. So when do you start prayers?

This very mundane concern triggered a study of shadow lengths at various latitudes. Mathematical geography became then a necessary component of prayers. The minute you go into mathematical geography, you just made a big entry into astronomy. You are learning where is the sun every day of the year, where am I on the globe vis-à-vis the position of the sun, how does the sun cast the shadow, how is the shadow related to my locality. All of those questions are excellent introductions to astronomy. Is there still a question as to why you would need astronomical texts?

And here is the impact on Europe:

The second part of the book deals with the impact of all of this material on Europe.

In the 12th and 13th centuries there was a massive translation movement in Europe, from Arabic into Latin. Traditionally, this is seen as the time when Europe was recapturing its own roots so to speak. It is said that the Greek texts could not be found, that’s why they were translated via Arabic.

But it is not true that those texts could not be found. They were actually found and translated directly from Greek later on, in the 15th and the 16th centuries. The question is, why did they translate them from Arabic when the same text existed in Greek?

The essence of my argument is that the European scientists used the bricks that were already formulated in the Islamic civilization to construct their very own and new science. It does not mean that the Renaissance is not a brilliant renaissance. That is indeed one of the most creative periods in history.

But note that the method of translation changed after the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Europeans were no longer treating those Arabic texts in the same way they were treated in the medieval period. Instead of hiring translators, the European scientists learned Arabic themselves.

Indeed, why should one assume that the Renaissance scientists were any less intelligent than our modern scientists? If you ask a contemporary scientist about what was said in physics fifty years ago, the answer would be that all of that is obsolete. Today’s scientists do not read what was written in their fields fifty years ago. They only go for the latest. Why should a Renaissance scientist go for a text written in Ancient Greece a thousand years before, when the same had been discussed, criticized, updated, in the Islamic domain?

Read the full interview here. Also see an earlier post on this last point here: Science vs Humanities in the European Renaissance. Also, if you are interested in watching a lecture by George Saliba on this topic, check out his talk, Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science, as part of our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Sacred Value of Iranian Nukes

Here is an interesting article about Iranian nukes. It is based on some of the work done by Scott Atran and his colleagues on factors that influence compromises in negotiations. Here they argue that for some Iranians, the nuclear program has now become a "sacred value". This is an extension of their work on looking at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (see an earlier post here). So what is a "sacred value"?
That term has a specific meaning in social psychology. Sacred values are those that trump rational cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, the more someone is offered in return for giving up a sacred value, the less he is willing to do so. That's the opposite of how people treat other values, where the more we are offered for our old car, our house, an article of clothing, our place in a line, or any other "secular" holding, the more willing we are to give it up.

With sacred values, this cost-benefit calculus is turned on its head, explains anthropologist Scott Atran of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who has studied Islamic terrorist groups. When Atran asked Palestinians if they would be willing to give up their claims to Jerusalem (a sacred value) in return for their own state, most said no, and—here is where the topsy-turvy thinking caused by sacred values came in—when he then asked if they would give up Jerusalem if the U.S. and Europe also gave every Palestinian family substantial financial assistance for a year, even fewer said yes. That is in sharp contrast to the rational-actor perspective that has long dominated diplomacy (and economics).

The reason, as I wrote in a 2006 column, is that sacred values "are ideals so transcendent they have no equivalent in anything material," and insinuating that a sacred value such as sovereignty over Jerusalem can be denominated in anything so crass as money is deeply offensive. How offensive? More Palestinians say they would resort to violence to retain their claim to Jerusalem with the monetary sweetener than would do so without it, as he and colleagues reported in a 2007 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
What about Iranian nukes?

In a new experiment, Morteza Dehghani and Douglas Medin of Northwestern University, Atran, and colleagues asked 72 young (average age, 28), educated (college grads) Iranians about Iran giving up its nuclear program. Twenty-two percent chose "I think this definitely needs to happen," while 15 percent chose "I do not object to this," and 52 percent chose "this is acceptable only if the benefits of stopping the program are great enough." But 11 percent chose "this is shouldn't be done no matter how great the benefits are." This is the group that, the scientists report in a paper in the December issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, for whom the nuclear program seems to constitute a sacred value.

That has interesting implications. The scientists then asked this group if Iranians would support a deal in which Iran gives up its nuclear program in return for the U.S. drastically reducing its military aid to Israel, or if they would support such a deal with the added sweetener that the European Union would pay Iran $40 billion. Just as one would expect with a sacred value, the young Iranians said there would be less support for a deal with the EU sweetener—what the scientists call "the backfire effect of offering material incentives to induce compromise over sacred values."

Eleven percent seems like a small number - though the authors claim that "once you get beyond the young and the educated, more Iranians likely view the nuclear program as sacred. And even a minority, if it is committed enough, can carry the day". In fact, they are conducting a study with larger number of participants.

I think it will be interesting to compare it with the case of Pakistan. On the one hand, Pakistani bomb is an outcome of its rivalry with India, but on the other, it is often perceived, within Pakistan, as an "Islamic bomb" - with the latter factor mirroring the country's identity issues. It is easy to see how it can be a "sacred value" in both of these cases. However, it will be interesting to see if the relative weight associated to the two views (national identity versus religious identity) becomes a predictor of the percentage of people considering the nuclear issue to be a "sacred" one.

On another note, this is also helpful to think about the issue of observatories on Mauna Kea. There are Hawaiians who have been campaigning in favor of the new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). They point to the obvious monetary benefits to the island - including a pledge by TMT of investing $1 million annually for education for 50 years. At the same time, there is strong opposition (at least 10% of the local population) that not only want to stop new telescopes - but want the existing telescopes to be removed from the mountain. While there may be no room for compromise with this latter group, this pressure (along with lawsuits) has been successful in bringing in a pledge by the University of Hawaii to improve the management of the mountain as well as a sizable investment in education on the Big Island. May be the presence of such groups are essential in driving successful negotiations for those who adhere to rational cost-benefit analysis.

Read the full Newsweek article here. Also note that Scott Atran is the next speaker for our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion on March 25th.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Mathematical modeling of insurgencies

A few weeks ago Nature had a fascinating article that presented a mathematical model that explains the patterns of insurgencies - their timing of attacks and casualties (Nature 462, 911–914; 2009 - you will need subscription to access it). The data is based on 54,000 events from nine insurgent wars - including Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, Sierra Leone, etc. The model suggests that, despite their diverse geographical and political elements, there is a commonality to the way humans wage these wars irrespective of political, cultural, and geographical factors. As expected, there is also some skepticism regarding their claims. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating approach to understanding human warfare. Here is an analysis of the paper:

"We found that the way in which humans do insurgent wars — that is, the number of casualties and the timing of events — is universal," says team leader Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami in Florida. "This changes the way we think insurgency works."

Johnson and his colleagues argue that the pattern arises because insurgent wars lack a coherent command network and operate more as a "soup of groups", in which cells form and disband when they sense danger, then reform in different sizes and composition. The timing of attacks, the authors say, is driven by competition between insurgent groups for media attention.

Now there are many factors that go into making these assumptions. However, the data can be best explained as a power-law (astronomers also love power-law distributions!):

The researchers collected data on the timing of attacks and number of casualties from more than 54,000 events across nine insurgent wars, including those fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 and in Sierra Leone between 1994 and 2003. By plotting the distribution of the frequency and size of events, the team found that insurgent wars follow an approximate power law, in which the frequency of attacks decreases with increasing attack size to the power of 2.5. That means that for any insurgent war, an attack with 10 casualties is 316 times more likely to occur than one with 100 casualties (316 is 10 to the power of 2.5).

"This is surprising because these wars are all fought in different terrains and under different circumstances," says Johnson. "It shows that there is something going on in the way these wars are fought that is common to all."

To explain what was driving this common pattern, the researchers created a mathematical model that assumes that insurgent groups form and fragment when they sense danger, and strike in well-timed bursts to maximize their media exposure. The model gave results that resembled the power-law distribution of actual attacks.

And here are few critiques of the assumptions made in their model:

"They show a nice agreement between the data and their model, which is an important first step," says Aaron Clauset, who researches the mathematics of conflict at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. But he and others question the model's assumptions, such as the number of insurgents in the conflict remaining roughly fixed over time. Clauset says that this idea does not match with other findings.

The model also assumes that insurgent groups can freely break up then re-form. But Roy Lindelauf, who models terrorist networks at the Netherlands Defence Academy in Breda, notes that some insurgents in Iraq are battling each other as well as the coalition forces, and would therefore not merge into a single group.

Lars-Erik Cederman, a researcher in international conflict at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, adds that the model "has the potential to improve knowledge about warfare". But, he says, the authors "go too far in claiming they have found a universal underlying pattern" because their work includes only nine wars. Cederman, part of a group that regards insurgency as similar to general warfare, also says that although terrorist attacks can be driven by competition for media attention, it remains far from clear whether insurgencies have the same motive.

These are relevant concerns. But this is still a fantastic effort and can potentially be improved as more data comes in. Read this report here and the original paper here (you will need subscription to Nature to read both of these).