Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Blogging from Egypt: A new respect for an old civilization

At the Karnak Temple Complex.
Yup - these columns are tall and they used to be covered with brightly colored hieroglyphs

If you are at all curious about history of civilizations, please put Luxor at the top. The sole purpose of this post is to say that I did not expect to be completely blown away by ancient Egyptian civilization! Let me clarify what I'm trying to say here. I had heard a lot about ancient Egypt - but much of it was often focused on the pyramids. I was also a bit skeptical of the whole field of Egyptology. How much stuff is there to warrant such a large field of study? Movies didn't help either - as they would mostly focus on the pyramids of Giza - and the whole ancient Egypt schtick seemed over-exposed to me.

But - no. A visit to Luxor has completely changed my mind. I can totally see how (and why) so many people can spend their entire lifetimes studying ancient Egypt. The temples are enormous, and often their entire walls, columns and ceilings are covered with beautiful hieroglyphs. Originally, all of these (wall-to-wall) were carved with bright colors, and spoke of gods and kings, military campaigns and tales of successions, to the stories of the construction of the temples themselves. It gives me chills to imagine how it would have been to walk into one of these temples three to four thousand (yup 3000-4000) years ago!! But its not just the temples. The tombs of kings and queens are also completely covered with spectacularly beautiful hieroglyphs (again wall-to-wall) and, for the case of Pharaohs, also contained their mummified bodies. But wait. These tombs were in the mountains - and their entrances were deliberately hidden. So all of these hieroglyphs - so painstakingly done - were never to be seen by more than a handful of people. This really was about the afterlife. You have to see the artwork on the interior walls of the tombs to really appreciate this point.
At one of the walls of the Luxor Temple

But these hieroglyphs were also remained undeciphered up until the early 19th century. So now imagine walking into these temples and tombs, seeing the writing carved everywhere, but not understanding a word of they are saying. And then to be the first one to figure it out. Champollion. It is just hard to imagine the excitement of Champollion to have walked into these chambers, and for the first time in thousands of years, to have been able to understand the words of this ancient civilization.

But then, what a civilization! It lasted for roughly 3000 years! No wonder there is so much material available to keep researchers busy for generations to come. I have been fortunate enough to travel to several great historical cities, from Rome and Florence to Granada and Istanbul, and also to the ancient Greek cities of Ephesus, Didyma, and Miletus along the Aegean coast. But I have to say that, when it comes to awe, Luxor really stands on top of them all! By the way, the Teaching Company course, The History of Ancient Egypt by Professor Bob Brier, helped tremendously (there are 48 lectures, so you get a pretty good sense of ancient Egypt).

Bottom line: Do check out sites related to ancient Egypt. Oh - and I have yet to visit the great pyramids of Giza. That is for this coming Friday. In the mean time, I will be posting more pictures from Luxor in the next few days.

Also a quick note for Hollywood: There is a lot more to ancient Egypt than just the pyramids. Please make films that highlight the depth of this civilization.

At the Luxor Temple

Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: "The Eerie Silence" by Paul Davies

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
I have long been a fan of Paul Davies. I have read several of his books, starting with ‘The Cosmic Blueprint’, and many years ago I reviewed (in Arab magazines) ‘The Mind of God’ (the editor then objecting to the expression) and ‘About Time’. And I have met Paul Davies a number of times; in fact he and I sit (with many others) on an advisory board. Last June, when we both took part in a meeting, I got him to sign his latest book for me. So I am a bit biased in my assessment of Paul’s writings, which I regard as a model of popular science communication: very clear and enjoyable, rigorous and thorough in the coverage of the topic, and personal to some extent; indeed, although very balanced in his views, he often presents his own opinion on the given subject. (If you want to know whether Davies thinks there is any life and intelligence in the universe, turn to pages 207 and 208 of the book; I won’t spoil it!)
The book’s main theme is expressed in its subtitle, ‘Renewing our search for alien intelligence’. Davies has first-hand experience with the subject: 1) he heads the center ‘Beyond’ at Arizona State University, which addresses several important themes, including ‘The origin of life and the search for life beyond Earth’, ‘SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence’, and ‘Alternative forms of life’; 2) he currently chairs the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, which discusses what we should do if/when a clear, bona fide SETI signal is received; 3) he has previously written “Are We Alone? Philosophical implications of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life’ (1995).
This year is a commemorative year for SETI, and that is one reason why Davies has decided to revisit the subject. Another important reason is that he has lately realized that the SETI program has been too anthropically limited in its vision (SETI projects are constructed unconsciously assuming the aliens are similar to us in various ways), hence the “renewing our search” in the subtitle. Indeed, it was 50 years ago that Frank Drake set out to detect SETI radio signals through the pioneering Project Ozma, only a few months after Cocconi and Morrison published their famous Nature paper presenting what should be (according to them then) the best strategies for searching for alien signals. And 2010 is the 60th anniversary of the famous Fermi Paradox, “where are the aliens?” (if they exist, they should have reached here already). And last but not least, after 50 years of “eerie silence”, it’s surely time to take a step back and reconsider the whole project, from techniques to expectations and potential impacts.
The main idea of the book is that anyone seriously interested in SETI should be fully cognizant of the fact that aliens, if they exist anywhere, will most probably be drastically different from us, in form, technology, philosophy (intentions), etc. To assume that just because radio communication is “advanced” and can travel thousands of light-years, that aliens will use it as their preferred technique, is very naïve. As Drake himself admits, and Davies echoes, today’s human technology is substantially different from that of 50 years ago, imagine then what the situation must be with a species that has had millions of years to change. Davies comes back to this essential point again and again, insisting that aliens could be using drastically different methods of exploration or even communication, assuming they decide to do that (which is uncertain), from biology (programmed or data-packed viruses) to miniature self-replicating machines or even galactic web-like networks. Davies takes seriously the possibility that aliens could have parked a machine somewhere in the solar system; he asks what astronomical observations could confirm or reject this and finds no evidence for such alien intrusions. Similarly, he asks whether any “missing comets” could be a signal of alien interference. And he asks whether any different type of life that might be found even here on Earth (or anywhere else) could be a telling sign.
Indeed, before we consider ETI (extra-terrestrial intelligence), one should first ask about any ETL (extra-terrestrial life). What is the probability that life exists elsewhere (not counting Mars, because it could have been contaminated by Earth or even be the original site of life that later developed on our planet)? No one knows: somewhere between zero (“life is a fluke; it appeared only once by an extraordinary lucky chain of events”) and one (“life is a cosmic imperative, it must have appeared a zillion times in the universe, wherever the conditions are appropriate”). To cut to the chase, the absence of any evidence for any life of any kind anywhere (though we have been limited in our search), coupled with the absence of any sign of bio-chemical law of systematic progress toward life and intelligence makes many people (including Davies) very skeptical of the “cosmic imperative” viewpoint. He also spends a whole chapter explaining how the search for a “shadow biosphere” here on earth, where life could have appeared independently and with different characteristics (e.g. inverse chirality) would provide support for the idea that life appears more easily than it seems (since it would have done so at least twice here on Earth, or perhaps one or both having come from elsewhere). He and other researchers have proposed some schemes for looking for “weird life”, so far with no success.
And what about intelligence? How common would it be, assuming life is not so impossible to produce? Again the evidence here on earth is not so encouraging: given many chances (including the dinosaurs) and lots of time, high intelligence (technologically capable of exploration and communication) has appeared only once! Davies also has several good pages on this topic, including a critical examination of Drake’s famous equation, which he shows to be all but useless. Indeed, since we have no idea about the probability of the emergence of life around a “good planet” or about the development of intelligence and technology, the equation tells us nothing at all.
Let me stop here and postpone to the next post the discussion of how an ETI could be like (“god-like”, as Davies says), and what an “encounter” (receiving a meaningful message) with ET’s would do for/to humans.
Let me just close this overview of the book by saying that I very much enjoyed reading it. As usual with Davies’ writings, I learned a great deal, most of the time without much effort at following the presentation, the facts, or the arguments, even though sometimes they were far from my area of knowledge. I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in SETI, whether the scientific aspects of it or the cultural ones. It is a treat to get such a nice and short (200 pages) state-of-the-art presentation by someone who is not only at the forefront of research in astrobiology but also sits at the helm of a taskgroup currently thinking and producing recommendations on what should be done in the event of a detection.

Darwin Deez's parody/tribute of Sagan

I recently encountered this video - and found it to be oddly charming and amusing.

This is Darwin Deez's Constellation - and yes, many of the images in the video are a reference to Sagan's Cosmos. Of course, a perfect wardrobe... :)

Enjoy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blogging from Egypt: Luxor - first pictures

A quick note from Luxor. Wow!!

Here is a view of the Nile from the hotel in Luxor (yes, note the sun and and minaret, and a flock of birds on the right):


And here is the first visit of the Luxor temple. I will be going there again in day time - so more pics coming up. It is sooo hard to convey the scale of things here.

Going to the Valley of the Kings today!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A prominent Pakistani scientist is stoking conspiracy fires

On my recent visit to Pakistan, I was amazed at the number of conspiracy theories floating there. Everything was blamed on a shadow conspiracy. And I heard these statements from very very (yes, the second very is not a typo) educated people - and many of these people have close connections to policy makers. Some of the craziest things I heard was that the recent crash of a commercial plane, despite the fact that the weather was bad and the plane was flown by a pilot two years beyond his retirement age, was actually caused Blackwater agents trying to crash it into Pakistan's nuclear facility at Kahuta. That American President Harry Truman, soon after the end of World War II declared that we may think that Soviet Union is our (United States) enemy, but our true enemy is Islam. And that the catastrophic floods in Pakistan were actually caused by an American experiment in Alaska - that can control weather and earthquakes. Now all of these things are absolute nuts - not much different from many Americans believing that the astronauts never landed on the Moon, or the Kennedy conspiracy theories, or that the Pentagon was actually hit by a missile and not a plane on 9/11.

The difference in the case of Pakistan is that these conspiracy ideas are widely spread amongst the educated elite. Why should this be of any concern? If we start believing in a false reality, then it will be very hard to fix the real problem at hand. We won't even know what is there to fix. For example, if instead of understanding the changing weather patterns as part of a worldwide change in climate, we blame an intentional manipulation by a foreign power - then the answers we find, and the way we prepare for this change will be completely different.

Why am I talking about this? I was absolutely stunned to see a highly irresponsible article by prominent Pakistani chemist, Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, insinuating that the recent flooding in Pakistan may indeed have been caused by an American atmospheric research program called HAARP based in Alaska. Now mind you that Atta-ur-Rahman has served as the federal minister for science and also the federal minister for education. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2006. So his words carry a lot of weight.

Now there is a surprising amount of bunk in Atta-ur-Rahman's article (in fact, his bunk-level is almost as close to that of Harun Yahya!). Now it is true, that he is citing other people - and not saying it himself - so then he can use the excuse that, well, I was just quoting somebody else. No question: he is stoking the conspiracy fire (or in Urdu, "yeh jalti per tael chirak rahay hain").

Now Pervez Hoodbhoy promptly called Atta-ur-Rahman out on this in an article titled, Case of Bogus Science. He correctly points out that there is no connection between the ionosphere and earthquakes and that one of the people quoted in Rahman's article is a new age-y guy with a degree in traditional medicine. I just googled his name, Nick Begich, and found that he also believes in mind control and ESP! This doesn't necessarily disqualifies him - but we have to be a bit more careful about his claims.

Pervez dismantles several of the arguments presented in Rahman's article, and then ends his article like this:
Yet another quoted “authority” is the arch conspiracy theorist, Michel Chossudovsky, a retired professor of economics in Ottawa. In Dr Rahman’s pantheon of ‘experts’, none has published a scientific paper in a reputable science journal that demonstrates a connection between ionospheric physics and any weather or subterranean phenomenon. In short, Dr Rahman’s claims about HAARP are based on pseudo-science promoted by conspiracy theorists who blame America for all grief in the world.
Once science loses its objectivity and becomes enslaved to any kind of ideology or political opinion, it becomes useless.
Quack science does not just cost money. It also confuses people, engages them in bizarre conspiracy theories, and decreases society’s collective ability to make sensible decisions. One must therefore seriously question whether a pseudoscience organisation like Comstech deserves lavish funding from poor Pakistanis. We have better things to spend our money on. As for the world of science: it will not even notice Comstech’s demise.
Now, Pervez and Atta-ur-Rahman have a personal history as well, and I think it is safe to say that they don't like each other. Pervez has been a harsh critic of Rahman's education policies - and that spat continues to this day. I think Pervez's critique of the article is spot-on, but given their personal history, I think it comes out quite harsh (but then Atta-ur-Rahman did write a horrible piece). So expectedly, Atta-ur-Rahman wrote a letter to the editor titled HAARP: a US weapon of mass destruction?, digging his heals in some cases and on others he claims that he was only citing other people. Now this is a classic Fox News defense. They would run a ticker as: "Is Obama really unpatriotic?" - and then defend themselves by saying that they never questioned Obama's patriotism - they were simply asking a question.

If one reads Atta-ur-Rahman's original article, it is hard to draw any other conclusion than that HAARP is involved in developing a weapon that can control weather and that Pakistan's recent floods have been quite suspiciously mysterious. I think it is not too hard to connect the dots - especially at a time when Pakistan is obsessed with conspiracy theories.

This is not one of Atta-ur-Rahman's proudest moments.

But what about the science itself? Here is what baffles me. Just like the Moon landing conspiracy theories, the allegations about HAARP are actually quite easily dismissible. And just like the Apollo Moon-landing hoax, people are not genuinely interested in finding out alternative explanations (if you want to entertain yourself, you can find information about Apollo Moon Landing hoax here). This is a matter of beliefs. May be HAARP is involved in something sinister - but it is certainly not related to the claims that are made in Ata-ur-Rahman's article.

Just a very brief primer on our ionosphere: This is a thin layer of atmosphere containing charged particles (ions - and hence the name ionosphere) extending roughly from 80 kms to 300 kms above the surface (Rahman got this thing correct). Most of the weather is shaped by lower layers (the stratosphere and the troposphere). Indeed, ionosphere is important for communication systems - as our transmitters often bounce off radio waves in the ionosphere. Therefore, it is important to understand variations in this layer of the atmosphere. Can this have a military connection? Of course. Militaries all over the world are worried about maintaining communication links in all eventualities. For example, solar flares emit charged particles - and these particles can disrupt satellites as well as they can have an impact on the ionosphere. Therefore, while solar flares are of interest to astronomers, many militaries in the world are also monitoring the Sun for the same purpose. But, the fallacy comes in when we jump from a military application...to the assumption of a weapon of mass-destruction.

Wait a minute. So where does the HAARP and earthquake connection comes in. After all, Ata-ur-Rahman has quoted President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela of blaming the US for causing Haiti's earthquake (yes, all we need is a President of a country believing in quack science!). This is an interesting question. I know that radio waves are used to monitor movement of plates and any earthquakes (for example, here is the system in Auckland). And, since they are dealing with communications, radio waves are also important for projects like HAARP. I really don't know. But if this is the case, then blaming earthquakes on these radio detectors is like blaming your pressure gauge for causing thunderstorms.

Atta-ur-Rahman should have been able to pick these things up quite easily. The fact that he did not do so, is deeply disappointing and, in this particular case, quite irresponsible.

P.S. Ever wonder, if the US is so good at weather manipulation then why don't they recall all their troops, and simply flood-out the Taliban. May be they want to keep the weather system appear natural - so most of us think that they don't really control the weather. And now if you think about it, this is exactly what is happening. OMG! Their plan is working perfectly.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blogging from Egypt: Internet for politics in Egypt and Malaysia

Legislative elections are scheduled in Egypt on November 28th. Not surprisingly then, the newspapers are filled with election stories. This is not the Presidential elections - which are scheduled for next year - but the legislative elections are considered to be fairer (however so slightly) than the general elections. One story that caught my was about the use of the internet in this election campaign (Sorry - I cannot find the electronic copy of the article that appeared in The Egyptian Gazette on Nov 21st).

The article talks about the increasing use of Facebook, Twitter, and other blogs and websites for these upcoming elections. Interestingly, since many candidates themselves are unfamiliar with some of the social networking tools, the web-design business (this includes making a Facebook page) is booming. Okay - so this is very interesting. But the article also raised an interesting question about the overall effectiveness of such internet campaign in a country where illiteracy hovers around 30%.

I looked into the numbers for Egyptian internet users - and they are low but not that bad. It looks like there are around 17 million internet users in Egypt, or about 21% of the total population of 80 million. For comparison, Pakistan has 18 million users - but that represents only 10% of the population (180 million), India has 81 million users, representing 7% of its 1.2 billion people. But the growth in internet usage is also quite stunning in the last decade (2000-2010): Egypt with 3700% increase, India with 1500% and Pakistan with almost 14000%!

Internet may not be playing a major role in Egyptian politics today, but it is clear that it will be a factor in the coming years - especially in a country where the population is dominated by those under 30.

Now, while I was thinking about this post, I ran into an NPR story this morning about the role of internet in bringing about political change in Malaysia. Listen to the story here (it is about 3min long). This is very interesting. While the ruling party of the 50 years retained strict control over the print media, it could not contain the usage of the web. And this is tied to economic policies:
And the government has pledged not to censor on the Internet. Ironically, it was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had a reputation as an authoritarian, who made the pledge as part of an effort to attract investment to a hi-tech "multimedia super corridor."
Sharom argues that the credit for this goes to foreign investors, not the former prime minister.
"He wanted to create a cyber hub, another one of his grandiose plans which I don't think has taken off," Sharom says. "But thankfully for the rest of us, as part of his plans, he had to give in to international demands that there be no Internet censorship."
But what fraction of Malaysian population actually uses the internet? After all, this is what we were talking about in the Egyptian case. Well...it turns out that roughly 65% of Malaysians, or 17 million out of the total population of 26 million have access to the internet! This is quite spectacular - and then it is no wonder that politics has been affected by it so much.

Viva internet!
Except for the spread of conspiracy theories that also fuel mass paranoia and may lead to a divorce from reality. Stay tuned for the next post.

Update (Nov 23): I just saw this piece on the rampant use of Twitter and Facebook in Indonesia (it is the 4th largest user of Facebook!). As far as internet usage is concerned, Indonesia has 30 million users - that make up 12% of its population of 240 million.

Monday, November 22, 2010

IQ Score Variations by Nation

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah 
The question of whether IQ (Intelligence Quotient) scores vary (significantly) from country to country may sound terribly racist and unapproachable. But first, no question, if honestly asked and investigated, should be taboo; and second, the question sounds racist only if one believes that any such differences (if found) will be attributed to racial characteristics, rather than developmental factors.
Now, one of the main scientific problems that pose themselves whenever this issue is studied (seriously, objectively) is the fact that IQ tests are quite invariably fraught with cultural effects. In a previous post, I had reported on how easily we can mistake some common traits that we are used to around us for “human universals”. So one can imagine that measuring intelligence “universally” is a very complicated matter. (I remember once I took a French IQ test – for fun – and many of the verbal questions had some “well-known” cultural assumptions that were alien to me, and I’m totally fluent in French…)
Many countries, however, do have huge databases of IQ test results for their people, by age, education level, economic status, year, etc. Now, again, comparing results from different countries is a very risky exercise, but looking at scores within each country, and studying their variations through time can be recommended. And that’s what James Robert Flynn (born 1934), Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, did some years ago, at which point he noticed what has become known as the Flynn Effect: IQ scores have been steadily increasing every decade now for over sixty years, in all countries that keep such data. Why is that? There are various hypotheses for this, ranging from cognitive abilities improving with more stimuli coming to our minds from more sophisticated educational, social, and economic environments to improved nutrition allowing the brain to perform its tasks better and faster…
Controversially, some researchers have postulated a reverse correlation between IQ and development level; that is, countries with higher average IQ’s will reach greater economic levels, not the other way around. Indeed, in two very controversial books (“IQ and the Wealth of Nations”, 2002, and “IQ and Global Inequality”, 2006), Richard Lynn, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and Tatu Vanhanen, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland, argue that current differences in economic development are due at least in part to differences in average national IQ scores…
But a recent study found an interesting correlation between average IQ scores and rates of infectious diseases in various countries. More clearly, the more widespread is malaria, for instance, the lower the average IQ will be in that country… That’s what Christopher Eppig (a Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque) and his colleagues reported in a paper they published in July in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (see the diagram below, from New Scientist).

How could those two factors (IQ and infectious diseases) be correlated? The interpretation that has been offered holds that parasitic infections rob the body – and thus the brain – of infants of much energy and divert body resources to fighting the disease and pumping up the immune system, hence reducing the capacity of the brain to perform at higher rates and levels.
The researchers insist that they did control for other factors that could affect IQ scores, including education opportunities, income levels, and even climate (as colder lands have been theorized to help improve IQ scores… from an evolutionary perspective…).
If such an effect and its proposed explanation are confirmed (by other studies), this could constitute an important phenomenon for national and international institutions (e.g. the World Bank) to address, in an attempt to hit several birds with one stone…

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If in London, visit the Natural History Museum - I


On my way to Cairo, I stopped in London for a short overnight stay. However, I managed to go the Natural History Museum (NHM). So let me say - wow! It is very cool and I ended up staying for 5 hours there - without actually getting bored.

So first of all, if you are in London - just go and visit this place. It is a spectacular building (yes, I have to admit I was in a bit of a colonial awe...) and the admission is free! Yes, free. Take that American museums. And on top of that, like all sane people in the world, NHM considers Pluto a planet! Take that Hayden Planetarium!

In all seriousness, here are couple of reasons why I really liked the museum. Instead of simple razzle-dazzle (which there was aplenty in the dinosaur exhibit), there was a lot of emphasis of the process of science. This was partly done by emphasizing on history of science - which when seen in a stunning late 19th century building, it seems a bit more authentic. Second, somehow, they were able to convey the joy of figuring things out. This was done by numerous hands-on activities for kids and adults alike.

Here are couple of pictures from the museum. I will have another post on the fantastic way the museum (and especially their new Darwin Centre) has handled the process of science.

Museum main building with dino (Diplodocus) head and neck

Museum main building with dino (Diplodocus) tail and butt

Entry to the geology section of the museum where Science is depicted somewhere between gods and monsters. Actually this was an interesting way of explaining geology as well as ancient mythologies. The first statue is that of Blake's God holding a measuring instrument, then there is a Cyclops, and then an astronaut. Briefly, it represented our penchant for understanding the world, the search for extinct species, and some of the achievements of science. There are gods Atlas - with Earth in its back (for our efforts to map the planet) and Medusa (for fossils in stones) on the other side. You can also see an escalator going through a giant Earth and to geology galleries. Pretty cool stuff. Oh - and lot of kids in school uniforms - and they were certainly in awe of these statues.

 A very cool section devoted to the early 19th century, fossil collector and paleontologist, Mary Anning.

And I like the fact that the museum was quite straight-forward about our (humans) place in evolution. Here we are with some of our cousins.

And a British sense of humor. In the section talking about the demise of dinosaurs, there is a list of some unusual theories as well. In case you can't read this, the dino's extinction is blamed on boredom - due to the invention of cricket. Ha ha. Okay - so it seemed funny to me...

and finally, there is an interesting installation called TREE by artist Tania Kovats. This was commissioned to commemorate the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin last year. So the tree in the ceiling, in this almost empty room, is actual a thin slice of an actual 200 year old oak tree. It has been growing since the birth of Darwin.

The above picture is from the installation website. It is a very cool concept. Of course, this is inspired by the tree of life diagram that Darwin sketched in his notebook. Also, it represents how we study plants: "This slice through the 200-year-old oak tree is presented like a vast living organism placed on a microscope slide. The branches stretch across the gallery ceiling with the ceiling's grid-like panels forming an architectural frame for the piece. At over 17 metres long, TREE will is the Museum's largest botany specimen on display."

A sequel to this post in a few days.

Also see:
Up with Darwin's Down House

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In Egypt for a few days...

A river of lights

Yup - the image above is indeed the Nile at night. It was taken from the International Space Station(ISS) last month (tip from badastonomer). This is an absolutely stunning image and provides a nice overview of the narrow habitation along the Nile, and the importance of the river.

I will mostly be in Cairo (in the brightest hub towards the top of the image), but then will also go out on a 3-day excursion to Luxor - and I'm really looking forward to it! My first impression of Cairo is that it is a big chaotic city. I have recently been to Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul, and it seems that order and calm has been slowly decreasing :) (Oh - c'mon, this is just the first reaction). This is certainly true for the traffic. On the Pakistan traffic index, Kuala Lumpur was not even close. I started to recognize some similarities in Istanbul. But Cairo may give Karachi a good chase for its money - and I may even bring in Lahore in the discussion (now that's saying something).

More from Cairo coming up. In the mean time, to get excited about Luxor, here is Josh Ritter's absolutely gorgeous "The Curse" about a love affair between an archaeologist and a mummy (I had posted it earlier here). If you haven't seen it, do check it out. The video is produced and puppeteered by Ritter's drummer, Liam Hurley.

Friday, November 19, 2010

iPad for bonobos, and Anderson Cooper in a bunny suit

I'm off to Cairo - but in the mean time, here is a segment from Anderson Cooper about Kanzi, and bonobos in general (tip from Science & Religion Today). Right at the end, Kanzi's 4-month son shows up - and he has access to iPad! Now this will be a very interesting experiment - and we'll see how do language and other cognitive skills develop with time. I have seen kids (of the human kind) play with iPad, and apparently it works very well for them. I'm telling you - soon we will have new masters. For the umpteeth time, also check out this relevant short story, Pope of the Chimps. Also see this Radiolab segment on Kanzi.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A godless cafe in Paris - in the 18th century

French Enlightenment: Forget Voltaire and Rousseau. It is about time that Diderot gets some attention - beyond his encylopedia (Encyclopédie) - not that there is any thing wrong with encylopedias. There is a new book out, A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom, that looks at the French Enlightenment through the lens of a Parisian salon and also looks at some of the regulars there, including Diderot. From the review of the book in the Economist:
It is the story of the scandalous Paris salon run by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach, a philosophical playground for many of the greatest thinkers of the age. Its members included Denis Diderot (most famous as the editor of the original encyclopedia, but, Mr Blom argues, an important thinker in his own right), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of romanticism, and the baron himself; even David Hume, a famous Scottish empiricist, paid the occasional visit.
A philosophy grew up around the baron’s generously stocked table that denied religious revelation and shunned Christian morality, embracing instead the primal passions (the fundamental motives, said the philosophes, for human behaviour) and cool reason (which could direct the passions, but never stand against them). They dreamt of a Utopia built on pleasure-seeking, rationality and empathy. Their ideal nation would leave no room for what they saw as the twisted ethical code of Christianity, which they argued prized suffering and destructive self-repression.
Not only was their thinking radical, but expressing it was dangerous. Diderot was imprisoned for his writings, an experience, Mr Blom argues, that left him too scared to lay out his philosophy plainly, instead disguising it within numerous plays, novels and letters. Baron d’Holbach published most of his works under pseudonyms, which helped to keep him safe but also condemned him to centuries of philosophical obscurity (except in the officially godless Soviet Union). Even when the French revolution finally came, its self-appointed guardians had no place for the philosophy of the true radicals. For Maximilien Robespierre, chief architect of the reign of terror that followed the revolution, God and religion were far too useful in keeping the population in line.
Mr Blom’s book is part biography and part polemic. He sketches the early lives of Diderot, Holbach, Rousseau and other players in the drama, and describes the philosophy they hammered out. It is also an iconoclastic rebuttal of what he describes as the “official” history of the Enlightenment, the sort of history that he finds “cut in stone” on a visit to the Paris Panthéon. There the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid to rest with the blessing of the French state. Neither deserved it, suggests Mr Blom.
And here is the bit about Voltaire and Rousseau:
Voltaire, he insists, was a milquetoast careerist, too concerned with his own reputation and his comfortable life to say anything truly unsettling. Rousseau he finds even worse. By denigrating reason, celebrating impulse and advocating repression and tyranny in the name of a loosely defined “general will”, Rousseau’s thinking, argues Mr Blom, was actively maleficent (and, unsurprisingly, venerated by Robespierre). It is a tragedy of history, the author concludes, that Voltaire and Rousseau won the battle of ideas, whereas Diderot was reduced to the rank of editor of the encyclopedia, and Holbach was forgotten utterly.
Read the full review here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When are we going to see a movie about Tycho Brahe?

It looks like 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe's body is going be exhumed (again) in Prague. We are still trying to figure out what killed him. Now, it is generally believed that he died of a bladder infection. Now Tycho's death always features in intro astronomy classes. How can we not bring it up? It is thought that his bladder exploded at a royal banquet - as he was too polite to excuse himself and go to the loo. Apart from a great (kinda) sad story, it is a great reminder: When you have to go - then you have to go.

Any hoo, so now it seems that he may have been poisoned. The problem is that he could have accidentally poisoned himself - as he was also an alchemist and he may have played with mercury. But more intriguingly, some also think that his assistant - none other than Johannes Kepler - may have killed him, perhaps to gain access to his data (there indeed was a feud between Kepler and Tycho's family about the ownership of the Tycho's fantastic data - data that ended up playing a central role in Kepler's laws!). Now here is an astro-thriller that we had been waiting for. One legendary astronomer kills another legendary astronomer for the sake of...DATA (cue in your own dramatic music here). But not just any data - but data that will help change our view of the universe forever!! (some more dramatic music please...). Oh - and Kepler wrote perhaps the first science-fiction ever, Somnium, as a trip to the Moon, and his mother was accused and tried for witchcraft, partly because of some of the things written in Somnium. I'm not making these things up. This can be a phenomenal film - set in the backdrop of fantastically changing times and the scientific revolution.

Terry Giliam: this movie has your name written all over it. 

Just in case you thought that we had run out of plot twists regarding Tycho's death:
More recently a theory has surfaced that the astronomer was killed on the orders of the Danish king, Christian IV, because Brahe had allegedly had an affair with the king's mother.
Now this is gold. Oh and talking about gold, Tycho also lost his nose in a duel, when he was 20 years old, and wore a prosthetic nose, possibly gold or silver, for the rest of his life. And in his free time he catalogued over a 1000 new stars and helped laid the foundations for the scientific revolution.

Good stuff!

Read the full story about Tycho's exhumation here. The results are expected next year. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Islamic Science gems at Sharjah Book Fair


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
Sharjah (my hometown here in the Emirates) holds an annual book fair around this time of the year. We are told it’s the second largest of the Arab world, behind Cairo’s. The 29th edition, which lasted 12 days, took place two weeks ago. The organizers have just released some figures: 500,000 people visited the fair and bought books for some $ 36 million, which means that on average each visitor spent about $72. All of these figures are pretty impressive, especially when one knows that the population of Sharjah numbers around 500,000 (including kids, elderly, and many illiterate people); in fact we know that a substantial fraction of the visitors come from neighboring countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar). To tell you the extent to which this fair has become important, I will just mention two participants that had big booths: the cultural branch of the US Embassy (with lots of books in Arabic on the American history, political system, and culture) and, for the first time probably in the whole region, the Church of Scientology (of L. Ron Hubbard) – no comment!
The Sharjah Book Fair has also gradually turned into a more general cultural fair, with many book signings, interviews, poetry recitals, lectures, and debates organized throughout the event. Indeed, the director of the fair said that this year, in addition to 60 signings for authors who launched their book titles, 233 cultural events were organized. The officials are promising an even bigger show next year, with a greater presence and display of audio books, e-books, and the like.
This year I was delighted to find several Islamic Science gems, among a number of books I bought in Arabic and English (I spent about $200, so you can tell the fair was pretty good). Indeed, the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, which is based in London and produces quality works of Islamic Heritage (in Science and other fields), participated for the first time. I had heard of the Foundation, seen its founder and sponsor, Sheikh Zaki Yamani (a former Saudi minister of oil who loves culture) on TV, but I really had not known about the gems it is producing and selling at very subsidized prices.
Two of those gems are works by David A. King and Roshdi Rashed, two of the top world scholars in Islamic Science. King, a German, is Professor of the History of Science at the University of Frankfurt; Rashed, an Egyptian, is a researcher (at the highest rank) in the French CNRS (national research network). Both have received numerous awards, including the UNESCO’s Gold Medal in 1999 and the King Faisal International Prize in 2007 for Rashed. King has specialized in Astronomy, and Rashed in Mathematics, particularly Geometry, but also in Optics and some incursions into Astronomy – all in the Islamic Civilization.

I was thus astonished to find such books as King’s “World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca”, an impressive volume of more than 1000 pages, with numerous drawings and maps, for sale for some $30 (obviously subsidized). And barely had I lifted my eyes from this volume that I caught sight of Rashed’s “Geometry and Dioptrics in Classical Islam”, also a hardcover volume of over 1000 pages, which the Foundation was selling for $30. (Dioptrics, by the way, is the study of the refraction of light, especially by lenses, something that was revolutionized by Ibn al-Haytham, one of the greatest scientists of the Islamic Civilization.)

My surprises were not yet over. The two guys working at the booth turned out to be Algerians; they work full time for the Foundation in London. They then told me that if I was interested, they could reserve a 5-volume set that was part of an incoming shipment; they said they didn’t think it would be sold and were going to offer it to one of the officials, but if I wanted it, they would keep it for me. The set in question was a staggering work by Roshdi Rashed, “Les mathématiques infinitésimales du IXe au XIe siècle, so I quickly jumped on the offer, and I went back a week later to pick up the five weighty volumes, for which I paid a little more than $100.

The only regret I must voice is that none of those big volumes is, ironically, available in Arabic. The only Arabic-language book on the subject I found at the booth was “Science in Islam and Classical Modernity” (also by R. Rashed!), which I picked up for $3, but it’s really just a booklet of 75 pages, it wouldn’t even qualify as a summary of those imposing tomes. Perhaps it’s not so ironic that such books are produced by a German and an Arab who has lived and worked in France for decades, nor should one be surprised to see the books edited and published in the London – even when they are sponsored by Arabs, that is done in the west…
Now, I won’t have time to read any of those big volumes any time soon, but I’m sure there will be occasions in the near future when I will be drawn to consult parts of them for specific examples needed for an article or a lecture or an exchange I will be having with someone (oftentimes I encounter people who either dismiss the Islamic Civilization’s contributions too easily or exaggerate them a bit too much). It just warmed my heart to see the unbelievable scholarship of these specialists, the amount of meticulous work they have been putting into their projects, the wealth of information they have put together and published for our enrichment and pleasure, and the attention given to these work by the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, which is here duly acknowledged and thanked.
Eid Mubarak to all.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Slow reconstruction of schools in Swat

I had posted two posts on schools in Pakistan this week - one on building them and the other one on their bombings - here is an excellent NYT video report (about 7 minutes long) on the lack of school reconstruction in Swat.



Couple of quick things: It is incredible to watch the desire for education there (see the earlier post: Kristof hopeful on Pakistan's middle-class). This is all the more amazing considering that about 400 schools were bombed by the Taliban in the Swat region since 2007! Second, this is a good illustration of how the issue of corruption (Pakistan is ranked 34th in Global Corruption Index for this year - and it seems that its ranking is rising. Somalia is #1 followed by Afghanistan) impacts rebuilding efforts and how it affects the local population. One or two years may not be a long time-frame for governments, but for affected locals, this can be an eternity. Third, it is fantastic to hear that the local rebuilding of schools is taking place following the model of Greg Mortenson's wildly successful Three Cups of Tea.

Related posts:
A schoolgirl's odyssey
Short documentary about the school situation in Swat
Another school blown up by militants in Swat
Taliban, Education, and diary of a 7th grade schoolgirl from Swat

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday hodgepodge: Cats mastering physics, science cheerleaders, and a galaxy from far-far away

Okay - so in the past I may have accused Billy the Kit of being a tad unfashionable and of coming in the way of blogging. But as it turns out, he knows his physics well. Almost too well (hmm...what is he really up to??). It seems that Billy knows about gravity and inertia (tip from Don):
Writing in the Thursday issue of Science, the four engineers report that the cat’s lapping method depends on its instinctive ability to calculate the point at which gravitational force would overcome inertia and cause the water to fall.
What happens is that the cat darts its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water.
The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water behind it.
Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the rush of the water and starts to pull the column down — snap! The cat’s jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it.
The cat laps four times a second — too fast for the human eye to see anything but a blur — and its tongue moves at a speed of one meter per second.
 
Being engineers, the cat-lapping team next tested its findings with a machine that mimicked a cat’s tongue, using a glass disk at the end of a piston to serve as the tip. After calculating things like the Froude number and the aspect ratio, they were able to figure out how fast a cat should lap to get the greatest amount of water into its mouth. The cats, it turns out, were way ahead of them — they lap at just that speed.
And this adds just one more reason for the cats to feel superior to humans. By the way, I think the engineers that figured the cat-lapping problem are different than the ones who produced An Engineer's Guide to Cats (and Advanced Cat Yodeling). But who knows?

Okay, so while we are on the subject of science, here are Science Cheerleaders performing at the USA Science & Engineering Festival from last month (tip from Ahmed):



And to conclude, here is the picture of a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago!! The dot in the red-circle on the left is the center of attention and it goes by the sexy name of UDFy-38135539 (yes, light from this tiny smudge left when the universe was only 600 million years old. At the time there was no Earth, no solar system, and not even the Milky Way. This is how long it has taken for the light to reach us! C'mon - this is so amazingly cool! [oh and yes, almost all the smudges you see in the picture are galaxies...and most are incredibly far-away].


Read more about it here.

Kristof hopeful on Pakistan's middle class

Access to any kind of decent education is seriously tied to the class structure in Pakistan. First of all, if you are not living in a major city (and 70% of Pakistanis live in rural area), your hopes for post-secondary education are very low. Cambridge system (for upper and upper-middle class), English-medium (for middle and upper-middle class), Urdu medium (these are usually government schools catering to the rest of the population), and the prospects for jobs and a decent future decline dramatically from Cambridge to Urdu medium system. And all of this for those lucky enough who do get a chance to go to schools. How bad is it? From Kristof's article:
One reason Pakistan is sometimes called the most dangerous country in the world is this: a kindergarten child in this country has only a 1 percent chance of reaching the 12th grade, according to the Pakistan Education Task Force, an official panel. The average Pakistani child is significantly less likely to be schooled than the average child in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yes, I have seen these numbers before. But they have to be repeated over and over again to shake up the myopic vision of upper-class Pakistan. When I was in Pakistan this past September, I heard several conversations expressing surprise after seeing pictures from flood-affected areas: "Is this Pakistan too? Do we have this much poverty?" While the news from the educated elites may not be that hopeful (see this earlier post: How do students at elite Pakistani universities view the world?), an expanding middle-class may be able to re-direct the country:
But most important, members of Pakistan’s emerging middle class are stepping up to the plate.
They are enraged at the terrorists who have been tearing apart their country, they’re appalled by corruption and illiteracy, and they want peace so that their children can become educated and live a better life. Their obsession is college, not Kashmir.
Partly because of middle-class influence, ordinary Pakistanis are increasingly focused on education. About one-fourth of Pakistani children, even from poor families, now attend private schools, simply because the public schools are so wretched.
These days the middle class is not only eclipsing the feudal landowners but also rejects the old feudal contempt for the masses. One reflection of the middle-class engagement is the rise of the Citizens Foundation, a terrific aid group started by a group of businessmen frustrated by their country’s appalling schools.
Today, T.C.F. runs 660 excellent schools for the poorest citizens. I visited several of these schools on this trip — and, wow!
T.C.F. spends 40 percent less per pupil than state schools do, but manages to provide incomparably better education. Here in the most-populous province of Punjab, for example, nearly 100 percent of Citizens Foundation pupils pass government exams, while over the last four years state schools have averaged a 44 percent pass rate.
And then here is a fantastic case:

The most inspiring Pakistani I met on this trip wasn’t a prominent official but a 17-year-old girl.
Zahida Sardar, an ebullient teenager with braids and a radiant smile, used to languish in an execrable state school in Minhala outside Lahore. “A teacher might come only twice a month,” Zahida recalled.
In such a school, Zahida despaired that she would have no chance to become a doctor or teacher. She began to pester her parents to send her to a T.C.F. school so she could actually get an education, but her parents are illiterate and worried about school fees.
“My father said, ‘I’m not going to pay. Why should we spend money on education?’ ” Zahida recalled. So Zahida tormented her mother, begging her just to find out if a transfer might be possible.
“For three months, I pestered and insisted,” Zahida recalled. She tried everything she could think of, including a daily torrent of tears.
I met Zahida’s mother, Sardara, who told me that the girl was impossible and just wouldn’t take a “no.” “She just wore me down,” Sardara said. Timidly, Sardara visited the T.C.F. school, and the principal agreed to test Zahida and, when she performed brilliantly, accept her at much reduced fees of 50 cents a month.
So Zahida is now is a star in the 11th grade — speaking to me comfortably in English.
And this is definitely not an isolated story. The desire for education and the realization that education can lead one out of poverty is a strong strain present throughout Pakistan - from villages to the cities. If only we could opportunities also...

Read the full article here (and it is also a nice antidote to the post about school bombings in northern Pakistan).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Obama should stress more on scientific and educational collaborations

Obama's speech in Jakarta yesterday was meant to continue the dialogue that he started in Cairo last year. Well and good. But science and education, while mentioned in the speech, got a bit less attention this time. Now it is quite possible that actions on the ground are going to speak for themselves. But words are important too - and I think an emphasis on scientific collaborations should be popular both in Indonesia and in Egypt. Here are all the instances where science was mentioned in Obama's speech in Indonesia:

Linking education to development and democracy:
Above all, America has a stake in the success of the Indonesian people.  Underneath the headlines of the day, we must build bridges between our people, because our future security and prosperity is shared.  And that is exactly what we’re doing -- by increasing collaboration among our scientists and researchers, and by working together to foster entrepreneurship.  And I’m especially pleased that we have committed to double the number of American and Indonesian students studying in our respective countries.  (Applause.)  We want more Indonesian students in American schools, and we want more American students to come study in this country.  (Applause.)  We want to forge new ties and greater understanding between young people in this young century.
These are the issues that really matter in our daily lives.  Development, after all, is not simply about growth rates and numbers on a balance sheet.  It’s about whether a child can learn the skills they need to make it in a changing world.  It’s about whether a good idea is allowed to grow into a business, and not suffocated by corruption.  It’s about whether those forces that have transformed the Jakarta I once knew -- technology and trade and the flow of people and goods -- can translate into a better life for all Indonesians, for all human beings, a life marked by dignity and opportunity.
Now, this kind of development is inseparable from the role of democracy.
On scientific collaborations along with entrepreneurship:
To strengthen cooperation in science and technology that fuels growth, we are going to be pursuing joint research in areas like energy and biodiversity conversation.  And we are expanding educational partnerships between our young scientists, engineers and doctors.  And building on the entrepreneurship summit that I hosted in Washington, which was attended by some very talented young Indonesians, I’m pleased that Indonesia will be hosting a regional entrepreneurship conference next year.  
And connecting the thread with the Cairo initiative:
And I would note that many of the partnerships I’ve mentioned are a direct result of my call in Cairo for a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.  And it involves the private sector as well, thanks to efforts like Partners for a New Beginning, which is forging partnerships around science, education and entrepreneurship.
Now all of this is reasonable - but what is lacking is something that is eye-catching. Yes, practical applications linked with business are all well and good, but the prestige and symbolism often lies with pure science and/or with bold initiatives. I think this is where NASA could have played an important role in bringing the cool factor to the collaborations. But due to pressure from Fox News, NASA will probably keep a profile low on this topic (see an earlier post about this here and some of the reaction here). Now it is back to the President to make these science collaborations something more than simply opportunities for business ventures. Perhaps, bring up the wonder and awe of the natural world and the joy of discovery as a universally shared experience.

But I'm glad that science is still an important component of Obama's foreign policy. At least so far.

Related posts:
Obama's Science Initiative in Indonesia
NASA reaching out to the Muslim world
A bill to support scientific research in the Muslim world
Obama's science envoys for the Muslim world
Obama's science outreach to the Muslim world