Monday, January 31, 2011

Great quote from Brian Greene on Colbert

Here is Brian Greene talking about multiverses on Colbert.

But right at the end, he has fantastic quote: "You are a bag of particles governed by the laws of physics". What a fantastically accurate description! I love it.  Hmm...I think this will be perfect for the tombstone. I don't want to spoil the ending, but this also reminded me of the phenomenal ending of Catch-22 - right on the last page. I know, I know, this was a big jump - but it just reminded me of that.

Here is Greene on Colbert:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brian Greene
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>Video Archive

Witness to a (General) Revolution

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
I don’t think I have ever commented in writing on political matters. But the events unfolding in my/our world for the past few weeks are unprecedented in their scope and their impact; they bring new things every day – including scientists blogging about the socio-political order around them.
Salman has taken the lead and commented several times recently on socio-political developments in the Muslim world, including events in Pakistan, Tunisia, and Egypt (for example see the earlier post, How important is the internet in Tunisia uprising?). And judging from the comments that have been posted in response to his writings, it appears that readers of this blog are highly interested in such discussions, even though in principle we are supposed to be mainly focused on science and religion topics. But then where exactly does one draw the line between religion, politics, and social order? Furthermore, Mohammad Yahia, the editor of the Nature Middle East portal and a blogger of his own, has commented on the impact of the current events on Arab scientists and academics.
But do I want to comment because people are interested in this topic or because I feel I have something thoughtful to contribute? Neither, actually. I have decided to comment because writing is a cathartic exercise (it helps heal one’s wounds), and because this gives me a chance to crystallize the ideas that have been running through my head and the feelings rushing in my heart for the past several weeks. Watching the coverage of these uprisings, mainly glued to Al-Jazeera, I have gone through various emotions and sought to understand the historic events around me.
First, let me highlight the main developments (from Tunisia and Egypt) of the past few weeks:
·    Tunisians, living under the most oppressive police state, peacefully overthrew the regime and insisted on establishing full democracy and human rights for all, including and especially freedom of speech and assembly. No more will campuses be under surveillance, and students and professors be arrested, interrogated, and forbidden from travel simply because they’ve expressed non-acceptable views or mingled with people who were already on the regime’s black lists.
·    Aftershocks followed from the Tunisian earthquake, starting from next-door Algeria and Libya and reaching Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. (Lebanon is another issue.)
·    The “day of rage” in Egypt (January 25) surprised everyone by getting hundreds of thousands of people into the streets calling for regime change. At that point, everyone knew that the follow-up event (demonstrations three days later after the Friday prayers) was going to be historic – and it was.
·    For the first time in history, transnational mass communication media (satellite TV and internet) played a crucial role in the revolution(s), largely in the Tunisian case and to some extent in the Egyptian case. Scholars will for years be dissecting and debating the role played by Facebook, Twitter, and Aljazeera (the latter much more essential than has been recognized so far). And the Egyptian government’s unprecedented and unsuccessful attempt to paralyze and silence the protests by blocking almost all internet, SMS, mobile phone, and at some stage even land phone communication, will also soon be analyzed in depth.
Events are still unfolding day by day, and for this and other reasons I don’t want to comment too much on the events themselves and try to predict what will happen in the short term and beyond, both in Egypt and elsewhere. Instead I would like to focus on what I perceive as the real problem in this region and what people want and expect.
First and foremost, people want an end to corruption. Democracy is important and needed, but this is not what got people into the streets. After all, there are other countries in the region where there is as little (or even less) democracy (citizens’ participation in the system) but where no one has demonstrated for or against anything. And the case of Tunisia is very telling in this regard: while the regime was autocratic almost from the start (for over 20 years), people revolted against it only when it went very corrupt in the last few years, with the president’s family-in-law seizing large portions of the country’s wealth (or whatever wealth was available). I think we can see that correlation (between uprising and corruption as opposed to uprising due to autocracy) in almost all the countries where troubles have taken place.
A second cause for these revolutions appears to my mind: nepotism, as opposed to meritocracy. As I’ve just said regarding the situation in Tunisia (under Ben Ali, the deposed dictator), and as people know about the Mubarak regime and others like it, people become angry when they see their country being hijacked by a family and/or a clique and turned into its personal possession.
Indeed, in those countries (and quite a few in the region), “succeeding” depends much more on whom you know than on what you know or what you can do (with your education and skills). People then are torn between two inclinations: an idealistic, almost quixotic fight for meritocracy, and a pragmatic “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude of “I need to secure my family’s future”, so let me play nice and build useful relations. And this is, unfortunately, so true in academia, as much if not even more than in other areas of our society.
So, while I have no crystal ball to gaze into the future and hence cannot predict what will happen now, I can make a few hopeful comments. I always tell my friends that I am (in general) an optimist with respect to the long(er)-term future but a pessimist regarding the short term. I don’t necessarily believe that things are going to be worse in Tunisia and Egypt (and elsewhere) under those who will replace Ben Ali, Mubarak, and their ilk. Many people have expressed worries about more Arab countries turning chaotic like Iraq and thus wonder whether keeping a despot like Saddam would not have been better. Well, first, the change that occurred in Tunisia (or the one that will soon take place in Egypt) in no way resembles what happened in Iraq, and secondly no one said such revolutions would turn hell into heaven in a short time. Each situation is different, and in each case history will unfold differently. But I am confident that within a few years or perhaps even a few decades (for the big ones like Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, etc.), things will straighten out. (It will take time to fix whole systems of education, management, etc.)
It will all depend on how quickly people will accept the principles of rule of law (all equally subjected to it, no matter who or what) and meritocracy. Once we have gotten rid of despotism, corruption, and nepotism, then things will work, no matter what political system or ideology one implements (and ideologies will rotate, since parties will complete and thus win or lose people’s confidence).
I am now more certain that the Arab world is undergoing an important transformation, perhaps a la Eastern Europe. Perhaps that is too hopeful, but since things can’t get worse, any change is for the better. But hopefully, this won’t be just “any change”; it may be “the change”… Inshallah!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Add Congressman Jack Kingston to the creationist column

We write here a lot about the status of science in the Muslim world. Yes, we are also often critical about scientific misconceptions and how newspapers sometimes promote pseudoscientific claims (see, for example, this nonsense about Mars from the Business Recorder, or this about bizarre anti-evolution story from Al Jazeera). But what is astounding is to find a Congressman of the most scientifically advanced country in the world (it is by far the scientific leader in the world) not only deny climate change, but also evolution. See the clip of Bill Maher show below. Not just that, but here he demonstrate a stunning level of intellectual ignorance by saying that "well, I did not come from a monkey". I mean c'mon. Rep. Jack Kingston from Georgia sits on the House Appropriations Committee which decides how the federal government will spend its money. I know, know. There have even been US Presidential hopefuls (at least in the Republican primaries) who have also shown a similar level of intellectual ignorance. I just find it amazing that with all the science and scientists at hand, they choose not to seek out even some basic information. Heck, when next time he is in D.C., he can go and visit the hall of human origins at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Or if he wants to stay in Georgia, then he can check out Yerkes National Primate Research Center. But please, ask someone about the basic concepts of evolution! Absolutely shameful. (note that I'm not saying any thing about D.L. Hughley's rejection of evolution. He is a comedian. It is not a big deal if he doesn't know much about it. But as a Congressman, you are supposed to be able to make reasonable - in the loosest sense of the word - assessments. For that, you even have staffers at hand to help you reach those decisions. If after all that, this is the best one can do - then it is indeed shameful).

Here is the clip:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Carrier pigeons now the only way to communicate in Egypt

It looks like that way. It seems that almost internet communication and most of the mobile phones have been blocked in Egypt. Here is a plot that shows how Egyptian addresses are now unreachable. Here is another plot (see right) about Egypt's departure from the net. It seems that landlines are the only way to communicate. How long can Egypt stay off the grid? We'll see.

In the mean time, protests are continuing. Despite all the censorship, news is still coming leaking out of Egypt. Follow Al-Jazeera's live blog on Egypt protests here and live Twitter feed here. Also, updates from BBC here.

Update: Also added Guardian Live blog (tip from Rainer Bromer)
Update 2: Also check out live pictures from Al Jazeera. This is incredible!
Also, for an idea, here is a raw video from Cairo:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two excellent articles on Tunisia and Egypt

Things are happening at lightening pace. In some sense, these are exciting times in the Middle East. In preparation for tomorrow's (Friday) protests, some of the social media sites have already been blocked in Egypt. There are also protests in Yemen also - but those don't appear to be driven by the same demographics (educated, middle-class) as in Tunisia and Egypt.

In the mean time, I wanted to highlight two articles on trying to make sense of the current situation. The first one is by Roger Cohen on Facebook and Arab Dignity, and the other is by Asef Bayat on A new Arab street in post-Islamist times.

Cohen is currently in Tunisia and traces the events that started the Tunisian uprising. He does a fantastic job of tracing the story of the street vendor who set himself on fire (it turns out, he doesn't even have a high-school diploma). But Cohen finds this uprising to be the first leader-less revolution - or he ascribes the leadership to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Here are his key observations:

First, the old nostrum goes that it’s either dictators or Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab world because they’re the only organized forces. No, online communities can organize and bite.
Second, those communities have no formal ideology but their struggle is to transform humiliation into self-esteem.
Third, cyber-uprisings can go either way: Iran hovered on a razor’s edge in 2009, Tunisia’s regime fell in 2011. In both societies the gulf between the authorities and young wired societies was huge. The difference is probably the degree of sustained brutality a dictatorship can muster.
Fourth, Internet freedom is no panacea. Authoritarian regimes can use it to identify dissidents; they can try to suppress Facebook. But it’s empowering to the repressed, humiliated and distant — and so a threat to the decayed Arab status quo.
Read the full article here.

And Asef Bayat looks at some of the sociological reasons behind the protests. He starts with the new information technology - it is hard to deny its role in all this - and then gets to other reasons:

More recently, the ‘Cedar Revolution,' a grassroots movement of some 1.5million Lebanese from all walks of life demanding a meaningful sovereignty,democracy, and an end to foreign meddling, resulted in the withdrawal of Syrianforces from Lebanon in 2005. The Iranian Green wave, a pervasive democracymovement that emerged following the 2009 fraudulent Presidential elections, hasserved as a prelude to what are now the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and thecurrent uprising in the streets of Egypt. These are all breaks from traditionalArab politics in that they project a new post-Islamist and post-ideologicalstruggle which combine the concerns for national dignity with social justiceand democracy. These movements are pluralistic in constituencies, pursue newways of mobilizing (such as boycott campaigns, cyber-activities and protestart) and are weary of the traditional party politics.
Why this change? Certainly there is the long-building youth bulge and thespread of new information technology (Internet, e-mail, Facebook, YouTube,Twitter, and especially satellite TV like Al Jazeera). Frustratedyouth are now rapidly moving to exploit these new resources to assertthemselves and to mobilize. For instance, Egyptian youth used Facebook tomobilize some 70,000 mostly educated youth who made calls for freespeech, economic welfare, and the elimination of corruption.Activists succeeded in organizing street protests, rallies and morespectacularly initiating a general strike on April 6, 2008 to support the strikingtextile workers. The January 25 mass demonstration in Egypt was primarilyorganized through Facebook and Twitter. These modes and technologies ofmobilization seem to play a crucial role in the Tunisian uprising.
But there are deeper reasons as well:
Thesocial structure throughout the region is changing rapidly. There is anexplosion of mass educational institutions which produce higher levelsof literacy and education, thus enhancing the class of educated populace.At the same time, these societies are rapidly becoming urban. By far morepeople live in the cities than in rural areas (just below Central and EasternEurope). A creeping urbanity is permeating into the traditional rural societies-- there are modern divisions of labor, modern schools, expanding serviceworks, electrification, and especially a modern communications system(phone lines, cars, roads, and minibuses) which generate time-space compressionbetween the ‘urban' and ‘urban' worlds. The boundary between ‘urban' and‘rural' is becoming increasingly blurred and ‘rural' populations are no longerrural in the traditional sense.
But a key change is the emergence of a ‘middle class poor' (with significantpolitical implications) at the expense of the decline of the more traditionalclasses and their movements -- notably, peasant organizations, cooperativemovements and trade unions. As peasants have moved to the city from thecountryside, or lost their land to become rural day laborers, the social basisof peasant and cooperative movements has eroded. The weakening of economicpopulism, closely linked to structural adjustment, has led to the decline ofpublic sector employment, which constituted the core of trade unionism. Throughreform, downsizing, privatization and relocation, structural adjustment hasundermined the unionized public sector, while new private enterprises linked tointernational capital remain largely union-free. Although the state bureaucracyremains weighty, its underpaid employees are unorganized, and a largeproportion of them survive by taking second or third jobs in the informalsector. Currently, much of the Arab work force is self-employed. Manywage-earners work in small enterprises where paternalistic relations prevail.On average, between one third and one half of the urban work force are involvedin the unregulated, unorganized informal sector. Lacking institutional channelsto make their claims, streets become the arena for the expression of discontent.
And add education and unemployment to the mix:
And all these are happening against the background of expanding educationalinstitutions, especially the universities which produce hundreds of thousandsof graduates each year. They graduate with new status, information, andexpectations. Many of them are the children of comfortable parents or thetraditional rural or urban poor. But this new generation is different fromtheir parents in outlook, exposure, social standing, and expectations. Unlikethe post-colonial socialist and statist modernization era that elevated thecollege graduates as the builders of the new nation, the current neoliberalturn has failed to offer most of them an economic status that could match theirheightened claims and global dreams. They constitute the paradoxical class of‘middle class poor' with high education, self-constructed status, wider worldviews, and global dreams who nonetheless are compelled -- by unemploymentand poverty -- to subsist on the margins of neoliberal economy as casual,low paid, low status and low-skilled workers (as street vendors, sales persons,boss boys or taxi drivers), and to reside in the overcrowded slums and squattersettlements of the Arab cities. Economically poor, they still fantasize aboutan economic status that their expectations demand -- working in IT companies,secure jobs, middle class consumption patterns, and perhaps migration to theWest.
The ‘middle class poor' are the new proletariat of the Middle East, who arevery different from their earlier counterpart -- in their college education,knowledge of the world, expectations that others have of them, and witha strong awareness of their own deprivation. Muhammad Bouazizi, the streetvendor who ignited himself and a revolution in Tunisia represented this ‘middleclass poor.' The politics that this class pursued in the 1980s and 1990s wasexpressed in Islamism as the most formidable opposition to the secularundemocratic regimes in the region. But Islamism itself has faced a crisis inrecent years, not least because it is seriously short of democracy. With theadvent of post-Islamist conditions in the Muslim Middle East, the ‘middle classpoor' seems to pursue a different, post-Islamist, trajectory.
Though, he is less hopeful of a deeper change in places other than Tunsia:
Yet in the longer term their efforts may not be enough. The structuralchanges (educational development, public role of women, urban expansion, newmedia and information venues, next to deep inequalities and corruption) arelikely to make these developmentalist authoritarian regimes -- whether Libya,Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt -- more vulnerable. If dissent is controlled byrent-subsidized welfare handouts, any economic downturn and weakening ofprovisions is likely to spark popular outrage.
At stake is not just jobs and descent material welfare; at stake is alsopeople's dignity and pursuit of human and democratic rights. As we have seen sopowerfully in Tunisia, the translation of collective dissent into collectiveaction and sustained campaign for change has its own intriguing and oftenunpredictable dynamics. This explains why we keep getting surprised inthis part of the world -- revolutions happen where we do not expect, andthey do not happen where we do. After all, who sensed the scent of Jasmine inthe backstreets of Tunisia just a few weeks ago?

Betelgeuse hysteria, Sliding astrology, and the farthest object in the Universe

The Huffington Post recently huffed about Betelgeuse - a red supergiant - going supernova in 2012 (of course!). And perhaps, we will be seeing two Suns for a period of time in 2012 - just like Tatooine from the Star Wars universe. Awww. Only if this was close to reality.

So I was called in at 93.9 - The River for a brief chat about this and about the recent news that astrology may be out of whack because of Earth's precession. Basically, all your horoscope months are off by about a  month (noooo!!). Here is the link to the chat- with ample dose of original Star Trek music by our morning host, Monte.

But on a more serious and awesome note, astronomers announced the discovery of the farthest galaxy known so far. Of course it goes by the sexy name of UDFj-39546284 and it was found in the ultra-deep field image in infra-red taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (that is what UDF stands for in the name). 

How far is the galaxy? About 13.2 billion light years from us! Yup. We are looking at a galaxy when the universe was only 480 million years old. Remember, the farther we look into space, the farther back we look back in time. This is because of the finite speed of light. So we are seeing this galaxy as it was 13.2 billion years ago - since light has taken 13.2 billion years to get to us. Many of the stars that we are seeing in this galaxy are dead by now. This is like a delayed transmission. Since the Big Bang happened about 13.7 billion years, this is indeed a very short time!

There is an excellent description of the galaxy and the way it was discovered at Bad Astronomy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

And now Egypt tries to steal the limelight...

When I was in Egypt just over a month ago, I was surprised at the lack of political vibrancy there. In fact, several of my conversations focused on that. Even the widespread (and largely undisputed) claims of election rigging did not generated much protests (apart from the sporadic clashes between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government). But now things have changed. Tens of thousands of people today came out to protest Mubarak's rule. Even if the current protests are unsuccessful in removing a 30 year dictatorship and the three decades of emergency rule, they would still succeed in transforming the political culture.

Couple of quick points: While Tunisia is the inspiration, the local political and scene of Egypt is quite different than Tunisia (see an earlier post: How important is the internet in Tunisia uprising?). For starters, the chief opposition to Mubarak in the form of Muslim Brotherhood is stronger (still in a relative sense) than some of the Islamist groups in Tunisia. Up until recently, Mubarak has been quite successful in playing the fears of an Islamist takeover in the case of fair democratic elections. So it was interesting today that Muslim Brotherhood officially declined to join-in the Egypt protests - and it is unclear how many of the individual members were there. Indeed, the protesters appear to represent a broad spectrum of the Egyptian society:
 The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that the opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule now spreads across ideological lines and includes ordinary people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad base of support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.
This may be a smart move on part of the Brotherhood. But then again, with all this turmoil, it is unclear what will happen in the coming days. One thing is clear: Arab political scene is currently changing at a lightening pace. And it is vibrant!

And New Media is again appear to be playing its role. Today's protest was instigated with the help of Facebook.
 In the days leading up to the protests, more than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” organized by opposition and pro-democracy groups to be held on Police Day, a national holiday. The organizers framed the protest as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. The Muslim Brotherhood said it would not officially participate, though some of members were among the protesters in Cairo.
But many people said they did not belong to any particular group and were attending their first demonstration. They included Ramy Rafat, 25, who said he lived in El-Marg, an impoverished neighborhood in north Cairo. Mr. Rafat, who has a master’s degree in petroleum geology and is unemployed, said he learned about the protest on a Facebook site for Khaled Said, 28, whose family says was fatally beaten by police officers last year.
“There are a lot of things wrong with this country,” Mr. Rafat said. “The president has been here for 30 years. Why?”
It is still too early to really assess the larger impact of social media. But it is becoming quite clear that Facebook and Twitter are certainly playing an important, if not central, role in the organization and mobilization of these protests. And it appears that Twitter, at least for some time, was blocked in Egypt:
But there were signs of other containment tactics: Several times Tuesday afternoon, cellphone networks appeared to be blocked or otherwise unavailable for people calling from Tahrir — or Liberation — Square. Many people had trouble getting access to Twitter, the social networking tool that helped spread news of the protests. Twitter confirmed that its site had been blocked in Egypt, Reuters reported. For much of the day, state television made no mention of the demonstrations.
But I think it will be hard to control this for a long period of time. In Iran, the government was able to regain control with excessive use of force. Though we may still have to see the long-term impact of that.

Tunisia. Egypt. Any others who want to add to the drama?

Here is an interview with El Baradei from CNN:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Noooo!! I'm now on Twitter

Yes. With apologies to a lot of very disappointed friends, I'm now on Twitter. I can see their heads shaking in disapproval and their sentiments are definitely hard to capture in 140 characters or less.

**Clarification: This blog is not going anywhere. Twitter is simply an added component. Irtiqa will continue to function as is. (sorry for the confusion)

So here is a brief justification explanation of what I expect to have there:
Twitter will be an extension of the themes that we address here on Irtiqa. However, I usually pick one article/topic per day to post/comment on, and I try to stay close to the topic (same with Nidhal's weekly posts). So I hope to expand the base of topic on Twitter (3-5 tweets per day) to include more stories related to science & religion and the varieties of interactions of Muslims with various aspects of modernity (and not just science). As you can guess, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, and the Muslim diaspora in Europe will be a major focus. History of science and science-fiction are, of course, the gravy. And heck. If you don't like what I'm saying, it will be over in a short sentence. Painless.

And no Lady Gaga! I must admit I did think about the name @DrGaga - but changed my mind. Psst...this name is still available.

So if you are inclined to give it a shot, you can now also find me on Twitter here. It is free, and I think you can check it without even getting registered.

Of course, Irtiqa posts will continue as is.

Picking Symphonies of Science

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

This is a light post, for several reasons. First because I am right in the middle of finals week; I have already graded more than 30 papers, and by the end of the week I will have to do another 60 or so., not counting many term papers. Secondly, as you’ll see, although the content below is almost all related to science, it is in a new, fun format, though it is done in a very creative and masterful way. Third, because much of the content below relates to Carl Sagan, and you all know that he is Salman’s hero, so… wink.
It was actually a student of mine, from the introductory astronomy course, who brought these “Symphony of Science” clips to my attention. Although many of these can be found on youtube, there is a website dedicated to this work, and it explains that it is “a musical project headed by John Boswell, designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.”
The clips, which are about 3 to 4 minutes long, take statements from contemporary scientists who have proven themselves particularly eloquent in conveying the greatness of science (discoveries and methods), and then meshes them into a song by adding electronically remixed music and sound-working the utterances to come out as if they were sung by their authors. Among these great science communicators, one can find Carl Sagan prominently featured, but also Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, and others. It’s the usual skeptics’ refrain of “the universe is awe-inspiring and that’s a good-enough spirituality”, though in these clips only the first part is emphasized. It will not escape anyone that all the scientists and communicators featured there are skeptics, if not staunch atheists. No matter, the clips are very well made, and their content is in no way objectionable, even to very religious people, on the contrary; they could also be described as “hymns to creation”…
Among those clips, my favorite ones are:


Oh, and while we are it, don’t miss this great piece: The Matrix vs. Carl Sagan’, though to fully appreciate that one, you may first wish to refresh your memory with the original one: Carl Sagan Apple Pie (introduced by Michael Dowd)… Enjoy!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sinan's head revisited

Is the body of the famous 16th century Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, headless? Well, at least that is the claim of a professor at Marmara University (tip from Al Biruni. Yup, he is still active). In theory, this should be an easy thing to check since we know where he is buried. In practice, though, one may not want to dig up a body after four centuries just for the heck of it (Unless there is a good reason: see this earlier post on digging up Copernicus). But Sinan is not just any other architect. He was responsible for, among numerous other works, the absolutely spectacular Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. If you haven't been to Suleymaniye Mosque in person, check out this wonderful virtual walking tour - and you will get some idea of the architecture. The mosque, at least until last October, was closed for major renovations, and it is expected to open some time this year.

But why might Sinan's head be missing in the first place? Usually, one expects head to stay with the body. Well, surprise: it might be related to Turkish identity and politics:

According to Professor Selçuk Mülayim from Marmara University, the corpse of Mimar Sinan, best known for the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, was taken from its modest tomb next to that building Aug. 1, 1935, in order to measure the famed architect’s skull.
Documents show that the team, headed by Turkish Historical Society Director Hasan Cemil Çambel, society member Şevket Aziz Kansu and historian Afet İnan, conducted the excavation in an hour, Mülayim told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review recently.
“The purpose was to prove he was an ethnic Turk,” the professor said. “Kansu took measurements with compasses and other tools and from these measurements it was decided that he was an ethnic Turk.”
At the time of the team’s foray into the tomb, there was a rising appreciation of Mimar Sinan in Europe, where people were increasingly claiming that the great architect could not have been Turkish, Mülayim said. “The excavation was an answer to these claims.”
To this day, few members of the Turkish public know that the man hailed as the greatest of Ottoman architects was actually a Muslim convert of Armenian origin.
Following the excavation of Sinan’s tomb, the Turkish Historical Society team took its findings to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. “He refused to look at the results, saying, ‘Instead of measuring his skull, make a statue of the architect,’” Mülayim said.
The idea that Sinan’s skull is missing from his tomb is not a new one, but one that many experts have avoided repeating in public.
Great. Now we that we have tied Sinan's head to race and politics, I'm sure all of this will go well. In any case, read the full article here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pakistan's impending clerical tsunami...

The assassination of Salman Taseer and, perhaps more importantly, the reaction to it, has raised questions about Pakistan's "silent majority" (see earlier posts here, here and here). It has always been assumed that this group is liberal and sympathetic to a secular form of government etc. But so far what has been heard (or the continued silence in the wake of educated people celebrating the assassination), suggests otherwise. Or - people are quick to blame something or somebody else. Media is the new bogie man. If it is not the media, then it is the US involvement in Afghanistan - and that it is the reaction that is responsible for it. Even if all of this has played a role, people still have to stand up and condemn the assassination, those behind it, and those celebrating it. There are indeed some who have voiced criticism. There have been some excellent articles in Dawn and The Express Tribune, but is hard to know how representative these voices are. For present, here is an interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy, where he talks about the current situation in Pakistan. Before I start getting the usual e-mails or comments, no - he is not Pakistan's enemy nor does he hate Pakistan. The fact that discussion on his articles usually start with vitriol, is troubling to me. He has a keen sense of Pakistani politics. Sure one can disagree with views - that disagreement has to be based on his arguments and not ad hominem. He is also a part of Pakistan and I deeply appreciate his views - even when I disagree with them. I think he is mostly on the mark in this interview with Viewpoint:
The murder of Governor Salman Taseer, who opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, has shocked the world. But in Pakistan the killer has become a hero for a sizeable section of society. Why?
In a society dominated by traditional religious values, heroism often means committing some violent and self-destructive act for preserving honor. Although Governor Taseer was not accused of blasphemy, his crime was to seek presidential pardon for an illiterate peasant Christian woman accused of blasphemy by some Muslim neighbours. Taseer’s intervention clearly crossed the current limits of toleration. With no party support, he went at it alone.
Malik Mumtaz Qadri – the official security guard who pumped 22 bullets into the man he was deputed to protect – is not the first such hero. The 19-year old illiterate who killed the author of the book “Rangeela Rasool” in the 1920’s, and was then executed by the British, was held in the highest esteem by the founders of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is reported that Iqbal, regarded as Islam’s pre-eminent 20th century philosopher, placed the body in the grave with tears in his eyes and said: "This young man left us, the educated men, behind." Ghazi Ilm-e-Deen is venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore.
In his court testimony, Taseer’s assassin proudly declared that he was executing Allah’s will. Hundreds of lawyers – made famous by the Black Coat Revolution that restored Pakistan’s Chief Justice – showered him with rose petals while he was in police custody. Two hundred lawyers signed a pledge vowing to defend him for free. Significantly, Qadri is a Barelvi Muslim belonging to the Dawat-e-Islami, and 500 clerics of this faith supported his action in a joint declaration. They said that those who sympathized with Taseer deserved similar punishment.
Significantly most of these mullahs are part of the Sunni Tehreek and are supposedly anti-Taliban moderates. Indeed, one of their leaders, Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi, was blown up by a Taliban suicide bomber in June 2009 after he spoke out against suicide bombings. But now these “moderates” have joined hands with their attackers. Jointly they rule Pakistan’s streets today, while a cowardly and morally bankrupt government cringes and caves in to their every demand.
Pakistani voters have always voted for secular-leaning parties but it appears that today the religious parties actually represent popular discourse. Do you concur?
Yes, I do. Those who claim that Pakistan’s silent majority is fundamentally secular and tolerant may be clutching at straws. They argue that the religious parties don’t get the popular vote and so cannot really be popular. But this is wishful thinking. The mullah parties are unsuccessful only because they are geared for street politics, not electoral politics. They also lack charismatic leadership and have bitter internal rivalries. However the victory of the MMA after 911 shows that they are capable of closing ranks. It is also perfectly possible that a natural leader will emerge and cause an electoral landslide in the not too distant future.
But even without winning elections, the mullah parties are immensely more powerful in determining how you and I live than election-winning parties like the PPP and ANP. For a long time the religious right has dictated what we can or cannot teach in our public and private schools. No government ever had the guts to dilute the hate materials being forced down young throats. They also dictate what you and I can wear, eat, or drink. Their unchallenged power has led to Pakistan’s cultural desertification because they violently oppose music, dance, theatre, art, and intellectual inquiry.
To be sure there are scattered islands of normality in urban Pakistan. But these are shrinking. Yes, the Baluch nationalists are secular, and so is the ethnically-driven MQM in Karachi. But these constitute a tiny fraction of the population.
The government has capitulated. The prime minister has announced not to touch the blasphemy laws. Does this mean that religious fanatics can dictate their terms even without any parliamentary representation?
It is indeed a complete abdication. When the bearded ones brought out 50,000 charged people onto the streets of Karachi, a terrified government instantly sought negotiations with them. Even before that happened, the current interior minister – Rahman Malik, a venal hack and as crooked as they come – promptly declared that he’d personally gun down a blasphemer.
The government’s pants are soaking wet. In fact, so wet that the ruling party dumped Taseer – who was their own high-ranking member – after the murder. There’s talk now of getting American guards for Zardari since his own guards may be untrustworthy. Sherry Rahman, the brave parliamentarian who dared to table a bill to reform the blasphemy law, is now bunkered down. She is said to be receiving two death threats an hour. Significantly, the Army high command has made no public statement on the assassination, although it is vocal on much else.
On the role of US occupation in Afghanistan:
Many in Pakistan like Imran Khan, a cricket star turned politician, blame the recent rise of extremism on the US occupation of Afghanistan. Is that the root cause in your opinion?
If the US had never come to Afghanistan, Pakistan would not be the violent mess that it is today. So there is an element of truth in this claim, but no more than an element. Let me give you an analogy: imagine lots of dry wood and a lighted match. The US-led anti-Soviet war was that match. But the combustible material is that dangerous conservatism which accumulated over time. The strength of the Islamist parties vastly increased after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto kow-towed to them after 1973-4. This was 5-6 years before the Soviet invasion so one can scarcely blame America for that.
Yes, the West did set dry wood on fire. But the staggering quantity of wood comes from the rotting mass of Pakistan’s state and society. Ours is an apartheid society where the rich treat the poor like dirt, the justice system does not work, education is as rotten as it can be, and visible corruption goes unpunished. Add to all this a million mullahs in a million mosques who exploit people’s frustrations. You then have the explanation for today’s catastrophic situation.
Of course I would love to see the Americans out of Afghanistan. The sooner they can withdraw – without precipitating a 1996 style Taliban massacre – the better. But let’s realize that US withdrawal will not end Pakistan’s problems. Those fighting the Americans aren’t exactly Vietnamese-type socialists or nationalists. The Taliban-types want a full cultural revolution: beards, burqas, 5 daily prayers, no music, no art, no entertainment, and no contact with modernity except for getting its weapons.
And here is the crux of the matter. Perhaps, I'm not surprised by his downer answer below...and currently I don't see an easy way out of this impending mess:
What do you think is the way to stem the rising tide of religious extremism in Pakistan?
If you want the truth: the answer is, nothing. Our goose is cooked. Sometimes there is no way to extinguish a forest fire until it burns itself out. Ultimately there will be nothing left to burn. But well before the last liberal is shot or silenced, the mullahs will be gunning for each other in a big way. Mullah-inspired bombers have already started blowing up shrines and mosques of the opposing sect. The internet is flooded with gory photographs of chopped-up body parts belonging to their rivals. Qadri, the assassin, admitted his inspiration to murder came from a cleric. So you can also expect that Muslim clerics will enthusiastically kill other Muslim clerics. Eventually we could have the situation that prevailed during Europe’s 30-Year War.
To save Pakistan, what miracles shall we ask of Allah? Here’s my personal list: First, that the Pakistan army stops seeing India as enemy number one and starts seeing extremism as a mortal threat. Second, that Zardari’s government is replaced by one that is less corrupt, more capable of governance, and equipped with both the will and legitimacy to challenge religious fascism. And, third, that peace somehow comes to Afghanistan.
Read the full interview here. Also check out more articles on Viewpoint.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A critical time in Tunisia...

It is unclear which ways things will be going in Tunisia. Students were some some of the early protesters against the government. But who will fill in the power vacuum? Things are changing at a breathtaking pace. At least the ban on political parties has been lifted. So here are a couple of items of interest for this blog:

Benjamin Geer pointed to this analysis of the role of New Media in Tunisia's recent events, where Marc Lynch quite accurately reminds us of the influence of Al Jazeera, in addition to Facebook, Twitter, etc:
I'd point to one other aspect of this which often gets overlooked. Al Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information -- they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves. For them to have political meaning they need to be interpreted, placed into a particular context and imbued with significance. Arabs collectively understood these events quite quickly as part of a broader Arab narrative of reform and popular protest ---the "Al Jazeera narrative" of an Arab public challenging authoritarian Arab regimes and U.S. foreign policy alike. Events in Tunisia had meaning for Jordan, for Lebanon, for Yemen, for Egypt because they were framed and understood within this collective Arab narrative. From Al Jazeera's talk shows to internet forums to the cafes where people talked them out face to face, Tunisia became common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.
And Muhammed Yahia at House of Wisdom thinks that such a Tunisia-style change is unlikely in other North African countries:   

Now this is something that normally doesn't happen in the Middle East, and all countries are eying the small nation of Tunisia, wondering if the same could happen elsewhere, such as in Algeria. Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.
The short answer is "probably not."
The longer answer would explain why. Tunisia is already a well-educated country. It has the best education system compared to its neighbours. That is why when the call came for a nationwide movement amongst the educated, there were enough to carry the event through.
By contrast, Egypt, a country with a president in power since 1981, has a 30% illiteracy rate. The other, educated 70% have had a very poor education that many of them are regarded as illiterate too. Calls for action in Egypt on social networks such as Facebook usually bring together a handful of people protesting the situation. This is not enough to send ripples through the rest of the country such as what happened in Tunisia. There just aren't enough influential intellectuals to motivate people. The lack of education means academia are not likely to carry a revolt or uprising in the populous country. Others might, but not the academics.
Algeria had large street protests a couple of weeks ago, probably inspired by the Tunisian experience but these quickly died out after promises from the ruling party that the dismal conditions will change. The same happened in Jordan as well.
So should we be expecting a domino effect in the region? Most experts say no. The situation in Tunisia was very special. Even though the quality of life there was much better than its neighbours, the lack of any social liberties was much worse than other Arab countries.
At this time, there is nothing to do but wait and see.
Perhaps. But I don't expect this status quo to last more than a couple of years. "Ha" - you say. Many of the regimes have been around for several decades. Yes, but I just don't see how these authoritarian regimes are going to control an educated (levels are increasing fast), tech-savvy and increasingly globalized youth (more than 60% are under 25 in the Middle East) with high unemployment rates. Something will have to give. The key question is not about the possibility of change, but rather what shape will this change take?

On a related topic:

Check out this Reuters analysis: Tunisia revolt makes Islamist threat ring hollow
and also After Tunisia, Arab World gives up on America (tip from Martin Riexinger).

Also see this earlier post:
How important is the internet in the Tunisia uprising?

UPDATE (1/21/11): 
Here is a reasonable oped by Roger Cohen. He wants to see Tunisia potentially following the Turkish model:
Unseemly, perhaps, but a lot is at stake. If Tunisia can become the Arab world’s Turkey, a functioning democracy where Islamism is part of the electoral mosaic rather than a threat to it, the tired refrain of all the Arab despots that they are the only bulwark against the jihadists will be seen for the self-serving lie it has become.
 Tunisia has a lot going for it in this quest: high levels of education, emancipated women encouraged over decades to use birth control, manageable size, and an Islamist movement that Michael Willis, a North Africa expert at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, described as “perhaps the mildest and most pragmatic around.” Their exiled leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has been multiplying conciliatory statements. A democratic Tunisia can do the Turkish thing.
There will, in coming weeks, be agents provocateurs bent on the worst, and the usual Muslim-hating naysayers. Arab democracy is threatening to a host of vested interests and glib clichés. It is also the only way out of the radicalizing impasse of Arab klepto-gerontocracies and, as such, a vital American interest.        
Read the full article here.        

Hell leads Galileo to physics?

The claim is that a young Galileo (24 years old) gained valuable insights about physics when he critiqued contemporary calculations of Dante's Inferno. At least this is what physicist Marl Peterson of Mount Holyoke College (woo hoo, a Five College link here) thinks. I don't know what other historians think about the claim - but it is certainly interesting. Probably Galileo was tired of people making stuff up and he was just trying to quash some of those ideas in a quantitative way (Yes, yes - Galileo would be quite busy even today...). Here is an article and a short video from Boston Globe about it (tip Open Culture):

From the article:

Ever since its 1314 publication, scholars had toiled to map the physical features of Dante’s Inferno — the blasted valleys and caverns, the roiling rivers of fire. What Galileo said, put simply, is that many commonly accepted dimensions did not stand up to mathematical scrutiny. Using complex geometrical analysis, he attacked a leading scholar’s version of the Inferno’s structure, pointing out that his description of the infernal architecture — such as the massive cylinders descending to the center of the Earth — would, in real life, collapse under their own weight. Later, Galileo realized the leading rival theory was wrong, too, and that even the greatest scholars of the time simply didn’t understand how real-world structures worked.
Debating the mechanics of the Inferno might sound like intellectual horseplay, the 16th-century equivalent of MIT cafeteria debates about the viability of “Star Trek” teleporters. But there was more to the lectures than this. The insights Galileo gleaned from analyzing Dante’s measurements in fact anticipated a vital principle of structural engineering. By asserting that you cannot create a giant Lucifer by super-sizing the model of a man — that increasing an object’s magnitude would create a whole new set of structural and material imperatives — Galileo was paving the way for the construction of everything from ocean liners to skyscrapers to Macy’s parade floats.
Typically, historians have dismissed these lectures as an inventive but relatively unimportant flourish on Galileo’s part, a mere prelude to his subsequent theories concerning so-called scaling laws. But Peterson sees the lectures as being central to the Italian’s greatest contributions to the history of thought. In applying mathematical models to Dante’s hell, he argues, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics. “This was not just a clever entertainment,” he says, “but something deeper, something closer to the mystery of what made the Scientific Revolution.”
Read the full article here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Short story featuring Ibn al-Haytham

Here is an excellent short story by Jennifer Ouellette - imagining some of the most productive days of Ibn al-Haytham. I had read about this story line before and I was just recalling that when I was in Luxor just this past November. But Jennifer has provided some fantastic details in a very short space.

Here is the beginning of The Scholar and the Caliph:

In the hush just before fajr, before the devout gather to greet the sunrise with prayers towards Mecca, the Scholar emerges from a fitful sleep and confronts the darkness. He remembers, as consciousness returns, that he is a prisoner in his own home. There is nothing to alleviate the mind-numbing sameness of days, no friendly voice or warm touch to keep the suffocating isolation at bay – not even the musty comfort of his books. Truly, I am cursed among men.
This is not how he envisioned his future as an ambitious young man back in Basra. There, he devoured the works of Aristotle and dreamed of scientific pursuits. "The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyrs," the Koran says, and he believed it. So he followed the throngs of Basran fortune-seekers to Cairo, home to the Dar al-'llm ("House of Knowledge"), and found lodgings near the Azhar Mosque. He taught in the mosque's school, and worked as a scribe in the Dar al-'llm, copying Arabic translations of Euclid, Ptolemy and his beloved Aristotle, being careful not to smudge the pages with ink-stained fingers. All the knowledge in the world was at his fingertips. Yet the wisdom of the Ancients could not help him to foresee the ill fortune about to befall him.
Read the rest of the story here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Modified NOMA? Schleiermacher's three spheres

We are familiar with Stephen Jay Gould's separation of science and religion as two Non-Overlapping Magistaria (NOMA) - basically investigations of the natural world on one side and the questions of morals and meaning on the other. It works in some cases, and falls apart in others (there are no referees to enforce the boundaries). But I recently encountered Friedrich Schleiermacher's (1768-1834) three spheres of human life - and I think they are interesting. He divides them as follows:
a) Practical reason (science) or knowing
b) Morality/human action or doing
c) Religion

So I find interesting that he placed morality issues outside of religion. Much of Gould's NOMA gets into trouble when you start looking at scientific studies of the origins of morality, etc. But then what does Schleiermacher ( takes a while to spell out his name...) think or religion? Well, he considers that the the universe and its relation to humans is described through these three spheres. For the first two,"knowing" and "doing", humans are at the center (i.e. we look at the universe from the human perspective). Whereas, for religion, it is the way the universe acts on us. In this way, religion is our intuition of that action. Or in other words, religion, for Schleiermacher, is rooted in a fundamental experience of being related to the universe as a part within a larger whole. The essence of religion then is the "sense and taste for the infinite". This is mystical/Sufi (and to a certain degree, Sagan, I might add :)) stuff.

What I like about this is that it reduces the chances of clash between science & religion - as religion is now bounded primarily in personal experience (William James can also help on this) and its centrality is to humans have to be looked in a completely different way than science and morality (this way it also avoids Euthyphro's dilemma - "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?").

Some food for thought.

But if one does not subscribe to this mystical vision of the infinite, then this may appear to be yet another place where religion is ceding ground.

I ran into Schleiemacher's views on religion while listening to Teaching Company's (as usual) fantastic lectures on Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition by Professor Tyler Roberts.

Also see:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dino Wars - Tonight on "American Experience"

The preview is quite short, but the episode looks great. Here is a brief description of Dinosaur Wars:
In the late 19th century, paleontologists Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh uncovered the remains of hundreds of prehistoric animals in the American West, including dozens of previously undiscovered dinosaur species. But the rivalry that developed between them would spiral out of control, permanently damaging their careers and threatening the future of American paleontology.
 It is premiering on PBS' American Experience tonight (check your local listings):

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