Monday, February 28, 2011

Muslim Inquisition Today: the plight of Usama Hasan

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.
History is full of episodes and examples of people who, for having been a bit more clairvoyant, thoughtful, humanistic, or heterodox than the rest of their society paid a dear price, sometimes with their lives: Socrates, Hypatia, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Bruno, Galileo, and many others.
But one would have thought that times have really changed, that someone refusing to lie about his conviction that Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct would not be called a heretic and be the subject of all kinds of threats. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Dr. Usama Hasan is going through these days, and not in some corner of Pakistan or Yemen – right in London, UK!
Usama Hasan is a special specimen. He presents himself as “an imam, scientist, lecturer & activist based in London, UK”; the Guardian describes him as “a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, former planetarium lecturer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and a part-time imam”; a longer bio can be found on the Global Experts website, where one reads that “Dr. Hasan received his PhD in Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, University of London… [an] MA (Hons.) [in] Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge and MSc (Distinction) [in] Mathematics at King’s College, London.” All of this is quite impressive, but what really makes Dr. Hasan a special specimen is the fact that he “successfully memorized the Koran at the age of eleven and has continued training in the traditional Islamic sciences”, particularly under the guidance of his father, a respected Muslim scholar. He has thus served as an Imam for two decades, hosted a weekly TV show on Islamic jurisprudence issues, and appeared on various British and US media outlets, particularly the famous BBC-TV show Hardtalk, speaking out against Muslim extremists, especially after 7/7 (the London subway bombings, the UK equivalent of 9/11).
All this, and Usama Hasan is only in his forties…
But then Darwin’s anniversary came (in 2009), and it brought troubles to Dr. Hasan, after he penned an article in the Guardian, titled “Knowledge regained” but more interestingly subtitled “In contrast to their forebears, modern Muslims have a childlike view of science, especially evolution. This needs to change.” (I know, these titles and subtitles are rarely chosen by the authors, the editors always find “better” ones…) In the article, Dr. Hasan was not only arguing that Muslims’ knowledge and view of the theory of evolution was woefully poor – hence the widespread opposition to it – but that the illustrious scholars of our civilization’s golden age were so far ahead of today’s Muslims in their knowledge of nature and their evolutionary conception of the living world. And that's when all hell broke loose. Google "Usama Hasan" and Evolution together and you get 3,370 pages, including Adam Deen's "Responding to Usama Hasan's Muslim apes" and ""Sheikh" Usama Hasan on Evolution"
Now, those of us who speak or write on controversial issues or just hold unpopular views are used to the invectives and even the hatred. But in Dr. Hasan’s case, things went much worse.
First he was hit by a fatwa. As documented by Usama Hasan, “Sheikh Salih al-Sadlan of Riyadh gave a fatwa on not praying behind anyone who accepts Darwinism.  This fatwa was given at the Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham, HQ of Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, during their annual conference 24-28 Dec 2010.” Dr. Hasan describes Sheikh al-Sadlan as “a respected Professor of Law, especially Hanbali Law”… Upon hearing about it, Dr. Hasan called the Sheikh on the phone and politely tried to explain his views to him, but to no avail…
Then he was hit by a petition for his removal from the mosque. He tried arguing back, by posting long rebuttals and excerpts from illustrious Muslim scholars’ views on Evolution and by giving, or at least trying to give, a lecture on Evolution (on the 22nd of January 2011). The lecture was shouted out, and things have gone from bad to worse, as one person – as reported by Dr. Hasan – called for his killing.
Now, Usama Hasan, has posted a new entry on his blog (interestingly called “Unity: A website devoted to the unity of God, the unity of knowledge & the unity of the peoples of the world”), where he tries to show the extent to which he must be seen as an orthodox Muslim, since he believes that “As Allah revealed to us in the Qur’an, He created Adam, peace be upon him, the first human, from earth, or clay and water.  He created Him with His Two Hands, breathed His Spirit into him…” He also, unfortunately, starts to reduce the importance or the merits of scientific theories, stating that “people are free to accept or reject a particular scientific theory”, which I think is an inappropriate statement. He does, however, immediately add that “theologians who have no grounding in science, have no right to pronounce upon scientific subjects.  Any such fatwas about science from people ignorant of the subject matter are null and void.” These last two sentences are fully correct, and I support them without reservation.
It is very depressing – and even shocking – to me to witness such an inquisition on a learned, enlightened, and moderate man like Usama Hasan, who in other lands would have been hailed as a beautiful flower, grown and nurtured by a family of knowledge, and benefiting from all that is great in not one but two civilizations. That a man of science and faith, who devotes his time and his life to educating people, from the mosque to the planetarium and the media, would be “rewarded” as such is a great calamity of our times. I don’t know if something like this could happen nowadays in any other culture but the Muslim one. What a shame!
We all must speak up against such despicable acts and attacks. And we must continue to spread knowledge and civil discourse.
Usama, you are not alone out there, defending your knowledge, your faith, and your sincerity. I and many others, I hope, stand beside you to the extent we can – mostly with our thoughts, our words, and our prayers.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Nostalgia for the Light" looks absolutely fantastic!

by Salman Hameed

This year can be absolutely fascinating for thoughtful science-themed documentaries. First, we have Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams that looks at some of humanity's earliest expressions of art. But check out the trailer for Nostalgia for the Light. It is set in Atacama desert in Chile. The desert is high and dry - and is now serving home to some of the best observatories in the world - including ALMA: Atacama Large Milimeter Array. But the movie also looks at local women who are searching for the bodies of loved ones who were dumped their unceremoniously by Pinochet's regime. What a way to examine existential questions!

Hope it will start in the US soon. I will definitely have more to say about it after seeing the movie. In the mean time, here is the trailer:

Friday, February 25, 2011

AAAS Meeting: Quantum Leap in the Search for Other Earths (and Life)

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.
As I mentioned in my previous report from the AAAS Meeting in Washington, DC, this past weekend, one of the hot topics of presentations and discussions was the search for other earths, exoplanets and exo-planearty systems, as well as the search for life (mainly on Mars), and the implications of such potential discoveries in the near future.

I will not comment on the session titled “Astronomical Pioneering: The Implications of Finding Other Worlds”, since I was on it, alongside Wesley Traub (NASA/JPL), Howard A. Smith (Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Jennifer Wiseman (AAAS Science and Policy Programs, the organizer of the session), Seth Shostak (SETI Institute), and Owen Gingerich (Harvard University, as a discussant). Abstracts for each of the talks can be found under the webpage here. And Salman has now provided rather detailed reports on it.

The two sessions I would like to report on are: “Kepler: Looking for Other Earths”, “The Universe Revealed by High-Resolution, High-Precision Astronomy”, and “Seeking Signs of (ET) Life: The Search Steps Up on Mars and Beyond”.

The Kepler session lasted 3 hours and included 6 presentations, each more fascinating than the others. A few weeks ago, the Kepler mission (telescope/satellite) had made a series of press releases reporting on the tentative results from roughly a year and a half of data. The major highlights included the fact that some 1,235 candidate planets are being checked for confirmation (while in 15 years fewer than 500 planets had been discovered), as well as several firsts, such as the smallest, rocky planet detected so far (Kepler 10b, more on this one below), a “solar system” with 6 planets (Kepler 11 – more below), one system where two planets are on the same orbit (following one another with the same speed), etc.
Now, while there is no question that the Kepler discoveries represent a quantum leap in exoplanet research, there are a number of caveats that must be stressed and kept in mind when considering all the results; otherwise one may start drawing largely erroneous and misleading conclusions. Most importantly, one must recall that Kepler is still largely biased toward the short-period planets, i.e. ones that are very close to their stars. It can detect planets with orbits like Earth’s or even Jupiter’s, but it is much easier for it to discover planets at distances like Mercury’s or even much closer. With that in mind, Kepler finds that 10 percent of its candidate planets are Earth-sized, which of course is not the same as Earth-like. Also, about one sixth of the host stars have several planets, 3 % of those stars have 3-4 planets, but 66 percent of the candidate planets are lone ones.

I would also like to mention some idiosyncrasies among the (candidate) planets found by Kepler. The smallest one (Kepler 10b), with a radius 1.4 that of Earth (a result determined to within 2 %!), is extremely close to its star, ten times closer than Mercury, and it is locked in its rotation-revolution, making the side that always faces the star so hot (T higher than 2,000 K) that its rocks are melting like lava, while the other side (the night side) is much cooler and might even have some dust/evaporated particles floating above it there. The most important thing about this planet is that it is the first confirmed rocky exoplanet! How do we know that (for sure)? Because its mass has been determined to be 4.6 that of Earth’s (plus or minus 1.3), giving an average density of 8.8 g/cm3 (plus or minus 2), which is definitely rocky. Do check out the superb animation that has been made about this planet (depending on the speed of your connection, you may choose to run a low-res, med-res, or high-res version of the movie).One should note that previous candidates had been presented as rocky planets (Corot 7b), but large uncertainties in their parameters made the claims much less sure-footed.

Another fascinating result was the Kepler-11 system of 6 planets, five of which closer to the star than Mercury is to the Sun and a sixth one on an orbit of size between those of Mercury and Venus (see diagram below). More interestingly, they’re co-planar, orbiting in the same plane, like our own solar system, where all 8 planets orbit within a few degrees of the ecliptic plane. Those 6 planets are all of medium size (between 2 and 5 Earth radii), but surprisingly not rocky!

The most important idea I came away with from that session, in particular, is that astronomers have now made quantum leaps not just in the number of candidates they have come up with but also in the quality of the data and information that can be inferred about those planets. 
Indeed, there have been some revolutions in the techniques that can now be used in the detection and data analysis. In particular, I want to mention the Transit Timing Variation Analysis, which considers not just the data from the transit that a planet makes in front of (and now, very interestingly, behind) its star, but the variation of the timings of those transits, which is like a first- or second-order perturbation that can tell us quite a bit about various physical parameters of the planet and its orbit. The transits of a planet behind its star can also be used to glean information about the planet’s physical features, mainly from the amount of light that gets reflected from its surface as it comes in or out behind the star.
I want to also mention the technique of radio detection of planets that has been proposed. When I heard the title, I kept asking myself how that was supposed to work, and once it was explained, I marveled at the ambition and optimism of researchers (in this case and in general). In this technique, a “VLBA” radio interferometry system (several connected radio dishes at a large distance from one another) covering a continent (!) is used to detected the variations in the radio emissions from a star, which – if it has a planet – would be pulled back and forth and thus have the wavelength of its emission vary toward “the blue” and “the red” (the usual Doppler shift). But does a star emit much in the radio band? Some do, if they’re active and flary, and indeed the researchers are proposing to look at about 30 nearby stars (up to 10 pc, i.e. about 33 light-years)… I say: good luck!
And last but not least, there were a couple of nice presentations in the session on the search for extraterrestrial life, mostly focused on Mars, particularly Andrew Steele’s The Search for Life on Mars: Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Sample Return and Michael Meyer’s “Grand Challenges in Astrobiology” (a replacement talk, thus no abstract on the web). I was surprised to hear from Meyer that the famous Martian rock ALH84001, which made the news back in 1996 with claims of microscopic fossil life (from Mars), still has strong proponents defending the claim. Meyer explained that the problem in the search for extraterrestrial life is how to recognize ET bio-signatures. Indeed, there are always ambiguous features that are difficult to conclude from.
But why Mars? Because it has a well-preserved geological and climate record right on its surface, unlike Earth, which has been so shaken and eroded that there are only two dozen places where one can find ancient (billion-year old) rocks to analyze.
The important development in the field is the imminent (November 2011) launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a sophisticated and large robot that will explore, retrieve, and analyze samples in mostly autonomous “artificial-intelligence” manner. See below a comparison of the sizes of MSL (the white one) with Spirit (on the left), which was active on Mars from 2004 to 2010 and Pathfinder’s Sojourner (the small rover in the middle), which worked for a while in 1997.
Exciting times are ahead!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

At Whitman College for a symposium on Global Media, Global Spectacles

by Salman Hameed

I'm currently in Seattle (for the first time), on my way to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. First of all, I can vouch that the west coast (and especially the north-west) is really far from the east coast. This is now an empirical and emotional observation. Second, the Seattle of my imagination has turned out to be exactly right: Rainy, cold, and dreary. But no Eddie Vedder!! I thought I'll see him as soon as I get out of the airport. Hmm.

I head over to Whitman College today to participate in a symposium on Global Media, Global Spectacles. It will be held on Saturday from 1-4pm. The title of my talk is "Navigating Modernity: Islam, Science, and Global Media", and two other speakers include Douglas Killner on "Media Spectacle and the North-Africa Arab Uprisings: Some Critical Reflections", and Shiloh Krupar on "Transnatural Camp: The Post-Nuclear Spectacle of Rocky Flats". Well, I think will be an interesting combination of topics, and these talks will be followed by two faculty discussants and three student commentators. Join us there if you are in the area.

Extrasolar planets and religious implications of ET at the AAAS - Part 1

by Salman Hameed

Following Nidhal's post, here are some of  my impressions from last week's AAAS meeting. I will have another post on it tomorrow.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was on the implications of the discovery of exoplanets and possibly extraterrestrial life – where Nidhal was one of the speakers. But before that, let me first digress to mention that I also had a chance to meet Muhammad Ahmad. He is a PhD. candidate at University of Minnesota and the person behind the website Islam and Science Fiction (I had a post about his site a few months ago). At the conference he was presenting his dissertation work on the computational models of trust. I didn’t get a chance to see his poster, but he told me a bit about his research in person and I think it is fascinating that he is using data about trust – literally millions of data points – from online gamers and how they are interacting with each other. He mentioned the concept of “gold-farming” – where people hire others to play the lower levels of the games – which are usually relatively boring and repetitive. The structure of current games is such that you have to spend a considerable amount of time at these lower levels to get to the more rewarding sections of the game. And apparently, you can find a large number of these workers in the developing world, especially China, who can play for richer clients from the developed world. This by in itself is very interesting (and also sad...), but you can imagine that this makes the work on trust quite interesting, as one can potentially detect differences in patterns of those who are playing for themselves versus “gold-farmers”. Okay - may be it was just me. But I was blown away by this information. This comes even a bigger shock for me as I only know Pacman and Missile Command (and I did waste one summer in graduate school on Doom – damn you, Matt. Why did you have to leave your PC in our office?). Come to think of it, the concept of gold-farming would definitely backfire in Pacman and Missile Command.

Okay – so now on to the session on the implications of the discovery of extrasolar planets and life elsewhere in the universe. The session was organized by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). This was a 3-hour session and there were six speakers – all with a background in astronomy (or history of astronomy). Perhaps one shortcoming of the session was that questions were held-off until after all speakers had presented – and I think that limited the range of questions that could have been asked. The session was moderated by Jennifer Wiseman, who was also one of the speakers on the panel.

Here are some of the highlights Wesley Traub started out with summarizing the status of discoveries of extrasolar planets so far and what we can look for in the near-future. For example, now that astronomers have started to take images (just barely), we may soon be able to determine the composition of their atmospheres. If we detect large amounts of oxygen then that may be a good sign for the existence of life there (it is hard to get sizable amount of oxygen into the atmosphere without living organisms. Blue-green algae did the dirty work for us on our own planet).

Then there were three talks on the implications on religion of the possible detection of extra terrestrial intelligence.  Only monotheistic faiths were represented here. Howard Smith presented the Jewish view (well kind-of), and overall believed that salvation is available to all, whether they are descendents of Adam or not. However, he was passionate about the fact, that for all intent and purposes, we are indeed alone (i.e. there are not many intelligent life-forms in the universe, if any) – and he wanted to focus on the question: What does the absence of extraterrestrial intelligence means for humans? If this is indeed the case, then he inferred that Earth can perhaps be considered the “spiritual center of the universe”. His talk was provocative and definitely spread the spectrum of available views - from his complete pessimism to the absolute optimism of Seth Shostak. However, Howard also gave couple of problematic answers in the Q&A - that just showed that he had already made up his mind.

For example, he was asked if the discovery of new planets (especially the detection of Earths and Super-Earths by Kepler) improve the odds in the Drake Equation (a set of variables that allow us to think about the number of communicating intelligent civilizations out there). In his reply, he focused only on the confirmed detections (Kepler's conformations will take a few years) and pointed out that most of those are weird solar systems - with large Jupiter sized planets with orbits closer than Mercury, and many of those having highly elliptical orbits. Thus, in his opinion, this further reduces the odds in the Drake equation. His statement is technically correct - but misleading in reality. The fact that most of the confirmed solar systems (again - these are non-Kepler planets) are weird has to do with our detection techniques - which are sensitive to the presence planets close to the star and/or having large elliptical orbits. This does not tell us any thing about the presence or absence of smaller planets. This is an important disclaimer that he did not add. The technique used by Kepler can detect smaller planets, and indeed, its earlier candidates include several Earths and Super-Earths - including some orbiting at a distance where water can exist in liquid form on the surface. So even if one says that the odds in the Drake equation have not really improved, it is really hard to argue that the odds have actually decreased.

Jennifer Wiseman followed Howard Smith and presented a talk on The Uniqueness of Earth and the Significance of Life in Christian Perspectives. Her main point was that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is unlikely to cause a global crisis of faith and she cited a 2009 survey of opinions of religious scholars conducted by Ted Peters. She also quoted a number of Catholic theologians and Protestant scholars who also feel that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence is not going to impact religion - Christianity in this particular case. However, towards the end of the talk, she also brought up challenges associated with the Christ’s role in salvation for these extraterrestrial beings. In particular, she cited Paul Davies (she did add a disclaimer that Davies presents his view-points from an agnostic perspective), who thinks that a “second genesis” will be an enormous challenge for religions (Nidhal also had an earlier post about it). It was an interesting talk and she ended with listing a set of serious questions that we still have to grapple with.

The panel did not have a break in its 3-hour session. But this is not a panel, and we can take a break. In the second part I will talk about Nidhal’s presentation of Islamic perspectives on ET and Seth Shostak’s search for ET signals. As you can see, I loved this session – and I think it could have easily gone for another 3-hours!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Integrating science in Muslim societies

by Salman Hameed

One of the advantages of attending conferences is that you get to meet other academics and researchers who are working in related areas. At the AAAS meeting last week, I had a chance to meet Naser Faruqui, the director of science policy at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada (yes, they still insist on spelling "center" the wrong way :) ). The meeting ended up being a bit odd, as we ended up spending the entire time waiting in line to get coffee - which we eventually did. During this coffee wait, I found out that he is involved with The Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation. This promises to be a fantastic resource and is expected to chart the interplay of science, culture, and politics in 15 OIC countries. Eight organizations are involved in the project, including IDRC, The Royal Society, The British Council, Qatar Foundation, etc. and case studies of Malaysia, Pakistan and Qatar are already underway. Since Malaysia and Pakistan are also part of our own study of perceptions regarding evolution in the Muslim world, this resource will be of enormous help!

But as it turns out, Naser Faruqui also had an oped piece, Turning on the Light of Muslim Science, in yesterday's The Globe and Mail. He brings up the point that the current happenings in Tunisia and Egypt provide an opportunity to "improve the prospects for harnessing science and its values to advance sustainable and equitable development, openness and democracy in the Islamic world". He makes three key recommendations - and what I like about them is that they emphasize on taking advantage of local conditions as well as keeping an eye on the impact on the society as a whole. And of course, the emphasis on social science is absolutely essential:

Investment in science by developing countries helps alleviate poverty and foster openness – but these improvements take time. Many countries with strong R&D sectors can also be authoritarian. Sometimes, periods of military rule can be more supportive of science than periods of democracy. Science, for all its benefits, is no guarantee of development and democracy.
So how can science be pursued in a way that leads to multidimensional development, including economic gains but also greater transparency, voice and freedom? Naturally, scientific rigour is essential, but three other principles are important.
First, science must be local. The best way to achieve sustainable and equitable development is to build homegrown capacity to do research. Rather than importing scientific know-how, people can, with help, acquire the skills they need to solve their own problems – and reduce their dependence on foreign aid.
Second, science must be multidisciplinary. Research for development demands a range of approaches, which should be focused on solving socioeconomic problems with natural or engineering ones. In other words, the social sciences – which tend to be neglected in developing countries, including Muslim ones – are as crucial to success as the natural or applied sciences.
And third, science must pursue equity and inclusiveness alongside growth. While it’s essential to use science to promote growth and competitiveness, it’s not enough. Many countries that have grown this way have widened the disparities between rich and poor. The solution is to choose science, technology and innovation paths that will benefit society as a whole, not just a narrow elite.

Read the full article here. For a fantastic example of local and environmentally friendly science, check out this earlier post on Eco-Islam and a "green Imam" in Tanzania

Monday, February 21, 2011

Nidhal's report from the AAAS: General impressions, Kuwaiti-research, and evolution

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 my first participation in an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Meeting, and I have found it just great. It is indeed one of those huge conferences, requiring all the space in a convention center like Washington’s, where dozens of parallel sessions can be held, in addition to large halls for the big plenary lectures, a huge exhibition area where the booths of many associations, organizations, publishers, etc. can be set up.
The size of the conference itself did not bother me too much. I have taken part in similarly large conferences before (e.g. the COSPAR Conference on Space and Astrophysics in Bremen, Germany, last summer – see here). It is indeed a bit daunting to have to carefully read through the thick program, highlight the sessions of interest, and then construct a schedule making one go from one room to another all day, while still leaving some room for chats with friends and colleagues (I had not seen Salman since our first meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, in November 2009), visits to the exhibition hall, etc.

What I found most interesting in the AAAS Meeting is the fact that the various sessions, lectures, and panel discussions cover a wide range of topics and levels of presentations, from the very technical (but nicely presented by the speakers) to the cultural and policy-related issues. For example, one lecture was interestingly titled “Is lecture a dirty word?” (unfortunately I could not go to that one); on the historical aspects, Lawrence Principe gave a lecture on Alchemy (Salman went to that one, he might comment on it); I may also mention the interesting panel on “Evangelicals, Science, and Policy: Toward a Constructive Engagement”; on the policy front, I should refer to John P. Holdren, the assistant to the President for Science and Technology, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, who gave a plenary lecture titled “Policy for Science, Technology, and Innovation in the Obama Administration: a mid-course update” (didn’t get to listen to this one either).

So which sessions did I go to if I missed that many interesting ones? Barely an hour or two after my arrival in DC, I ran to the Convention Center to make it just in time for the “Challenge of Teaching Evolution in the Islamic World” session where Salman was to speak, alongside Taner Edis and Jason Wiles. Edis gave a short historical review of Turkish creationism; Wiles reported on the recent study of attitudes toward Evolution among Muslim students and teachers in several countries (Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon) plus the Muslim-Canadian community; Hameed gave a preliminary report on his current research project where he explores the views and attitudes of Muslim physicians and medical students in several Muslim countries. The highlight of the session (OK, I’m a bit biased here) was the comparison of the responses that Salman and his collaborators have gotten in Pakistan and in Malaysia; I will not divulge anything; Salman may say more sometime, or we may have to wait for the paper(s) he is preparing for the latter part of 2011.

What struck me in that session was the high level of interest on the part of the audience. First, it was well attended, somewhere between 50 and 100 were there, quite a feat in a conference where there are dozens of sessions to choose from at any moment. Secondly, after each of the short talks, there were many hands raised for questions, oftentimes bringing up interesting points or asking about parallels or contrasts between the attitudes in the Muslim world and in the West (among Muslim communities or the general population of, say, the United States). And at the end of the session, I saw many people, including reporters, rush to the stage to talk to Salman and his co-panelists.

Ah yes, indeed, one of the characteristic features of the AAAS Meeting(s) is the huge presence of the science press corps. Indeed, this is a conference where scientists are simultaneously addressing their peers and the media. Handouts are made available at the back of the room in most sessions; a large press room is available for interviews and the filing of reports, and reporters regularly select the speakers they want to get clarifications from for potential news stories. The badge colors make it easy to identify the media people, along with their affiliations; I saw reporters from many countries (e.g. Korea) as well as freelancers.

Now, I think I can objectively say that the theme with the largest attraction at the Meeting, both in terms of the sessions devoted to it (number of speakers, total time, etc.) and the level of attendance, was the discovery of other planets and the search for life out there. I am not saying that because my session was devoted to the “cultural” implications of such discoveries (in fact, as I write, early Sunday morning in my hotel room, my sleep pattern having been wrecked by jet-lag), that session has not yet taken place. It promises to be highly interesting, but I’ll let Salman comment on it later. I will come back and discuss the whole theme of exoplanets and search for life in another post in a few days, particularly with the stunning reports from the Kepler team (I won’t say “revolution”; we’ve used that word more than enough lately).

The last item I would like to mention is the special 90-minute session that was devoted to one long presentation and an extended Q&A session about the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), titled Significant Partnership Opportunities. Naji Al-Mutairi, an official from KISR, gave a nice presentation about the research capabilities of this 40-year-old institution, highlighting its various fields of interest, which included biotechnology, fishery and agriculture, energy conservation and environment, and seismic activity.

Al-Mutairi emphasized KISR’s current and future will to move to an “international partnership” phase, to share expertise and address research problems of mutual interest with other institutions. A few facts give an idea of the seriousness of that will: the operating budget of KISR has more than tripled in the last 3 years, reaching $200 million now; the budget allocated for the “global partnership” research program is $960 million, not counting $55 million for “exchange programs”; the total number of staff at KISR is 1,300, almost a quarter of whom are expats. Indeed, one of the objectives of the session was to entice both senior and young, talented researchers to apply for positions and propose projects. For more information, the website for the institute can be found here, although the “current vacancies” page says “For Kuwaitis only” right at the top; I guess one would have to contact the officials and refer to their pitch at the AAAS Meeting.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On the use of social media in the uprisings in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

Things are turning for worse in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. Every country is facing its local variables. For example, Yemen is the poorest of the states, and with no discernible middle class, Bahrain uprising linked with the dissatisfaction of predominantly the majority Shi'a population, and Libya has an absence of dense city centers. All of these variables are very different than what was going on in Tunisia and Egypt. nevertheless, there is a wider call for larger public participation and also for individual rights. This is a unique and a historic time - and I hope these events will lead to an increased freedom of speech in the region along with individual rights, and also to the development of a thriving scientific culture.

Two quick things here:
Here is my short conversation with Monte a few days ago on WRSI - The River: Superpoking Mubarak, where we talk about the role of social media in the revolution/uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (also see an earlier post: How Important is the Internet in the Tunisia Uprising?)

And then enjoy this absolutely hilarious clip from the Daily Show about the image of Muslims in the US. And yes, I totally love the pilot for the The Qu'osby Show:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

At the annual AAAS meeting in Washington D.C.

I have just arrived in D.C. for the annual AAAS meeting. This year's theme is "Science Without Borders". I will definitely have posts from the conference. But here is one of the cool things: Nidhal (Guessoum) will also be here - so we will have an IRTIQA mini-get-together.

You can check the vast vast program of the meeting here. I'm on a panel The Challenge of Teaching Evolution in the Islamic World. It meets tomorrow (Fri) from 3-4:30. The panel is organized by Eugenie Scott of National Center for Science Education and she will also be the moderator (Joshua Rosenau was the original moderator - but apparently, he thinks that family is more important than these panels :) ). Other panelists include Jason Wiles and Taner Edis (he also writes at Secular Outpost). It should be a lot of fun. If you are attending the meeting, come to the session.

Nidhal is on another panel that is dear and close to my heart: The Implications of Finding Other Worlds. It meets on Sunday from 1:30-4:30 and Nidhal is presenting Islamic Views on Extraterrestrial Life. Others on the panel include Jennifer Wiseman, Seth Shostak, Howard Smith, and Wesley Traub. This looks a fantastic panel. I will attend this session - and this will be a nice preparation for my class on "Aliens" (the class meets on Tuesday - so this will give me just enough time to digest information).

More coming up later...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sagan on Life looking for Life

Wonderfully done. Here are some nice visuals added to Sagan's audio book of Pale Blue Dot. No need to fear the dark and the unknown. We are searching for life in the unknown. Indeed, "life looks for life".

Monday, February 14, 2011

A review of ‘Flickering Pixels: how technology shapes your faith’

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 continue to be highly interested in the relations that have come to exist between religions and modern technology(ies). I thus bought this recent (2009) book on Amazon purely on the basis of its promising subtitle. Without getting ahead of myself, let me just say that I didn’t get my money’s worth.
The author of this little book (less than 200 pages, small size) is Shane Hipps, described on the back-cover as “the lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church… [whose] previous career in advertising helped him gain expertise in understanding media and culture.” Throughout the book, and with a very personal style, Hipps tells us that he has a right-hemisphere-dominated brain, so that he thinks more holistically and in terms of images, rather than the preferred modern, linear, rational left-brain mode. This then explains why the books is a mosaic of “flickering pixels” of ideas, images, and stories which one finds difficult to merge into a coherent narrative or thesis. And one must recall that preachers (in all religions) love stories.

That left-vs.-right-hemisphere thinking in itself is an interesting issue. Because Hipps, while rarely directly addressing what should have been his topic (how technology shapes your faith), emphasizes an important development in the history of Christianity (and the book is solely concerned with Christians, past and present): the invention of the printing press. The author tells us that the of religious ideas through books, as opposed to the effect of icons and paintings in churches, lead to several important things: a) people reading the scriptures on their own and thus breaking free of the Pope’s hold – hence the Reformation; b) more elaborate and rational arguments to be made, even in sermons; c) a much reduced need to rely on one’s memory, thus changing one’s way of thinking (in general and regarding religious issues in particular).

One of the book’s recurring leitmotivs is that technologies have also had one common characteristic (and hence one common consequence): to try to extend our human capacities, physical and mental, often succeeding but sometimes with unintended consequences. One common effect that modern technologies have had is the acceleration of our lifestyle (transportation, communication, etc.), though unfortunately the author does not explore this important trend almost at all.

One idea that Hipps does dwell on is the fact that modern information (digital) technologies have made our communities “together apart” (the title of Chapter 10). He writes: “Electronic culture disembodies and separates us from those closest to us.” Further: “If oral culture is tribal and literate culture is individual, the electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals.” Later he gets critical: “I find it troubling that so many communities of faith are in hot pursuit of these technologies. The Internet is seen as the Holy Grail of ‘building community’.” He adds: “We love the efficiency of our interactions; they allow us to be in touch more often. However, there is a big difference between being ‘in touch’ and truly connecting with others.”

Another interesting idea that the author highlights is his view of modern culture as being essentially “right-brainy”, for two main reasons: a) it is largely image-based, due to the dominance of television in the way we receive information; b) it is no longer linear, as the hyper-text structure of the web has superseded the book’s linear structure. And that, of course, changes our lives and our relations to the world, the latter being an essential dimension of religious life, particularly in Christianity.

Hipps then explores various ways that this new culture has affected our lives and relations. In particular, we seem to be losing our tendency to meet and to listen to one another, particularly when we disagree (it is so much easier to rebut someone by email than face-to-face). And of course, loving one’s neighbor, and being tolerant and forgiving, are essential components of one’s religious life. Secondly, the social structure seems to be changing, with teenagers having so much more information and many new skills that elders do not have, something that has never happened in history. Our author notes a paradox: childhood is fast disappearing, with youngsters knowing all “facts of life” so early nowadays, but adulthood is also disappearing, or at least adults are retreating while teenagers and young folks now exert more and more control in society.

Hipps concludes his book by stressing the need for us to realize that we do not have to be passive with regard to these developments; modern technologies seem to be directing us, but we certainly have much power to exert and much margin to maneuver.

To sum up, overall, the book did not satisfy my (left-sided) mind, though this review has helped me crystallize its ideas better than when I was trying to making sense of them while reading. There was, to my taste, too much preaching of the “let’s not let our love for one another be shaped by technology” kind, not to mention the fact that the book was clearly written for a Christian audience, with its constant referencing of the Bible and Jesus. There was no exploration of how theology (understanding of God) or religious practice (how often and how people now pray, for instance, or the nature of the weekly sermons, or the debates with atheists, or the science-religion discourse) have been affected by modern technologies.

For that I will have to look for another book…

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Education and Jobs in the Middle East

Still hard to believe the events in Egypt of the past couple of weeks. Here is an interesting article that talks about the combination of rising education and unemployment rates in Tunisia, Egypt and some other countries in the Middle East. But here is the key point about technology with which I completely agree:
The twin forces of education and technology have interwined to create a new dynamic. Education has raised expectations and broadened world views. Technology—TV, the Internet, omnipresent mobile phones—has armed the young not only with a clear sense of how the rest of the world, particularly China, is changing, but also given them the wherewithal to create a movement that is now reshaping their countries.
And here is a look at education and unemployment rates over the past couple of decades:

It is easy to see why Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon stand out in terms of the unemployment rates amongst the the youths. However, I'm actually surprised at the lower education rates for Morocco. And from this context, the internet usage seems even more amazing (10 million out of a population of 31 million).

Read the full article here.

And while we are on the subject of education, here is an article/interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education (tip from Michael Murray) about Saudi oil company Amarco and its emphasis on education in Saudi Arabia. Yes, yes, if you are a woman there, you may still need somebody to drive you to the university.

Q: What are some of the major changes and trends that you expect to see in Saudi education in the next five years?

A: There is going to be tremendous growth in capacity in terms of the numbers of seats offered, admissions, and graduates coming out. There is an intent to upgrade the quality. The limitation on upgrading is the faculty.
Many Saudi universities have been teaching in Arabic, and that includes both the sciences and humanities. That has been a limitation for graduates looking for jobs in the private sector. Most of the private sector does its business in English. I expect more and more universities to switch. That will have a dual effect. It will allow them to tap a bigger pool of faculty talent globally, because they will be hiring English-speaking faculty, and it will also make their graduates more readily [employable].
I expect there will be a drive to upgrade the quality of education, which means that many universities will try to establish themselves as research universities, so you will see more spending. Women's education, which has been segregated with the exception of Kaust, will slowly start merging with the education of men in some areas. That will be a slow process, but I believe it is necessary, especially in advanced degrees.
Read the full article here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Get ready for Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

Classes have started and it is still cold with lots of snow around. In other words, the world is looking  very bleak right now and the semester is seriously kicking my butt. But wait. I see some light. Ah...its a new film by Werner Herzog: Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Not only that, it is about some of world's first art pieces, in Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in Southern France. These cave paintings date to about 30,000-32,000 years ago, and were only discovered in 1994. Herzog is absolutely the perfect guy to make a documentary about some of humanity's first artwork. But he didn't stop it there. This movie is in 3D!! Take that James Cameron.

The movie is expected to start some time this spring. Here is the trailer:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams from Nate Calloway on Vimeo.

Oh and if you haven't yet seen the spectacular, Encounters at the End of the World - please go rent it and see it. Here is an earlier post about it.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Statistical Analyses to Predict the Next Revolution(s)

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.
The Tunisian revolution took everyone by surprise. And immediately afterwards, aftershocks occurred in nearby countries (Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen), so observers (knowledgeable ones as well as TV blabberers) started to ask themselves which states were “ripe” for similar uprisings. Egypt was immediately one of the dots on the radar screen, but how quickly and strongly it exploded was another surprise to everyone. So one must then ask: what makes a state “ripe” for such revolutions?
This is obviously far from just an academic question, or one of interest only to economists and social analysts, who would like to advise their clients (investors and strategists) on what their next moves should be. There are huge geopolitical stakes to this; indeed, top players (President Obama and Senate intelligence committee, among others) have asked their relevant institutions (CIA, NSA, embassies, etc.) why they did not warn them of such potential revolutions, and which ones should now be watched (for something to be done about it in anticipation).
Not surprisingly, to answer that “ripeness” question, analysts have resorted to country data and statistics to see which states seem to resemble Egypt and Tunisia most.
In a recent Op-Ed, Charles M. Blow, the New York Times columnist, constructed a chart of socio-economic and political measures to compare all MENA (Middle East and North Africa) states, in an attempt to find the one(s) that most resemble Egypt and Tunisia and would thus be the “ripest” for revolution. The factors he considered are: 1) level of democracy and regime type; and 2) unemployment rate, income inequality, spending on food, median age, and internet penetration.
The first category includes political factors (level of democracy and regime type), which were taken from the recent report of The Economist Intelligence Unit: Index of Democracy 2010. This report/index, which is produced every year or two, assesses and rates 167 countries on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. On each one, as series of questions (e.g. “are there free and fair elections?”) are answered with Yes, No, or Partly (1, 0, 0.5) either from official surveys or by experts. With their overall scores, countries are then placed within one of four types of regime categories: full democracies; flawed democracies; hybrid regimes; and authoritarian regimes.
The latest study, presenting “the situation as of November 2010” (just before the Tunisian revolution) found that half the world’s population lives under full or flawed democracies, and half under hybrid or authoritarian regimes; in fact, the overall conclusion of the report was that “democracy is now in retreat”, partly due to the recent financial crisis, which made governments feel vulnerable and thus move to tighten their grips on the media and the political landscape. Interestingly, France and Italy moved down from “full” to “flawed democracies”, joining Israel, India, Malaysia, and Mali in that group. The top four countries were (can’t you guess?!): Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden (scoring between 9.8 and 9.5 out of 10).
What about Muslim countries? Bangladesh, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Pakistan, and Iraq join Russia (which ranks 107th!) in the “hybrid regime” category. Among the bottom 10 one finds Libya, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, just above Chad and North Korea.
Now, Charles M. Blow (the NYT columnist) realized that this democracy ranking is far from sufficient to predict which countries will undergo a revolution (soon). So he considered socio-economic factors. Let’s look at them briefly.
First of all, the last one, namely internet penetration, is rather superfluous in my view. This, I would call the Facebook and Twitter myth, as too many pundits have exaggerated the role played by these two internet tools in the recent revolution. And indeed, it is enough to point out that the biggest demonstrations in Egypt occurred right in the middle of the week-long internet blackout that the government imposed.
The other factors (unemployment rate, income inequality, spending on food, and median age) are useful parameters to consider, although accurate figures are very difficult to come by. For instance, while Blow takes his numbers from the CIA’s World Factbook, the unemployment rate cited for Algeria is 9.9%, although everyone agrees it is at least 15% overall, and somewhere around 30% for people below 30. Also, if high income inequality is a factor which contributes to social unrest, then one should note that the USA’s is higher than all the MENA states’ numbers.
In any case, if we follow Blow’s analysis, then on political (lack of democracy) grounds, the MENA countries most resembling – and even worse than – Egypt and Tunisia would be Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran. On socio-economic factors, the “ripest” countries would be Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Jordan, and Oman.
However, as I stressed in my previous post, one important factor that seems to be overlooked by most of these analysts is that of corruption (of various types). For this factor too, one can find data from Transparency International for 2010, listing 178 countries. In the bottom ten, one finds Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, most of which are what is often referred to as “failed states”. Looking further from the bottom up, one finds Russia (at 165), Yemen and Libya (equal at 146), and Pakistan (at 143).
Surely, all the above factors play some role in the people’s discontent; it is, of course, a multi-dimensional problem. One then notices two countries that seem to figure in each dimension (lack of democracy, economic troubles, corruption): Libya and Yemen… But then, Egypt does not come up as particularly noteworthy on any one of those factors, but that’s because there is one more issue that I highlighted in my previous column: nepotism (the ruler’s family and clique taking possession of the country). There is, to my knowledge, no survey or ranking of countries on this factor, but I bet you that Egypt and Tunisia would have appeared huge on such a study.
Conclusion: it’s a combination of the above factors; and needless to say: such analyses are far from an exact science…

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Celebrating anti-intellectualism and ignorance with Javed Chaudhry

Last Sunday I had posted about the astonishing display of intellectual ignorance by Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston. For a change of language, below is a clip of a popular Pakistani TV anchor, Javed Choudhry, displaying an equal level of ignorance about evolution, and about the pursuit of knowledge, in general. Even if you don't speak Urdu, just play the clip for a few minutes, and you will detect a deep level of condescension in his tone and in his voice.

His main point here is that you don't have to read Aristotle, Socrates, Plato et al. for thinking about life (the topic of his talk this discussion is "Relationships"). After all, they have been dead for a long time (I don't think he knows exactly how long, since at one point he says 5000 years ago and at another he says 3000 - and both are wrong). So he urges us to use our own brains - since we know a lot more today than they ever did, and that we should be able to challenge any authority with own ideas. Now on the surface this sounds great - since this what we say about science also. However, he does not mention that your views have to shaped and informed by learning from the past. A key omission. 

And then just on cue, he demonstrates his own ignorance by arguing against evolution by bringing up the same old and stupid misconception: "if humans came from monkeys, how come monkeys are still around?". But just to demonstrate his level of thinking, he goes on to say that monkeys have been around in zoos for a while. How come not even one has started wearing pants or smoking cigarettes (I guess, he missed a whole slew of Hollywood films). Sigh! I mean how much effort does it take to at least look at what are some of the basic principles of evolutionary biology. But he does deserve credit for taking the level of discourse to even a stupider level.  I mean sure. You can criticize it. But at least know a tiny bit about what you are criticizing. Oh wait. But that would mean actually reading something. And I guess reading can be hard. But if you graduate from the Javed Choudhry university - you only need to think - and not read. I guess he is a born genius. First it was Einstein - and now we have Javed Choudhry.

Read about common misconceptions about evolution here and here.

Sorry to inflict this on you (blame Shahid Saeed for the tip :)). The fun about evolution begins around the 5-minute mark, but his anti-Aristotle/Socrates/Plato rant is before that:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Protecting Egyptian Museum in Cairo

I had a chance to see the Egyptian Antiquities Museum this past December - and it is absolutely amazing. It is not often that one has a chance to see, up close, statues and other objects 3000-4000 years old! Many of these artifacts are in very good condition. And then you have the mummies. It is quite awesome to see the mummy of Ramesses the Great (also, Ramesses II). He was 90 years old when he died - but his mummy still projects a royal elegance. Okay - so may be I was reading too much into it, but it is just amazing to see some of the pharaohs from up so close. By the way, Ramesses II may also have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus (at least according to Brier) - played by Yul Brynner in the Ten Commandments. C'mon - you can't mess with Yul Brynner!

These are not just Egyptian treasures. These are the cultural heritage of the whole world. I really hope that there is no more damage to the museum. It was heartening to see Egyptians from all walks of life coming to form a ring around the museum last Saturday, in reaction to the earlier reports of lootings (see picture below). Unfortunately, some damage was already done.

Mohammed Yahia has recently written about the potential dangers to the museum, and has posted this video of the outside of the museum during the protests:

And below is a clip of Dr. Bob Brier talking about the damage to the museum so far. By the way, Dr. Brier has an excellent course on the History of Ancient Egypt with the Teaching Company. If you are ever planning on taking a trip to Egypt - and you definitely should - go through his 48 lectures, and these will really allow you to appreciate the depth and richness of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Getting closer to finding habitable planets!

An artist's conception of the 6-planet system of Kepler 11

This is absolutely stunning! Kepler mission has so far detected 1235 candidate planets (see here for details on how Kepler detects planets). Out of these, 68 are the size of the Earth! Wait. This is not all. Astronomers usually get more excited to find planets orbiting in the habitable zone of the star. This is the distance at which water can stay in liquid form. For our Solar system, Earth and Mars are in the habitable zone (though Mars is right at the edge). We think if there is liquid water, then there is a good chance there is life there as well.

Well, Kepler has found 54 candidates in the habitable zone - and 5 of these are close to the size of the Earth. Wow!

Oh wait. And Kepler also has a confirmed detection of a planetary system, Kepler 11, with at least 6 planets orbiting the parent star. This is located about 2000 light years away and is a weird system (at least weird for us - and we are weird for the aliens living on these planets) as all six planets have orbits smaller than Venus, with five orbiting even closer than our Mercury. Very cool!

If you are a betting person, I would advise against betting your house against astronomers finding signatures of life within the next 10-15 years. Most likely, it is going to be through spectroscopy of the atmospheres of one of the small earth-sized planets located in one of the habitable zones. Then the discussion will quickly shift to: Oh there is no way there can be complex life forms out there. Hmm...well just a wait a bit more.

Read the Kepler press release here.

A wind farm and the 'sacredness' of wind

From time to time I try to bring issues of science and religion interactions that are not related some of the big world religions nor are they about issue of origins and scientific explanations. I find issues of science and native (American and Hawaiian) religions quite complex and often deeply tied to cultural identities (see earlier posts related to science and native religions here).

So here comes a news story about a wind farm in Hawaii. Now Hawaii would be an excellent place - being in the middle of the Pacific, there is no shortage of wind. But there is some opposition to it:

But, similar to the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, not everyone here is welcoming the windmills.
Protesters gathered at a recent informal legislative meeting at the state capital.
Robin Kaye, with a group called Friends of Lanai, stood next to a scale model of the island. He pointed to the hundreds of miniature windmills that cover an area called Garden of the Gods.
"So you tell me, if that was in your backyard whether you'd object or not," Kaye said. "NIMBY is relative." Kaye and others are unwavering in their opposition, despite an effort to assemble a generous public benefits package — including a share of the wind farm's profits, not unlike the oil payments Alaskans get.
Walter Rittie, a longtime activist on Molokai, says that for native Hawaiians like himself, the wind is a revered god. "So until the state realizes what they're dealing with, that it's not a commodity, it's a cultural resource that Hawaiians have high regard for, part of our heritage, then we're in for a train wreck here," Rittie says.
So couple of things. The controversy over Cape Wind project was about land and about rituals (see this earlier post: A Wind Farm vs Sacred Rituals). The issue of aesthetics plays a big role in nature religions, and that again seems to be an issue at Hawaii. But unlike the Cape Wind dispute, the Hawaiian protest seems to be more about cultural recognition than actual rituals. Due to particular historical/political quirks, Native Hawaiians have less religious/cultural rights than even the Native Americans. Therefore, high profile projects such as these stir up debates about cultural recognition. I don't think the project will be stopped, but I think it will be a constructive  step to recognize the importance of wind in the religio-cultural tradition of native Hawaiians.

Related posts:
Dispute over native-American remains
Mauna Kea Observatories Update
Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?
Blood samples back to Yanomamo
Havasupai Tribe and the Ethics of DNA Research
A wind farm versus sacred ritiuals
Skeletal remains and the issue of cultural affiliation

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