Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The poetry of cosmology and grief

by Salman Hameed

Last week's New York Times had a review of a collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith called Life on Mars. It looks fantastic! It seems to connect the our sense of wonder and awe of the universe to the sometimes real pain and sorrow of the world. It reminded me of the recent fantastic documentary, Nostalgia for the Light (see the review here). Here is the context of Life on Mars:
At the outset of her third poetry collection, Smith too turns her eyes to the stars in search of perspective and solace, but for her the stakes are considerably higher and the images closer to home. Smith’s father was a scientist who worked on the Hubble’s development, and in her elegies mourning his death, outer space serves both as a metaphor for the unknowable zone into which her father has vanished and as a way of expressing the hope that his existence hasn’t ceased, merely changed.
Here is a snippet of her poetry. This is part of her poem, My God, It's Full of Stars:
Perhaps the great error is believing we're alone,
That the others have come and gone-a momentary blip-
When all along, space might be chock-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they-we-flicker in.

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
In those last scenes of Kubrick's "2001"
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint in water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night-tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on....

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter's vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn't blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

On the set, it's shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, and bright white.

He'd read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is-

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

Read the full poem here. But this is from the first part of the book. Back to the review:
Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept — or at least endure — the universe’s mystery. I kept noticing, early on, that Smith was using the pronoun “it” in situations where “it” had no clear antecedent. At first I thought this was a tic at best and sloppiness at worst, but when I came to the poem “It & Co.” I realized I’d been set up. Smith’s enigmatic “it” is in fact her way of teasing us for our insatiable itch for explanations:
. . . We

Have gone looking for It everywhere:
In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming
Like a wound from the ocean floor.
Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.
Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-
Appeasable. It is like some novels:
Vast and unreadable.

Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant. She first shows us how tempted she is to escape into abstraction and imagination — to stare dreamily at that Cone Nebula all day — but then reminds us how necessary it is to confront the reality of our existence back here on Earth. The tension is heightened by the fact that “The Speed of Belief,” that long elegy, dispenses with the vivid diction of the poems that precede it, taking up instead a resolutely plain form of speech. Like William Carlos Williams, who in his poem “Tract” tells the mourners at a funeral that their simple “ground sense” of grief is more powerful than any that could be conjured by “a troop of artists,” Smith seems determined to shun ornamental phrases as she describes her father’s sorrow over her grandfather’s death, and then her parallel sorrow:
When your own sweet father died

You woke before first light
And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,
And drank a glass of milk.
After you’d left, I sat in your place
And finished the toast bits with jam
And the cold eggs, the thick bacon
Flanged in fat, savoring the taste.
Read the full review here and here is a link to Life on Mars on Amazon.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Muslim-Science.Com: a new, ambitious portal

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.

Muslim-Science.Com is an ambitious new website, which describes itself as “an online journal & portal dedicated to the revival of scientific, and science-based innovation and entrepreneurial culture in the Islamic World.”
The website is the brainchild of Dr. Athar Osama, who acts as the manager and coordinator of the Editorial Committee. There is also an Advisory Board, which consists of eminent scientists, innovators-entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and science journalists from the Islamic World and elsewhere.
On his own website, Dr. Osama tells us a bit about himself: “an engineer by my first profession, a technology and innovation policy consultant by the day job, and a reformer (I’d like to believe!) at heart. I have a PhD in public policy with a specialization in science, technology, and innovation policy from the Frederick S. Pardee - RAND Graduate School for Public Policy in Santa Monica, CA.”
Why this (ambitious) website/portal? The rationale is presented on the portal in the following paragraph:
In recent times, the discourse about science and innovation in the Islamic World has hovered between absolute rejection of religion, on one hand, to blind embrace on the other. It has also been theoretical and conjectural falling short of empirical rigor that science itself demands. The mainstream (western) scientific and innovation media does not provide enough coverage to emerging trends in the Muslim World. Muslim-Science is dedicated to the revival of science and science-driven innovation and entrepreneurship in the Islamic World by creating a space for an informed, inspiring, and unbiased dialogue about Science, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the Muslim Lands as well as important, but often overlooked issues of science, religion, and society in the Islamic World.
We are further told that “Muslim-Science.Com is designed a platform for a dialogue among Muslims and between Muslims and other communities about the state of science and technology in the Muslim World and the influence of Muslim faith on the former.”
Three main lines of discussion are highlighted: 1) the role and place of Islam in the rise, decline, and (hopefully) revival of science in the Muslim world; 2) the importance and effect of social, cultural, political, and economic factors on the enterprise of science and technology in the Muslim world; 3) the need to provide coverage, encouragement, and mentoring to emerging trends in the Muslim world. Muslim-Science.Com thus aims at providing both rich information to its readers and space for constructive and critical examination of all these issues and factors.

So, as one can note, there is a large spectrum of issues and topics that the project aims to address, ranging from “science-driven innovation and entrepreneurship” to “science and religion” questions. Indeed, one of the earliest series of articles that have been posted is one by Dr. Osama himself titled “Islam Analysis”; nine installments have appeared, on topics such as “S&T ministerial body [COMSTECH] needs a revival” and “Muslim countries need a ‘forward bloc’”.

How does the project propose to pursue its ambitious program? First it invites readers to contribute articles to the Editorial Committee. Secondly, and more importantly, it has posted a “Call for Action” where a more specific plan is outlined, including joining a mailing list (‘Muslim-Science’), a “Muslim Scientists, Technologists, and Innovators’ Network” of professionals and graduate students from around the world, people who are interested in actively pursuing tasks such as:
  • Helping identify research opportunities, fellowships, funding, etc.
  • Developing linkages between expatriate researchers and those working within Muslim countries;
  • Carrying out a dialogue between scientists and innovators from within the Muslim world and beyond about the state of science and technology in Muslim countries and how it could be improved.
I would like to also point out a series of “country spotlights on science and innovation” that Muslim-Science.Com plans to run; indeed, the first such special issue, looking at Malaysia, has just been published.
It includes:
- Profiles in Leadership: Dr. Omar Abdur Rahman, Mahathir's Science Advisor for more than 15 years
- Malaysia: Time to put plans into actions by Natalie Day and Amran Mohammad
- Science Policy: The Right Model for Innovation - Royal Society's Atlas Report on Malaysia
- Science: Malaysia's Sputnik Moment by Dato Zakri Abdul Hamid
I haven’t read much of this, but I plan to do so and to come back to this here in a few weeks.
This first special country spotlight will be followed by others, including Pakistan later this year and Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar planned for 2012.
There will also be a series of “Special Topical Issues” designed to bring into focus some of the most critical issues and capabilities across the Islamic world.
I wish this ambitious project the fullest success, and I hope it will be joined and supported by many people, anyone interested in the state of Science in the Muslim world, whether on conceptual grounds or for practical reasons.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the futility of finding science in the Qur'an and in other scriptures

by Salman Hameed

I have an article in today's Express Tribune. It is unfortunately titled The Science of Scriptures - but in actuality it is a critique of those who try to find scientific miracles in scriptures (I'jaz - in the particular instance of the Qur'an). Nidhal also had an excellent post about it last year: Critiquing I'jaz - The claim of 'scientific miracles in the Qur'an' and he also has a chapter in his book Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition with Modern Science. Here is my take on the relation between science and religion and on the topic of I'jaz (read from the Express Tribune directly)

Science, Religion, and the Building of Scientific Culture in Pakistan
Salman Hameed

What is the relation between science and religion? This is an important question. The world we inhabit today is shaped by modern science and its practical applications. The way we perceive nature is deeply informed by our understanding of the vastness of the cosmos and the complexities of the sub-atomic worlds as revealed by science. At the same time, religion is an integral part of Pakistani society, and shapes the identity of millions of its citizens. For a place like Pakistan, both science and religion are essential.

It is no surprise then that the question of the relation between science and religion often comes up in conversations. From a historical perspective, there is no single narrative that defines this relation. There have been times when religious authorities  stymied science. On other occasions, holy books have provided the inspiration, and religious institutions the support, to help discover the secrets of the universe. There have been religious scientists: Ibn al-Shattir was a muwaqqit at a mosque in Damascus, Mendel was a priest. And there have been scientists who have been vocal in their opposition to religion. Thus, it is hard to define the relation between science and religion in any other way than complex.

In Pakistan today, there seems to be consensus that science and religion are not opposed to each other. This signals a positive approach, as Pakistan needs to develop a strong scientific culture to meet the challenges of the 21st century. However, for a large majority, this view is shaped by the pseudoscience of finding scientific miracles in the Qur’an (also known as I’jaz). This is neither good science nor good religion! If many of our bright, young minds are being introduced to science this way, then the practice of I’jaz is perhaps a major impediment to the development of a vibrant scientific culture in Pakistan.
Science is driven by curiosity about the natural world. Unsolved problems attract the attention of its practitioners. The harder the problem, the more attention it gets.

For example, one of the hottest areas in astronomy today is exploring the nature of “dark matter” — we know it exists but we cannot see it, nor does it interact with ordinary matter. Some of the brightest minds are searching for dark matter in the largest particle accelerators in the world as well as in observatories looking for evidence in large galaxy clusters. We do not know when or where we will find the evidence. It is also possible (though unlikely) that someone will show that dark matter does not exist and that our inference about its existence was deeply flawed. Science will go wherever evidence will take it.

On the other hand, those who are seeking scientific miracles in the Qur’an are driven neither by curiosity about the natural world nor by the desire to find explanations of unsolved problems. Instead, they know that they already know the answer. For them, the primary goal is to seek validity of one’s own belief through the authority of science.

This search for science in scriptures is a relatively new phenomenon. It is the religious response to the advent of modernity and the rise of modern science as the most powerful method for explaining the natural world. Muslims are not alone in seeking validity from science. Christians find science in the New Testament, Jews find it in the Torah, Hindus find it in Bhagavad Gita, and Mormons find it in the Book of Mormon. Everyone is convinced that their holy book contains snippets of modern science. Take the specific case of dark matter: you can find websites and even books that claim that dark matter is already mentioned in the Qur’an (for Muslims), the Bible (for Christians), the Torah (for Jews), and Bhagavad Gita (for Hindus). Of course, everyone will be scrambling to change his or her respective interpretations if the dark matter idea turns out to be wrong.

Make no mistake. None of this is science.

It is ironic that when medieval Muslim scholars dominated natural philosophy (what we may loosely call science today), they did not seek ‘scientific miracles’ in the Qur’an. Instead, the Qur’an served as an inspiration to understand the natural world through reason.

So what can we do to rekindle the spirit of scientific culture in Pakistan? This is a large question, but we can take the small step of appreciating the joy of finding things out. From the condensation of water into rain here on Earth, to the detection of lakes of liquid methane on the Saturn’s moon, Titan. From understanding the way leaves change colours in the winter, to figuring out the how stars form in galaxies.

Science seeks answers about how the universe works. Religion provides inspiration to explore the natural world. The late American biologist Stephen J Gould called science and religion two equal but separate spheres of life, or Non-overlapping Magisteria, in his own words. The former deals with the physical world and the latter with questions of ethics and the meaning of life. The building blocks of a scientific culture in Pakistan will have to be laid upon this mutual respect and separation of these two vital spheres of life.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 28th,  2011.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Beautiful day today in the northeast...

And then of course we have Irene coming up:

But it is kinda a cool that we can see that the storm is coming. This is perhaps one of the best justifications for science. It used to be that such storms would hit and wipe out unsuspected populations. God was blamed (or given credit) for the destruction. Now, there are evacuations before the storm. It is not that there is no destruction - there still is, especially in earthquakes - but we are beginning to understand nature a lot more.

So while Irene is coming, I'm glad I'm living in the 21st century. A 100 years ago, we would have been fooled by this perfectly beautiful day today (despite the proverbial calm before the storm). On the other hand, 100 years from now, hopefully, we'll be able to diffuse hurricanes like these altogether. Oh - wait. This is the Enlightenment talking - a deep belief in human progress. Well - yes - then I do count myself as an optimist.

Bring it on Irene :)

And here is Neil Young for this weekend:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Movie Review: Hope for a better screenplay on "Another Earth"

by Salman Hameed

I have to admit up front. I went to see Another Earth with reasonably high expectations. I had an idea that the sci-fi element is not the central component of the film. Nevertheless, I went in to see some exploration of the implications of a mirror earth. I enjoyed the film watching it. However, my impression of it has fallen considerably in the last few days. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I dislike the film. The problem is that the movie wants to be more than it really is. It wants to pretend that it is asking some deep philosophical questions. In fact, it is an average, indie, psychological drama - which would be totally fine, if it didn't pretend otherwise. But the movie was also a darling at Sundance Film Festival, and even won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for the best science-themed film. May be the jury did not get a chance to think about the film for a few days.

Here are a few comments without any spoilers (no more than what is already revealed in the trailer). I think this is decent small budget film and you should go out and see it. The movie starts with a young women celebrating her admission to the astrophysics program at MIT. The same day, we discover a mirror planet - not simply as a terrestrial body, but it also has the same people up there. You can set plausibility issues aside for a moment, as this is a premise that can lead to fascinating questions. On her way back from the celebrations, being drunk, the young women slams into into another car, killing a young child and his mother, and sending the dad into a prolonged coma.

The remainder of the film deals with her coping with her actions. This accident fundamentally altered the direction of her life (and the direction of the surviving father of the other family). Did she have a choice? On another world, could she have not driven drunk after the party? What kind of life and what kind of a persons would have resulted from different choices?

My problem with the movie is that the entire story could have been told without any mention of Earth 2 (the name used for the mirror Earth). The absence of the Earth 2 gimmick would not have made any difference whatsoever. The presence of it, however, raised intriguing possibilities that the filmmakers did not incorporate into the screenplay. And that is a shame.

Now it would also have been okay to leave Earth 2 as is - and simply leave it in the background. But the filmmakers do have a number of radio voices (of scientists, philosophers) talking about the philosophical conundrums of this mirror planet. Okay - so then incorporate some of these fascinating puzzles into the screenplay. Place one of the characters in a situation where they have to address some of these philosophical challenges. But no - the filmmakers do not go in this direction. Instead, it seems, that the exposition is there to make the movie sound more significant than it really is. Sorry - this is no Solaris or even Moon. There is a better movie to be made on this premise - but this is not it.

But then there are two other things that really bugged me. One is the heavy use of obvious metaphors. I mean, a Wii boxing game is one thing, but to keep on telling that "you've got to stand-up", "you've got to fight for yourself" etc, was just an overkill. And there were many more - including the presence of Earth 2 as well.

The second thing that really bothered me was bad history. The movie is written by smart people. Apart from using the premise of Earth 2, which is an artistic license for the premise, rest of the science discussions are okay in the film. But then it brings up the worst cliche's from history of science: That at the time of Columbus, most people believed that the Earth was flat (nope - not true. This is like saying that most people in the 21st century believed that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Yes, some people believe this nonsense - but a vast majority does not. It was the same about the notion of flat Earth at the time of Columbus). Sailing cultures definitely could see the curvature of the Earth over the horizon, and we can trace the efforts to measure the circumference of the Earth to at least 1st century C.E. Oh - and then there is the obligatory misstatement about Galileo. This time he was close to being burnt at the stake! (he was imprisoned in his house for vehement suspicion of heresy. Not a good thing for sure - but far from a burning stake. Plus, this was a complex case based on whether he violated what he had promised to do or not). There are couple of other silly historical slips in the film. It is just a shame that when filmmakers are making an effort to get the science right, why not pay some attention to history of science as well, and not promote the entrenched misconceptions.

Phew! I got it out of my system. So let me get back to some positive things about the film.

Another Earth does have good acting and some of the dramatic tensions are quite effective. The movie would have been far better off without bringing up Earth 2. But the filmmakers definitely have a lot of potential and this effort was done with a shoestring budget. I think we are going to see more of Mike Cahill (who co-wrote the film and directed it) and the stunningly beautiful lead actress and co-writer, Brit Marling. Oh - and the artwork of Earth 2 from our evening skies is quite spectacular!

Here is the trailer for Another Earth (Caution: The trailer lays out pretty much most of the story - and it even makes it more interesting than the movie itself. If you are like me and want to see films with minimum of story information, then skip the trailer.).

By the way, there is a 1969 European film called Doppleganger or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. I watched it in Pakistan some time in the early 80s. It has the same idea of the mirror earth, but then it explores that concept a bit more. I don't remember if this a good movie or not, but at the time I liked any sci-fi film on TV. I remember that its ending was quite fascinating (I'll let you discover it yourself). 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Monday, August 22, 2011

Survey of French Muslim Attitudes

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.
A very interesting study of the evolution of socio-religious attitudes of French Muslims over the past two decades was recently produced by IFOP (the leading French market research and opinion poll institute) for La Croix, the French catholic daily. It reviews surveys conducted on the whole French population between 1989 and 2011 (March) where each time the Muslim sub-population could be identified and its viewpoints could be compared to those of the general population. In total, over 4000 people who present themselves as ‘Muslim’ were queried, and the uncertainties over the tallied responses is estimated at a few percent.

The ‘Muslim’ label is of course an ambiguous one, and the report is careful to distinguish and categorize people of that “social” group into 3 sub-groups: A) believing and practicing Muslims (41% in 2011); B) believing (but not “practicing”) Muslims (34 % in 2011); C) of Muslim origin (22 % in 2011). In fact, it does so by asking respondents to identify themselves as belonging to one of these groups. It later correlates this self-labeling with the practices and attitudes that the respondents are asked about and finds that “being a practicing Muslim” correlates most strongly with two practices: praying each day and going to the mosque on Friday. Other practices, e.g. fasting in Ramadan, do(es) not make people declare themselves as “practicing Muslims”.

Here below are the highlights (for me) and some comments:
• Praying daily, after dropping from 41 % to 31 % between 1989 and 1994, has increased steadily to 39 %; likewise for going to the mosque on Friday, which has increased to 25 % (one must recall that Friday is a working day in France), particularly among the youth, increasing from 7 % to 23 %. (La Croix points out that only 5 % of French Catholics go to church at least once a month.) Another small surprise (for me) is that unlike the case in much of the Muslim world where the Friday prayer at the mosque remains largely a male activity, in France 16 % of (practicing) Muslim women do that, compared to 35 % of (practicing) Muslim men.
• Fasting in Ramadan provided another surprise for me: 71 % of respondents declare fasting the whole month, with an additional 9 % doing it “some days”. The percentage of those stating openly that they do not fast has decreased from 32 to 20 %. In France, considering various social factors, this is quite impressive.
• Alcohol drinking has also decreased from 39 to 32 % – with only 22 % of women, compared to 44 % of men.
• Consumption of halal food (meat and products containing meat or extracts from islamically slaughtered animals) is quite high, though the surveys do not go back far enough for any time trend to be identified: 59 % of respondents stated that they “systematically” buy halal meat and products, with an additional 15 % saying that they do “most of the time”.
• Women wearing headscarves (the “veil”, as the French refer to it) regularly represent 26 % of “practicing Muslim women”, with an additional 6 % doing it sometimes or rarely. Most interestingly, the practice is still much stronger among older women: 30 % of those 50 years or more, 16 % of the 35-50 year-olds, and 8 % of those less than 35 years old (for the regular wearers).
• The survey asked Muslim women the extent to which they would accept seeing their daughters marry a non-Muslim man. Predictably, the answers varied tremendously among those who define themselves as “practicing”, “believing (but ‘not practicing’)”, and “of Muslim origin”. Full acceptance was: 29 %, 56 %, and 76 %. Reluctance/unhappiness: 27 %, 30 %, and 17 %. A spectrum of other opinions were also expressed.
The report, in powerpoint-style pages of graphs and histograms, can be found (in French) here.
I’ll be very interested to hear readers’ comments, particularly those who live in western lands.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saturday Video: On a lighter note with the Cookie Monster/Tom Waits mashup

Tom Waits is always entertaining. But you bring in the Cookie Monster, and it takes everything to another dimension. Well, for a sleepy summer Saturday, here is the Cookie Monster Mash-up with Tom Waits' song God's Away on Business (lyrics here). I think the song provides a reasonable explanation for the problem of evil in the world. Tom Waits - the theologian? :)

First here is the Cookie Monster Mash-up (tip from Open Culture), and then below it is the Tom Waits video (if you are not familiar with Tom Waits - then be prepared for his unique voice. But he is an amazing performer, singer-songwriter, and even an accomplished actor!).

And here is the original video:

Rick Perry - a perfect candidate for late 19th century

by Salman Hameed

If this were the 1890s, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, would come off as a pretty smart candidate. Global Warming: There is no definite scientific evidence that humans are responsible for it. Evolution: It is a theory with many gaps. Age of the Earth: It is quite old. But no one knows exactly how old it is. Smart answers as science was much uncertain about all of these issues in the late 19th century. The issue of age of the Earth was particularly in flux (though, no serious scientists thought that it was less than 10,000 years old. The question was whether it was tens of millions of years old - as the physics of the time suggested - or billions of years old. The discovery of radioactive materials and nuclear fusion resolved those issues permanently). Therefore, a presidential candidate would have been wise not to fully commit to any of these ideas - in the 1890s. Unfortunately, this is 2011, and his proclamations are just embarrassing. Although it would be cool, if he also argued for the presence of aether as the medium for light.

Rick Perry for President (1896)!

Here is the clip of his answers for age of the earth and evolution:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Penn Jilllete and God-believing atheists

by Salman Hameed

Here is an interesting interview with magician Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller's Bullshit! fame). He has a new book out, God, No! Signs you may already be an atheist and other magical tales. He takes the stance that there isn't much difference between atheists and religious folks when comes down to issues of morality, etc. He differs from those militant atheists who argue that primarily religion is, and has been, a source of evil in the world. Yes, there are crazies out there who act in the name of religion, but Penn believes that those are outliers, and it is a mistake to fixate on them and generalize from there. Penn takes a universalist approach to morality in humans (indeed, a huge subject...), and thinks that atheists and religious people make similar sorts of moral decisions - irrespective of what religion tells them to do - and have a lot more in common than they realize (by the way, in US the public is least likely to vote for an atheist President than any another denomination including Muslims).

This is not an academic book. Nevertheless, he is engaged with these debates at the ground-level. He understands the need and the desire to have a community, and the fact that religion fills up this niche quite nicely. In the interview there is also a nice little conversation about performing magic in the age of science, and the difference between magic and a performing a trick.

Oh - and he seems to be a local of western Massachusetts. In fact, there is even a mention of Northampton in the interview!

Listen to the full interview here (it is about 16 minutes long). 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Peer reviewed research could have saved us from the Rise of the Apes

by Salman Hameed

Saw The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It sucks! No need to waste time on this crap.

The premise of the original book (and the original movie) is awesome. One can address some really interesting ethical and moral issues with the topic. Can we keep fellow apes in cages or zoos? How do we balance out the benefit of medical research on our closest cousins? And of course a broader range of moral and ethical issues regarding animals in general. The original Planet of the Apes played on our fears of a nuclear war, and that was quite appropriate for the time. The new film tries to bring in issues of medical benefits and the treatment of apes. Unfortunately, the screenplay is stupid and there is no effort to breath life into any of the characters.

Spoilers ahead (but really, nothing is really surprising or earth shattering):
Worst is the idiotic portrayal of science and scientists. The drug company, of course, is the real evil (oh and sooo evil they are). Scientists are just dumb and playing into the hands of the company. But there is one unintentional good thing from the movie: The happenings in the film make a strong case for adhering to a peer-review system, replication of results, as well as seeking permission from an Institutional Review Board (IRB) for experiments on humans and animals. If the scientists in the movie were mimicking anything close to science in practice, then we would not have any takeover of the apes - at least in this version of the film. But then the lead scientist in the film (played by James Franco who seemed to have been inspired by Keanu Reeves' wooden acting style) is not so smart and had to be told about chimp behavior (hmm...that a pet chimpanzee at home may not be a good idea) by his girlfriend.

Oh - and the movie definitely does not believe in nurture. The apes, after being bestowed with more intelligence, could immediately work out superior battle strategies and could figure out how to disable security cameras, etc. Who needs training or education? All we need is intelligence! And the humans, it seemed, tried to play even with the apes by sending only one helicopter to attack them - conveniently placing the really bad company guy on board. Yup - no one saw that helicopter going down in fire and explosions towards the end of the fight. C'mon!

Two somewhat good things in the film (and I'm trying hard to find positives here): It is actually cool to see different apes together - especially the orangutan looks great! (but why would different types of apes want to lead the rebellion together?). Second, there is an excellent use of end-credits to explain how most humans would be wiped out from the planet, and there was a subtle hint during the film that there is a human mission to Mars in progress. This is a smart way to set it up for a sequel. I just hope they get better writers for the next film.

My biggest disappointment is from the fact that the movie could have been really good with minor tweaks. For example, instead of an evil drug company, they could have had a true dilemma of a sincere effort to cure Alzheimer's (without money motivation) with the issue of experimentation on apes. Similarly, the captivity conditions could have been less horrific and could have raised issues of fundamental rights for apes and that of freedom in general.

But no. Here we have a film that appeals to the lowest common denominator. One of the apes from the film could have done a better job of writing than the buffoons who wrote the screenplay and made the film (sorry - no offense to the buffoons either). 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A sensible article on the American drones in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

There was always division within the Obama administration about how to approach Pakistan. People like John Kerry and others were advocates of a deeper socio-economic involvement, whereas others in the administration have been arguing for taking a harder stance. There was a profile of John Kerry in the NYT Magazine and it talked about his anger after hearing of an American drone attack soon after he left Islamabad after fruitful negotiations. The article was not about US foreign policy in Pakistan, but it demonstrated the fissures within the Obama administration.

The post Bin-Laden postures clearly show that the Kerry faction has lost influence - at least for the time being. All nuance towards Pakistan, including the acknowledgement of a deeply complex and intertwined history of US and Pakistan involvement in Afghanistan, has now been set-aside. The discussions in news media now usually focus only on the fact that the US is giving so much money to Pakistan and is only getting betrayal in return. No mention of how Pakistanis view US drone attacks and civilian casualties, the costs of maintaining a sizable fraction of the army on the Afghan border, the retaliation attacks by the Taliban inside Pakistan since the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the impact of regional politics. Yes, Pakistan's domestic policies are in shambles, and the army and the ISI have also been playing with fire in continuing to harbor militant groups that have been working against India. Nevertheless, this is a complex picture in a very complex region (see an earlier post: Popular Science as a Guide to Popular Geopolitics)

It is therefore rare to see an article in NYT that takes a sensible approach to the issue of drone attacks and to the region as a whole. The issue of drones has come up again as CIA has made a ridiculous claim that for a year there has not been a single civilian casualty in drone attacks in Pakistan (by the way, even if this fairytale was true, we still have to address the legality and ethics of drone attacks to begin with). I think this strategy may be effective in the short run, but will end-up alienating the larger segment of Pakistani population. It will be a losing strategy if US exchanges turmoil in Afghanistan (population 30 million) with turmoil and anti-Americanism in Pakistan (population 180 million). And this is roughly the point of this oped in NYT:
Over the past two years, America has narrowed its goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a single-minded focus on eliminating Al Qaeda. Public support for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has waned. American officials dealing with Pakistan now spend most of their time haggling over our military and intelligence activities, when they should instead be pursuing the sort of comprehensive social, diplomatic and economic reforms that Pakistan desperately needs and that would advance America’s long-term interests.
In Pakistan, no issue is more controversial than American drone attacks in Pakistani territory along the Afghan border. The Obama administration contends that using drones to kill 10 or 20 more Qaeda leaders would eliminate the organization. This is wishful thinking.
 Moreover, as the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan. American officials may praise the precision of the drone attacks. But in Pakistan, news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed. Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of warfare without cost to its own troops.       
Our dogged persistence with the drone campaign is eroding our influence and damaging our ability to work with Pakistan to achieve other important security objectives like eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.
Reducing Al Qaeda to a fringe group of scattered individuals without an organizational structure will only succeed if Pakistan asserts control over its full territory and brings government services to the regions bordering Afghanistan.
Washington should support a new security campaign that includes jointly controlled drone strikes and combines the capabilities of both countries. Together, the American and Pakistani governments can fashion a plan that meets the objectives of both without committing to broader joint campaigns that would not be politically viable at the moment.
Read the full article here.

Also see earlier posts:
Ethics, Morality, and Legality of Robotic Wars
Sorting through some of the post Bin Laden mess in Pakistan
Drone Strategy in Pakistan Being Questioned
Obamas's blind spot in his Pakistan-Afghanistan Strategy

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blaming the Sun

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.

We humans have a strong tendency to find correlations where oftentimes there are none, and to blame external factors for serious events when most of the time they are entirely human induced.
A few months ago, when the super earthquake and tsunami in Japan came within a week or so of a “super full moon”, the latter was almost predictably blamed in a number of news stories, and I wrote a newspaper column titled “Don’t blame the moon”. In it, I mentioned that the moon used to be thought of as the reason for a variety of things, ranging from severe weather to pregnancies, but nowadays only the full moon is cited as a principal reason for increases in crime rates (during those “white nights”) to tsunamis. I explained why this is all nonsense.
These days, however, it’s the sun’s turn to be blamed. Since we’ve had major drops and wild swings in stock markets worldwide as well as extreme weather across the globe, one could almost predict that the sun, with its increase in magnetic and flare activity, would be blamed. (And let’s not forget the riots in England.) And indeed, there are articles to that effect, including one on Reuters and one on the Arabic-BBC website, though in both pieces “various views” are presented, without a clear rejection of the solar-activity “theory”. A year ago, an Algerian pseudo-astronomer predicted that Ramadan would be tough because the upturn in solar activity would make temperatures significantly higher than usual
What’s the story exactly? Well, we know that the sun undergoes a cycle of magnetic activity every 11 years or so, resulting in greater numbers (or very few) sunspots, solar flares, and prominences. The graph on the side shows the variation of the sunspot number since 2000, with the upturn in late 2009 and the expected activity over the next several years. To what extent this affects the earth’s climate is an important issue; the short answer is “not much”; and the solar cycle can even less be called upon to explain any local or regional increases in temperatures.
But then how would anyone cite this as an explanation for the stock market’s wild ride (mostly downward) of the past few weeks? Well, people noticed that in the past week or so, several strong solar “coronal mass ejections” occurred and “coincided” with the big drops in world markets. Secondly, people noted that just like the sun goes through cycles of activity, the market seems to go through similar phases, and moreover, there seems to be some “correlation”. These people, who tend to be smart, if scientifically and methodologically challenged, explained it as a solar psychological effect on investors. They cite a 2003 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta that found that such storms could affect the stock market.
OK, that’s a testable hypothesis, so someone should check. Indeed, someone (Alexander Pakhalov of Moscow State University) recently published a study titled “The Influence of Solar Activity on the Investors' Behaviour in the Stock Markets”, in which he concluded that “based on the analysis of extensive historical data, connection between solar activity and the stock market was not found.” (OK, the source is an open-access repository of papers, not a bona fide refereed journal, and I am not an expert to vouch for this research, but it’s a statistical study, and it can be checked.)
Now, here below are graphs of both the sunspot number variation and the Dow Jones Industrial average for most of the last century, so you can take a look for yourself. Of course, we don’t do correlation studies in this “take a look” way, but it is often useful to see (by eye) what the data are showing before feeding them into statistical-analysis programs.

Last but not least, it is important to reflect on how we humans are quick to correlate phenomena and to believe that “we don’t know everything, so the connection is possible…” We humans evolved a capacity to notice patterns because that served us well in our long and difficult history, but we also have a tendency to overdo it, to see patterns where there are none and correlations that do not exist. As we scientists keep repeating, just because certain events occur at the same time or one after the other, does not mean they are related in some way, especially in a causal way. And because life is too difficult (for most people) already, it’s comforting to blame external factors, especially ones that we can do nothing about. It’s our “fate”, so let’s accept it, be strong, and move on.
But it is in fact only when we refuse to accept such reasoning that we make progress and truly move forward. We need to instill in our children and students the habit of asking for evidence, of questioning “received wisdom”, of searching for explanations that can be checked and confirmed. Anything else is superstition, irrational behavior, and just primitive thinking.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Muslims and Dutch multiculturalism

by Salman Hameed

We have been trying to understand the reception of evolutionary biology and modern science in different Muslim societies, including Muslims in Europe. From an academic standpoint, the European landscape is equally fascinating and complex as that of the Muslim majority areas from Morocco to Indonesia. Last month I had posted a link to an excellent article that looked at adjustment issues for Muslims in UK and Germany. Today there is another article in NYT that looks at multiculturalism in the Netherlands. Here is the key bit from the article:
If part of the Dutch anxiety is about identity, there are similar concerns among Muslims here. There are two parallel sets of identity crises, said Ahmed Marcouch, 42, son of an illiterate Moroccan immigrant and now a Labor member of Parliament. Most Muslims came from poor, less educated parts of Morocco and eastern Turkey, and clung to traditional values and the mosque as bulwarks against a secular society that promoted individualism, gender equality and gay rights.
“They didn’t speak Dutch, they didn’t know Holland, and they saw the sexual revolution, feminism and youth anarchism as a provocation, as part of a decadent society,” Mr. Marcouch said. He remembers his father saying with contempt, “Women are the bosses here.”
Their children, fluent in Dutch but not readily accepted, were even more at risk. A significant number, he concedes, turned to crime. They had their own identity problems, Mr. Marcouch said, asking: “Who am I? Where am I really from? Can I be Dutch?” He described his own son, 22, discussing these questions with his 10-year-old sister. “They won’t recognize you as a full citizen,” his son told her.
At the same time, Mr. Marcouch said, Dutch politicians were promoting economic integration — language training, job training. “They didn’t understand the importance of religious identity among the immigrants,” he said. They dismissed it as backward even as they failed to understand the anger a growing immigrant population was creating. “The fear,” he said, “is on both sides.”
While similar identity issues are playing a prominent role in several European countries, the way they manifest themselves are dependent on the policies of the host countries - and these policies can vary quite drastically from one country to another. It gets further complicated by the fact that some of these immigrants are from former colonies (for example, Pakistanis in UK), and in other cases, they have been part of the crucial post WWII work force (for example, the Turks in Germany or Algerians in France). Unfortunately, this article in NYT does not address the policies of the Dutch state clearly, but towards the end it does bring up an interesting issues of one of the former colonies and the question of the Dutch identity in general:
In the United States, citizenship once granted is never questioned, said Mr. Overbeek of VU University. “But in Europe it’s never quite established, no matter how long you’ve been here. Here it’s still, ‘When did you get here, and when are you going back?’ ”
East of Amsterdam, in Almere, the youngest city in the Netherlands, 30 percent voted for Mr. Wilders.
Shopping in the city center, Raihsa Sahinoer, 24, born here of Surinamese immigrants, was not surprised. “Wilders says we all have to go back even if we were born here,” she said. “It’s not only about Muslims, it’s about colored people, too.”
She lives as the Dutch do, she said. “But they tell us if you’re colored, you’re not Dutch.” Does she feel Dutch? “No,” she said, then paused, then asked: “What is Dutch?”
Read the full article here.        

God's Blog from The New Yorker

This is absolutely hilarious! Here is God's Blog. I have highlighted couple of my favorite responses here (I would have complained about allergies too. It has been nasty here today).

UPDATE: Pretty pleased with what I’ve come up with in just six days. Going to take tomorrow off. Feel free to check out what I’ve done so far. Suggestions and criticism (constructive, please!) more than welcome. God out. 
Not sure who this is for. Seems like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist. Liked it better when the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.
Going carbon-based for the life-forms seems a tad obvious, no?
Disagree with the haters out there who have a problem with man having dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, the cattle of the earth, and so on. However, I do think it’s worth considering giving the fowl of the air dominion over the cattle of the earth, because it would be really funny to see, like, a wildebeest or whatever getting bossed around by a baby duck.
The dodo should just have a sign on him that says, “Please kill me.” Ridiculous.
Amoebas are too small to see. They should be at least the size of a plum.
Beta version was better. I thought the Adam-Steve dynamic was much more compelling than the Adam-Eve work-around You finally settled on.
Why do they have to poop? Seems like there could have been a more elegant/family-friendly solution to the food-waste-disposal problem.
Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.
Putting boobs on the woman is sexist.
Epic fail.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Saturday Video: 50 Academics Speaking about God

Here is a snapshot of some of prominent academics on God from a skeptical viewpoint. The snapshot format is interesting but it may give the impression that these views are relatively uniform. If you are interested in a more nuanced look on this topic (especially when you go beyond the notion of a personal God), check out Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Science & Religion by Steve Paulson. It contains interviews with scientists and philosophers, both religious and non-religious, and presents a fascinatingly complex views on these matters.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Nidhal's efforts highlighted in the journal Science

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Science has a very nice piece on Nidhal's efforts regrading Islamic calendar as well as the promotion of general scientific thinking in the Muslim world. Well we knew that already and have been benefiting from his Monday contributions on Irtiqa. But here are some of the highlights from the article:
This week will see the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe devote themselves to fasting and prayer. But to Algerian scientist Nidhal Guessoum, a Sunni Muslim, it's also a time of chaos—and “an embarrassment” to Islam.
Tradition dictates that Ramadan, like other holy months in the Islamic calendar, begins the day after the thin crescent of the new moon is first seen with the naked eye. Because visibility is very dependent on local atmospheric conditions, religious officials in different countries—relying on eye-witness observations from volunteers—often disagree on the exact moment, sometimes by as much as 3 or 4 days. It's a recipe for international confusion.
Guessoum, an astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is one of the most high-profile advocates of a scientific approach to the problem that would end the confusion. Its adoption would not only help Muslims plan their lives—“I need to know whether I can hold a meeting on August 30,” Guessoum says—but also be a sign that Muslim countries, once at the forefront of science, are again “able to integrate science into social and cultural life,” he says.
Guessoum, the vice president of an international organization known as the Islamic Crescents' Observation Project (ICOP), believes science can help solve other practical problems in the Muslim faith. In frequent TV appearances, public lectures, blog posts, and books, he has explained how astronomical techniques can help determine prayer times in countries far from the equator or establish the direction of Mecca.
This is a topic that Nidhal has written here on Irtiqa as well (for example, see this post from a few weeks ago). But his overall approach is broader and has a strong emphasis on critical thinking and an appreciation of scientific methodology: 
After leaving Algeria in 1994 to escape a bloody civil war, Guessoum moved to Kuwait and then, in 2000, to the United Arab Emirates. Since then, he has found himself devoting more and more time to the crescent-sighting problem. ICOP has designed computer models that predict how crescent visibility depends on both the position of the moon in the sky and atmospheric conditions and has used these models to propose a “universal” Islamic calendar, in which the start of each month is tied to a particular day in the international Gregorian calendar, and a “bizonal” calendar that would use separate calculations for the Americas and for Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the latter, the onset of the months would more closely match actual observations of the new crescent.
Guessoum hopes clerics can first be persuaded to adopt the bizonal calendar and, eventually, the universal version. That's a tall order, Schaefer says. Scholars have proposed other rational solutions for centuries, he says, but Muslims have remained steadfastly attached to naked-eye observations. “It is rather unlikely that his idea will get accepted by the Islamic authorities,” Schaefer says.
Guessoum recognizes that tradition is important in Islam and says naked-eye observations provide a valuable link between faith and nature. But he believes the attachment to this practice stems from an overly literal interpretation of Islamic principles. What was sound practical advice in the 8th century, a time when astronomy was pretty primitive, is mistakenly interpreted as a cast-iron rule, he argues.
Guessoum describes himself as a “rationalist” and a practicing but pragmatic Muslim. Reconciling his faith with science is “still a work in progress,” he says; he's unsure, for instance, as to whether, and how, God acts in the world. But he believes that Muslims cannot afford to be dogmatic about their religion and says that they must make a distinction between “secondary” rituals, such as prayer and fasting times, and what he regards as the essential elements of Islam: the “oneness of God,” the existence of spirit as well as matter in human beings, and the possibility of divine revelation.
He argues that only by recognizing this distinction and leaving space for critical thinking does the Islamic world have a chance of reviving the scientific glory it knew between the 7th and 14th centuries—a period in which Guessoum, like many Muslim scientists, takes great pride. A renaissance won't happen overnight, but it's possible, says Guessoum, who's heartened by the Arab Spring. An increased awareness of the wider world—thanks to the Internet—and a more meritocratic university system will, in the long run, rejuvenate science, he says.
And, he believes, Islam needn't stand in the way—provided Muslims look at their religion afresh. “We must be a little bit more flexible, pragmatic, and intelligent,” he says.
Fantastic! Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the full article). You can find Nidhal's posts on Irtiqa here.                 

On the possibility of two Moons for the early Earth

There is an interesting new theory that Earth may have had two moons earlier on and the smaller moon merged into the big one. This collision may explain the difference in the features between the dark side and front side of the Moon (with respect to us: we only see one side of the Moon from the Earth). Here is a short podcast on the topic with Monte on WRSI - The River.

In addition, we also played a game on the National Geographic website where you can create your own solar system around your own favorite star. It is actually pretty cool. You can play with various properties of the star and the planets (including their orbits) to see how long they survive. Check out the Solar System Builder here.

Listen to the full podcast here: On two moons and playing god

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Adam and Eve question for Evangelicals

The issue of biological evolution and how Muslims will reconcile science and religion will say a lot about the future of scientific thinking in the Muslim world. The same is true for the many of the Evangelical groups in the US. The interpretation of Adam and Eve story is one of the key factors that give people pause about human evolution. Of course there are ways around it: For example, one can take the story a metaphorical one, or consider Adam and Eve and one of the first homo sapiens. Here is an NPR story (7 minutes) of some Evangelical Christians who are breaking away for science (and evidence) without abandoning their fundamental religious views:
But now some conservative scholars are saying publicly that they can no longer believe the Genesis account. Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: "That would be against all the genomic evidence that we've assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all." 
Venema says there is no way we can be traced back to a single couple. He says with the mapping of the human genome, it's clear that modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population — long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago. And given the genetic variation of people today, he says scientists can't get that population size below 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.
To get down to just two ancestors, Venema says, "You would have to postulate that there's been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence."
Venema is a senior fellow at BioLogos Foundation, a Christian group that tries to reconcile faith and science. The group was founded by Francis Collins, an evangelical and the current head of the National Institutes of Health, who, because of his position, declined an interview.
And Venema is part of a growing cadre of Christian scholars who say they want their faith to come into the 21st century. Another one is John Schneider, who taught theology at Calvin College in Michigan until recently. He says it's time to face facts: There was no historical Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence.
"Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost," Schneider says. "So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings."
It is great that at least some Evangelicals are taking this stance. I think one can easily see similar issues with the Muslims world as well - and we see some of the similar responses as well:
But others say Christians can no longer afford to ignore the evidence from the human genome and fossils just to maintain a literal view of Genesis.
"This stuff is unavoidable," says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. "Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have."
"If so, that's simply the price we'll have to pay," says Southern Baptist seminary's Albert Mohler. "The moment you say 'We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,' you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world."
Mohler and others say if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn't be surprised if their faith unravels.
You can listen to the full story here.
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