Monday, October 31, 2011

Spectacular snow storm - but what's up with electricity

by Salman Hameed

I was again reminded last weekend, how glad I am to be living in the 21st century (though not as glad as the 24th century). I can't imagine living in the medieval times. I think it will just be too cold or too hot (unless, living in Hawai'i), and definitely showers will be limited to cold water. Plus, no blogging. Nooooo!! Well, we got a little taste of it. We were hit by a freak October snow storm, and the power was out in our place for two days. It was fun as our heating is controlled electronically and we only have electric stove and electric oven. But worst of all - no internet! :) Some places are still without power. Hampshire College was closed today, and classes will not resume for another couple of days.

The storm dumped more than a foot of snow. Since its still October and leaves are still on the trees, the weight of the snow brought down numerous trees and power lines along with them. There were only two places open in Amherst on Sunday: Rao's Coffee - that was serving cold teas and coffees, and Antonio's Pizza, that was serving pizzas in the dark. As expected, there were lines going out the door of Antonio's. I don't think pizza has ever tasted better than that!

Okay - enough bad things about the storm. Here is how it looked like on the morning after the storm:

Is this really October? Look at the trees behind our house. Some are leaning and will loose those branches some time soon. We only had one tree that fell close to the house. But there is no damage. Phew!

A snowy wonderland. These are trees right in the backyard, and the morning Sun is behind them.

The view of the front road from the house. Oh - wait. It is hard to tell where the road is. But this is a great winterscape.

Doha session on the history of Islamic science

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently took part in the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS), which was followed by the 9th Doha Interfaith Conference. The first one was on the theme: “The Islamic World and the West: Rebuilding bridges through science and technology”; the second one discussed: “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue: A new relationship”.
One session of the IAS conference was devoted to the history of Islamic science and was quite interesting, with the following talks: “Muslim Contribution and the Turning Points in the History of Classical Mathematics” by Prof. Roshdi Rashed, Emeritus Research Director, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Center for History of Arabic and Medieval Sciences and Philosophy, University of Paris 7, France; “Discoveries in the Islamic World” by Prof. Ahmed Djebbar, Professor Emeritus, University of Science and Technology, Lille, France; “Unravelling the Mystery of the Decline of Islamic Science: Key Projections on Today’s World” by Prof. George Saliba, Columbia University, USA; and “Ibn al-Haytham’s Contributions to European Civilization” by Prof. Charles Falco, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA.
The four talks were very different from one another.
Prof. Rashed’s talk focused on the “turning points” in the history of Islamic mathematics, attempting to show that there were what today we would call “paradigms shifts”, though the speaker refrained from using this expression. Algebra is a clear and strong case in point: a new analytical approach that was both algorithmic and demonstrative was introduced. Rashed showed how strong and fruitful this new mathematics was, although unfortunately it was hardly appreciated for its worth or used to its fullest power in the following centuries. The speaker also insisted that the detailed history of this new approach, from its inception to its full-scale development and deployment later in the west, has yet to be fully written. Likewise, though not as strikingly, for branches such as spherical geometry and geometric transformations, in which Muslim mathematicians turned geometry into a dynamic concept, not just studying the relations within shapes but more importantly realizing that relations “between” shapes could be studied, what today we would call “mapping”.
Prof. Djebbar showed an excellent example of how the history of Islamic science can be turned into a pedagogical tool. Indeed, in France, within a large new science-education program titled “La main à la pâte” (“hands on”), which was introduced and championed by the recently departed French Physics Nobel Prize winner Georges Charpak, a textbook (cover image on the side) and module has been built around a number of “scientific” topics related to discoveries made by Muslim scientists during the golden age. There is a website for this educational project, with a teacher’s folder, showing links to explanations (and more) on each of the discoveries used in the work (e.g. Al-Farisi’s model of the rainbow, Al-Khazini weighing scale, Ibn al-Baytar’s experimental botany and pharmacology, Ibn al-Nafis’s discovery of the pulmonary blood cycle, Al-Jazari’s water pump, etc.), a children’s folder, showing animations for each discovery (e.g. for Al-Farisi’s model of the rainbow), and wiki pages constructed by the children from their research, both experimental and bibliographical.
A truly marvelous educational piece of work.
The textbook has now been translated into English in Malaysia for implementation. The IAS president then pledged to have the textbook and module translated into Arabic.
Prof. Saliba presented his ‘theory’ for the decline of Islamic science. He started by conceding that there was indeed a decline; I think this much is obvious, despite the “decline, what decline?” refrain that we sometimes hear here or there. However, he insisted that it must be dated around the 16th century since, his argument went, we can find great scientists (at least astronomers) up to that era, highlighting Al-Khafri (ca. 1470 - 1550) as proof of the continuation of Islamic astronomy up to the 16th century. In particular, he dismissed “internal” factors, such as the orthodoxy that prevailed after Ghazali (since many great scientists appeared after that) or the Mongol invasion. (This part is not so obvious, but let us put this aside for now.) Saliba then argues that this date corresponds to the simultaneous decline of both the Islamic and the Chinese civilizations and the rise of the European civilization. So, he concludes, the question should not be “what went wrong” in the Islamic civilization, but rather “what went right” in the west?
His answer is then: it is the new wealth acquired in the west from the discovery of America and the opening of new commercial routes around Africa, thus bypassing and marginalizing the Islamic lands and making them lose economic power and hence their ability to conduct science.
In my opinion, this is certainly one important factor that should not be disregarded, but first it is a very late development (decline in most branches of Islamic science began much before), and one still needs to explain the great wealth (and thus a potential ability to do great science) in the Ottoman empire (not to mention others, such as the Mughal empire), how the latter was (were) able to expand huge powers to rule vast lands, build great palaces and infrastructures, while no science of substance was produced for at least four centuries. Saliba also leaves aside important internal factors such as the sorry state and weak status of Islamic universities/madrasas, the near-total absence of democracy and freedom of thought, etc. Of course, this debate is not new; check out Saliba’s famous exchange with Toby Huff.
The last speaker was Charles Falco, who focused solely on Ibn al-Haytham, attempting to show his importance in the history of ideas (scientific, artistic, and even theological) in medieval Europe. I am a great fan of Ibn al-Haytham, but I don’t like exaggerations or extrapolations, and I think it is important to distinguish between Ibn al-Haytham being “influential” and being mentioned (once here and once there, sometimes with difficult-to-recognize spelling and very fuzzy notions) by Chaucer or other medieval writers, or being referred to by some theologian who wants to justify his ideas by using light as an analogy (in some theological concept) and finding “scientific” support in Ibn al-Haytham’s description of light. At the end of his talk, Falco requested financial support for a documentary he is preparing on Ibn al-Haytham.
To sum up, all in all, a great session, very rich and diverse… Indeed, how often does one get to hear such great talks in one afternoon? Too bad the session’s time and format constraints did not allow for any discussion…

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Video: Science - What is it up to?

by Salman Hameed

This is a video from The Daily Show that went viral on science-themed blogs couple of days ago. It is too much fun not to post it here.

And now we wait in Amherst for an October snowstorm!!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights - Science: What's It Up To?
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Friday, October 28, 2011

Film Autopsy of "Project Nim"

by Salman Hameed

Last year, Kevin Anderson and I had started a series of film autopsies of films (for example, see autopsy of "Splice" here and "Inception" here) . Well, Film Autopsy is back! And now it's high-tech with the help of Smith College and their video technology administrator, Jeff Heath. We are still in the process of improving the visuals - but hey - anything is better than the movie stills with Ken Burns effect.

I will posting these autopsies here as well as on the Film Autopsy blog. Clearly, not all of the movies are relevant for science & religion. So I will post those off-topic autopsies as additions to the regular daily posts. But if you are interested in films, I hope you will enjoy the reviews of films.

The first one is Project Nim. Of course, this movie is relevant to some of the ethical issues we have talked about here on Irtiqa, and I already had a post about the film here. But here is an exchange with Kevin Anderson as part of our new Film Autopsy:

Project Nim Film Autopsy from kevin taylor anderson on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nov 3rd: Science & Religion lecture on "The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins"

by Salman Hameed

Our next Science & Religion lecture at Hampshire College is on November 3rd by Robert M. Hazen. It is titled The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins. Hazen is a fantastic speaker and a wonderfully clear thinker. I listened to his Teaching Company course on Origins of Life, and was blown away by it. If you are in the area, please join us for the lecture. We will also posting the video of the lecture in a few weeks time. Of course, you can also watch videos of our prior Science & Religion Lectures here.

Here is the announcement for the next lecture:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents:

"Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins"
Robert M. Hazen

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011
5:30 p.m. in Franklin Patterson Hall's Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College 

How did life arise? Is life’s origin a cosmic imperative manifest throughout the cosmos, or is life an improbable accident, restricted to a  few planets (or only one)? Scientists seek experimental and theoretical frameworks to deduce the origin of life. In this context the concept of emergent systems provides a unifying approach. Natural systems with many interacting components, such as molecules, cells or organisms, often display complex behavior not associated with their individual components. The origin of life can be modeled as a sequence of emergent events – the synthesis of biomolecules, the selection and organization of those small molecules into functional macromolecules, the emergence of self-replicating molecular systems, and the initiation of molecular natural selection – which transformed the lifeless geochemical world of oceans, atmosphere and rocks into a living planet. This framework guides origin experiments, which can be designed to focus on each emergent step.

Robert M. Hazen is Senior Research Scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. He received the B.S. and S.M. in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1971), and the Ph.D. at Harvard University in earth science (1975). He is author of 350 scientific articles and 20 books, including "Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin". The Past President of the Mineralogical Society of America, Hazen’s recent research focuses on the role of minerals in the origin of life, the co-evolution of the geo- and biospheres, and the development of complex systems.

Enjoy some of the lectures of the past few years: http://scienceandreligion/videos.php

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Too soon? Here is "The Neutrino Song" by Corrigan Brothers

by Salman Hameed

There is no time to breathe these days. It has been only a month since the announcement of the tantalizing results that neutrinos may have broken the cosmic speed limit. We don't know if the results will hold up with further scrutiny, but it is already a part of popular culture. Incidentally, just yesterday in our class on Astrobiology, we were talking about the 1996 announcement of possible remains of Martian lifeforms in the meteorite ALH84001. Fifteen years later, almost all scientists doubt the original claim, but a majority of the general public remember only the original announcement (for which even Bill Clinton had a press conference, which was later used in the movie Contact). This may turn out to be the case for the neutrinos results too - but it has already left its mark. Here is an article on this issue and more by Dennis Overbye in today's NYT. Fascinatingly, he quotes a 1960 poem about neutrinos by John Updike that was published in the New Yorker:

The Earth is just a silly ball
To them through which they pass
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.

Very cool. But then he also pointed to this video by Corrigan Brothers. It is called "The Neutrino Song", and is a direct commentary on the recent results. Enjoy.

Monday, October 24, 2011

18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences

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 am currently in Doha, Qatar, taking part in the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS), from October 22 to 24, and it is to be followed by the 9th Doha Interfaith Conference, from 24 to 26 October 2011. The first conference addresses the theme: “The Islamic World and the West: Rebuilding bridges through science and technology”; the second will discuss: “Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue: A new relationship”.
Each of these two conference promises to bring highly interesting talks and speakers. Indeed, as I write, the first day of the IAS conference has passed, and we have already been treated to a series of rich and by no means straightforward addresses; unfortunately, no Q & A sessions or discussions took place after any of the talks; perhaps it was because time was so tight, and speakers used the whole time of each session.
I will have at least 2 or 3 posts related to these two conferences, addressing either general themes or specific talks, depending on interest from the readers of the blog.
Let me begin with the highlights of the first day. In the morning, there was an opening ceremony where, in addition to the welcoming speeches, two short talks were given: one by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, and one by Prince El-Hassan Ibn Talal, former crown-prince of Jordan and a founding patron of IAS.
This was followed by the first session with a more formal keynote speech by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, titled “The Islamic World and the West: Towards a Common Understanding through Development”; a talk by Prof. Farouk El-Baz, Director of the center for remote sensing at Boston University, titled “Big Ideas Based on Science for Fast-Track Development: Emphasis on the Case of Egypt”; and a talk by Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman, the former head of various federal ministries and commissions of Pakistan and Coordinator General of COMSTECH, titled “Building Bridges with the West through Knowledge Economy.”
Briefly (and I’ll be happy to give more details if there’s serious interest in any of the above), Dr. Mahathir emphasized the need for the Islamic world today to adopt a learning attitude from the west, as the latter diligently learned from the Islamic world during its golden age. He called for massively adopting science and mathematics as cores of the educational curricula as well as making every student master at least one European language, especially “the language of knowledge” (English). He also asked that this be done in cooperation with the west, first by us showing that we fully respect intellectual property – a serious issue in this part of the world. Mahathir also addressed the current worldwide crises (of governance, economy, and finance), pointing out that rebellions are now occurring everywhere, from Wall Street to Tokyo, including of course the Arab Spring. Equally as significant, what he described as the moral failure of the west, which is evidenced by its inability to regulate gains (rampant greed) and its disregard for the need of the people. He saw in this an opportunity for the west and the Islamic world to learn from each other: the west can really benefit from the Islamic principles of economy and finance (the status of money in the Islamic philosophy, the principles of investments, risks, and gains, etc.), while the Muslim world can learn a lot from the more rigorous methods of management and administration in the (sound) functioning of most companies and institutions.
Prof. El-Baz presented a project he is proposing for Egypt, which consists in building a North-South corridor parallel to the Nile, to draw the population away from the river and its fertile lands, as the continuous and large increase in the country’s population (to increase by 60 million over the next 40 years) is eating up the agricultural lands with building, factories, and roads. It’s an ambitious transformative project; he showed that a similar large-triangle project of highways was built by India, largely helping its development with the transportation of goods, and a similar, though much smaller one was proposed for the West Bank in Palestine. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian project will be adopted and implemented.
Last but not least, Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman gave a stunning presentation, essentially highlighting his achievements over the past decade as the minister of education and advisor to the prime minister for science and technology. He also in passing referred to the awards he has received from prestigious institutions around the world, including the Royal Society and the State of Austria (highest medal) for those achievements. The biographical note in the program also referred to his scientific achievements (798 publications in organic chemistry, 15 patents, 99 books, 59 chapters in books, etc.).
Most importantly, he showed some impressive numbers: salaries of Pakistan university professors now (at over $5,000 a month) being five times higher than those of federal ministers; linkage between Pakistani universities and top western institutions increases (by factors of around 50), helping seven Pakistani universities climb to the top-500 list (of the Times); initiating a $1 billion program to train 11,000 bright students at top laboratories in the west, including 5,000 students at the PhD level, etc.
The afternoon session was devoted to the history of Islamic science and was no less interesting, with the following talks: “Muslim Contribution and the Turning Points in the History of Classical Mathematics” by Prof. Roshdi Rashed, Emeritus Research Director, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Center for History of Arabic and Medieval Sciences and Philosophy, University of Paris, France; “Discoveries in the Islamic World” by Prof. Ahmed Djebbar, Professor Emeritus, University of Science and Technology, Lille, France; “Unravelling the Mystery of the Decline of Islamic Science: Key Projections on Today’s World” by Prof. George Saliba, Columbia University, USA; and “Ibn al-Haytham’s Contributions to European Civilization” by Prof. Charles Falco, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA.
I will report on this session in my next post.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On minorities and a reality show about American-Muslims

by Salman Hameed

First, just a tip to a fascinating article in today's NYT about the tension in the US between being more inclusive of different groups but also being tolerant of economic disparities:
It's a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.
At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.
The two shifts are each huge and hugely important: one shows a steady march toward democratic inclusion, the other toward a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
The United States prides itself on the belief that “anyone can be president,” and what better example than Barack Obama, son of a black Kenyan immigrant and a white American mother — neither of them rich.
And yet more than half the presidents over the past 110 years attended Harvard, Yale or Princeton and graduates of Harvard and Yale have had a lock on the White House for the last 23 years, across four presidencies. Thus we have become both more inclusive and more elitist.
It’s a surprising contradiction. Is the confluence of these two movements a mere historical accident? Or are the two trends related?
And here is the key comparison with European countries in balancing economic inequality versus inclusion of minorities:
Other nations seem to face the same challenge: either inclusive, or economically just. Europe has maintained much more economic equality but is struggling greatly with inclusiveness and discrimination, and is far less open to minorities than is the United States.
European countries have done a better job of protecting workers’ salaries and rights but have been reluctant to extend the benefits of their generous welfare state to new immigrants who look and act differently from them. Could America’s lost enthusiasm for income redistribution and progressive taxation be in part a reaction to sharing resources with traditionally excluded groups?
“I do think there is a trade-off between inclusion and equality,” said Gary Becker, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate. “I think if you are a German worker you are better off than your American equivalent, but if you are an immigrant, you are better off in the U.S.”
Read this interesting analysis here.

While on the subject of minorities, TLC has an interesting reality about American Muslims coming up in November. It is called All-American Muslims and it will follow five American Muslim families for eight episodes. From the trailer it looks like they have an interesting mix of people and may help break some stereotypes. Here is the trailer:

Read more about the show here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Saturday Video: NOVA's "Finding Life Beyond Earth"

by Salman Hameed

As promised, here is the full video of the recently aired NOVA show, Finding Life Beyond Earth". There are some nice simulations in the show. The trip to Titan at the start of the show is fantastic. But I think they should have spend more time on Mars piecing together all the evidence for water - though the methane angle was good and well done.

Here is the video,  but also check out the NOVA website for supplementary material to go with this episode:

Watch Finding Life Beyond Earth on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Commentary for Earth Magazine on Muslims and Evolutionary biology

by Salman Hameed

I have a commentary on Muslims, age of the Earth and the acceptance of evolutionary biology in the latest issue of Earth magazine. This is primarily for the US audience, so there is emphasis on the fact that young creationism - the variant so common in the US - is actually completely missing in the Muslim world. In fact, the acceptance of an old earth opens up the possibility for the acceptance of the change of species - especially for those who really appreciate the length of time since the formation of the Earth (4.5 billion years). Here are couple paragraphs that deal with biological evolution, but to get the full context, please read the full article:
It’s no secret that many of the protests and rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East this year have been dominated by globally connected, young, educated Muslims. One of the stated goals of many of these young people is improving the science and technology programs in their countries. They understand that to compete in the global marketplace, strong science and technology programs are necessary. That bodes well for these countries’ futures. But there are still threats to the scientific futures of these nations — including the quiet but growing population of people who reject the principles of evolution. 
Although the acceptance of an old Earth allows for the possibility of biological changes in species over long periods, the not-so-good news is that many in the Muslim world don’t accept that biological evolution occurs. It may in fact be the vast majority of Muslims who reject human evolution outright. Only a few studies have addressed this question, but the results suggest that the rejection of human evolution in the Muslim world is much higher than in the U.S. 
Contrary to what we in the U.S. might think, though, there is no single Muslim position regarding biological evolution. In fact, high school biology textbooks in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, include evolution as a fact of science. Furthermore, in 2007, the science foundations from 14 Muslim majority countries endorsed a statement in support of common descent and biological evolution of species, including humans. Of course, as we have seen in the U.S., endorsement from national science foundations does not necessarily translate into widespread acceptance of evolution.
At issue in the Muslim world are the many misconceptions about evolution. For some, the word “evolution” and the name “Darwin” are both associated with atheism — a notion that Muslims reject vociferously. For others, evolutionary theory accounts for the origin of life — an idea that many reserve for the domain of God. And of course, one of the most common misconceptions is the view that “monkeys directly evolved into humans.” None of these misconceptions are specific to Muslims; indeed, most are common among creationists all over the world. 
But as the topic of evolution is just beginning to be discussed broadly in the Muslim world, scientists have a chance to get the right information out there and to resolve the misconceptions before they become increasingly ingrained. There already exists high interest in medicine, as well as fields such as biotechnology and biomedicine in much of the Muslim world. Principles of evolution are relevant to all of these areas, and educators and scientists can integrate the teaching of biological evolution (extending all the way to humans) with these practical applications and potential economic benefits. Because religion plays a central role in most Muslim societies, there also needs to be an explicit emphasis on the fact that an acceptance of evolution does not necessarily imply atheism.
You can read the full article here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Decision regarding the Solar telescope in Maui getting closer

by Salman Hameed

There are plans for a giant 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) to be built on top of Haleakala in Maui. This would be a significant improvement over the aging older solar telescopes and would indeed contribute enormously to our understanding of our closest star. But I have been quite apprehensive about this project (see an earlier post: Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new solar telescope?). This is going to be a huge structure. The construction is going to further strain relations with the native Hawaiian population as well as raise concerns about the damage to environment. The problem is that this kind of episode has played out on the neighboring Mauna Kea (see related posts here and here), and the result is observatories at the cost of years of delays, mistrusts, and lawsuits. But then Mauna Kea is one of the best places for optical and infrared astronomy - and may be one can argue that some of the insensitivity to cultural and environmental issues was worth it. But a solar telescope can indeed be built elsewhere. Light pollution is certainly not an issue. Stability of the atmosphere is important, but then there are places in New Mexico and Arizona that should be able to compete within a reasonable level. I really don't see the justification for ATST in face of opposition from the local groups. From last week's Nature:
Last December, more than seven years after the NSO chose the site, Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources gave permission to develop it. A group called Kilakila O Haleakala ('Majestic is Haleakala' in Hawaiian) has contested the decision. An endangered seabird, the Hawaiian petrel or 'ua'u (Pterodroma sandwichensis), nests near the proposed site. Furthermore, some Native Hawaiians say that the telescope's stark white enclosure — necessary to control heat-induced air currents within the scope's optical path — will scar a sacred area. But the telescope builders say they will do all they can to mitigate the impacts. Construction workers will limit vibrations that could collapse the petrels' burrows, and will receive 'sense of place' training to avoid culturally insensitive missteps. 
Honolulu-based lawyer Steven Jacobson, the arbiter appointed by the board to re-evaluate the permit, says that he will hand in his recommendation in the next week. NSO director Stephen Keil is cautiously optimistic that Jacobson will give the telescope the green light — although he has seen the process take plenty of detours before. "It keeps me awake every night," he says. "This is part of doing business in Hawaii."
Hmm...well, may be the reasons why this is "part of doing business in Hawaii" has something to do with the messy history of US takeover of the Hawaiian kingdom in the late 19th century, and then the crappy treatment of the local population. A recognition of this is essential for astronomers to gain respect in these matters - and ATST project in Maui, I think is not only unnecessary, but it is also insensitive. There have been efforts to include financial support for the local Hawaiian community in exchange for ATST. How much money? Well, $20 million over the next 10 years to train native Hawaiians in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Is it worth it? I don't know. I think the answer lies with those who are directly affected by ATST. But is Maui the only place in the US to build this particular telescope? This, I'm pretty sure is not the case, and comparable level of science is achievable from other locations. So may its time to move!

Also see:
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update 

Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tonight: Nova on Finding Life Beyond Earth

by Salman Hameed

The new NOVA episode is on tonight. Its on Finding Life Beyond Earth. Here is the preview, but I think full episode will also be available online. In any case, I will post it on Irtiqa this coming Saturday.

This is perfect timing as I'm co-teaching Astrobiology this semester with biochemist Jason Tor from Hampshire College and planetary geologist Darby Dyar from Mount Holyoke College. It has been a fun class so far. Just this past week we had a fascinating discussion over the work on the origins of life versus what we know about Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). What is fascinating is that the date for LUCA can be estimated from what we know about genes, and is now estimated to be between 3.9-4.1 billion years. Still, we don't have much idea about the path (and perhaps some dead-ends too) between the first life form and LUCA. Absolutely fascinating!

While on the subject, here is a bit from a NYT interview with the 2009 chemistry Nobel Laureate, Jack W. Szostak. He is currently working on the problem of origins of life. Here are the relevant parts of the interview and it will give you a flavor of how researchers think about these issues:

What do you study now? 
The origins of life. In my lab, we’re interested in the transition from chemistry to early biology on the early earth. Let’s go back to the early earth — let’s say probably some time within the first 500 million years. And let’s say the right chemistry that would make the building blocks of life has happened and you have the right molecules with which you can spark life. How did those chemicals get together and act something like a cell? You want something that can grow and divide and, most importantly, exhibit Darwinian evolution. The way that we study that is by trying to make it happen in the lab. We take simple chemicals and put them together in the right way. And we’re trying to build a very, very simple cell that might look like something that might have developed spontaneously on the early earth.
How far have you gotten?
Maybe I can say we’re halfway there.
We think that a primitive cell has to have two parts. First, it has to have a cell membrane that can be a boundary between itself and the rest of the earth. And then there has to be some genetic material, which has to perform some function that’s useful for the cell and get replicated to be inherited. The part we’ve come to understand reasonably well is the membrane part. The genetic material is the harder problem; the chemistry is just more complicated. The puzzle has been understanding how a molecule like RNA can get replicated before there were enzymes and all this fancy biological stuff, protein machinery, that we have now in our cells.
You’ve now been working on this problem for a quarter of a century. Do you ever grow weary of it?
No. No. Because this isn’t a monolithic question where there’s nothing interesting until you get to the end. In fact, the question breaks down into maybe a dozen smaller questions. Each has interesting parts. Eventually it will all fit together.
For instance, we’ve made progress on the question of how you make a primitive cell membrane. Others had showed how a common clay mineral, montmorillonite, might have played a role in helping to make RNA. Our lab showed how it could help membranes to form and bring the RNA into the membrane.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Abdus Salam in Pop Culture

by Salman Hameed

Abdus Salam is a big name in physics and Pakistan's only Nobel Laureate. But it is rare to hear his name in Pakistan. All of this because he belonged to the Ahmadi sect of Muslims - a sect whose discrimination is part of the Pakistani constitution since the 1970s.

There is a new music video out in Pakistan that is completely irreverent to the political and military establishment. And in it, it also manages to pay homage to Abdus Salam. Zakir Thaver, who has been working on a documentary of Abdus Salam, pointed me to this video and noted the usual lack of any reference of Abdus Salam in pop culture. So its great to see Salam's name showing up in here.

Here is the video, Aalo Anday. The references in the video are about different political and military leaders, along with a host of other perceptions common in Pakistan today. Unless, you are privy to the political happenings in Pakistan, it will be hard to get a handle on them (though, here is a helpful primer to these references). But for our purposes, the Salam mention is around 1:36.
[p.s. Two names mentioned and contrasted prior to Salam are those of Qadri and Kasab - responsible for the assassination of Governor of Punjab and the Mumbai attacks, respectively].

Now Pakistan has a long history of sharp political satire. But there is something about this video that makes its subversiveness more effective and biting.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Innovative and Environmentally Friendly Architecture

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 few weeks ago, Physics Today (a highly respected monthly magazine of the American Institute of Physics) published an article titled “A sustainable house in Tlemcen, Algeria” presenting an innovative and economically attractive architectural project.
The article was referring to a paper recently published in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy by energy physicist Mohammed El Amine Boukli Hacene, of Abou Bekr Belkaid University in Tlemcen, Algeria. The author presented the design of a model house which aims at reducing energy consumption, using renewable energy, and providing natural ventilation.
The house is to be built with cellulose wadding and flagstone within a wooden framework; it faces south to enable a maximum collection of solar energy (using heaters and photovoltaic cells).
The important energy savings are achieved by implementing the following ideas: a) wood's low thermal inertia, low construction cost, and low thermal transmission; b) double-glazed windows and airtight external doors to help increase insulation; c) solar-powered heaters photovoltaic cells; and d) ground cooling.
The proposed house is estimated to need no more than 15 kWh/m2/yr for its heating, with a total energy demand of about 50 kWh/m2/yr. This is less than a quarter of what a conventional house needs. Although building the house would cost more than a conventional one, the extra cost is estimated to be recovered in about ten years; in fact, in countries where fuel is much more expensive (say in southern Europe) but where solar energy is relatively abundant, this kind of project can prove to be extremely interesting.
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Also a few weeks ago, in a blog post on “Science and a politically assertive Turkey”, Salman mentioned an article on the first mosque in Turkey designed by a woman and posted a few nice pictures of the architectural design. (I particularly liked the mihrab.)
I would like to present a few other innovative plans for mosques to be erected in various places in the near future, while showing a few more pictures (or artist’s impressions) of those.
1.  The Mosque in King Abdullah Financial District
The architectural plan for this mosque was produced by the New York-based firm FXFOWLE; it won an award and much praise at various architectural competitions and professional venues. The mosque is to serve the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and it is supposed to integrate the business, social, and religious activities of the community in the district.
The structure is covered with white marble (a simple of purity), and it is surrounded on all four sides by water; the interior is then accessed through “floating walkways”. The modern geometry (note the absence of a dome, in particular) makes it fit seamlessly into the business district’s environment, while the water sets it apart. Do also note the neat minaret…

In times when Germany is turning away from nuclear energy and toward renewable forms, the proposed eco-friendly mosque in Norderstedt, near Hamburg, has been hailed for its innovativeness and environmental and economic attractiveness. Indeed, the plan proposes to put two wind turbines on top of the two tall minarets and hence use wind energy to power the mosque, reducing by one third the typical cost of such a building. The mosque is proposed to be 1300 square meters large and would cost some 2.5 million euros to build.

3.  An Islamic center in Mulhouse, France
This ambitious Islamic center proposes to include all of the following facilities: a large prayer hall, a multi-purpose room, a media library, an exposition hall, a reception room, ten classrooms, a children’s learning playroom, a computer room, a gym, a swimming pool, a sauna, a Jacuzzi, and a traditional “hammam” (Turkish bath). And in order to help the project achieve financial independence, the plan also calls for a minimarket, a halal-meat butchery, a travel agency, a hair salon, and more.
The project is estimated to cost 11.2 million euros. Almost half of that is reported to have been raised. It is hoped that the center will be completed and ready to open for Ramadan (July) 2012.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Saturday Video: Wilco on Theologians

by Salman Hameed

Okay so its is a bit of a stretch to include Wilco here. But then, they are really good, and I can justify the post by including their (or at least Jeff Tweedy's) views on theologians. They have a new album out called, The Whole Love. Some of the new songs are outstanding (two are below including the fantastic opening track, Art of Almost), but then there are also ho-hum songs on this album (unusual for a Wilco). The reviews, though, are outstanding. For example, here is NPR gushing over the new album. Wilco is a great live band - and it is always a treat to watch them play.

So here are couple of their live performances. First, Theologians, from their A Ghost is Born album from a few years ago:

And then here two songs from the new album, The Whole Love, both performed at the David Letterman Show. Here is Art of Almost (and be patient to listen to the full 7 minutes):

And then for a relatively smoother ride, Dawned on Me

Friday, October 14, 2011

Astronomy takes over World Space Week in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

This year's World Space Week was from Oct 4-10th. Since amateur astronomy in Pakistan has been getting stronger and stronger, it is no surprise that it dominated the proceedings of International Space Week also. The celebrations also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the formation of Pakistan's space agency Suparco (Space and Upper Atmospheric Commission). In the mid-80s, we had a had a chance to use some of the 8 and 14-inch telescopes owned by the space agency. Today, there a number of amateur astronomers in Pakistan that have larger telescopes than owned by Suparco, and I think that says a lot about both the rise of amateur astronomy, and the agency being more or less stuck in a rut.

Nevertheless, here are couple of pictures of public viewing organized by Karachi Astronomers Society (KaAS), followed by some pictures of the 10th Falakyati Mela (astrofest) organized jointly by Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS) and Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). They have pretty much perfected the art of this now!

Okay - so yes there are lot of lights here. But then, this is Karachi after all. Oh wait. Wouldn't this have been a good time for some load-shedding?? Also, read this coverage in Pakistan Express Tribune and interviews with some astronomers from Karachi. And as usual, crowd shows up, if you want to do something.

And here are couple of pictures from the 10th Falakyati mela at a school in Kot Radha Kishan, located about 60km south of Lahore. They have been able to attract fantastic crowds of all ages and have been doing a great of job bringing astronomy to places away from the urban centers.

Wait a minute: Is Umair Asim singing here? that would be interesting :).

Fantastic! Keep up the good work.

Also see related posts:
Here is a young telescope builder from Pakistan...
Telescopes versus Terrorism in Pakistan

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Is hair archaeological or biological? Ethical issues with new Australian Aboriginal DNA study

by Salman Hameed

There is a fascinating new study out that shows that there were two waves of original human immigration to Asia. The Aboriginal Australians are descendants of the first wave, about 62,000-75,000 years ago, whereas, most modern Asians are linked to the second wave about 25,000-38,000 years ago. Fascinatingly, this was found by sequencing the DNA from a 100-year old lock of hair donated by an Aboriginal Australian. While there was a considerable effort was made by researchers to seek permission of Godfields Land and Sea Council, a body based in Southern Australia that represents Aboriginals living in the area where the original lock of hair was collected.

Nevertheless, this raises a number of issues (from Nature):
The study also raises broader consent issues over body parts of indigenous people held in museums, says Kowal. Many collections are returning bones to these groups, but the British Museum in London, for instance, generally excludes hair and nails from its repatriation policy. Such specimens are a valuable tool for studying the genomes of people from around the world, including populations that no longer exist, argues Willerslev.
So who has the authority to give permission for such genetic investigations? Furthermore, it changes the ethical dimensions may appear to change if the specimen is considered archaeological rather than biological. For example, a Danish bioethical review board didn't think it was necessary to review the hair-lock study as this was an archaeological specimen. To their credit, the researchers still went the extra mile to seek permissions from the relevant populations. But that will not always be the case, and it is essential to create some firm guidelines on this.

This issue is important and it comes up often with Native Americans in the US. Here are some earlier posts on the topic:
Disputes over Native American Remains
Blood Samples Back to Yanomamo
Havasupai Tribe and the Ethics of DNA Research
Skeletal Remains and the Issue of Cultural Affiliation

Monday, October 10, 2011

Review of John Freely’s “Light from the East: How the Science of Medieval Islam Helped to Shape the Western World”

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.

Gulf News, the English daily with the largest circulation in the Gulf, this past Friday published my review of John Freely’s book on Islamic science (the scientific tradition and the contributions of scientists during the Islamic classical era).
Before I give you some excerpts from it, I would like to make a remark: in the text I sent to the editor, I used the expression “Arabic-Islamic civilization” but the editor replaced it with the usual “Arab-Islamic civilization”. This may seem like splitting hairs, but since a large majority of the great scholars of that era were not Arabs, though most of their works were written in Arabic, it seems to me rather more appropriate to refer to it as Arabic-Islamic. In fact, George Saliba refers to it only as “Arabic Science/Astronomy”, but since I think the civilization stemmed from and was really rooted in Islam, and its scholarship was oftentimes affected by Islam (one way or another), I think it may best to include both the “Arabic” and “Islamic” adjectives (though I sometimes use “Arab-Islamic” from a habit of mind). Anyway, just wanted to mention that "little" issue.
Here are a few paragraphs from that review:
Freely is a kind of “renaissance man”: he is an American physicist, teacher, and author of 40 popular history, science, and travel books, three of them in the last two years; he has lived in Turkey for the past 50 years (he is now 85 years old).
His previous book attempted a grand narrative of the history of science, starting from the earliest Greek tradition and reaching all the way to the modern times, devoting about a third of the book to the Islamic era. In the present work, save for a few preliminary chapters and one on the modern times at the end, he is almost entirely focused on Islamic science. He tends to be rather encyclopedic and meticulous, describing as accurately as possible the contributions of all the main figures of the scientific tradition of Islam. And while there is rarely an insightful exploration of the socio-religious and political factors that led to a rise here or a decline there, he does give readers an excellent and up-to-date account of what scholars know today about this period of history and science. Most importantly, if one reads carefully, one finds interspersed remarks about various achievements or direct/indirect influences on the west that Muslim scholars should but are rarely credited with.
In many of these cases, Freely points out that knowledge that is often attributed to western scientists either was transmitted and at most was refined, or was known to the Muslims and was rediscovered by Europeans many centuries later.
The author ends his book on a positive note: “But now at least [Muslim scientists’] accomplishments are being recognised, as the heritage of Islamic technology and science is being rediscovered and exhibited in libraries and museums around the world.”
You can read the whole review here.
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