Thursday, March 31, 2011

Science & Religion Lecture today! "Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle"


A quick note as things are a bit crazy here (I have just returned from a fantastic meeting in London - and will have a post on it soon). In the mean time, here is a reminder that we have our Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture by archaeologist John Hale today at 5:30pm. If you are in the area, join us in exploring the mysteries of the Delphic oracle. Here are the details:


Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle
Ancient Religion, Modern Science
by
Dr. John R. Hale

Thursday, March 31, 2011
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College


Abstract:
The Delphic Oracle was the most influential religious site in the ancient Greek world.  Speaking from a tripod in a crypt under the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the priestess called the Pythia acted as a medium for the god, and spoke the divine prophecies while in a state of trance or possession.  The testimony of eye-witnesses linked the oracle's prophetic power to geological features in the rock under the temple: a mysterious chasm or cleft, a natural vapor or gaseous emission, and a sacred spring.  Although long doubted by modern scholars, these ancient traditions have recently been put to the test by an interdisciplinary team of researchers -- a geologist, an archaeologist, a chemist, and a toxocologist -- with surprising results.


Dr. John R. Hale received his Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 1979. He has conducted fieldwork in England, Scandinavia, Portugal, Greece and the Ohio River Valley, and is currently director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville, where he is studying such diverse subjects as ancient ships and naval warfare, and the geological origins of the Delphic Oracle. Professor Hale's work has been published in Scientific American, Antiquity, The Classical Bulletin, and the Journal of Roman Archaeology.


For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit http://scienceandreligion.hampshire.edu/

Monday, March 28, 2011

Islam & Environment: Conference and Book


This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
The theme of “Islam and the Environment” has recently gained much popularity, both at the general-public level and with Muslim scholars and institutions. Many conferences on the topic have been taking place: in Turkey in 2009, in Indonesia and in Jordan in 2010, and in Algeria over the next few days; in fact, I am headed to Algeria to take part in the latest one, organized by the High Islamic Council there. Several books have also been published, in Arabic and English (and quite certainly in other languages too), among them, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin’s ‘Green Deen: what Islam teaches about protecting the planet’, which Salman blogged about last December, with excerpts from an interview with the author.
I really don’t know what to expect at the Algiers conference on Islam and the Environment; I don’t even have the program yet. I am told an international ensemble of speakers will be present, and this type of conference is always heavily covered by the local media (being organized by the highly official High Islamic Council). I will report back later on the main themes and highlights; hopefully there will be some serious discussions, not the usual “Islam is great on this issue, and the only problem is that we are not following its teachings” type of discourse. As always, my presentation will be somewhat critical, but I’ll save my views until I’ve attended and listened to others.
In the meantime, I tried to do my homework, so I read a couple of book and a bunch of articles on the topic, including two books in English: ‘Green Deen’ and ‘Islam and the Environment’, a volume edited by Harfiyah Abdel Haleem, including contributions by scholars like Seyyed H. Nasr.
As a bi-product of my research, I published a review of ‘Green Deen’ in Gulfnews, the large-circulation English-language newspaper in the UAE and the Gulf. The editors chose to title the piece “Islamic route to conservation”. Here are excerpts from it:
The author quickly reminds us that "deen" is the Arabic/Islamic term for religion, path or way of life, thus "green deen" is "living and practicing Islam while honouring the principles that connect humans to protecting the planet". He insists that he is not a scholar and that his book is not a treatment of how the Quran and the hadith address our interaction with Earth (although I counted more than 30 verses in the book), but presents the Islamic principles which, in his view, (should) govern our day-to-day relationship with the world: tawhid, which he defines as "Oneness of God and His creation"; ayat, the signs of God that are to be seen everywhere; khilafah, humanity's stewardship of Earth; amana, the trust we must honour with God; adl, the justice we must apply to everything; and mizan, the balance of nature we must uphold.
Abdul-Matin then sets out to apply these principles to various environmental topics, always relating them to people's day-to-day situations, often telling stories of how Muslims in the United States have been dealing with such issues. The book is thus divided into four parts — waste, watts, water and food — each with three or four chapters.
On some topics he [was] very effective but on others I was not totally satisfied with his approach…
Let me mention some of the great ideas that Abdul-Matin presents. Most notably, there was the whole "eco-mosque" idea… On each topic the author cites real examples, thus driving home the point that these steps can be (and have been) implemented and made to succeed. For example, he tells us that the holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah recycle water for wudu (ablution), Muslim scholars having authorised it, and important mosques from Arizona to Indonesia have been designed to be environmentally friendly.
I was less convinced by other views of the author, particularly his tendency to oversimplify some Islamic principles to make them applicable to the environment. For example, he has stretched the concept of tawhid to "human beings and the planet are One [tawhid]" (page 43), "we are the environment [tawhid]" (page 114) and "everything has a relationship with water" (page 118) … Likewise, he has used the hadith "the whole earth has been made a mosque for me" to insist that "everything is [thus] sacred".
You can read the whole review here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why do we react negatively to cloning humans?

by Salman Hameed

Human cloning is so far a fictional question only. Though, Raelians - a UFO religion, did claim to have cloned a human baby in December 2002, but most people treat their claim with skepticism. Nevertheless, there is general feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong for humans to clone themselves or to artificially create humans. Of course, the creation of Frankenstein is the first image that comes to mind. But these definitions of "artificial" are changing fast. For example  in vitro fertilization (IVF) is now mainstream - and I don't think many people have serious problems with that (yes, with the exception of the Pope).

Now here is review of a fascinating new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball, that looks at the origins of our reaction to artificially created humans. Interestingly, it even raises the possibility that human cloning may get accepted as mainstream (I'm not sure if it is advocating this position - but it is certainly taking the idea seriously). It looks like a great out-of-the-box thinking book. Here is a review from Nature (you may need subscription to access it):

In Unnatural, science writer Philip Ball explores the history of our fascination with — and fear of — creating artificial people, from ancient folklore to today. Tracing a clear path from medieval alchemists' homunculi to routine assisted conception is a feat. Through his impeccable research, Ball successfully argues that the tenacious myths of the past that surround the making of people or 'anthropoeia' (his coinage) affect life-science research today.
Ball traces the concept that nature is good and techne is bad back to Aesop's and Ovid's Prometheus, maker of humanity from earth and water, and provider of technology to man. After Prometheus came recipes for making miniature humans called homunculi. Starting in the Middle Ages, initially as a cure for childlessness, the art of homunculi-making evolved into a debate over whether the miniscule men had a soul. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's nineteenth-century poetic play Faust raises this spectre. Deploying the biological equivalent of alchemy, Faust's former assistant, Wagner, creates his homunculus: a tiny super-being with magical powers who is trapped in a glass vessel, doomed to remain captive without the capacity to become a proper man. In 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, appropriately subtitled 'The Modern Prometheus', in which her eponymous scientist unintentionally constructs a monster, by unexplained means, from human parts. There are also golems — the animated beings of Jewish folklore, made from clay and brought to life by religious magic for the purpose of imitating God's creation.
Ball distills out of all this a set of universal myths surrounding anthropoeia that are deeply ingrained in society, resulting in the widely held view that artificial people-making is unnatural and deeply wrong — heretical, as in the book's subtitle. His thesis is that humans fear that uncovering forbidden knowledge will result in either divine or other retribution. Prometheus, Faust and Frankenstein all pay a heavy price for their transgressions into anthropoeia. Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty.
But his point is that we are getting to a place where some aspects of 'anthropoeia' (I do like this new word...) are becoming reality - and yet a well-informed debate has not taken place. In particular
As scientific knowledge accumulates and makes some acts of anthropoeia more and more plausible, the challenge for the public will be to separate fact from fiction. For example, Ball ends his literary tour with Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. In 1931, the book's in vitro production of embryos in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre was pure conjecture by Huxley, based on the scientific forecasts of his day. Today, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is mainstream medicine — more than four million babies have been born using this technique. But the technology still has its critics, including within the Vatican. On the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to IVF pioneer Robert Edwards, Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, stated that the award was “completely out of order”, as without IVF there would be no market for human eggs “and there would not be a large number of freezers filled with embryos in the world”.
...
The challenge for innovative biological research is that, until it translates into real benefits, it is often viewed with mistrust and worse-case scenario imagery. In reality, once products and services are released into society, they are adopted by a few enthusiasts and then, if successful, by the wider community. In the 1970s, for example, anxieties were rife about the unfounded threat that IVF posed to human welfare and dignity, let alone whether a test-tube baby could ever be wholly human. Yet the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was just like everyone else, so IVF became socially acceptable. We cannot predict whether human cloning will proceed in the same manner, so the past is our only pointer.

Absolutely fascinating. As far as some recent relevant films on the topic are concerned, check out the post on the excellent film "Moon" from 2009 and Splice from last year. Of course, you can also watch countless other films on this theme. By the way, Danny Boyle is directing Frankenstein for National Theater Live - and it looks phenomenal. It will be shown in movie theaters as well. I will have a post on it after I have a chance to see it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Video: The Tree of Life by David Attenborough

by Salman Hameed

One of the key misconceptions regarding evolution lies in visualizing diversity of life as a ladder - with humans on top. The correct way is to think of life as a branching tree, with humans occupying one of the multitude of branches. Here is a fantastic display of the tree of life by David Attenborough:



Enjoy!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Can Google be used to predict political unrest?

Nidhal had a post last month on Statistical Analysis to Predict the Next Revolution(s). Well...today's NPR had an interesting story of using Google Trends to predict what is going on in a country. In talking about Egypt its says:
"Google Trends allows us to get a sense of atmospherics," Koehler-Derrick says. "There are approximately 16 million Internet users in Egypt. Now, this is undoubtedly a demographic that is biased toward younger people. If you put Google's market share at 10 percent, which I think is absurdly low, then that is 1.6 million users that we have essentially surveyed for 30 days."
He and Goldstein searched Google using Arabic because that would better measure what locals are interested in. Using the search term "Tunis," they wanted to see how many Egyptians were following the demonstrations in Tunisia. They compared the number of Google searches for "Tunis" with the number of Google searches for pop stars in Egypt.
"Typically, as I think you'd find in the United States, pop stars trump almost any search you can think of," Koehler-Derrick says. "But the search for Tunis prior to the demonstrations that kicked off in late January were surprisingly high."
Wait a minute. Even a small Charlie Sheen rant can throw all this statistics out the window. Now this particular story is mostly about intelligence. But it also mentioned this fascinating use of Google Trends for predicting pandemics:
Google Trends is basically a way of looking at what people are focusing on by mapping out their Google searches. Marketing firms have been using Google Trends for some time. The government has, too. Back in 2009, during the swine flu epidemic in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health used Google Flu Trends to track outbreaks of the disease.
It turns out that when people started to feel feverish and nauseous, they would go to Google to check out their symptoms. While it wasn't a perfect indicator, Google Flu Trends often beat government predictions about flu outbreaks by a week or more. Imagine using the Internet to do the same thing in predicting political unrest.
Fascinating! I don't know how robust these connections are, nevertheless, this is really interesting.

Listen to the full story here.

(Added Mar 26: Here is the link to Google Flu Trends. Thanks - Emre)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle" - Science & Religion Lecture on March 31st at Hampshire College


As part of our Science & Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire College, we have archaeologist John R. Hale as our speaker on March 31st (next Thursday). He will be talking about the Delphic Oracle, and how science has unearthed information about ancient religious practice (actually - the discovery that he is going to talk about is quite fascinating). Yes, this topic also falls under the broad category of science & religion. Often times, science & religion issues are only seen through the narrow lens of origin debates. But there are many other facets - and this is a fantastic example. By the way, Dr. John Hale also has couple of Teaching Company courses. Last year I listened to Exploring the Roots of Religion, and it was very good.

If you are in the area, please join us at the talk next week. Here is the full announcement and abstract for the talk:


Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle
Ancient Religion, Modern Science
by
Dr. John R. Hale

Thursday, March 31, 2011
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College


Abstract:
The Delphic Oracle was the most influential religious site in the ancient Greek world.  Speaking from a tripod in a crypt under the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the priestess called the Pythia acted as a medium for the god, and spoke the divine prophecies while in a state of trance or possession.  The testimony of eye-witnesses linked the oracle's prophetic power to geological features in the rock under the temple: a mysterious chasm or cleft, a natural vapor or gaseous emission, and a sacred spring.  Although long doubted by modern scholars, these ancient traditions have recently been put to the test by an interdisciplinary team of researchers -- a geologist, an archaeologist, a chemist, and a toxocologist -- with surprising results.


Dr. John R. Hale received his Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 1979. He has conducted fieldwork in England, Scandinavia, Portugal, Greece and the Ohio River Valley, and is currently director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville, where he is studying such diverse subjects as ancient ships and naval warfare, and the geological origins of the Delphic Oracle. Professor Hale's work has been published in Scientific American, Antiquity, The Classical Bulletin, and the Journal of Roman Archaeology.


For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit http://scienceandreligion.hampshire.edu/

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Check out "The Incident at Tower 37"

Here is a fantastic short animated film, The Incident at Tower 37, made by my colleague Chris Perry at Hampshire College. What is amazing is that he made this film in collaboration with students in a number of his classes. He has a special knack of teaching project-based courses - and this is perhaps his finest example. Just check out its animation and the fantastic story telling. This movie has also been screened at numerous film festivals, including at last year's Imagine Science Film Festival. Very cool!

Here is the short film (it is about 10 minutes long): 

A new e-book: Revolution in the Arab World

By Salman Hameed


Things in the Middle East are still in turmoil. I'm sure everyone is getting a tutorial on the complexity of local politics. Bahrain, Yemen, Syria - all with very different types of uprisings, and none similar to Tunisia and Egypt. And then, of course, you have Gadhafi and his unique brand of brutal craziness. Nidhal and I have written multiple posts here on Tunisia and Egypt (for example, see On the use of social media in the uprisings in the Middle East, Statistical analysis to predict the next revolution(s), How important is the internet in Tunisia uprising?

During all this, I have been following articles and blogs on Foreign Policy Magazine. They present an interesting analysis (some from US perspective and some more general), and now they have a special report (an e-book), Revolution in the Arab World, that collects some of their articles related to the uprisings from the past year. What? Past year? Actually the first section of the book is quite interesting and it looks at the rumblings of the revolutions in the months preceding the Tunisia uprising.

I think this is a fantastic way to take advantage of e-publishing. This book is timely and provides a nice guide to the current politics in the region. Here is a short blurb:

Where did this wave of anger come from? Why did it begin in Tunisia, and what does it mean? FP's special report starts with a revelatory first chapter that shows how the revolutionary rumblings were ignored, dating back to Issandr El Amrani's prescient warning to Barack Obama in January 2010: Egypt, he wrote, could be the ticking time bomb that overwhelms your international agenda. The coverage also includes a dramatic day-by-day retelling of the battle to hold Tahrir Square, insider accounts of Washington's flip-flopping and struggle to keep up with events, and some of the world’s leading authors and experts, from James Traub to Gary Sick to Robert D. Kaplan, on where we go from here.
Consider it a guidebook for these revolutionary times. 
You can find the table of contents here. You can buy it here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Atoms and Eden" - a brief presentation

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 have a little dilemma with regard to the recent book titled ‘Atoms & Eden: Conversations on Science & Religion’; this is due to the fact that I am one of the twenty interviewees in this book on Science and Religion, which I have been reading and finding totally delightful and enlightening.
Indeed, when Steve Paulson, the author, asked me if I would agree to having the interview he had done with me almost two years ago included in his book, I felt flattered and humbled to be included among the following scholars and thinkers: E.O. Wilson, Francis Collins, Sam Harris, Karen Armstrong, Andrew Newberg, John Haught, Richard Dawkins, Simon Conway-Morris, Ronald Numbers, Alan Wallace, Daniel Dennett, Ken Wilber,  Robert Wright, Elaine Pagels, Rebecca Goldstein & Steven Pinker, Paul Davies, Steven Weinberg, Stuart Kauffman, and Jane Goodall.
It’s a terrific collection of interviews, hence unsurprisingly published by Oxford University Press. And Paulson is not only a very smart and skillful interviewer, he tells us in a long introduction and in a short epilogue what he has learned in this long exercise of grappling with Science and Religion issues and thinkers.
Steve Paulson is an executive producer at Wisconsin Public Radio; he has an excellent nationally syndicated radio program, “To the Best of Our Knowledge.” But perhaps more important, at least in this regard, is the fact that he received a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion, whereby he spent a few weeks in Cambridge (UK) in a seminar of lectures and discussions with important figures of the Science & Religion domain, after which he was asked to produce some piece of work (long article, radio program, or other), and this book was the culmination of his exploration.
The interviewees cover the widest spectrum of positions and expertise that one could think of: Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslim, agnostics, atheists, and some whose perspectives would be very difficult to categorize; the scientific disciplines that are covered are also very wide: evolutionary biology, quantum physics, cosmology, neuroscience; and likewise for the other fields of human thought and scholarship: theology, history, sociology, etc.
Paulson tells us that he considers himself “both skeptical and open-minded”, to all kinds of ideas and theories (from strict materialism to reincarnation), though he constantly tries to poke holes in all of them. And, speaking from experience, I can testify that he gives his interviewees a respectful but fair shake, asking questions of both personal and intellectual nature, following up answers with tough critiques, trying to get to the bottom of his guest’s thoughts.
There are many very interesting issues raised through these interviews: the concept of God, of course (and readers will be surprised at how even theistic thinkers have such a subtle and soft view of God); the question of purpose (of the universe, of human life); the experience of mystics; Gould’s NOMA (simplistic and outmoded?); and the very meaning and nature of religion…
There are also a number of striking surprises in many of the interviews, though I feel reluctant to give too many away; I’ll just mention a few: Sam Harris (the staunch atheist and extreme critic of Christianity and Islam) does not rule out life (of the mind) after death as well as paranormal phenomena (e.g. telepathy); Karen Armstrong considers the belief in a personal God overly simplistic and is agnostic about the afterlife; John Haught (Roman Catholic theologian) does not believe God violates any laws of nature when/if He acts in the world, and that in fact after Darwin and Einstein our conception of God needs to be revised… And there are also some dialogues and rebuttals between the interviewees, both explicitly and implicitly.
So, going beyond my personal bias, I wish to warmly recommend this very nice book; it is the easiest and nicest way to go over the whole spectrum of Science & Religion views and debates, next to taking a full course on the subject. I hope you’ll trust my assessment as objective and my recommendation as detached.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Blogging from Pakistan: New Rock Star Authors!

Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid

By Salman Hameed

Pakistan's literature is booming right now. Even better, some of these authors - "Pak-Lit Pack" - are also getting the attention they deserve. I recently had a post about the special edition of Granta that was dedicated to writers from Pakistan. Even issues pertinent to science & religion have featured some of the writings. For example, one of the featured writers in Granta, Uzma Aslam Khan, wrote Geometry of God, where the story involves the discovery of Pakicetus - a key transitional link between land mammals and whales (see an earlier post: Whales and the Geometry of God). Oh - and sorry creationists. Whales are mammals and scientists are finding out more and more about how and when some mammal species transitioned back to water - and some of the key fossils have been found in Pakistan. 

Couple of days ago, I was visiting a coffee shop in Karachi and saw a large magazine with the cover blaring "Pakistan's New Rock Star Authors!!!". This was the March issue of Xpose - a "fashion and lifestyle" magazine. Much of the issue was dedicated to Karachi Literature Festival that was held in early February and organized by the British Council and Oxford University Press. I've heard that the festival was fantastic and I hope to time one of my visits to Pakistan around the festival time.

In any case, it is delightful that authors are being treated as rock stars. I think it would be great to organize a Pakistan science festival also. One problem I see is that, instead of science, it will be overrun by pseudo science of a) people claiming to find science in the Quran, b) minions of Harun Yahya and Zakir Naik pretending to be scientific, and c) astrology and other new-agey science. Perhaps, just like the literature, we will have to wait for the maturation of science in the public conscience. A festival hijacked by these pseudosciences will be even more detrimental than having no festival at all. I think amateur astronomy in Pakistan is at this threshold. There are sizable number of people doing serious astronomy. But, at present, I don't see a window for a science festival free of the pseudosciences. May be in a few years! Or may be in Sharjah or Cairo? But this could have a good impact on the society - as long as we keep the pseudosciences out.

In the mean time - we can perhaps all read some good Pakistani literature. For starters, read "Granta" issue on Pakistan here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Video: NOVA - Becoming Human Part 1: First Steps

By Salman Hameed

I'm starting up a weekly post that will include a video loosely related to the topic of science and religion (of course, with room for flexibility). So if its Saturday, you can tune in here to see a video of something relevant to the topic. The clips will range from 5 minutes to an hour.

Since Nidhal's post What Makes Us Human generated a long discussion, I thought I'll start with this topic. PBS-Nova is a fantastic series - perhaps the best that is out there regarding science. Recently it did an excellent 3-part series on Becoming Human. Here is Part 1 - First Steps:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

SETI talk at T2F on Friday evening

By Salman Hameed

T2F is one of my favorite locations to give public talks. I love the atmosphere and the audience interaction is always exciting (see my 2009 post on it here). I will be there to give a talk on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) tomorrow (Friday, March 18th) at 7pm. You can find more details here. This will be my third Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique) talk at T2F - and I'm looking forward to it.

My talk will focus on the implications of the detection of an ET signal. This was also a topic recently discussed at the AAAS meeting (I still owe a post on that), and something that I find fascinating to think about (and have strong opinions about it :)). Plus, I'm teaching Aliens - Close Encounters of a Multi-Disciplinary Kind this semester (pdf syllabus here) - and so this talk is a good prep for me!

Here is the abstract of the talk:
What will be the impact on society if we detect a clear signal from an ET civilization?
Planets, planets everywhere … Just fifteen years ago, humans had confirmed detections of planets only in our solar system. Today, the number of candidate planets is pushing over fifteen hundred – with some located in the ‘habitable zone’. However, so far, there has been no confirmed detection of a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence. What if we detect an unambiguous signal from an alien intelligence? What will be its impact on society, culture, and religion? While we may not be able to say much about alien sociology, we can certainly take a stab at guessing the reaction of our fellow human beings. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pakistani satire site fools Fox News: "Islamic ban on padded bras"?


By Salman Hameed

Okay - this is hilarious and serves Fox News perfectly. They are so fixated on demonizing Muslims that they fell for an Onion-style Pakistani satire site, Roznama Jawani (tip from Zakir Thaver). From Salon:
Fox News website has picked up a hoax story about an Islamic council in Pakistan protesting the use of padded and colorful bras and presented it as fact.
The story, which is still featured on Fox News' Fox Nation website, was illustrated with a picture of a woman's mid-section and carried the headline "Pakistan: Islamic Clerics Protest Women Wearing Padded Bras as 'Devil’s Cushions.'" (UPDATE 9:30: Fox has now pulled the story. See the original here.) The lead of the Fox Nation story, which sources the piece to the Indian news website sify.com, reads:
The Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan has protested the use of padded and colourful bras by Muslim women, and recommended that Pakistani Muslim researchers should try to invent an innerwear that makes female assets unnoticeable.
The problem is, if one takes the time to track the story back to its source, the whole thing is an obvious Onion-style satire -- a fact first pointed out by Arif Rafiq of the Pakistan Policy Blog.
The sify.com story linked by Fox cites a "report" from yet another site called Roznama Jawani.
Roznama Jawani, in turn, appears to be a Pakistani version of the Onion, featuring such stories as "Karachi Preparing a Huge Ass Bat to Beat the Shit Out of Kamran Akmal," "Altaf Hussain Challenges Imran Khan to a Rap Battle to Settle Differences," and "Man From Peshawar Sues Red Bull. Says he has no wings!"
The bra story on Roznama Jawani features a crudely photoshopped image of an Islamic council meeting with a large sign that says, "Future of Padded Bras." The story quotes an anti-padded bra protester saying that "Padded bras are evil as they make the breasts look bigger and perky ... Only devil women show off private parts."
Read the full story on Salon here, read the original story on Roznama Jawani here: "Padded Bras are Devil's Cushions" says Council of Islamic Ideology. By the way, Roznama Jawani are claiming that they are now "Fox News' authentic news source".

[P.S. Some Saudi fatwas are indeed beyond parody: For example this one where Saudi clerics advocate adult breast feeding. Fantastically, this fatwa was also used by women in their bid to get driving rights: Women threaten to breastfeed drivers if they aren't allowed to drive. Brilliant - and this serves these clerics right]. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blogging from Pakistan: We need science programs on TV here

by Salman Hameed

Yesterday's Dawn had a letter urging a focus on science & technology. I was already thinking about this while watching the plethora of cable and satellite channels here in Pakistan (a list from Wikipedia).

There are countless news talk show programs on more than 10 24-hour news channels. In fact, while arriving in Karachi yesterday, we were stuck at the airport traffic because there were about 8 television vans taking up space in the exit lane (they were there to cover the arrival of a federal minister). There are 8 24-hour music channels. I haven't seen these yet, but there are 3 fashion and lifestyle stations. There are 6 24-hour religious channels, and perhaps not too surprisingly, there are three food channels! Oh - and then there are about 10 regular channels that run soaps.

But science is missing. I'm not referring to a 24-hour science channel - which would be very cool. But even just an hour-long local program on science would be beneficual. There are are primetime programs on astrology (for example, here on Geo). But no science.

There is indeed interest and curiosity about science. As I have written multiple times before, the amateur astronomy scene is booming here. Whenever I have given talks here, I have encountered a lively audience interaction and a genuine interest in the topic. I'm sure if there were regular science programs on TV, there will be an audience for it, and if done well, the programs can serve as a vehicle for critical thinking.

By the way, just having science-sounding programs is not enough. Perhaps, there is no bigger disgrace than the Discovery channel or the History channel in the US. They lend credibility to completely wacky programs - from UFOs to the end-of-times documentaries. Whenever a student start by saying "I saw it on the Discovery channel" and you go "uh-oh". This is such a shame. Just think about it. In Pakistan, I'm lamenting the lack of any science programs. In US, there are couple of 24-hour science channels - but they mostly show crap on it, or worse, bad science (In case you are wondering, yes, bad science is worse than crap). NOVA is perhaps one of the few science havens left.

Some of it is also personal. I got into astronomy after watching Cosmos on TV in Pakistan in 1984. The first episode - especially the Cosmic Calendar - was enough to change the direction of my life. Television is an amazingly powerful medium. You never know how science programs are going to affect people.

Lets have some (good) science shows on TV.

By the way there have been some efforts at producing science programs in Pakistan. For example, Pervez Hoodbhoy had an excellent 12 part series for kids about 7-8 years ago. And more recently, Zakir Thaver has also produced some science-related episodes. These need to be aired on channels such as Geo, ARY, PTV etc. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Big Conference on Science, Religion, Culture, and Modernity

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.


From 21 to 23 June 2011, a big conference will be held at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) in the UAE, jointly organised by the British Council (BC) in partnership with AUS and in association with the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR). The conference forms part of the British Council’s “Belief in Dialogue” initiative, which is intended to foster closer inter-faith dialogue on matters of common cultural interest, including religious belief and the place and significance of the sciences in various worldviews.


The conference is titled “Belief in Dialogue: Science, Culture and Modernity”.  In addition to plenary lectures and discussions, parallel sessions will be devoted to the exploration of three broad themes running through the conference:
·      Science and Religion: Two Cultures?
·      Cultures of Belief in Modern Societies
·      Ethical Values and Human Responsibility. This theme will explore ethical issues in relation to the environment, to questions of sustainability and to problems arising from new technologies – including such controversial matters as stem-cell research.
A further stream within the conference will comprise a series of seminars specially designed for about 50 selected student participants.
One or two public debates are also planned and will likely be broadcast by the BBC World Service and BBC Arabic TV, along with other media activity. 
Thirty outstanding invited speakers have confirmed their participation, including HE Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Turkish scholar who is currently the Secretary-General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who will be giving the opening keynote speech, Tariq Ramadan, the well-known scholar of Islam and Philosophy, and many others from around the world.
A list of plenary speakers also includes Paul Davies, Zia Sardar, Munawar Anees, Andrew Briggs, John Hedley Brooke, Philip Clayton, William Grassie, Nidhal Guessoum, Salman Hameed, Aref Nayed, Jean Staune, Mehdi Golshani, and Ronald Numbers.
I would thus like to invite anyone interested in such topics to submit an abstract for the conference, and to encourage students and young researchers to apply for participation in the students seminar.
For further info, including the submission process, please visit the AUS conference website (http://www.aus.edu/conferences/BIDAUS2011/ -- note that the deadline for abstract submissions will be extended) as well as for the students seminar (http://www.aus.edu/conferences/BIDAUS2011/student.php).
Finally, please do circulate this announcement around you, particularly at universities, around the world.
Hope to see some of you here…
 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Blogging from Pakistan: Female Cabbie and "Firefly" video

by Salman Hameed

I haven't yet encountered a female cab driver here, but it is refreshing to see this story on BBC about Zahida Kazmi: Paksitan's ground-breaking female cabbie. She has been driving the cab since 1992 and at one point she even became the chairperson of Pakistan's yellow-cab association. So once again, thankfully, Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia. In case, you are wondering - no - women still can't drive in Saudi Arabia nor can they vote in municipal elections, even though municipal councils have no power any ways.

Back to Zahida Kazmi:
In 1992 at the age of 33, newly widowed Zahida Kazmi decided to take her fate in her own hands and become a taxi driver.
Born into a conservative and patriarchal Pakistani family, she flew in the face of her family's wishes but with six children to support, she felt she had no choice.
She took advantage of a government scheme in which anybody could buy a brand new taxi in affordable instalments. She bought herself a yellow cab and drove to Islamabad airport every morning to pick up passengers.
In a perilous and unpredictable world, Zahida at first kept a gun in the car for her own protection and she even started off by driving her passengers around wearing a burqa, a garment that covers the entire body.
Her initial fears soon dissipated.
"I realised that I would scare passengers away," she said. "So then I only wore a hijab [head covering]. Eventually I stopped covering my head because I got older and was well-established by then."
Exposing herself to the hot, bustling city streets of Islamabad and by driving to the rocky and remote districts adjoining Pakistan's tribal areas, Zahida says she learned a lot about the country she lived in and its people.
The Pathans of the tribal north-west, despite a reputation for fierce male pride and inflexibility, treated her with immense courtesy on her journeys.
But then there is also an interesting acknowledgment of the change within Pakistan in the last two decades:
But had Zahida been starting out now, things would be quite different as she would be entering the workforce in a country torn between the forces of liberalism and Islamic radicalism.
Pakistan in 1992 was a more moderate place: it was opening up to the world; the dish antenna had been introduced; Pakistan had won the cricket world cup. Zahida says society felt fairly open to her.
The article provides just a glimpse of the class and gender struggles in Pakistan. But then again, Pakistan has a history of amazing women leading from the front on issues of human rights and gender equality, and now even the blasphemy law (for example, the indomitable Asma Jahangir, Mukhtaran Mai, Shereen Rehman, etc.). There are also Pakistani female fighter pilots (now - this should really put Saudis to shame) and also a bank for and run-by women.

Read the full article on Zahida Kazmi here.

On a different note (ha!), I was struck by the music and video of Usman Riaz's "Fire Fly". Damn - he can do a lot with just a guitar. And the quality of video is also quite exceptional. Enjoy!


Saturday, March 12, 2011

The power of nature in full display in the Japan quake

by Salman Hameed

I have just arrived in Pakistan for a few days. On my way here, I had a brief stop-over in London. Just before boarding, I was standing in line for coffee where I could see television screens in the background. BBC was showing live pictures of the tsunami that hit Sendai. This was one of those instances where my jaw just completely dropped. We are now increasingly seeing disasters take place in real time - rather than seeing the pictures of the aftermath. This is horrible and incredible at the same time. Seeing a huge wave passing through the ocean is at once awesome and frightening.

Hope the death toll stays low.

I had a post about my views on Natural disasters after the earthquake in Pakistan. You can read the post here: Nature and Natural Disasters - On Pakistan's earthquake in 2005.

Will the live coverage of such large-scale natural disasters increase our sensitivity or eventually desensitize us as 'just another event on television'? I don't know. But I'm still awestruck by some of the images of the tsunami (video below).



Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Reincarnation stuck in Authority and Bureaucracy

by Salman Hameed

It seems that Dalai Lama wants to change the tradition of a reincarnate successor and the Chinese government is insisting on sticking with this metaphysical transition - as long as the reincarnation is approved by the Chinese government. Of course, all of these issues are deeply political, and the deeper question is about who has the authority to direct the future of Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, I find it interesting the way bureaucracy is bring brought in the issues of paranormal/metaphysical. From the New York Times, China Says Dalai Lama has to Reincarnate (tip from Laura Sizer):
It is unclear how the 76-year-old Dalai Lama, who lives in India and is revered by many Tibetans, plans to pick his successor. He has said that the succession process could break with tradition -- either by being hand-picked by him or through democratic elections.
But Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet, said that the Dalai Lama had no right to abolish the institution of reincarnation, underscoring China's hardline stance on one of the most sensitive issues for the restless and remote region.
...
The Chinese government says it has to approve all reincarnations of living Buddhas, or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. It also says China has to sign off on the choosing of the next Dalai Lama.
Oh - and did I mention that there is already a controversy of the previous reincarnation candidate?
In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Chinese government put that boy under house arrest and installed another in his place.
Many Tibetans spurn the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake.
In all of this, I don't think that most Tibetan Buddhists think about the "physical evidence" for the reality of the claims of reincarnations. I think there are there are two different questions: Is their any evidence of reincarnation ("no"), and Do people believe that reincarnation happens and that it serves a particular role in their lives ("yes")? And in the latter case, physical evidence may even be irrelevant to the discussion.

In any case, read the full story here.

Monday, March 07, 2011

What Makes Us Human?



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.
At the end of my recent stay in Washington, DC (the AAAS Meeting), I decided to spend the half day I had left on some of the great museums that the city hosts (the Mall area).
In addition to the Air and Space Museum, which I had visited many times, I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), where someone had told me there was a special exhibit about human origins (details of the exhibit can be found here). The NMNH is a fantastic museum, and no one should miss it when visiting Washington. I could have spent the whole day there, if not more, but since I had less than 2 hours, I spent most of my time in the special exhibit (and the store).
The exhibit area is not very large, though still of a decent size, and it is very nicely laid out, with great sculptures and reproductions of ancient and modern humans, their tools, their art, and so forth. There were also several video displays and interactive computer programs to help people learn and appreciate various topics, and many museum staff were available to provide explanation and help to everyone, particularly the scores of children who were there with their parents (it was the President Holiday).
Now, the most fascinating feature of the whole display was its emphasis on the theme “What Does it Mean to be Human”, for which you can find a rich website here. Indeed, instead of the usual emphasis on humanity’s evolution being part of the “tree of life” and its commonness with other species, the main trend that seemed to run through most of the exhibit was “human characteristics”, what makes us human. (The biological part was certainly there, like the percentages of genes shared with chimpanzees, gorillas, and even chicken, but that was not the main idea.)
For example, here’s the way the evolution of humans over the last 6 million years is presented:
-     6 M yrs (ago): walking upright on short legs
-     2.5 M yrs: making tools and eating meat from large animals
-     2 M yrs: longer legs; travel to new regions
-     500,000 yrs: rapid increase in brain size
-     ~ 350,000 yrs: speech (though it is not known when exactly this emerged)
-     250,000 yrs: communication with symbols
-     160,000 yrs: longer childhood and adolescence
-     130,000 yrs: building social networks
-     100,000 yrs; plant and animal domestication + expressing identity by wearing beads and putting colored materials on faces and bodies
-     65,000 yrs: burying the dead (first in Iraq)
-     60,000 – 30,000 yrs: paintings, sculptures, and music tools

One interactive screen drew my special attention. It asked the big question “what does it mean to be human?” and gave a series of words to choose from: imagine, weep, create, write, beauty, believe, understand, giving, pray, sing, mortality, struggle, become, rituals, altruistic, responsibility, consciousness, empathy, chin, brain. (It was not clear to me whether those words were proposed by the program’s creators or were chosen from the participants’ responses.) The program then asks the participant to give one’s answer either by choosing one of those words or by typing in a new word or complete sentence.
Last but not least, I was very impressed to find out that the exhibit creators had set up a Broader Social Impacts Committee to try to examine and include such issues as the religious viewpoints or sensitivities on the topic of human origins. The committee was made up of 15 scholars and religious figures, including, for the Muslim side, Dr. Mustansir Mir, who is a University Professor of Islamic Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, USA.  Here’s the ‘personal statement’ posted by Dr. Mir on the question of human origins:

In the phrase “human origins,” the crucial word is “human” rather than “origins.” A scientific account of human origins is, primarily, biological; a religious account of human origins is, primarily, moral. In Islam, as in the other so-called monotheistic religions, God is the creator of all things—minerals, animals, and humans. From a scientific standpoint, minerals are not immoral, and humans are not more moral than animals—all three being equally worthy subjects of study and investigation. But religion might call a certain type of human being “stone-hearted” or “worse than an animal.” The essential difference between religion and science, then, consists in the different valuation system employed by each. If it can be established beyond a shadow of a doubt that human beings evolved from monkeys, then, Islamically, so be it. But while science might say that monkeys, following a linear and irreversible path of evolutionary development, evolved into humans, who now run no risk of relapsing into monkeyhood, religion might say that human beings may—morally—degenerate back into monkeys, just as, on the flip side, they may—morally—reach sublime heights and become superior to angels. In brief, science looks at human beings with reference to the horizontal axis of history, whereas religion looks at human beings with reference to the vertical axis of morality. If this argument is accepted, then, essentially, no conflict need exist between science and religion on the issue of human origins.

I am sure this interesting statement will bring about a series of comments from the readers of this blog, and I look forward to everyone’s reaction.