Thursday, September 29, 2011

Room for diversity in Pakistan - including for atheists

by Salman Hameed

Pakistan is an incredibly diverse society. I have encountered people who are surprised to find that there are Hindus, Christians, Parsis (Zoroastrians) there, along with Muslims of many different shades. The problem is that it also has its share of puritans there, who want to create a monolithic society in its own specific image. This is still a minority population - though it has been gaining ground for the past couple of decades. But if we are looking for a transition to the modern world, then we have to embrace the differences. Recently there have been a number of articles in the english newspapers in Pakistan arguing for more tolerance. Some of these were triggered by Pakistan government's unfortunate efforts in the UN, on behalf of the OIC, against protecting basic rights for gays, lesbians and transgender people.

But then, as if to be in an argument itself, Pakistan also produced an excellent new film, Bol, that addresses some of the taboo topics associated with sexuality in the society. I had a chance to see it on my last to Pakistan and liked it very much. The second half of the falters a bit, but its first half is emotionally powerful and deals with local transgender issues. It also questions the escapist and often fatalistic reliance on God in a conservative society like Pakistan. If you get a chance, do see it (see the trailer here).

Just when we settle down for such stories, we then hear about students from Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), beating up students of philosophy at Punjab University. What? Philosophy students? C'mon.

If a larger scientific culture is to emerge from Pakistan, tolerance of other view points have to be the starting point. This tolerance is not just for intellectual matters, but also for differences in faith, sexuality, and ethnicities. It is the feeling that one can say and discuss things without repercussion. The media in Pakistan has become more open to taboo subjects, but it remains to be seen if this is presented as sensationalism or as part of a responsible dialogue. Like everything else, currently it is a little bit of both.

Adding to the tapestry of Pakistan's diversity, is now a group called Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics (PAA). Atheism has never really been an issue in Pakistan - but then there has never been a large explicitly atheist identifiable group either. Some of the earlier socialist (and even communist)  groups in Pakistan, both student and political, have served as a base for some of the less religious as well as those favoring a strongly secular state. PAA is also talking about separation of state and religion, but its primary emphasis appears to be more on identity and raising awareness than politics.

Lets hope we celebrate differences instead of exploiting them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

New ‘Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering and 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.
I would like to report on the recent creation of a new journal on “transdisciplinarity in science and engineering”, led by Prof. Basarab Nicolescu and Professor Vistrian Maties as the Editors in Chief. For full disclosure, I must note that I am one of the “area editors” of the journal, though this is certainly not the reason I am publicizing this new publication.
First, in case you’re confused between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity, let me clarify the latter a bit, the term and concept being rather technical and largely unfamiliar to many among the educated public. I’ll leave aside the other terms, both because they are unrelated to our topic here and because they are more familiar to people and are closer to their intuitive understanding.
Transdisciplinarity, reportedly first used by Piaget, was largely brought into the scholarly discourse by Basarab Nicolescu and the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET). In a general sense, it refers to areas of research and investigation that fall between specific fields (the prefix “trans” signifying an area between two large bodies, as in “trans-Atlantic”); those are often rich areas that have not been investigated properly as they do not fall under the methodologies of those well-defined bodies of research; they need to be looked at more holistically, and they deserve new approaches and paradigms. Examples of such areas include: areas of relevance to both science and art; areas of complexity between biology and consciousness; topics of science, sociology, and religion; engineering and social sciences; etc.
But Nicolescu has proposed a framework for addressing transdisciplinary questions (see his recent paper here). In his approach, transdisciplinarity rests on three principles forming its foundational methodology: 1) the world consists of multiple levels of reality; 2) adoption of a non-Aristotelian logic of “included middle”; 3) nature is intrinsically complex, and the science of complexity should be adopted and applied extensively.

There has thus been some growing interest in this new paradigm of transdisciplinarity, particularly through CIRET (above) and TheATLAS (The Academy of Transdisciplinary Learning & Advance Studies), which was founded in 2000. And it is indeed TheATLAS which is bringing out TJES, the ‘Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering and Science’.

The first issue of TJES came out several months ago; the papers can be found online, and they are very useful references, as many of them set out to explore and delineate this new paradigm of transdisciplinarity; for instance:

·      Methodology of Transdisciplinarity: Levels of Reality, Logic of the Included Middle, and Complexity, by B. Nicolescu;

·      Understanding of Transdiscipline and the Transdisciplinary Process, by A. Ertas;

·      From Transdisciplinarity to Transdisciplinary Research, by C. Pohl;

·      Designing Transdisciplinary Discovery and Innovation: Models and Tools for Dynamic Knowledge Integration, by D. Tate;

·      Results of a Survey to Identify Differences between Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research, by T. Kollman and A. Ertas;

·      Transdisciplinary System Science: Implications for Healthcare and Other Problems of Global Significance, by A. Madni.

The journal (TJES) is now inviting papers for its second issue, which is to appear before the end of the year. Areas of relevance to the journal include – but are not limited to – the following:

-       Application of philosophical foundations of transdisciplinary approaches to engineering and science;

-       lication of transdisciplinary methods and tools to scientific and engineering design, processes, and systems;

-       Models, tools, and processes for integrated problem formulation, synthesis, analysis, and design that incorporate a wide range of knowledge;

-       Applications of transdisciplinary methods for large-scale, complex problems involving multiple disciplines such as sustainability research, disaster management, biomimetic systems design, transdisciplinary cognitive integration, systems engineering and management, and other research topics that cross diverse disciplines;

-       Studies of the applicability and adoption of transdisciplinary approaches for engineering and scientific systems in industry and academia.

Paper submissions proceed through TheATLAS’s online manuscript submission and review system

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Off-Topic: Local humor about our video store

by Salman Hameed

Northampton, MA had a phenomenal video store, Pleasant Street Video. This was one of those places where the staff itself had seen all the films and had strong opinions about them. This was definitely not a place to find Michael Bay films. It reminded me a bit of the record store in High Fidelity. In the age of Netflix and streaming, it stayed competitive for a while and at least outlived Blockbuster. Finally, it closed down this past summer. I understand that the time for such video stores is gone. Nevertheless, it was a gem of a store and we'll all miss it.

So here is an appropriate and really funny tribute to it (tip from Chris Perry). Of course, you will appreciate it all the more if you know some of the local references. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Video: Webcast of the faster-than-light talk at CERN

by Salman Hameed

I think it is quite evident that the news of the claim of faster-than-light neutrinos has traveled faster than the speed of light! Below is the webcast of the actual talk. It is a scientific talk and not intended to razzle-dazzle (okay - it is a bit dry and a bit boring). However, IF - and this a huge IF - the claim turns out to be true, then this talk will be a big part of the history of science. In some sense this, this is a good public demonstration of how science works: Here is an experiment that makes a provocative claim. Scientists, in general, are quite skeptical of the results, and want to make sure that physicists making the claim took care of all the variables (such as the accurate measurement of the distance between the relevant points, or the tidal bulging of the Earth's crust due to the Moon, etc.). The coming months will see an effort to replicate these results. If they are not replicated or if a flaw is found in the original study, then we will all forget about this sensational study. Or, we are going to see an interesting revolution in our basic understanding of physics - perhaps leading to the unification of the large-scale (general-relativity) and small-scale (quantum) physics.

I'm also on the skeptical side (also see this xkcd cartoon on making money betting against the neutrinos results). But it is fun to watch this episode unfold.

Here is the video of the CERN webcast (be warned of its dryness) and here is the link to the technical paper (also not meant to razzle-dazzle the public) from the pre-print server:

And if you are looking for an easier explanation of the experiment, check out this article by Dennis Overbye: After Report on Speed, A Rush of Scrutiny.
According to Dr. Autiero’s team, neutrinos emanating from a particle accelerator at CERN, outside Geneva, had raced to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy — a distance of 454 miles — about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about 25 parts in a million.
and here is a brief description of what was involved in getting the neutrinos produced and then detected:
Neutrinos are still a cosmic mystery. They are among the weirdest denizens of the weird quantum subatomic world. Not only are they virtually invisible and able to sail through walls and planets like wind through a screen door, but they are shape-shifters. They come in three varieties and can morph from one form to another as they travel along, an effect Dr. Autiero and his colleagues were trying to observe. 
Their experiment, known clunkily as Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus, or Opera, is a collaboration of 160 physicists from 11 countries, primarily Japan and Italy. It is based at the Gran Sasso laboratory, a center for underground physics experiments that need sheltering from cosmic rays. 
The action begins in a tank of hydrogen gas inside a building at CERN. Atoms in puffs of gas from the tank get stripped of their electrons, becoming naked protons, and then get sent on a Coney Island-style speed ride through a series of particle accelerators, eventually winding up in the main ring of the Large Hadron Collider — the mother of all particle accelerators. 
For the Opera experiment, some of the protons are siphoned off at an intermediate energy and slammed in pulses 10 microseconds long into a graphite target, where they produce a pulse of lesser particles called mesons. The mesons in turn decay into neutrinos, which then disappear into the Earth in the direction of Gran Sasso. There, the arriving neutrinos run into an assemblage of lead bricks and photographic emulsion. 
In theory, during the trip, which takes a few milliseconds, some of the neutrinos should shape-shift from a variety known as muon neutrinos to tau neutrinos. The goal of the Opera experiments was to study this transformation: In three years, the researchers have recorded some 16,000 neutrinos in their detector, but only one tau neutrino. 
Measuring the speed of the neutrinos was only a side ambition, explained Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern, the head of the Opera collaboration. “Now it is becoming a main issue,” he said, adding, “we would like to see some tau neutrinos,” to appreciative laughter from the audience.
Read the full article here. Here is the schematic of the set-up:

Friday, September 23, 2011

Science and a politically assertive Turkey

by Salman Hameed

It is quite evident that Turkey is flexing its political and economic muscles in the middle east. When I was in Turkey last year, I had couple of conversations there that singled out Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davotuglu, for his intellect and for the real brains behind the current government. Couple of days ago, Davotuglu stressed for a greater strategic partnership between Turkey and Egypt and called for an "axis of democracy":
 Strikingly, he predicted a partnership between Turkey and Egypt, two of the region’s militarily strongest and most populous and influential countries, which he said could create a new axis of power at a time when American influence in the Middle East seems to be diminishing. 
“This is what we want,” Mr. Davutoglu said. 
“This will not be an axis against any other country — not Israel, not Iran, not any other country, but this will be an axis of democracy, real democracy,” he added. “That will be an axis of democracy of the two biggest nations in our region, from the north to the south, from the Black Sea down to the Nile Valley in Sudan.” 
His comments came after a tour last week by Turkish leaders — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu among them — of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the three Arab countries that have undergone revolutions this year. His criticism of old allies and embrace of new ones underscored the confidence of Turkey these days, as it tries to position itself on the winning side in a region unrecognizable from a year ago.
Whether you agree with him or not, can I say that this is a brilliant framing of its foreign policy. If this is not impressive enough, I was struck by his acumen of using history (even though Ottoman Empire and Egyptian relations were mostly tumultuous) and Ibn Khaldun:
Mr. Davutoglu credited a “psychological affinity” between Turkey and much of the Arab world, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries from Istanbul. 
The foreign minister, 52, remains more scholar than politician, though he has a diplomat’s knack for bridging divides. Cerebral and soft-spoken, he offered a speech this summer to Libyan rebels in Benghazi — in Arabic. Soon after the revolution in Tunisia, he hailed the people there as the “sons of Ibn Khaldoun,” one of the Arab world’s greatest philosophers, born in Tunis in the 14th century. “We’re not here to teach you,” he said. “You know what to do. Ibn Khaldoun’s grandsons deserve the best political system.”
Okay - that said, there is also much happening inside Turkey. For example, there is a concern for the autonomy of Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA), after the government changed regulations on the appointment of its members. The members of the Turkish academy, in response, threatened mass-resignations. Just two weeks ago, Nature had an editorial on this issue and criticized the actions of the ruling Justice and Development Party:
On the eve of a week-long holiday to celebrate the end of the fasting period of Ramadan, the Turkish government executed an extraordinary scientific coup. On 27 August, it issued a decree with immediate effect, giving itself tighter control of Turkey's two main scientific organizations: the funding agency TÜBİTAK and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the governance of which is now so altered that it can no longer be considered an academy at all.
At least TÜBİTAK is a state agency. It matters much more that the government is taking over TÜBA, which was founded in 1993 as an autonomous organization under the patronage of the prime minister. It has nearly 82 full members (from a total membership of 140) and has been doing all the things academies should do — including offering scientific advice to the government, publishing reports, and giving scholarships and awards. TÜBA has also been active in international organizations of academies such as the InterAcademy Panel, ALLEA (the organization of European academies) and the Association of Academies of Sciences in Asia (AASA). 
A June decree transferred TÜBA to the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology. The current decree raises the number of full members to 150. One-third will be appointed by the government and one-third by YÖK, the Higher Education Council, most of whose members are in turn appointed by the government or president. 
The current decree also says that TÜBA will be involved in creating a series of basic-research institutes.        
Read the full editorial here. There is of course politics involved in here. But the underlying threads are unclear to me. I know that there is a larger battle between "secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey (and both of these terms have to be considered with the appropriate Turkish context - please see this earlier post on this: Is 'Islamic Fundamentalism' on the Rise in Turkey?). Some of these battle lines go through academia, and the above fallout is perhaps a result of that. Considering the growing Turkish economic prowess, it will be a shame if science becomes a casualty of politics at this juncture.

It would be great to hear comments from some of our Turkish readers on this matter. How are these actions being viewed in the universities?

And while we are at it, here is an article on the first mosque in Turkey designed by a woman. It looks stunning. Here are three pictures:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A new book on the development of science

by Salman Hameed

I don't know how Ron Numbers does it, but it seems that he comes up with his own book or an edited volume every few months. And, since the books are interesting and relevant, we have to then catch-up in reading. The new book is called Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science and it is edited by Peter Harrison, Ron Numbers, and Michael Shank, and it looks like a fantastic collection of essays on how humans have looked at nature. I have already ordered my copy of the book and will have the table of contents at the end of this post. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from its review published in last week's Science:
Academic histories of science on topics before 1800 ritually begin by denying the existence of “science” and “scientists” per se in the premodern period. The study of nature took many forms, had different names, and involved different sorts of practitioners; many of these procedures and concerns, such as astrological divination, alchemy, and natural magic, had to be systematically pruned and excluded to produce modern science. Wrestling with Nature narrates the development of science by focusing on changing categories for describing natural knowledge in the past 3000 years. It tells the history of science through the history of the term “science”; its predecessor categories, such as “natural history” and “natural philosophy”; and categories of exclusion from science, such as “pseudoscience.” The first half of the volume narrates the growth of “Western” (including Islamic) approaches to the study of the natural world from Babylonia to the early 19th century. The next three chapters consider the conflicted relations since 1800 of modern science (especially in the United States) with medicine, engineering, and religion. Two additional essays examine science and the public in Victorian Britain and the geography of science. 
The contributors stress the productive fuzziness of disciplinary and epistemic categories such as natural philosophy, mixed mathematics, scientific medicine, and applied science. The essays collectively illustrate how we learn more about the process of creating the sciences by documenting the polemical uses of claims to the mantle of science than by declaring one or another past approach to be scientific. Laboratory medicine and Christian Science, for example, emerged simultaneously in a clash over the monopoly to scientific medicine. The essays show how creating modern science involved boundary demarcation and its attendant exclusion of other practices and practitioners and restriction of the scope of scientific work to avoid, for example, the study of values. Pseudoscience, for example, “did not simply run afoul of scientific orthodoxy” but helped “to create such orthodoxy.”
And here is specifically more on science & religion, where historians of science, as usual, offer a more nuanced understanding of this interaction: 
The old model of science in eternal conflict with religion—so central to 19th-century battles over secularism and our current struggles to maintain the integrity of scientific inquiry—turns out to be a dismal guide for understanding how many cultures came to develop complex scientific systems and the institutional and education structures for nurturing them. Echoing a growing consensus among historians of science, the authors show how often natural inquiry, into the 19th century, emerged from theological and divinatory motivations, though they take care never to reduce the natural inquiry to such motivations. In ancient Babylonia, for example, “the gods were thought to communicate with humankind through the behavior of physical phenomena, which in turn became intensely significant objects of observation and analysis. The results … were the development of empiricism, mathematical theoretization of astronomical problems, and methods of predicting the phenomena.” In classical antiquity, careful observation of nature was far more important for theologically oriented functionalists like Galen or Aristotle than for materialist Epicureans. “For many in the early-modern period, the pursuit of natural history was an intrinsically theological activity.” Before the late 19th century, conflict tended to be among different sorts of believers, between those who prioritized the study of nature and those who deprioritized it or, more rarely, denounced it as wicked or heretical. If such conflict produced scientific martyrs and systematic censorship of scientific inquiry, it also could produce greater philosophical scrutiny about the nature of causation and human knowledge of the natural world—shown well here in the case of medieval Islamic debates over natural knowledge.
Looks fantastic. Read the full review here. In case you are wondering, here is the table of contents: 

1. Natural Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia
Francesca Rochberg

2. Natural Knowledge in the Classical World
Daryn Lahoux

3. Natural Knowledge in the Arabic Middle Ages
Jon McGinnis

4. Natural Knowledge in the Latin Middle Ages
Michael H. Shank

5. Natural History
Peter Harrison

6. Mixed Mathematics
Peter Dear

7. Natural Philosophy
John L. Heilbron

8. Science and Medicine
Ronald L. Numbers

9. Science and Technology
Ronald Kline

10. Science and Religion
Jon H. Roberts

11. Science, Pseudoscience, and Science Falsely So-Called
Ronald L. Numbers & Daniel P. Thurs

12. Scientific Methods
Daniel P. Thurs

13. Science and the Public
Bernard Lightman

14. Science and Place
David N. Livingstone


Monday, September 19, 2011

Islam and Astronomy: the tug-of-war continues

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.

Some three weeks after the celebration of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, Muslim astronomers and religious scholars and officials are still locked in a big controversy and battle through numerous articles and communiqués, not to mention rumors.
Indeed, Saudi, Egyptian, and Algerian officials declared that the crescent of the new lunar month had been sighted by several people on the evening of August 29, and hence that Eid, one of the two biggest holidays in Islam, would be the next day. Many Muslim astronomers, however, had issued communiqués and published articles at least a week before, warning that no crescent could be seen on that night in the entire Islamic world.
Two astronomy groups were at the heart of the controversy: the Jeddah Astronomical Society (JASAS), and the Islamic Crescents Observation Project (ICOP). I should first stress that, contrary to what a recent article in The Guardian indicated, no astronomer suggested that people had mistaken Saturn for the crescent; that was merely a rumor, though it did spread like wildfire. Saturn was much higher in the sky and set nearly two hours after the sun, while observers were seeking a crescent which followed the sun by just a few minutes (right next to it). A possible confusion that has not, to my knowledge, been pointing out, was with Venus, which indeed followed the sun within about 15 minutes (see the diagram below) and which can be seen as a crescent both with telescopes and by acute naked eyes.

The battle erupted between the astronomers (JASAS and ICOP, in particular) and the religious scholars because of an Al-Jazeera show that was taking place right as the Saudi announcement was made. The vice-president of JAS immediately said (live): “if such an impossible observation can be accepted, then we should close observatories and universities”; and I (representing ICOP) then added: “why don’t we replace expensive telescopes in our observatories with these human super-observers?!”
Let me here offer additional information to clarify or rectify a few important points pertaining to the controversy.
First and foremost, the fact that the crescent was wrongly declared to have been sighted on August 29 does not automatically mean that Muslims celebrated Eid too soon. Indeed, astronomers had explained that the crescent could be observed with telescopes in Southern Africa and by naked eyes in South America. Muslim jurists differ on whether the crescent needs to be seen locally or regionally for the month to end/begin and whether the usage of instruments is acceptable. For example, Saudi Arabia allows observations with telescopes but accepts sightings only from within the kingdom. Morocco accepts only naked-eye sightings, from within its borders, and by nationally supervised groups of observers. Malaysia and Turkey go by the presence of the moon above the horizon by a certain angle and do not require any confirmation by actual sightings.
Now, various countries accept sightings from neighboring areas; for example, most of the Gulf and the Middle East usually follow Saudi announcements, but the largest majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims do not follow Saudi Arabia, though Muslim communities in the west tend to be somewhat affected by Saudi proclamations.
Another important point raised in the Guardian article was the call for using more scientific methods and “adapt[ing] to technological realities.” This is far from new, as indeed not only have Muslim astronomers and groups (ICOP in particular) been promoting this for years, a number of official religious bodies have already adopted that principle. Indeed, the Islamic Society of North America has for at least 5 years now adopted a fully calculated Islamic calendar, which includes dates for Ramadan, Eid, and Hajj, a calendar which does away with sightings, local or otherwise, with naked eyes or telescopes. Recently, news has also come that a similar Islamic body in France (the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) will soon be adopting and implementing a calendar of this kind.
But let us not lose sight of the main issues behind all this: first there is the fight to get rid of literalism in Islamic life (we should not understand the Prophet’s injunction to “start the month when you see the new crescent” as an order to follow that procedure until the end of times but rather to ascertain the start of the month in the best way possible), and secondly the religious scholars are battling to retain the power that they have long held over various social issues and on which they have seen their grip slip year after year; conversely, science and Muslim scientists are fighting to have their knowledge, facts and theories given due respect.
On more than one front, the Muslim world is undergoing a revolution…