Monday, December 31, 2012

Some Jib Jab for the New Year!

by Salman Hameed

Happy New Year!

Students attack anti-evolution fossils in Turkey

by Salman Hameed

So here is some advice. If you don't agree with someone - however idiotic their position - don't resort to violence. There are a number of psychics operating here in western Massachusetts - and they are taking advantage of individuals - but that doesn't mean one has to go and attack their shops and stalls. So here comes the news that "leftist" students in Turkey have attacked a "fossil exhibit" at a metro station on the campus of Uludag University in Bursa (tip from Rainer Bromer):

A group of 30 students in Bursa have allegedly vandalized a fossil exhibition at Uludağ University, beating three security guards, breaking into the exhibition and damaging the fossils.  
The students recorded the attack, shouting slogans and taking photos with the damaged fossils, which they claim are fake. The exhibit has been organized by an anti-evolution group that claims the fossils on display prove that life forms have not changed over thousands of years, while others doubt the authenticity of the fossils. 
This is probably an exhibit of Harun Yahya's group - and yes, most of the stuff written by his organization is intellectual garbage. But evolution is a charged topic in Turkey and it maps onto the political landscape as well. This past May, I had a chance to witness a protest against a creationist conference in Marmara, and there was a sizable presence of cops (see pictures and my post here).

Here is Mustafa Akyol commenting on this affair: 
A very interesting attack took place the other day at Uludağ University in Bursa, a major Turkish city. A group of some 30 students broke into an exhibition, beat up three security guards, and shattered some of the objects on display. The damaged objects were none other than animal fossils, as this was a “fossil exhibition.” 
Now, before going deeper into the story let me stop here and ask what most Western readers would think when they hear about this news? My bet is that most of them would readily assume the militant students in question are “religious fundamentalists” who can’t stand to see facts about Darwinian evolution and, ultimately, science itself — the torch of reason, enlightenment and modernity.  
However, the facts in this incident were quite the opposite. The fossil exhibition was intended to promote not Darwinian evolution, but its main adversary: creationism, or the view that species have been divinely created rather than evolving gradually. And the students who attacked the exhibition were “fundamentalists” not of religion, but rather of one of its arch enemies: They were the members of the Turkish Communist Party or the “University Collectives,” a Marxist student association.
I hate to say this, but Akyol has a point here (by the way, Akyol used to be with the Harun Yahya group, then was an ID supporter, before settling in for theistic evolution: See my post - Mustafa Akyol's clarification on evolution). However, this is coming at the backdrop of student protests against the brutal crackdown by the AKP government. This doesn't excuse the actions here - but may provide the larger context of the incident. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Video: Sagan, Hawking and Clarke on God, ET and creativity

by Salman Hameed

Here is a 1988 interview with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Arthur C. Clarke. I was thinking about Clarke as a I recently re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (see the post here). In any case, check out this video. There is an interesting discussion of the nature of ET and God starting from 27 minutes mark and it ends with a question on creativity. Ah - interviews used to be a good exchange of ideas, before people like Bill O'Reilly started shouting at their guests. Here is the video (with apologies to readers in Pakistan - where YouTube is still insanely banned since Sept 17th...):

Friday, December 28, 2012

2001 and Kubrick's Indifferent Universe

by Salman Hameed


One of our goals this break is to watch most of major Kubrick films again on Blu Ray. We started with 2001: A Space Odyssey - and I watched the film in entirety after almost 20 years. And I had forgotten how spectacular and breathtaking the film is. Every shot of film is perfect!


Every set - and there many many futuristic sets - is done meticulously. And the choice of music, of course, is amazing. But one thing that really stuck out for me was the use of sound. If the perspective is from space, there is no sound. I think Kubrick is very consistent about that. But he would sometimes have the perspective of an astronaut from inside the helmet, and then you hear breathing as well as the hissing sound of oxygen. Well - many times he uses the variation in breathing to create suspense, tension, and even sometimes a sense wonder and/or bewilderment. This is just brilliant! I had also forgotten about the details of the chilling scene of Dave - in his pod holding a dead astronaut - staring down HAL in the ship bound for Jupiter. Here is a picture - but the picture doesn't do justice to the way the scene unfolds in the film.

In any case, the question of God is part of the film. Kubrick did believe that some notion of God is at the heart of the film. But then his (and Arthur C Clarke's) version God veered more in the direction of super-intelligent extraterrestrials, i.e. intelligent civilizations will be indistinguishable to us from gods. There are a lot of Extras in the Blu Ray edition of 2001, and I was struck by a fantastic quote from Kubrick about the universe. Here it is:
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. 
But if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning.  
However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
Very cool. Now if you have a chance, see 2001 again - and please see it in its entirety and on the biggest screen available to you (not on a computer or an iPad).

We are scheduled for one of Kubrick's most beautiful, but very underrated film, Barry Lyndon on Sunday.

In the mean time, here is the original trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey:


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pew Global Religious Landscape: Young Muslims and the Unaffiliated

by Salman Hameed

There is a new Pew Survey out on The Global Religious Landscape. Since, a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a map showing majority religions in every country in the world :

There are roughly 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims (see this earlier post on Muslim numbers), and 1 billion Hindus. Interestingly, and perhaps with an impact on the future, the Muslim population is  younger than every other group. The median age for Muslims is 23 compared to global median of 28! Here is the distribution of median ages with religion (same coding as in the map above):

Perhaps, one of the interesting results is that fact those who consider not affiliated with any religion represents the third largest group. At 1.1 billion, this unaffiliated group is behind only Christians and Muslims.

 
By the way, being unaffiliated does not necessarily mean atheism. Many in this group still hold some religious belief or believe in some sort of spirituality. China has the largest number of religiously unaffiliated. Here is the global distribution of the unaffiliated: 

Of course, US has also been seeing an notable rise of religiously unaffiliated (or "nones" - non of the religions). Pew had another recent report on this particular population in the US, and this what they found:

And it is not that these "nones" in the US are confused and seeking some true path. Only 10% are looking for a religion while 88% are not looking. Now, of course, the "nones" in China may be very different from the "nones" in the US. The "nones" in the US may also represent a generational shift, as they have their highest representation amongst the young:

Read more about the Pew report on "nones" in the US here, and about the Pew report on the Global Religious Landscape here.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

English and Urdu Maulana Qadri disagree with each other

by Salman Hameed

On Saturday I had posted about the increasing violence in Pakistan - both at institutional and individual levels. In particular, I wrote about the problematic Blasphemy Law that has led to the beatings, death and exile of so many individuals. Well - one person who claims responsibility for the shaping of this law is Maulana Tahir ul Qadri. He just returned to Pakistan after spending 5-years in Britain - and seems to be preparing for an election campaign. He also held a large rally in Lahore yesterday and apparently hundreds of thousands of people showed up.

But I wonder who will be running in the elections? Will it be the Urdu-speaking Tahir ul Qadri or the English-speaking Tahir ul Qadri? Apparently these two individuals completely disagree with each other - at least on the blasphemy law. Well - why don't you look at it yourself? For your pleasure, here is a short six-minute video of this bilingual and bi-opinion Maulana on the blasphemy law (and yes, there are english subtitles for his Urdu bits). I did have to check back to see if the Urdu and English maulanas were the same - and it seems that way. Wow!


Tahir Ul Qadri Lies -Caught Red Handed Facebook by maskerwa

(Tip from Farid Alvie)

Life of Pi: A Film Autopsy

by Salman Hameed


I was disappointed by the mushy spirituality in the last third of the book. However, I think Ang Lee did a better job of handling that element in his film adaptation, Life of Pi. Plus it is a specular visual feast! Please see it in 3D - if you have a chance to do so.

Here is my review of Life of Pi with Kevin Anderson (and as usual, you can find all our reviews at film-autopsy.com):

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is Pakistan spiraling down the way of Iraq?

by Salman Hameed

The news coming out of Pakistan is getting grimmer by days. There seems to be a general breakdown of society at different levels. No it is not complete chaos yet - but if the present descent continues, it may very well be. There is an increasing power of the various religious factions and they are going after the minorities. Just this past month, over a hundred graves of Ahmadis were desecrated in upscale neighborhood in Lahore. The Shia minority have been facing an onslaught of attacks and death threats via text messages (also see this post about the protest against "Shia genocide"). The Pakistan-Taliban had threatened secular parties in northern Pakistan, and today they killed its prominent politician, Bashir Bilour, in a suicide blast in Peshawar. And amidst all of this, Karachi - Pakistan's largest city, is going through one of its most violent years ever (and that says a lot). All of the above links are just from the past 30 days!

And if this wasn't enough, just this past October, the Taliban decided to shoot 14-year old Malala in Swat - because she was critical of them. In addition, 5 female health workers were shot just last week in different parts of Karachi as they were immunizing kids from polio, and four more in northern Pakistan. As a result 3.5 million kids missed polio vaccinations as the work was abandoned by the UN.

But these grim tales are not limited to large scale organized violence only. At an individual level we have the blasphemy law that can bring the worst of the society. I have written extensively about the incredulous blasphemy case against my astronomer friend, Umair and his father, and the subsequent burning of their high-performing girls school in Lahore. I had compiled a list of some blasphemy-law related cases just from the month of October this year.

And now comes a chilling story of a mob lynching in Dadu over a blasphemy accusation:

A mob in Pakistan has stormed a police station and beaten to death a Muslim man accused of desecrating the Koran. 
The victim's body was then set alight, according to witnesses. 
The unnamed victim had earlier been handed over to the police after burnt pages of the Koran were found in a mosque in Dadu district, 330km (200 miles) north of Karachi, where he had been staying overnight. 
Hours later a mob went to the police station, seized the man and killed him.
The district police chief, Usman Ghani, told the BBC the gruesome incident was filmed on mobile phones. He said the footage was being reviewed to identify culprits.
What kind of individuals do this and what was going through the minds of individuals who thought of even making a video! Who is the video for? Their kids? A souvenir for their loved ones?

A more fortunate man was given death sentence in Chitral (northern Pakistan) for blasphemy, just this past month. And less than two weeks ago, protests erupted in Islamabad to demand the arrest of a doctor accused of blasphemy by his nephew.

This is a society in decline. Religion and religious factions in Pakistan are providing an easy route to chaos. But this has more to do with a central breakdown of any semblance of authority. The blasphemy law, then, is simply just one more log in the already existing fire. But fire it is.

Back in 2008, I had this comment after increasing number of attacks by the Taliban on Pakistan's intelligence agencies and elite military units:
This also underscores the general stability of Pakistan. If these bombers can hit some of the highest security targets, what hope do cities have from preventing such attacks. In fact, it almost seems that the organizations behind these attacks are, at present, simply showing-off their strength. They certainly seem capable of creating mass chaos in Iraq-style bombing campaign in cities, where the population is far greater than in Iraqi cities (by way of comparison, Iraq's population is ~25 millions, and Pakistan's is 165 million). 
[12/22 correction: Iraq's population today is 33 million and Pakistan's is 177 million]
I really hope and wish that Pakistan can somehow reverse this downward spiral into chaos. Otherwise, we are going to find out what an Iraq-style mess would look like in a population that is more than 5 times bigger than Iraq.

Apologies for a somber post. But this is just a reaction to one grim news after another from Pakistan. Hope next year will be better.

Here is an excellent cover of Zombie by Bakht Arif - commenting on the current state of Pakistan (tip Ayesha Siddiqa):

Congratulations to Pervez Hoodbhoy!

by Salman Hameed

Pervez Hoodbhoy has just been appointed as a member of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters by the Secretary General of the United Nations. Very cool and congratulations to him. Here is the press release:
NEW YORK, 19 December (Office for Disarmament Affairs) — The Secretary-General of the United Nations recently appointed nine new members to his Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters to replace nine current ones whose terms will end on 31 December. 
Beginning their three-year terms on 1 January 2013 will be Wael al-Assad (Jordan), Mely Caballero-Anthony (Philippines), Sung-Joo Choi (Republic of Korea), Rut Diamint (Argentina), Trevor Findlay (Australia), Pervez Hoodbhoy (Pakistan), Eboe Hutchful (Ghana), Fred Tanner (Switzerland) and Wu Haitao (China). 
The Secretary-General has also appointed a current member, Desmond Bowen ( United Kingdom), to chair the Board’s two sessions in 2013.  The fifty-ninth session is scheduled from 27 February to 1 March in New York, and the sixtieth from 26 to 28 June in Geneva.
Established in 1978 pursuant to paragraph 124 of the Final Document of the tenth special session of the General Assembly, the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters received its current mandate pursuant to Assembly decision 54/418 of 1 December 1999.  The Board has the following functions:  to advise the Secretary-General on matters within the area of arms limitation and disarmament, including on studies and research under the auspices of the United Nations or institutions within the United Nations system; to serve as the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR); and to advise the Secretary-General on the implementation of the United Nations Disarmament Information Programme. 
Chosen by the Secretary-General for their knowledge and experience in the field of disarmament and international security, Board members serve in their personal capacities and do not represent their Governments.  There are currently 15 members, and the Director of UNIDIR is an ex officio member.  The Chairperson is appointed annually by the Secretary-General on the basis of regional rotation, and personally reports to him on the Board’s sessions.  In accordance with General Assembly resolution 38/183 O of 20 December 1983, the Secretary-General reports annually to the Assembly on the Advisory Board’s activities.
And here is his excellent documentary, Pakistan and India: Under the Nuclear Shadow (I think this is from 2000 - only a couple of years after the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan):

Saturday Video: Alan Lightman - The Crossroads of Science and the Arts

by Salman Hameed

I have always liked Alan Lightman as a writer - both for his fantastic astrophysics graduate textbook and for his work of fiction. His new book, Mr g: A Novel about Creation, is on my reading list. In the mean time, here is a lecture where he talks about the differences in the way scientists and artists look at the world. Having excelled at both, he is the ideal person to comment on this. Enjoy! (his lecture starts about 10 minutes into the video):

Friday, December 21, 2012

Scientific Publications from the Muslim world in 2012

by Salman Hameed

Since the world is still intact, we will continue with the posts here.

This week's Nature has a nice graphic of scientific publications in 2012. The sky scrappers below are U.S., China, and a number of European countries, along with Canada and Japan. A few Muslim countries are in the one and two-storey buildings. Pakistan - the nuclear state - does not even show up (the cut-off was 6000 papers from Jan-Oct, and it includes 39 countries). Click to see the larger version of the figure:

The surprising element here is Saudi Arabia - where there is a 33% increase in publications from the previous year. I don't know what this means. It is quite likely that these are papers are from researchers associated with KAUST, where many hold multi affiliations (see this earlier post: Saudi universities buying academic prestige?). Nevertheless - it is good to see this increase in publications from Saudi Arabia. Turkey, Malaysia, and Egypt have maintained roughly the same levels of publications from 2011, with Iran showing a slight increase. If you are looking for rising states, China, South Korea and India are showing consistent increases in their publication rates from year to year. Just as a reminder, here is the plot from last year, where Iran had the largest increase from year prior (click to see the larger version of the figure):

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

5 Best End of the World Films

by Salman Hameed


Well, the End is near. The Mayan calendar is about to end on December 21st. In order to better prepare you for Finality, here is our recommendation of 5 best End of the World films - and one film to avoid at all cost.

Here is our Film Autopsy:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Opposition to evolution and Islam debate at Imperial College?

by Salman Hameed

I had earlier posted about a discussion over Islam's take on evolution in London on January 5th. Now The Independent is reporting that the organizers wanted to host the event at Imperial College, but that they had to change the venue because of opposition from a Muslim student group at the college:
The initial plan was to hold the event next month at Imperial College London, one of the country’s foremost universities for scientific exploration and debate, in cooperation with the local Islamic student society. But the Deen Institute said it was forced to pull out when it became clear that opposition to the event from supporters of creationism began mounting. It is now being held without input from any Muslim student society at Logan Hall, a conference centre owned by the University of London.
Couple of things here. We have to be careful in how we interpret this news item. First, we have to know what the opposition is for? Is the Muslim student group opposing this simply because it deals with evolution or if they want to avoid controversy (however, they perceive it). Second, we have to know if the majority of Muslim students at Imperial College oppose such an event. We have to be careful about a confirmation bias, i.e. it is only news when Muslim students reject evolution - and not when they accept it (and many indeed do - as we found out in our interviews from last year). Some of this has to do with the specific coverage of such items in British newspapers (for an example, see last year's case of London Times). The January 5th event is now taking place at Logan Hall, a conference center owned by University College London. The headline of The Independent, however, is more dramatic: Debate on Islam has to called off after revolt by student societies. And as per queue, this headline provides fodder for websites like Jihad Watch, which started it'd article with the following: "Intimidation and thuggery shut down academic inquiry".

By listing out these caveats I don't mean to imply that an outright hostile reaction to evolution is not possible. We saw that last year in the case of Dr. Usama Hasan - when he received veiled threats in response to his evolution talk in his mosque.

In any case, the event organized by the Deen Institute is taking place on January 5th in London (see this website for more information). It will be an interesting forum and I am planning on attending it. In the mean time, I would like to know more about the opposition of Imperial College Islamic society. If you have more information, drop me a line.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saturday Video: On seeing the Earth from space...

by Salman Hameed

This is a very cool short film titled, Overview. These are the reflection of a group of artists, philosophers, scientists and astronauts on seeing the Earth from space.


From Open Culture:
On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 crew took a photograph of earth that became known as “The Blue Marble” because of the whorling clouds above the continents. Not the first image of the earth from space, it remains one of the most arresting. To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of “The Blue Marble,” Planetary Collective, a group of visual artists, philosophers, and scientists, released the short film Overview (above) at a screening at Harvard this past Friday. Overview takes its title from author Frank White’s phrase for the perspective of the earth as seen from space: “The Overview Effect.” White’s book of the same name uses interviews and writings from thirty astronauts and cosmonauts to build a theory about the psychology of planetary perspectives.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Is there an experiential Islam?

by Salman Hameed

Or may be all of Islam is experiential? I was thinking about this while reading an opinion piece in today's NYT by T.M. Luhrmann. She has a new book out called When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Relationship with God (it looks fantastic and it is on my reading list). The focus of her book is Vineyard church (a sub-group of Evangelical Christianity in the US) and how their members see their relationship with God. So for example, they may actually have coffee with God. Here is how she explains it:
I am an anthropologist, and in recent years I have been exploring a kind of American evangelical Christianity that seeks to enable its followers to know God intimately. These evangelicals talk about the Bible as if it is literally true, but they also use their imagination to experience the Bible as personally as possible. They talk about getting to know God by having coffee with God, or asking God what shirt they should wear in the morning. A man from Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego told me that “the Bible is a love story, and it is written to me.” It is a style of evangelical Christianity with many followers: perhaps a quarter of all Americans.
So that got me thinking if some Muslims have a similar relationship with Allah? I know Barelvi's in South Asia do have a belief that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is "hazir" (present) in many places - and can appear in mosques etc. But I think this would qualify as doctrinal (as is the case of Transubstantiation - the turning of the substance of blood and wine into the body and blood of Jesus - in the doctrine of the Catholic Church). There have also been instances where people (including rulers) have claimed to have a conversation with the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in their dreams  (for example, the in the dream of the 12th century Seljuk ruler of Syria, Nur ad Din-Zangi). But I can also see that this is all related to the Prophet, and an encounter with Allah may be considered blasphemous.

But what about something akin to speaking in tongues, as is the case in some Evangelical groups? Just curious see if some Muslim groups already exist that practice an experiential form of Islam and/or if some will evolve in places (like sub-Saharan Africa) where there is a constant interaction and competition  between Islam and Evangelical Christianity?

In any case, Luhrmann makes an interesting pointing about why many follow this kind of Christianity and why some oppose it:
I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world.
First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” These evangelical churches invite worshipers to enter Scripture with all their senses. Here, for example, Richard Foster, a popular theologian, explains how to “live the experience” of Scripture: “Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.” To Christian critics of these practices, they are a distortion of the Scripture, because they add to the text more than is actually there — your own memories of a summer by the seaside, the feel of heavy robes. To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in the most effective kind of learning: hands on and engaged. 
Second, these practices make the experience of God personally specific. Vivid, concrete details help people to get caught up in a world that is not the one they see before them — and the more particular the details, the more powerful the involvement. Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own. Of course someone like J. K. Rowling might be horrified that readers have written tens of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters, just as some evangelicals are horrified by other evangelicals who cozy up to God over a beer and chat with him in their minds. But social science suggests that details like these do make what must be imagined feel more real. 
Which position you take depends on whether you are more worried about heresy or atheism.
Read the full article here

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Guardian's take on The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Salman Hameed

The movie hasn't opened here yet - so I can't comment on it. I did read the novel when it came out, and liked it (especially the part set in the US). But I'm looking forward to Mira Nair's take on Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (plus it has Hampshire College alum, Liev Schreiber). Of course, we are going to review it as part of our Film Autopsy when we get it here in Amherst. But - boy, won't it be interesting to see it back-to-back with Zero Dark Thirty? In any case, here is the Guardian's take on The Reluctant Fundamentalist from the Venice Film Festival:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Anti-Doomsday Day - Today!

by Salman Hameed

Okay this is great! And funny too. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) wants you to reclaim the calendar from the end-of-the-world crazies of December 21, 2012. So they have their own Anti-Doomsday Day - today! Well of course - 12/12/12 - and very soon even the time (on the US east coast at least) will read 12:12:12. Nooooo!! Oh I meant to say, Yeah!!

So happy Anti-Doomsday Day to you!

Here is the rationale behind it:
While many pundits and prognosticators lament the supposed end of the world on December 21, 2012 (thanks to misinterpreting Mayan predictions), here at the ASP we encourage everyone to go in the opposite – and accurate – direction. Thus, we are declaring December 12, 2012 as Anti-Doomsday Day in celebration of rational thinking and reasoned discourse. 
We also feel that, in many respects, the number 12 is most auspicious: contemporary calendars (12 months in the year), chronology (12 hours of day and night), traditional zodiac (12 astrological signs*), Greek mythology (12 Olympic gods and goddesses), holiday folklore (12 days of Christmas), Shakespeare (Twelfth Night), and of course in our culinary world (dozen eggs, case of wine)! 
More importantly, in astronomy Mars is 12 light minutes from the Sun, the average temperature of the Earth is 12 degrees Celsius, and Jupiter takes 12 years to orbit the Sun.
Last but not least, this date structure – a triple set of the same two-digit number – will not occur again until 2112! So, at 12 noon on 12/12/12, please take a moment to thank all who keep us on the path of science literacy. Please also feel free to show your support by donating $12, $24 or $36 dollars to the ASP!
Enjoy the day.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Moth's "Life on a Mobius Strip"

by Salman Hameed

Here is a fascinating real life story involving an astrophysicist and her relationship with a musician. And  how that all parallels with the way she think about cosmology. Okay - you have to check out the story - especially because she is a fantastic story-teller.

Here is The Moth episode on Life on a Mobius Strip (tip Leyla Keough):

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Saturday Video: Living on Mars

by Salman Hameed

Should humans colonize Mars? What if we find Martian microbes living there? This is a tough question. We had a discussion of that in class. Like Sagan, I'm of the opinion that if we find life on Mars, then we should leave Mars for the Martians. Others, like Zubrin, have argued that we should not alter our plans for some pesky microbes. Then we Chris McKay who argues that if we find life on Mars, it will be our responsibility to maximize its potential to live. So at a time when Curiosity is beginning its experiments there, here is the first part of Living on Mars (there are 5 ten minute segments). Enjoy!



And as a bonus, if you are further interested in the topic, here is a lecture on the ethics of terraforming Mars by Chris McKay:

Friday, December 07, 2012

Looper: A Film Autopsy

by Salman Hameed


Here is a movie which has a really creative use of a time travel machine. The movie itself is quite reasonable as well. Here is my discussion of Looper with UMass film professor, Kevin Anderson (and of course, find all our previous reviews and discussion at film-autopsy.com):

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The troubling rise of fatwa power in Pakistan...

by Salman Hameed

There is a troubling rise of the authority of religious clerics in Pakistan. For historical reasons, the power of the clerics had been negligible in Pakistan for much of the 20th century. They did have the street power, but with some notable exceptions, they were considered out-of-touch with the modern world and the educated middle class. Nevertheless, they functioned as imams for the local mosques - even in the most liberal and educated bastions of Pakistan. Now things are changing. Various ulema groups are organizing and are starting to exert more and more authority over all sorts of matters. Yes, we can point to the impact of the Zia era policies and/or the general rise of piety. But I think it is also due to their over-representation in the new era of cable television. Previously, there would be one show - may be with Dr. Israr Ahmad - and that would be tucked either before prime time or after. But now, you can find these ulema not only on all sorts of talk shows, but they also have the opportunity to appear on several of the 24-hour religious channels. On a political front, religious parties have never been able to make a mark. But, television of the past decade has made them into everyday authorities.

I was reminded of that with the recent blasphemy case of Umair Asim. This was never really considered a judicial matter alone. The fatwa of the local clerics was always needed for any kind of progress on the matter. Blasphemy controversies, in general, have helped these groups gain recognition (also known as notoriety). 

This has implications for science as well. When it comes down to issues of stem cells, beginning and end-of-life matters, organ transplants, biomedicine, evolution, and a host of other matters, these folks will have a huge say in these matters. And none of these guys (and most are indeed men) have a clue about science (Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is somewhat of an exception - but then he is in an exile for safety reasons. And then, even he has some major misunderstandings regarding evolution). Is there much hope for the independence of science in the near future in Pakistan? Skepticism. Doubt. Curiosity. Uncertainty. These are all essential for the production of good science and in generating a scientific culture. One doesn't have to leave religion to embrace these values to do fantastic science (for example, see - Abdus Salam). But one does need the freedom to explore ideas wherever they take you. But with the rising power of the ulema, this space will be even more limited in Pakistan. 

Not related to science, but I just ran into this news item. Darul Uloom Deoband in India, has recently issued a fatwa barring women from working as receptionists. I guess they didn't want to be left behind in the race for idiocy. The query, perhaps not too surprisingly, came from a Pakistan-based company. From Dawn
India’s leading Islamic seminary, the Darul Uloom Deoband, has barred Muslim women from working as receptionists, calling the act un-Islamic and against Shariah law, said a reported published on Tuesday. 
According to the Press Trust of India, the Darul Uloom Deoband has issued a fatwa against the appointment of Muslim women as receptionists. The seminary issued the fatwa after a Pakistan-based company submitted a query on Nov 29 regarding the appointment of Muslim women as receptionists, said the report. 
Darul Uloom said that a Muslim woman working in offices as receptionist was un-Islamic because Muslim women were not allowed to appear before men without wearing a veil, as ordained by Islam. 
Muslim cleric and president of the UP Imam organisation, Mufti Zulfikar Ali, defended the fatwa and said that Muslim women could work in offices if they wore the veil. However, he added, the post of receptionist required constant interactions with people, and thus should not be practiced.
Okay - this is all a downer. But lets not forget that there are also those who are trying to keep science and Islam separate. So let me leave you with a link to the Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSoP) and a short video of Pervez Hoodbhoy - who has been fighting these battles for a long time:

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Two Islam and science related events in London next month

by Salman Hameed

There are two events in London next month that might be of interest to the readers here. One is a workshop titled, Islam and Science - a reasoned approach, for students and young researchers to be held from January 18th-20th. This is by invitation only and you have submit an application to get in. You can find out more information about the event here. It looks interesting and the workshop will be lead by a number of well known people in the field, including Nidhal Guessoum (you know him from Irtiqa as well), Jean Staune, Bruno Guiderdoni, Ehsan Masood and Dr. Usama Hasan:
This event will be the latest in a series of educational workshops that have previously been held in Algiers, Paris and other locations. A “reasoned approach” will be taken to Islam and Science: one that is well informed, balanced and constructive. The general themes of the workshop will be: Islam and the History & Philosophy of Science, Islam & Modern Physics/Cosmology, Islam & Modern Biology, Science & Islamic Ethics, Islam & New Paradigms of Science. The workshop will represent a unique opportunity for Muslim students and young researchers to discover the contemporary field of ‘science and religion’ through lectures by, and in-depth discussions with, internationally-recognised thinkers and experts in this field, including Prof. Nidhal Guessoum, Prof. Jean Staune, Prof. Bruno Guiderdoni, Ehsan Masood and Dr. Usama Hasan.
Also, if you are interested more specifically on the issue of Islam and evolution, then you can attend a conference on Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution? on January 5th. This one includes a scientific and a theological session.  Dr. Usama Hasan will also be part of this, and it is fantastic that evolutionary biologist, Ehab Abouheif will also be there (he is an outstanding researcher and he also participated in the Boston Evolution and Islam event last month). However, it is unclear how much science will be in the scientific session, as one of the speakers is from the Harun Yahya group (wait - are there still people around who take Harun Yahya seriously??). Here are the details of the conference:

The Deen Institute proudly announces its first ‘Dialogue within Islam’ event. The conference titled: Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?, will for the first time in the UK, to witness prominent Muslims tackling the controversial topic of evolution in a public forum. 
“Dialogue within Islam” events seek to engage with challenging ideas of concern to Muslims, in a setting that allows for critical dialogue. 
Historically, Muslims have held conflicting opinions on the theory of evolution and whether science and Islamic theology share a point of convergence. In recent years, a polarised debate on the topic has left many Muslims confused as to what Islam does, or doesn’t say, about human evolution. 
The Deen Institute will therefore provide a platform to different viewpoints so that the topic might be debated and examined in an honest, respectful and tolerant environment.
The conference will elucidate the issue of human evolution from an Islamic viewpoint, in order to provide the audience with a clear understanding of the points of convergence between contemporary scientific theories and Islamic theology.
There you go. The next year is starting with a bang.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

"D'oh" - or whatever that is in Turkish

by Salman Hameed

No seriously? A private Turkish broadcaster has been fined about $30,000 for showing a Simpsons episode that pokes fun at God. Oh c'mon. The general tone of The Simpsons has never been hostile to religion - and it's fun is often directed towards organized religion (though Lisa is definitely a good and moral agnostic/atheist). I haven't seen the episode - thought it does look good :)

In any case, here is the news item:
The Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) has fined Turkish private broadcaster CNBC-E a total of 52,951 Turkish Liras for airing an episode of the animated sitcom "The Simpsons" in which God is shown to be under the command of the Devil, daily Hürriyet has reported.

RTÜK said the fine had been levied due to CNBC-E “making fun of God, encouraging the young people to exercise violence by showing the murders as God's orders and encouraging them to start drinking alcohol on New Year's Eve night.”
What? Violence in the name of God. Well - that is indeed wrong!
In another scene, God serves coffee to the Devil, which can be considered an insult to religious beliefs, according to the report, which explained the motive behind the fine. 
Hmm...but can't that be hospitality and a sign of magnanimity. Oh well. The Supreme Board of Radi and Television needs to lighten up a bit.

In case you want to see Homer's theology, here is a snippet from a really funny episode. Here, Homer is skipping Church to watch football on Sunday - and that leads to his encounter with God:



And after the failure of Homer's new religion, God has a chat again when Homer falls asleep during a Sunday sermon:

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Saturday Video: Twilight Zone - Time Enough At Last

by Salman Hameed

Time is of shortage towards the end of the semester. So here is an apt The Twilight Zone episode: Time Enough At Last (in three parts below). This doesn't have the famous intro - so please make your own sound-effects for the title, before saying,
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into... the Twilight Zone".



Friday, November 30, 2012

A report about the Boston Evolution and Islam panel

by Salman Hameed

Last month I presented at a lively panel session on Islam and Evolution in Boston. It was organized by American Islamic Congress and its Project Nur. Now John Farrell has provided a summary of the session and a highlight video from the panel on his Progressive Download blog at Forbes. By the way, John is the author of a fantastic book about Belgian cosmologist and priest, Georges Lemaitre.

Here is John Farrell talking about Ehab Abouheif, his cutting edge research in evolutionary biology, and his faith:
So, it was fascinating to hear from evolutionary biologists like Ehab Abouheif, who runs his own lab at McGill, that doing science and practicing the family’s ancestral faith does not prompt any contradiction. 
Abouheif and his team made a splash earlier this year with the discovery that many species of ants retain dormant genes that can be reactivated to generate an entire caste of ‘super-soldiers.’ [His team's paper was published in the January 6 2012 issue of Science.] 
When he came to Boston University last month at the request of Project Nur and the American Islamic Congress, Abouheif not only shared his personal thoughts on religion as a scientist and a practicing Muslim, but he also shared his concerns about the consequences for Islamic countries that fail to embrace the scientific tradition. 
“There’s a lot at stake here,” he said, “because it’s well beyond evolution. If it’s not about the evidence, if you reject science, if you reject evolution as a science and you’re not willing to listen to evidence, then that means that for all of science, when it comes into contact with sociological, political conflicts, then you won’t believe it either.”
But ultimately he asks the question:
What’s interesting from my perspective is –whatever the immediate difficulties facing Muslim countries as they grapple with democracy and technology– in the broader intellectual scheme, I think science does not pose as many challenges to doctrine in Islam as it seems to pose to traditional Christianity. 
Or is it soon to tell?
I think it is too early to tell. If issues like the rejection of evolution become a matter of Muslim identity for most Muslims, as young earth creationism has become for many Evangelicals in the US, then we are going to see a conflicts with biology. But at present, there seems to be enough flexibility for many Muslims  to accept not just microbial evolution, but also animal evolution, including that of humans.

Here is the highlight video from the panel prepared by John Farrell:


Perspectives on Islam and Evolution from Farrellmedia on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A review and a discussion of "The Master"

by Salman Hameed

The Master is one of the best (and certainly one of the most interesting) films of the year! It is shot specularly and the acting is amazing. And it is one of those films where a second viewing simply enhances the pleasure tremendously.

But is it about the beginnings of Scientology? Well, yes and no. There are some elements of the film that seem to be inspired by the life of Scientology founder, L.Ron Hubbard. But that is just an inspiration. Rest of the movie goes in directions of its own.

Okay now to the actual discussion of the film. First we have a no-spoiler review (film autopsy) of The Master. For those who are interested in a further discussion of the movie, film professor, Kevin Anderson, and I also have a review essay titled, The Master: What is it all about? And yes, the latter discussion contains spoilers. [See all our reviews at Film Autopsy website]

Film Autopsy (review) of The Master:


Review Essay - The Master: What is it all about?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Russell Crowe as Darren Aronofsky's Noah!

by Salman Hameed

Now this may turn out to be interesting. Darren Aronofsky likes to explore the darker side of humanity (check out Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream or Pi or the more accessible, The Wrestler). So it may be perfect that he is making a Biblical epic about Noah - a story in which much of humanity dies in a deluge. The cast is superb, with Russell Crowe in the title role (I guess, you can think of it as a sequel to Master and Commander...). Already, the ark in the film looks different than people have usually imagined. Here is a picture from the set in New York:


And here is a brief description from Vulture:
The vessel is built to biblical proportions and capable of provoking awe at distances of up to 700 cubits—which is about how far away photographer Dan Wagner was when he captured this shot for New York. “To see it in person, and know there’s no CGI involved, was incredible,” he says. But Wagner wasn’t willing to suspend all disbelief: “The set decorator brought in tree stumps that weren’t there before, to give the effect that the ark was made with local lumber,” he says. “And there’s no way Noah and his sons could have built such an enormous structure themselves. That would have taken 500 years.”
The idea here is that the ark was not meant to go anywhere - but rather be a place of shelter. Okay - we'll see how it turns out. I have liked all of his films (yes, even The Fountain - for its ambition) and it will be interesting to see Aronofsky's take on this Biblical tale. While we are on the subject, here is one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons (full disclosure: I'm really allergic to mold - so this one really hits home for me):

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Electronic monitoring of women in Saudi Arabia?

by Salman Hameed

I actually saw this news item couple of days ago and thought that somebody made this up. But no, it seems that there really are no limits of sexism in Saudi Arabia. So in the 21st century, women still cannot drive in the Kingdom (the only country in the world!). However, it seems that the Interior Ministry is monitoring the movements of women if they leave the country - and dutifully informing their respective husbands via text message about any travels outside the Kingdom. This is all related to men being considered the "guardians" of women. Since women are considered dependents, they have to seek permission to get a job, travel out of the country, or even to go to school. So in the fine minds of Saudi government officials, when they are monitoring women's movements, they are simply "protecting" the dependents. Here is an excerpt from the story (and please do let me know if it turns out to be false - as this is just too insane):

Al-Sharif was one of the first prominent Saudis to start tweeting about the electronic monitoring issue -- describing the shock experienced by a couple she knew after the husband received a text message alerting him his wife had left Saudi Arabia, even though they were traveling out of the country together. 
What surprised and disturbed them most, Al-Sharif told CNN, was the fact that the husband had not registered with the Interior Ministry to begin receiving such notifications.
"It shows how women are still being treated as minors," added Al-Sharif. She went on to explain how, even though a notification system has actually been in place since 2010, before last week, a male guardian would have had to specifically request the service from the country's Interior Ministry before receiving such messages. 
In recent years, much has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the sole remaining country in which women still have not been given the right to drive. But restrictions experienced by Saudi females extend to far more than just getting behind the wheel. In the deeply conservative kingdom, a woman is not allowed to go to school, get a job, or even travel outside the country without first obtaining the permission of her male "guardian," or mahram.
Read the full depressing story here.

But don't worry. Everything is okay - as Paris Hilton now has her 5th store in Saudi Arabia, with the latest one in Mecca Mall. It is pretty straight forward. On the way to Hajj, the male guardian can now give permission to his wife to own a part of Paris Hilton's world of handbags. Isn't this enough freedom? What more do these women want?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Will humans be going to planets around other stars?

by Salman Hameed

Well, I believe in the Star Trek universe - and so I do think that we will be able to figure out a way to travel to planets around other stars. But the author of the fantastic Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson doesn't think so. From last week's Nature:

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the bestselling Mars Trilogy, takes a radical view. He suggests that we get over the idea of interstellar travel altogether: a probe would take 28,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri. “We can't go fast enough to get to any of these places,” he says. 
Barnard's star was once “the place for nearby space”, Robinson says, as his novel Icehenge (Ace, 1984) — in which characters build a starship headed for it — attests. Now that researchers have identified some 840 exoplanets, and NASA's three-year-old Kepler space telescope has spotted 2,320 candidate planets, “there may never again be a single default destination”, Robinson continues. 
In his recent book 2312, which imagines humanity three centuries from now, spread across terraformed planets, asteroids and moons in our own Solar System, Robinson writes frankly about the galactic hinterland we inhabit. “The stars exist beyond human time, beyond human reach,” says the narrator. “We live in the little pearl of warmth surrounding our star; outside it lies a vastness beyond comprehension. The solar system is our one and only home.” 
Of the idea that we are destined to go to the stars and inhabit, if not the whole Universe, maybe the whole galaxy, Robinson cautions “it's a fantasy, of power, transcendence and a kind of species immortality. We have to get more realistic.”
May be the problem lies in our neighborhood. We live on a minor spiral arm located about 30,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way (see the schematic below).

In a denser part of the Galaxy, we would have needed a much shorter time to get to an exoplanet. But then, we would also have been exposed to a greater probability of having a star explode nearby destroying most of the life on the planet. A globular cluster, containing a 100,000 to a million stars, would also have been an interesting place. But then there may not be many stars with planets in the globular clusters (Messier 80, below).

Okay - but in any case, we are now stuck here, in the suburbs of our galaxy. I think we will be able to figure out a way to beat the speed of light - or somehow work around it. Otherwise, we are looking at slow solar system expansion for the next several centuries...

Saturday Video: Sean Carroll - From Particles to People

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent talk by Sean Carroll, From Particles to People: The Laws of Nature and the Meaning of Life, that looks at what we know about the universe and how we can rule out certain things (like astrology) from even realm of possibility. The last part of the talk focuses on the way we look for the meaning of life. A fantastic talk and highly enjoyable.


Here is how he describes it at his blog, Cosmic Variance:

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment. 
The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Music as a bridge across religions

by Salman Hameed

At a time of tension (and war) in the Middle East, it is great to be reminded of individual efforts that elevate dialogues between faiths. Here is an article by Jalees Rehman that finds the music of The Epichorus as an enthralling example of inter-faith dialogue:
I recently came across what is a beautiful form of true interfaith dialogue: the music of the band the Epichorus. Rabbinical student Zach Fredman and Muslim singer Alsarah co-founded the band and their musical love-child is the wonderful album One Bead. In this album, Zach, Alsarah and the other members of the band combine Jewish and Sudanese-Arab musical traditions to create music that transcends the boundaries of culture or religion. The lyrics of the songs are mostly drawn from the Jewish tradition, such as the "Song of Songs" (Song of Solomon) from the Old Testament, but the album also includes the traditional Sudanese love song "Nanaa Al Genina" (The Mint Garden). 
The common theme of the One Bead songs is love, the emotion that is at the core of our human existence and spirituality. Listening to the music, one feels a profound sense of harmony that exists between the various cultural and religious traditions that are part of the Epichorus. The lyrics for two of the songs are taken from the "Song of Songs" and this reminded me of something that the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote. He composed a cycle of poems called "West-östlicher Diwan" (or "West-Eastern Divan" in English). Goethe wrote these poems to represent a fusion between Eastern and Western traditions. He also wrote essays in which he elaborated on his poems and one of his comments specifically refers to the Old Testament "Song of Songs", of which he says, "...als dem Zartesten und Unnachahmlichsten, was uns von Ausdruck leidenschaftlicher, anmutiger Liebe zugekommen," which translates into English as: "...it is the most tender and unique expression of passionate and graceful love that has been given to us." 
I asked Zach how he chose the name the Epichorus for their band and he said that it was a reference to Epikoros (or Apikoros), which is a term used in the Jewish tradition to describe outsiders or heretics. The members of the Epichorus are indeed outsiders in the sense that they have the courage to look beyond the boundaries of their religious traditions and have sought out a creative dialogue with people outside of their faith traditions. They are also "heretics" in the original Greek sense of the word, describing people who "make choices." They chose to embark on a creative adventure and found that they could engage in an authentic dialogue by creating beautiful songs together.
Read the full article here.

Here is a chat with the members of the band, where they talk about how they got together and sing a song from their upcoming album

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

[Update]: Farooqi School blasphemy case on NPR

by Salman Hameed

[This is related to the blasphemy mess of Farooqi Girls High School. Please see these earlier posts hereherehereherehereherehere and here. You can also read my take on this matter in The Guardian: Blasphemy Laws are Darkening Pakistan's Skies]. 

Two things to report. First of all, the bail of Umair Asim's father was confirmed yesterday by a judge of the Lahore High Court. The judge seemed to know the details of the case and of the fact that this was all an unintentional mistake, and he proceeded to immediately confirm the bail of his father (and apparently of the teacher, who is already in hiding). This is really good news!

In fact, the judge suggested to the Superintendent Police (SP) to go ahead and cancel the entire blasphemy case, as there is no intention in there, and therefore no crime was committed. But the SP suggested that he also wanted to get the fatwas from the leading Islamic schools before the whole case could be dropped. So now Umair's family has to wait for that. This is a perfect demonstration of how religious groups are now making gains in civilian matters. This is ominous for the country.

The issue of blasphemy cases, including the one involving Umair's school, was discussed by the NPR today. You can listen to the story here.

It starts with the fact that 27 blasphemy cases have been filed this year (and remember that the punishment for blasphemy, if convicted, is death. So this is no minor issue). It then goes on to talk about the burning of Farooqi Girls High School:
On a recent autumn morning in Lahore, hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls, many wearing veils, file into the Farooqi Girls High school. The four-story school sits just off a narrow, congested street in an older section of this vibrant city in eastern Pakistan. 
Getting back to class is a welcome return to normalcy for Farooqi's students and teachers. The school was attacked last month after a teacher was accused of writing insulting comments about the Prophet Muhammad in a student's notebook — something the teachers vehemently dispute. 
The accuser was a vice principal from a nearby religious school, or madrassa. On the night of Oct. 30, an angry and violent mob formed outside the Farooqi school. Still inside was Sheraz Shuja, the school administrator, along with the principal and some teachers.
"We heard a loud knock at our door, and they were trying to break the door. They were pushing it hard," Shuja says. "So we went on the top floor. Then they broke into the building, hundreds of people. They looted and burned everything. We were very afraid. If they had got hold of us, they would have killed us." 
The police arrested Farooqi's 77-year-old principal, and the teacher accused of blasphemy is in hiding, in fear for her life.
And here is a bit that should be of concern to all:
This is the fourth time this year that teachers working with nonreligious curricula have been accused of blasphemy. Sumbul Naseer, who teaches science at the Farooqi school, says she's worried. 
"So many people are having threatening calls from so many numbers, [saying], 'Don't open the school, don't go inside, we will not spare you people,' and this and that," Naseer says.
So yes, Lahore is not Swat, where the 14-year Malala was shot by the Taliban for being outspoken for her girl's education. However, given the fact that even most moderate (within the country's spectrum) Pakistanis support the blasphemy law ("oh - it is just the issue of implementation - but it is actually the right law..."), local religious groups and institutions can gain power using these blasphemy cases. If tomorrow members of the madrassa that led the charge against Umair's school demand some modifications in the secular curriculum or in the dress-code of the girl's high school, people will think twice before challenging them. Not to mention that already, people are seeking their approval for the dismissal of the blasphemy case. That is indeed some power. And this kind of Ulema power is relatively new and we are seeing these changes take place in front of our eyes.

But NPR did a good job on reporting the origins of the blasphemy law as well:
Under Pakistan's stringent blasphemy laws, it takes only one accusation — backed up with little or no evidence — to lead to an arrest. The original laws date back to British colonial times, before Pakistan gained independence in 1947. 
The laws were strengthened under President Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s, when insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Quran was made a capital offense. However, to date, no one has been executed for blasphemy. 
The laws do not clearly define what "insult" means. This gives wide berth to Islamist extremists, who have been increasingly using the laws to further their religious goals, says Joseph Francis, director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, which helps Christians accused of blasphemy. 
"Extremists have been able to exploit the situation," Francis says. "Pakistan is under attack from militants, trying to introduce their version of Islam and creating intolerance against minorities. The blasphemy law is one of the instruments they can use." 
Francis says Shiite Muslims, Hindus, Christians and other minorities are being increasingly targeted. The accused, their families and their communities often face vigilante justice, he adds. 
"If one person is accused, the entire community is punished," Francis says."In one case, six people were burned alive and 147 houses burned down. Many people have to go into hiding — they cannot lead a normal life." 
In a twist, her accuser was arrested for planting evidence against her. In a television interview, he said he wanted to drive the Christians from the area.
And these issues - including that of madrassas versus "secular" schools are connected to class differences, widespread poverty etc. I don't think this is exclusive of the way religious groups are strengthening their positions. Here is I.A. Rahman on this matter:
I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says charges of blasphemy often have nothing to do with insulting the prophet or the Quran.
"Our finding is that blasphemy cases are initiated, in a large number of cases, to settle personal scores, to settle economic competition issues and to settle sectarian differences," Rehman says. 
And that is likely to continue, he adds, because the government won't tackle Islamic extremism. 
"The government is not in a position to take on the militants straight on," he says. "It is weak. And the extreme ... wave of intolerance has sympathizers and supporters across the board in Pakistan." 
Pakistan's politicians may take warning from what happened to Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab. He was gunned down last year after suggesting that the blasphemy laws be reviewed.
Listen to the story here.

Again, wishing and hoping all the best for Umair, his whole family, and the accused teacher. Here is a picture of Umair (left), his father, brother, and his mother. A skipped page by a teacher in their school - in a moment of hurry - has turned their world upside-down, including all the education work they have done in the past several decades. What a travesty!

Blow is a picture of Farooqi school that is now open - but the banners on the school - probably by the school administration - remind us of the controversy (one banner is the Shahada, affirming the unity Allah and that that Muhammad (PBUH) is Allah's Messenger).


Friday, November 16, 2012

Not enough mercury in the beard: Tycho was not murdered

by Salman Hameed

Oh all the intrigue for nothing. Two years ago I had posted about the exhumation of Tycho Brahe's body to find out if he was murdered by either another astronomer, Kepler, or on the orders of the King. Well, it seems like the famous story of his bladder infection turned out to be correct and the cause of his death (See When are we going to see a movie about Tycho Brahe).

Here is a report on his exhumation from the BBC:

The 16th-Century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe is unlikely to have been poisoned, according to a researcher studying his remains. 
The body was exhumed in 2010 in a bid to confirm the cause of his death.
Brahe was thought to have died of a bladder infection, but a previous exhumation found traces of mercury in hair from his beard. 
However, the most recent tests have found the levels of mercury were not high enough to have killed him.
...
"There was mercury in the beard, you will also have traces of mercury if you have a beard... But the amount of mercury was as you see in people [alive today]," Dr Jens Vellev, from Aarhus University in Denmark, who is leading the investigations, told BBC News. 
Dr Vellev now thinks there was no foul play involved in Brahe's death.
"It is impossible that Tycho Brahe could have been murdered," he explained. When asked whether other poisons could have been used, Dr Vellev said: "If there were other poisons in the beard, we would have been able to see it in the analyses." 
Instead, he says, the description given by Kepler of Brahe's death at the age of 54 matches up well with the progression of a severe bladder infection. 
One widely told story about Brahe was that his bladder burst at a royal banquet when he had been too polite to leave the table and relieve himself. Accounts say he died 11 days later.

Okay - but I think we can still have a pretty good movie about Tycho. Read the full BBC story here.