Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Some sanity with science: Iran and Israel collaborate on subatomic physics

by Salman Hameed

This is perfect project to show that there is still hope for sanity in this world. At a time when the rhetoric of war has been rising, Israel and Iran - along with Jordan and Turkey - have been collaborating on SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East). It is built with the help of UNESCO and will be located in Jordan. It is expected to be operational by 2015. From last week's Nature:
Based in Allan, outside Amman, Jordan, SESAME aims to build scientific expertise in its member countries and bolster cultural ties between them. When completed, the $110-million machine would be the Middle East's only source of high-intensity synchrotron X-rays, which are used in fundamental research ranging from molecular biology to materials science. 
The project mirrors the organization of CERN, but Amman is a long way from Geneva — metaphorically as well as literally. In recent years, SESAME has had to contend with the assassination of two members of its Iranian delegation and huge political upheavals in partner countries including Egypt. 
Despite the tensions, scientists involved with the project say that SESAME is succeeding because it has something to offer all the participants. Israel, for example, gets a world-class research facility on its doorstep and an opportunity to show its willingness to collaborate with neighbours, says Eliezer Rabinovici, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a member of SESAME's council. Other member states see an opportunity to educate a young and rapidly growing science base. “Turkey is also interested in developing similar laboratories and SESAME would be a very good experience,” says Zehra Sayers, a physicist at Sabancı University in Istanbul and head of SESAME's scientific advisory committee. 
Llewellyn Smith is optimistic that the remaining money can be found. Now that local partners have committed funding, the project is more likely to gain support from outsiders such as the United States and the European Union. And other partners in the Middle East, notably Egypt, may yet provide cash, although political turmoil could make commitments difficult.

Read the full article here. What's next? A joint observatory between India and Pakistan?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stem cell researchers from Qatar

by Salman Hameed

Stem cell research shows up Presidential politics here in the US. But it has been going on in Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, etc. Even embryonic stem cell research - the bone of contention in the US - is progressing without controversy in some of these Muslim countries. In case, you are interested, you can check out the official Malaysian Guidelines for Stem Cells Research and Therapy (pdf) and it also has a section on ethnics.

Now here is a news item about four women stem cell researchers from Qatar (tip from Don Everhart):
One of the first steps taken by the collaborations was to form the International Programme on Stem Cell Science and Policy, charged with examining the ethical and religious issues involved in stem-cell science, relevant to Arab culture, and engaging with local communities. Five years on, the plan is bearing fruit. 
Hamda Al-Thawadi, Halema Al-Farsi, Heba Al-Siddiqi and Sarah Abdullah joined the Qatar Science Leadership Program (QSLP), a QF initiative that aims to groom Qataris to take leading roles in Qatari science and one day steer its ambitious national programme of research. 
The QSLP sends students to train at some of the best universities in the world. And 2011 saw Al-Thwadi and Al-Farsi go to one of France's largest universities, University Paris-Sud 11, Al-Siddiqi go to Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Massachusetts and Abdullah go to the University of Cambridge in the UK. 
At the Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy held this past week in Doha, Al-Thawadi, Al-Farsi and Al-Siddiqi presented their research on ovarian cancer and obesity-related diseases. Al-Thawadi practiced medicine for two years before applying for the QSLP. "In the past there was only one path for a medical doctor, treating patients. But when QF started this programme, they created a new path for doctors or graduates interested in science," she says. "This is a perfect chance for Qatar to create home-grown researchers."
And Al-Siddiqi is a co-author on a paper published in Nature Cell Biology just this past month:
The first research paper Al-Siddiqi's co-authored was published in Nature Cell Biology in February 2012. "It felt amazing, especially after all the hours of hard work," she says.
Al-Thawadi and Al-Farsi decided to work on ovarian cancer as it is highly prevalent in the Middle East. Al-Thawadi incubated cancer cells in culture with Protein C, a coagulation factor, to test its effect on thrombosis of ovarian cancer cells, which led to a significant increase in metastasis. "This gives us a clue to outline preventative measures for thrombosis in ovarian cancer patients," she explains.
This is actually pretty neat! Read the full article at Nature Middle East.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Most Influential Arabs on Twitter

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.

Two months ago, Khaled Elahmad, a Social Media instructor in Jordan, produced a ranking of the 100 most influential Arabs on Twitter. He stressed the fact that such rankings are prone to change quickly, as they depend strongly on the level of activity of the various players. However, I will venture that the list he produced is, at least in its general contours, not only very interesting but also largely still valid, particularly with regard to the remarks I would like to draw from it.
The reason for this assessment of mine is because as Elahmad himself emphasized, the ranking is not solely based on the number of “followers” that a person who’s active on Twitter has; it also relies strongly on evidence of influence, which can be reflected in the numbers of re-tweets, comments, dialogues on a given tweet, quality of the accounts following the person, etc.
Now, before getting to the list and its noteworthy aspects, it is quite interesting to note that, according to the 3rd Arab Social Media Report, there were, as of September 2011, some 650,000 twitters in the Arab world (counting those who tweet at least once every two weeks), producing a total of 37 million tweets per month (or 14 tweets per second), 70 % of them being generated in the Gulf and Egypt. Even more remarkably, Twitter grew in the region at a staggering annual rate of 2,146 % -- which means that the numbers I just mentioned are obsolete and presently much larger. Also, English and Arabic are used in roughly equal frequency in these tweets.
Now, in the aim of determining the most influential Arab twitters, Elahmad used and to get the top 50 Twitter users in major Arab countries; then he turned to Klout, a website which claims to determine a person’s online influence by using many different variables on Facebook and Twitter, including the size and social importance of one’s audience, the level of its engagement with the messages being posted or tweeted, etc.
The entire list can be found here, but I would like to reproduce the top 10 ranked Arab twitters and make a few comments:
Klout Score
Number of Followers
Sheikh Salman Alodah
Religious Scholar
Abdelaziz bin Fahd
Faiz al-Maleki
Dr. Mohammed Al-Arifi
Religious Scholar
Sheikh Dr. Ayid al-Qarnee
Religious Scholar
Battal Al-Goos
Media (Sports)
Nabil Al-Awadhy
Religious Scholar
Saad Hariri
Political Leader
Belal Fadl
Nawara Negm

Two things immediately jump up from this table:
·      The top 6 personalities are all from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia;
·      Four of the top 7 twitters are religious scholars (strongly conservative ones).
Also, only the tenth person is a woman, a leftist Egyptian media personality who is also the daughter of a famous popular leftist poet. Notice that the number of her followers is dwarfed by those of the religious figures in the list, but still her influence is quite high, denoting a certain quality of the audience she enjoys. On the representation of women, I should note that among the 100 personalities, I counted only 10 other women (and that included a popular singer and the Queen of Jordan). Which is consistent with the ratio of 14 % found for women overall among Arab twitters.
Oh, and Barack Obama, with his ArabicObama account, clocks in at # 18 – the only American figure in the top-100 list.
To tell you honestly, except for the above remarks, which speak for themselves, I am not quite sure what to make of this ranking – having never used Twitter myself, and resisting getting onto that platform. I am sure many of the above personalities, especially the religious and political ones, have employees who take care of their tweets, Facebook pages, and various announcements and interactions with their followers (in both the usual and the Twitter meanings of the term). That probably explains why there was only one educator in the whole list: Dr. Nawal al-Eed, who is a professor of Islamic Studies at Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University in Saudi Arabia, and who has 54,000 followers…
Perhaps those of you with experience and knowledge about Twitter can shed some interesting light on the above and make recommendations for a constructive and productive usage of this important tool. Right now, I am getting the feeling that it is used to perpetuate the old system of thought…

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Video: Evangelizing for the space program

by Salman Hameed

On Friday I had a chance to participate in a workshop on science communication in London (and travel being the reason for the lack of posts the past couple of days). One of the things that stood out for me is the fact that the field of science communication is truly maturing now. It is looking beyond the simple communication of science facts to actually taking into account the varied compositions of audiences, and to being sensitive about the diverse background of audiences. There was also an interesting comment during the workshop that the state of science communication in UK is actually quite decent. Indeed, just look at a slew of high quality BBC programs with David Attenborough and Brian Cox.

In any case, talking of science (and policy) communication, here is a nicely done video of Neil deGrasse Tyson's comments on the short-sighted policies of the US government towards the investment in the human space program. In some ways, cold war was good for science funding - and without a threat, funding can be tight. The title here is "We Stopped Dreaming". Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blasphemy issue - in Russia?

by Salman Hameed

We have discussed issues of freedom of speech and blasphemy here on Irtiqa. Some of these are part of larger discussions on modernity and how societies balance individual versus community values. One recent post looked at the Qur'an burning controversy in Afghanistan and another on the arrest of a 23-year old Saudi blogger for his "offensive" tweets. So here is an interesting case from Russia, where two members of a feminist punk band are in jail for mocking the Russian Orthodox Church and perhaps more importantly, Putin:
In the month since it performed an unsanctioned “punk prayer service” at Christ the Savior Cathedral, entreating the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir V. Putin, the feminist punk band Pussy Riot has stirred up a storm about the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.  
The group has been accused of blasphemy; three of the women are in pre-trial detention and could face up to seven years in prison.
But we also see some over the top reaction from some high-offical clergy and also some push-back on some of the crazier statements. But in this age, it is really difficulty to hide idiotic statements:

Top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church have called for the band’s members to be strictly punished — at times tempering this demand by saying that they do not insist on a long jail sentence. 
Russian Orthodox nationalists called on national television for the women to be publicly flogged, while other Orthodox activists have condemned such calls as shameful, citing Jesus’ compassion for fallen women. 
That Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two of the three women jailed, are both mothers of young children has also been cited as a reason for minimal punishment and release from pretrial detention. 
Moscow’s City Court last week rejected appeals for their release, jailing them until at least April 24 while police continue to investigate.
Read the full article here. By the way, there are also some very interesting Muslim punk bands - who are protesting aspects of Islam, while also keeping their faith(s). I will have a post on them soon. In the mean time, here is the "offensive" Russian video:        

Monday, March 19, 2012

Can old history books supply us with scientific data?

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.

Just as I was reading the recent paper ‘How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate?’, and I was planning to devote my weekly post to it, Salman posted excerpts from a Science article about it. But I decided to still write about it because a few interesting issues are raised by this paper (and its approach), and because it has produced a variety of reactions.
The paper, which came out in the March 2012 issue of the journal Weather, has already been commented on in noteworthy publications and websites, such as Science, Science-Daily, Popular Archaeology, and numerous blogs. The paper itself can only be accessed by those who have institutional subscription to the journal Weather; and since it does not carry an abstract, the first page is made available at the journal’s site, here.
The idea is simple: go back to medieval historical narrations of various aspects of life in those times and regions and see if references to climate can be extracted and aggregated robustly enough to include in the climate data, since real weather measurements (temperature, precipitation, etc.) are not available for those times, having existed only for less than three centuries.
I myself was intrigued about how much solid information one could possibly find in such historical accounts, since I imagined that the writers in those times were not much interested in relating to later generations how the weather or the climate changed but rather what was happening in those times and possibly how life was like. How could that be used to obtain useful climate data?
So I read the paper, and I was actually quite impressed. (I will mention the skeptics’ arguments of doubts about this approach further below).
What the authors (all Spanish, though one Portuguese institution was in the lot) did was collect any weather/climate information mentioned in books by ten historians of the region around Baghdad in the period between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries (CE), specifically about years when the following occurred: drought, flood, rain, hail, unusual coldness, unusual heat, unusual wind, and locust. They realize that in many cases, the narrators are copying from one another, and they try to determine which ones are independent and which ones are replications.
Then, and this is the part that impressed me, they map those references into a plot of “temperature” vs. year, where the “temperature” is a level of coldness ascribed by references such as “cold anomaly”, which would count as “below normal”, “frozen liquids”, which would be lower (somewhere around 0 C), snowfall, which is lower than that, and “frozen river” (Tigris and/or Euphrates), which would imply a very low temperature.
When they do this, they find that the documents present climatic references which line up quite interestingly in specific periods, particularly that between 900 and 945 AD. Incidentally, the time of Al-Ma’mun (who reigned from 813 to 833 AD) only gets one “data” point (just about the time of his death), and it is labeled “cold anomaly”.
Having identified an interesting period when there was apparently a significant climatic dip, the authors go and search the global references for any abnormalities during that period (900 to 945 AD), and they find references to an unusually cold summer in Sweden as determined by tree-ring reconstructions. They also find other bibliographical support for a “relative minimum centered in the first half of the tenth century, immediately before the Mediaeval Warm Period.”
Seeing that their research is apparently being vindicated by other, more scientific methods, they conclude that this line of investigation, of course with rigorous checks and corroborations, can be a fruitful research path that involves historians who are experts in the life and conditions of a particular area and period along with climatologists. They mention a project titled ‘Historical Climatology of the Middle East based on Arabic sources back to 800 AD’, which is funded by the German Research Foundation.
What methodological criticism could be leveled at this kind of research? In ‘Scientists practicing bad history’ and ‘Scientists and bad history’, Darin Hayton insists that historical narrations, which are often written long after the events, are almost always subjective and are influenced by political and religious interpretations of events, hence they are scientifically unreliable. Hayton further insists that just because someone says “the river froze” does not mean it actually did. Sometimes narrations of (hi)stories are metaphorical. Furthermore, translating “not being able to sleep on the house roofs (as people in Baghdad did and still do in the summertime”) into “night temperature must have been less than 18 degrees” (the minimal temperature at which ones sleeps comfortably) is far from scientifically rigorous or acceptable (according to Hayton).
The authors, however, had anticipated this kind of critique and note that just as we do not doubt the reporting of astronomical events (e.g. eclipses, meteor showers, etc.) in historical documents, we have no reason to doubt when a historian (or better yet, several historians) report snow or hail storms in Baghdad. The reported date may be inaccurate, but absolute accuracy is not really needed here, and multiple references for a whole period is what climate studies want to have.
Interestingly, a Saudi astronomer, Dr. Hasan Basurah (a professor at King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah and a friend of mine), who was very briefly mentioned in the introduction of this paper, does similar work pertaining to astronomical/space phenomena, such as aurorae and meteoritic impacts that can be found in the literary records of the Arabian Peninsula, e.g. poems describing such events. Very low-latitude aurorae then tell us about very strong solar activity in the years when the events are reported. The solar cycle could thus be reconstructed many centuries back, though probably with sporadic references/data-points.
Perhaps I’ll check out Dr. Basurah’s work and report on it in the future. But this is quite fascinating stuff, opening new windows for both historical and scientific investigations.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Film Autopsy of the movie "Pina"

by Salman Hameed

Couple of weeks ago I had a chance to see this fantastic film, Pina, in 3D. It is one of those rare instances where the use of 3D is inventive, creative, and stunning. The movie is inspired by - and a tribute to - the choreography of Pina Bausch, and is directed Wim Wenders. Originally the movie was supposed be a joint project between Pina and Wenders - but Pina was diagnosed with cancer and dies soon after. Wenders ended up making a very different film - a film that serves as a tribute to Pina's choreography.

First here is our film autopsy of Pina - but please check below a couple of clips from the film (of course, you have to see the film on the big screen and in 3D to really appreciate it). Of course you can find more film autopsies here.

Here is a short trailer that gives you a bit of a taste of the film:

There are a number of spectacular of sequences. But here is a short clip that I particularly liked:

Saturday Video: Two talks on group selection as the origins of religion

by Salman Hameed

Jonathan Haidt is a smart guy and he's had interesting things to say in the past. I'm currently reading his new book, The Righteous Mind:Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and Iike it so far (I'm still in the first part of the book). Here is his recent TED talk on the topic of origins of religious experiences. Below his talk I have also embedded a talk by David Sloan Wilson - again on the topic of group selection and the search for the origins of religion. That talk was one of the first talks of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science and Religion.

But first, here is Jonathan Haidt on Religion, Evolution and the Ecstasy of Self-Transcendance (by the way, great visuals!):

And here is David Sloan Wilson on Evolution and Religion:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Moral outrage: Burning of the Quran versus free speech

by Salman Hameed

The US presence in Afghanistan is becoming an embarrassment with every passing day. I was already planning on writing about the outrage over the burning of the Quran when we heard about the massacre of 16 people, including 9 children, by a US soldier. The reaction to Qur'an burning was much more severe than the latter incident. How do we make sense of that?

I think a perfect starting point is something that biologist Jerry Coyne wrote last month. He had a post about the Qur'an burning incident, titled Eight dead because four Qur'ans burned. He ended his post by stating "It's just pieces of paper". This is an interesting comment and it got me thinking about how a society attributes value to things or actions. I actually agree that human lives should be paramount and not be wasted for any such offense (and that is why it was and still is lunacy when people threaten Salman Rushdie). But that doesn't mean that "it's just pieces of paper". It might be for Coyne - but Afghans (and other Muslims) value the Qur'an differently. If the US forces are in Afghanistan - then they should respect the culture they are in. Such a respect for other cultures is also part of liberal thinking. However, this appreciation of "value"becomes even more important when there is an asymmetric power relation, and it is the powerful that is accused of violating the local customs. The US forces are inAfghanistan - and they have to learn and respect the local culture.

But let me bring up two other cases:
1) Freedom of speech and the Danish cartoon controversy: Here, I the Muslims over-reached and showed insensitivity to the local customs. The issue of freedom of expression is not without problems, but it is an important one. Muslims threatening cartoonists for drawing pictures of prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is equally insensitive to the local values. If one doesn't want to see the pictures and is offended by them - don't see them. But one cannot enforce his/her values on to the local Europeans (or on to the South Park creators in the US) simply because one is offended by them.

We are seeing more and more of these clashes because different value systems are colliding due to global connectivity - and we have to understand and appreciate the different viewpoints.

2) The destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas: Talking about values, how do we think about the Bamiyan statues statues destroyed by the Taliban? Of course, the destruction of the 2000 year old statues by the Taliban was insane. But then the Taliban almost used the same logic as Coyne's: These are just pieces of rock, they are located in their territory, and they didn't like them. What is the big deal? But of course, this is a big deal. We associate value to them and deem them important for historical and cultural perspectives. Similarly, we can argue for the immense value of Mona Lisa or the pyramids of Giza, etc.

But of course, there is a balancing part. I don't think any of this is meant to be a defense of any loss of lives or any form of cultural practice. I do think that some of the cultural customs of Taliban related to women are deeply problematic (the same is true for Saudi Arabia). These are not easy issues and require some nuance. Calling Qur'an "It is just pieces of paper"misses the point.

Similarly, here is an article from NYT that talks about the reaction over Qur'an burning versus the massacre. It at least makes an effort to understand cultural values:    

The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.
“How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?” said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. “The whole goal of our life is religion.”
That many Americans are just as surprised that what appears to be the massacre of 16 people at the hands of an American soldier has not led to mass protests or revenge killings speaks volumes about a fundamental disconnect with their Afghan partners, one that has undermined a longstanding objective to win the hearts and minds of the population. After more than 10 years, many deaths and billions of dollars invested, Americans still fail to grasp the Afghans’ basic values. Faith is paramount and a death can be compensated with blood money.
“To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties,” said Hafez Abdul Qayoom, a member of Afghanistan’s highest clerical body, the Ulema Council. “When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have much stronger reaction to it.”
Mullah Qayoom is surprised that anyone is surprised.
“Humans were sent here to worship and protect religion,” he said. “That is what the purpose of a Muslim’s life is.”
Also, Afghans were very much aware that burning a Koran under American law normally would not be a crime, any more than burning a Bible would be — so those responsible were not going to suffer anything that Afghans would view as appropriate punishment.
In the case of murder, the military does have capital punishment, at least in theory — though no American soldier has ever been sentenced to death for acts committed in Afghanistan, including murders.
“In your laws there is the death penalty, so we are hopeful,” Mullah Qayoom said. “With the Koran burning, your people do not even respect your own books, so in the end they will say ‘sorry’ and the person will be released.”
That Afghans find Koran desecration more distressing does not mean they have been indifferent to the murders, particularly of the children. By now, any Afghan with a computer has seen the victims’ cherubic but lifeless visages on Facebook, and the images have been passed around on cellphones. Wrapped in blankets, some look as if they had just fallen asleep — the coverings hide gaping forehead wounds. A toddler in a blood-stained pinafore looks alive at first glance.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

So how cold was it for Al-Mamun?

by Salman Hameed

Who knows - our whining about the weather can come in handy some time in the future. But this is pretty cool (from Science):
Researchers in Spain are tapping a new database in their search for historic climate patterns: medieval Arab history. Physicist Fernando Domínguez-Castro of the University of Extremadura in Badajoz, Spain, and his colleagues, including a historian of Arab culture, examined references to droughts, floods, and hail in ten Arab sources written between 816 C.E. and 1009 C.E.. One text told of nights during a Baghdad summer that were so cold that residents bundled up inside their homes rather than sleeping on roofs as was the custom, the team reported in Weather. 
The texts, the team concluded, suggest that 10th century Baghdad had more cold spells than it does now. That conclusion agrees with previous hemisphere-wide temperature reconstructions by climate scientists—but it's the first time this has been demonstrated for Baghdad.  
Understanding how global climate trends play out close to home is a priority for many climatologists. Yet extracting useful climate information from medieval records will require trust and cooperation between researchers with little in common. “People are reticent,” Domínguez-Castro says of the historians closest to medieval archives. “They think, ‘These crazy physicists are here to steal my job.’” 
Still, the large geographic and historic span of Arab record-keeping is attracting funding from Spanish and German research organizations. Comparing historical records from German monasteries with those from Andalusian courts might also generate fresh insights. “Most climate reconstructions are from the north of the Mediterranean,” Domínguez-Castro explains. “The southern Mediterranean is climatically very interesting but also very little studied.”                      

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Muslim Obama and Creationism amongst Republicans

by Salman Hameed

A new poll is out that shows that an overwhelming number of Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi believe that Obama is a Muslim. How overwhelming is this craziness?

The results of the new survey by Public Policy Polling reveal a lot of interesting things, but the question about Obama's religion is probably the most shocking.
In Alabama, 45 percent of Republicans said they thought Obama is a Muslim and 41 percent said they were not sure. Fifty-two percent of Republicans in Mississippi said they though Obama practiced Islam, while 36 percent said they weren't sure.
Now, the pollsters also asked a question about acceptance of evolution. So why would one ask a question about evolution when dealing with politics? Well...because we often find a correlation amongst Evangelical and Republican voters. This may point to the fact it is not necessarily about science - but rather about identity politics, i.e. there are a group of ideas that define a group (denial of global warming is also correlated with this). So what do we find about evolution:
Twenty-six percent of survey-takers in Alabama said they believe in evolution, 60 percent said they did not and 13 percent said they weren't sure. In Mississippi, 66 percent of those polled said they do not believe in evolution, 22 percent said they do, and 11 percent said they are not sure.
Okay - so that is more about science and politics. More entertaining (or you can call it more depressing) is the fact that 21% registered Republican voters believed that inter-racial marriages should be illegal.What? Yes, this is not a time warp.We are still living in the 21st century - despite these 21% of Alabaman Republicans.

Read the full article here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Muslim Astronaut’s Experience in Space

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.

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor is the Malaysian astronauts who spent 11 days on the International Space Station in October 2007. He has been on a tour, giving presentations and promoting the idea of Muslims or people from the developing nations going to space.

A few weeks ago, he was in Turkey as the guest of Turksat Corporation, and the high-circulation Hurriyet newspaper, published a short article based on an interview it conducted with him. Our friend Gary, who picked up the piece (thanks for the tip), was struck by the fact that most of it was devoted to how he prayed (in which direction, how frequently and at what times), whether he fasted (he fasted two days, he said, as his trip was during Ramadan), and that the scientific goals of the mission were, as Gary put it to me, “almost an afterthought at the end of the article.” (After all, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor is an orthopedic surgeon, and he did conduct experiments on bacteria, cancerous cells, and protein crystals.) Even more striking was the following statement he made: “Everyone who goes to space feels a miracle. During my trip in space that took place in the holy month of Ramadan, I heard a ‘call to prayer’ in the Space Station…” No probing on this was done by the reporters.
I was puzzled by this, not expecting it from Hurriyet, which is, after all a strongly secularist paper, I went to the web and searched for articles and videos on Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor’s space journey and his ‘call to prayer’ reference, which I was not sure I understood. After all, perhaps he meant that he had a cosmic/religious experience and was drawn (“called”) to prayer.
First, no, the ‘call to prayer’ was stated in several interviews and articles, and indeed it was made quite explicit in a long piece in SingaporeScene, relayed by Yahoo News, in which he stated: “"During my time in space, I heard the azaan (Islamic call to prayer) and it was the most magical sound I've heard in my life." He did also refer to a cosmic/religious experience: "In space, you just feel closer to the Creator". In Turkey, he was also reported to have explained that he has become a better Muslim now, having felt that God had purposefully chosen him for that mission.
The Malaysian astronaut has explained in several interviews that the purpose of his space trip, granted by Russia as a bonus for the purchase by Malaysia of a number of Sukhoi fighter jets, is in fact to encourage youngsters to pursue science and math careers. It is thus greatly disappointing to see so much focus (on the part of everyone) on what are in the end rather trivial issues (how many times and in which direction he prayed, etc.).
Indeed, before his trip, Malaysia's space agency, Angkasa, organized a conference with no fewer than 150 Islamic scholars for the purpose of answering the religious questions (prayer time and direction, fasting, etc.). The result was a document titled “A Guideline of Performing Ibadah (worship) at the International Space Station (ISS)”, which was approved by Malaysia's National Fatwa Council. So much effort, when the Qur’an simply says “To Allah belong the east and the West: Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah.” (2:115) And there are similar principles to allow every Muslim to solve such “problems” in unusual situations. But that requires a minimum of intelligent understanding of Islam and of personal decision-making, which the ulamas are often reluctant to grant to people.
And so trivial issues become the core of the topic, and the exotic aspects eclipse the main goals.
A “Muslim in Space” DVD has been made to chronicle the space journey of Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. YouTube, on can find five clips of it (here): one is a 4.5- minute video about the whole trip (occasionally showing the astronaut doing some experients), one shows him praying in the space station, and another one shows him singing the chants of Eid, one has him playing with a bubble (in zero gravity) and uttering something about “surface tension”, one shows how he sleeps, and . Guess which one has the highest number of views?!
While I have no doubt that the Malaysian had the right intentions and objectives for this space trip project, it is quite disconcerting to see it to a large extent wrongly considered and hence missing its main goals.

Also see earlier posts:
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