Monday, July 30, 2012

Checking out Wilco at Mass MoCA

by Salman Hameed

One of my summer pleasures for the past decade has been attending a live performance of the band Wilco. Their music is creative and always evolving into new directions. Plus, they put on amazing live shows. In fact, it is the live performances where you really get a chance to see the production of their sound. I'm planning on seeing them at Mass MoCA tomorrow night (it is a benefit concert for Mass MoCA). In preparation for that, here are a couple of Wilco songs from the last few years:

Theologians (from 2004) - but this is the closest I could get to topic related to science and religion:

And yes, indeed the theologians don't come off too well in the song:

That don't know nothing 
About my soul 
Oh they don't know 

They thin my heart with little things 
And my life with change 
Oh in so many ways 
I find more missing every day 

Just for its music, here is Impossible Germany from a few years ago. It features an outstanding solo by jazz guitarist, Nels Cline:

And here is the kick-ass opening track, The Art of Possible, from the current album, The Whole Love:

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The battle over "Nothing"

by Salman Hameed

Why is there something instead of nothing? Why does the universe exists? These questions are at the boundary of science and religion. An explanation for the Big Bang would not answer these questions, as we may have a multiverse, and the explanation of the origin of a multiverse may still need to explain why we have the laws that produced a multiverse. From a scientific (and practical) perspective, we can never use a supernatural explanation. That would stifle inquiry - as we can never know if we have reached the actual limit of our understanding or not (there is always an origins questions behind every origin explanation). But scientifically we cannot say if ultimately there is a God that is the cause of why things exist or if there isn't one. The opinion on God (or lack thereof) is ultimately a matter of faith.

This point is explored in more detail by a new book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist? In the mean time, here is an excellent review that talks about the meaning of nothing:

Holt is just the man for the something/nothing detective story because he is one of those rare individuals who can speak three distinctive languages fluently: the advanced mathematical language of the quantum cosmologist, the sometimes-indecipherable language of post-modal philosophy and theology, and, oh, right, the third language: English. In fact he can write it with extraordinary subtlety. His prose is both suspenseful—his subtitle is "An Existential Detective Story"—and stringent in an exemplary way.
The new argument that has broken out over the meaning of nothing is one of the most profound and fascinating controversies in modern thought.  
The conflict is certainly more important than the Higgs boson business, because the discovery of the Higgs, the (supposed) Final Particle, the one that gives all other particles mass, just points up how little we know about nothing. It points up once again the true missing piece in our understanding of the cosmos: If the Higgs boson makes matter possible, what makes the Higgs boson possible? How did it come into being from nothing? And if they tell you the laws of physics created it, made it necessary, as some do, then what created those particular laws? And where are they in the midst of nothing? Hovering above, or somehow woven into nothing? But that would imply nothing has a capacity to contain laws, in which case it would no longer be nothing; it would be a vehicle for abstract equations. 
And how do abstract laws have what Jim Holt calls “ontological clout”—the ability, just by existing conceptually somewhere (actually nowhere, since nothing has no “where”), to bring something into being from nothing? 
And so on in an infinite regress into the abyss of the ancient but still hardy Aristotelian First Cause problem: Any proposed First Cause such as “the laws of quantum mechanics” will presuppose a cause previous to it that caused the purported First Cause.
So what is "Nothing"? No, it is not the vacuum. Holt found this answer which comes close to nothing:

It takes Holt 150 pages or so of travelling the world interrogating the nothing theorists to find one who gives what he believes to be an adequate definition of nothing—the nothing we seek to find, the one that qualifies for the “how do we get something from nothing” question. 
This comes in his conversation with the physicist and cosmologist Alex Vilenkin, and it’s worth listening to what a stringent definition of nothing really is: 
“Imagine,” Holt asks us, paraphrasing Vilenkin, “spacetime [the matrix we live in] has the surface of a sphere. ... Now suppose that this sphere is shrinking like a balloon that is losing its air. The radius grows smaller and smaller. Eventually—try to imagine this—the radius goes all the way to zero.” 
Pause for a moment to think of a sphere whose radius has gone “all the way to zero.” No time. No space. It’s hard—but not impossible—to get your head around it. Now back to Holt: 
“The surface of the sphere disappears completely and with it spacetime itself. We have arrived at nothingness. We have also arrived at a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius. This is the most complete and utter nothingness that scientific concepts can capture. It is mathematically devoid not only of stuff but also of location and duration.” Nothing is nowhere. 
It’s not anything like a chunk of vacuum because a chunky vacuum has extension. It’s not anything like anything. It’s nothing.
This is a good explanation. However, I'm not convinced that this is absolute nothing.  After all, the space-time matrix that we live in may only be part of our universe. If there are other universes out there, then they will have their own respective space-time matrices. From that perspective, a shrinking of our space-time sphere to nothing will result in a nothing of our universe only - and we will run into the same problem of something existing outside of our nothing!

However, the review is actually quite good and it also mentions the whole flap over Lawrence Krauss' latest book, A Universe Out of Nothing. And yes, the problem is that Krauss' nothing is actually something (quantum vacuum). Read the full review here.

Also see this earlier post: Multiverse Theory - Leave it to science

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A slice of Woody Allen

by Salman Hameed

Our local theater, Amherst Cinema, is doing a fantastic summer series on Woody Allen. In fact these movies are so good, that I am reluctant to see Woody Allen's more recent film, To Rome With Love (it has some so so reviews). But it was an absolute pleasure to see Annie Hall after a number of years. The movie, with its terrific looping structure, hasn't aged after all this time (except for the 70s fashion). While Diane Keaton is phenomenal, I had actually forgotten that Meryl Streep is in the film and so is Christopher Walken (update: Actually - Meryl Streep is in Manhattan - and not Annie Hall. Thanks for the correction, John. I saw films these two within a span of few days and mixed it up)! There are so many great scenes in the film, but I will post here the one about the expanding universe:

This past week, I had a chance to see Manhattan as part of the same series. It has a wonderfully shot scene at the American Museum of Natural History, where you only see a silhouette of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, with stars in the middle and in the background. I didn't find that particular clip, so  I thought I'll post one with a skeleton. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The folly of seeking premonitions in sacred texts

by Salman Hameed

I have written before about the futility of finding science in the Qu'ran and other scriptures. None of these efforts actually lead to any scientific developments (because this is as far away from science as you can get - and lacks a fundamental curiosity about the natural world), but instead are used by followers of each individual religions mostly for proselytization purposes. The same is true for seeking premonitions in sacred texts.

I'm currently listening to a fascinating Teaching Company course titled, The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meanings in Western History. It us taught by Professor Craig Koester, and is one of the best courses I have done there (One of my absolute favorites has been the series of three course on the Middle Ages by Philip Daileader). The first 12 lectures are spend on exploring the context in which the Book of Revelation was written and how people understood it in their own times. For example, the seven-headed dragon stood for the various aspects of the Roman Empire at the time of the writing of the book - and the infamous 666 stands, most likely, stood for the name of Emperor Nero (his name's numerical value adds up to 666). Koester calls the example of the dragon as a word-picture, and compares it to editorial cartoons in modern times (for example, a donkey and an elephant in political cartoon in the US would be interpreted by all to be the Democratic and Republican party, respectively).

But one of the fascinating bits in the lectures is about a particular change in the 12th century, where the Book of Revelation was interpreted by a reformer, Joachim of Fiore, to be a map of history. Apart from other things, for him, the seven heads of the dragon meant seven periods of history where the Christian Church was under a serious threat. Of course, he believed that he was living in a special time. And so he divided up the time periods from birth of Christ to the present. Some of the early Roman emperors represented couple of heads and early Islam was also included as one of the heads of the dragon. He assumed that the 6th and 7th heads were in his own time - and Saladin was considered as the 6th head, and his potential collaborator - the anti-christ - to be the 7th and final head.

Here is the relevant bit for this post: He also believed that the year 1260 was of paramount importance, as it will launch the final stage of history. Why 1260? He derived this from the Gospel of Matthews, that mentioned that there were 42 generations before Christ. Well, 42 times 30 years for each generation, leads to 1260 years. He assumed time to be symmetrical around Christ, and so he believed that the age of Jesus would last 1260 years after his death. Joachim of Fiore died in 1202, but some of his followers did believe in a drastic change in the world in the year 1260. Nothing major happened.

But this mapping of history onto the Book of Revelation then took hold, and it transformed the book from a purely spiritual document to providing a roadmap of history and future events. And of course, people see themselves - no matter in what century - as playing an important role in the ultimate history of the world. If Joachim and his followers saw apocalyptic events in the 13th century, then it is not much of a surprise that many see signs in the of end-of-times today.

Many Muslim interpreters have done the same with the Qur'an and the Hadith (For a recent example, you can check out this sensational Urdu TV special, Hidden Truth by Shahid Masood). The impulse comes from the drive to make one's existence more meaningful and to envision the ultimate triumph of one's own religion (be it Christianity or Islam) over all others.

This mining of clues in the sacred texts for premonitions reminds me of the search for modern science in the same books (and yes, Muslims find modern science in the Qur'an, Christians find it in the Bible, Jews in Torah, Hindus in the Gita, etc). Both approaches are clearly flawed and problematic. The science one stymies intellectual growth - and that is a loss for that particular culture. The obsession with end-of-times can lead to actions be some that can be harmful to others as well. I hope people keep their worse-righteous impulses in check.

And I hope that people use their Sacred books for their spiritual value.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Plugging for Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSOP)

by Salman Hameed

There are always things happening in Pakistan. Both good and bad. Just this past week I had posted about the Pew survey that found that, out of 21 countries surveyed, Pakistan had the highest fraction of people (81%) that saw a connection between hard work and success. But then we've also had a prominent scientist, who used to hold powerful positions in the government, giving in to bizarre conspiracy theories.

In this mix, comes the Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSOP). This fits in neatly with the large spectrum of views that already exist in Pakistan. The proponents of reason, though, are also often beleaguered. But then there are icons - like Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Ameer Ali - that were talking about the primacy of reason in a religious subcontinent even before the formation of Pakistan. Indeed, RSOP takes Syed Ahmed Khan as an inspiration. Here is their description of themselves:
RSOP is a platform for intellectually motivated individuals, whether of Pakistani origin or not, who wish to use rational thinking in understanding and resolving all problems faced by the Pakistani society. Our socio-economic issues are multi-dimensional and can be better resolved with a rationalist approach. We believe that Pakistan is gifted with vast physical and intellectual resources but it has failed to put these resources to the optimal use because of disrespect shown to rationality in almost every walk of life. This group encourages use of rationality as a thinking tool to decision making by all actors of our society, both rulers and the ruled. 
RSOP is a heterogeneous organisation that began as a Facebook group and comprises members of different viewpoints. It is important to note that the organisation is "Rationalist Society of Pakistan" and not "Rationalist Society for Pakistan". It therefore welcomes members from all over the world even if they are not Pakistani nationals. We do realize that Pakistan is a part of the globalized village and hence we benefit by communicating with other members of this village. 
RSOP is purely a voluntary organisation. It takes its inspiration from Aligarh movement of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and aims at reforming the Pakistani society through the medium of dialogue. The administration team of RSOP is made up of  volunteers who mostly belong to academia or media in various roles. They came together through the facilitating environment of social media networking. At the moment the admin team of RSOP comprises the following members
This is a relatively new group. Their focus will sharpen and positions will evolve over time. But such groups can play a crucial role in shaping and enriching the intellectual landscape. They have also launched a quarterly e-magazine, called The Rationalist-Pakistanand their first issue is out right now (full disclosure: I have also contributed an article in there). If you write, contribute your thoughts to RSOP. They even have a blog in Urdu. We need more efforts like this! You can join RSOP here (and on Facebook here).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is environmentalism a low priority for Muslims?

by Salman Hameed

We have had posts on Irtiqa in the past that have highlighted the environmental efforts in the Muslim world. For example, see Eco-Islam and a "Green Imam" in TanzaniaGreen Muslims, and Islam & Environment: Conference and Book. But here is an excellent article by Saleem H. Ali (currently a professor of sustainability at the University of Queensland, Australia), that highlights the difference between a lip-service to environmental thinking and the reality on the ground. Indeed, when I visited Qatar and Sharjah last year for a conference, I was dismayed to see green lawns being watered during mid-day, air conditioned shops in Doha with their doors open, golf courses and an indoor ski resort (yes - you can ski in Dubai in the summer heat). I have praised the efforts of building the zero carbon city, Masdar, near Abu Dhabi - but I hope it is not a gimmick.

I think Saleem Ali cuts to the chase and asks pertinent questions:
Environmentalism has taken root in many Muslim communities but it remains a marginal issue for discussion at the pulpit. Most imams in America, pressed about the importance of ecological themes in Islam, usually offer a polite nod: “Of course brother, Islam respects nature; God’s creation must be valued; Cleanliness is essential and part of our ritual.” Such vacuous platitudes are very common but when it comes to the serious task of educating our children about ecological ethics, there is rarely any attention given.
Unfortunately, the essence of ecology – the natural science of studying how humans interact with their environment – eludes most centers of Islamic learning. This apathy towards nature is emblematic of the growing imbalance which many practicing Muslims have regarding “deen” and “dunya.” They are often drawn to one pole or the other with a reluctance to engage productively with the time-tested Islamic edict of “meezaan” or balance. For livelihoods, they might ostensibly appear to be keeping a balance between work and family but they are in fact compartmentalizing their lives. So yes, most religious Muslims are also successful professionals but do they really try to connect with their world in the same planetary way that the term “dunya” suggests in its natural connotation? Such an ecological lens of viewing their lives would help them keep perspective of this need for “meezaan.” 
For political reasons, terms like “moderation” have been stigmatized and are often branded as a co-optation strategy to drive people away from theology. One young Muslim scholar responded, “all this environmental stuff – what relevance does it have when Muslims are dying in wars or being persecuted?” The response to such thinking would be: Have you ever thought why things are not changing for the better in terms of our predicament? One explanation might be that Muslims have become “denaturalized” – we do not want to make the full connection with the natural world in terms of scientific inquiry, reflective appreciation for the natural world and thus we have an existential angst that comes out in either aggression or apathy. 
Muslims, particularly influential and well-intentioned groups like the Tablighi-Jamaat, simply dismiss requests for environmental education by saying: “Brother, this world is ephemeral and so we should just prepare for the Afterlife.” Such a simplistic vision of the present and the future and human obligations to the planet, however, is detracting Muslims from reaching their full potentials as stewards of the planet – which was the primordial obligation given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
To make a practical impact, he is collaborating with local Muslim communities in the US to emphasize environmental values in their religious teachings:
Once we have the knowledge base to appreciate and understand the natural world, we need to change our day-to-day conduct and consider our impacts on the planet. This means changes in behavior in terms of what we eat and drink and the kinds of products we consume and many of the usual edicts one comes across from contemporary environmentalism. Of particular note might be a reconsideration of the dominance of meat in the diets of many Muslims. Apart from certain rituals, there is no injunction in Islam to consume so much meat (particularly cattle meat) which has become a cultural corrosion and has an enormous impact on resource depletion. 
Perhaps the most salient behavioral change that Muslims can make is greater awareness of their surroundings and realizing the complex web of interactions that sustains our planet and is manifest majesty of the Divine. Experiential learning is the most effective form of inculcating a value for ecological processes. In January 2013, I am facilitating the launch of a new program in collaboration with the Zaytuna Academy in Berkeley, California to help teachers and leaders in Islamic schools and mosques implement ecological learning more easily within their curriculum. Imam Dawood Yasin, the Muslim chaplain at Dartmouth College is leading the development of the program. Hopefully this program and others like it will spring up “organically” across the Muslim world and spark a movement of greater consequence. But to have a measurable impact, they will need to be taken seriously by Muslims in their daily lives. Making the connection between science and ecology, and instilling the importance of empirical research within Islamic learning at the earliest stage is the most sustainable way for such a process of inculcation to proceed.
I don't know much about Zaytuna Academy (I think it is the same as Zaytuna College) and their views on science. My skepticism comes from some other Islamic academies (and a number of dubious Christian Evangelical universities in the US) that hold problematic views on science. But if Saleem H. Ali is on board with them - at least on this issues, then I take a bit more comfort on this. I think it will be fantastic if they can shape and export a fruitful and practical green-Muslim narrative.

In any case, read the full article here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Turkish government versus academics

by Salman Hameed

There are a lot of things that are overall going well in Turkey. The economy is overall good (see this earlier post: Pew Survey - Turkey's positive economic outlook) and scientific publications in Turkey have been steadily increasing (see this post here about 2011 numbers). But then there are also a lot of worrying trends. In particular, there is a deep concern about the abuse of power by the current government - especially after getting a strong mandate in the last election. There is also a struggle going on between Turkish scientists and government officials. Sometimes, this has resulted in skirmishes over evolution issues and sometimes over the equivalent of Turkish Academy of Sciences. Things are, of course, complicated and too often analysts paint these issues in "Islamists versus secularists" categories - which is not only simplistic, but also often wrong (see this earlier post on a sloppy article in Nature: Is "Islamic Fundamentalism" on the Rise in Turkey).

At the same time, the arrests of journalists, students and scientists are real and a source of serious concern. Nature has an article about the launching of an international network to support Turkish scientists whose academic rights have been violated. I don't know much about the network, but the article avoids the pitfalls of a completely simplistic narrative. The breadth of reasons for arrests shows a general lack of tolerance by the government for any kind of dissent. It is quite shameful and the lack of academic freedom will stymie Turkey's own promising intellectual growth. From Nature:
Turkey is upping the pressure on scientists and students who question its policies, and international human-rights advocates are taking notice. 
In the past few years, the government has clamped down on the independence of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (see Nature 477, 131; 2011). It has also harassed and jailed individual academics and students. Now, an international network is launching a campaign to support Turkish scientists whose academic rights it considers to have been violated. The network has issued a report and this week carried out its first concerted street action, when more than 100 of its supporters joined a large protest at the opening of the trial of Büşra Ersanlı, a political scientist at Marmara University in Istanbul. 
Ersanlı was arrested last October, under Turkey’s 2006 anti-terrorist laws. A member of the legal Peace and Democracy Party, which promotes the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, she denies charges of supporting an outlawed separatist terrorist organization, the Kurdish Workers’ Party. 
Authorities have tried to prevent other scientists from speaking out against industrial interests, says Nesrin Uçarlar, a political scientist who has worked with Ersanlı at Marmara University. One targeted researcher is Onur Hamzaoğlu, an epidemiologist at Kocaeli University in İzmit, who revealed that the region’s industrial basin has high pollution levels and increased cancer rates. Hamzaoğlu is now being investigated for unethical behaviour leading to public alarm, and faces a jail sentence. 
Ersanlı will be tried alongside 204 others charged with illegally promoting Kurdish rights. Her arrest prompted colleagues in France to launch the International Workgroup on Academic Liberty and Freedom of Research in Turkey (GIT) on 21 November. The group is also drawing attention to the more than 770 students who are in prison in Turkey, most arrested for protesting against government policies, including the introduction of university fees.
But academics have been the target before as well:
Erol Gelenbe, a computer scientist at Imperial College London who was educated in Turkey, points out that although the erosion of academic freedom in the country has accelerated in the past two years, “there has always been little tolerance for independent thinking”. He says that at different times over the past few decades, “academics have been expelled from universities either because they were to the right or because they were to the left of the particular government”. 
Uçarlar agrees that the political situation is “complicated”, with right-wingers, left-wingers and staunch secularists all under attack. “I never agreed with the policies of Kemal Gürüz,” she says, referring to a former president of the Turkish higher-education council who enforced a ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in Turkish universities. “But I’m appalled he was arrested on 25 June without credible charges.”
Read the full article here (you may need subscription).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pakistanis top in the view that hard work pays off!

by Salman Hameed

I had posted a Pew survey yesterday about the economic outlook in 21 countries. With a few exceptions, the outlook was seen as dismal in most of the countries. Amongst the Muslim-majority countries, Turkey was the exception, and Pakistan had one of the lowest rates. However, in reply to the question about the correlation between hard work and success, Pakistanis have the most optimistic view out of all 21 countries!

This is actually puzzling as well as interesting. Puzzling, because Pakistan usually rates high on corruption scales, and I would have expected that to correlate with a general sense of unfairness (for example, see Russia in the chart above). And remember, that only 15% of the Pakistanis feel that hard work is no guarantee to success. I think this is also really interesting and says something about the general narrative of the country. Here is my speculative take on the reason: Perhaps, this is related to a sense of exceptionalism that has always existed in Pakistan. Some of this sense, perhaps, comes from an identity crisis - shunning her Moghul and Indian heritage in favor of an Islamic identity. Not too surprisingly, until recently, Pakistan has been a fertile ground for pan-Islamism, and Pakistanis saw themselves as the natural leaders in the Muslim world. The current state of affairs, including corruption, may be seen as an unfulfilled promise due to a myriad of reasons. The economic outlook is gloomy, the government is inept and corrupt, the US conflict in Afghanistan has brought its war into Pakistan, and ethnic and sectarian violence is tearing the country apart. And yet - this poll suggests that there is also a lot of hope.

Read the full Pew report here (and download the pdf here).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Film Autopsy (Review) of Devil's Double

by Salman Hameed

Devil's Double is a movie about Saddam Hussein's son, Uday. There are many many problems with the film, from Orientalism to sort of providing a justification for the US invasion of Iraq. Not that Uday was an angel. But the absence of any critique of US actions is, I think, problematic. Here is our Film Autopsy, where Kevin Anderson and I take a different stance on the film:

For other reviews, see our Film Autopsy website or our Facebook page.

Pew Survey: Turkey's positive economic outlook

by Salman Hameed

It is good to be back in Amherst and regular posts will resume here (let me know if I missed something this past week).

In the mean time, there is a new Pew survey out that looks at the perceptions of national economies across 21 countries, including several Arab and Muslim-majority countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and Pakistan). Overall, there is a gloom over the economy - and it is gloomier in the Arab world (though EU countries come close):

But one of the major exceptions to the gloomy outlook is Turkey (along with China, Brazil, Germany, and India). Just check out the table below. The percentage of people who see a positive outlook in Turkish economy has gone up from 14% in 2002 to 57% in 2012 (and a contrast in Pakistan, which which had 59% positive outlook in 2007, and is now hovering around 9%). But then check out Spain, Italy, and Japan - around 6 and 7%, and Greece at 2%.

Perhaps, not too surprisingly, few are satisfied with the direction of their respective counties. Here, look at Egypt. More than half of the respondents are satisfied with the direction of the country. But Turkey has gone up from 4% in 2002 to 47% in 2012 (and Pakistan going from 49% in '02 to 12% in '12).

I think it is way too early to say anything about the Arab countries included in the survey. The whole region is in flux and we'll have to see how things shape up. But Turkey, at this time, is clearly at a different level. There are a lot of vital changes taking place in Turkish political system as well and it will be interesting to see if it can keep up its economic growth.

Read the full report here (and download the pdf here).

Also see this post about an earlier Pew report: 
How the Muslim world sees American Science, Technology, and the Drones

Saturday, July 07, 2012

No blogging until July 15th

by Salman Hameed

Rebooting time. Headed to Maine for a week and will be offline (no seriously, no e-mail either) for the duration. So hold-off any important events until after mid-July. And please make sure that the Mars mission is on track for its August 5th landing

In the mean time, I will make sure that there is no trouble in Acadia National Park.

A Pakistani movie about Hitler's gangster son!!

by Salman Hameed

What?? Well, Lollywood (the Lahori Hollywood) has had its fair share of dubious films. So here is a case of a 1986 film called Hitlar, which has a convoluted plot (and not exactly in the most complimentary way) involving the escape of Hitler's son after WWII and finding residence in Pakistan as an evil gangster. In this parallel universe, Hitler is also responsible for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This switching is actually interesting. Pakistan and the US were actually close allies in the 1980s, and the switching of the blame of nuclear attacks to Hitler may be a reflection of the high-regard for the US at the time (ah - things are a bit different now...).

I was still in Pakistan in 1986 - and no I did not hear about the film. But the movie does star two of the biggest action heroes of Punjabi cinema, Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi. Rahi often played a hero, and Qureshi was an expert bad guy. So it is no surprise to find that Mustafa Qureshi plays Hitler's son (see the photo). And of course, there is a singing and dancing. Well, how can we not have singing and dancing? Oh wait, it also has bears. As it turns out, the son of Hitler (Qureshi) uses bears to try and eliminate his chief rival (Sultan Rahi). No seriously. This is part of the plot! This is pretty awesome.

Here is a bit from the fantastic website io9 (tip from Abbas Raza):
Have you ever thought to yourself, "Gee, didn't The Boys From Brazil really lack catchy disco numbers?" Well, you're in luck, you hypothetical (and presumably insane) alternate history enthusiast! 
The 1980s Pakistani action flick Hitlar presents a parallel universe in which der Führer escaped Germany after World War II only to settle down in South Asia. Once there, the deposed tyrant threw his racial dogma to the wind and sired a son (actor Mustafa Qureshi, with swishing Teutonic locks). 
The son of Hitler — the eponymous Hitlar — spends his days terrorizing a small town, using his musical sting to petrify his enemies (hear it in the video below), and conversing with paintings of his dead Nazi father. As the blog Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill explains of this particular plot point: 
[In] case there is any doubt in your mind as to whether it is really that Hitler that's being referred to, there are the numerous, swastika-featuring portraits of the man himself that adorn our villain's lair, which essentially serve as the filmmakers' way of saying, "Yes, we totally went there."
And that villain, of course, is Hitlar, the ill-fitting Shirley-Temple-meets-Louis-XIV wig wearing son of Hitler, who, as a shouty prologue narration informs us, fled Germany following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (by Germany, apparently) and found happiness in the arms of a Pakistani woman somewhere in the Punjab [...] Old Adolf appears to have passed on sometime between then and the events of this film, but that does not prevent young Hitlar from seeking the counsel of his dad, whom he refers to as "Master," via frequent soliloquies directed toward those aforementioned portraits.
Read the description of the movie plot at the Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill blog.

Here is the beginning of the film:

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Another victim in the name of "blasphemy"

by Salman Hameed

The combination of weak law & order and a dubiously inflammatory law has once again claimed a life in Pakistan. While Ahmadis in Pakistan are a constant target, accusations of blasphemy provides a broader free-for-all target. In fact, things can turn deadly even for the defenders of the accused - as was evidence in the assassination of the powerful governor of Punjab, followed by the hideous celebrations of the killer by some.

Now we have the case of a deranged man, burnt to death by a mob in Bahawalpur. He was accused of throwing pages from the Quran on the street. He was arrested by the police, but that wasn't enough for some. They raided the police station, grabbed the accused man, dragged him to a chowk (roundabout), and burnt him to death. That's it. To their credit, the cops tried to protect the guy, but could not control the crowd. Several of them got injured and their efforts to stand up provides a glimmer of hope.

This has nothing to do with Islam (such a mob justice, I don't think is part of any religion). This is medieval justice. But then perhaps, this is the deserved justice when minorities like the Ahmadis are institutionally discriminated and targeted simply on the basis of their religious beliefs. Until such discrimination ends and the blasphemy law is reined in, the mob will always be in charge of religiously-charged justice.

There is nothing much to say here except that this is just so sad to hear about this in this day and age. Here is the news item about the Bahawalpur incident:

The incident took place in Chanighot area of Bahawalpur on Tuesday evening. Residents saw a man allegedly throwing pages from the Holy Quran onto the street. Local police took him into custody and put him in the lockup. 
The news spread like a forest fire in the neighbourhood – and soon a frenzied mob gathered outside the Chanighot police station baying for blood. 
Police couldn’t stand up to the furious and violent crowd who got hold of the alleged blasphemer, described by one police official as deranged, and brutally tortured him. 
Some officers fired tear gas canisters to disperse the mob – but the emotionally charged people refused to hand over the alleged blasphemer and instead turned against the police officers, according to Ghulam Mohiuddin Gujjar, the station house officer (SHO) of Chanighot police station. 
Nine police officers, including SHO Gujjar and DSP Rana Naveed Mumtaz, were injured while trying – though unsuccessfully – to rescue the man. 
The mob burnt down several police vehicles, including DSP Mumtaz’s four-wheeler, before getting hold of the man, who has not been identified. 
Once the unidentified man was in the mob’s custody, he was dragged to the Chanighot Chakar (roundabout), where he had allegedly desecrated the Holy Quran, doused him in petrol and set him on fire.
Not much to add here. But also see earlier posts:
Students expelled in Pakistan for their religion
Religious discrimination fueled by Pakistan's education system
Will we see a reaction from the educated middle-class against blasphemy law in Pakistan?

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Need some outrage on the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mali

by Salman Hameed

Last year I had posted an article about the preservation of the spectacular mud mosque of Djenne, Mali. The architecture is amazing and distinct. Now comes the news that an extremist Islamic group has taken upon itself to destroy ancient sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. In the process, they are wiping out precious Islamic history, as well as manuscripts valuable for history of science. This is despicable and should be a case for outrage in the wider Muslim world. We'll see if the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), which fashions itself after the UN, makes an effort in the direction of this preservation. My hopes are low as countries like Saudi Arabia have themselves done the same in their own countries. This really sucks if you like and appreciate history.

Here is an excerpt from an article on Reuters (tip from our friend Tom Heneghan):

Over the last three days, Islamists of the Ansar Dine rebel group which in April seized Mali's north along with Tuareg separatists destroyed at least eight Timbuktu mausoleums and several tombs, centuries-old shrines reflecting the local Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the "City of 333 Saints". 
For centuries in Timbuktu, an ancient Saharan trading depot for salt, gold and slaves which developed into a famous seat of Islamic learning and survived occupations by Tuareg, Bambara, Moroccan and French invaders, local people have worshipped at the shrines, seeking the intercession of the holy individuals.
This kind of popular Sufi tradition of worship is anathema to Islamists like the Ansar Dine fighters - Defenders of the Faith - who adhere to Salafism, which is linked to the Wahhabi puritanical branch of Sunni Islam found in Saudi Arabia.
The article actually does a good job of presenting some of the nuances associated with this issue:
Mali's government in the capital Bamako about 1,000 km (600 miles) south has condemned the attacks, but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. It is still struggling to bolster a return to civilian rule after a March 22 coup that emboldened the rebel uprising further north. 
Some believe the tomb-wrecking onslaught by Ansar Dine, which is led by Tuareg chieftain turned Salafist Iyad Ag Ghali, may have been directly triggered by UNESCO's decision on Thursday to accept the Mali government's urgent request to put Timbuktu on a list of endangered World Heritage sites. 
"That is meaningless to Ansar Dine; what is UNESCO to them?" said Jeppie. Just as northern Nigerian Islamist militants are carrying out bloody bombings and shootings under the name Boko Haram (which broadly means "Western education is sinful"), so Ansar Dine's fighters may see UNESCO as an emblem of Western heresy. 
"They are not scholars; they are foot soldiers," added Jeppie, adding they were probably unaware that Timbuktu, which was an alluring mirage of exoticism and remoteness for 19th-century European explorers, represented multiple and varied layers of Islamic tradition deposited like sand over centuries. 
Its long history had tracked the turbulent rise and fall of the great African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai.
"Timbuktu was sacked many times before," said Jeppie.
"But we have had no events of destruction of monuments, mosques and tombs. It never happened before."
And New Scientist also has a piece that talks about the potential of losing precious history of science material:
Various sites in Timbuktu house a matchless collection of 300,000 ancient Islamic texts, some dating from the 13th century, which include treatises on science and mathematics. Among them are texts on the harmful effects of tobacco, on medicine as practised 300 years ago, and on astronomy
One of UNESCO's projects is to translate and digitise the Timbuktu manuscripts, many of which are currently kept in the town's Ahmed Baba Institute. They are among the most important historical texts in Africa.
Read the full article here

The problem is that this sort of destruction may be becoming more common. Is this a resurgence of Salafi version of Islam, or is it the desperate last grasp in the face of a fast changing world? I think (and hope) it is the latter - but we'll have to wait and see. Here is a post by Tom Heneghan that connects the destruction in Mali to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan. The political goals may be different in each country, but the tactic is similar:
The grim sacking of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu is the latest chapter in an assault on prized religious heritage across the Muslim world that has picked up over the past decade with the spread of radical Islamism. 
The world got a first taste of this iconoclasm in 2001, when Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban blew up two huge 6th-century statues of Buddha despite an international outcry.
Since then, radical Islamists have also struck holy sites of other faiths, especially Christian churches. But their most frequent targets have been mosques and shrines of other Muslims loyal to a version of Islam less puritanical than their own. 
This violence has spread through Pakistan, starting near the Afghan border and fanning out to strike famous Sufi shrines as far away as Lahore and southern Punjab. 
It broke out in the Middle East last year when, in the wake of the Arab Spring, once-repressed Salafi groups destroyed shrines in Egypt. In Libya, some militants dug up Sufi saints’ graves and dumped their remains on garbage heaps. 
Like the radicals’ strict theology, this assault on rival religious heritage goes back to the dawn of Islam and is rigorously enforced in its birthplace, Saudi Arabia.
Read the full post here

Higgs Particle: Check. Now can we stop adding "God" to theories in physics?

by Salman Hameed

Unless you have been living under a giant particle, you must have heard about the announcement of the (almost certain) detection of the Higgs boson (if not, here is the dry CERN press release, and a slightly less dry article from the BBC and NYT). Actually this is a pretty demonstration of how science works in the age of big collaborations. It is also very cool that, once again, the existence of a particle that was predicted purely from theoretical considerations has been found to be real - or as real as we can say for now. This means that some of the foundational theories (such as the Standard Model) may be more or less right. The problem is that it will still need modifications. Among other things, the Standard Model does not include gravity (the weakest of the four forces) in its solutions and does not say anything about dark matter and dark energy - the stuff that makes up 96% of the universe. But the discovery of Higgs boson shows that we may be on the right track.

So now that we have detected the Higgs particle, can we please stop calling it the "God particle"? I know that this is a tongue-in-cheek metaphor to describe the importance of the particle (the Higgs particle provides an explanation of why other particles have masses (or don't, as in the case of photons)). While the metaphor has caught public's attention, it also misrepresents the science (or scientific thinking) behind the Higgs particle - i.e. that it has nothing to do with religion - one way or the other. The discovery of the particle does not prove (or disprove) the existence of God. The same if the particle had not been found.

By the way, astronomers are also guilty of this. For example, fingers of god is an observational effect that makes clusters of galaxies appear elongated in our direction and to some it seems that cosmic fingers are pointing towards us. Okay - this may be funny (and it is) when presented in an astronomy colloquium. But it is a problematic (and even offensive for some) when conveying science to a broader audiences. Similarly, the ever so slight variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation have been dubbed be some as the Fingerprint of Creation (see this earlier post: God is in the Metaphor).

So lets celebrate the spectacular discovery of the Higgs particle. The discovery is already leading to new questions. But please, lets not add "God" or "Creator" to any of the new questions. The science is quite amazing - and lets keep it that way. Discoveries such as the Higgs particle have been possible only because of our insistence on precision in physics, mathematics and engineering. How about if we also stay careful in language and avoid sloppy metaphors as well?

So here is to the Boson and enjoy the Large Hadron Rap (it is actually quite informative) and then a bit from NOVA (tip from Laura Sizer):

Watch The Higgs Particle Matters on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ferromagnetic sentient beings?

by Salman Hameed

Couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker published its first-ever special issue on science fiction (yes, I'm catching up on reading). It has some fascinating essays including personal reflections from authors like Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, and Anthony Burgess (actually, if you have access to it, do check out the fascinating essay by Anthony Burgess on rebellion against the conformity of state and how these views have changed over time).

One of the article traces the origins of earliest depictions of aliens in literature. Each year in my Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind class, we talk about two important developments of late 19th century:  the discovery of spectroscopy (the fact that not only can we figure out the composition of stars, but know that they are made up of similar material as our Sun) and evolution via natural selection (the fact that not only life can develop, but natural processes can lead to complex lifeforms, including intelligence) on our thinking about aliens. Indeed, these two developments are key to changing our perceptions about aliens and subsequent science fiction.

The New Yorker article talks about these changes as well:

Before the nineteenth century, if authors depicted the inhabitants of other planets the aliens were essentially human. The suave Saturnian described by Voltaire in a satirical 1752 story, “Micromégas,” looks like an earthling, except that he’s six thousand feet tall. (And he has a Continental spirit, keeping a mistress—a “pretty little brunette, barely six hundred and sixty fathoms high.”) The Saturnian’s primary fictional purpose, as he visits our planet, is to marvel at the relative puniness of humankind, whom he examines with a very large microscope. 
It was only after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of adaptation and natural selection gained wider acceptance, in the nineteenth century, that writers began to speculate in earnest about the sorts of creatures that might flourish in environments beyond Earth. According to Brian Stableford, writing in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the definitive reference on the genre, Camille Flammarion was the first author to present a popular fictional portrait of truly alien life-forms. Flammarion was a French astronomer whose metaphysical interests, if he were pursuing them today, would be labelled New Age. (These beliefs damaged his scientific reputation, but they did lead to a friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, who shared a fascination with spiritualism.) In 1864, Flammarion wrote a nonfiction book, “Real and Imaginary Worlds,” expressing his conviction that there was life on other planets, and eight years later he produced “Lumen,” a peculiar fictional work in which the title character, a scholar, relates the myriad wonders of the universe to a disciple. 
“Lumen” belongs to the least congenial of literary genres: the philosophical dialogue. Vast swaths of it are given over to explanations of how Lumen, having died, has become a being of pure soul who is able to witness events in the past. Not only can he zoom in on choice historical figures and incidents on Earth; he can also see life on other worlds.
But it was fascinating to read about Rosny: 
Although the idea of aliens allowed writers like Flammarion to construct utopian fantasies, in others it prompted dark visions. In the nineteenth century, the thrilling possibility that we have company in the universe was, for most people, overshadowed by an existential crisis. It now seemed that, rather than being created by God, we probably just happened. With a slight change of circumstances, we could just as easily unhappen. 
In France, this less comforting view of a universe filled with alien life was adopted by an enigmatic Belgian who wrote under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny. Born Joseph Henri Honoré Boëx in 1856, he shared the Rosny pen name with his younger brother. The elder Rosny—a protégé of the writer and publisher Edmond de Goncourt—also wrote naturalistic novels, published a manifesto in Le Figaro attacking Émile Zola, and otherwise inhabited the role of fiery saloniste. 
Rosny’s “scientific romances”—as the genre was called until the nineteen-thirties—won him the esteem of some French scientists, according to Danièle Chatelain and George Slosser, the translators of the recently published “Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind” (Wesleyan). Today, Rosny is best known as the author of the novel that is the basis for the 1981 film “Quest for Fire.” In the new collection’s bold introduction, Chatelain and Slosser champion the relatively obscure Rosny, over Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as the true “father of hard science fiction”—a term used to describe narratives in which science, not human concerns, determines how the story unfolds. Rosny, they assert, was the first to attempt fiction in this “neutral, ahumanistic manner.”
And here is the bit about Rosny's ferromagnetic beings: 
In a story that he published two decades later, “The Death of the Earth,” the beleaguered remnants of humanity confront an even stranger species. In the distant future, Earth is racked by massive earthquakes and water shortages. In the wastelands beyond the few surviving settlements, a new life-form emerges: the ferromagnetics, sentient metallic beings that glow in the dark. (Rosny was big on bioluminescence.) Although the creatures are not manifestly hostile, they will vampirically leach the iron from the blood of any human who spends too much time around them. The hero, at the story’s conclusion, is the last human alive, and he decides to lie down among ferromagnetics so that a trace of his own species will be preserved in Earth’s inheritors.
This is an awesome! I have always been fascinated by "last human" narratives (be it on the world, or on an island), and this seems to be such a fantastic ending. 

Natural selection, of course, plays an important role in War of the Worlds. But the book, like all good science fiction, is a scathing commentary on the existing society: 
The narrator of “The War of the Worlds” calls the arrival of the Martians “the great disillusionment,” an interplanetary bulletin delivering the bad news of humanity’s fragility and inconsequence. A “philosophical writer,” he has the misfortune of getting stuck for eight days in a claustrophobic hideout with a mentally disintegrating curate. This useless spokesman of religion can only wail over the betrayal of his faith. He asks, “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? What are these Martians?” The narrator pointedly responds, “What are we?” 
Whether your preferred variety of exceptionalism is religious, ethnic, or species-based, the Martians are here to tear it down. The aliens feed on human blood, but after the narrator discovers this ghastly fact he muses that “an intelligent rabbit” would surely find our own carnivorous appetites equally appalling. Are the aliens really any worse than the imperial power they’ve chosen to attack? The Tasmanians, the narrator notes, “were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants.” There is a heavy, if unspoken, sense that the British are getting a taste of their own medicine. 
Wells was a socialist and, for a while, a member of the Fabian Society—which is to say, a kind of optimist. But in this work, and in scientific romances to come, he offered little hope that humanity could peaceably coexist with extraterrestrials. According to Stableford, early British science-fiction writers were more prone than the French to picture the encounter between humans and aliens as a brutal clash from which only the fittest would emerge alive. This was, he implies, how Britons saw most social relations. Margaret Thatcher’s remark about there being no such thing as society comes to mind. 
At the end of Wells’s novel, Britain is saved not by military prowess but by natural selection: the Martians succumb to a bacterial infection. They lack the resistance that humanity has acquired over millennia, an immunity that we have paid for with “the toll of a billion deaths.” 
The narrator of Wells’s novel may describe the Martians as “the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive,” but he comes to suspect that they have descended from a species that was a lot like human beings. In other words, they aren’t doing anything to us that we haven’t done countless times to one another. Why should we anticipate anything different? 
Read the full article here

Monday, July 02, 2012

Einstein and his anti-war views

by Salman Hameed

The moral issues surrounding science for military purposes are - to say the least - tricky. Here is a recent discovery of some correspondence that shows views of Einstein on science and war:

A cleanup of the archives of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in January yielded an unexpected treasure for the 95-year-old news service: hand-typed correspondence between JTA's founder, Jacob Landau, and Albert Einstein. Among the yellowing letters was a 20 January 1947 statement from Einstein on scientists' role in military research—a hot topic in the wake of World War II and the wartime use of atomic weapons.
“Non-cooperation in military matters should be a vital part of the moral code of basic scientists,” Einstein wrote, adding that keeping basic discoveries secret “would seriously harm science.” 
Einstein had expressed similar antiwar views prior to writing that letter, but it does shed new light on the physicist's views “on the relationship of science and state,” says Harvard University historian Peter Galison. Einstein writes, for example, that for science, “moral law is above any obligation to the state.”                      

This also reminded me of the brilliant Richard Feynman. He was part of the Manhattan Project and initially celebrated the success of the bomb - purely from the physics perspective. After all, here was a case that of mathematical equations leading to a physical reality. But when the pictures from Hiroshima came back, his reaction changed. Several years later, here he is talking about his role in the Manhattan Project:

Of course, the issue of the morality of nuclear weapons is very much alive in several of the Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan and Iran. While we, as humanity, are playing with fire with nuclear weapon proliferation, the US still does not have much of a case to stop Iran (and previously, Pakistan and India) from obtaining nuclear weapons. So far, Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only instances of the use of nuclear weapons. I hope that it stays that way, but I don't think I can bet on that.

Time to watch some anti-nuclear Sagan again.
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