Monday, April 30, 2012

The reasons/rewards for being in academia...

by Salman Hameed

I think if someone were to ask for the justification for being in academia, I can point to the last 10 days in the 5-college area. These days have been non-stop intellectually stimulating and phenomenally rewarding. Here are the highlights - starting from Thursday, April 19th.

Thursday - April 19th:
Screening of the new John Sayles film Amigo at Amherst Cinema and follow-up Q & A with the director. It was a pleasure watching his new film about the Philippine-American war at the turn of the 20th century.  It is one of the less talked about wars - and the movie brings up the questions of US imperialism at the time. The story - like all of Sayles films - looks at the issues from all sides: the rebels, those who reluctantly agree to cooperate with the US, American soldiers who thought they were doing the right thing, and commanders who knew what they had to win the war. It is a very well done film, but amazingly it didn't get a wide release!! No seriously. There is a problem when a director like Sayles cannot get a wide release for an excellent film. So if you get a chance, try to get it on-Demand or on a DVD/Blue-ray. Also, if you have never seen any of John Sayles films, give Lonestar - from 1996 - a try (and then proceed to Metwan and the Secret of Roan Inish.

Our film autopsy of Amigo will be coming soon. In the mean time, here is the trailer:



Wednesday-Friday: Worked on a paper with former Hampshire student, Don Everhart, who was here for three days. He is headed to UCSD this fall for graduate school in sociology (woo hoo!).

Saturday: Moderated sessions at student-organized 5-College Middle-Eastern and North African Studies Conference. Listened and learnt from some excellent talks about the history of North-African Jews in Israel, on Turkey's AKP, architecture of post-war Beirut, the record of the British state building in Iraq, and on fluid identities of Muslim medical professionals.

Monday: Attended a talk on the art and architecture of Dome of the Rock.

Tuesday: Attended a talk by Werner Herzog! Now this is amazing that we had John Sayles and Herzog here within a week. He was absolutely amazing. His main advice for student film-makers: "Read, read, read, read, and read!" He even gave a short reading list that he thinks is absolutely essential for everyone. Here are the three books I remember: Virgil's epic poem Georgics (it precedes The Aeneid), The Peregrine by Baker, and the third, I think was Bartolom├ę de las Casas' 16th century book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. There is sooo much more to say about Herzog's  talk - but it will take just too much time. Needless to say - he is absolutely amazing. If you get a chance, see him speak in person. And if nothing else, check out his latest documentary, Into the Abyss. (Also see my earlier posts about Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

Wednesday: Attended a talk on the development of Qur'anic writing and how the style of presentation evolved over the first few centuries. Also had a chance to watch the screening of a fantastic animated short film made by former Hampshire College students. It is called Caldera and here is the trailer:



Friday: Inauguration of our new President of Hampshire College, Jonathan Lash. There were some phenomenal music performances by students and faculty members, and then a rousing speech by Al Gore (and he was very funny as well! no really, he was very funny!). Well the video of the inauguration is not up, but here is a short bit from the local ABC affiliate:



And here is Laura Sizer (our Dean of the School of Cognitive Science and co-organizer of Science and Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire) and I with our new best friend, Al:


Phew! What a week. And now looking forward to the last week of classes. But the last 10 days highlight just why it is so amazing being in academia, and in a place with such high density of colleges. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Too much 'Heart over Head' in Luhrmann's new book on Evangelicals

by Salman Hameed

A few weeks ago I had a post about T.M. Luhrmann's book When God Talks Back. The book is a study of Vineyard Church, an experiential Evangelical church. After listening to her Fresh Air interview, I could not figure the exact thing that troubled me about the author. I think the book is valuable and it is on my reading list - but what's the issue. Well, today's review of the book in NYT answered that question. The review is mostly positive, but then the review aptly points out that Luhrmann doesn't really address the reasons why such Evangelical groups also have problematic stance on numerous social issues. This is where Terry Gross also had to push her on the same issue in the Fresh Air interview:

The skeptic, however, might wonder how all this gushing to God and pouring coffee for Christ shapes evangelicals’ ideas and values. There is nothing inherently conservative in a dynamic prayer life. Why, then, does evangelicals’ vivid relationship with God so often go hand in hand with conservative opinions on social issues and an uncompromising view of the Bible’s commands? Luhrmann implies that asking this question is a distraction. She says that for evangelicals, “the practices through which one knows God become more important than the abstract question of belief.” At the Vineyard, “people just did not worry about heresy. They worried about making God come alive for them.” She passes over most evangelicals’ affirmation of the Bible’s infallibility as if it were of no concern to outsiders, a tradition comparable to avoiding shellfish. One wonders if she ever engaged her subjects in a lively conversation about gay marriage or ­evolution.
And I think this is the key:
All religion is an affair of both the head and the heart. Luhrmann goes too far in suggesting that evangelicalism is all feeling and no dogma: in her telling, the heart has wholly conquered the head. We cannot account for evangelicals’ history or their role in politics without paying attention to the substance of their beliefs and the social and scientific lessons their communities teach them to draw from the Bible — lessons reinforced, perhaps, by the sound of God’s voice that they discern in their own ears. But Luhrmann has helped to explain something else: why the carefully reasoned arguments that the “new atheist” writers mount against religion often fall flat. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.        
Read the full review here. Hmm...may be we can cross Dawkins and Luhramann to find a reasonable explanation of the contemporary expression of religion. 

By the way, how do Muslims experience God? I know people use the language that indicates a physical presence of God. But I'm not familiar of any practice that is equivalent to - say - 'speaking in tongues'. What about the experience of having tea or coffee with God? (I'm not referring to Sufi Islam here). Here is another excerpt from the review of Luhrmann's book: 
 Evangelical prayer is much more than mumbled grace at dinnertime. As Luhrmann writes, “God wants to be your friend; you develop that relationship through prayer; prayer is hard work and requires effort and training; and when you develop that relationship, God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images he places in your mind, and through sensations he causes in your body.” Evangelicals have drawn on the insights of modern psychotherapy and ancient traditions of spiritual formation to learn to pray in a way that transforms their minds and — they believe — has astonishing power in real life. (One of Luhrmann’s subjects supposes that her failure to pray properly caused another church member to suffer a miscarriage.) 
Though everyone has the ability “to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows,” honing this skill requires practice. Luhrmann compares the “sophisticated expertise” required to hear God’s voice to the training that a sonogram technician needs in order to distinguish the outline of a fetus from a fuzzy black-and-white haze: it is a matter of “training perception.” The Vineyard helps members cultivate mental “absorption” by encouraging them to visualize the events of the Bible, and to imagine God’s physical presence: one pastor suggests pouring the Lord his own cup of coffee each morning.
I'll curious to know of any Muslim responses to such Evangelical churches. These might exist in sub-Saharan Africa, where Muslims are competing with various Evangelical Christian groups. Let me know if you have such examples in the Muslim communities.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday Video: Searching for the Higgs Boson

by Salman Hameed

This is a pretty nifty video that explains why scientists are searching for the Higgs boson and the process behind the search (tip from Open Culture). Here is a 10 minute primer on this cutting edge physics and now you can also impress your friends :) 

The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Colbert takes on a young earth creationist...

by Salman Hameed

The issue of Young Earth Creationism (the idea that the world was created in the last 6-10 thousand years) is specific to the US. It didn't really exist at the time of the Scopes Trial. In fact, the main proponent of creationism at the trial, the colorful William Jennings Bryan, was an old earth creationist. The idea of a young earth took hold after the publication of a couple of books in the 60s arguing for flood geology - that all of the geologic features of the Earth have been shaped by Noah's flood only a few thousand years ago. This kind of fantasy geology is, thankfully, missing from most of the Muslim world. This is very encouraging! An acceptance of the age of the Earth in billions of years opens up the possibility for the acceptance of a change of species over this very long time. It is really a shame that a significant fraction of population of the most scientifically advanced country in the world accepts such young earth creationism. I know that social and political factors, colored by a particular form of religion, shape much of this view. But really, there should be no excuse.

But the US problem is further exacerbated by the way the school system works here. Instead of a federal system, local school boards set the curricula. And the school board members are picked through local elections. Texas school board has attracted a lot of attention as most public schools in the US use textbooks published in Texas - and the Texas publishers follow the local school board recommendation. So it has been particularly crazy to see a young earth creationist Don McLeroy, who also happens to be a dentist, head up the Texas school board. He is no longer part of the board, but he led a fierce fight to include creationism in biology textbooks. Now there is a new documentary out, The Revisionaries, about folks like him who are trying to change the textbooks. I haven't seen the movie, but I don't think it is a complimentary to McLeroy or other creationists. However, our creationist dentist did decide to show up on the Colbert Report. Here is the entertaining segment (I think Colbert could have been harsher...):


I think McLeroy should team up with Harun Yahya and Zakir Naik. They will make first class Musketeers. Or they can be the Three Stooges. Actually Ken Ham - of the Creation Museum - may be a better candidate than McLeroy.

And here is the trailer for The Revisionaries:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rosetta Stone back to Egypt?

by Salman Hameed

The Rosetta Stone should be back in Egypt. I had a chance to visit Luxor in late 2010 and was completely blown away by the remains of the temples there as well as the Valley of the Kings. You have to really be there to appreciate the richness of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The museum in Cairo is also great and has some spectacular objects older than four thousand years. However, the Valley of the Kings is vastly superior as we are seeing it in the same location as it was. The museum becomes a bit remote. And a museum in London holding an important Egyptian artifact is even worse. The Rosetta Stone was discovered by the French in 1799 and then handed over to the British as part of the treaty of Alexandria. It has been part of the British museum since 1802. Isn't it time to rest another colonial acquisition and send the Rosetta Stone back to its place of origin? Perhaps - but unlikely that it will actually happen.

In the mean time, here is a brief interview with Mohammed Ismail Khaled, the Egyptian official in charge of in charge of foreign archaeological missions. The last question is about the Rosetta Stone. From this week's Science:
    Q:What challenges did you face during the revolution?
    We had many difficult times, beginning with what happened at the [Museum of Egyptian Antiquities]. The same wrong information was just multiplied by the media. People didn't believe us when we said that only 54 pieces were stolen from the museum and that now only 29 are missing. All the masterpieces relating to King Tut, thank God, they are back.
    Q:Are all foreign archaeological missions back in the field again?
    The only missions that left Egypt were from the Cairo area, and they left because it was not safe. But missions in the Eastern and Western Desert, in Aswan, and in other areas, they did not see the revolution. They never stopped working.
    Q:Egypt's former minister of state for antiquities affairs, Zahi Hawass, campaigned for the return of Egyptian artifacts, such as the Rosetta Stone, from foreign museums. Is this still a priority?
    It is our cultural heritage. We will not leave the repatriation issues unsettled. But the problem now is that the Ministry of State for Antiquities is suffering from internal protests: people want jobs, increases in salaries. You have to solve these problems first and then think about the fight outside the country.
And as a bonus, here is Sagan talking about the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Champollion using the Rosetta Stone: 


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Leonardo's Anatomy

by Salman Hameed

We only get bits and pieces of Leonardo da Vinci. Now Eighty-seven of his anatomical drawings are going on display in London. But much of it was possible because of human dissection - which was allowed by the Church as early as 1482! From this week's Nature:
Leonardo had come to see painting as a scientific activity, in which every effect (light and shade, colour, perspective) and form should be based on a true understanding of nature. The human body was the principal subject of the Renaissance artist and Leonardo soon realized that he would have to devote a separate treatise to it. It was not sufficient to study the permanent anatomy of the body: Leonardo also wanted to learn how an individual's appearance from moment to moment was related to the workings of the mind, so that a painting would reveal the emotions of the protagonists and the human drama of the scene. 
Leonardo thus aimed to understand the perception of reality through the senses, the structure of the mental faculties and how the nerves configure the muscles and bones. How could he even begin to investigate these topics? Human dissection was not banned, as is often supposed; indeed, a papal bull of 1482 expressly permitted it. But Leonardo was a mere craftsman, and — then as now — a craftsman could not simply acquire a corpse and start cutting it up. Instead, he was reliant at first on animal dissection, traditional belief and simple speculation.
And just check out this spectacular drawing from 1510-11 (also from Nature):
In the winter of 1507–08, Leonardo witnessed the peaceful demise of an old man in a hospital in Florence, and wrote in his notebook that he performed a dissection “to see the cause of so sweet a death”. He attributed it to a narrowing of the coronary vessels, and wrote the first clear description of atherosclerosis in medical history. He also described the pathology of cirrhosis of the man's liver, which he found to be “desiccated and like congealed bran both in colour and substance”. 
The dissection of the old man marked the beginning of five years of intense anatomical investigation, and in 1510–11 Leonardo seems to have collaborated with Marcantonio della Torre, the professor of anatomy at the University of Pavia. 
Marcantonio provided ready access to human material, and Leonardo may have dissected up to 20 corpses that winter. He concentrated on the bones and muscles, analysing their structure in purely mechanical terms, and the results were spectacular (figure above). Perhaps encouraged by the professional anatomist, Leonardo illustrated every bone except those of the skull, and most of the major muscle groups. The completion of his treatise was within reach, and on one drawing he wrote: “This winter of 1510 I believe I shall finish all this anatomy”.
And the reason, perhaps, why we do not give him full credit for his anatomical skills:
Leonardo had an almost perfect understanding of the physiology of the human heart. But he had no inkling of the circulation of the blood, and the existence of one-way valves was incompatible with the ancient belief that the heart simply churned blood in and out of the ventricles, thus generating heat and 'vital spirit'. Unable to reconcile what he had observed with what he believed to be true, Leonardo reached an impasse. He became trapped in describing the motion of the blood through the valves in ever more detail. And there, it seems, his anatomical work came to an end. 
There is no sign that Leonardo attempted to collate his research for publication. On his death in 1519 he left his papers to Melzi, and although the anatomical studies were mentioned by all Leonardo's early biographers, their dense and disorganized content was barely comprehended. Unpublished, the studies were effectively lost to the world. Elsewhere, anatomical exploration gained pace, and in 1543 Andreas Vesalius published his epochal De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), a model of what Leonardo's treatise could have been.
Fascinating! Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). Here is also a video that analyzes three of his drawings:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A French Imam versus John Templeton Jr. on the issue of gays

by Salman Hameed

Issues of freedom of speech and religion are linked to modernity and are thus close to some of the themes discussed on this blog. These issues provide us with a window into how people are thinking about religious authorities. There are a number of reform groups out there that are presenting their own versions of Islam and are trying to answer some of the challenges posed by the modern world. In the process they are asking a fundamental question, who speaks for Islam? It is therefore interesting that a woman led a mixed Friday prayer in New York city and there were calls in Pakistan to not sacrifice animals for Eid ul Adha. And then we also have Taqwacore. I will have another post on this fascinating phenomenon of punk Islam that, true to its ideology, is rooted in the questioning of authority.

But here I wanted to point out a news story that a French Imam blessed the union of two Muslim men. This is fascinating!
Two Muslim gay men, deeply in love, tied the knot in France with the blessing of an imam.
Ludovic Mohamed Zahed, a French man of Algerian origin, and his South African partner Qiyam al-Din, were reportedly married in accordance to the Sharia (Islamic law) in the presence of a Mauritian imam named Jamal who blessed their union on February 12, 2012, according to a report in Albawbaba on April 2.

The two were previously able to marry in South Africa under the country’s same sex marriage laws, which also permits gay couples to adopt but France does not recognize same sex unions.
...
After the wedding that was organized by Din’s family, the couple decided to return to France and settle down in a Parisian suburb, hoping that the French government would recognize the legality of their marriage.
But the French authorities refused.

Zahed, who has his family’s blessings for the marriage, says that he faces more obstacles with the French law than discrimination from Muslims.

Although his legal settlement was still pending, Zahed decided to make his wedding a family affair, with his trusted Mauritian imam in tow. The marriage took place in a modest house in Servon on the outskirts of Paris, and was attended by his parents and few close friends. 
“Being married in front of my family, was like a new start of life for me, I could have never imagined such a day would come, seeing the joy in my parents’ eyes after they had battled with my sexuality and tried with all their might to change the course of my sexual orientation,” he said. 
Read the full story here.

So while we have a positive story of a French imam, we have a negative story from the US. It has come to light that John Templeton Jr., the Chairman and the President of the Templeton Foundation, has given close to half a million dollars to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) - an anti-gay organization. Disappointing! I know the defense will be that we have to separate the individual from the organization - but he is only the Chairman and the President. And just to make a definitive statement, John Templeton Jr. also gave money to the the Super PAC of Rick Santorum. Yikes!

It would be great that the Templeton Foundation, which has been funding projects on spirituality and the intersection of science & religion, can also fund projects on generating tolerance and respect for all human beings, including gays. Now that would be spiritual!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday Video: Asimov on faith, reason and the concern for future

This is from 1988 - but American politics still seems the same. In any case, here is a clip of a Bill Moyer conversation with Isaac Asimov:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Some Floyd at Pompeii

by Salman Hameed

Last couple of days have been quite busy and I'm backed up on posts. So we can all use from music. Here is some Pink Floyd playing in the middle of the Amphitheater at Pompeii in 1971. No audience. Just them and the ruins. Actually this is quite awesome! By the way, Pink Floyd (Wish you were here) and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Night Songwere my two constant companions when I used to go for observing in Chile or Arizona.

This is from the director's cut of "Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii".

So kick back, relax and let'em play:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Meaningful collaboration between academics from India and Pakistan?

by Salman Hameed

I hope so. Here is an excellent article by Pervez Hoodbhoy suggesting some practical steps between Pakistan and India following a surprising - may still be ephemeral - relative thawing of tensions between the two countries (I know one of our regular physician readers from Australia gets an apoplectic reaction on the mention of Hoodbhoy - so please be careful reading this post :) ). Pervez lists a few pragmatic ways to reduce the tensions, but I think the most relevant one is about the exchange of academics between the two countries:
Fifth: let them talk about exchanging academics, both teachers and students, between the two countries. Pakistan is starved of good teachers in almost every field, especially at the higher levels of education. The Higher Education Commission’s plan to bring in university teachers from overseas has flopped. A breakthrough is only possible if Indian teachers could be brought to Pakistan. Indians would find it easier to adapt to local ways and customs than others. Plus, they would have smaller salary expectations than most others. The huge pool of strong Indian candidates could be used to Pakistan’s advantage — we could pick the best teachers and researchers, and those most likely to make a positive impact on our system.
I know this is still very hard due to all the visa restrictions etc.  However, I think it will be very cool if there are more collaborative research projects as well as regular conferences/workshops across the border. This will also require a basic ease of travel restrictions, but perhaps it will be easier to get exceptions to scholars on a short visit. I know there have been other such exchanges before, but the uncertainty regarding visa can be a deterrent. In fact, astronomy can be one of the fruitful areas of collaboration. Amateur astronomy in Pakistan is booming and India has some world class researchers and facilities. It would be amazing to have a gathering of astronomers from the two countries at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune (On a more selfish level, it has been on my list of places to visit for a while). Astronomy is also ideal as it is an innocuous field with larger than Earth perspective. At the height of the cold war, there were also some collaboration between American and Soviet astronomers, and Carl Sagan co-wrote a book with Iosif Shklovsky in 1966!

Is there hope between Pakistan and India? May be.

Also see:
Learning from India's Learning Curve on Science
Pakistani Astronomers shine during the International Year of Astronomy

On the origins of Shariah Law...

by Salman Hameed

In our interviews with Muslim physicians about biological evolution, we have found an enormous range of responses. For example, some use Islam to accept it and some reject evolution because they feel that it is against Islam. Since there is a no pope-like figure in Islam, there have always been a varieties of interpretations. But an issue like evolution is small potatoes when compared to matters of criminal and civil law. In Pakistan, recently there haven been calls for the implementation of Sharia law and there has been some selective use of it - courtesy of Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. On the flip side, a number of states in the US have been having referendums banning the - gulp - imposition of Shariah law in the US. The former is problematic due to its focus of harsh punishments and the latter is downright idiotic.

So here is fantastic Fresh Air interview with Sadakat Kadri, author of a new book, Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari'a Law from the deserts of ancient Arabia to the streets of the modern Muslim world (he surely does have a long sub-title). He comes from a Finnish-South Asian mix, born in London but with a degree from Harvard Law school. Fascinatingly, his prior book is on the origins of Western legal system. So - a complex multi-cultural perspective: Check.

You should definitely check out the interview - if for nothing else to actually know about the historical roots of Shariah law and its various interpretations over the course of history. But there were a couple of things that really struck out for me. First, around 9 minutes into the interview, he describes the current harsh interpretations onto the problems of modernity. In fact, it is fascinating to find out that, other than the Saudi "women-can't-drive" Arabia, Libya was the first country to introduce elements of the Islamic law:

In the early 1970s, Libya, led by Moammar Gadhafi, became the first country to introduce Islamic criminal penalties outside of Saudi Arabia; Pakistan and Iran followed suit in 1979. Throughout the past three decades, the number of countries applying harsh interpretations of Islamic law has expanded. 
"One thing I realized when traveling around the Muslim world is how closely these hard-line interpretations of Islamic law are associated with political consternation and turmoil," he says. "There isn't a country anywhere in the Muslim world which has been applying Muslim laws continuously for hundreds of years and which is drawing on genuine tradition. It's a revival of supposed traditions, which don't really pay much heed to history at all."
Second, he clarifies the point that in England, the Shariah councils are not parallel court systems and participation in them is voluntary. But he had to really search for polite words to describe the hysteria over this in the US:
"It's crazy, basically. It's this idea that Shariah is some kind of movement to take over the United States or a conspiracy to overturn American freedoms. That isn't what Shariah is. There are certainly hard-line interpretations of Islamic law. But these measures don't even claim to restrict themselves to that. They claim to prevent the courts from taking any account at all of the Shariah, which potentially means that a court can't, for example, take account of someone's will. If someone says they want to be buried according to Muslim rituals laid down in the Shariah, a court would theoretically not be able to take account of that. And, of course, it's possible to say, 'That's not what the law's aimed at. The law's aimed at something very different.' But as everyone should know by now, liberties begin to erode when you have laws that are too widely drawn. 
"And laws which say that under no circumstances can a court take any account of the Shariah are necessarily discriminatory. They're necessarily over-broad. And they necessarily create communal dissension for no good purpose. Because it's perceived by Muslims as an attack on Islam. ... I am absolutely sure that many of the people who support the laws and their sponsors are genuinely motivated by fear of Islamic extremism. Islamic extremism is something which I'm fearful of. I was around on Sept. 11 and July 7 here in London when Islamic extremists blew lots of people up. I'm no fan of violent extremism from Muslims, but these laws don't target that. They simply target the body of beliefs that Muslims call the Shariah."
Listen to the interview here. The New York Times also has a positive review of the book. Here is a snippet that focuses on the issue of interpretation:
 In the aftermaths [of 9/11 and 7/7 bombings in London] he longed for answers to simple questions: “Where was the Shariah written down? To what extent was it accepted that its rules had been crafted by human beings? And what gave the men who were so loudly invoking it the right to speak in God’s name?” 
He explores these complicated issues with probity but also good humor. He quotes the ninth-century writer al-Jahiz on the topic of sexual morality thus: “How near is what God permits to what he forbids!” 
He provides detours into topics like the hadiths that offer opinions on “the value of toothpicks, the importance of trimming mustaches and the geographical location of the Antichrist.” He interviews a women’s rights lawyer in Lahore, Pakistan, who cheekily refers to fundamentalists as “fundies.” 
Mr. Kadri is eloquent on the differences between Shariah and fiqh, or the study of Islamic law. “Attempts to critique the Shariah are liable to be perceived by devout Muslims as a denunciation of God rather than an argument,” he writes.
He continues: “The rules of fiqh, on the other hand, can never be more than a human approximation of the divine will.” Islam, he points out, has no figure like the pope to appeal to in order to resolve disputes. 
In “Heaven on Earth” Mr. Kadri constructs an urgent appeal for mutual understanding. His book fills in pieces of what he calls “a great moral jigsaw puzzle.” He offers a salient criticism of Islamic jurisprudence that pertains to legal systems everywhere. “Mortals can only fail,” he writes, “when they play God.”
Read the full review here. And here is an NPR review that found some good humor in the book as well: 
But what makes this book so good isn't just that it manages the odd feat of delivering a discriminating, magisterial history of Shariah that's also quite funny; it's that its humor isn't merely incidental. Kadri's tone — gently skeptical, wittily deflationary, and most of all darkly delighted by the absurdities of history — is perfectly consonant with the substance of his project, which is to make the case that the kind of dogmatically purist, soi-disant "traditionalist" Shariah we've come to associate with the Saudis or the Ayatollahs is actually a perversion of a long, flexible, multivocal tradition — one that has, since Quranic times, valued humility and forgiveness over punitive measures.
And ultimately successful religions are the ones that can adapt to different times: 
The brilliance of Kadri's comedy is that it's nearly always in the murmured service of highlighting the incongruities between revealed wisdom and garden-variety compromise. The ultimate point, I think, is that you can either find it amusing that a ninth century traditionalist "claimed that Muhammad had reviled chess players, cross-dressers, drummers, dice rollers, the janglers of tambourines, singing girls, pigeon fanciers, and the frequenters of seesaws" or you can just despair.
The talent for amusement is the same as the ability to recognize that no path — for "Shariah" simply means "path," as in "path to water" in the desert — set down in the seventh century can be a reliable guide to the perplexed today unless we allow our traditions to be responsive, malleable, soft-tissue things; if, that is, our traditions and our inheritances can serve us rather than the other way around. As Kadri puts it: "Any society that claims to be traditionalist while ignoring actual traditions is at risk of forgetting why continuity matters in the first place, and the notion that history and politics have no effect on legal development is particularly corrosive."
It is for this reason that I think an issue such as biological evolution will also come to be widely acceptable in the Muslim world as long as it doesn't get entangled into political fights. We have also seen this happen with the general acceptance of the narrative of Noah's flood as a localized event rather than a worldwide flood. In any case, Kadri's book looks fantastic.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.


Nature Middle East is a Cairo-based portal, one which is devoted to promoting and exploring science and research in the region. It is part of Nature, the institution which is most famous for its premiere journal of science, but which also has recently produced a series of specialized publications (Nature Biotechnology, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Photonics, and many others), regional portals (Nature India, Nature Europe/Germany, Nature Asia-Pacific, and Nature Middle East), blogs, and other projects and endeavors.
Nature Middle East, which has existed for the past three years or so, has been quite active, regularly publishing original research, commentaries, and interviews, and also advertising and reporting on scientific meetings, announcing job openings, and keeping a regular blog (House of Wisdom) by its young editor, Mohammed Yahia, a blog which I recommend keeping an eye on. Oh, and most importantly, Nature Middle East publishes quality science articles in both English and Arabic (sometimes providing Arabic translations of articles that were originally submitted and published in English); this question of science and publication in English versus the local language is an important one, which I plan to comment on sometime in the future.
I am happy to advertise for an article of mine that was published at Nature Middle East a week ago. Titled ‘Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?’, it addresses the question of whether basic research should at all be pursued and supported in a region like the Arab world where, many argue, research should be in fields and topics that can directly and immediately benefit society. Indeed, nowadays when one hears of the importance of research or even of science itself in the media and in the pronouncements of officials, it is almost invariably in relation to applied research. All examples are taken from fields of direct relevance to daily life and problems which need to be solved, and where science is called to the rescue.

In this article, I first argue that basic research cannot be dissociated from applied research; this is the classic argument that what appears to be purely “basic” today can find very rich applications tomorrow. I cite well-known examples, such as: radiation therapy, positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, DNA and genetic engineering, and even "pure mathematics", in relation to Einstein's general relativity, which in turn found applications in GPS technology, etc.
But then I explain the limitations of this argument. And, more importantly (in my view), I insist that science is not solely, or even primarily, a human endeavor aiming at improving lifestyles (that has come as bi-product); science is about exploration and discovery, and it leads to human progress. I write:
Science, alongside other important human disciplines (religion, art, etc.), allows us to understand and appreciate the world that we have been placed in and entrusted with. Human history has shown that science, more than any other field, leads to a renewed and sometimes transformed understanding of our own nature and our place and role in the cosmos. That is why, even though people are often briefly attracted to the latest technological innovations – everyone is fascinated by every new astronomical discovery. Furthermore, the last few decades have shown that countries which do not have a strong basic science program in both education and discovery can pursue "research and development", but their scientific and intellectual progress will remain modest.
I then go on to explore the situation (basic versus applied research) in the world in general (the data is quite interesting) and in the Arab world, where data is extremely scarce, but one can draw some tentative conclusions from various observations and secondary indicators.
I conclude with the following statements:
And while joint ventures are forged with European and other partners, it is important that a balance be recognized and articulated between "priority areas" (e.g. water, energy, agriculture, new technologies) and between the educational, cultural, and social importance of basic science.
Bob Wilson, the first Director of the Fermilab accelerator centre, was once asked by a congressional committee "what will your lab contribute to the defense of the US?" He replied "nothing, but it will make it worth defending."
I encourage you to read the article here.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Learning from India's learning curve on science

by Salman Hameed

A few decades ago, there was a sense that Pakistan and India were relatively - and I mean this quite loosely - closer in some scientific fields (for example, nuclear physics - for obvious reasons). However, now it is quite clear that Indian science is playing at a completely different level than Pakistan's. One of the many reasons has to with the continuity and the excellence of some of their higher education institutions and their continuing emphasis on pure sciences. However, India finds itself in a similar situation (perhaps the disparity is not as extreme) compared to China. Here is an excellent commentary in this week's Nature that looks at India's slow growth in science and there are many lessons for Pakistan as well:
At present, India has a trickle-down strategy, in which elite institutions are supported in the hope that good science there will energize the masses, and a bottom-up approach, in which the general public is targeted with schemes to popularize science.
These approaches have converged with the setting up in recent years of tens of new universities, institutes and centres of higher learning, even though many hundreds more are desirable for a country of India’s size. Although there was, curiously, no increased allocation to science in this year's Indian budget, there is hope that, as the prime minister has declared, things would improve if government support were increased to 2% of the gross domestic product (it now stands at 0.9%). But it is a haphazard plan, with no hint of new strategies. The assumption is that the answer to our problems lies simply in more money. 
As someone who has worked in India for 34 years, I am impatient with our slow progress2. At the glitzy level, we have had no Nobel prize winner since C.V. Raman in 1930, no highly Shanghai-ranked university, no miracle drug for a tropical disease and no sequencing of the rice genome. At the industrial level, there have been no breakthroughs to rival the telephone, the transistor or Teflon. At the organizational level, we do not have a postdoctoral system worth its name, and our undergraduate teaching system is in a shambles. We figure occasionally in the best journals, yet we tolerate plagiarism, misconduct and nepotism. And yet, the innate abilities and talents of India are palpable. Why is it that this country has not been able to harness its strengths into deliverables?
Money is not the primary constraining factor in our problems, nor will an abundance of it solve them. More money is undoubtedly better, but if there are deep cultural and social problems, extra money will simply drain away. 
And I think this is where some of the issues mentioned are also applicable to Pakistan and many other Third world countries:
Two aspects of the Indian psyche are particularly troubling for a country seeking its rightful place in the modern world. Our cultural value system, backed by Hindu scriptural authority, has created a strongly feudal mindset among Indians. Centuries of servitude, right up until 1947, have made the average Indian docile, obedient and sycophantic. 'Behave yourself and be rewarded', is the pragmatic mantra. I believe this feudal–colonial mentality has had far-reaching and debilitating consequences for research.
The first is our lack of the ability to question and dissent that is so essential to science. Most of the faculty in our better institutions have done postdoctoral work in a foreign laboratory of consequence. Unlike young scientists in advanced countries, however, newly returned Indian lecturers typically relive their golden moments as postdocs throughout their research careers. The best research papers from India may be competent, but they do not inspire or excite. Very few Indian scientists are known as opinion-makers, trend-setters or leaders. They follow obediently. 
Another consequence of this feudal mindset is our unquestioning acceptance — bordering on subservience — to older people. In this part of the world, age is blindly equated with wisdom, and youth with immaturity. This facilitates the continuance of the status quo. Geriatric individuals with administrative and political clout reinforce their positions so well that we are unable to eject them. So we hail scientists in their eighties, film actors in their seventies and cricketers in their forties.

All really important. Of course, in Pakistan, we get into an additional problem of sectarianism. So somebody like Abdus Salaam can get a Noble Prize, but at home his name is treated badly because he belongs to the Ahmadiyya sect. Like India, Pakistan has to develop a strong sense of religious pluralism if we have much hope for developing a scientific culture.

Back to the Commentary. Here is the proposed way forward for India:

I suggest that our policy-makers consider the following. First, provide modest funding to a very large number of small, single-investigator, blue-sky projects — including those in state universities — to achieve a critical density of ideas and a feeling of mass participation and enthusiasm. 
Second, provide heavy and directed funding into a few specific projects of national importance — such as energy, water and public health — with high levels of accountability and proper exit options. Third, reduce or abolish the present system of awards, prizes and recognitions in higher-level science. This would dissuade younger scientists from chasing awards rather than doing good science, and it would reduce the influence of the cliques who allocate prizes. 
To reach a stable solution, we can employ longer-term measures that include modification or removal of caste-based quotas and reservations in the educational and research sectors; improvement of undergraduate teaching institutions and teaching laboratories with respect to greater uniformity and transparency; and clear identification of paths towards scientific and administrative growth for individuals. 
Money is neither the cause nor the solution to our problems, although it can facilitate progress in an otherwise healthy climate. What is lacking in India is the quality of leadership and the level of honesty that are required for a breakthrough. When will this country see another C.V. Raman?
Read the full article here (you may need a subscription to access the article).

Saturday Video: On Cosmology, Big Bang and Cosmic Chickens

by Salman Hameed

Since there is some discussion going on about cosmology after Nidhal's post last Monday, I thought I will also post this talk by Sean Carroll. The key thing to note is how scientists deal with the questions at the boundaries of knowledge. For example, look at the way Sean uses the principle of entropy to seek a plausible explanation for the Big Bang. In fact, the key lies in his statement about the search for testable theories of the Big Bang. He doesn't have all the answers - but that is were some of the most exciting science takes place. I know that the unknowns around the Big Bang are ripe areas for religious appropriations. However, just because there are unkowns doesn't mean that these are unknowables. If we are seeking the development of scientific curiosity, then this talk should serve as a good primer.

Oh - and I enjoyed the bit at the end about a cosmic chicken:

Friday, April 13, 2012

The hedonist northeast versus the pious south

by Salman Hameed

Well, not too much of a surprise. According to Gallup, the New England states are some of the least religious in the US and the Bible-belt lives up to its name and contains the most religious states in 2011. Mississippi, it turns out, is the most religious, with about 59% declaring themselves be "very religious" (it beats out Utah with 2 full percentage points). And Vermont and New Hampshire are the least religious with 23% declaring to be very religious (and Massachusetts 4th least religious with 28%). Here is the religiosity map of the US:

I think California here is a surprise, otherwise, this also a standard election map between the Democrats and the Republicans. Here are some of the numbers: 

And yes, this simplifies things a lot. For example, the religiosity measure here is based on self-designation, and that also varies a lot within each state as well. However, the poll does find State differences within different religious groups: 
Gallup research has shown that these state differences appear to be part of a "state culture" phenomenon, and are not the result of differences in the underlying demographics or religious identities in the states. For example, while Mississippi has the highest percentage of blacks of any state in the union, and while blacks are the most religious of any major race or ethnic group in the country, the Magnolia State's white residents are highly religious on a relative basis compared with whites in other states. And, Vermonters who identify as Catholics or with Protestant denominations are less religious than Southern state residents who identify with the same religions. It appears there is something about the culture and normative structure of a state, no doubt based partly on that state's history, that affects its residents' propensity to attend religious services and to declare that religion is important in their daily lives.
Also, non-religiosity goes up to 58% in Vermont, with the overall percentage of non-religious Americans hovering around 31%. Read the full report here

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Film Autopsy of "The Hunger Games"

by Salman Hameed

A dystopian future has always been a rich terrain for science fiction. Here we go with a future with reality shows and a reference to the Occupy movements. This movie is not amazing - but still a reasonably good film.

Here is our video film review (of course, you can find other film autopsies here):

April 12th: Science and Religion Lecture on Astrobiology

by Salman Hameed


Our next Science and Religion lecture at Hampshire College is tomorrow (April 12th) by Margaret Race. She will be talking about Astrobiology, Life, and Planetary Protection. Join us at the talk if  you are in the area.
[P.S. I will also be talking about astrobiology and science & religion today (April 11th) from 4:30 to 5:30pm on The Foxy Brown show (hosted by Tania Halder Hart) on the UMass radio station WMUA 91.1FM. If interested, you can find the streaming here]

Here is the announcement:

Astrobiology, Life & Planetary Protection:  Implications on Earth and Beyond

by 
Margaret S. Race
 SETI Institute, Mountain View, California http://www.seti.org/


Thursday, April 12th at 5:30pm
Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Abstract:
For centuries, humans have gazed at the heavens and wondered whether we are alone. Only in the past 5 decades have we been able to use science and technology to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. As astrobiologists seek to learn more about the origin, evolution, distribution and fate of life on Earth and beyond, we also confront an array of challenging questions about the nature of life and its long term sustainability. Practically, this means that the development of guidelines for responsible exploration and planetary protection now requires a truly interdisciplinary approach, combining advances in science and technology with input from ethical, legal, and societal perspectives. Coincidentally, these deliberations about space exploration and the search for ET life also bring an interesting perspective to current debates about emerging technologies  and scientific progress  here on Earth.

Biographical Statement:
Margaret Race is Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute. http://www.seti.org/ Her work focuses on the scientific, technical, legal and societal issues of ensuring that missions to Mars and other solar system bodies do not either inadvertently bring terrestrial microbes along, which would complicate our search for indigenous extraterrestrial life, or return any microbes to Earth. Her interest in extraterrestrial organisms is linked closely to her long term ecological research on exotic and invasive species. She is also actively involved in education and public outreach about astrobiology. Since her early work with the Environmental Protection Agency as a Public Information Specialist, and her tenure at San Francisco television station KQED, Dr. Race has had a strong interest in the communication of science via the mass media. She especially likes to work with journalists and educators as they develop materials about complex, controversial issues in space exploration and environmental protection. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her work ensures that our spacecraft won't be.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A new book on having a two-way conversation with God

by Salman Hameed

Here is a Fresh Air interview with T.M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Understanding with God. Luhrmann is an anthropologist and the book is based on her study of The Vineyard, an Evangelical Church with 600 branches across the US. The Vineyard, like a number of other Evangelical churches, puts an emphasis on the experiential side of religion. Hence many of the followers train to literally listen to God's voice in their heads.

Couple of quick things. This is a good incisive interview. I think Terry Gross appropriately pushed her on some fuzzy things that she stated. I'm interested in reading the book - as it is crucial to understand how people believe and make sense of the world. At the same time, for some reason, I found the author a bit annoying. I haven't put my finger on the reasons yet. Perhaps, it is because it took a while to say any problems with such form of religiosity. Yes, she points out a lot of positives, but there are obvious downsides - for example a belief literally in a demon-infested world for some - and it took a lot of effort from Terry Gross to extract out some negatives (to be fair, she then did list out a number of problems).

However, two interesting things. First, she noticed that this Church has a concept of God's unconditional love. She links that to 1960s, when religions really became a free-market:

This, of course, is a radically different philosophy from churches that preach about the wrath of God and eternal damnation. Lurhmann explains that the experientially oriented churches grew out of the social upheavals of the 1960s. 
"Atheism became an allowable life identity, and there were many different ways to be spiritual," she says. "There were many different ways to be in the world, and Christianity then became a buyer's market. People chose if they were going to be Christian and what type of church they would join. And churches like The Vineyard see themselves as trying to offer a God that's quite different from the one who terrified poor James Joyce."
Secondly, she makes an interesting point right in the last couple of minutes of the interview. She thinks that this form of experiential Christianity is in sync with  Modern (in the sense of Modernity). Now that doubt/atheism is a viable option for personal religious belief, and everything can be put to a (scientific) test, the realm of experiential God serves as a protected zone from these outside influences.  There is no way (as yet) of definitely showing the non-existence of these experiences - experiences that are essential to their worldview.

A corollary to this: If you are interested, you can also check out my TEDx talk from January, When Evidence is Powerless, where I had looked at the role of evidence and the beliefs of alien abductees.

A Close-up of the Moon from Lahore

by Salman Hameed

Once again, Umair Asim's photograph has made it as the Lunar Photo of the Day (LPOD). Here is his image of the Lunar south pole (left) that was yesterday's LPOD. The image on the right is from a NASA spacecraft and provides a nice context to Umair's image. Nice job. Congrats! Also check out Umair's first LPOD picture (Moons' Craters from Lahore)  and his website.


He also has a new H-alpha telescope to look at activity at the Sun's "surface". Here is a nice video of prominence on the Sun - 45 minutes are compressed here in 10 seconds. Very nice.

Monday, April 09, 2012

‘Cosmology and Qur’an’ panel at the University of Iowa


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.
A panel event titled “Creation of the Universe: Qur’anic Concepts and Scientific Theories” was organized this past Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at the University of Iowa. This was put together by the American Islamic Congress and the Nur Project, which is conducting a ‘Science & Islam’ series of panels over the next couple of years.
This first event gathered Salman Hameed and John Farrell as panelists, Ali Hasan as moderator, and me as “keynote speaker”. Dr. Hasan is a professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa; he specializes in epistemology but clearly has solid interest and knowledge in science topics in relation to philosophy and theology/Islam. John Farrell is a writer and producer working in Boston; he is the author of ‘The Day Without Yesterday: Lema├«tre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology’ (which I’ve reviewed here at Irtiqa); his blog, Progressive Download, I highly recommend.

The main objective of the panel, at least from what could be gathered from the event’s brochure, was: “to understand interpretations in the Islamic tradition as it regards the creation of the universe and where this interpretation conflicts or is compatible with concurred theories on the birth of the universe from the scientific perspective.” A related idea was:Exploring where the strongest harmony and serious tensions between scientific cosmology and Islam lie.” There was also the question of “Qur’anic cosmological descriptions and their relative accuracy from the scientific perspective”, and of course the role of God in cosmology, from both the scientific perspective and the theological/Islamic viewpoint.
In my talk, I attempted to emphasize the following main points:

  • Cosmology used to consist of myths describing the world around us, its origin, and our place in it; it invariably put the earth and humanity at the center of everything; cosmology used to be part of philosophy and theology, or “culture” more generally.
  • Modern Cosmology, which has only existed for a century or so, has turned the subject into a scientific discipline; it is now able to describe with great precision not only the history of the universe but its content (although some aspects, e.g. dark matter and dark energy, are still a matter of ongoing research); the main point is: cosmology is now part of science.
  • What place then for theology/Islam or even philosophy? Here I argued that although cosmology is produced by science, humans still need to construct a “worldview”, which cannot violate or disagree with the scientific findings, but which interpretation can be open to fit one’s philosophy or theology; in particular, it can be theistic or materialistic. I gave examples of how contemporary thinkers have taken one route or another in this way.
  • What “cosmology” can one draw from the Qur’an? Actually, one must talk of a Qur’anic “worldview”, not “cosmology”, as argued in the previous point. And here, looking at various Qur’anic verses, I drew the following conclusions: a) the Qur’an always relates the cosmos to God; b) it uses the ‘Argument from Design’ quite repeatedly, either in its old formulation or in its more modern (fine-tuning) formulation; c) several Muslim thinkers have insisted that the Qur’an uses an ‘Argument of Providence’ (that humans have been particularly well taken care of through the creation of the cosmos and the various objects and phenomena therein, what I call an “ultra-anthropic principle); d) the Qur’an seems to be formulated for humans, as it keeps referring to Earth (“the heavens and the earth”) in a particular way.
  •  What constraints and challenges does modern cosmology pose to theology/Islam? Here I argued that cosmology forces us to construct a theology which must take the following ideas into account: a) the staggering size and age of the universe; b) the fine-tuning of the cosmos (design? centrality of life, intelligence, and consciousness? multiverse? are we one among zillions?); c) the discovery/confirmation that other earths/worlds are more than common in the universe and perhaps other species too (are we just one “unimportant” planet/world?)

Salman followed up with his own views on the subject, which I’ll let him summarize. John Farrell recalled that Lemaitre, the father of the Big Bang, was both a first-rate scientist and a catholic priest, and it was interesting to see that he was very clear that one should not be tempted to find confirmation in science for one’s theology: in particular, he resisted the pope’s explicit identification of the Big Bang with the Genesis story.
A good discussion followed, particularly since a number of philosophers (Dr. Hasan’s colleagues and students) were in the audience. The questions revolved around the fine-tuning issue, as well as around the extent to which one could take scientific results from cosmology as definite, and the role and place of theology in constructing a worldview around cosmology.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Seeing signs for "End Times" in everyday events...

by Salman Hameed

Today's NYT has a review of a new book Revelation: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the book of Revelation. It looks like a fascinating read. One of the key points of the book is that not only do people have found signs for the End Times in their respective lifetimes, but that these signs have often been used for political purposes. Of course, Islam also has a rich imagery for the end times (here is a Wiki entry for Islamic eschatology). I have already posted about Turkish creationist Harun Yahya's obsession with End Times , and also with some recent TV shows in Pakistan mixing the 2012 Mayan calendar nonsense with Islamic apocalypse. On a purely academic level, I find these cultural borrowing and transformations quite fascinating.

But back to the new book on the book of Revelation:

 “Revelation” is from the Latin translation of the Greek word apocalypsis, which can designate any unveiling or revealing, fantastic or ordinary. Scholars also refer to the document as the Apocalypse of John. And that same Greek word provides the label for all sorts of ancient literature that scholars call “apocalyptic.” The biblical text purports to relate a real vision experienced by an otherwise unknown Jew named John — not the Apostle John, nor the same person as the anonymous author of what we call the Gospel of John. But we have no reason to doubt that his name was really John. It wasn’t an unusual name for a Jew. 
John wrote his vision, prefaced with messages to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern western Turkey), from the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. We may imagine John, Pagels suggests, as an old Jew who had lived through the Jewish war with Rome, during which Jerusalem was decimated and the Temple destroyed in the year 70. He may have seen the thousands of Jews killed and thousands of others carried to Rome as slaves. Bitter about the dominating imperial power, he may have wandered through Syria and Asia Minor, along the way meeting other followers of the crucified prophet Jesus, other “cells” of worshipers of the Jewish Messiah who was killed and mysteriously raised from the dead. 
But when he gets to western Asia Minor, he comes across many gentile Christians, quite possibly in churches founded by the now dead Apostle Paul. Unlike John, they seem to be relatively well off. They usually get along fine with their non-Christian neighbors. They may be prospering from the Pax Romana, the “peace” sustained by Roman domination. They are marrying and having children, running their small businesses, ignoring the statues, temples and worship of other gods that surround them.
For John, this Christian toleration of Rome and its idols is offensive. This is not a benign governmental power. It is the Whore of Babylon, arrogantly destroying the earth. John writes (in this theory) to warn the churches, and he relates his vision to provoke alarm at the Evil Empire. That vision predicts the destruction of Rome by angelic armies, followed by the salvation of faithful disciples of the bloody, horned warrior-lamb Jesus. Those who resist will, in the end, be rewarded.
And here is the bit about interpretations:
The Apocalypse, the Revelation to John, has over the centuries been read by many Christians to predict events that might happen in their own time. In the 1980s, journalists discussed President Ronald Reagan’s statements that biblical prophecies might be fulfilled in our days, when other nations would attack Israel and a great war would end with the Second Coming of Christ. But Reagan was just one in a long line bringing John’s prophecy into our times. 
Pagels, the author of “The Gnostic Gospels,” details how Revelation and other apocalyptic writings have frequently urged fear and hatred of ruling powers, if not so often armed revolt. Revelation was originally anti-Roman propaganda. Two centuries earlier, around 164 B.C., a Jew wrote down another series of visions in order to incite resistance against Hellenizing Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and their patron king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid empire. That book, published in the Old Testament under the pseudonym Daniel, is one of the earliest ancient apocalypses, and it influenced Jewish and Christian literature thereafter. Around A.D. 100, another Jew, not a Christian, recorded his own visions, nowadays known as 4 Ezra, also stoking the fires of anti-Roman hatred and prophesying Rome’s destruction. As Pagels illustrates, apocalyptic visions have been put to political purposes throughout history, down to the armies on both sides of the Civil War, echoed for Northern soldiers in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but also inspiring Southern generals.
And you can find the same trends again and again and in different cultures. We all just want to live in a special time...

Read the full article here.         

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Saturday Video: Where are the aliens?

by Salman Hameed

Where is everybody? This was the question posed by Enrico Fermi about the lack of credible evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence. It seems simple but this is a deceptively clever question, and is called Fermi's Paradox. The main idea is that the Galaxy is about twice the age of our Solar system. If there are intelligent civilizations out there then it is likely that some of them much older than us. If that is the case, then they should have colonized the Galaxy by now (even by assuming a very modest space travel rate, it takes only a million year or so to cover the full Galaxy). There are a number of reasonable explanations for this paradox. However, we have to be very careful when we start thinking about alien intentions. We don't have much idea about alien biology, let alone their sociology and psychology.

Here is a brief primer on Fermi's Paradox (tip from Zakir Thaver):


A new book on understanding creationism in the US

by Salman Hameed

As I write, the Tennessee legislature has passed a bill that allows teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of ideas such as biological evolution, etc. On the surface this may seem reasonable, but in reality this phrasing has a history and it is a another way of sliding creationism into the science classrooms in the US (for example, see this earlier post from 2008, "Strengths and Weaknesses" = Creationism). Since there are so many people covering creationism battles in the US, I usually don't have posts on this. But this is a good opportunity to point out a new book on creationism in the US: American Genesis: Antievolution controversies from Scopes to Creation Science by Jeffrey P. Moran. What is interesting about the book is its emphasis on the issues of race, gender, and regional identities in the Scope trial (also in Tennessee - in 1925). While it may seem obvious, but it is worth re-emphasizing that many of the evolution issues are not really about epistemology but rather about what evolution has come to symbolize for different groups of people.

Here is the review of American Genesis from Science (you may beed subscription to access the full article). Here is an interesting bit about the fact that most people were not really familiar with any issues or controversies surrounding evolution, and that the Scopes trial brought the controversy to the forefront:
One might expect that the earliest evolution debates were primarily found in southern states and rural areas. But in fact, as Moran points out, until the 1920s southern Americans paid scant attention to Darwinism. When potential jurors were questioned for the Scopes trial, most confessed that they had not heard of any controversy over evolution and the Bible until after Scopes had been arrested. Before that time, the conflict was largely confined to the Northeast, where modernist views were rapidly advancing and sectarian groups were emerging to combat them. 
Exploring the racial dimensions of the Scopes trial, Moran notes that teaching evolution in public schools was not a major issue for the African American community at the time. In the South, relatively few black students attended high school; for those who did, the segregated schools emphasized agriculture and practical trades. A general acceptance of evolution represented a no-win situation for African Americans. Although some black intellectuals hoped that scientific advancement would undermine the South's oppressive social structure, it was evident evolution could be marshaled to further justify black inferiority. In fact, George Hunter's Civic Biology—Tennessee's official biology text, used by Scopes—explicitly described a hierarchy of races. The lowest was the “Ethiopian or negro type,” and it culminated with “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, [are] represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America” (2).
I knew about the social Darwinism in some of the textbooks in Tennessee at the time, but I didn't know about the reaction of African-Americans to that. Yes, we know that social Darwinism is not biological evolution - nevertheless, it serves as a powerful narrative against the acceptance of evolution. Interestingly, Obama has started to brand Republican economic policies as "social Darwinism". This is in response to the Republicans calling him a socialist and I think this social Darwinism brand will stick with the general voters.

But back to the book. I think one of the interesting components is about gender:

Beyond race and regional identity, the most surprising insights in American Genesis concern the role of gender. Moran persuasively argues that in the 1920s antievolutionism was primarily a female-led reform movement that sought political support against threats to children's moral and religious development. Women had recently secured the right to vote, and given their high visibility in the prohibition movement, politicians felt obliged to heed their concerns. During debate over the Butler bill, the speaker of the Tennessee Senate “proclaimed he had been petitioned to support the bill by ‘the women of the state and the teachers association.’” At the time of the Scopes trial, nearly all letters to newspapers in support of the Butler bill were written by women, whereas dissenting letters more often came from men. 
In the decades that followed—particularly after the 1961 publication of The Genesis Flood (3)—the antievolution movement shifted in emphasis from moral arguments to more “scientific” rebuttals. This transition toward natural science has galvanized greater male participation. Nevertheless, the female voice remains strong. In a 2005 Kansas survey (4) on whether evolution should be taught in the public schools, 74% of men answered yes while only 58% of women agreed. Asked whether it was “possible to believe in both God and evolution,” 73% of men agreed, whereas only 57% of women did so.
This is fascinating. We have been interviewing Muslim physicians and medical students in several countries. Once we are done with the survey, we will be able to see  if we find similar trends amongst different Muslim groups.  

Read the full review here