Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday Video: Short Film - Pentecost

by Salman Hameed

This was one of last year's Oscar nominees for live-action shorts. It has a fantastic narrative structure (perfect for a short film!) and is very funny. The story is about religion, rituals, and the love of soccer. In fact, this is a perfect prep. for the Euro 2012 final.

Enjoy! (it is about 11 minutes long)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Arabic Calligraphy with Circuits

by Salman Hameed

Silicon Arabic is a new art project of Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad. In case you don't know him, he also runs the fantastic website, Islam and Science Fiction and is the editor of Islam and China blog (and website). In his spare time, he also got a PhD in computer science and now works at a company in Minneapolis, building models of human behavior.

Here is how he describes Silicon Arabic (and all his interests seem to merge into this art):
Silicon Arabic combines the aesthetics of the traditional and ancient Islamic Art of Calligraphy with a modern medium – Silicon circuit boards.I have been practicing Arabic Calligraphy for more than a decade now and Chinese calligraphy for the last three years and I have had the idea of Silicon Arabic for the last three years at least but it is only now that I have had the chance to execute this idea. I also work as a Scientist and so this was a perfect opportunity for me to combine two different area of my interest. The art of calligraphy has been an endemic part of Islamicate cultures for more than a thousand years. Although it was primarily developed by Muslims it is not limited to people of Muslim background with people of the Christian faith and other local religions practicing this art form. The idea of using circuit boards to create Arabic calligraphy is thus a new way to express this ancient art form.
Here is one example. This is called Creation:

And here is a close-up:

Here is how he describes Creation:
The word Kun (كن) in Arabic means Be and in this context it refers to the Islamic story of creation where God said Be and the universe came into existence (Fayakun). Thus the word Kun is tied to creativity. The compound (Kun Fayakun) is a constant motif in my work in general even in other forms of calligraphy.
And here is another one titled, The Celestial Cube:

Here is his description of The Celestial Globe:
In the Sino-Islamic tradition the word Tianfan was used to refer to the religion of Islam which means heavenly square or celestial square. The term has a translocative meaning as it locates the religion of Islam in both semantic and geographical terms viz-a-viz the country of China. The term Tianfan directly refers to the Ka’aba (which means Square in the Arabic language). It is the square structure in Mecca to whose direction Muslims through out the world pray towards. Here is my interpretation of the Ka’aba made with circuit boards. The centrality of the Ka’aba is grounded in this art piece where the mundane and the sacred meet in the digital, where the past, present and the future meet.
You can get to his Silicon Arabic website here.

Back from Leeds

by Salman Hameed

I was at the University of Leeds for a conference/workshop for the last couple of days - and did not get a chance to post much from there. Part of the blame goes to the fact that I was traveling only with an iPad, and the internet access to the rooms required an ethernet cable connection :( . Oh well...

I also had a chance to give a talk, Making Sense of the Rise of Islamic Creationism in UK, jointly hosted by the Philosophy Department and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. The Q/A session was lively and enjoyable. Following the talk, I had some great conversations with, Sean McLaughlin, and his students from Turkey and Indonesia. This is one of those moments when you realize the importance of talks in academic departments. Sean is an anthropologist who has been working on ethnography of contemporary Muslim societies (check out his edited volume with Jocelyne Cesari: European Muslims and the Secular State; and more recently with Kim Knott: Diasporas: Concepts, Intersections, Identities). In particular, his focus is on South Asian Muslim immigrants to UK, and understanding their religious practices and the formation of their identity. His research is a fantastic compliment to our own work on understanding the reception of modern science in Muslim societies. Furthermore, a number of his students are working on understanding religious practices in various Muslim societies (including, amongst Muslims in Leeds), and I'm looking forward to these forthcoming works.

This fall, we will also be starting a regular colloquium series (once a month) at the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College. These talks will be directed more at the faculty and students and hopefully will compliment our annual Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science and Religion

Monday, June 25, 2012

Film Autopsy and a spoiler discussion of "Prometheus"

by Salman Hameed

I had earlier posted some of my thoughts about Ridley Scott's new film, Prometheus. While I am disappointed with the film, there are indeed elements of the film that can generate good discussions. But then there was so much potential...

For another look at the film, here is my dialogue about Prometheus with UMass film professor, Kevin Anderson, for our regular Film Autopsy (see here for all our other reviews). And below that is a spoiler discussion ("no-glove autopsy") about science and religion in Prometheus.

Here is the review of Prometheus:


And here is a discussion of science and religion in Prometheus (warning: this contains plot spoilers):


What did you think of the film?

Can we make sense of Saudi beheadings on witchcraft charges?

by Salman Hameed

This is total lunacy! A man has been beheaded in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of practicing witchcraft and sorcery. From BBC:
The man, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, was found in possession of books and talismans, SPA said. He had also admitted adultery with two women, it said.
The execution took place in the southern Najran province, SPA reported.

This is not the first beheading for such charges. Just this past year, two people were executed on sorcery charges, including a 60 year old woman.

And these are the cases that we know of. It is hard to catch up on the killings of women and men during the European witch-hunts a few centuries ago, but Saudi Arabia is certainly making a valiant effort to match that record.

The fact that this is despicable is not in question. But we have to move beyond that. Since this is an official court decision, upheld by the Kingdom's highest court, we have to assume that they are following some specific system of logic (however screwed up that might be). What kind of evidence do they use in the court? How do they determine the efficacy of sorcery and witchcraft? After all, these questions may also tell us something about how they view science and the workings of the natural world. And how do they distinguish one pseudoscience from another?

I doubt that we can have access to court transcripts, but that will make a useful project. In the mean time, we can only hope that some sort of sanity will prevail and Saudi courts will stop this ignorant medieval behavior.

Here are couple of earlier posts about other witchcraft beheadings (sigh!):

Execution based on sorcery charges
Still no sense from Saudi Arabia on sorcery death sentence
Sorcery Charges: Saudi Arabia boldly marches into the 15th century

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Video: Mathematical art of M.C. Escher

by Salman Hameed

Here is a short clip about M.C. Escher's fascination with mathematics (tip Open Culture). If some of his art reminds you of Islamic tile patterns - there is a reason. He was inspired by a visit to the Alhambra (also see this earlier post: Islamic tiles and modern mathematics). But his topology work is also fascinating.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sustainability example from Karachi

by Salman Hameed

Karachi is a sprawling mega-city with its fair share of the slums. One of these slums was Orangi. In the 1980's a project was launched by Akhtar Hameed Khan (no relation) to help the residents of Orangi solve their own sanitation problems. This large-scale program, called the Orangi Pilot Project, was creative, ambitious and has largely been quite effective. This week's Nature has an interview with urban architect, Arif Hasan, who worked with the Orangi Project and is now the chair of Pakistan's urbanization task force. Here he sets up the reasoning for the project:
What challenges did Orangi face when you arrived?In 1980, the lanes of Orangi, a katchi abadi or informal settlement housing a million people, were running with waste water and sewage, and infant mortality was 128 in 1,000. The conditions stymied development: school attendance was down and trade difficult to establish. The psychological effects, too, were severe, sapping the will for change. The lanes couldn't be used as public space and quarrels over sanitation issues were frequent. The wastewater also damaged house foundations and triggered unhealthy rising damp.  
How did you become involved?That year, the social scientist Akhtar Hameed Khan set up the Orangi Pilot Project [OPP] to understand local problems and develop models to overcome the constraints governments face in upgrading informal settlements. Khan encouraged people to build and pay for their own underground sewage system, at a cost of around US$30 a household. A year later, he needed an architect. That was me. 
How did you help?I proposed cheap, simple, local solutions: concrete-curing methods, casting cheap steel-shuttering manhole covers in situ, site-appropriate tools such as manual compactors, and surveys and maps. I also developed rules of thumb for gradients, manhole and pipe sizes, survey procedures and inexpensive one-chamber septic tanks. These designs and methods, which challenged conventional engineering standards, have stood the test of time. They also reduced costs by more than 40%.
And these steps had a broad impact:
How did sanitation transform public health?By 2000, some 85% of Orangi had self-laid, self-financed sewer lines. The lanes are clean: children play in them, women sit and talk. Health indicators have improved, and by 1993 infant mortality had fallen to 37 in 1,000. 
What are the social and economic changes?   
Literacy rates there are now among the highest in Pakistan. Socially and economically, Orangi is much more connected to the rest of Karachi in diverse ways. Many people are white-collar workers; a substantial minority are professionals; women and entrepreneurs work in and service formal-sector industry.
Orangi a model for other cities?As an outgrowth of the process of building sanitation communally, residents became community activists and got involved in OPP-supported health, education, housing and micro-credit programmes. The architects and technicians who helped to initiate the project now run it, and have expanded it to cities and settlements all over Pakistan, often in collaboration with local governments and planning agencies. The OPP's philosophy has had a major impact on the attitudes of professionals, academic institutions, government officials and international non-governmental organizations and agencies working in Pakistan.
This is fantastic! Towards the end of the interview he mentions that 92% of the architecture and planning students at the University of Karachi are women - which is incredible:
How has architecture in Karachi changed?When I began my practice in 1968, an architect designed for the state, or for the rich. Today, clients vary hugely. This new architectural world belongs to women, who make up 92% of the architecture and planning students at the University of Karachi. In many ways, the role of the architect is immense compared to before.
Full article here (but will need subscription to access it).

How the Muslim world sees American science, technology and the drones

by Salman Hameed

PewResearch Center has a new survey out that looks the global opinion of the US and in particular of Obama's policies (download the full pdf report here). The survey includes a few Muslim-majority countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan) and a few things jump out related to the blog. First of all, the views US and Obama in these Muslim countries are generally more negative than other European and Asian countries included in the survey. Pakistan, in particular, is on the extreme end of the spectrum - a wide change from the Cold War days. In fact, there will be another Pew report soon just focusing on Pakistan. Second, there is almost a unanimity in opposition to US drone strikes (see earlier posts: Ethics, Morality, and Legality of Robotic Wars and The Problem of US Drones in Pakistan):

And here is how these countries see American people:

In the Muslim-majority countries, Lebanon is a clear exception, but it is divided on religious lines between Sunnis (and Christians) and Shias:

The U.S. receives many of its lowest ratings in predominantly Muslim nations. Fewer than one-in-five have a positive opinion about America in Egypt (19%), Turkey (15%), Pakistan (12%) and Jordan (12%). Views are divided, however, in Tunisia (45% favorable, 45% unfavorable) and Lebanon (48% favorable, 49% unfavorable). 
Lebanese views differ considerably among the country’s major religious groups. Solid majorities of Sunni Muslims (67%) and Christians (61%) give the U.S. a favorable grade, compared with just 7% of Shia Muslims.
But the US is still admired for its science and technology - even in the Muslim countries:

The decline of this positive view in Turkey is noteworthy. There are numerous indicators in the survey that show a similar decline in Turkish views towards the US:
The two outliers on this question are Russia and Turkey. Russians have consistently voiced lukewarm attitudes about U.S. science and technology since the Pew Global Attitudes Project first asked this question in 2002. Turks, on the other hand, were once admirers of the U.S. in this regard. In 2002, 67% said they admired American scientific and technological advances, but by 2007 this had plunged to 37%. Today, it stands at 42%.
It is interesting as I came away with a similar impression from Istanbul last month. Some of the academics that I chatted with didn't want to come to the US because of all the visa hassles and the way they are treated at the US immigration. This is a shame as these are the very exchanges that can help improve the image across across the divide.

But while the US is admired for science, its popular culture is not as popular:

While there is a general trend here, Pakistan's numbers are really surprising. In the 1980s, I grew up watching American TV shows. Heck I even owe my astronomy degree to Cosmos. But not only now there is a negative reaction in Pakistan, US is not helping itself by cutting off funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street. Another interesting exception there is also India. Hmm...I don't know what to make of it. One possibility: May be South Asians are anglophiles. But in case of Pakistan, it may simply be anti-US sentiment.

Apart from Pakistan, things do change a bit in the younger generation. Look at Germany and France!


Read the full report here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Polio may be the winner between the Taliban and the CIA

by Salman Hameed

Polio cases are now left in only 3 countries of the world. There is a chance of polio's comeback if it is not eradicated completely (see this earlier post: Pakistan's polio eradication problem). And things may not be looking good. The fact that the CIA used a fake vaccination program to get information about Osama bin Laden was bound to have an impact at some point on the very real vaccination projects in the northern areas of Pakistan. And sure enough, now the Taliban are blocking vaccinations to demand an end to drone strikes:
The commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, said that the vaccinations would be banned until the Central Intelligence Agency stopped its drone campaign, which has been focused largely on North Waziristan. 
Mr. Bahadur said the decision had been taken by the shura-e-mujahedeen, a council that unites the myriad jihadi factions in the area, including Taliban, Qaeda and Punjabi extremists.
The announcement, made over the weekend, is a blow to polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan, one of just three countries where the disease is still endemic, accounting for 198 new cases last year — the highest rate in the world, followed by Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The tribal belt, which has suffered decades of poverty and conflict, is the largest reservoir of the disease. A Unicef spokesman said health workers had hoped to reach 161,000 children younger than 5 in a vaccination drive scheduled to begin on Wednesday.
That is likely to be canceled, at a time when officials felt they were making progress. So far this year, Pakistan has recorded 22 new polio cases, compared with 52 in the same period last year.
The Taliban announcement is also likely to rekindle controversy surrounding Dr. Afridi, who was recently convicted by a tribal court and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
In March and April 2011, Dr. Afridi ran a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad that was intended to determine covertly whether Bin Laden lived in a house in the city. Dr. Afridi failed to obtain a DNA sample, a senior American official said, but did help establish that Bin Laden’s local protector, known as the “courier,” was inside the Bin Laden compound.
Dr. Afridi was arrested three weeks after an American Navy SEAL team raided the house on May 2, 2011, and killed the Qaeda leader.
American officials said Dr. Afridi had been working with the C.I.A. for several years, at a time when he was leading polio vaccination efforts in Khyber Agency, a corner of the tribal belt that harbors a rare strain of the disease. 
What a shame on all accounts! Polio and the a generation of kids growing up there are just a collateral between the Taliban and the CIA. 

Read the full story here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday Video: Sagan Series - The Humans

by Salman Hameed

Today, China sent its first female astronaut to space. While thinking about space exploration, here is a short clip from the fantastic Sagan Series called The Humans.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Learning about microbes from Hajj

by Salman Hameed

Hajj is a gathering of over 2.5 million people in Mecca each year. As a side note, I have always wondered if Muslims who are afraid of crowds (enochlophobia?) perform Hajj. Nevertheless, such a large gathering provides a fantastic opportunity to study large movements of people as well the transfer of germs in crowded areas. Indeed, this information is being used to prepare for London Olympics. From last week's Science (you will need subscription to access the full article):

The field of mass-gathering health has its roots in the hajj, the sacred journey to Mecca that every Muslim is called to undertake at least once. The hajj draws more than 2 million pilgrims every year and in the past has been the epicenter of smallpox, plague, and typhus outbreaks. Now, the biggest problem is Neisseria meningitidis, a deadly bacterium that can cause meningitis and sepsis. It first surfaced in 1987, when pilgrims became infected with a Neisseria variety known as serogroup A. In response, Saudi Arabia required that hajj travelers be vaccinated against the pathogen. In March 2000, pilgrims contracted a new strain, W135, and carried it back to the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe, touching off small epidemics. Since 2002, vaccination against W135 is mandatory, as well.

Several factors conspire to make the hajj a conduit for microbes. Pilgrims are often quite old before they can afford the journey, “and a lot of people are in poor health, because they want to go before they die,” Khan says. Nearly 200,000 pilgrims arrive from low-income countries with poor health care systems, and many sleep in close quarters in tent cities. Because the timing of the hajj is tied to the lunar calendar, the pilgrimage can coincide with the peak influenza season in the Northern Hemisphere or the meningitis season in sub-Saharan Africa.
But there are some differences with sporting events: 
Several factors may limit the spread of infectious diseases through sporting events. People traveling to these events are relatively young, wealthy, and healthy, which means they're a lot less likely to become infected. In addition, Khan and his group have analyzed travel movements into the host cities for various Olympic Games and did not see the millions of additional visitors that come to the hajj. There was no significant increase in travel to Athens in 2004, for instance, and in 2008, Beijing saw fewer visitors than usual. “A lot of people are just avoiding these cities when they host the Olympics,” Khan says. 
But even at the hajj, the real surprise is sometimes how little diseases actually spread. In 2009, 2.5 million pilgrims converged on Mecca in the middle of the H1N1 influenza pandemic, but fewer than 100 cases of flu were detected. “People are shoulder to shoulder in prayer for days, so we were really surprised,” Khan says. But he emphasizes that Saudi Arabia took extraordinary measures of precaution: screening travelers at airports, isolating the sick and treating them, and immunizing others. 
To help understand the gap between fears and facts, Khan intends to use the London Olympics as a testing ground. He and his team have analyzed travel movements into London in the past 5 years, together with Olympic ticket sales, to estimate where visitors to the 2012 games will come from. By combining this information with infectious disease surveillance data from around the world, they will predict what pathogens to expect; after the games, those predictions will be compared to observations.                     
Read the full article here. For some footage of the Hajj, check out this National Geographic documentary, Inside Mecca


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Our Sun's stroll through the gaseous neighborhood...

by Salman Hameed

When talking about science & religion, people often bring up the big questions. How did the universe start? What is the origin of life, etc. And in these popular discussions, we often forget the beauty of actual science and the efforts that go in to figure out some of the answers. Our own perspectives about the universe have also changed dramatically in the last 100 years of astronomy.

I was thinking about this when I saw a schematic in this week's issue of Science (you will need subscription to read the full article). It shows our Sun's location in the neighborhood and the fact that it is traveling through a collection of interstellar clouds. Astronomers know this through the study of interstellar gas and dust near our heliosphere - the boundary where the outward pressure of the Solar wind is balanced by the inward pressure of the surrounding gas (other stars have it as well, but we call those astrospheres...). It is quite impressive that they have been able to map out the area in this detail. Also note that the schematic also has several nearby stars with planets! And to think that we discovered the first extrasolar planets only in the 1990s - this is quite awesome! Here is the figure along with the caption that goes with it:

The Sun is traveling through a collection of interstellar clouds, the properties of which determine the structure of our heliosphere. As the Sun moves in and out of the clouds, the heliosphere expands and contracts. Analogous structures, astrospheres, have been detected around many nearby stars, as have exoplanetary systems.


And here is the bit about astrospheres around other stars:
Just like the heliosphere, these astrospheres are likely to encircle and protect planetary systems of their own. Within a radius of 20 light years, in which the nearest 100 stars reside, we know of 10 stars with astrospheres (including our nearest stellar neighbor, α Centauri) and 16 stars with detected planets in orbit around them (see the figure). We know of two stars with both, but given that detecting either astrospheres or planets around other stars has only recently become possible, our inventory is incomplete. As we gain a more detailed knowledge of our heliosphere and discover more astrospheres, exciting work will explore the relationship between a given planet and its heliospheric (or astrospheric) shield and the interstellar gas that surrounds them. 
But to get a broader perspective, here is our approximate location in the Milky Way galaxy:

No - we are not located at the center of the galaxy, nor are we part of some fancy spiral arm. We happen to be located about 30,000 light years from the center of the galaxy and part of an unremarkable piece of a spiral arm. At least it provides us with a humbling perspective. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus: Yikes!

by Salman Hameed


I had such high hopes for Prometheus. Ridley Scott's first foray into science fiction since Blade Runner. However, this turned out to be a beautiful but disappointing film. I will be posting my full review and a discussion with Kevin Anderson in the next couple of days (for reviews of other films, visit our Film Autopsy page). In the mean time, here are couple of quick comments: The opening sequence is absolutely phenomenal. I would love to see a reasonable screenplay out of the opening set-up. However, the movie here goes into the terrain of ancient astronauts - kind of the ones popularized by Erich von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods? in the late 60s. I have no problem with using this as a premise as long as the movie is good (Heck - I thoroughly enjoyed Knowing: See earlier post - Science and Religion in Knowing). The problem is that the subsequent movie contains characters (mostly scientists) that are just simply dumb. No seriously. These are some of the dumbest scientists I have seen in a movie in a long time. For example, a geologist in the film complains that the protagonist is only interested in biology and that he cannot find anything of interest there. What?? He is on an unexplored moon of a planet. Everything- and I mean everything should be of mind-blowing interest to a geologist there! This is a perfect example of writers not knowing - even remotely - how scientists think and drives them to ask questions.

As if this wasn't enough, the movie is also sloppy in terms of whatever science it presents. For example, the distance of this alien planet is given in scientific notations in 10^14 kilometers, and it turns out to be roughly 35 light years. However, the spacecraft, launched in 2091 and gets to the planet in 2093. First of all - okay so humans found a way to travel faster than the speed of light in the next 70 years (we haven't even been back to the Moon since 1972!). At least mention it in the film that they are traveling faster than the speed of light - so we know that they know that this 2 year journey is a bit unusual. But - to top it all off, the character of Charlize Theron claims that they are half a billion miles from Earth. Neil deGrasse Tyson has already jumped on this. Yes, half a billion miles seems like a lot - except for in space. This should place them just beyond Jupiter (and would work for 2001 - A Space Odyssey :)). But the planet is actually 6 trillion miles away!! This is just sloppy writing.

All of this would also be forgiven if the story was good. Unfortunately, the story is equally lame. It pretends that it is tackling large issues (where did we come from?), but in reality, this is a very expensive rehashing of earlier Ridley Scott films (you know which films I'm talking about). Plus, it also turns into an ad for Christianity - not in any theological sense, but more in the Hollywood cliche sense (for another example, see the awful movie "Signs").


All that said, there are two positive things in the film. First, it is beautifully shot and the 3D is experience is comfortably immersive. As a I mentioned before, the opening sequence is as best as it can get - and some of the technology scenes are also fantastic. Second, Michael Fassbender is awesome as David - the robot. In particular, his imitation of Peter O'Toole from Lawrence of Arabia is charming and enjoyable. It would have been great if the movie focused on him and not on those dumb scientists.

As Avatar showed couple of years ago, money and technology is not sufficient for making a good film. You need a good story. Prometheus will be considered another forgettable expensive film. But if you need a good science fiction fix, check out Moon starring Sam Rockwell. It was made for only $5 million, and yet is far superior in story than both Avatar and Prometheus. See earlier post Alone on the Dark Side of the Moon and Questions about Humanity in "Moon"

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Saturday Video: Shostak on "What if ET is out there?"

by Salman Hameed

Seth Shostak is a fantastic speaker. Here he is makes the claim that we will detect at ET signal within the next two dozen years. Don't know - but I hope he is right. Even if we don't find the signal, here he makes the case for why SETI is still important.

Enjoy!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Creationism idiocy in South Korea

by Salman Hameed

It seems that some of the publishers in South Korea are planning on removing some examples of evolution from biology textbooks. The campaign (and yes, it is only a campaign) has been led by a Korean creationist group. This is a shame as South Korea has also been at the forefront of stem cells and genomic research. The country has a thriving research program and I doubt that this kind of creationist idiocy will last very long. Nevertheless, this is a shame that South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) would succumb to that. Here is the story from Nature (tip from Muhammad A. Ahmad)
A petition to remove references to evolution from high-school textbooks claimed victory last month after the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) revealed that many of the publishers would produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx. The move has alarmed biologists, who say that they were not consulted. “The ministry just sent the petition out to the publishing companies and let them judge,” says Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University.
And here is the group behind it:

The campaign was led by the Society for Textbook Revise (STR), which aims to delete the “error” of evolution from textbooks to “correct” students’ views of the world, according to the society’s website. The society says that its members include professors of biology and high-school science teachers. 
The STR is also campaigning to remove content about “the evolution of humans” and “the adaptation of finch beaks based on habitat and mode of sustenance”, a reference to one of the most famous observations in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. To back its campaign, the group highlights recent discoveries that Archaeopteryx is one of many feathered dinosaurs, and not necessarily an ancestor of all birds2. Exploiting such debates over the lineage of species “is a typical strategy of creation scientists to attack the teaching of evolution itself”, says Joonghwan Jeon, an evolutionary psychologist at Kyung Hee University in Yongin. 
The STR is an independent offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research (KACR), according to KACR spokesman Jungyeol Han. Thanks in part to the KACR’s efforts, creation science — which seeks to provide evidence in support of the creation myth described in the Book of Genesis — has had a growing influence in South Korea, although the STR itself has distanced itself from such doctrines. In early 2008, the KACR scored a hit with a successful exhibition at Seoul Land, one of the country’s leading amusement parks. According to the group, the exhibition attracted more than 116,000 visitors in three months, and the park is now in talks to create a year-long exhibition.
Read the full article here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Transit of Venus in Extreme Ultraviolet

by Salman Hameed

Spectacular pictures of the transit of Venus are everywhere. Here is a fantastic short clip in extreme UV (171 angstrom). This way you can also get a glimpse of the coronal loops as well as the places where magnetic fields are currently the strongest). Enjoy!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Pakistani, Queer, Woman, Astrophysicist: Journal "Science" highlights Nergis Mavalvala

by Salman Hameed

I'm in transit right now and heading back from Pakistan to the US. In the mean time, here is a quick story about a Pakistani astrophysicist at MIT. The premier journal Science has highlighted the career of Nergis Mavalvala (tip from Darakhshan Mir). She is professor of physics at MIT and works on gravitational waves (see an earlier post about her here). In 2010, she received the MacArthur 'Genius' grant of a half a million dollars. She grew up in Karachi and appreciates the encouragement she got from her parents and also from some of her teachers in Pakistan. She is also a lesbian and will be a keynote speaker this fall at a 2-day career summit for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, faculty, and professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Skin-color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation - none of these things matter when it comes to science. She serves as a powerful role model:

Nergis Mavalvala, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, can check off a whole lot of boxes on the diversity form. She isn't just a woman in physics, which is rare enough. She is an immigrant from Pakistan and a self-described “out, queer person of color.” “I don’t mind being on the fringes of any social group,” she says. 
With a toothy grin, the gregarious mother of a 4-year-old child explains why she likes her outsider status: “You are less constrained by the rules.” She may still be an outsider, but she's no longer obscure; her 2010 MacArthur Fellowship saw to that. In addition to the cash and the honor, the award came with opportunities to speak to an interested public about her somewhat esoteric research. “That is the best part,” she says. 
Mavalvala and her collaborators are fashioning an ultrasensitive telescope designed to catch a glimpse of gravitational waves. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of these ripples in spacetime nearly a century ago, but they haven’t been observed directly yet. Theoretically a consequence of violent cosmic events—the collisions of black holes, the explosive deaths of stars, or even the big bang—gravitational waves could provide a brand new lens for studying the universe. 
When she became a MacArthur fellow, former female students wrote to her saying that she was a model for what was possible for women. At different points in her scientific career, lesbian and gay students and colleagues mentioned something similar: They had been inspired by the example she had set for them. 
She embraces her role as role model. Something important is happening, she believes. “I am just myself,” she says. “But out of that comes something positive.” By being just herself, she is a source of inspiration for a wide range of individuals from groups underrepresented in the physical sciences.
And here she talks about her mentoring: 
Mavalvala says that although it may not be immediately apparent, she is a product of good mentoring. From the chemistry teacher in Pakistan who let her play with reagents in the lab after school to the head of the physics department at MIT, who supported her work when she joined the faculty in 2002, she has encountered several encouraging people on her journey. 
In the 10 years since, she has passed on her infectious enthusiasm for the LIGO project to many of her graduate students. “That is exactly what we were hoping for,” says Stanley Whitcomb, LIGO chief scientist at Caltech. “When she speaks to reviewers from NSF, or casual visitors to the observatory, she always made it a point to present technical details clearly. At the same time, she conveys that the work is fun.” The skill and desire to reach out to a broader audience, he remarks, is not a common trait among researchers.