Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Fantastic Documentary on Abdus Salam

by Salman Hameed

Today would have been Abdus Salam's 87th birthday. I was going to lament the way his name has been shunned in Pakistan - all because he was an Ahmadi Muslim. But instead, I want to highlight the efforts of some dogged, stubborn, and insane Pakistani filmmakers, who against all odds, have been pursuing their dream of making a documentary about Abdus Salam. In fact, I would love to see a documentary about the making of this documentary (where is Werner Herzog?). I first mentioned this project here in 2008 and then provided another update in 2010. I know one of the Executive Producers, Zakir Thaver, quite well - and it has been an absolute delight to see the project move along.

So two things: First, please see a seven minute clip of the film below. It will not only give you an idea of Salam's life, but also of the efforts of the filmmakers. The film has been shot on multiple locations in Pakistan (including the village where Salam was born) as well as in Italy (picture right, at the Salam-founded International Centre for Theoretical Physics), England, and the US.

Second, if you can, please make a contribution for the completion of this project (mostly post-production). Their target is to raise $150,000 - which is quite small for a project of this scale. But every dollar counts. Even if you contribute $10 - that will be of great help. You can make donations here.

In the mean time, congratulations to Zakir, Omar and others involved in the project. This is a superb effort!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Economist article on Islam and Science

by Salman Hameed

This week's Economist has an article that talks about the currents status of science in the Muslim world. It takes a broad approach and starts with the dismal state of current science in much of the Muslim world:

THE sleep has been long and deep. In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%; Israel lavishes 4.4%. 
Many blame Islam’s supposed innate hostility to science. Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries. The Saudi government supports books for Islamic schools such as “The Unchallengeable Miracles of the Qur’an: The Facts That Can’t Be Denied By Science” suggesting an inherent conflict between belief and reason.
But then it also talks about the rising publications from Turkey, Iran and other Muslim countries (I have also written about it here on Irtiqa: See the numbers for 2012 here and 2011 here)
In the 2000 to 2009 period Turkey’s output of scientific papers rose from barely 5,000 to 22,000; with less cash, Iran’s went up 1,300, to nearly 15,000. Quantity does not imply quality, but the papers are getting better, too. Scientific journals, and not just the few based in the Islamic world, are citing these papers more frequently. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, shows that in the early 1990s other publishers cited scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the most prolific Muslim countries) four times less often than the global average. By 2009 it was only half as often. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also doing well. Turkey scores highly on engineering.
The article then goes on to highlight some of the challenges as well, especially those related to biological evolution. It cites my 2008 paper for the dismal statistics of evolution acceptance in the Muslim world. However, our more recent work based on oral interviews show a much more complicated picture. In particular, we find that people hear different things when they hear the mention of evolution or Darwin, and often times, it has little to do with science. This is also highlighted in the article:

Though such disbelief may be couched in religious terms, culture and politics play a bigger role, says Mr Hameed. Poor school education in many countries leaves minds open to misapprehension. A growing Islamic creationist movement is at work too. A controversial Turkish preacher who goes by the name of Harun Yahya is in the forefront. His website spews pamphlets and books decrying Darwin. Unlike his American counterparts, however, he concedes that the universe is billions of years old (not 6,000 years). 
But the barrier is not insuperable. Plenty of Muslim biologists have managed to reconcile their faith and their work. Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist who converted to Islam, quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of genetics, saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Science describes how things change; Islam, in a larger sense, explains why, she says. 
Others take a similar line. “The Koran is not a science textbook,” says Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist. “It provides people with guidelines as to how they should live their lives.” Interpretations of it, she argues, can evolve with new scientific discoveries. Koranic verses about the creation of man, for example, can now be read as providing support for evolution.
And it is great that the article goes on to talk about the work on stem cells research that is going on in Iran - and also in Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan:
Other parts of the life sciences, often tricky for Christians, have proved unproblematic for Muslims. In America researchers wanting to use embryonic stem cells (which, as their name suggests, must be taken from human embryos, usually spares left over from fertility treatments) have had to battle pro-life Christian conservatives and a federal ban on funding for their field. But according to Islam, the soul does not enter the fetus until between 40 and 120 days after conception—so scientists at the Royan Institute in Iran are able to carry out stem-cell research without attracting censure.
Here is a broad swath of issues in a condensed manner. Read the full article here. By the way, if you are interested, you should also check out this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education from last year: Does Islam Stand Against Science?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Video: Nova's "Rise of the Drones"

by Salman Hameed

This week's NOVA episode focused on drone technology. It is an interesting episode, but does not really address some of the more complicated legal and ethical issues of this new form of warfare. I think one of the interesting comments in here is that the use of drones in the warfare at present is where the use of biplanes was right after World War I. That seems like an accurate and frightening statement. Also, what's up with the lighting? Most of the interviewees are shot in ominous light and a low camera angle. It is especially funny with one guy, who says that I would love to show you my new technology, but it is classified.. (ooo aa aah ha ha!).

Here is the NOVA episode, but check out some links to previous posts on the topic, as well as an excerpt from a recent article from Dissent:

Watch Rise of the Drones on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Here is a Pew opinion plot on How the Muslim World sees American science and the Drones:

Also read this piece from this week's The Atlantic responding to some questionable claims about drones by a fewUS experts on Pakistan: Yes, Pakistanis really do hate America's killer drones.

On ethics and legal front, see this earlier post, Ethics, Morality and Legality of Robotic Wars. In addition here is a thoughtful piece on these issues by Michael Walzar from Dissent Magazine: Targeted Killing and Drone Warfare:

Now, does it make any difference if the actual killing is the work of a drone, operated by a technician sitting in an office 3,000 miles away? Surely the same criteria apply to the drone as to any more closely manned machine. Why should we think it different from the sniper’s rifle? The difference is that killing-by-drone is so much easier than other forms of targeted killing. The easiness should make us uneasy. This is a dangerously tempting technology. It makes our enemies more vulnerable than ever before, and we can get at them without any risk to our own soldiers. Of course, intelligence gathering may still be risky, but the drones “see” so much more than any soldier or agent in the field that they make fieldwork seem less important. They combine the capacity for surveillance with the capacity for precise attack. At least, that is the idea, and assuming now that we are rightly in the business of killing, that there are people out there who deserve to be killed, what could be better? 
But here is the difficulty: the technology is so good that the criteria for using it are likely to be steadily relaxed. That’s what seems to have happened with the U.S. Army or with the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen. The overuse of drones and the costs they impose upon the civilian population have been carefully and persuasively documented in the Stanford/NYU Clinics’ report, Living Under Drones. I will focus on only one striking example of how the moral criteria have been relaxed in order to justify the overuse and the costs. According to an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, President Obama has adopted “a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that makes it much easier to call drone attacks “proportionate.” In effect, it “counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants.” If the targeted insurgent or terrorist leader is surrounded by, or simply in the vicinity of, a group of men who are, say, between the ages of fifteen and sixty (and even drone surveillance can’t be precise about that), an attack is permitted, and everyone who is killed is counted as a legitimate target. But this isn’t targeted killing. 
There are ancient precedents for this sort of thing. According to Thucydides, when the Athenians captured the rebellious city of Melos, they “slew all the men of military age.” And according to the biblical book of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites besieged a city and “God delivers it into your hands…you shall put all its males to the sword.” Since the Deuteronomist goes on to exclude children, the two policies are identical. The new American doctrine isn’t the same. We are not aiming to kill all the men of military age, but we have made them all liable to be killed. We have turned them into combatants, without knowing anything more about them than their (approximate) age. That wasn’t right in ancient Greece or Israel, and it isn‘t right today. 
Drone warfare could take the form of targeted killing, and it could be justified under tough constraints. But the United States now seems to be using drones in a different way, as the instrument of a more general and less focused warfare. Drones make it possible to get at enemies who hide in countries whose governments are probably unwilling and possibly unable to repress or restrain them. This is a war without a front, where the use of ground troops, even commandos, is difficult, sometimes impossible—so drones have been called “the only game in town.” But we should think very carefully before relaxing the targeting rules and turning drones into a weapon like all the others. Their moral and political advantage is their precision, which depends on using them only against individuals whose critical importance we have established and about whom we have learned a great deal. Using them like an advanced form of artillery or like “smart” bombs isn’t morally right or politically wise. 
This last point can be driven home very simply: imagine a world, which we will soon be living in, where everybody has drones.
Yes - the last sentence is worth pondering about. Unfortunately, we will be encountering that world in the very near future. Read the full article here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

NPR Series on the Religiously Unaffiliated (Nones) in the US

by Salman Hameed

Last week, NPR had a thoughtful and interesting series on "nones" - people who do not affiliate with any religion - in the US. It was prompted by recent polls that show that the number of "nones" has been increasing steadily for the past few decades and that the younger people today are not only more religious unaffiliated than their elders today, but that they are more religiously unaffiliated than their younger counterparts in the past (also see an earlier post: Global Religious Landscape - Young Muslims and the Unaffiliated). This is from the Gallup poll for the US:

And here is a Pew survey that breaks the data by age:

Here are particular characteristics of this group:

  • comprises atheists and agnostics as well as those who ally themselves with "nothing in particular"
  • includes many who say they are spiritual or religious in some way and pray every day
  • overwhelmingly says they are not looking to find an organized religion that would be right for them
  • is socially liberal, with three-quarters favoring same-sex marriage and legal abortion
  • Perhaps most striking is that one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. 

I have posted below links to the full series. If you have time to listen to just one, then check out the first one at the bottom (it includes an interview with sociologist, Robert Putnam. There they talk about the possible reasons for the rise of "nones", including the idea that it is because of decreasing importance of social institutions in general. But while listening to the full series, I was wondering about the possible trends in the Muslim world. We know that the median age of Muslims in the world is 23. What kind of trends should we expect? While the importance of religion is quite high in much of the Muslim world (see this post here for plots on this), that may not tell us much about the diversity of beliefs (i.e. religion can be very important, but the way people practice it can vary a lot). Pew did ask a question about perceptions of religious orthodoxy within Islam. In particular, they asked if "there is only one interpretation of Islam" or can it be interpreted in different ways. Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents in most countries agreed with the single interpretation statement, with Morocco, Tunisia, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Iraq being the exceptions, with under 50%. Interestingly, Muslims in the US are outliers on this:

Much to ponder about. Here are the links to this NPR special. If you have time, you should listen to all of these as they provide a glimpse of the complex ways people deal with religion and life.

Losing Our Religion

the two-way

As Social Issues Drive Young From Church, Leaders Try To Keep Them(466)  

January 18, 2013 Morning Edition wraps up its weeklong look at the growing number of people who say they do not identify with a religion. In the final conversation, two religious leaders describe what they do to attract young people to the church.

Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believes In God(332)  

Peyer says that even though she and her husband believe different things when it comes to God, they have found ways to accept and support each other's beliefs.
January 17, 2013 Every couple has differences and disagreements to navigate. But what happens when the couple disagrees on the fundamental question of faith? Maria Peyer is a church-attending Lutheran; her husband, Mike Bixby, is an atheist. But they've found ways to accept and support each other's beliefs.

On Religion, Some Young People Show Both Doubt And Respect(200)  

NPR's David Greene leads a discussion about religion with a group of young adults at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
January 17, 2013 NPR's David Greene talks with a group of young adults who've struggled with the role of faith and religion in their lives. They do not speak of emptiness without religion, but recognize that it fills needs. They talk of having respect for religion, but say that it's not something they identify with now.

After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope(372)  

Carol Fiore's husband, Eric, died after the plane he was test-piloting crashed in Wichita, Kan., 12 years ago. An atheist, Carol felt no comfort when religious people told her Eric was in a better place.
January 16, 2013 Many have long turned to religion for solace in the aftermath of a tragedy, but that's not an option for the nonreligious or those whose faith is destroyed by the event. For the nonreligious, dealing with trauma and loss often requires forging one's own path.

More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why?(1147)  

(From left) Yusuf Ahmad, Kyle Simpson, and Melissa Adelman also participated in the discussion about religion with NPR's David Greene at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
January 15, 2013 One-fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and those younger than 30 especially seem to be drifting from organized religion. Six young adults — some with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds — explore their struggle with faith and religion.

the two-way

Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The 'Nones'(731)  

As religious as this country may be, many Americans are not religious at all. The group of religiously unaffiliated — dubbed €œ"nones" €-- has been growing.
January 14, 2013 As religious as this country may be, many Americans are not religious at all. The group of religiously unaffiliated – dubbed "nones"— has been growing. One-fifth of Americans say they're nones, as are one in three under 30. They're socially liberal and aren't looking for an organized religion.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Amusements from Saudi Arabia to Louisiana state senate

by Salman Hameed

This is for your entertainment purposes only. Now we have seen hilarious statements from the likes of Zakir Naik, Harun Yahya, Yusef Estes etc. But they are not alone. Here is a state senator from Louisiana asking a high school teacher about evolution - and wondering if E. Coli turns into a human being. Yup. There are no minimum education limits or any requisite analytical abilities to be a state senator (tip from Farid Alvie and Shahid Saeed).

Not to be ever left behind, the agents of the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice decided to prevent the vices of some dino fossils in Dammam. It is unclear why they  did that - but shutdown they did:
A lady in Dammam, the hub of the oil industry on the kingdom’s Gulf coast, tweeted a complaint from a local shopping mall. Agents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), she said, were causing an unpleasant scene. The government-salaried vigilantes, a bearded auxiliary police force familiarly known to Saudis as the Hayaa, had marched officiously into an educational exhibit featuring plaster models of dinosaurs, turned off the lights and ordered everyone out, frightening children and alarming their parents. 
It was unclear precisely why the religious police objected to the exhibit, which apparently had been innocently featured at shopping centres across the Gulf for decades. Malls are one of the few public spaces where Saudis mix socially, and so often draw the Hayaa’s attentions. Gone, however, are the days when its agents can go about their business unchallenged.
Remember that dinos are a problem for young earth creationists, like Ken Ham of the Creation Museum. But I don't know if this shutting down has anything to do with science. It could be any number of things. But if they were going after Barney - the purple dinosaur, then I'm all for the Vice- preventing, Virtue-promoting, agents:

But what is more entertaining (and hilarious) is the reaction on Twitter, which is becoming an excellent place to ridicule such actions in the Kingdom (though it also turned ugly for another Saudi, Hamza Kashgari. See this earlier post: This guy is probably going to die because of his tweets). Here is the reaction to the shutting down of dinos:
Within minutes of the incident, a freshly minted Arabic Twitter hashtag, #Dammam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show, was generating scores of theories about their motives. Perhaps, suggested one, there was a danger that citizens might start worshipping dinosaur statues instead of God. Maybe it was just a temporary measure, said another, until the Hayaa can separate male and female dinosaurs and put them in separate rooms. Surely, declared a third, one of the lady dinosaurs had been caught in public without a male guardian. A fourth announced an all-points police alert for Barney the Dinosaur, while another suggested it was too early to judge until it was clear what the dinosaurs were wearing.
Several contributors injected bawdy innuendo into their comments. Noting that one of the displays showed a dinosaur riding on the back of another, one message declared that this was obviously sexually suggestive and possibly could be categorised as a Westernising influence. "I confess," declared one penitent, "I saw a naked dinosaur thigh and felt aroused." Another tweet provided this helpful tip to the suspicious CPVPV: "No, no, that long thing is a tail!" 
But most of the messages singled out the religious police for ridicule. "They worried that people would find the dinosaurs more highly evolved than themselves," explained one. "It’s the Hayaa that should be stuffed and mounted so future generations can learn about extinct animals," quipped another. This message adopted a more pedantic tone: "Dinosaurs are a paleontological life form from an ancient geological era, and our clerics are a paleontological life form from an ancient social era." "Hello? Stone Age? We have some of your people; can you please come and collect them?" pleaded one tweep. Another wrote: "If the dinosaurs were still alive they’d be saying, thank God for extinction."
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

From Umar Khayyam to Extremophiles with Umer Piracha

by Salman Hameed

It is a pleasure to see so many interesting and fascinating writers and musicians coming out of Pakistan (for writers, see this earlier post: "Granta" and a flock of new Pakistani writers). If we can rekindle a spirit of basic curiosity and the joy of discovery, then may be scientists will follow as well. In the mean time, here is a talented musician, Umer Piracha, who is also enthralled by science. He is from the Sufi city of Pakistan, Multan and is now lives in Philadelphia. Here is a bit about him from Philadelphia's Live Arts/Fringe Festival Magazine:
Umer’s music is concerned with the nature of things: “It’s about accepting the world as it is and being on a journey of exploration,” he says. Part of his exploration involves recognizing and investigating the connectedness of all things; a sense of universality and a drive to embody that feeling of connection permeate his music. Umer’s vision of art as a universalizing force will fuel his forthcoming debut album, a multilingual blend of Pakistani-folk-inspired songs alongside more traditionally Western tracks.
Part and parcel with the project of uniting different peoples and backgrounds is the issue of language. Umer’s native Urdu and Punjabi are central to much of his music, but when he plays to Anglophone audiences, he contextualizes his pieces to give them significance. 
“The purpose behind music is the same in any language,” Umer says, but concedes that certain ideas may be conveyed better in one language than another. When he anticipates a language barrier, he introduces a piece before he plays it—by first providing a roughly translated meaning behind the song, he allows his performance to encapsulate its sentiment. 
Maintaining the integrity of the music through translation can be a tricky business. Certain cultural nuances are wrapped up in details like language and tone. In particular, the religious bent of many traditional Eastern pieces proves difficult to explain without alienating other audiences. 
“In translating across cultures, I try to avoid the term ‘religiously affiliated’ because it comes with baggage,” he explains. “Associating music with religion of any sort creates boundaries before it can convey anything.” 
And boundaries are quite the opposite of what Umer wishes to build. 
The solution to this dilemma is often found within the music itself. In Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, much associated music is about the human potential for transcendence. The songs express living in a state of love, regardless of the object of love—be it God, another person, or anything in between. 
“This is the state of spirituality I am after,” Umer says, “Something that ties the whole of humanity together. We need to think outside of culture so that we can see the commonalities between all people. Once you do that, you can’t resist the arts.” 
Here is Umer Piracha's instrumental, Extremophile (I'm actually writing this post while listening to this instrumental on a loop):

This is of personal interest to me as I was co-teaching Astrobiology this past semester, where we spent considerable time on those microbes that thrive in extreme conditions - both hot and cold. These microbes may provide us with a glimpse of possible life forms on Mars or - and perhaps more likely - in the oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Umer has found his inspiration from astronomer (and a fantastic writer) Chris Impey, and he quotes him under the video:
In the dream, you are in an ice cave. It is starkly beautiful, suffused in blue light from an outside source. There's nothing to eat, no sustenance, just the angular planes of ice crystals. It is stunningly cold, well below freezing. Your breath billows in front of you; perspiration forms a frozen rind on your neck. You cant stay here long. Then you notice creatures working industriously along the far wall of the cave. Theyre obliviousto the intense cold. From the strange smell, you guess that they have antifreeze running through their veins. This place is clearly their home. 
Then you awake—not to your bed but to another strange world. You are on the shores of a river, with canyon walls that rise up and disappear in the gloom. The river is acrid and filled with the worst kind of industrial effluent. The water is so acidic that it sizzles as it passes over the rocks, which are themselves discolored by chemical residue. The smell is foul and metallic, and it almost makes you gag. As your eyes get used to the twilight, you see shadowy figures in the water. Amazingly, they are unperturbed by the toxic environment. Some of them are splashing and playing, some are drinking the water, and others are gathering lumps of metal from the sediment on the riverbank. The scene would be idyllic if it were not so bizarre. 
You wake again, with a start. But you are still not in your room. Youre encased in a metal shell, something like a submersible. A porthole in front of you is made of glass several inches thick; you sense the phenomenal pressure of water beyond. By your hand theres a switch. Flicking it illuminates a fantastic scene beyond the porthole: smoky fumaroles emerging from fissures where the magma glows dull red, as well as rocks crusted with colorful minerals and crystals. The water shimmers with intense heat, and you can feel it leaching into the submersible; this is another place you cannot stay long. Wonder and claustrophobia are warring within you. Then you notice graceful creatures gliding through the gloom. They are translucent in this place, where sunlight never reaches. They graze at the edge of the deep-sea vent, just yards from a seam that reaches down miles into the crust. You sense that they have lived here for eons. 
You wake once more. This time it is to the familiar landscape of your bedroom. You marvel at the lucidity of the dream; the real world seems a bit disappointing by comparison. Another realization hits you. In your dream you had been miraculously shrunk to microscopic size. The tableaus you explored would pass unnoticed in the everyday world. 
Then you awaken. 
(Source: The Living Cosmos by Chris Impey)
While this sinks in, check out his composition, "Seven Thousand Years", which takes its title from a quatrain by the 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam:


Monday, January 21, 2013

Moby-Dick and science

by Salman Hameed

A confession first. No, I have not read Moby-Dick. I really want to. In fact, this past summer it was on my reading list and I even bought a new copy, but I didn't get a chance to read it. Next summer, I promise.

But apparently, I'm not the only one. Here is a fantastic project, Moby-Dick Big Read, that brought together artists, scientists, musicians, writers, academics to read Moby-Dick. The motivation was that this is the "great unread American novel". As a result of the project, you can now listen to the whole book here.

But here is a fascinating article in last week's Nature about the way science inspired Herman Melville in writing Moby-Dick (you may need subscription to access the full article):

More than a century and a half after it was published, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick remains a key cultural bridge between human history and natural history — expressed in the vast and ominous shape of the whale. This epic novel is a laboratory of literature, created in an age before art and science became strictly demarcated. 
Melville wrote his book — which drew on his own youthful experiences on a whaling ship — as a tribute to the first period of modern whaling in the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, which he claimed to be worth US$7 million a year to the fledgling United States. At the same time, science was undergoing a sea change as the gentleman scientists and polymaths of the century's start gave way to more specialized and professionalized successors. 
Melville's attitude to, and use of, science in Moby-Dick was in line with the eclectic ethos of that period. Drawing on the work of luminaries such as William Scoresby, Thomas Beale, Georges Cuvier and Louis Agassiz, Melville used contemporary knowledge of natural history — or the lack of it — to his own ends. 
Seventeen of the book's 135 chapters focus on whale anatomy or behaviour. Titles include 'The Sperm Whale's Head — Contrasted View' and 'The Right Whale's Head — Contrasted View'; such sections lay out the whales' physical structure with a wry mixture of known facts and arch analogy. (In a witty 2011 essay, marine biologist Harold Morowitz speculates on Melville as a “cetacean gastroenterologist or proctologist”.) Melville's must also be the first, and perhaps last, work of literature to feature a chapter on zooplankton. 
In the famous Chapter 32, 'Cetology', Melville attempts to categorize species of whale as he would catalogue his library, in 'folios'. It was a playful gesture that reflected the fluid classification of cetacean species at the time.
Also, the characters embody the change in thinking:
Of course, the greatest scientific figure of the age hovers over Melville. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, eight years after Moby-Dick came out. Melville's sole mention of Darwin is a quote — from Darwin's Voyage of a Naturalist (sic) — in the extracts at the start of Moby-Dick. He had read Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) in preparation for his own 1854 work, The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles — as the Galapagos were then known. Melville visited the islands in 1841, six years after Darwin's fateful landing. Darwin's recorded observation of marine iguanas as “imps of darkness” seemed to set the tone for Melville's metaphoric view of the Galapagos, which he saw as “five-and-twenty heaps of cinders ... In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist”. 
Such dark analogies are in line with a man who declared all human science to be “but a passing fable” — and yet created a fable of his own. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is a perpetually sceptical and questioning figure, a man attuned to science — a stark contrast to the vengeful Ahab and his pursuit of the whale that “dismasted” him. As the critic Eric Wilson, in his essay 'Melville, Darwin, and the Great Chain of Being', notes, a “primary subtext of Melville's novel is the passing of pre-Darwinian, anthropocentric thought, espoused by Ahab, and the inauguration of a version of Darwin's more ecological evolution, proffered by Ishmael”. 
Melville lived through that process. US Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature (1836), with its declaration of moral law at the heart of the cosmos, was the new philosophy of Melville's youth. But as biographer Andrew Delbanco points out, Melville read A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), William Dean Howells's Darwinian-inflected view of society. Moby-Dick itself has been seen as a parody of the Transcendentalists' 'back-to-nature' excesses. But Melville does more than lambast philosophy or use science as interior decoration. He achieved a marvellous synthesis of his own poetic and philosophical impulse with the increasingly science-aware ethos of his age. And he did so with a sense of black humour that transcended Transcendentalism to prove that nature — and its science — was much stranger and more wonderful than they had imagined.
Read the full article here. And in case you are interested in the evolution of whales, you can find some information here, including that of Pakicetus.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Making some sense of the mess in Mali

by Salman Hameed

The situation in Mali is getting worse. I had couple of posts last year on the destruction of Islamic tombs by these radical Islamists (see: Can Muslim archaeological sites be saved from Muslims? and Need some outrage on the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mali). But that is just one of the myriads of problems. The conflict in Mali is already impacting Algeria and Libya, the old colonial power - France, and the oil companies in the region. I know we have to be careful in making comparisons, but there are some other similarities with the conflict in Afghanistan as well. The tribal/ethnic group at the center, the  Tuareg, span the border areas of multiple countries, including Mali and Algeria. The landscape is spread out with sparse pockets of populations, and there is a foreign, western force, trying to stabilize the central government in Mali, as well as conducting direct military actions against the Islamists. Plus, the extremists are using a brutal mixture of local customs with some of Islam's harshest punishments.

To make a bit of a sense of all the mess, here is a Fresh Air interview with Adam Nossiter from early January. It provides some context to what is happening. This interview was conducted before the French bombing and the hostage crisis of Algeria. Nevertheless, you can get an idea of the interests of the different sides in the conflict.

Here is the bit on the destruction of tombs:
On al-Qaida in Mali's efforts to suppress culture in the region:
"The al-Qaida group, especially in Timbuktu ... has set about the systematic destruction of the above-ground mausoleums — some of them centuries old — that the local people ... venerate because they contain the remains of people considered saints in the Sufi religion. And so they've systematically taken pickaxes and hammers to these monuments and leveled them, and this has been very, very shocking for the people in Timbuktu. They've expressed their horror to me over the phone shortly after having witnessed this. They've also banned any kind of music — and, of course, Mali has a very rich musical culture — but even so far as banning musical ring tones on cellphones. If they catch you with a cellphone that plays a tune, they'll confiscate it and they'll punish you. The only thing you can have on your cellphone is a verse from the Quran."
Listen to the full interview here.

And in all this mess, you may find dark humor in knowing that the US trained officials in the Malian army overthrew the democratically elected government (from NYT):
 For years, the United States tried to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara. 
But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials. 
“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.
Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.
Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.
 Over the last four years, the United States has spent between $520 million and $600 million in a sweeping effort to combat Islamist militancy in the region without fighting the kind of wars it has waged in the Middle East. The program stretched from Morocco to Nigeria, and American officials heralded the Malian military as an exemplary partner. American Special Forces trained its troops in marksmanship, border patrol, ambush drills and other counterterrorism skills. 
But all that deliberate planning collapsed swiftly when heavily armed, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya. They teamed up with jihadists like Ansar Dine, routed poorly equipped Malian forces and demoralized them so thoroughly that it set off a mutiny against the government in the capital, Bamako. 
A confidential internal review completed last July by the Pentagon’s Africa Command concluded that the coup had unfolded too quickly for American commanders or intelligence analysts to detect any clear warning signs.
Read the full article here.        

And here is a take from Glen Greenwald on the French (and US) intervention in Mali (emphasis in the text below are from the original article):
Finally, the propaganda used to justify all of this is depressingly common yet wildly effective. Any western government that wants to bomb Muslims simply slaps the label of "terrorists" on them, and any real debate or critical assessment instantly ends before it can even begin. "The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe," proclaimed French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. 
As usual, this simplistic cartoon script distorts reality more than it describes it. There is no doubt that the Malian rebels have engaged in all sorts of heinous atrocities ("amputations, flogging, and stoning to death for those who oppose their interpretation of Islam"), but so, too, have Malian government forces - including, as Amnesty chronicled, "arresting, torturing and killing Tuareg people apparently only on ethnic ground." As Jones aptly warns: "don't fall for a narrative so often pushed by the Western media: a perverse oversimplification of good fighting evil, just as we have seen imposed on Syria's brutal civil war." 
The French bombing of Mali, perhaps to include some form of US participation, illustrates every lesson of western intervention. The "war on terror" is a self-perpetuating war precisely because it endlessly engenders its own enemies and provides the fuel to ensure that the fire rages without end. But the sloganeering propaganda used to justify this is so cheap and easy - we must kill the Terrorists! - that it's hard to see what will finally cause this to end. The blinding fear - not just of violence, but of Otherness - that has been successfully implanted in the minds of many western citizens is such that this single, empty word (Terrorists), standing alone, is sufficient to generate unquestioning support for whatever their governments do in its name, no matter how secret or unaccompanied by evidence it may be.
Read the full article here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eleventh century Jewish documents from Afghanistan

by Salman Hameed

Here is a fascinating story about 11th century Jewish documents found in Afghanistan:

A batch of 1,000-year-old manuscripts from the mountainous northern reaches of war-torn Afghanistan, reportedly found in a cave inhabited by foxes, has revealed previously unknown details about the cultural, economic and religious life of a thriving but little understood Jewish society in a Persian part of the Muslim empire of the 11th century. 
The 29 paper pages, now encased in clear plastic and unveiled here this month at the National Library of Israel, are part of a trove of hundreds of documents discovered in the cave whose existence had been known for several years, with photographs circulating among experts. Remarkably well preserved, apparently because of the dry conditions there, the majority of the documents are now said to be in the hands of private dealers in Britain, Switzerland, and possibly the United States and the Middle East. 
“This is the first time that we have actual physical evidence of the Jewish life and culture within the Iranian culture of the 11th century,” said Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai, the library’s academic director. While other historical sources have pointed to the existence of Jewish communities in that area in the early Middle Ages, he said, the documents offer “proof that they were there.” 
The texts are known collectively as the Afghan Geniza, a Hebrew term for a repository of sacred texts and objects. They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic and Arabic, and some used the Babylonian system for vowels, a linguistic assortment that scholars said would have been nearly impossible to forge.
And what do these documents tell us? 
One text includes a discussion of Hebrew words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Another is a letter between two brothers in which one denied rumors that he was no longer an observant Jew. There are legal and economic documents, some signed by witnesses, recording commercial transactions and debts between Jews and their Muslim neighbors, and other mundane yet illuminating details of daily life like travel plans. 
One missive between two Jews, Sheik Abu Nasser Ahmed ibn Daniel and Musa ibn Ishak, dealing with family matters, was written in the Hebrew letters of Judeo-Persian, but had an address in Arabic script on the back, presumably for the benefit of the Muslim messenger. One document has a date from the Islamic calendar corresponding to the year 1006. 
The most important religious text among those acquired by the National Library is a fragment of a Judeo-Persian version of a commentary on the Book of Isaiah originally written by the renowned Babylonian rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon, a previously unknown text. A sliver of it has been sent to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot for carbon dating. 
The exact source of the documents is murky. The manuscripts are said to have come from a remote area near the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, wild terrain largely controlled by warlords. Jews probably migrated there in the early Middle Ages to engage in commerce along the Silk Road, the important trade route linking China and Europe.        
Read the full article here. While all of this may be a positive thing from a thousand years ago, it appears that Egyptian president, Morsi, was making anti-semitic remarks in 2010. I guess, times have changed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A UFO sighting - right here in Amherst!

by Salman Hameed

Last week, a few people in Amherst, Massachusetts, saw something in the sky that could not be identified... (cue the X-files music, please :) ). From WWLP:

AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) - A "flying saucer," signs of extraterrestrial life, or an unidentified flying object; whatever you call it, some people in Amherst say they saw it. 
Witnesses told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that on Tuesday night, an object the size of two or three cars was seen hovering over Belchertown Road in Amherst.  One woman said that it wasn't far from her car. 
The unusual news was all the talk at the Black Sheep Deli on Main Street Thursday.
“If people saw something, they saw something. But I don't believe that an object in the sky was necessarily or was at all alien,” Amy Ware of Sunderland said. 
“I believe in it, because we are such a speck in the universe,” said Juliet Rose of Bernardston. “Who are we to think that we are the only ones?” 
Police say they did receive one call, but didn't investigate. Westover Air Reserve Base has a radar tower in Amherst, they told the Gazette radars didn't pick up any aircrafts in the area at that time.

So I had a chance to talk about this UFO sighting with Bill Newman on WHMP (last 15 minutes of the show). And then I also had a chat with Monte Belmonte of The River-93.9 not just on this sighting, but also on the petition to the US government to build a Death Star. Plus, a caller called Monte about a couple of more local UFO sightings. There you have it. Enjoy!

"Dispatches from Pakistan" and Hoodbhoy on terrorism

by Salman Hameed

First of all, hello to our regular monitors at the Department of Homeland Security. They have been forced to release the list of keywords they use to monitor social media. Ahmm. Yes, if you just mention Pakistan, I guess you will get some hits on your post (oh - the hits just went up :) ).

Second, if you are interested in checking out what is going on in Pakistan other than craziness, here is a good start: Dispatches from Pakistan:
A book that charts Pakistan’s aspirations and challenges. 
Writing about Pakistan is cliché-ridden. Fear is the dominant motif: mullahs, terrorists, nuclear bombs. And beneath that is victimhood: refugees from floods and military adventures, women in burqas, emaciated children. Little of the actual fabric of everyday life comes across. Nothing of the struggles against neoliberalism, nothing of the struggles against the kleptocracy of Military, Inc. Nothing of the searing poetry from Gilgit, nothing of the graffiti from Gwadar. 
Pakistanis are alive. Sold by governments who should save them, killed by secret agencies who should guard them, bombed by American drones, ‘structurally adjusted’ into starvation, beaten, rendered, tortured and disappeared, and yet, inscrutably, immutably, even joyously, they are still alive. 
DISPATCHES FROM PAKISTAN is an introduction to that liveliness, with sixteen original essays that take us from Balochistan to Baltistan, and poetry from Jalib and Riyaz. This collection is essential reading for anyone who is invested in the social history of transformation underway in Pakistan. 
With shrewd analysis rendered in accessible language, DISPATCHES lays plain the complex and vitally important conditions unfolding in 21st-century Pakistan.
It looks fantastic and serves as an antidote to much of the news coming out of Pakistan. It is edited by Madiha R. Tahir, Qalandar Bux Memon, and our friend Vijay Prashad.

But darker news from Pakistan is also hard to ignore. Here is a short talk (about 17 minutes) by Pervez Hoodbhoy on the current situation in Pakistan. The talk was recorded in March of 2012 and there is another political crisis engulfing Pakistan right now (in case, you are interested in learning about the current circus in Islamabad, here is Ayesha Siddiqa's article: Qadri leads a long march to nonsense). There have also been more attacks on Shias in the last couple of months, and the last carnage has led to protest by the public (also see this piece by Kamila Shamsie: No Solidarity in Pakistan).

Also see this earlier post: Is Pakistan spiraling down the path of Iraq?

Two more things related to art and the issue of terrorism in Pakistan: Here is an illustration of a Pakistani flag by musician Usman Riaz that got a lot of attention after the Shia massacre in Quetta:

And I wanted to again post this fantastic Urdu cover of Zombie by Bakht Arif:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

And TUBITAK denies it has halted publication of evolution books

by Salman Hameed

When evolution becomes a political issue, it becomes very hard to trace what is really going on. Just yesterday, I had a post about TUBITAK - the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey - halting further publication of evolution books. These concerns have also been echoed by some Turkish academics as well. But TUBITAK has denied this and says that this is propaganda against them (tip from Don Everhart):
The Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) has strongly denied reports that it has stopped printing books on evolution, saying the claims were “black propaganda” against their institution. 
“If we aim to censor Evolution Theory we would discontinue publishing any books containing evolutionist approaches, but on the contrary we are publishing the books that are not being published by other publishing houses,” an official from TÜBİTAK told the Hürriyet Daily News yesterday in a phone interview. 
A number of reports in daily Sözcü claimed Jan. 14 that TÜBİTAK had put a stop to the publication and sale of all books in its archives that support the theory of evolution.
The evolutionist books, previously available through TÜBİTAK’s Popular Science Publications’ List, will no longer be provided by the council, the daily had claimed. 
Titles from prominent writers including Richard Dawkins, Alan Moorehead, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levontin and James Watson were listed as being among those which would no longer be available to Turkish readers. 
However, the official refuted the claims. “There are two books already in our 2012 catalogue regarding evolution, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ is one of them … Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ is not being published because of a publication rights issue, but this is being manipulated,” the official said.
Okay that is the first part. But this is where politics, evolution and science gets mushed together:
He claimed that “some circles” had kicked off a “black propaganda” campaign against TÜBİTAK to “shadow its success,” following the successful mission of Turkey’s first Earth observation satellite, Göktürk-2. 
Göktürk-2 was launched Dec. 18 in China, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan followed the launch at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) campus, which witnessed huge numbers of students protesting the prime minister’s visit.  
Erdoğan had called on the academics who supported the students to resign, but the police’s heavy-handed intervention in the protests also stirred a debate among Turkish universities, with some backing the police and Erdoğan and some opposing. 
TÜBİTAK had previously been the target of evolutionist circles for alleged censorship practices.  
In early 2009 a huge uproar occurred when the cover story of a TÜBİTAK publication was pulled, reportedly because it focused on Darwin’s theory of evolution. The incident led to intense criticism and finger-pointing from various representatives of the publication and its parent institute.  
A few months later, the article in question appeared as the publication’s cover story.
As you can see, there is the issue of TUBITAK's reputation, student protests, and the academics - many of whom do not support the ruling party, AKP. Let's see how the dust settles on this matter. 

But if you are interested, here are some past posts that may help in making some sense of the current situation:  

Monday, January 14, 2013

A halt to the publication of evolution books in Turkey

by Salman Hameed

This is part of a continuing battle over evolution in Turkey - and this battle is also quite political. Here is the news item (tip from Rainer Bromer):
The Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) has put a stop to the publication and sale of all books in its archives that support the theory of evolution, daily Radikal has reported.  
The evolutionist books, previously available through TÜBİTAK's Popular Science Publications’ List, will no longer be provided by the council.  
The books have long been listed as “out of stock” on TÜBİTAK's website, but their further publication are now slated to be stopped permanently.  
Books by Richard Dawkins, Alan Moorehead, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levontin and James Watson are all included in the list of books that will no longer be available to the Turkish readers.
Read the full article here.

I do not have much information about this particular action. But here are a couple of quick thoughts: If this is true, then this is simply idiotic. Evolution has become a political issues between the secularists and the Islamists (terms used very broadly here) for a while - and this may simply be another salvo. The same had happened in 2009, when a TUBITAK magazine cover commemorating Darwin's bicentennial was replaced by a story on global warming (see this post: Controversy over Darwin censorship in Turkey). All said, because of the political underpinnings, we still have to be cautious in believing every reason given by both sides.

Also, for outsiders, this may seem like another episode of Harun Yahya's influence. However, this may have nothing to do with Yahya. Even when I attended the creationist symposium in Istanbul last May, the presence and influence of his group was quite minimal.

I will post an update if I hear something more about this.

Also see:
Students attack anti-evoltuion fossils in Turkey
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