Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mali versus Mars

by Salman Hameed

A recent article on BBC called the conflict in the Mali desert as "fighting on Mars". The images are indeed incredible. In fact, probably a future war on Mars is going to look like this (except with phasers). Here are two images each from Mali and the Curiosity rover on Mars:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Harun's Houris

Hosftra University anthropologist, Daniel Martin Varisco, runs a fantastic (and often quite entertaining) blog called Tabsir. It deals with cultural issues on Islam and the Middle East. Daniel has also written on our favorite Islamic creationist, Harun Yahya. Here is his latest post on Tabsir - and is reproduced here with his permission.

Harun's Houris
by Daniel Martin Varisco

Harun Yahya, a.k.a Adnan Oktar
But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven? Who would not encounter many dangers and difficulties, in order to attain so sublime a character? Or if, by the help of vanity and a heated imagination, a man has first made a convert of himself, and entered seriously into the delusion; who ever scruples to make use of pious frauds, in support of so holy and meritorious a cause?
David Hume, “Of Miracles” (1748)
David Hume, the eminent 18th century philosopher, was probably not thinking about Islam when he wrote his seminal essay “Of Miracles,” but his description resonates well with the media realm of the would-be Mahdi Harun Yahya (alias of Adnan Oktar). Put enough money and media-savvy glitz behind a delusion and the gullible will come to the trough. All you need to do is check out the main website of Harun Yahya to see a sexed-up Disney version of Islam. And even if you happen to be Igbo (yes Igbo), you can read what the Harun Yahya machine has to say about the “Koran.”
The checkered history of Adnan Oktar is hardly a secret, especially in Turkey. But his cyber-reach is massive, with multiple websites available in many different languages. If you have time to spare, spend a few minutes perusing some of his 160 websites devoted to attacking evolution, proving miracles, calling for an Islamic Union led by Turkey, the coming of the Mahdi, hell, atheism and beyond. Oktar recently made news by interviewing Israeli guests, despite earlier writings which include holocaust denial.
The latest twist in the televised adoration of Adnan Oktar might best be labeled “Harun’s houris.” His television show, which at first might be confused for a Turkish “Daily Show” (or perhaps more like “Saturday Night Live”), is libido laden. The would-be mahdi is mad about gorgeous Turkish women with big bosoms, as can be seen in the image below and everywhere on his A9 network shows.

Forget about hijab and niqab, at least for the foreign audience; the women who sit as sexy backdrops to charisma personified (at least in his own eyes) are a delight for the here-and-now, not waiting in paradise. They are beauty icons, who have little or nothing to say, apart from reading script by the ghost writers who create everything attributed to Harun. At times, with the translation running below, the words are an incredible disconnect from the image. Harun preaches an Islam of love, tolerance and devotion, but he seems to focus on the first of these in his televised essence. One wonders if he also gets any payback for advertising high fashion.

Yet Mahdi Yahya himself suggests that such sexy images come from none other than Satan:
“Satan knows very well that sentimentality is a sickness that prevents people from thinking properly, of recognising reality, of being mindful of God, and of contemplating the purpose of creation and the afterlife, and that it lures people away from practising their religion, and leads them ultimately into idolatry. Therefore, he seeks to mislead society at every turn by means of an intense and constant bombardment of sentimental themes.”

Idolatry is a no-no for Muslims, but playing the same game plan as “American Idol” is all a go-go for Harun and his houris.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Talk at Hampshire College by Tracy Leavelle: The Awful Crater and The Eternal God

by Salman Hameed

Our next Science and Religion lecture at Hampshire College is tomorrow (March 28th). And it is my absolute pleasure to announce that it will be by historian Tracy Leavelle. I met him back when he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Smith College, and I know that he is a big fan of soccer and the band Wilco! But he is not only a fantastic researcher, but also a great story-teller. Tracy and I have collaborated on the issue of telescopes on the sacred Mauna Kea in Hawai'i (if you follow the blog, you must have seen umpteen posts on that).

His Science & Religion talk does cover the topic of Hawai'i, but not of telescopes. Nevertheless, it sounds fantastic (and I'm not saying this because he is my friend...). If you are in the area, join us for the talk tomorrow. Here are the details for the talk:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science and Religion:

The Awful Crater and the Eternal God: Volcanoes and Missionary Science in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i

by Dr. Tracy Leavelle
Thursday, March 28 at 5:30 pm
 Main Lecture Hall, Franklin Peterson Hall
Hampshire College

Abstract: In 1852, Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawai‘i erupted in dramatic fashion, sending fountains of lava hundreds of feet into the air and down the side of the mountain for miles.  The American missionary Titus Coan climbed Mauna Loa to study the event and found himself alone and afraid on the great volcano, aghast at “the awful crater.”  Here, Coan discovered the imprint of a mighty God of creation and destruction.  In a prominent American scientific journal, he reflected, “I seemed to be standing in the presence and before the burning throne of the eternal God.”  The volcanoes of Hawai‘i represented for Coan the dynamic contest between salvation and damnation, civilization and savagery.  As such, they became sites of both rigorous scientific study and deep religious contemplation.

Speaker bio: Dr. Tracy Neal Leavelle is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at
Creighton University and a former Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fellow at Smith College.  He has recently been appointed Director of Digital Humanities Initiatives at Creighton.  His first book is The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America (Penn, 2012).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lecture Video: Spinoza's God (or Nature)

by Salman Hameed

Earlier this month, as part of our Science and Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire College, we had a fantastic lecture by Steve Nadler on Spinoza's God (or Nature). Here is your chance to find out if Spinoza was an agnostic, deist, pantheist, or an atheist. Plus, it is fascinating to hear about how Spinoza viewed succumbing to wonder and mystery (this comes out in the Q&A session after the talk). If you have some time, you should definitely check out the lecture.

As a refresher, here is the abstract for the talk:

In 1656, the young Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community with extreme prejudice; by the end of his short life he was regarded as one of the most radical and dangerous thinkers of his time. Among his alleged "abominable heresies" was, according to one contemporary report, the belief that "God exists only philosophically." In this lecture, we will examine Spinoza's conception of God, whereby God is identified with Nature, and address the question of whether he is, as is so often claimed, a "God intoxicated" pantheist or a devious atheist, as well as the implications of this for his views on religion.

Here is the video of the lecture:

Here is the Q&A session:

Monday, March 25, 2013

SSiMS lunch talk on Islam and Figurative Art at Hampshire College on March 27th

by Salman Hameed

Our Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) is hosting a lunch talk this coming Wednesday, March 27th, by Yael Rice. The talk will be in the lobby of Adele Simmons Hall (ASH) at Noon and the topic looks fascinating. Join us, if you are in the area. Here are the details:

Sound and Vision/Word and Image: Islamic Portraiture and its Many Forms
by Yael Rice
Five College Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Art at Amherst College

Abstract: It is a widespread misconception that the medieval and early-modern arts of the Islamic lands lacked a tradition of figural depiction. In fact, illustrated manuscripts from Mosul (Iraq) to Agra (India) provide clear evidence of a rich practice of figuration, including painted portraits of authors, patrons, and other important figures. With several notable exceptions, manuscripts of histories, poetic works, biographies, and other texts nevertheless evidence a pronounced reliance upon verbal, rather than pictorial, representations of likeness. This talk will address the complex relationship between textual and pictorial portrait imagery in the book arts of Greater Iran and South Asia from the 13th through the 17th centuries, focusing in particular on the Mughal court of northern India, which saw a marked shift towards a practice of mimetic portraiture rooted in optical, sensate experiences.

Speaker Bio: Yael Rice (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) specializes in the art and architecture of Greater Iran and South Asia, with a particular focus on manuscripts and other portable arts of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Currently the Five College Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Art at Amherst College, she previously held the position of Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 2009 till 2012. Her publications include studies of European engravings and Persian calligraphic specimens in Mughal royal albums, the 1598–99 MughalRazmnama (Book of war), and an early fifteenth-century Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami copied and illustrated in the region of Fars, Iran.

Rice's current research concerns physiognomic analysis as a courtly and artistic practice, Mughal depictions of imperial dreams, paintings made for the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), and the cultural and material history of jade in early modern Central and South Asia.

In the Adele Simmons Hall (ASH) Lobby at Hampshire College.        
A light lunch will be available at noon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Snow, rationalists and an older, meaner universe

by Salman Hameed

There have been no posts for the past few days as I was at a conference at Coventry University, and between talks and conversations, did not get a chance to have any posts up. But couple of things as I wait for the plane at Heathrow to get back to Amherst: I had a chance to have dinner with some members of Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSoP), and it was an absolute delight. I have written about them before and I think it important to know that while we complain about the growing intolerance on religious, we also have counter-movements that believe in an open dialogue and place an emphasis on toleration, reason and rationality. This doesn't mean that there is a single position within RSoP, but there appears to be a spirit of healthy discussion over those discussions. We need more forums like this one.

On the downside, the weather here was miserable! No - I mean absolutely miserable. If I wanted snow, I could have stayed in Amherst. Here is a picture from my hotel room in Coventry yesterday (oh and much of the snow was in slush form):

But if it is any consolation, while I was away, we found out that our universe is a bit older and chubbier than we thought before. The new estimates come from Planck Observatory that has been making detail maps of the Cosmic Microwave Radiation (CMB) - the relic light emitted about 370,000 years after the Big Bang (the farthest back we can see yet). So much older? Well, about 100 million years older (Yes - this is not very much in cosmic time). So our universe is now estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, compared to the previous estimated of 13.7 billion. Plus, normal matter is now estimated to be 4.9% (up from 4.6%) - though we shouldn't call such tiny fraction as "normal" - even if we are made up of it :) . Dark Matter estimates are also up a bit - 26.8% (up from 24%), and all of this comes at the expense of Dark energy (down from 71.4% to 68.3%).

Okay - forget about the details. The key is that Planck Observatory has confirmed our prior models and has tweaked some of our estimates.

You can read more about it here, and here is the Planck map of the background radiation:

Here is figure caption:

"This map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected with the greatest precision yet by the Planck mission. The ancient light, called the cosmic microwave background, was imprinted on the sky when the universe was 370,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today.

By analyzing the light patterns in this map, scientists are fine tuning what we know about the universe, including its origins, fate and basic components.

Planck is a European Space Agency mission, with significant participation from NASA. NASA's Planck Project Office is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for both of Planck's science instruments. European, Canadian and U.S. Planck scientists work together to analyze the Planck data.

Image credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration"

Okay - onto the plane to Boston.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Two professors shot dead in Karachi

by Salman Hameed

There is a risk of getting numb from the constant barrage of such news from Pakistan. But it is also important to keep these in the news. By the way, does anyone know what happened to the person accused of blasphemy in Multan? And did anyone find out what he is accused of?

In the mean time, a former principal of Liaquatabad College was gunned down in Karachi. Just like that.
KARACHI: Poet and former principal of Liaquatabad College Professor Sibte Jafar was shot dead in Karachi on Monday, Express News reported. 
According to initial details, unidentified armed men opened fire at Jafar while he was commuting through the Liaquatabad area on his motorbike. 
Jafar’s body was shifted to the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital. 
Police have started its investigation and more security personnel were summoned to keep the security situation in the area under control. 
Evidence collected from the crime scene suggested that a 9mm pistol was used in the crime. 
In the immediate aftermath of Professor Jafar’s murder, professors and lecturers in the province have announced a boycott of educational activities on Tuesday.
Apart from his educational duties, Professor Jafar was well known for his sozkhwani and marsia recitals. He was also known for his poetry. 
It has not been confirmed as yet if this was a sectarian attack.
And an assistant professor of medicine at Abbasi Shaheed hospital was also shot dead in Karachi. Just like that.
KARACHI: Assistant professor of medicine in Abbasi Shaheed Hospital Dr Asad Usman was shot dead in Nazimabad on Tuesday, reported Express News. 
Unidentified men shot at Dr Usman and a guard on Tuesday afternoon. Injuired, they were rushed to the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital where Dr Usman was pronounced dead by doctors. 
Dr Usman served in the medical ward of the same hospital. 
Family, police and other personnel are reaching the hospital for investigation.
A number of intellectuals and activists have recently been targeted in the city.
I'm curious how common it is for professors to be killed in this manner in other countries? Two professors in two days.

I will try to have some relatively uplifting posts tomorrow.

When will there be an outrage about the destruction of history in Mecca?

by Salman Hameed

It is sad to see a steady destruction of the historical sites of Islam. This is not just a loss for Muslims. This is a loss of world heritage. What I find baffling is that on the one hand, there are Muslims who make pseudoscientific claims for the uniqueness of Mecca. On the other hand, there are actual good scientific reasons to preserve the archaeological and historical heritage of Mecca - sacred home to one of the biggest religions in the world. And we don't hear much protest at the opening of sky scrapper malls and mad expansion of the central mosque (though Paris Hilton's store, I guess, is necessary for a sacred experience in Mecca). The same has been done to Madina. Within Saudi Arabia, it may be because of the lack of any appreciation of history (see earlier post: How is history viewed in Saudi Arabia). But why is there silence in other parts of the Muslim world?

Here is the picture of expansion from The Independent:

From another article, Mecca for the rich: Islam's holiest site 'turning into Vegas':

Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world. 
Once a dusty desert town struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj, the city now soars above its surroundings with a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels. 
To the al-Saud monarchy, Mecca is their vision of the future – a steel and concrete metropolis built on the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcases their national pride. 
Yet growing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have looked on aghast as the nation's archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Mohamed insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city's raison d'ĂȘtre. 
Few are willing to discuss their fears openly because of the risks associated with criticising official policy in the authoritarian kingdom. And, with the exceptions of Turkey and Iran, fellow Muslim nations have largely held their tongues for fear of of a diplomatic fallout and restrictions on their citizens' pilgrimage visas. Western archaeologists are silent out of fear that the few sites they are allowed access to will be closed to them. 
But a number of prominent Saudi archaeologists and historians are speaking up in the belief that the opportunity to save Saudi Arabia's remaining historical sites is closing fast.
"No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism," says Dr Irfan al-Alawi who, as executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has fought in vain to protect his country's historical sites. "We have already lost 400-500 sites. I just hope it's not too late to turn things around." 
Sami Angawi, a renowned Saudi expert on the region's Islamic architecture, is equally concerned. "This is an absolute contradiction to the nature of Mecca and the sacredness of the house of God," he told the Reuters news agency earlier this year. "Both [Mecca and Medina] are historically almost finished. You do not find anything except skyscrapers."
And I find it amazing that there are no World Heritage Sites related to Islam in Saudi Arabia:

The destruction has been aided by Wahabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that has served as the kingdom's official religion ever since the al-Sauds rose to power across the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century. 
In the eyes of Wahabis, historical sites and shrines encourage "shirq" – the sin of idolatry or polytheism – and should be destroyed. When the al-Saud tribes swept through Mecca in the 1920s, the first thing they did was lay waste to cemeteries holding many of Islam's important figures. They have been destroying the country's heritage ever since. Of the three sites the Saudis have allowed the UN to designate World Heritage Sites, none are related to Islam. 
Those circling the Kaaba only need to look skywards to see the latest example of the Saudi monarchy's insatiable appetite for architectural bling. At 1,972ft, the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, opened earlier this year, soars over the surrounding Grand Mosque, part of an enormous development of skyscrapers that will house five-star hotels for the minority of pilgrims rich enough to afford them. 
To build the skyscraper city, the authorities dynamited an entire mountain and the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress that lay on top of it. At the other end of the Grand Mosque complex, the house of the Prophet's first wife Khadijah has been turned into a toilet block. The fate of the house he was born in is uncertain. Also planned for demolition are the Grand Mosque's Ottoman columns which dare to contain the names of the Prophet's companions, something hardline Wahabis detest.
What a shame! Both for history and for religion.

Also see:

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Irtiqa" - an instrumental from Umer Piracha

by Salman Hameed

This past January, I had a post about Umer Piracha, a promising young Pakistani musician (and a lot more) who is interested in intellectual inquiry and is fascinated by science. In particular, I had singled out his instrumental on Extremophiles, which was inspired by a passage in a book by astronomer Chris Impey. He has recently been also profiled in the Tribune Express: From Multan to Philly, Umer Piracha found his calling.

Now he has a new instrumental out that is even more relevant to this blog. It is called Irtiqa. Here it is:

This is how Umer describes it:
Moral Idealism [i.e. the belief that one's group or community is on the side of the 'good' and fighting for it], according to the best research in Psychology, is the product of biological evolution of the human brain, and is to blame for most of the mass violence in humanity [as opposed to greed/sadism etc]. But there is a second type of evolution, that of thought, which allows one to recognize and overcome this ugliness that seems to come so automatically, and seek to love and protect all mankind without attaching too much importance to strict national or religious identities. It is for these reasons I'm calling my new track 'Irtiqa', an Urdu word that means Evolution. It is dedicated to the minorities in Pakistan, who are victims of the first kind of evolution, and perhaps could be saved by the second. The track is in no particular language, just my brainwaves translated into sound waves.
I think his piece captures both the urgency of the current situation as well as sounding a cautiously progressive (and hopeful) outlook towards the end.

Looking forward to more music from him...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Video: A few clips on the Higgs Boson

by Salman Hameed

Now that the Higgs Boson has been confirmed, here are two NOVA segments that explain the physics as well as cover the preliminary announcement from last year (note that the top video is from 2011 - and talks about the future discovery of Higgs Boson). Also check out this excellent New York Times special on the Higgs Boson from last week.


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

Watch Higgs Boson Revealed on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Now a blasphemy case in Multan...

by Salman Hameed

Bomb blasts against Shias in Quetta and Karachi. Targeted killing of the social worker and the director of the amazing Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi. Burning of a Christian neighborhood in Lahore. Targeted killing of a shia doctor (and his son). These are some of the highlights just from the past few weeks. But there is no sign of the abating of this tide. Now we have a blasphemy case in Multan against a visiting lecturer in English at Bahauddin Zakariya University (tip from Anila Athar Hasan). It seems that this time it is again a turn of Ahmadis (my guess - since there is a reference to them in the news item below) to face the wrath of the "pious" and the "pure" and their form of justice: "He made a blasphemous remark on Facebook! Execute him! Actually - this is exactly what they are saying:

The anger boiled further against a visiting lecturer of English Department of Bahauddin Zakariya University, who committed blasphemy, as the students brought out a rally against him while Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat (TTNR) held protest meeting here on Thursday. 
The participants of the rally and protest meeting demanded immediate arrest and execution of the culprit, hurling a warning to the government that they would be forced to take to roads if the action was not taken forthwith. The visiting lecturer and MPhil student in English Department Junaid Hafeez made blasphemous comments on a social networking website which sparked strong reaction in BZU. The BZU administration announced that the admission and hostel allotment of the culprit were cancelled and a ban was imposed on his entry. He fled. 
Meanwhile, addressing a joint meeting of all religious parties under the umbrella of TTNR, the leaders Qari Ahmad Mian, Dr Ashraf Ali Ateeq, Asif Mahmood Akhwani, Rao Zafar Iqbal, Syed Khalid Mahmood Nadeem, Inayat Ullah Rehmani, Syed Kafeel Shah Bokhari and others strongly condemned the incident and said that qadianis were being given shelter by some elements in BZU. They added that frequent incidents of blasphemy and preaching of qadianiat took place in BZU but no action was taken against the culprits. They asked the government to take notice of concurrent blasphemy incidents at BZU and launch an immediate action otherwise the workers of TTNR would be forced to encircle the varsity and punish the culprits themselves.

What kind of reporting is this? This so called newspaper article already says that "he committed blasphemy" and then goes on to refer the Ahmadis by their pejorative name of Qadiani. But the news item said that Junaid Hafeez fled. Since the police never catch anyone after terrorism acts, I'm sure that their incompetency will this time be beneficial. Oh - no wait. They caught him and have sent him back to Multan to face blasphemy charges.

There is no end in sight. The last couple of years seem to be the beginning of a much darker night.

And yes, these things are not limited to minorities. Just see the case of our own friend and astronomer, Umair Asim, in the burning of his school for supposed blasphemy charges (see here and here)

Also read this from last August: Let's paint our flag green, we don't deserve white (those who are unfamiliar, the white was supposed be the symbol of religious (non-Muslm) minorities as part of the nation of Pakistan).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

To avoid extremists, get the clerics a job!

by Salman Hameed

It seems that some clerics may be turning to violent jihad after being shut-out from clerical positions. This comes from the dissertation work of Rich Neilsen, and briefly reported in the Economist (tip from Saleem Ali):
Now Rich Nielsen of Harvard University has examined the books, fatwas (religious rulings) and biographies of 91 modern Salafi clerics, as well as of 379 of their students and teachers. He found that the main factors behind radicalism are not poverty or the ideology of their teachers (as might be assumed) but the poor quality of their academic and educational networks. 
Such contacts determined the clerics’ ability to get a good job as imam or teacher in state institutions. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where most of the 91 came from, the government has long co-opted religious institutions. Those who failed to land a job were more likely to avow violence as a tool for political change.
So a bad combination of state control of religion and a general culture of nepotism can lead to creation of Jihadists. I wonder if his study included Pakistan, where religious education is not controlled in the same way as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (religion is still used by the Pakistani government, but its control over clerics is less than the hold of the Saudi government or  the pre-Arab Spring Egypt). Okay back to article: 
The figures are startling. Clerics with the best academic connections had a 2-3% chance of becoming jihadist. This rose to 50% for the badly networked. 
Mr Nielsen reckons he has proved causation by controlling for other factors—eliminating the chance that those more inclined to extremism shun state jobs, for example. “It’s about a glass ceiling,” he says. “Clerics who don’t get positions must compete to appeal to an audience. Jihadist views are a way of making themselves appear credible, since there is often a high cost associated with it, such as prison time.” 
His research may help those seeking to stem the rise of radical preachers. Rather than spending a fortune snooping on them and then jailing them, it would be cheaper to offer them a decent job.
I don't know much about the rest of the work - but this seems interesting.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Meet the new Pope, Same as the old Pope

by Salman Hameed

The Catholic Church had a chance to move into the 21st century, but it looks like it will wait another few decades to take that plunge:
But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues — leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s current left-leaning president.

He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. As many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship, and he has been accused of knowing about the abuses and failing to do enough to stop them.        
Read the NYT analysis here. Now it is still possible that the new Pope may change his stance on social issues ranging from women's clerical equality and gay marriage to issues of stem cells, abortion and contraception. I think one of the 19th century Pope's, Pius IX, moved from a relatively liberal position to a conservative one - so why not move the other way this time around? Otherwise, the Church will be taken over by the tide of time - as has been going on for the past several decades. All of this is of interest as the Muslim world also faces similar issues but without a comparable institutional structure. The lack of such an hierarchy is probably good as it may be more compatible with the fragmentary nature of the modern world. On the other hand, a religious leader like the Dalai Lama can also speed up the incorporation of a religion into the modern world. We'll see how things will go - but the Church certainly seems to be in no hurry.

And if interested, now we know how the white and black smoke is produced. The Vatican has given up its recipe - and now even you can make the announcement:

Both recipes are fairly standard pyrotechnical formulas. The white smoke, used to announce the election of a new pope, combines potassium chlorate, milk sugar (which serves as an easily ignitable fuel) and pine rosin, Vatican officials said in a statement. The black smoke, which was used Tuesday evening to signal that no one in the first round of balloting received the necessary two-thirds vote of the 115 cardinals, uses potassium perchlorate and anthracene (a component of coal tar), with sulfur as the fuel. Potassium chlorate and perchlorate are related compounds, but perchlorate is preferred in some formulations because it is more stable and safer. 
The chemicals are electrically ignited in a special stove first used for the conclave of 2005, the statement said. The stove sits in the Sistine Chapel next to an older stove in which the ballots are burned; the colored smoke and the smoke from the ballots mix and travel up a long copper flue to the chapel roof, where the smoke is visible from St. Peter’s Square. A resistance wire is used to preheat the flue so it draws properly, and the flue has a fan as a backup to ensure that no smoke enters the chapel.
Read about the recipe here.        

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Read this fascinating article on a physicist's relationship with a bikini model

by Salman Hameed

I'm not going to say much about this article. This appeared in last Sunday's Magazine section of the New York Times. This is a real story about a smart, tenured, physics professor and his relation with a much younger model. The title of the article is The Professor, the Bikini Model, and the Suitcase Full of Trouble, and it goes with the tagline: A world-renowned physicist meets a gorgeous model online. They plan their perfect life together. But first, she asks, would he be so kind as to deliver a special package to her?

What a great way to hook a reader! I started reading the article and had to delay the brunch because I was completely gripped by this mind-boggling story (there are many twists and turns here). Needless to say, it is wonderfully written by Maxine Swann.

So here is the beginning of the article:
In November 2011, Paul Frampton, a theoretical particle physicist, met Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model, on the online dating site She was gorgeous — dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a supposedly natural DDD breast size. In some photos, she looked tauntingly steamy; in others, she offered a warm smile. Soon, Frampton and Milani were chatting online nearly every day. Frampton would return home from campus — he’d been a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 30 years — and his computer would buzz. “Are you there, honey?” They’d chat on Yahoo Messenger for a while, and then he’d go into the other room to take care of something. A half-hour later, there was the familiar buzz. It was always Milani. “What are you doing now?”  
Frampton had been very lonely since his divorce three years earlier; now it seemed those days were over. Milani told him she was longing to change her life. She was tired, she said, of being a “glamour model,” of posing in her bikini on the beach while men ogled her. She wanted to settle down, have children. But she worried what he thought of her. “Do you think you could ever be proud of someone like me?” Of course he could, he assured her. 
 Frampton tried to get Milani to talk on the phone, but she always demurred. When she finally agreed to meet him in person, she asked him to come to La Paz, Bolivia, where she was doing a photo shoot. On Jan. 7, 2012, Frampton set out for Bolivia via Toronto and Santiago, Chile. At 68, he dreamed of finding a wife to bear him children — and what a wife. He pictured introducing her to his colleagues. One thing worried him, though. She had told him that men hit on her all the time. How did that acclaim affect her? Did it go to her head? But he remembered how comforting it felt to be chatting with her, like having a companion in the next room. And he knew she loved him. She’d said so many times.
If you have time, do read the read the full story here.       

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Understanding the size of our universe

by Salman Hameed

Thinking about the size of the universe is not exactly intuitive. One of the reasons is that while the universe has a finite time (at least for this universe), the space can be infinite. This leads to the confusion between how far we can see (the observable universe) versus the whole universe. This short video, I think, provides one of the clearest examples of what we know about the size of the universe (tip from 3quarksdaily). Enjoy!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

More blasphemy - most burnings in Lahore

by Salman Hameed

I start up the computer this morning to read:
Lahore: A mob of almost 3,000 people, forced a Christian community to flee for their lives on Friday, leaving behind their houses and possessions.
No - this is not just about blasphemy. This is about the breakdown of law & order. There is also frustration and deep economic problems. But an outrage draped in religion provides just enough cover to get away with murder (sometimes literally). It is hard to speak against such actions as it is easy to silence the voice in the name of justice against blasphemy. We saw that with the assassination of Salman Taseer couple of years ago and with the self-exiled Pakistani ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman (she is now facing blasphemy charges). We saw in more detail the exploitation of the blasphemy law with the burning of a girls' school in Lahore - that was run by our friend and astronomer, Umair Asim (see here and here for more details).

So we come back to this latest shameful act in Lahore:

This occurred in the Badami Bagh area, when one of the Christians was accused of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). 
The charged group gathered around Joseph Colony on Noor Road, led by Shafiq Ahmed, who was in search of the accused Savan, alias Bubby. The mob attacked Savan’s house, partially burnt it and pelted it with stones. Other houses in the locality – home to about 150 Christian families – were also attacked.  Many residents, including women and children, hastily fled to save themselves. 
Savan could not be found. However, his father was caught and badly beaten. The vehicle of a pastor, who reached the area to inquire about the incident, was also damaged.
Okay - so they couldn't find Savan - so they badly beat up his father.

The episode began at 1 pm in the afternoon and did not conclude till the evening, when a large number of police personnel finally reached the spot and averted further damage.
The police placated the mob by registering an FIR under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (death sentence) against Savan and ensuring that he would be given into their custody to decide his fate. They also took Chaman Masih into custody. 
Despite all this, the protesters continued to claim that they would not let the families return until Savan’s arrest.

But thankfully the police arrived to register an FIR against - what - Savan?? Well, this was meant to placate the mob. So when does the state (and the police) have to "placate" the mob? And this is where blasphemy law comes in. The government knows that any outrage based on religion can bring people out on the streets in large numbers - and the rulers would of course want to be on the "side of religion".

In the mean time, 100 Christian homes have been burnt. Well - I guess they should have realized that their presence could be perceived as offensive to some pious Muslims - and should have left Lahore voluntarily. Oh - now they must have learnt the lesson.

Read more about this latest embarrassing episode here.

Malala's story in illustration!

by Salman Hameed

This is very well done. Artist Gavin Aung Than has animated Malala's story in a way that retains and conveys her charm and optimism. You can see the full illustrated story here: Malala Yousafzai - I Have the Right (tip from Slate)

Friday, March 08, 2013

More bad science invoked in claims about Mecca

by Salman Hameed

It seems that faith as faith is not enough. There is a huge temptation to "prove" one's religion based on science. What these individuals don't realize is that such efforts devalue religion and often makes a mockery of faith (also in the literal sense of the word, faith).

The trend of seeking science in sacred scriptures in not unique to Islam, but it is certainly quite popular in the Muslim world (see this post on: On the futility of finding science in the Quran and other scriptures). Some of this has to do with the loss of intellectual prestige. The argument is that "you" (meaning the West) may have the science, but that very science validates the faith of Muslims. The problem is that these claims are always based on awful understanding of science. But then the point often is not curiosity about how the world works - but rather just to have a confirmation of one's own faith from a method whose power is recognized the world over.

There are many examples of this matter. Some of these relate to Mecca. Two years ago, there were calls to replace GMT with Mecca Time. One of the reasons provided was a "scientific" claim that Mecca is the center of the Earth. Yes, even apart from the logical problem of the lack of center on a surface of a sphere, there were a number of other problems. I had three posts on the topic and if interested, you can check these out: a) The problem with peddling pseudoscientific claims regarding Mecca Time, b) Move over GMT, here comes a call to adopt Mecca Time, and c) Mecca Clock: Seeking prestige via borrowed science.

Unfortunately, there is more pseudoscience in this matter. I recently came across this website that provides a "scientific" reason of why the Tawaf around Ka'aba in Mecca is done in a counter-clockwise direction. Here are the claims on the website:

Worshipping Allah in one direction. Praising Allah in one direction.
When we revolve around the Ka'aba we are orbiting in the same direction as the whole universe and all the creations of Allah from the tiniest particles, to the largest galaxies, along with the human race unite in praise of Allah.
When we go around the Ka'aba, we are travelling in the land travelled by all the prophets of Allah, from the prophet Adam (alaihis salaam) to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
The Ka'aba in Makkah is never free from circumbulators.
The Blood inside the human body begins its circulation "Anticlockwise"
The electrons of an atom revolve around its nucleus in the same manner as making Tawaf, in an anti-clockwise direction.
the moon revolves around the earth anti-clockwise.
The earth rotates around its own axis in an anti-clockwise direction
The planets of the Solar system revolve around the sun in an anti-clockwise direction
The Sun along with its whole Solar system orbit in the galaxy in an anti-clockwise direction.
All the galaxies orbit in the space in an anti-clockwise direction
Tawaf around the Ka'aba is "Anticlockwise"
Truly Islam is from Allah
Now - sure one can talk about the sacredness of the Ka'aba and its centrality to Islam. But, as you can imagine, to tie the counter-clockwise direction of Tawaf with physical processes in the universe might be a bit of a problem, especially when the claims are just simply wrong. At worst, these claims are based on gross misunderstandings. What is shocking for me is that this website (and its claims) came up in a positive way in an academic discussion!

So lets take a look at some of the examples. First of all, there is a fundamental problem of logic when ascribing direction of motion in space. This is because there is preferential frame in space. For example, a counter-clockwise motion from the "top" would appear clockwise from the "bottom" (and there is no absolute top or bottom). Astronomers ascribe a direction for the Solar system by using Earth north's pole is "up". But as our friends in the southern hemisphere know, that there is nothing absolutely unique about picking Earth's north as the reference point.  

But apart from the logical problem, there are also factual errors on the website: 
a) The universe - as far as we know - is not revolving around anything. It is expanding - and the rate of expansion is accelerating. But there is no axis of rotation, as there is no "center" of the universe. 
b) There is no preferential rotation directions for particles. The orbit of the electron can only be described in terms of probabilities (because of quantum effects). Textbooks usually simplify diagrams to show an atom like a solar system. But to say that electrons orbit in a plane - let alone in a counter-clockwise direction - would be wrong (see here for the visualization of electron cloud model).
c) The orbits of stars in most galaxies are not systematic (for example, elliptical galaxies are dominated (and supported) by random orbital motions). Even in spiral gales, only the disk stars can be said to have
systematic orbits. The bulge stars and halo stars do not.
d) On the largest scale, there are no generalized orbits around which galaxies are orbiting. As mentioned earlier, there is no preferential plane is space, so it is impossible to come up with a general direction of the motion of galaxies. But all galaxies are moving. But they are moving in the direction of their nearest strong gravitational tug. Here is what we have measured with respect to the Milky Way (remember, Milky way is not at the center of the universe, but since we are making the measurements in all directions, we appear to be at the center):

And there have also been attempts to present galaxies with respect to their distance from us. Here is how the wedge looks like (these are positions of galaxies within 2 billion light years of us): 
From the press release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS): The SDSS is two separate surveys in one: galaxies are identified in 2D images (right), then have their distance determined from their spectrum to create a 2 billion lightyears deep 3D map (left) where each galaxy is shown as a single point, the color representing the luminosity - this shows only those 66,976 out of 205,443 galaxies in the map that lie near the plane of Earth's equator.

Also see: What does the universe looks like beyond our Galaxy. And if you are interested seeing how it would be like to fly though the universe, here is a 3D simulation of the universe:

As you may have guessed by now, there is no sense of making a connection between the direction of Tawaf and stars or galaxies. But such claims serve as a good warning sign of the folly of using modern science to support one's faith. Let's keep faith as a matter of faith alone. But lets also ponder about the workings of the universe from a scientific perspective. 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Talk at Hampshire College today: Spinoza' God (or Nature)

by Salman Hameed

Just a reminder that we have a fantastic talk at Hampshire College today. It is by Steve Nadler on Spinoza's perception of God. If you are in the area, please join us.

Here are the details:

The Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion Presents:
 Spinoza's God (or Nature)
Dr. Steven Nadler   

Thursday, March 7 at 5:30 p.m. 
Main Lecture Hall, Franklin Patterson Hall, Hampshire College

In 1656, the young Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community with extreme prejudice; by the end of his short life he was regarded as one of the most radical and dangerous thinkers of his time. Among his alleged "abominable heresies" was, according to one contemporary report, the belief that "God exists only philosophically." In this lecture, we will examine Spinoza's conception of God, whereby God is identified with Nature, and address the question of whether he is, as is so often claimed, a "God intoxicated" pantheist or a devious atheist, as well as the implications of this for his views on religion.

Professor Nadler is William H. Hay Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on philosophy in the seventeenth century, particularly issues in metaphysics and epistemology, as well as conceptions of reason and happiness. He has written extensively on Descartes and Cartesianism, Spinoza, and Leibniz. He also works on medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy. His two most recent books are a collection of his papers, Occasionalism: Causation Among the Cartesians (Oxford, 2011); and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, 2011). His new book, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes, will be published by Princeton in spring 2013. He is currently the editor of the Journal of the History of Philosophy.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Payback for reincarnation as a fly

by Salman Hameed

I think the idea is fantastic and would make a fascinating film. Here is a novel by Rebecca Miller, Jacob's Folly, where an 18th century Parisian Jew is reincarnated as a housefly on Long Island in the 21st century in the home of a Orthodox Jewish family. He initially thinks he is an angel - and then is a bit upset about being a housefly and wants to punish God for his fate. Great cover for the novel as well.
A Parisian Jew who dies in 1773 reappears in the 21st century as an angel, fluttering gently down to Earth — or, so he thinks. He imagines himself as "a fully formed Christian seraph, a Viking with blond hair, a beautiful chiseled torso, hairless feet, and eyes the color of whiskey." So imagine his shock when he realizes he's no angel — he's actually been reincarnated as a common housefly.
The fly, formerly Parisian Jewish peddler Jacob Cerf, has supernatural powers. He can read minds and can actually will people to do what he wants them to do.
"He realizes the scope of his powers gradually in the narrative," Miller tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And then, once he realizes he's a fly, he's so angry at the form of his reincarnation that he decides to sort of get back at God." 
Jacob wants to punish God by taking good people and turning them bad. But Miller says she wouldn't call her protagonist an "evil character": "He's mischievous and sometimes malevolent, but he has his own transformation through the arc of this story."

Listen to a short interview with Rebecca Miller on NPR. The perspective is different, but if interested, you should also check out Shalom Auslander's book, The Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir. It is funny, poignant, and provides a fascinating account of struggling with faith (and the relation with God) in an Orthodox world (also see this earlier post: God out to get Shalom Auslander). This genre reminds me a bit of Ghalib's poetry. But I was wondering if there are novels by Muslim authors which explore a similar territory?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Shias targeted in a blast in Karachi...

by Salman Hameed

The spiral of violence is continuing in Pakistan. This time there is a car bomb that leveled off two buildings in a shia-dominated neighborhood in Karachi, killing 45 people and injuring 150. It is increasingly becoming an open season on minorities, but shias have been bearing most of the brunt for the past few months. All of this is sad and painful and these kinds of attacks are reminding me more and of Iraq (see this earlier post: Is Pakistan Spiraling Down the Way of Iraq?).

Interestingly, we had Darrin McMahon as our speaker just this past Thursday and he gave an fascinating talk on the history of happiness. But at dinner, he mentioned that he had visited Karachi in 1991 - and absolutely loved it. In fact, he said that it reminded him a bit of the culture in southern Spain, where he has spent a considerable amount of time. What he remembered most was the warmth of people welcoming him in Karachi and his visits to a number of mosques in the city. And then he said that he misses that Karachi. Me too.

Coupe of items. Here is a song Khoon (Blood) by the band Topi Drama about the recent killings of shias in Pakistan (tip from Faisal Irshad):

Topi Drama - Khoon Hai from Topi Drama on Vimeo.

Also, if you are in Karachi, there is a protest gathering on Monday at 1:00pm:

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Saturday Video: Organic molecules in the atmosphere of an Extrasolar planet

by Salman Hameed

Sometimes it is best to just sit back and admire how much we can know simply by observing light! This is from a couple of years ago, but it is still very cool that we have confirmed detection of methane in the atmosphere of one of the extrasolar planets (though not because of cows...). It is too hot on this planet to have much hope for life, at the kind we are familiar with. Nevertheless, it is cool that astronomers can measure composition of these extrasolar planets. Here is a short 5-minute Hubblecast:

Hubblecast 14: Hubble finds first organic molecule on extrasolar planet from HubbleESA on Vimeo.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Mobile Library in Islamabad and the new issue of The Rationalist Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Two quick things:
First, here is the latest issue of The Rationalist Pakistan - the e-Magazine of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSoP).

And here is a fantastic effort of getting kids interested in reading in and around Islamabad. In the absence of school libraries, this Bright Star Mobile Library is trying to revive the tradition of reading.

You can listen to the full story here, and here is a short excerpt:
A few years ago, Saeed Malik returned to Pakistan after 35 years living in the U.S., Italy and elsewhere, mostly working for the U.N.'s World Food Program. 
"I found [Pakistan] had changed a lot. Unfortunately, not for the better," he says. "The education had really tanked, gone down the tubes, in elementary education." 
Malik says the poor quality of education is having a ripple effect on the lives of children. He remembers talking to a group of boys, 9 to 16 years old.
So Malik decided to take books to the children. He says the idea of creating a mobile library came to him after seeing a similar project at the San Francisco Public Library. But Malik says he soon encountered the type of bureaucracy that can choke the life out of a project — even from Pakistan's Education Department. 
He waited six months just to get a single letter from the department, granting access to schools

You can listen to the full story here and you can check out (and donate) the site of Bright Star Mobile Library here.

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