Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Irtiqa Conversation with Dr. Stefaan Blancke: Creationism in Europe

by Salman Hameed

There is a new paper out in the Journal of the Academy of Religion that provides a broad overview of the various creationist movements in Europe. The title of the paper is Creationism in Europe: Facts, Gaps and Prospects (you can download the full paper!) and it is authored by Stefaan Blancke, Hans Henrik Hjermitslev, Johan Braeckman, and Peter Kjaergaard. The same team is also behind a follow-up edited volume on this topic coming out in 2014, where I have also contributed a chapter on Islamic Creationism in Europe, and Martin Reixinger has a chapter on Turkey.

I had a chance to have a conversation with the lead author for the paper, Dr. Stefaan Blancke, who is affiliated with the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium. If you have 15 minutes to spare, here is the video:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New humanoids in Margaret Atwood's dystopian future

by Salman Hameed

I haven't had a chance to read any of the books in dystopian trilogy by Margaret Atwood, but after reading this recent review in Nature, I'm itching to read them. Here is the review of MaddAddam - the final book in the trilogy - in this week's Nature:

A decade after Margaret Atwood began her great dystopian tale, we have at last reached the end of that road. The Canadian novelist has taken us from Oryx and Crake (2003) and
The Year of the Flood (2009) to this final instalment, MaddAddam
A global pandemic dominates the trilogy. In Oryx and Crake, a disillusioned bioengineer (Crake) unleashes a 'hot bioform' that kills most humans. The Year of the Flood revisits the pandemic through the lens of a religious cult called God's Gardeners, whose followers try to survive the ravages of the pathogen. MaddAddam completes the saga with the story of two members of the cult, Toby and Zeb, as they live through the aftermath of the plague. In the dystopian tradition, the trilogy is a window on our possible near future — in this case, one driven to disaster by human ingenuity gone wrong. 
As MaddAddam opens, with almost all of humanity having perished in Crake's “Waterless Flood”, it turns out that the bioengineer had good reason to reboot the human race. 
Atwood paints a picture of a pre-flood nightmare, class-divided, corporate and hegemonic. This was a world of Hunger Games-like death sports, rampant sexual enslavement and increasingly macabre genetically engineered hybrids. It begged to be wiped out. 
The surviving humans must cope with a number of relics of pre-flood genetic tinkering. These include Pigoons — large, ferocious pigs with near-human intelligence, originally created for organ transplants — and domesticated goats with human hair known as Mo'Hairs. Also surviving is a small group of humanoids called Crakers, so-named for their creator and genetically modified to be polyamorous innocents with a predilection for eating kudzu (an invasive plant). These are the meek whom Crake would have had inherit the Earth, but they face many dangers. The remaining humans, especially Toby and Zeb, protect them from the Pigoons and a pair of murderous death-game survivors who have already raped and killed some of their clan. 
As time passes, the Crakers begin to show signs of culture. They sing songs, beatify their now-dead creator, and hunger for more myths and stories about their origins. Toby, the book's main protagonist, provides these as best she can, and we watch with hope and dread as she spins child-like tales for the Crakers out of the unseemly facts of the Flood.
Read the full review here.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pew Survey: Most Americans okay with Stem cell research and IVF - but abortion seen linked to morality

by Salman Hameed

I'm back from the break and I'm catching up on good and the bad news. So lets start with a recent Pew survey on the views of Americans on IVF, Stem cell research and abortion. All three of these issues are deeply tied to politics and legal matters here in the US and also feature in science in religion debates. Here is the broad picture of American views:

I'm actually surprised that there isn't much difference in opinion between embryonic and non-embryonic stem cell research, but that may be because "stem cells research" in the news often now stands for embryonic stem cell research - as that is the point of controversy for some. At the same time, political and ideological leanings do make a bigger difference in embryonic stem cell research than for non-embryonic stem cell research:

As with abortion, men and women are about equally likely to say embryonic stem cell research is morally acceptable. Similarly, adults ages 50 and older are about equally likely as younger adults (18 to 49 years) to say that conducting embryonic stem cell research is morally acceptable. However, college graduates are somewhat more inclined than those with less education to consider this practice morally acceptable. 
There also are differences when it comes to partisanship and ideology. About three-quarters of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party consider embryonic stem cell research either morally acceptable or not a moral issue. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more inclined than their Democratic counterparts to consider such research morally wrong. Similarly, self-described conservatives tend to see embryonic stem cell research as morally wrong more than either moderates or liberals do. 
Among the major religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are most likely to say embryonic stem cell research is morally wrong. However, in comparison to attitudes toward abortion, differences among religious groups are relatively modest.
A separate question on the survey asked about the moral acceptability of medical research using stem cells that do not derive from human embryos. The overwhelming majority of adults say that non-embryonic stem cell research is either morally acceptable (33%) or is not a moral issue (42%); only 16% say such research is morally wrong. 
There are only modest differences in opinion among social and demographic groups on this issue. For example, there are no significant differences in opinion on non-embryonic stem cell research by political party and only modest differences by ideology. However, moderates and liberals are somewhat more inclined than conservatives to say non-embryonic research is not a moral issue. And those with a college degree are more likely than those with fewer years of formal education to say that non-embryonic stem cell research is morally acceptable.

Read the full report here.

I haven't seen Muslim views on IVF and embryonic stem cell research, but here are opinions on abortion:

Some of this not surprising (though look at the difference between Pakistan and Bangladesh!). Also, too bad that Iran is not in this sample - as it is possible that their views would have stood out. However, at least 10% of respondents in 13 countries think that this is not a moral issues:

In 13 countries however, at least one-in-ten Muslims say abortion is not a moral issue. This view is especially common in some countries in the Middle East-North Africa region; 34% in Jordan, 22% in Egypt and 21% in Iraq say they do not consider abortion to be a moral question. 
Additionally, in 11 of the countries surveyed, at least one-in-ten Muslims volunteer that the morality of having an abortion depends on the situation. Half of Azerbaijani Muslims and more than a third (34%) of Muslims in Tajikistan take this view. Overall, this perception is most common in Central Asia and the Middle East-North Africa region.
Read the Pew report on Muslim views here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Urdu floating at the edge of the Solar system

by Salman Hameed

I have an article in the Magazine section of today's Express Tribune. It is about Voyager 1 and its recent efforts to determine the boundary of our solar system. But I wanted to bring attention to the fact that the Voyager record not only has an Urdu greeting, but it also contains a picture of a Pakistani street. So first, here is the beginning of the article, and after that is that particular picture:

 Assalam alaikum. Hum zameen kay rehnay waalon kee taraf say aap ko khush amdaid kehtay hain (Peace be upon you. We the inhabitants of this Earth send our greetings to you). 
This greeting is onboard the farthest human-made object from the Earth: Voyager 1. Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 provided the first close-up pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, before starting its journey out of our Solar System. After 35 years of travels, it is now roughly 19 billion kilometers from the Earth. There is another way to think about this distance. A radio message from the Sun would take only eight minutes to get to us. From Voyager 1, it currently takes 17 hours! Furthermore, the distance between us and this assalam alaikum will only keep on growing. 
Urdu is not the only language onboard. There are greetings in 55 world languages, including Akkadian, a language once spoken in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago. These greetings are stored on a golden record onboard Voyager 1. In addition to welcoming messages, the 90-minute record contains music (from Beethoven’s 5th symphony and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode to Senaghalese percussion and Raag Bhairvi), natural sounds (from wind and thunder to croaking frogs and bird songs), and 115 pictures depicting life here on Earth (you can listen to and see all the contents at If in the far-far future, some alien race encounters Voyager 1 spacecraft, they will get a glimpse of life and culture here on Earth — at least as envisioned by astronomer Carl Sagan and his associates for Nasa in the seventh decade of the 20th century. 
But in its outward journey, Voyager 1 can also tell us about the boundary of our Solar system. This is a hard task. There are no ceremonial displays of national identities, like at the Wagah border. There are no billboards in space saying that you are now leaving the Solar system. Nor are there any border checkpoints that may look at the nationality of Voyager 1 with suspicion. 
One way to define the “border” of our Solar system is by its Heliosphere. Within this region we are likely to encounter most particles — electrons and protons, in this case — that are emitted by the Sun as part of its steady Solar wind. But, our Solar system also contains particles — mostly protons — that were once produced inside exploding stars and now fill up the space within our Galaxy. Instruments on Voyager 1 can distinguish between these two types of particles — the locals and the visitors from outside. The boundary of our Solar system, then, can be defined as the place where the number of particles from the wider Galaxy starts outnumbering the particles from our Sun. This is our border. 
Just this past year, humanity’s farthest object reached such a border: the number of Solar wind particles dropped precipitously — by more than a thousand. During the same period of time, the number of particles from the Galaxy increased ten-fold. It seems that Voyager 1 is now in the process of entering interstellar space. 
The spacecraft is not aimed at any particular star. But in 40,000 years, it will pass close to a small star named Gliese 445. We do not even know if there are any planets around this star, let alone any life capable of detecting and capturing Voyager 1. But if some thinking beings do end up playing the Golden Record, they will also get to see a picture of a lively street scene from Pakistan — inhabitants that speak Urdu. We will be long gone by that time, and it is impossible to predict the future of humanity four thousand decades from now. However, our Urdu greeting will sound as fresh as ever.
In the mean time, on this planet, Eid Mubarak!

Here is the original source of the article,  and here is the picture on Voyager 1 classified as "A Street Scene" (Pakistan):

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Saturday Video: "The Final Moments of Karl Brant"

by Salman Hameed

Here is a nicely made short film that brings up an interesting question about personhood. The ending of this film is okay - but I think it raises some fascinating questions about death that can be examined in a follow-up film. [Spoiler: Read the next sentence after watching the short film. I think the detective at the end should really be charged with murder. But then can there be a primary and a secondary murder of the same person?]

Here is 16-minute film: The Final Moments of Karl Brant (tip from Jason Tor):

Friday, August 09, 2013

Eid Mubarak - with a correct New Crescent Moon

by Salman Hameed

Eid Mubarak to all! 

I wanted to point out that apart from the beautiful calligraphy, the crescent side is accurate here for a waxing Moon (image from here). Waxing crescent is the one that determines the beginning of the new Islamic month, and is visible close to sunset. Here are the phases of the Moon: 

Most flags of Muslim countries, such as Pakistan's or Turkey's, show a waning Moon (visible close to sunrise - not at sunset). Here is a collection of flags of Muslim countries: 

Only Turkmenistan has the waxing crescent (and Mauritania takes an cautious middle path). But of course, while the crescent is right, they placed stars inside the Moon - as if parts of the Moon disappear when they are not lit by the Sun (flags of Malaysia, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistani and Mauritania do the same). But of course, flags are not meant to be scientifically accurate (stars don't have 5-corners either!), but I thought I'll add some random bit of science to the Eid message.

Here is the Turkmenistan flag - which I think is quite pretty:

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Will science prosper or stumble under the new government in Pakistan?

Salman Hameed

Ehsan Masood has an article in this week's Nature that talks about the promise of scientific development by the Muslim League, that won the recent elections quire handily. I did not know that, but the Muslim League explicitly placed science at the center of their governing strategy. Alas, the reality has turned out to be a bit different:

Few general-election manifestos devote an entire chapter to promises in science and technology, so the campaign documents from the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League
stood out. In its bid for power earlier this year, this party of landowners and industrialists did something unexpected: it pledged to put science and technology at the heart of its governing strategy. 
It promised one million new high-tech jobs in the next five years. It talked of new funding agencies for biotechnology and nanotechnology, of new programmes in fuel cells and small satellites, and of revamping agricultural research. And it included a promise that the state would not interfere in the appointment of university vice-chancellors. 
If kept, the promises would mark a step in the right direction for Pakistan, helping it to shed its reliance on international aid and edge towards economic independence and stability. But they seemed a little too good to be true.
But Ehsan is disappointed by the choice of the new Minister of Science:

The latest incumbent, Zahid Hamid, is an unpromising choice for science minster. The position was his reward from the Muslim League for switching political sides — and it is questionable whether he has the vision or the experience to effect the changes promised by the league. 
Hamid also faces a political challenge that could see him exit the ministry as quickly as he arrived. He once was loyal to the former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, who is now awaiting trial and may be charged with treason. If Musharraf goes down, it would undermine Hamid and leave him ripe for replacement. 
There is no shortage of candidates to take his place — people who have a record of building successful institutions at the interface of knowledge and commerce, despite the poor track record of Pakistan's science ministry. Any one of these would be well placed to turn the promises of the manifesto into reality. 
Science does have the ear of the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The man who was instrumental in placing science at the heart of the league's manifesto, Ahsan Iqbal, is minister for planning and development and a member of Sharif's inner circle. Should Hamid depart, Iqbal would have a golden opportunity to push for a widely respected and heavy-hitting science minister.
I have not been following the details of Pakistani political scene, so I don't know about the potential choices. However, Ehsan has some ideas - and they look good:

One candidate is plant geneticist Kauser Malik, founding director of the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering in Faisalabad and one-time chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council. Malik has experience as both bench scientist and high-level administrator. He also has plenty of international connections and a record of delivering results. Alternatively, the government could look to the next generation and appoint Muhammad Iqbal Choudhary, director of the HEJ Research Institute of Chemistry at the University of Karachi, which is among the largest such facilities in Asia. 
A wild card would be Asad Umar, former chief executive of Engro, which he grew from a mid-size company to one of the continent's largest conglomerates, spanning agrochemicals to energy. Young, cricket-mad and popular with the public, Umar quit his job to join former cricketer Imran Khan's political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, which in May came from nowhere to become the country's third electoral force. 
Umar's decision to leave business for politics is part of a bigger trend among younger, middle-class and highly networked voters to become politically active. Unusually for Pakistan, many queued for the best part of a day to cast their votes in May's elections. Even if Hamid stays in his post, the government might consider appointing a heavy-hitter to take charge of the science-for-growth strategy, and have him or her report to Iqbal in the Planning Commission. That person could then get on with the task of dragging Pakistan into the twenty-first century.
Asad Umar sounds like an interesting bet and he may bring some energy to the science policy. Furthermore, it will be good to have a federal minister from outside the ruling party. That will be another sign that the government is taking their words about the importance of science seriously.

Read the full article here.

P.S. I know that Ehsan takes quite a positive view of a past science minister, Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, who indeed increased the science budget tremendously and reformed higher education. However, the effectiveness of such a strategy, without building a strong infrastructure has also been questioned - and the legacy of Atta-ur-Rehman remains very much in the air (for example, amongst its Muslim cohorts, Pakistan's scientific publications are still way behind Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Malaysia). But I was also dismayed by Atta-ur-Rehman when he wrote a highly dubious article that stoked conspiracy theories about US controlling the weather in Pakistan! There is plenty to critique about the US policy towards Pakistan, but it is a bit problematic when a prominent scientist uses highly dubious pseudoscientific claims to make his point. See my post from 2010: A Prominent Pakistani Scientist is Stoking Conspiracy Fires.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Five movie recommendations to save you from mindless summer monsters and superheroes

by Salman Hameed

Our usual Film Autopsy is on hiatus for the summer, so I thought I'll suggest a few films to save you from summer monsters and superheroes. Some of these films have a tengential connection to the blog but two are relevant for their connections to politics impacting the larger Muslim world.

So here we go:

Science Fiction
Europa Report:
At a time of big-budget but dumb science fiction films, Europa Report is a breath of fresh air. I have a review coming up later, but I should say that the filmmakers have done their work in terms of science and they present a (relatively) realistic scenario of a mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa and the potential of life there. Europa, of course, is one of the best (or perhaps the best) locations in our Solar system to find life. We know that there is a salty liquid water ocean under the ice sheet of this Jovian moon. Furthermore, there are underwater volcanoes that may provide the necessary energy for lifeforms to survive and thrive. Some of these  conditions mimic the underwater volcanoes here on Earth.

The film uses a mock-documentary format to present us with details of this mission to Europa. This is a low budget film but they have done a good of creating Europan landscapes and of utilizing images from the Galileo spacecraft. The tone of the film is a bit dour and some better developed characters would have helped. But these are small quibbles for a good science fiction film that embraces the spirit of scientific discovery. Here is the preview of the film:

Relevant for the current geopolitical debates:
Dirty Wars:
This is a documentary that follows accomplished journalist, Jeremy Scahill. The movie is centered on night raids in Afghanistan, missile and drone strikes in Yemen, and the mercenary war in Somalia. This is not a sensational demonization of the US government nor does it contain exaggerated claims. Instead, it shows how Scahill pieces his reports together and finds out about US military operations that are often not reported in the newspapers.

The film opens with a case in Afghanistan and it has a chilling conclusion. But worse, Scahill finds that such operations are taking place 30-40 times a night - with accompanying civilian casualties. In Yemen, he tracks down the damage of one of the first missile strikes - with casualties including mostly women and children. A Yemeni reporter who wrote about it, ended up in jail. Scahill also interviews the father of Anwar al-Awlaki - the first American citizen targetted and killed by a drone strike - both before and after the killing. Even more chillingly, Anwar al-Awlaki's 16-year old son was also killed in a drone strike soon after the killing of his father.

Dirty Wars is rich with information and avoids the pitfalls of being polemical. However, it is unnecessarily stylized by the director. I think the strength of the documentary is in its material and its stylization as a spy-thriller becomes somewhat a distraction. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic and important documentary. Here is the preview of the film:

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
This is all the more relevant because of the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden and the recently concluded trial of Bradley Manning - the source behind the Wikileaks documents. Directed by Alex Gibney, the documentary focuses on the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning. While Assange comes off as a quirky anarchist (my favorite scene is with Assange talking in the phone while casually jumping on a trampoline at an estate outside of London), it is the story of Manning that is at the heart of the film. And what a story! Manning was not really meant for the military and never got adjusted to it. He also wanted to be a woman and was planning on a sex change operation in the future. And amidst all of that, he was anguished by the actions of the US government, and inspired by Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, he provided Wikileaks with top secret documents, starting with a video that showed the killing of a Reuters journalist in Iraq by a US gunship, and followed it up with US diplomatic cables. It is absolutely heartbreaking (and outrageous) to know that after his arrest, Manning was placed in a solitary confinement for almost a year and treated in a sub-human way.

Like Dirty Wars, this is also an important documentary for this time. Here is the preview of the film:

Fruitvale Station
This is not a documentary, but it is based on a tragic shooting of a 22-year old African-american by the police at a Bart station in San Francisco. The film traces the last day of the life of Oscar, and it does so in a delicate and nuanced way, without emotionally exploiting the subject. Race and class issues in the US, obviously, are at the heart of the film. This is a superb film with fantastic performances. Here is a preview for the film:

Just a great film from this summer:
This is the best movie I have seen this summer. It is directed by Jeff Nichols, who also directed the superb 2011 film, Take Shelter (check out our Film Autopsy here). Set in Arkansas on the banks of the Mississippi river, this is one of the best coming-of-age films. But it also has abstract shades of religion, superstition, and mythology - and that combines to make this a powerful film. The director is only 35 years old. He has written and directed three films. I have not yet seen Shotgun Stories, but I absolutely loved Take Shelter and Mud. Perhaps more excitingly, Jeff's next project is a sci-fi film and I can't wait to see it.

In any case, here is the preview for Mud:

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