Monday, January 26, 2015

Announcing "Science ka Adda": A new astronomy series in Urdu

by Salman Hameed

It wasn't exactly planned this way, but a number of separate activities have coincided together. So just this past week I announced an astronomy Urdu podcast with Umair Asim called Hamari Kainaat (Our Universe). Well, here is an announcement of a related but different web series called Science ka Adda (loosely, Cafe Scientifique) - or SkA for short. The main idea behind this biweekly series is to communicate science/astronomy to a broader audience that speaks Urdu. SkA has been possible with the help of Sabeen Mahmud, Umer Piracha, Zakir Thaver and of course, John Bruner, Ben Cowper, and Nauman Tazeem at Hampshire College. This series will compliment Hamari Kainaat that is aimed for more detailed discussions on astronomy. We are excited to be part of the growing astronomy scene in Pakistan! 

Here is the first episode of Science ka Adda: Where is our home located in the universe?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Couple of science and religion relevant movies in the list of best films of 2014

by Salman Hameed

There were couple of interesting films in 2014 that intersected the themes of Irtiqa. I had posted about sci fi film Snowpiercer (see Sacred Engine and the preservation of order in Snowpiercer) as well as about the HBO documentary, The Newburgh Sting, about the framing of three African Americans and one Haitian immigrant in the upstate New York town of Newburgh (see The creation of Muslim terrorists by FBI in "The Newburgh Sting").

But one of the more relevant and interesting films was Darren Aronofsky's Noah (spoilers ahead - so skip this paragraph if you are interested in seeing the film). It takes the Biblical story seriously but then takes it to its logical conclusion. For example, what would be the toll on a man who knows that the world is going to be destroyed except for a handful of human beings (though - the movie argues that humanity has to die...and that sets up a fascinating dilemma). The screenplay is great in providing psychological depth to the main characters. There are giants in the movie as well and that really sets the tone for the film. But, of course, the movie revolves around Noah, and his character is questionable - to say the least. In fact, he himself says that he wasn’t chosen by God "because he was good", but rather because "he would get the job done". And so when he comes to kill his granddaughters, you really believe him. And when he doesn't go through with his action, it is unclear why he didn't. In fact, the ambiguity is fantastic and the charitable interpretation of Noah’s actions (that he chose love over justice) comes from Emma Watson’s character – and not through God. This way, God/Noah in this story are not necessarily off the hook, and Noah can still be considered to have failed in his mission. And I also really liked the way 6-day creation was depicted - perhaps with evolution. Loved the film - as I have all other Aronofsky films (yes, I liked even the flawed The Fountain). 

In any case, here Kevin Anderson and I discuss The Magnificent Seven films of 2014 and all of the above films show up in our discussion. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

New Astronomy Podcast in Urdu: "Hamari Kainaat"

by Salman Hameed

If you have followed the blog regularly, you may have seen numerous posts about the flourishing amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan. One of the key figures in this regard is Umair Asim of Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). For the last year or so we had been in conversation about the possibility of an astronomy podcast in Urdu for individuals who are interested in exploring astronomy topics in more detail. Finally we have launched our Urdu podcast titled "Hamari Kainaat" (Our Universe). We are planning to have an episode every 2 weeks. Here is the first episode on extrasolar planets. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Astronomy Pictures from Pakistan: Orion from an observatory in Karachi

by Salman Hameed

I have previously highlighted astronomy photographs from Lahore and Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). But Karachi has a thriving astronomy scene as well and Karachi Amateur Astronomers Society has been arranging stargazing sessions quite regularly. One of the highlights of their activities is an observatory - KaAStrodome Urban Observatory - that houses an impressive homebuilt 12.5 inch Newtonian telescope. Here is a picture of a star forming region, Orion nebula, from the telescope:

For those unfamiliar with Orion nebula, it is basically a stellar nursery about 1300 light years from Earth (relatively close). The label, HH 204 in the picture, points to a Herbig-Haro object. These HH objects are indicators of places where jets from young stars (yes, very young stars are often surrounded by a disk that accretes material and some of this escapes in the form of high speed jets) hit the surrounding gases. 

From Muhammad Akbarovic Hussainov:
[T]his telescope is constructed by a pathologist, Major Ashraf in Pakistan Army who is not even an engineer. It is housed in the first private dome observatory in Pakistan, The KaAStrodome, designed by myself and constructed by me and my brother Mehdi who is also the president of Karachi Astronomers Society. This picture reveals the power of a medium sized telescope from light polluted skies of a metropolis to reveal the fine details of a nebula, if skillfully designed and constructed. 
And here is a picture of the dome, with Orion in the background: 

The dome looks great and Orion is always majestic. I'm pretty sure that I saw this very view of Orion a million time when I was growing up in Karachi. It is wonderful to see that astronomy is flourishing in Karachi.
If you are interested in learning about Herbig-Haro objects and jets around young stars, watch this 4-minute video (if you are in Pakistan, you will have to unnecessarily use a YouTube proxy): 

A new book on the discovery of geological Deep Time

by Salman Hameed

The idea of a few thousand year old (approximately 6000 years in the popular Bishop Ussher's calculation from 1650C.E.) is popular even today in some Evangelical groups in the US (though it is largely missing in the Muslim world). From a historical perspective, this young Earth idea went along with Noah's flood that was thought to have shaped all the major features of the Earth. Humans, in this version of nature, were central to creation and had been present on Earth from the beginning. The discovery of an old - in fact very old - Earth continued the decentrality of humans initiated by Copernicus. Like the case of Copernicus, these are not necessarily debates over science versus religion, but rather within religion about interpretations. If you are interested in knowing the history of the discovery of an old Earth, then check out this new book, Earth's Deep History: How it was Discovered and Why it Matters by Martin Rudwick. Here is a review from Nature (you will need a subscription to access the full article):
This traces the origin of historical science in the seventeenth century, when the things we
see around us in nature came to be seen as 'monuments', pregnant with historical meaning, like archaeological relics. With his talent for encapsulating pre-modern mindsets, Rudwick deftly explains how ideas of natural history were embedded in cultural history. He concentrates on thinking in the late eighteenth century, not only in Anglophone countries but, crucially, also in mainland Europe — especially France. The book's premise, which has been used before by Rudwick and others (including the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould), is that humanity's discovery of Earth's immense age is a step in science's progressive removal of humans from the centre of things. First our planet was relegated to mere third rock from the Sun; then humans were transformed from the pinnacle of God's creation into twigs on an evolutionary bush.
Beginning with Irish Archbishop James Ussher's 1650 publication of a chronology suggesting that the world began on 23 October 4004 BC, Rudwick shows how, by the eighteenth century, Western culture had long accepted that Earth had been around for millennia. Ussher was not alone: Isaac Newton played the same game, suggesting a date of 3988 BC. Rudwick is at pains to emphasize that Ussher was a serious chronologist who did not deserve his post-Darwinian ridicule. What these chronologies show is that humanity was at that time assumed by all to have been part of the Universe from its inception.
And here is a more direct science and religion connection:
Rudwick goes on to reveal how natural philosophers such as Jean-André Deluc and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland arrived at a truer picture. In attempting to reconcile scriptural and other textual evidence with that slowly emerging from nature's monuments, they came to realize that Earth had had a long prehistoric existence for which there was no documentary evidence. Yet far from being stifled by what had gone before, they were profoundly aided by the work of traditional, historical and antiquarian scholars working in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The image of emergent science heroically struggling against obscurantist religion is a fiction conjured by post-Darwinian revisionism and militant atheists, Rudwick insists.
Full review here

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Monday, January 12, 2015

Astronomy Pictures from Pakistan: Moon through the clouds

by Salman Hameed

Following last week's theme of the Sun, here are three beautiful pictures of the Moon (and yes, we will get nebulae and galaxies soon, but enjoy our close neighbors first). I do request that when people send images, they include at least some information about camera/telescope and exposure time with them. The first one is a full moon seen through the clouds by Omer Sidat:

Here is a close up of a waxing gibbous moon my Roshaan:

And a bit closer up - again from Roshaan:

If you are interested in knowing more about the origins of the dark (known as Mare) and bright parts of the Moon, see this short video:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On Free Speech and Satire: One excellent article and a collection of reasonable pieces on Charlie Hebdo

by Salman Hameed

The killing of journalists at Charlie Hebdo was barbaric and there is no excuse for it. However, the followup discussions have gone over the rails. A large problem is that the terms of the debate already frame Muslims all over the world in an accusatory light. "Either you actively condemn it - or you are with the terrorists".

The issues are, of course, complicated. I have been looking for thoughtful articles that take a nuanced approach to the issue of free speech, satire, and minorities. Here is a list of sensible articles on the issues (this list is by no means complete, but I have tried to pick articles that highlight some different aspects of the debate), but I highly recommend the article Why I am not Charlie at the bottom of this post.

Here are some relevant articles:
Juan Cole: Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris: 
Omid Safi: 9 Points to Ponder on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo
Here is a satire about the coverage:
Mark Steel: Charlie Hebdo: Norway's Christians didn't have to apologize for Anders Breivik, and it is the same for Muslims now
But there is one other possibility that’s been overlooked. Maybe the murderers are confused by the British government’s attitude towards crazy Islamic gunmen, which has appeared inconsistent. 
Not long ago President Assad of Syria, whose record for madness and violence is exemplary, was invited by the Prime Minister to stay at Buckingham Palace. And the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who recently got through 19 executions in one month, are sold billions of pounds worth of weapons. So maybe the gunmen’s strategy was to prove how mental they were, thinking they’d then be invited for biscuits with The Queen, and then be asked to do a deal for a tank.
Jacob Canfield: In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom from Criticism
(You should check out the cartoons here to get the proper context)
Political correctness did not kill twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. To talk about the attack as an attack by “political correctness” is the most disgusting, self-serving martyr bullshit I can imagine. To invoke this (bad) Shaw cartoon in relation to the Hebdo murders is to assert that cartoons should never be criticized. To invoke this garbage cartoon is to assert that white, male cartoonists should never have to hear any complaints when they gleefully attack marginalized groups. 
Changing your twitter avatar to a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad is a racist thing to do, even in the face of a terrorist attack. The attitude that Muslims need to be ‘punished’ is xenophobic and distressing. The statement, “JE SUIS CHARLIE” works to erase and ignore the magazine’s history of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. For us to truly honor the victims of a terrorist attack on free speech, we must not spread hateful racism blithely, and we should not take pride in extreme attacks on oppressed and marginalized peoples.
The fact that twelve people are dead over cartoons is hateful, and I can only pray that their attackers are brought to justice. Free speech is an important part of our society, but, it should always go without saying, free speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Criticism IS speech – to honor “free speech martyrs” by shouting down any criticism of their work is both ironic and depressing.
In summary: 
Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. 
Fuck those cartoons.
From an Arab Muslim cartoonist:
Khalid Albaih: When Cartoons Upset the 'wrong people'

Muslims seem to lose either way. They are constantly asked to apologise for crimes they neither committed, nor supported. They, too, are victims of the violence of extremists. Still, they are asked to apologise and somehow atone for these crimes that were committed in the name of their religion. Then they must face the wrath of extremists who attack them for refusing to approve of the methods they view as the only way to defend Islam. ...This situation is a perpetuation of what's happening in the Middle East right now - it's far more complex than the cartoon business. For us to help, to play a constructive role, we should desist from pointing the finger at others, and we must examine what motivates these young people to turn to violence and extremism. 
Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon and one I have never fully had - but for those who do have it, I wish they would stop taking it for granted.  
Instead, they ought to ask the right questions - the questions that need to be asked - rather than accusatory ones that fuel the stereotypes that have originated in mainstream media.
Their work must focus on conveying the right message. They must work towards bridging the gap - and not widening it. 
Here is an excellent article by Glenn Greenwald that looks at the issue of free press and publishes offensive cartoon not related to Muslims or Islam (tip from Leyla Keough):
Glen Greenwald: In Solidarity with free press: Some more blasphemous cartoons
Usually, defending free speech rights is much more of a lonely task. For instance, the day before the Paris murders, I wrote an article about multiple cases where Muslims are being prosecuted and even imprisoned by western governments for their online political speech – assaults that have provoked relatively little protest, including from those free speech champions who have been so vocal this week. 
I’ve previously covered cases where Muslims were imprisoned for many years in the U.S. for things like translating and posting “extremist” videos to the internet, writing scholarly articles in defense of Palestinian groups and expressing harsh criticism of Israel, and even including a Hezbollah channelin a cable package. That’s all well beyond the numerous cases of jobs being lost or careers destroyed for expressing criticism of Israel or (much more dangerously and rarely) Judaism. I’m hoping this week’s celebration of free speech values will generate widespread opposition to all of these long-standing and growing infringements of core political rights in the west, not just some....
When I first began to see these demands to publish these anti-Muslim cartoons, the cynic in me thought perhaps this was really just about sanctioning some types of offensive speech against some religions and their adherents, while shielding more favored groups. In particular, the west has spent years bombing, invading and occupying Muslim countries and killing, torturing and lawlessly imprisoning innocent Muslims, and anti-Muslim speech has been a vital driver in sustaining support for those policies. 
So it’s the opposite of surprising to see large numbers of westerners celebrating anti-Muslim cartoons - not on free speech grounds but due to approval of the content. Defending free speech is always easy when you like the content of the ideas being targeted, or aren’t part of (or actively dislike) the group being maligned. 
Indeed, it is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights. In fact, Douthat, Chait and Yglesias all took pains to expressly note that they were only calling for publication of such offensive ideas in the limited case where violence is threatened or perpetrated in response (by which they meant in practice, so far as I can tell: anti-Islam speech). Douthat even used italics to emphasize how limited his defense of blasphemy was: “that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended.”  
One should acknowledge a valid point contained within the Douthat/Chait/Yglesias argument: when media outlets refrain from publishing material out of fear (rather than a desire to avoid publishing gratuitously offensive material), as several of the west’s leading outlets admitted doing with these cartoons, that is genuinely troubling, an actual threat to a free press. But there are all kinds of pernicious taboos in the west that result in self-censorship or compelled suppression of political ideas, from prosecution and imprisonment to career destruction: why is violence by Muslims the most menacing one? (I’m not here talking about the question of whether media outlets should publish the cartoons because they’re newsworthy; my focus in on the demand they be published positively, with approval, as “solidarity”).
On a similar theme, here is Teju Cole in the New Yorker: Unmournable Bodies (tip from Vijay Prashad):
This week’s events took place against the backdrop of France’s ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab. Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.
Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. 
The killings in Paris were an appalling offence to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible. 
And finally to one of the best articles I have read on this issue: Why I am not Charlie. It is a long article but should be worth your time as it addresses deeper structural issues of the post Charlie Hebdo debate. The first part is about the pressure to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons - and I think that issue has been addressed well in the above articles. But I want to highlight a bit about Voltaire - whom I admire as well - and the nature of satire:
We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless. 
Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.” 
Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”
and here is a bit about Voltaire which I didn't know: 
Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.
Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AMThe Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?” 
Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message.  
#JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.” 
Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.
And here is his main point:
This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AMA few hours later he had to add:Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AMThis insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides. 
We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killings. I mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.
I think this is by far the best article I have read on the topic.

But I will leave you with another cartoon by Joe Sacco (tip Vijay Prashad):

Friday, January 09, 2015

Alan Turing and "The Imitation Game"

by Salman Hameed

The new biopic The Imitation Game has lot of flaws. However, it is great that it introduces Alan Turing to a wider audience. Turing is correctly considered alongside Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. It is an utter shame that his life was cut short due to British laws about homosexuality half a century ago. All the shortcomings aside, you should still go and see The Imitation Game. To motivate you further, here is my conversation with professor of computer science at Hampshire College, Lee Spector, about the works of Alan Turing. Enjoy.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Astronomy Pictures from Pakistan: Sun's closeup from Lahore

by Salman Hameed

There is a wonderful website, Astronomy Picture of the Day (APoD). If you are not familiar with it, you should. Borrowing its idea, I will be regularly highlighting astronomy photographs that have been taken in Pakistan. While the country has been in turmoil for the past decade or so, the astronomy scene has been burgeoning in major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (see this recent post: A Wonderful Session with Lahore Astronomical Society; Also see Public Astronomy Flourishing in Pakistan).

To start with, here are some photographs of our Sun taken by Umair Asim at his Zed Astronomical Observatory using an H-alpha telescope back in November. First, here is a panoramic view of the Sun, and you nicely see a few sunspots.

Here is a closeup of the sunspots. Remember, that these sunspots are not holes in the Sun. Rather, these are areas that slightly cooler (still very hot!) than the surrounding areas, and therefore appear darker.

And  here are some spectacular pictures of solar prominence. These are temporary loop like gaseous structures - related to Sun's magnetic fields - that can extend thousands of kilometers.

And Umair has helpfully placed the Earth to give a comparative scale of solar prominence. Of course, do not do this with the real Earth!

Thanks to Umair for the photographs. If you are interested, here are some technical details about the images:

Image Scale: 0.51 arcseconds
FOV: 4*5.4 arcmintes

Telescope: Lunt 152mm Halpha telescope
Mount: Celestron CGEM DX
Camera: Imaging Source DMK21 Mono
Barlow: Televue Powermate 2.5X

Dave Solar System Recorder
Photoshop CS5

Zeds Astronomical Observtory
Lahore, Pakistan.
31.28, 74.22.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Saturday Video: "A Truncated Story of Infinity"

by Salman Hameed

For the new year, here we are restarting with our Saturday videos (thanks to Ali Kazim Gardezi for cajoling for its restart). Here is an interesting short film that is inspired by one interpretation of parallel universes:

"A Truncated Story of Infinity" - A Short by Paul Trillo from Paul Trillo on Vimeo.

I have also just read an excellent critique of the non-testability of String Theory and Multiverse in last week's Nature and I will post it tomorrow. 

Friday, January 02, 2015

"Interstellar": Review for Science and a bonus Film Autopsy

by Salman Hameed

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar has been out for almost two months and you might have seen it already. I watched the movie twice and my appreciation for the film grew considerably after the second viewing. It is a flawed film: the dialogue is often corny and there are serious plot issues. But it is also a film that embeds some spectacular science into its story. After all, how many times do we see a movie that takes gravitational time dilation due to a supermassive blackhole into account and get the science right?

Part of the reason is that the executive producer of Interstellar is physicist. Much of his research is focused on black holes, but he doesn't shy away from speculative ideas as well. For example, in 1985, Thorne advised Carl Sagan to use a wormhole instead of a black hole in his novel, Contact, to send his heroine to star Vega and beyond. Working with his graduate students, he even published two technical papers on the possibility – however speculative - of traversable wormholes. In the case of Interstellar, Thorne has a more direct role. In 2006, in collaboration with Hollywood producer, Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Seattle, Contact, The Fisher King), he started working on a story for a film that involved an interaction between astronauts and a race of advanced beings that lived in a higher dimensional universe. When Christopher Nolan picked up the film to Direct, he reworked the script with his brother, but kept some of the key physics concepts from Thorne’s ideas.

Thorne also wrote The Science of Interstellar. Here is an excerpt from my review for both the film and the book for Science (if you don't have access to Science, you can read the pdf here)
The blockbuster film Interstellar is a stirring defense of space exploration and of our trust in science to get humanity out of trouble. This ambitious movie weaves complex ideas from physics—including relativity, quantum gravity, and higher-dimensional space—into the very fabric of its narrative. With a running time of just under 3 hours, the film manages to tell a gripping story while still getting most of its science right.
Interstellar is set in a near future when blight has destroyed most of the world's crops and food is becoming scarce. The human population has declined precipitously, and humans are in danger of dying out within a generation or two. But a ray of hope comes from space. A wormhole has appeared near Saturn, and a small group of NASA scientists plan to use it to find habitable planets that could serve as humanity's next home. 
Wormholes are not new to science fiction, and although there is no scientific evidence that they exist, they are rooted in various solutions to Einstein's theory of general relativity. They also conveniently solve the science fiction author's problem of how to transport characters across vast interstellar—or intergalactic— distances in a relatively short time. 
The accuracy of science in the film owes much to one of its executive producers, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who has coauthored technical papers on the possibility of traversable wormholes (1, 2). But credit must also go to director Christopher Nolan,
who was committed to maintaining a scientifically plausible story line. One example of this collaboration is described in Thorne's wonderfully entertaining companion book The Science of Interstellar. It arose when Nolan informed Thorne that the plot required a planet where 1 hour spent on the surface would equal 7 years on Earth. This, according to Nolan, was “non-negotiable.” While at first skeptical, Thorne ultimately calculated that such a planet could theoretically exist if it were orbiting close enough to a supermassive black hole that was rotating close to the maximum speed allowed by physics. Whether moving humanity to this world is a good idea or not is a separate question, but science allows the possibility for such a planet to exist. 
Although wormholes are still in the realm of theory and speculation, supermassive black holes do exist and are often found at the centers of galaxies. In chapters 8 and 9, Thorne describes the science that inspired the visual depiction of the black hole in the film. Recalling the first time he saw the film's black hole—Gargantua—he writes, “What a joy it was when I first saw these images! For the first time ever, in a Hollywood movie, a black hole and its disk depicted as we humans will really see them when we've mastered interstellar travel.” The results are spectacular to behold in the movie, and Thorne informs the reader that the models and simulations that helped inspire the images will serve as data in one or more forthcoming technical papers.
But there are issues with the film as well:
Clearly, the movie is based in good science; however, it is not without its issues. For example, it decidedly lacks a sense of wonder and curiosity that one would expect to see in a story about exploring new worlds. Similarly, in the imagined future of the film, there seems to be a noticeable lack of internationalism. American flags are fluttering on planets in another galaxy, and baseball seems to be the sport of choice even in orbital colonies. This is all the more surprising because the movie itself is a result of an international collaboration.
I think the lack of wonder about a new place is a serious flaw. You see this in most Hollywood science fiction films and I think it misses a fundamental emotional response. Another recent example was the terrible film, Prometheus. In Interstellar, when NASA astronauts land on planets in another galaxy, none of them is awestruck by experiencing a new world for the first time. Contact is one of the rare movies that got this feeling right. When the protagonist astronomer in Contact reaches the center of our galaxy, her first words are “they should have sent a poet – there are no words to describe this”. Such a feeling is distinctly missing in Interstellar.

Nevertheless, it is an ambitious movie even if it lacks philosophical sophistication. At the heart of the film it explores the nature of our love for the next of kin versus that for our species and the sacrifices we are willing to make for them. But deep down, the movie is about our fundamental faith in science and human creativity in solving our own problems – even if some of the problems were created by the very same science-driven technology.
Although Interstellar does not have the philosophical sophistication of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is still a unique and ambitious film that does not shy away from complex sociological and scientific ideas. Despite its grim premise, the film's message is ultimately one of faith in science and human ingenuity. As agricultural insecurity and resource scarcity become realities in our own 21st-century world, I can't help but hope that the film's main character is right when he states, “We are going to find the way—we always have.”
Read the full review here (or pdf  here).

For a broader discussion of the film, here is our Film Autopsy of Interstellar, but it contains spoilers:

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