Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Third episode of SkA: Water and the Search for Life on Mars (Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

In this episode of Science ka Adda, we discuss the recent results from Curiosity rover suggesting the presence of liquid water on Mars. In fact, conditions on Mars - four billion years ago - may have been more suitable for the origins of life than even the Earth. If so, then life may have originated on Mars and may have seeded the Earth. If that is the case, then may be we are all ultimately Martians! This episode features original musical composition by Umer Piracha dedicated to Curiosity rover. For more SkA, visit www.sciencekaadda.com and for more detailed discussions on astronomy in Urdu, please visit Hamari Kainaat at hamarikainaat.com.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Science and Religion in Medieval Islamic Societies: A lecture by Dr. Nahyan Fancy on Feb 26th


Our next Science & Religion lecture at Hampshire College is this coming Thursday, February 26th. Our speaker is Dr. Nahyan Fancy and he will be talking about science in medieval Islamic societies. Back in 2013, I had highlighted his fascinating book on Ibn-Nafis' work on pulmonary transit of blood. We are excited to have him here and if you are in the area, join us for the talk.

Here are the details:

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents


Re-examining the Science-Religion Dichotomy in Medieval Islamic Societies
by
Dr. Nahyan Fancy

Thursday, February 26, 2015
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College


Abstract:
Living in a post-Enlightenment age, historians have struggled to understand the meaningful ways in which science and religion interacted in pre-modern, particularly theistic societies. In the case of Islamic societies, historians have veered from claiming that religion suppressed and stamped out science, to claiming that religion subsumed science under religious dogma. In both cases, religion is seen as blunting the sword of reason leading to an inevitable "decline" of science. Historians have bought into the Enlightenment idealization of science as a secular, rational pursuit of knowledge that is free from external pressures, particularly those from religion. However, as I will show, such dichotomous understandings of science and religion prevent us from accessing the rich and complex ways in which pre-modern Islamic scholars engaged with rational and revealed knowledge. Using the example of Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288), we shall see how a commitment to the sanctity of revelation and specific religious dogmas could still lead one to develop novel scientific theories that themselves forced the scholar to assess and modify certain religious claims.

Dr. Nahyan Fancy is an Associate Professor of Middle East/Comparative History at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, USA. His research interests are in pre-1500 science, medicine, and
intellectual history. His book, Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt, examines the intersections of philosophy, theology and medical physiology in the works of Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th century physician-jurist who first posited the pulmonary transit of blood. The significance of this result is that it forms the basis of William Harvey's (d.  1657) theory of blood circulation, three centuries later. His new project examines the evolution of medical commentaries in post-1250 Islamicate societies, with an eye towards learning more about the specific trajectory of theoretical medicine in Islamicate societies, and the networks of exchange that gave rise to the appropriation of Islamicate trajectories by Latin Europe during the Renaissance.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Video II: The story of Pangea and Alfred Wegener

by Salman Hameed

Here is a wonderful 7-minute animation on the life of Alfred Wegener and his idea of continental drift that transformed 20th century geology. Enjoy!

Saturday Video: E.O. Wilson on "What does E.T. really look like?"

by Salman Hameed

Speculative? Yes, but then how can it not be? However, here is a smart way of thinking about possible types of extraterrestrial intelligence. E.O. Wilson, of course, gives a short lesson here on group selection as well. Enjoy!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A chance for a Pakistani to be on Mars...

Salman Hameed


I have written before about Mars One and its plan to send twenty-four humans on a one-way trip to Mars. They started with 200,000 applicants and just this past week, they narrowed down the list to 100. Whether Mars One will succeed in doing what is claiming to do or not is a separate question. But it is fascinating to see all the debates over the nature of one-way trip (is it suicide?) and the individuals who volunteer for it. The shortlist of 100 candidates also includes a retired helicopter pilot from Pakistan. I was asked write a blogpost on its impact on Pakistan from the Express Tribune and here is the post (but also see other videos at the bottom of the post):

If a Pakistani went to Mars...

Reginald Foulds is ready to go on a one-way trip to Mars. His dream may be a step closer as he is amongst the final 100 candidates chosen by Mars One, a private organization that is planning on sending humans to Mars by 2025. This is impressive. Initial applications for this Mars trip numbered close to two hundred-thousand. He is now the only Pakistani left in the pool. A retired helicopter pilot of Pakistan Air Force, Foulds has a 1 in 4 chance of being picked for the ambitious first human settlement on the Red planet. If selected, he will be pushing 70 by the time of the first proposed Mars One mission.

At this time we do not know if Mars One will even be successful in getting everything ready for a human mission to Mars. Nevertheless, this project has generated considerable amount of public interest in Mars exploration as well as some criticism. One of the most common criticisms deals with the one-way aspect of the mission. Many call it a suicidal mission as there are no plans to bring astronauts back to Earth. In fact, it is this very one-way nature that makes the mission affordable in the near future.

But I would not call this "suicidal". The plan is to have twenty-four individuals initiate a permanent human presence on Mars. Cargo vessels are expected to deliver habitats suitable for Martian living well before the first human mission leaves the Earth. The goal of going to Mars is not to die - but to live! Such an adventure is not for everyone. But there have always been explores amongst humans and it is probably because of such early adventurers that some of our ancestors left Africa and eventually established presence in almost every corner of the Earth. People like Reginald are just extending this tradition to a neighboring planet. Others in the future will take our descendants to outer planets and may be even to other stars.

What will be the impact on Pakistan's space program if Reginald Foulds is selected amongst the astronauts headed for Mars? On the face of it, nothing much. Mars One is a Dutch organization that plans on using primarily American aerospace companies to achieve its goals. The funds for the project are being collected through sponsorships with a promise to deliver - if it at all happens - the most watched reality show ever. As a scientist, the last sentence is as disheartening as it can get.

However, there are intangibles that can help science in Pakistan. Reginald's selection in the final batch of astronauts will certainly boost interest amongst school children in Pakistan. Even without Reginald, I can imagine a spike in interest about Mars, solar system, astronomy, and science, in general. How can it not? But the presence of a Pakistani astronaut on Mars can make that endeavor that much more personally identifiable.

But there is another aspect as well. There are 35 countries represented between the 100 candidates shortlisted for the Mars mission. The reality-show aspect aside, this is a stunning diversity for the case of exploration. Several of our neighbors are represented: India has three candidates and both Iran and China have two. It is almost a certainty that the final 24 candidates will be from several different countries, ethnicities, and religions. A successful permanent presence on Mars will necessitate overcoming prejudices that divide us here on Earth. This is the good side of humanity and Reginald's presence - if he is selected - will allow us to indirectly experience it as well. May descendants of the first batch of astronauts on Mars may create their own identity as 'Martians' and may develop a prejudice against humans on Earth.

All said, it is exciting to have a Pakistani represented in the shortlist of candidates for Mars. I hope he is among the astronauts that experience red sunsets and sunrises on Mars. Echoing Carl Sagan's message to future Martian explorers: "I wish I could be there with you".

----

Here is the video of Reginald talking about his candidacy:


Also, here is a flashy official video from Mars One about the 100 candidates:


And if you grew up in Pakistan in the early 80s, then you would remember the show Fifty Fifty. They had a hilarious take on the disco hit One Way Ticket to the Moon by the group Boney M. Here is the one-minute skit from Fifty-Fifty (trip from Nizam Arain):

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Damage to Libyan archaeology

by Salman Hameed

Libya seems to be descending into further chaos. Italy just closed its embassy there and I think US moved its operation in July of last year (with the closure of US embassy in Yemen as well - so much for the success of US policies in these areas).  But this Libyan civil war has its impact on science as well. A few months ago, I had posted a Science article that mapped damage to Syrian archaeological sites due to the ongoing conflict. Now Nature has an article on Libya:
Archaeological fieldwork in Libya is at a standstill. Four years after the Arab Spring and the February 2011 Libyan revolution that ended the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, violence remains rife. Recent escalations in fighting have injured and killed people and damaged the nation's cultural heritage, infrastructure and free press. Libyan monuments have been seriously damaged, including the Karamanli mosque, built in 1738 in the capital, Tripoli, and Islamic tombs that date to between the tenth and twelfth centuries at Zuwila, near the west-central town of Murzuq. This, along with concerns about the illicit trafficking of cultural materials, led Irina Bokova, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to call for greater protection of Libyan cultural heritage in November last year.
...
I have worked in Libya since 1990. My last field trip to the Messak plateau in the southwest ended abruptly in February 2011 with an emergency evacuation on a military aircraft. Before the revolution, I spent three months each year in the desert studying the prehistory of the Messak and nearby Tadrart Acacus mountains, which lie close to the border with Algeria, famous for their 9,000-year-old rock art. Since then, scientific and cultural relations between Libya and the international community have stagnated. Archaeological tourism — a major source of revenue and jobs for locals such as the Tuareg and Tebu people, the two major Saharan ethnic groups in Libya — has stopped.
Here is a map from Nature identifying some places where sites have been damaged:


Trafficking is the biggest concern and I hope that this can tackled at a broader international level:
Perhaps the greatest threat to Libya's diverse heritage is the trafficking of archaeological materials, for profit or to fund radical groups. This has already been documented in Syria and Iraq7. No one has been able to fully assess the situation in Libya. Going to work among the black smoke of grenades, the men and women of the Libyan Department of Antiquities are doing their best. But museums are closed and the little activity left in the field is limited to the north. 
The situation seems dire and the article understandably ends with a plea:
Fieldwork is vital to research and central to fundraising in archaeology. But in Libya — and other violence-wracked countries — archaeology as we have practised it has come to an end. Lengthy excavation campaigns will be impossible for years, if not generations. Researchers must imagine a different future based on other methods. 
International funding and attention must return to scientific studies of Libyan heritage. Research should focus on existing materials in museums and collections. Granting bodies should give greater priority to research that can be carried out on computers or in the laboratory. Sample analyses of archaeological materials can be done in international labs, where Libyan scientists should work and be trained. 
Building an online library of rock-art sites, with the involvement of Libyan students and colleagues from other countries, would help Libyan scientists to overcome their isolation and regain a sense of identity. Museum collections that span from remote prehistory to the Islamic cultures should be digitized and made freely available to a global audience. Unpublished collections held by international teams should also be digitized and shared online. Remote analyses of satellite imagery, for example, has been used to reveal lost Saharan cities (see go.nature.com/8y1gxh). 
International cooperation between local and foreign groups working in Libya must be supported. Travel funding and visas for Libyan scientists to work temporarily overseas should be found. And mobility programmes for scientists such as the European Union's Erasmus Mundus should be exploited — Libya's application numbers have been historically low. Energy companies and others with commercial interests in Libya should be encouraged to work with local stakeholders to help to train local personnel in scientific research. 
Without these steps, archaeological research in Libya, already moribund, will soon die. It would be gravely disappointing and paradoxical if after years of neglect under the Gaddafi regime Libyan archaeological heritage is once again be abandoned. As well as a failure of the 2011 revolution, it would be a missed opportunity for a generation of young Libyan archaeologists — and a tragedy for the safeguarding of monuments and sites of universal and outstanding value.
Here is a link to the full article but you will need a subscription to read it.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Second Episode of SkA: The reality of Blackholes as shown in the movie "Interstellar"

by Salman Hameed

In this second episode of Science ka Adda, we look at the science depicted in the movie, "Interstellar". In particular, we focus on "Miller's planet" that is shown to be orbiting a supermassive blackhole. Do such blackholes exist in the universe? We look at the center of our own galaxy, Milky Way, as well as Centaurus A, a galaxy located 13 million light years away. For more SkA, visit www.sciencekaadda.com and for more detailed discussions on astronomy in Urdu, please visit Hamari Kainaat at hamarikainaat.com



Saturday, February 07, 2015

Saturday Video: A History of Ideas - The Big Bang (via the X-Files)

by Salman Hameed

If you were an X-Files fan, then you are in for an additional treat. BBC has a wonderful series titled, A History of Ideas. Its videos on "How did Everything Begin" is narrated by Scully - I mean Gillian Anderson, and these are quite good. Here is one on The Big Bang. It is short but the animation goes really smoothly.:
And here is one on Thomas Aquinas' First Mover Argument:
 Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

SSiMS talk tomorrow: Explorations of Web 2.0: What's Video Got to Do with the Study of Science and Muslims?

by Salman Hameed

If you are in the area then join for a lunch talk (at noon) jointly hosted by Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) and the School of Cognitive Science. Okay - so "hosting" is a strong word for this talk, as it is being jointly given by SSiMS fellow, Vika Gardner, and me (in a supporting cast). It is about a project that we have been doing for the past 6-months on Islam and Science videos that are available online and some of the interesting findings coming out of it. The goal of the project, funded by a grant from The Templeton Foundation, has been to evaluate content of Islam and Science videos (more on it in a few months) and to create a portal where we can place these videos in a categorized manner. However, an exploration of these videos has taken us in a fascinating direction and the talk highlights some of these preliminary findings. Here is the abstract:

Explorations of Web 2.0:  What's Video Got to Do with the Study of Science and Muslims?

Abstract: We will be presenting preliminary results from our ongoing Islam and Science Video Portal project. We will discuss what we have learned thus far about videos addressing Islam and the natural sciences:  what are they, where are they, who's making them. But perhaps, even at a more basic level, what is a video on "Islam and science" and who would be crazy enough to try to catalogue the Internet?  Come learn what happens when you put together an astronomer and a medieval Islamic historian, both of whom are fascinated with new media and constructions of identity and are unafraid to dive off the bleeding edge of the study of Muslims and internet videos.

Biographical Information:
Vika Gardner: Dr. Vika Gardner is the Research Fellow for the Science and Islam grant at Hampshire College. She has taught courses on various aspects of Islam, Gender and Sexuality in the Islamic World, and Iranian cinema at several small liberal arts colleges, including Mount Holyoke College.

Salman Hameed: Salman Hameed is Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities in the School of Cognitive Science, and heads the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College. His research work focuses on understanding the reception of modern science in contemporary Muslim world. He teaches interdisciplinary courses including Biological Evolution in the Public Sphere; Science in the Islamic World, and Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind. This semester he is teaching Evolution, Islam and Modernity, and Creating Science Fiction Short Films Using Real Science (with Jason Tor).

In The ASH Lobby
A light lunch will be available at noon

Monday, February 02, 2015

Atheism and suppression of religious freedom in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

by Salman Hameed

I'm currently reading Arabs without God: Atheism and freedom of belief in the Middle East. It is an interesting read and I will have more to say on it when I'm done. In the mean time, Saudi Arabia continues is continuing its horrific practices - this time of flogging a blogger, Raif Badawi, for "insulting" Islam. Since we only know of the cases that gain international coverage, we have no idea how many such cases actually exist. This is the case for executions as well. I had blogged about a popular Lebanese host back in 2009 who was put on the death row for sorcery charges, but also discovered that several others had been executed more quitely for similar charges (also see Saudi government mulling spreading atheism as an act of terror). It was further disgusting to see world leaders lining up to pay tribute to a late Saudi king (does his name even matter - as their policies more or less remain the same).

Back to Badawi. He is a father of three and has already received 50 of his 1000 lashes in front of spectators. Here is the description of his flogging:
The witness said Raif Badawi’s feet and hands were shackled during the flogging but his face was visible. He remained silent and did not cry out, said the witness, who spoke to
the Associated Press on condition of anonymity fearing government reprisal. 
Badawi was sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. He had criticized Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics on a liberal blog he founded. The blog has since been shut down. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1m riyals or about $266,600.
His next two floggings were postponed - probably because of international pressure. But here is his sister talking about his flogging, and her lawyer husband has been put in jail as well for defending her brother.

And then we have Egypt where a 21-year old student, Karim al-Banna, has been sentenced to 3-year jail term for declaring himself to be an atheist:
It took one session on Jan. 10 for a court in the Nile Delta province of Beheira to sentence Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old student, to three years in prison for saying on Facebook that he was an atheist. The student’s lawyer complained that he was denied the right even to present a defense, but an equally chilling aspect of Mr. Banna’s case is that his father testified against him. 
Also telling is that Mr. Banna was originally arrested, in November, when he went to the
police to complain that his neighbors were harassing him. This was after his name had appeared in a local newspaper on a list of known atheists. Instead of protecting him, the police accused him of insulting Islam. 
Such tag teams of family, media and state are not uncommon in cases against atheists. Because atheism itself is not illegal in Egypt, charges are laid under laws against blasphemy or contempt for religion. In 2012, a 27-year-old blogger, Alber Saber, received a three-year sentence on charges of blasphemy for creating a web page called “Egyptian Atheists.” In 2013, the writer and human rights activist Karam Saber (no relation) was convicted of defaming religion in his short story collection “Where Is God?” 
Similar charges have been used for political purposes against Egypt’s Christian minority. In 2013, a Coptic Christian lawyer, Roman Murad Saad, was sentenced in absentia for “ridiculing” the Quran. From 2011 to 2013, Egyptian courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants on charges of contempt for religion. 
It is no surprise that Mr. Banna’s conviction occurred on the watch of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army general who led the ouster of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to become president. Regardless of which way the seesaw of power in Egypt tips — toward the Islamists or toward the military — it is always a heterosexual, conservative Muslim man who heads the moral hierarchy. The further from that identity you are, the more vulnerable you are.
There are couple of things to note in the Saudi and Egyptian stories: 1) These are both repressive regimes facing fast changing times and they are eager to - as have many who came before them - use religion as justification for their actions, 2) There are also changes taking place within these societies due to expanding higher education and having access to broader international discourse on these matters and one expression is that of a more assertive expression of personal religiosity or lack thereof, 3) such stories also provide fodder for Islamophobic groups and individuals who use these cases in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to paint Muslims in a unitary light (for example, see this righteous beginning from the Islamphobe website Jihad Watch for the Egyptian case: "In the enlightened West, Karim al-Banna would never have been sentenced to prison for insulting Islam. He just would have been excoriated as a racist, bigoted Islamophobe, and shunned by all decent folk.").

So yes, we have to keep on calling out governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to absolutely stand with Raif Badawi (and others like him in Saudi Arabia) and Karim al-Banna (and many others like him in Egypt), but doing this without giving platform to organizations like Jihad Watch and, unfortunately, to people like Richard Dawkins (whom I used to admire in the 1990s).

While we are at it, also check out this organization: Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV)