Saturday, May 30, 2015

TMT update: Governor of Hawaii gives a go ahead to Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea...

by Salman Hameed

Governor David Ige

Hawaii's governor, David Ige, has announced some new rules for Mauna Kea along with a go ahead to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). He announced that some of the telescopes on the mountain to be decommissioned on the mountain. It is at least a nod to the protestors. Furthermore, he explicitly said that "we have failed the mountain" and pointed a finger at University of Hawaii for its poor stewardship. One important thing to note is that a state audit in the late 1990s was also scathing in its evaluation of university's management of the mountain. Here is more:
Ige said the university must make a commitment that there will be no more construction beyond the area where the Thirty Meter Telescope is planned for and called for at least one-fourth of the existing telescopes to be decommissioned by the time TMT is completed. He also wants the university to return all lands not needed for astronomy to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which he said included more than 10,000 acres. 
The govenor also called on the university to revisit prior lease terms for the existing telescopes, and to explore whether greater payments were due. 
Ige plans to create a Mauna Kea Cultural Council that he said would add significant value in providing a cultural aspect to the management of the mountain. Supporting TMT would not be required for those who serve on the council, he said, adding that they would work with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the governor’s office to make sure the host culture is respected in the future.
I think that the telescope closure proposal is still relatively modest but it may give him the necessary political breathing space. Some of the major opponents of the telescopes are still not convinced but we will see if Ige's announcement will break the momentum of the protestors. In the mean time, here is the reaction from one of the main TMT opponents:
Kealoha Pisciotta, a longtime Big Island critic of the Thirty Meter Telescope, said she's disappointed in Ige's comments, which she said lacked substance. "It created this illusion that we're going to do something without really doing much," she said, adding that his words will not prompt protesters to leave the mountain. 
"He affirmed that they will move forward," she said of telescope construction. "The deep sadness I feel is that means our people will be arrested."
In related news, charges against 10 of 31 anti-TMT protestors will be dropped. This again seems to be an action to assuage the protestors, but I'm surprised that it is not against all protestors, as the protests were peaceful:
Hawaii County’s top prosecutor said Friday he will dismiss charges against about 10 of the 31 protesters who were arrested while blocking construction of a giant telescope on a mountain held sacred by Native Hawaiians. 
Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth told The Associated Press he will drop the cases against those charged with trespassing, though his office might decide to re-file them later. 
The remaining people arrested last month were charged with obstruction of government operations.
And here is Pisciotta again along with one of the arrested protestors:
Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the Big Island leaders behind the effort to stop the telescope, said she’s happy to hear some of the cases will be dismissed. “Fundamentally and morally, how can it be trespassing in our house of worship and prayer?” she said. 
Kuuipo Freitas said being arrested for trespassing affected her “emotionally, spiritually, culturally.” 
“Honestly, I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t intend on getting arrested that day,” she said. “It really didn’t make sense to be arrested on our own aina (land).” 
It’s unclear if Freitas is among those whose trespassing charge will be dropped. Her attorney, Dexter Kaiama, who also represents eight others, declined to comment on specifics until a judge has signed off on the dismissals.
Here is a report from Nature about Governor's Ige plan for Mauna Kea:

Perhaps most significantly, “the university must decommission as many telescopes as possible, with one to begin this year and at least 25% of all telescopes gone by the time the TMT is ready for operation,” Ige said. The first to go will be the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, whose closure was announced in 2009; it will start to be dismantled later this year. 
But none of the other 12 telescopes had immediate plans to shutter. The submillimetre-wavelength James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is just beginning a new life under the operation of the East Asian Observatory. The 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infrared Telescope was similarly transferred from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council to the University of Hawaii in Manoa last year. 
“This is all new to us,” says Peter Michaud, a spokesman for the Gemini Observatory based in Hilo, Hawaii. “Until we learn more about it, we’re not really able to say much of anything.” 
A 2010 plan commissioned by the university lays out a framework for how various observatories could be taken down. The governor's announcement is likely to accelerate those scenarios, says G√ľnter Hasinger, director of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy in Manoa. “In principle this is nothing new,” he says. “We have always made the point that the space on top of the mountain should only be populated by the best telescopes.” 
... 
Ige’s changes all push toward reducing impact on the mountain’s 4,200-metre summit. The University of Hawaii leases more than 45 square kilometres as a science reserve. The current lease is good until the end of 2033, but Ige said that when that is up the university must return more than 40 square kilometres — all the land not needed for astronomy — to the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. The university must also agree that the TMT location, which is a few hundred metres below the actual summit, is the last area on the mountain where any telescopes will ever be built.
Lets see how things shape in the coming weeks. Will keep you posted.

Saturday Video: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

by Salman Hameed

For your Saturday, here is one of the best Twilight Zone episodes: The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. The episode is wonderfully constructed and the central theme is as relevant today as it was in 1960. In fact, below this I will post a 2003 version of the episode which updates it for a post 9/11 US.

Here is the opening narration to whet your appetite:
"Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street — in the last calm and reflective moment — before the monsters came."

And here is the 2003 remake: The Monsters are on Maple Street (but do see the original - as that is quite spectacular!):

Monday, May 25, 2015

Neal Stephenson novel on the future of humanity after losing the Moon...

by Salman Hameed

It is impossible to imagine what humans will be like in a few hundred years let alone in a few thousand years. I think Stephen Hawking is quite accurate when he says that the most unbelievable thing about Star Trek is that humans in the 24th century (the setting of The Next Generation) look like humans of today. It is not a value call of whether we should change or not but rather an assumption that given an opportunity, we will change.

So here comes a novel that looks fantastic and covers 5000 years into the future. It is by Neal Stephenson who writes thought-provoking hard sci-fi. His Anathem is on my list of books to read this year and will get to it soon (all of his books are hefty 800-1000 pages long). In any case, his new book deals with the future of humanity after the destruction of the Moon. It is of course not that unreasonable to imagine an Moon-less Earth, as the Earth and the Moon did not form together (see What if the Moon didn't exist?).

Here is a review of Neil Stephenson's Seveneves in Nature:
It traces an epoch in which humankind and the environment change profoundly. The bulk of the novel is the lead-up to, and immediate aftermath of, a stunning cosmic event
that leaves humanity teetering on the edge. The remainder describes a renaissance with only faint echoes of what we recognize as human culture. 
The cataclysm is the destruction of the Moon by a mysterious agent. As Earth is assaulted by a rain of debris from the shattered satellite, the vast majority of the human population faces oblivion. The core of the story relies on current, or currently anticipated, technologies — weaving a plausible tale of how a tiny number of survivors, the “seveneves” of the title, might secure a future for our species. Stephenson imagines the rebirth as a division into seven races, based on the genetic profiles of the founders. The future cultures have both old and new social problems, but also fresh insights and resources with which to address them. 
The epic injury to Earth looms in the very first sentence: a masterful attention-grabber. Stephenson maintains tension and energy, as well as a remarkable technical complexity, both literary and scientific. I repeatedly found myself sketching parts of the dramatically scaled mechanical constructs that enable later stages of the story — such as whip-like machinery to capture high-flying gliders and transfer them to Earth orbit — to judge whether they were feasible. They were.
Plus, it is a welcome news that, along with its science, the characters are well developed in the novel as well:
This is hard sci-fi in a real and welcome sense, ruled by unremitting physical laws, unlike the negotiable rules of the action thriller. People die because their deaths are inevitable, and many pass unremarked because the disaster's scale is so vast. Their sacrifice is tied to the theme of engineering the survival of the human race. Science fiction often suffers from a disparity between the impressive scale of the scenery, and the size of the characters and how they are developed. Stephenson balances these aspects well, avoiding cookie-cutter scientists and the all-too-common characterization of technologists as brilliant but conflicted renegades.
Read the full review here (you may need subscription for full access). 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Video: Steven Wise on rights for chimps

by Salman Hameed

Here is a TED talk by Steven Wise on Chimps have feelings and thoughts  - they should also have rights.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

UAE planning a mission to Mars by 2021

by Salman Hameed


The end of the semester and conferences have kept me away from Irtiqa. I even missed this news about a UAE mission to Mars by 2021. The UAE Space Agency was launched last year and it did state a Mars mission as one of its first projects. Now they have announced "Hope" mission that will orbit the Red Planet and map the Martian atmosphere. Of course, a cynical (and a reasonable) first reaction would be: are they buying this mission to Mars? The space agency is claiming that the mission will be "100% Emirati". I don't know - but we can go with their claim. Such a mission can indeed create a lot of excitement among Arab and Muslim nations. If they do develop the infrastructure for this mission, then indeed it will will make a significant impact. They certainly have a slick video that claims all these things. But at this point I don't know much about their abilities. They do have a slick video - but then that is the easy part. The publicity for the mission is also carefully tailored. Like space missions from other countries, the photographs are carefully staged - here showing a significant participation of women in the project (early US space missions had cultivated particular views of the wives of astronauts). But it is the actual mission and its local expertise that will ultimately count. Lets follow up in the next year or so and see where there are at.

Here is the video of the UAE Mars Mission:


From Space News:
“This mission is managed by a 100-percent Emirati team,” said Sarah Amiri, the mission deputy project manager and science lead. 
“Emirati universities and research institutions will work on the science,” said Ibrahim Al Qasim, the mission’s deputy project manager for strategic planning. “That way we get to build the knowledge and keep the skills. This mission will be the catalyst for a new generation of Arab scientists and engineers. It will be an anchor project for the space and science sector here in the UAE,” said lead guy. 
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the rule of the emirate of Dubai and the namesake of the UAE’s lead space center, attended the May 6 press briefing, where he explained why the name Hope was chosen for the mission.
Read the full article here

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Third secular blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh!

by Salman Hameed

This is outrageous and a systematic effort to silence secular opposition in Bangladesh. First it was the killing of Avijit Roy in late February of this year. He was killed by two men armed with machetes. Then in late March, Washiqur Rahman was killed by two men using knives and meat cleavers. Yesterday, Ananta Bijoy Dash was attached by four men and hacked to death. Before we even talk about anything else, here are the pictures of the three slain bloggers:

Ananta Bijoy Dash

Washiqur Rahman 

Avijit Roy (with his wife who was also injured in the attack)

They are all young and bright men standing up for what they believe. All three were part of the secular Shahbagh movement along with Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was killed in 2013 (see Standing with Bangladesh's Secular Bloggers!). From the New York Times:
Mr. Haider, Mr. Roy and Mr. Rhaman were all part of a movement known as Shahbag, which called for the death penalty for Islamist political leaders who were implicated in atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. Young Islamic activists reacted with fury to the Shahbag movement. 
Imran Sarker, the head of an organization of secular bloggers in Bangladesh, said that Mr. Dash was also an activist with the Shahbag movement, organizing street protests in Sylhet. According to Free Mind, Mr. Dash had several years ago also edited a magazine called Logic that published essays on secular humanism. His friends described him as an atheist. 
The killings of the bloggers have hit a nerve in Bangladesh, with its deepening divide between secular thinkers and conservative Muslims over the question of whether Bangladesh should be a secular or an Islamic nation.
I doubt that it the killings have much to do with the specific content. Instead, it is about the power struggle and these particular parties are willing to take out their opponents with violence. At this point it is unclear who is to blame directly - but the local Al Qaeda affiliate is eager to take responsibility:
Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh, a group that claims ties to the Indian branch of Al Qaeda, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was responsible for the death of Mr. Dash, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online. 
The leader of the Indian Qaeda branch had claimed responsibility for the deaths of Mr. Roy and Mr. Haider in a video posted on jihadist forums on May 2. The video was translated by SITE. 
The police made two arrests in connection with Mr. Rhaman’s murder, and arrested just one person over Mr. Roy’s murder: Shafiur Rahman Farabi, who had called for Mr. Roy to be killed in a Facebook post. Mr. Farabi is not believed to have been present during the attack. Seven university students and the leader of a hard-line Islamist group were charged with Mr. Haider’s killing in March.
All we can do is to voice our support for these endangered secular bloggers in Bangladesh. Here is the blog Mukto Mona (Free Mind) that was founded by Avijit Roy and Dash also contributed (you can find all of Avijit Roy's articles in English here). 

Friday, May 08, 2015

A poem and a brief discussion about Hubble Space Telescope's 25 years

by Salman Hameed

Last month marked the launching of Hubble Space Telescope (HST). It is hard to overstate the importance of the telescope. It transformed astronomy. I was fortunate to be in graduate school when some of its most significant images were captured (for example, Eagle's nebula's Pillars of Creation, and of course the Hubble Deep Field). The new images in some sense were remaking textbooks and there were many instances of us (graduate students and faculty) just gathering together to fawn-over new Hubble releases. Here is my brief discussion about Hubble's 25 years as part of a new segment with Monte Belmonte for our fantastic radio station, The River: Mr. Universe - Hubble's 25 Years. It is impossible to pick favorite images from Hubble (there are so many great ones!), I will post three below. But before I do that, here is an excerpt from a poem by Tracy K. Smith from her collection Life on Mars that mentions Hubble Space Telescope:
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
You can read here the full poem, My God, It's Full of Stars

 And here now on to three Hubble images that I absolutely love (and also shows my bias towards galaxies):

Hubble Ultra Deep Field - capturing some of the farthest galaxies in the universe. 


Tadpole galaxy (or Arp 188) - an image of one galaxy being torn apart by the gravity of larger neighbor. You can imagine being part of a solar system in the torn stream of stars - and the breathtaking view you may have of the larger spiral galaxy. 



Sombrero galaxy (or NGC 4594) - a nearby galaxy located "only" 28 million light years away. We are seeing the galaxy edge-on. In my previous life, I looked for signs of young stars in this galaxy, but didn't find much (for example here and here).

Oh who am I kidding. I have to include at least one nebula in this post. So here is Helix Nebula:


Helix Nebula - this is a planetary nebula and our Sun's future death is most likely going to be this spectacular. Inspired by this image, you can also read my article in Express Tribune: Anticipating a Glorious Death of Our Sun

If you want more, you can see a collection of Hubble photos by New York Times. But heck - the best place is the official Hubble site. All of the images are breathtaking! Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

More obstacles for The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed


I'm surprised that against all odds, the opposition to TMT continues to gather steam (see earlier posts: here and here). An important development is that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) has now rescinded its support for the project:
The board of trustees in 2009 voted to support Mauna Kea as the site for the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope. Amid mounting opposition after 31 protesters blocking the construction site were arrested earlier this month, the board held a special meeting Thursday to revisit its stance. 
Trustees could have voted to maintain support, oppose the project or rescind the previous position and take a neutral stance. After hours of listening to public comments for and against the project, some trustees said they were ready to vote for rescinding and opposing, but ultimately joined others to only rescind. 
"We have the opportunity to send a strong message that it is no longer business as usual for Hawaiians," said trustee Dan Ahuna. 
Trustee Peter Apo said rescinding without opposing would allow OHA to remain part of the discussion with the goal of eventual decommissioning of other telescopes already on the mountain.
The support of OHA is not legally required for the construction of the telescope, but it certainly puts more pressure on TMT:
It's not clear what effect OHA's position will have on the project. The office is a public agency tasked with improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians. The office would receive a percentage of rent paid for the sublease of the land the University of Hawaii leases from the state. The company building the telescope earlier agreed to extend a construction moratorium. 
"We are naturally disappointed that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has changed its position on the Thirty Meter Telescope project. However, we are by no means discouraged," TMT International Observatory Board Chairman Henry Yang said in a statement. "We must now redouble our commitment to respectfully continuing dialogue and engagement with OHA and all other stakeholders."
Read the full article here.

Last Saturday the New York Times chimed in with a patronizing tone, describing the opposition to telescopes as "militant advocacy" (even though the protests have all been peaceful). The editorial did mention some of root causes of opposition, but then it went ahead and asked the governor of Hawaii to take care of the business:
The protesters don’t speak for all Hawaii residents, or even all Native Hawaiians, many of whom embrace the telescope. But it is easy to understand why they may feel fed up. Mauna Kea is a site of wonderment even before night falls and the stars come out by the billions. It is a habitat for threatened insects and birds, and rich in precious archaeological sites. It also has been stressed for decades. 
The University of Hawaii, which has managed the mountaintop since 1968 under a lease from the state, has at times been a sloppy steward. An embarrassing state audit in 1998 cited its failures to protect the summit’s fragile ecology and cultural resources as it oversaw the development of a sprawling complex of more than a dozen observatories there. Over the decades it has collected little to no rent from its many scientific tenants. (The Thirty Meter Telescope is to be the rare exception, paying up to $1 million a year.)
...
Mr. Ige, who has been far too withdrawn in this confrontation, needs to step up. If he thinks the telescope is an important asset that promises great benefits to Hawaii’s residents and economy, not to mention to science and humanity at large, he should say so. If he thinks more needs to be done to protect the environment and native interests, he should say what that is and make it happen. His mild news releases urging more dialogue are not enough.
And as a parting shot, it used the Polynesian past to urge the protestors (not the astronomers...) to come to an understanding:
Coexistence may never satisfy the core group of protesters who have been demanding the total erasure of technology from Mauna Kea’s peak. What is tragic is the missed opportunity for shared understanding, given that many of these protesters are themselves descendants of some of history’s greatest astronomers, Polynesian wayfinders who set out across the Pacific a millennium ago, guided by the stars and currents, to find Mauna Kea in the first place.
And for an even less enlightening NYT article, see this one from last year where George Johnson brings in Galileo and connects the TMT issue to that of simply science versus religion. You can guess the content and tone of the article from the title: Seeking Stars, Finding Creationism

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Spend 15 minutes and watch Scott Atran's speech on why some young people join ISIS

by Salman Hameed

Last week I organized a panel on The phenomeon of ISIS through the eyes of cognitive science and it was a fantastic learning experience. If you are interested in a nuanced understanding of why young European Muslims join groups like ISIS, watch this short speech by Scott Atran. Of course, it is not about clash of civilizations - but rather about young people growing up in a globally connected world.  In particular, listen to his solutions from 7 minutes on and the problem with our existing counter-narratives to ISIS. This is an excellent talk based on interview data combined with social science, psychology, and anthropology.