Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ibn Rushd, Van Gogh's "Starry Night", and IVF via Turkish art form Ebru

by Salman Hameed

[** Update: I posted this a few minutes before the terrible airport attack in Istanbul. Hope the insanity will stop at some point.]

This is actually really cool! Ebru is a Turkish art form of "creating colorful patterns by sprinkling and brushing color pigments on a pan of oily water and then transforming this pattern to paper". Here is a concise history of Ebru from artist Garip Ay:
Ebru, which is generally known today as a decorative paper art, is one of the oldest Turkish arts, but exactly where or when it started remains unknown. Ebru is an art from the realms of history, presenting to us a beauty that is full of love. It can be described as painting on water. Patterns are formed on the surface of water which has had substances added to it to increase the viscosity; the patterns are then transferred to paper. The results of this process are unique and it is never possible to achieve the same design again.       
           Those who have traced the history claim that the many hued Ebru that we know today was born in Turkistan in Central Asia, a place that was the center for many cultures. From the 17th century on, it became known as Turkish Paper in Europe, and from here the art of Ebru reached the rest of the world.          
           The Turks started to make paper in the 15th century. With their sensitive souls and their mystic personalities they became very advanced in the art of paper decoration. Ebru paper, especially those of a fine design, was first used as the background to important official state papers, a variety of treaties and the records of important events. It was used as a means to prevent the alteration of the document. The same logic can be found in the use of complicated designs on banknotes, cheque books, deeds and bonds used today. In addition, the edges of commercial registers were decorated with Ebru in order to prevent the removal of pages. Ebru holds an important place in the history of Islamic art; it was used alongside calligraphy and in publishing. Moreover, its mystic nature, that is, “the search for religious beauty”, led to its being used in many tekkes as a reflection of sufi thought. 
 Here are a few videos of Ebru art creation by Garip Ay. As a starter, here he is first creating Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and then within the same video, "Self-Portrait" (tip from Openculture):

Here is his Ebru of Ibn Rushd:

And to cap it off, here is a fantastic combination of the explanation for how in vitro fertilization works with Ebru:

You can explore more videos here

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Three good articles in the wake of Orlando shootings - Terrorism, homosexuality, and Islamophobia

by Salman Hameed

The reactions in the US to Orlando shootings have been predictable. For sadistic reasons, I sometimes even watch Fox News, and there it was Sean Hannity blaming the start of the 11th century Crusades (yes - Crusades!) on Muslim aggression - and implying the continuation of that until today. So cutting through this kind of crap, here are three four good articles that address various related issues. Of course, there are gay imams and Muslim LGBT organizations, and they are part of the diverse Muslim communities. This does not mean that there is no homophobia amongst Muslims - but that there is no blanket position on homosexuality. So on this topic, here is an excellent article by Mehammed Amadeus Mack (he right here at Smith College!) in Newsweek that brings up the nuances associated with this topic:
What is Islam’s stance on homosexuality? This question is highly vexed and impossible to answer, as there are not one but many stances, not one but many Islamic schools of thought, and scholars have rightly offered much-needed criticism of the idea that there is one monolithic body called Islam that can be consistent over time and space, let alone have stances. 
An equally thorny and interesting question regards what we mean by “homosexuality.” Can we define it as same-sex desire, homosexual acts, or is homosexual identity more central to its meaning? 
The answer to this question greatly impacts whether this highly variable assembly of beliefs, practices, institutions and texts we call “Islam” actually condemns what we might think it condemns. 
Starting from the terrain of the obvious, we can get some misunderstandings out of the way. The word homosexual does not appear anywhere in the Koran, and indeed it couldn’t, because the word is an invention of the late 19th century, when medical societies in Europe tried to place groups of people who took part in similar sex acts under a common category, which they then labeled “homosexuality.” 
Later on, the community of people pathologized by this term rallied together under the term of their persecution and began to demand recognition, equality and, finally, rights. The passage from acts to identities is crucial here, as it also constitutes the greatest stumbling block in debates about whether or not “Islam” condemns same-sex desire. 
Since I am no theologian, I defer here to thinkers who have meditated deeply on the place of sexual diversity within Islamic cultures. As scholar Khaled el-Rouayheb explains in his historical survey of same-sex desire in the Islamic world from 1500 to 1800, sexual identity categories we use today have not been relevant Islamic categories. 
The human subjects he studies may have engaged in (copious amounts) of same-sex acts without ever speaking of what they were doing in terms of identity, or developing communities of like-minded individuals around these practices. 
With this understanding, el-Rouayheb titled his study “Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Muslim World” (emphasis mine) in a move that may have seemed to be erasing homosexuality from the historical record but was really just affirming that this modern term could not describe the same-sex eroticism of this Islamic period. 
As recently as last year, during a British televised debate on the subject of whether one could be both Muslim and gay, some Muslim guests claimed that this was a moot question because “Islam” does not ask Muslims to conform to a particular sexual orientation (another modern concept).
But the issues becomes entangled with new identities: 
Globalization has complicated the question because many (though certainly not all) of the Muslims who engage in same-sex sexuality have chosen to adopt LGBT identity markers in our era. 
Some of them, who have since emerged as imams or religious scholars like South Africa’s Muhsin Hendricks, France’s Ludovic Mohamed-Zahed or the U.S.’s Daiyiee Abdullah, have taken great pains to show that the Koran does not discuss let alone condemn homosexual identity explicitly. Rather, it talks about certain sinful acts (rape, violations of hospitality, lack of reproduction), many of which are related to the story of Lot. 
The Koran, however, is not the only source of legislation governing Muslims’ behavior: Many also put faith in the ahadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. They are grouped according to reliability (weak, strong), a factor judged differently according to the Islamic school of thought. 
Some Muslims, aligned in the Quranist school, prefer to reject all ahadith because they would violate the completeness and perfection of the Koran, because the Holy Book would be incomplete if the ahadith were allowed to exist as a competing authority.
Interestingly for this topic, the clearest and most explicit condemnations and punishments of homosexuality exist in these ahadith, and it is thus no wonder that many Muslims who identify as LGBT take the Quranist position and reject them. 
Some Muslims reject the rejection of ahadith and accuse LGBT Muslims of picking and choosing what they want to follow. But the reality is that many LGBT imams have strong semantic and textual arguments that provide at the very least grounds for debate.
These imams underline the importance of another Islamic cornerstone—interpretation (ijtihad)—pointing to the fact that Muslims, throughout their history, have lived in or at the intersection with non-Muslim societies, and have had to adapt their beliefs and practices to foreign restrictions, novel circumstances and inventions. 
They insist that one has to view homosexual identity (which is not the same thing as homosexual activity) as one such novel circumstance not governed by the Koran. Muslims who are queer have often turned to one another, or neutral academic scholars, for edifying arguments and interpretations that could help secure their place in the community of believers, when local imams were unsympathetic. 
And yet the perception of Islamic homophobia persists. This would have to do, in my argument, with a double standard in our perception of the great monotheistic religions and the degree to which we must literally follow them: We expect that Muslims will obey the literal word of the Koran and especially the ahadith, while Christians and Jews are free to interpret their holy texts figuratively, take it or leave it. 
It is my experience that many Muslims more exemplary than myself do not follow the word to the letter, and remain actively engaged in interpretation every day, especially when it comes to the Koran’s more abstract or poetic passages. 
The Pew Research Center, in its study of Muslim American attitudes over time, reinforces this view and finds that U.S. Muslims’ acceptance of homosexuality is increasing (perhaps slower than some of us would like), especially among the young, with tolerance levels comparable to other monotheistic religious communities. 
One must remember that many Muslims in the Diaspora are immigrants or descended from them. The experience of being cut off from a home culture can strengthen attachments to religious identity markers, sometimes with the misguided result of entrenching homophobic beliefs, even if they are sometimes erroneously formed, as I’ve tried to show. 
The perception that Muslims are homophobic has far-reaching consequences, already evident in the way political contenders have made promises to halt Muslim immigration or redouble their efforts to bomb ISIS in the wake of the Orlando tragedy. 
As a researcher of immigration debates in Europe and how gay-friendliness is politicized within them, I am deeply aware of the way that perceptions of Islamic homophobia have been used to argue against engagement with Muslims, replacing outright racism against Muslims with a sophisticated form of sexual demonization targeting the Islamic faith.
Immediately after the mass shooting in Orlando, media outlets made sure to mention Omar Mateen’s history of wife-beating, macho bodybuilding and his father’s anecdote about his revulsion at men kissing in the same breath as Mateen’s Islamic heritage.
These allegations of a generalized Muslim homophobia often conceal more than they reveal, in terms of historical evidence. 
From the earliest contact points between the Christian and Muslim civilizations, Muslims were faulted not so much for their sexual intolerance as they were for their sexual permissiveness. Orientalism and colonialism both presented Muslims as perverts, prone to bisexuality, and were thought to have untamable sex drives. 
Sex tourism in the permissive “lands of Islam” was born of this fantasy, and was practiced by a whole generation of the Euro-American gay intelligentsia, remnants of which continue in North Africa today. 
However, it is in the last 20 to 25 years that perceptions of the Middle East as a homophobic inferno have really taken hold, changing the character of “us vs. them” arguments about Western influence in the Middle East into a “sexual clash of civilizations,” to borrow an unfortunate phrase. 
Some critics, like Joseph Massad, have argued that the laws and ideologies restricting sexual freedom in the Arab world are often the result of conserved colonial-era laws, or emerged from a complex evolution which saw Arab societies (that had previously been judged as “perverse” in Western eyes) attempt to erase same-sex desire from Arabic heritage, a process which often happened in elite circles. 
It is telling, as a widely shared article has shown, that the five Islamic countries with no anti-homosexual laws on the books were those never colonized by the British. Article 534 in Lebanon, which criminalizes “sexual intercourse contrary to nature,” was derived from the French colonial Mandate period.
Read the full article here

The instant exploitation of this attack is part of a more general trend ofexploiting liberal social issues to glorify agendas of militarism, tribal conflicts, and aggressive foreign policies. Decorate the GCHQ headquarters or the Tel Aviv city hall with the LGBT’s rainbow flag colors and suddenly mass surveillance and decadeslong military occupation seem pretty and liberal. Choose militaristic U.S. presidents who represent social milestones of race and gender and suddenly their militarism seems to liberals to be more tolerable and even inspiring. Pretend that the war on Afghanistan is about feminism, and aggression toward Iran is about protecting LGBTs, and watchliberals melt with appreciation. Disguise anti-Muslim animus as pro-LGBT activism and one can quickly expand support for a neocon mentality and agenda into large sectors of Western liberalism.
Depicting anti-LGBT hatred as the exclusive (or even predominant) province of Islam is not only defamatory toward Muslims but does a massive disservice to the millions of LGBTs who have been — and continue to be — seriously oppressed, targeted, and attacked by people who have nothing to do with Islam. The struggle of LGBTs around the world is difficult enough without having them cynically used as some sort of prop to bash a groupthat itself is already being bashed from multiple directions.
He also points to the 2015 Pew poll that shows that US Muslims are as much likely to support same sex marriage as Christians:

Read the full article here.

And to understand the Orlando attacks (and many other that connect to Islamic State), here is Olivier Roy, where he is talking about Islamization of radicalization rather than the other way around:

Isaac Chotiner: How does Omar Mateen fit into your thinking about radicalization? 
Olivier Roy: The first point is that the guy is second-generation, which is the most common pattern for terrorists. The second point is that, to the extent we know—and every day we learn something new about him—he was not very religious: He was an angry man without a precise cause. One thing that is interesting is that his family was Afghan, and his father has made political statements. But he never mentioned Afghanistan during the killing. He could have said he was attacking the American people in revenge for Mullah Mansour, the Taliban leader killed by an American drone. He could have justified his anti-American stance by referring to events in Afghanistan. He didn’t. 
This is a very common pattern among terrorists. Terrorists almost never refer to their own country or the country of origin of their parents. They usually refer to global jihad, not to concrete situations. You can be angry at the United States government for good reasons, or at least real reasons: drones, the invasion of Iraq, and so on. But these guys always refer to virtual, global jihad. 
What does that signify to you? 
They are not reacting to a real situation. They are not reacting to a real conflict. They are in a virtual war. The key thing about Daesh is that it has evolved to promote a narrative of global or virtual jihad: Daesh almost never mentions real conflicts. It attracts these types of guys who are what I call de-culturated and who never adjust to any society, whether it is American society or any society. It is not the revenge of the Afghans against the Americans. It is not connected to real struggles. They live in an imaginary world. 
It sounds like you think this guy was on a path to some sort of radicalization or violence, whether or not it was through Islam. 
I think that these guys do not become radicalized because they become more and more religious. It is not religious radicalization that leads to political radicalization. When they became radical, they are religious. They frame their wrath in a religious narrative. They think they will go to paradise. It is Islamization of radicalization. I think Islam is the framework of the radicalization; it is not the primary cause. What I am saying, which there is a lot of misunderstanding about: It is not because they pray more and more, or go more and more to a mosque, that they become radicals. When they became radicals, they choose the religious narrative and believe in it. 
These guys are not Salafi. The idea that this is the Salafization of Islam does not make sense because their approach to salvation is not the Salafi approach. The Salafis do not believe in suicide. They think that suicide is a sin against God, like the Jews and the Christians. If you kill yourself or put yourself in a position where you will necessarily be killed, you preempt the will of God. But in the mind of the suicide bombers, the idea is that you don’t need to be a good Muslim, you don’t need to pray five times a day, you don’t need to go for hajj. If you make a supreme sacrifice, you will go directly to paradise and there is no need to be strict believer. 
If what you are saying is true, how do we stop these attacks? We often hear that the solution is to “moderate” Islam, but that wouldn’t seem to be the solution in the narrative you just laid out.
These guys are attracted by the narrative of Daesh. And Daesh today is the only international anti-society, anti–world order group. There is no more global international extreme left. If you take [left-wing parties] Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, these movements are now anti-globalization. The only global movement now is radical Islam, which explains the number of converts—which is extraordinary. The number of converts who have joined the jihad is between 20 percent and 30 percent. 
The issue now is to debunk the narrative of Daesh. We should penalize Daesh by not depicting it as the biggest threat to Western civilization—that condones their propaganda. The second point is that we should not allow radical Islam to have a monopoly on Islam. For that, we should let rise a normal Islam, not a moderate Islam. The concept of moderate Islam is totally misleading: You do not have moderate religion. Calvinism is not moderate. Calvin and Luther were not moderates. They were radicals. But you can have moderate believers who are not necessarily moderately believing. We should let normal Islam emerge as a religion in the public sphere. In the United States, this is easier because religion is accepted. But in Europe it is a problem. The trend in Europe is to consider any religion as a potential problem. 
Is this why you think countries like France tend to have a bigger problem with radicalization than the United States? 
Yes. Because the answer to radicalism in France is to marginalize religion more and more. It is to expel religion from the public space. And if you expel religion from the public space, then you give religion to the extremes and the radicals. 
 I am guessing you don’t like Donald Trump’s approach to Islam.
It is interesting because Trump is not a religious guy. His Islamophobia is linked with some sort of contempt of religion. That’s the ambiguity of it. It isn’t a Christian Islamophobia. Trump does not pay lip service to religion when he attacks Islam. He doesn’t say you can be a nice believer or anything like that. He rejects Islam as a rule and he never speaks about good religion, even Christianity.
Read the full interview here.

And here is a bonus article by Aziz Ansari on Why Trump Makes Me Scared for My Family:
I am the son of Muslim immigrants. As I sent that text, in the aftermath of the horrible attack in Orlando, Fla., I realized how awful it was to tell an American citizen to be careful about how she worshiped. 
Being Muslim American already carries a decent amount of baggage. In our culture, when people think “Muslim,” the picture in their heads is not usually of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or the kid who left the boy band One Direction. It’s of a scary terrorist character from “Homeland” or some monster from the news. 
Today, with the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and others like him spewing hate speech, prejudice is reaching new levels. It’s visceral, and scary, and it affects how people live, work and pray. It makes me afraid for my family. It also makes no sense.
Xenophobic rhetoric was central to Mr. Trump’s campaign long before the attack in Orlando. This is a guy who kicked off his presidential run by calling Mexicans “rapists” who were “bringing drugs” to this country. Numerous times, he has said that Muslims in New Jersey were cheering in the streets on Sept. 11, 2001. This has been continually disproved, but he stands by it. I don’t know what every Muslim American was doing that day, but I can tell you what my family was doing. I was studying at N.Y.U., and I lived near the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit, I was on the phone with my mother, who called to tell me to leave my dorm building. 
The haunting sound of the second plane hitting the towers is forever ingrained in my head. My building was close enough that it shook upon impact. I was scared for my life as my fellow students and I trekked the panicked streets of Manhattan. My family, unable to reach me on my cellphone, was terrified about my safety as they watched the towers collapse. There was absolutely no cheering. Only sadness, horror and fear. 
Mr. Trump, in response to the attack in Orlando, began a tweet with these words: “Appreciate the congrats.” It appears that day he was the one who was celebrating after an attack.
Read the full article here

New Mars Exploration Posters from NASA

by Salman Hameed

It is unclear when NASA will be sending humans to Mars, but it has found a cheaper way to generate some excitement. There is a better chance right now that a private company will get there first. Nevertheless, NASA has released some cool retro style posters about Mars exploration. Here are some of the posters (you can download high quality from here):

I like this one about working on one of the moons of Mars:

And of course, teaching and surveying: 

And here is one last one:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Black hole Sun, a Cosmic Dagger, and the first ET candidate in the US elections

by Salman Hameed

I do a weekly radio segment with the morning host Monte Belmonte of our fantastic local radio station, WRSI - The River (no - seriously, they play some excellent music). Here are three recent segments that you might enjoy (even with my gigantic face on two of the soundclouds!):

Black Hole Sun:

King Tut's Dagger: 

And Hillary Clinton as the first ET candidate:

Monday, June 20, 2016

50th death anniversary of one of the greatest cosmologists of the 20th century

by Salman Hameed

There is a good chance that you have never heard of Georges Lemaître. But this is unfortunate. He figured out the expansion of the universe in 1927 - two years before Edwin Hubble, and also proposed the idea that later came to be known as the Big Bang. Furthermore, he complicates the traditional story of science versus religion, as he was a Belgian priest, and was critical of Pope Pious XII statement that Big Bang theory was a validation of the religious idea of the beginning of the universe. Instead, Lemaître was of the view that the Big Bang is a scientific idea that neither confirms or contradicts religious claims. He died fifty years ago on June 20th, 1966. By that time, the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation had validated the basic idea of the Big Bang theory.

If you want to know more about Georges Lemaître, then check out this excellent book, The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, by our friend John Farrell. To commemorate Lemaître's achievements, John has put together a video (I also participated in it). Here it is:
The Greatest Scientist You've Never Heard Of from Farrellmedia on Vimeo.

Two Book Recommendations: "Equilateral" and "The Book of Strange New Things"

by Salman Hameed

I read Equilateral a couple of years ago, and really liked it. I was reminded of it when I saw an interview of the author, Ken Kalfus, on the excellent website, Islam and Science Fiction. The book is set in the late 19th century - in Egypt - which is indirectly under the British rule. Around that time (in 1890s), there was an active debate about the possibility of not just life on Mars, but a whole civilization. This idea was popularized by American astronomer Percival Lowell, who believed he was observing and mapping canals on Mars. He believed that Mars was an older planet than the Earth (an idea popular at the time), and hence if there is a civilization on Mars, it must be more advanced than the humans here on Earth. But why build these huge canals? He believed that Mars was running out of water, and these Martians were bringing water from the Martian polar ice caps to the equatorial regions in an amazing feat of engineering. Alas - all this turned out to be false and we now know that Mars is a desert planet. And if life exists today, it is no more bigger than microbes.

In Equilateral, Kalfus creates an alternative history where the Martian canals are probably real (yes, I am choosing my words carefully here). And one British astronomer has a crazy idea of digging a huge triangle - each side hundreds of miles long - and light it up with fire to signal the Martians of the presence of intelligent civilization here on Earth. This triangle is to be built in the desert of Egypt - and that provides an opportunity to comment on British colonial policies of the late 19th century. The large scale of the project itself is clearly inspired by projects like the Suez Canal, that were at once a mixture of spectacular engineering feats and oppressive colonial policies. The book has a good, dry, sense of humor. Here is the description of the book:
Equilateral is an intellectual comedy set just before the turn of the century in Egypt. A British astronomer, Thayer, high on Darwin and other progressive scientists of the age, has come to believe that beings more highly evolved than us are alive on Mars (he has evidence) and that there will be a perfect moment in which we can signal to them that we are here too. He gets the support and funding for a massive project to build the Equilateral, a triangle with sides hundreds of miles long, in the desert of Egypt in time for that perfect window. But as work progresses, the Egyptian workers, less evolved than the British, are also less than cooperative, and a bout of malaria that seems to activate at the worst moments makes it all much more confusing and complex than Thayer ever imagined. We see Thayer also through the eyes of two women--a triangle of another sort--a romantic one that involves a secretary who looks after Thayer but doesn't suffer fools, and Binta, a house-servant he covets but can't communicate with--and through them we catch sight of the depth of self-delusion and the folly of the enterprise.  
Equilateral is written with a subtle, sly humor, but it's also a model of reserve and historical accuracy; it's about many things, including Empire and colonization and exploration; it's about "the other" and who that other might be. We would like to talk to the stars, and yet we can barely talk to each other.
And here is an excerpt from the author's interview from Islam and Science Fiction:
M A Ahmad: It is said that the past is always about the present. In what way doesEquilateral reflect questions pertinent to the present?Ken Kalfus: We live in a world largely shaped by 19th century colonial projects, especially in the Middle East and in Egypt, where Equilateral is set. Those projects were largely organized by men who didn’t know the depths of their ignorance of the people under their sway. In some cases this was not from lack of trying, but they couldn’t escape their starting assumptions and their frames of reference. We’re still mired in ignorance about foreign people – and these are creatures of the same species with whom we share the planet.Human beings persist in their misconceptions. By writing about a 19th century astronomer in Egypt, oblivious to misconceptions that are clear to the contemporary reader, I’ve tried to question our confidence in the 21st century frames of reference. Our misconceptions about alien life may not, of course, be our only mistakes. 
M A Ahmad: When people in the West talk about the impact of discovery of life beyond Earth, they usually restrict themselves to Western reaction and even within the West a particular segment of the society. Can you share insights on how different cultures, classes etc would react to such a discovery?One of the themes of Equilateral is the tendency for men and women to project their values on the unknown. We’ve come to expect that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will occur within the province of science and technology. These fields are dominated by Western thought and process, even if many of our most productive scientists come from the developing world.We could be mistaken, first, in thinking that scientists will make the first contact with intelligent life. People with UFO experience believe they’ve already been in touch. It’s conceivable that aliens would reach out to religious figures. In fact both the Old Testament and the Quran, as I note in Equilateral,contain passages that have been interpreted to suggest this communication has already happened. Or perhaps extraterrestrials will announce themselves by email. Science fiction has played with many such scenarios. Check your spam folder now!If we do make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life, the responses of individuals and their societies will reflect their fears of the Other and their need for his or her or its companionship. Before that day comes, alien contact will be a rich source of novelistic speculation.
Read the full interview here.

Since this is summer and you may have more time, I can also recommend another science fiction book, The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. It is a beautifully written book and is an unconventional science fiction. Nevertheless, it gives us a amazing alien landscape along with an intriguing alien culture. Here is the description of the book:
It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC.   His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his
Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling.  Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.   
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable.  While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival.  Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us. 
And by the way, one of Michel Faber's novels was also turned into a fascinating film, Under the Skin. The movie is strange and beautiful, and it stars Scarlett Johansson in a challenging role. Interestingly, the movie doesn't say much about it, but the novel that it is based on, has an explicit alien connection. But ultimately, both Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things, are about relationships and bodies. I will leave it at that. But if you are interested in picking up an off-beat science fiction film, watch Under the Skin. And if you are interested reading a beautifully written science fiction, then check out, The Book of Strange New Things. Here is the trailer for Under the Skin:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Indonesia's excellent move to support basic research

by Salman Hameed

A few years ago, Indonesians elected the popular mayor of Jakarta, Joko Widido, as the President of
the country. It was the first time that the President did not come from the military nor was part of the traditional political elite. I remember watching the coverage of some amazing celebrations in the streets of Jakarta after his elections. Oh - and he loves Led Zeppelin and Metallica! How can you go wring with that.

Well, now he established Indonesian Science Foundation (ISF) - and it is an excellent step. From SciDev:
The Indonesian Science Fund (ISF), established under a recent decree of President Joko Widodo, will earmark around US$60 million a year to fund 200 research proposals. The ISF will grant US$100,000 for each successful research proposal, similar to the practice of the US National Science Foundation which allots around US$200,000 per research grant. This year, an initial US$10 million was allocated, the ISF announced Wednesday.  
“The main aim of the ISF is to create the right scientific culture in Indonesia. It means that we’ll focus on frontier research rather than on applied ones,” Sangkot Marzuki, president of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI), tells SciDev.Net.  
The ISF is expected to bridge the gap for financing scientific research in Indonesia. The national budget for science and technology is only 0.08 per cent, compared to the science budgets of Asian economic giant and research powerhouse South Korea (3.7 per cent) and Indonesian neighbours Singapore (2 per cent) and Malaysia (1.13 per cent). 
Indonesia’s limited national budget flows through tangled branches of government agencies prone to corruption practices, resulting in the poor performance of science and technology in the country. 
Interestingly, this is part of US science diplomacy with Indonesia. Usually, these governmental things fizzle out - but this seems like a great step, and I'm glad that it has been done before President Trump takes over (he will want his science back...). 

Over at Nature, Dyna Rochmyaningsih has a good short piece on the importance of basic research for developing countries (the Global South?) and this Indonesian initiative: 
Of course, some in the developing world already study pure science problems. In Indonesia, some researchers are analysing the genetics of Indonesian people and their susceptibility to certain diseases — work that also offers insights into human origins. Others are studying the ecology and evolution of non-human primates. But these efforts are dwarfed by the many government-funded projects on applied topics such as agriculture, pharmacy and animal husbandry. 
Besides the fact that it has less economic value, basic science is not encouraged in developing countries because it is expensive. Almost all such countries allocate less than 1% of gross domestic product to scientific research. In 2016, the grant from Indonesia's Ministry of Research and Technology for a research project rarely exceeded US$100,000 — not enough to buy cutting-edge laboratory equipment. We see a similar picture in other developing countries, including many in Africa. 
Things are starting to change. Earlier this year, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia signed into existence the Indonesian Science Foundation (ISF), an independent funding body for science. The establishment of the ISF is a monumental event. For the first time, Indonesian scientists will have a funding source apart from the national budget (of which the proportion going to science is a very low 0.08%). And, also for the first time, they will get multi-year research grants. The amount will be increased, up to $300,000 per successful research proposal. As a start, the Ministry of Finance has committed to provide $9 million in 2016 for research on life sciences, health and nutrition. 
And the most interesting part is that the new funding agency will not support applied science. Instead it will pay for 'frontier research' on the Universe, Earth, climate, the life sciences, health, nutrition, materials and computational science. 
The new programme might encourage the best Indonesian scientists scattered across the developed world to come back. It should encourage those in Indonesia to do better science. It will certainly grow scientific excellence in the country. Unlike applied science, the goal is not to use research as a tool, but for it to become a valuable and self-sustaining pursuit in its own right. The ISF is intended to create a system in which scientists can work independently, without the need for international support, to assess the scientific questions of their own land and to contribute to the universal quest for knowledge. It offers an opportunity for our scientists to stand on their own feet.
Read the full article here

Friday, June 17, 2016

"Mediterranea": A movie recommendation for a nuanced look at the refugee crisis

by Salman Hameed

Apropos of the previous post about migration to Europe, if you are interested in seeing an excellent recent film on the topic, then check out Mediterranea. It is tough (as it should be) but it gives you an insight not only into the horrifying journey across the sea, but also what happens when you get there. The protagonist in the film is from Burkina Faso, but the movie starts in Algeria and ends in a town at the southern tip of Italy. This is fiction, but some of it is based on actual accounts. But more than that, it lets you imagine the complex interactions between migrants (in this case, these are economic migrants rather than war refugees - though often those two are linked together) and the local population. This film came out in 2015 - and truly - this is what movies should be about: Enriching our understanding of unbelievably complex situations and enhancing our compassion towards those who are affected, and doing all that in an entertaining manner.

Here is the trailer for the film:

How much immigrant population has jumped in European countries this past year?

by Salman Hameed

Here is a helpful map. Remember, these are changes in the immigrant share of the total population for each country from 2015 to 2106:

From Pew
From July 2015 to May 2016, more than 1 million people applied for asylum in Europe. The immigrant share of the population increased most during this time in Sweden, Hungary, Austria and Norway, which each saw an increase of at least 1 percentage point. While that rise might seem small, even a 1-point increase in a single year is rare, especially in Western countries. (The immigrant share of the U.S. population increased by about 1 point over a decade, from 13% in 2005 to about 14% in 2015.)
Germany, by the way, admitted the most number of refugees last year - but it was a modest change of 0.7% of immigrant stare. But we are still talking about relatively small numbers. Here is where most of these refugees are:

See the Pew article here

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A neuroscience initiative in Palestinian West Bank

by Salman Hameed

There is an excellent news feature in last week's Science about a Mohammad Herzallah, who founded the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative (PNI) back in 2009, when he was only 24 and still a medical student. Now he wants to expand the facility. This is a fascinating story:
On a sunny winter afternoon, Mohammad Herzallah is driving his father's Hyundai north on highway 60 to see his family near the town of Jenin. The road weaves through rugged terrain and olive groves in the heart of the West Bank, passing the occasional Palestinian village. Some hilltops are crowned with the modern contours of Israeli settlements, a major obstacle in the quest for peace. “They're called facts on the ground. … It's an interesting term,” Herzallah says, coolly. 
The Israeli military checkpoints dotting the area can paralyze traffic at a moment's notice, but today they aren't causing delays. Herzallah, a Palestinian neuroscientist now at Rutgers University, Newark, in New Jersey, recalls how hard the roadblocks made life early in his career, when he crisscrossed the West Bank visiting Parkinson's patients. “I learned to live with the checkpoints,” Herzallah says. He passes them very slowly. “You don't want to get shot at,” he says. 
But Herzallah isn't interested in discussing the Israeli occupation. His prime concern is the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative (PNI), which he founded in 2009 as a medical student at the tender age of 24. What he has built is remarkable, colleagues say: a research and training program in the impoverished, conflict-riven West Bank, where neuroscience, until recently, was nonexistent. Based at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, on Jerusalem's outskirts, PNI has already trained dozens of students, bagged a $300,000 grant with Rutgers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), and started publishing papers. A key focus is clinical depression, which is rampant in the Palestinian territories. 
Even without the tools found in neuroscience labs elsewhere—brain imaging equipment, animal facilities, or DNA sequencers—Herzallah has accomplished a lot, says neuroscientist Edvard Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who visited PNI in January 2014, 8 months before he and his wife May-Britt Moser won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “He is very determined, balanced, thoughtful, and pragmatic,” Moser says. “I admire him.”
The project grew out of a collaboration between al-Quds University and Rutgers - and on research on untreated severe depression:
The main campus of Al-Quds University abuts the eastern side of the 8-meter-high concrete barrier separating Israel and the West Bank. From some vantage points, you can see Jerusalem, including the glimmering golden dome of Al-Aqsa mosque, which adorns the university's logo. A few Al-Quds departments and training hospitals are in East Jerusalem, on the other side of the wall, greatly complicating life for faculty and some of the 12,500 students. When Herzallah arrived here as a medical student in 2003, the wall was lower; you could jump it and walk to the old city in less than half an hour, he says. Now, the trip takes twice as long by public transport, via a checkpoint to the north. (West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to drive to Jerusalem.) 
The neuroscience program here grew out of a long-time friendship between Mark Gluck, who leads a group at Rutgers focused on memory and learning, and Adel Misk, a neurology professor at Al-Quds. In 2008, Misk and Gluck set out to recruit and train three Palestinian medical students for a study on cognitive function in Parkinson's patients. One, Gluck says, was “a superstar” who overcame all manner of hurdles and collected most of the data. That was Herzallah. 
In 2009, Herzallah spent 6 weeks at Gluck's lab, where he finished a paper on the Parkinson's study. (Its main finding: anticholinergic drugs for treating Parkinson's impair generalization, the application of previously learned rules to a new situation.) Together, Gluck and Herzallah raised money from private donors in the United States for what was initially called the Rutgers/Al-Quds Brain Exchange Program. Herzallah later founded PNI at Al-Quds; he moved permanently to Rutgers in 2010 to begin his Ph.D. with Gluck. 
As an initial project, the duo applied for NIH funding to expand the Parkinson's work, but their proposal was rejected because there was nothing special about Parkinson's in the West Bank, Gluck says. The project “didn't cater to a specific need in the area.”
Clinical depression fits that bill much better. Studies have found that about a quarter of West Bank Palestinians suffer from major depression disorder, a severe, disabling condition. That's about three times the percentage in the United States. (Based on his own unpublished work, Herzallah says the West Bank rate may be as high as 36%.) Many blame the Israeli occupation, economic stagnation, and a general sense of hopelessness that pervades the West Bank. Herzallah says he's not sure of the causes: “We're brain scientists, not epidemiologists,” he says. 
Few patients here seek treatment because there's a strong stigma attached to mental illness. “It's related to the Arab mindset,” says PNI's Hamza Mousa, a collaborator on the depression project. “Being depressed is seen as shameful and weak. People will think you are crazy. Your daughters may be unlikely to get married.” Even those who want treatment are hard-pressed to get it: Herzallah says there are fewer than 25 psychiatrists in the West Bank, which is home to some 2.8 million Palestinians. 
That makes it possible to do studies that would be difficult in the United States, where untreated severe depression is hard to find. “Anybody who has a hint of depression is put on medication,” Gluck says. “If you want to study cognition in clinical depression, you never know if you're looking at the underlying depression or the side effects of the drugs.” Gluck and Herzallah convinced NIH that studying depression in the West Bank had local as well as global significance, and they set up several studies that required little more than laptop-based tests.
And of course, it is tricky to decide on whether to collaborate with Israeli neuroscientists or not - and I think it is a good thing that he - and his collaborators - are keeping politics out of this:
Few are willing to discuss any political dimension to their support. “I'll be blunt and say that I'm not going to talk about politics and religion,” Gluck says. “I'm not going to analyze the Middle East conflict in Science magazine,” Moser says. 
PNI has no links with Israel and its vibrant neuroscience scene. Few Palestinian scientists do. After the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, when a peaceful solution seemed in sight, ties between Israeli and Palestinian academics flourished. But as violence on both sides flared, virtually all partnerships disintegrated. Al-Quds's policy since 2009 has been to not collaborate with Israel, says the university's president, Imad Abu-Kishk. Any collaboration could lead to political problems—or worse, others say. “You would immediately be labeled a traitor,” Treves says. “Your life would be in danger.” 
The cold shoulder frustrates scientists like Yonatan Loewenstein at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who co-organizes meetings that bring together Israeli and Arab scientists (see sidebar) and is eager to work with Palestinian counterparts. “It doesn't make any sense that I work with researchers in the U.S. and Europe, but I can't meet colleagues who are less than 10 miles away,” Loewenstein says. 
Herzallah has avoided any collaboration with Israel out of what he calls “a mix of pragmatism and principle.” He prefers to stay focused on building up his creation. As the sun sets and he looks out from the roof of his parents' home in Ya'bad over a West Bank valley dotted with scrubby vegetation, Herzallah is clear about his ambitions. “A full-blown institute here in Palestine, where I can pursue my scientific interests. … That's what I want. I want to show that in spite of all of the suffering and the obstacles, we can move forward.”
You can read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). 
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