Friday, February 26, 2016

Brian Greene on Albert Camus and String Theory

by Salman Hameed

For your weekend pleasure, here is an interesting article that profiles Brian Greene and how he thinks about the String Theory. He does address some of the criticism of the theory in the end, but there are other bits about his inspiration from Camus, and the influence of Greene's father. So the last part first:
Greene remains hopeful, too, that it won’t be long before the Large Hadron Collider throws up evidence of the super-symmetric particles – “partners” that pair every electron with a “selectron”, every quark with a “squark”, and so on – that string theory demands. 
He cites other possible forms of evidence, including the creation of miniature black holes
(with a consequent loss of energy presumed to have shunted into other dimensions), and, his own meticulous search for subtle signatures in the cosmic microwave background radiation. 
“Collectively there are a number of ways that I think you get strong hints that string theory is going in the right direction,” he says. “But failure to see any of them will not rule the theory out.” 
He has no time for critics who suggest that absence of evidence in string theory is strong evidence for continuing job security. 
His counter-argument echoes Jean Paul Sartre’s assertion that “Man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have.” 
Says Greene: “I think that you go around once in life, and who would ever want to spend that time working on something that’s not right, that’s wrong, that’s a total waste of time? 
“So if string theory’s wrong, I’d like to know right now. I’d like to have known 20 years ago.
“We want to rule the theory out. I would be thrilled if string theory is wrong. I would be thrilled if we could learn that right now. Then I could move on to something else that might be right.”
And here is the bit about Camus, existentialism, and String theory:
For Greene, though, there is still another concept of distance that sometimes occupies his mind, a concept that cannot be quantified, no matter how sophisticated the mathematics, and that will never be subject to experimental evidence, no matter how much juice is pumped into the Large Hadron Collider. 
It is, nevertheless, a concept that gives rise to a powerful question. What is the distance
between a New York scientist and a dead Algerian philosopher? 
“I sort of re-read Albert Camus every few years,” he tells Cosmos from his office in New York. 
“He has a hold on me in a very deep way, and his ability to weave deep philosophical questions together with the kind of human concerns that we all have, into what I find to be riveting stories, makes him a compelling thinker.” 
Greene’s love for Camus isn’t the recently discovered intellectual regard of a smart guy in his 50s. It goes way deeper. It has occupied him for most of his life. 
In terms of his research – from his doctorate describing Calabi-Yau shapes, the putative repositories of the six hidden dimensions string theory demands; to his present quest to uncover evidence of quantum gravity in data describing cosmic microwave background radiation – the image of Camus, Gauloises cigarette hanging from his lip, lurks beneath the equations. 
For Brian Greene, Camus was the start of it all. 
At the beginning of his best-known book, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), Greene describes his teenage discovery of Camus’ philosophical masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus, in his father’s bookcase. He was transfixed by the author’s opening line: “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” 
“I do consider physics to be in some sense a branch of existential philosophy,” Greene tells Cosmos. 
“I would say there is a deep connection. The reason why I’m interested in physics, the reason why I’m interested in cosmology, is really to try to gain some insight into the very questions that Camus is asking. What is it that makes life worth living? What is it that drives the human spirit to explore as opposed to crawl back into the cave and crumble under the weight of existential angst?
Read the full article here

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New Science ka Adda video on "Cosmic Recycling: Anticipating a Glorious Death of our Sun"

by Salman Hameed

This is for our Urdu/Hindi audience. Here is our latest episode of Science ka Adda (Café Scientifique): Cosmic Recycling - Anticipating a Glorious Death of Our Sun

Stars live. Stars die. Our Sun has been a constant source of energy for the past 4.5 billion years. But it will eventually run out of fuel (in about 5 billions years). While this will be bad for the inhabitants of the Earth (and probably for inhabitants of any other planet in our Solar system), this solar demise will be spectacularly beautiful. We know this by looking at the end stages of other stars in our Galaxy. Please join us in this episode of Science ka Adda where we talk about the future of our own Sun.

And for those who don't understand Urdu/Hindi, here is my article on the same topic:

 Anticipating a Glorious Death of Our Sun
All good things come to an end. Even the lives of stars. Located 2,300 light years away, the Ring Nebula (right) is a gorgeous announcement of the demise of a star that shone brightly for ten billion years. 
Now all that is left is a small white nucleus surrounded by gases that once were part of the star itself. Some of these gases will one day be part of another star. This is cosmic recycling at its best. 
While beautiful, this stage is temporary for the star. Most of the gases we see in the Ring Nebula were expelled only a few thousand years ago. The star at the time had bloated into a red giant and subsequently lost much of its outer material to space, leaving behind a central core about the size of the Earth. This core is called a white dwarf and is one of the densest objects in the universe. Here on Earth, a teaspoon of white dwarf material would weigh as much as a car. 
Made up mostly of Carbon and Oxygen, the white dwarf is extremely hot — about twenty times hotter than the surface of our Sun. It is the light from this white dwarf that is making some of the gases glow in the Ring Nebula. However, it does not have any energy source within, and from now on it will slowly cool down for eternity, becoming dimmer and dimmer each passing year, eventually — no longer detectable in visible light. This is the final stage — the corpse of a star that shone for ten billion years. 
This is the fate that awaits the Sun as well. Our star has been a stable source of energy for the past four-and-a-half-billion years. Algae, rodents, ferns, seagulls, ants, humans — they have all been dependent on this supply of energy. Quite amazingly, humans have figured out that our Sun will run out of its supply of fuel in another 5 billion years or so. No need to worry about it tomorrow morning. But if humans — or some form of their descendants — are to survive on scales of billions of years, then journeys to other stars will have to be undertaken. Whatever happens to us, our Sun’s last rites will also include a beautiful nebula followed by the forever cooling of its white dwarf. 
What about life around the star that formed the Ring Nebula? We have not detected any planets there as yet and we certainly have no idea if there ever was any life, let alone intelligence, out there. However, if there were any worlds inhabited by complex, intelligent beings, then I hope they had stumbled upon science, figured out the impending death of their star, and made alternative plans. They may have implemented mass-evacuation to another planet around a nearby star system. They may have left a billion years before the death of their star. The beauty of Ring Nebula may now be bitter sweet as they watch the demise of their original home star. Or maybe this life form never developed the ability to leave its solar system. Then most likely all of this life is now gone — just one of many mass extinctions that must happen quite often in the universe.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

More myths about "science and religion"

by Salman Hameed

A few years ago, Ronald Numbers published a terrific edited volume titled Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. The book contains 25 short essays, written by historians, that tackle 25 myths about science and religion. Some of the myths included in the book are: That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat, That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science, That Evolution Destroyed Charles Darwin’s Faith in Christianity—until He Reconverted on His Deathbed, That Einstein Believed in a Personal God, and That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture - the last one is a fascinating one, written by John Hedley Brooke.

Just like with movies, success lead to sequels. So here we are with a followup: Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science - this edited by Ronald Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis. There are 27 essays this time, and again the collection looks great. Here is the description of the book:
A falling apple inspired Isaac Newton’s insight into the law of gravity—or so the story goes. Is it true? Perhaps not. But the more intriguing question is why such stories endure as explanations of how science happens. Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science brushes away popular misconceptions to provide a clearer picture of great scientific breakthroughs from ancient times to the present.
Among the myths refuted in this volume is the idea that no science was done in the Dark Ages, that alchemy and astrology were purely superstitious pursuits, that fear of public reaction alone led Darwin to delay publishing his theory of evolution, and that Gregor Mendel was far ahead of his time as a pioneer of genetics. Several twentieth-century myths about particle physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and more are discredited here as well. In addition, a number of broad generalizations about science go under the microscope of history: the notion that religion impeded science, that scientists typically adhere to a codified “scientific method,” and that a bright line can be drawn between legitimate science and pseudoscience. 
Edited by Ronald Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science debunks the widespread belief that science advances when individual geniuses experience “Eureka!” moments and suddenly comprehend what those around them could never imagine. Science has always been a cooperative enterprise of dedicated, fallible human beings, for whom context, collaboration, and sheer good luck are the essential elements of discovery.
I may be guilty of one falling into one of the myths as well: Myth 23. That the Soviet Launch of Sputnik Caused the Revamping of American Science Education [John L. Rudolph]. I have just ordered the book and will have to wait to see the issue with this.

Interestingly, this book was also mentioned in a NYT book essay about a week ago - but in the context of science and religion:
Also important to the New Atheist movement is the idea that religion and science are opposites, competing forms of inquiry that have been locked in a zero-sum struggle for supremacy. Many of the essays in the anthology NEWTON’S APPLE AND OTHER MYTHS ABOUT SCIENCE (Harvard University, $27.95), edited by the historian of science Ronald L. Numbers and the researcher Kostas Kampourakis, challenge this dichotomy. To start with, the historical episodes commonly understood to be exemplars of this conflict — from Giordano Bruno’s execution as a scientific martyr to the uniformly hostile religious reception of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” — are frequently misunderstood or misrepresented. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, for example, did not in fact threaten to demote the exalted place of humans in the universe: The Earth was previously thought to be at the center, i.e., in the gutter, of the world, where filth and disorder gathered. Nor did Copernicus or most other early modern advocates of the new astronomy think it was incompatible with Christianity. 
Religious considerations have also influenced science in constructive ways, as the intellectual historian Peter Harrison notes in an essay about the “conflict myth.” The work of 17th-century figures like Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton was informed by their religious thinking. The very notion of a “law of nature” was at first a theological idea. And even the experimental method itself may be indebted to theological notions of human nature that emphasize our intellectual and perceptual fallibility. Indeed, the “conflict” idea is fairly new: Historians trace it back only to the 19th century, though Harrison observes that many of its characteristic themes (ignorance versus knowledge, superstition versus rationality) appear in 17th-century Protestant polemics against Catholicism for being “anti-science.” Only the villain has changed.
Read the full article here

Friday, February 19, 2016

A good documentary about Ibn Battuta and his extraordinary 14th century travels

by Salman Hameed

While you wait for the new season of The Game of Thrones, here is a documentary about the 14th century traveler, Ibn Battuta:


Also, here is a virtual Ibn Battuta travel site from UC Berkeley. Here is a map of his extraordinary travels (click on it for details): 


Gravitational waves in Urdu, English, Audio and Video - and the coverage of Nergis Mavalvala

by Salman Hameed


By now you must have heard of the detection of gravitational waves. The detection also has a Pakistan connection and that has brought fantastic attention to MIT astrophysicist, Nergis Mavalvala in Pakistan. I had posts about her on Irtiqa in 2012 (Pakistani, Queer, Woman, Astrophysicist: Journal "Science" Highlights Nergis Mavalvala) and again 2010 (A Pakistani astrophysicist is surfing gravitational waves...). Frankly, there has been weird articles/blogs in Pakistani press: First, a number of "progressives" wrote that - aha - once the "conservatives" in Pakistan find out that she is gay and belongs to a religious minority (Parsi/Zoroastrian), they will immediately start condemning her and will downplay her Pakistan connection. When this didn't happen, newer articles started to appear on how articles in Pakistan are ignoring her sexual orientation - even though the most widely read english language paper, published an interview with her that explicitly had these lines:
“I really thought of what I want people to know in Pakistan as I have garnered some attention there. Anybody should be able to succeed — whether you’re a woman, a religious minority or whether you’re gay. It just doesn’t matter,” she says. 
“Anybody should be able to do those things. And I am proof of that because I am all of those things. With the right combination of opportunity, it was possible for me to do.”
It seems that there is no way to win. People expected controversy to erupt. When that didn't happen, that in itself is now being touted as controversy. And yet - rarely did people focus on the amazing science behind the discovery or the curiosity and wonder that drives people like Nergis to do what they do. (you can also find cynical with a holier-than-thou attitude articles here and here).

All that bizarre coverage around Nergis Mavalval aside, here are a few discussions that I was involved with on the importance of the detection of these gravitational waves. First in Urdu, here is my discussion with Umair Asim for Hamari Kainaat:


And then here is a 10 minute segment for our really cool local radio station, The River. And if you like a more detailed discussion, then you can listen to our conversation on the Bill Newman Show.

But if you say, all that is well and good. But where is the write-up? Then here is my written piece for Express Tribune:

Listening to the whispers of merging black holes

A little over a billion years ago, two black holes were orbiting each other somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. At this time, life on Earth had just found a successful way to include more than one cell in a body. Indifferent to the happenings on the Earth, these black holes were locked in a spiral of death. One black hole had mass equivalent to 36 Suns. The other was 29 times as massive as our Sun. Nature had already sealed their fates.
With a sudden gasp, the two black holes merged into one. This larger black hole had a mass of 62 Suns. The missing mass – about three times the mass of our Sun – had all turned into enormous energy, briefly equaling the energy output of all the stars in the observable universe. This energy emanated out in the form of gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of our universe.
Such events have been happening for billions of years. Many such ripples have passed the Earth in its 4.5 billion year history, but none, as far as we know, were ever detected. The multicellular life on Earth evolved into a spectacular array of complex life forms. One of the descendants, hundred of millions of years later, started pondering about the nature of the universe. One member of this species postulated that the universe we inhabit might best be described as four-dimensional: Three dimensions of space (length, breadth, and height) and one of time.
This person, in his General Theory of Relativity, went on to argue that any object with mass would bend the space-time fabric in a proportional way: the bigger the mass, the bigger the space-time bending. We can think of a bed sheet as an analogy. A tennis ball placed on the sheet will create a smaller bending in the sheet than a cricket ball. The ball used in shot-put would create a larger bending than the cricket ball. In the universe, the Sun and the Earth both bend space-time, but the Sun’s impact is much larger than the Earth. The Earth’s motion around the Sun, in this view, can be seen as the motion of motorcycles in the ‘wall of death’ (maut ka kuuan).
This is a radical way of thinking about the universe. The mathematics behind this thinking is complex and beautiful. But does it describe the universe we inhabit? Some other members of this particular multi-cellular life-form came up with ways to build tools and test this theory. Time and time again, the tests came up positive: the predicted shift of stars a solar eclipse; the precise prediction in the precession of the orbit of Mercury; the bending of light from distant galaxies in the form of gravitational lenses; and the precise decay in the orbit of binary neutron stars (the last one resulted in the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics).
The mathematics of the theory also predicted the creation of gravitation waves. These are not waves of light, but rather a disturbance in the space-time itself. The past success of indirect tests of the theory suggested that these waves must exist as well. Some of the smartest minds on the planet wondered about ways to detect these waves. One such mind grew up on the part of the Earth’s continental plate that is responsible for the creation of the Himalayan mountain range. She became part of the team that eventually detected the gravitational whisper of those two merging black holes – from a billion or so years ago.
For the first time in the 4.5 billion year history of the planet Earth, a species has found a way to ‘see’ the universe in gravitational waves. What is truly astonishing is the fact that these bipedal beings, residing on a small planet in a remote corner of an average galaxy, would use the language of mathematics to decipher the universe itself. We are just beginning, and have much to learn. But today we can take a break to celebrate this incredible success!

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Lecture by Joshua Green at Hampshire College on Tuesday: Popularity, Politics and Online Video

by Salman Hameed


If you are in the area and have survived the recent snow storm, then you have the opportunity to attend a fantastic lecture tomorrow (Tuesday). Our speaker is Joshua Green and he will be talking about the politics and popularity of online videos. This lecture is organized by Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS). We are currently analyzing online Islam and Science videos, and this talk is part of this project (even though the talk itself will probably not say much about religion at all). In any case, if you are interested in understanding popularity of online videos, then come to the talk tomorrow. Here are the details:

The Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies presents:
“Popularity, Politics and Online Video,” a lecture by Dr. Joshua Green
Tuesday, February 9, 5:30 pm
Hampshire College, Franklin Patterson Hall (FPH), East Lecture Hall

Abstract: YouTube is just over 10 years old, and alongside its growth, we’ve witnessed the growth of a wholly new publishing form. Even more so than the video camera, online platforms like YouTube have made video interactions everyday. Once a rarified medium requiring professional equipment and expensive distribution means, publishing video to a global audience is now well and truly an ordinary activity. And increasingly, it is an activity that invites conversation rather than mere broadcast. The rapid rise and incredible ordinariness of online video has helped redraw our understanding of what it means to be a successful “broadcaster.” Industrial practices for creation and measurement have been turned on their head. Who an audience is and what their role should be have shifted thanks to “new” expectations about participation and the possibility of connecting with very large or very tiny groups of people. 

In this talk we’ll engage with how we understand success and popularity when it comes to online video? What shifts to industrial and cultural practice are taking place? Do amateur and professional notions of success align? Should they? 

Bio: Joshua Green is VP of Digital Strategy at Arnold Worldwide, an advertising agency in Boston, MA. His experience includes developing consumer-facing online and mobile products and helping create the organizational changes to realize them. 
He holds a PhD in Media Studies from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is coauthor of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in Network Culture (with Henry Jenkins and Sam Ford, NYU Press 2013) and YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (with Jean Burgess, Polity Press 2009).

This event is made possible by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.  For more information on SSiMS, please visit www.hampshire.edu/ssims/.  SSiMS recently released the Science and Islam Video Portal with evaluations of videos.

The lecture hall is accessible.  If you need special accommodations, please contact Hampshire College’s Disability Services Office, 413.559.5423 at least one week prior to the event.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.