Friday, September 09, 2016

Friday Times article on astronomy in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Following up on an earlier post here, I have a longer article in today's Friday Times about the burgeoning astronomy scene in Pakistan. Here is the article
Pakistan does not have an enviable record in the sciences. The current Nature Index for research output places Pakistan at number 52 – just between Georgia and Bulgaria. However, there is currently a thriving amateur astronomy scene in several Pakistani cities, where the love of the sciences and the joy of sharing the knowledge of the night sky are in full display. Later this month, the various amateur astronomy societies in the country will gather together to launch a new umbrella organisation, The Astronomical League of Pakistan (ALOP). Given the state of the education and the sciences in the country, it is worth exploring the reasons for this unqualified success. 
I have been involved with and following the astronomy scene in Pakistan for close to thirty years. I was part of a group of FSc. Intermediate students in Karachi who started Amastropak, the first amateur astronomy society in Pakistan back in 1988. While there were ups and downs in the activities of the society over the years, it could never muster a critical mass of active members, and it eventually shut down in the late 1990s. But now things are different and I have never seen the state of amateur astronomy in Pakistan so lively and so strong. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting astronomy enthusiasts in Lahore and Karachi, and what a treat it was! Both the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST) and the Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS) boast an active membership of well over a hundred each and they are passionate devotees of the night skies. Most of the members have day jobs unrelated to astronomy, but they squeeze every last second of their free time (or not so free time) for astronomy.
Read the rest of the article here.  I also speculate on the reasons for the success of astronomy compared to many other scientific fields in Pakistan:
All this leads to the question: Why are we seeing such a flourishing interest in astronomy in Pakistan? After all, there is no significant State support for such an endeavor nor are there any organized activities at the school level. 
I think we can point to several reasons for this success. First, astronomy has an intrinsic broad public appeal. It doesn’t hurt that the spectacularly beautiful photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope garner worldwide attention, and force us, however briefly, to ponder about our place in the universe. Furthermore, science popularizers, such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, have globalized astronomical wonder, and their respective versions of Cosmos have been available to television audiences in Pakistan as well. My own path to astronomy was paved after watching Sagan’s Cosmos, when it aired in Pakistan in 1984. 
Second, the internet provides more than enough free information about astronomy. One of the challenges we had in the 1980s was the lack of astronomy books in our bookstores and libraries. Today, however, you can find not only the latest news about astronomy, but also, if you look carefully, detailed lessons about the foundations of astronomy online. 
The availability of telescopes in Pakistan has allowed people to go beyond simply learning about the skies from books, and gain practical experience. You can appreciate all the beauty of Saturn’s rings, taken by orbiting spacecraft, on your computer screen. But a glimpse of the rings through even a small telescope is a transcendental experience. If the government can make the import of telescopes and related accessories relatively pain-free, we may see a whole new generation of science and astronomy enthusiasts in the country. 
Perhaps the biggest reason astronomy is flourishing is that there is now a committed community of astronomers around and they are eager to spread their own knowledge and passion. This community did not materialise overnight. No one guided the process. No one pressed for any direction. But there has been a thread of continuity, sometimes tenuous and sometimes strong, over the past three decades, and it is that thread that provided comfort in knowing that are others who share common interests across local space and local time.
And if you are interested, the Astronomical League of Pakistan (ALOP) is holding its first symposium in Lahore on September 24th. 

Monday, September 05, 2016

SESAME: A fantastic science collaboration in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

If you are looking for a miracle, then look no further than SESAME: the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications. It is an $80 million particle accelerator that is in the final stages of its completion. Physically located in Jordan, its collaborating partners can lead you through a deep history of Middle Eastern conflicts: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority, and Turkey. As a recent article in the Guardian puts it:
 Iran and Pakistan do not recognise Israel, nor does Turkey recognise Cyprus, and everyone has their myriad diplomatic spats. 
Iran, for example, continues to participate despite two of its scientists who were involved in the project, quantum physicist Masoud Alimohammadi and nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari, being assassinated in operations blamed on Israel’s Mossad. 
“We’re cooperating very well together,” said Giorgio Paolucci, the scientific director of Sesame. “That’s the dream.” 
“I don’t know how many places there are where all these governments have representatives who have the opportunity to come and talk to each other,” he added.
In council meetings, representatives of governments meet and discuss technical issues, and come to agreements, the talks untainted by the perpetual enmity outside the conference halls.
Science also broke down the contributions from various countries, and Germany and the EU have played a major role as well (US is conspicuously absent...):
SESAME was founded in 1999 as a partnership of many Middle Eastern countries. Germany donated a big-ticket component: the injector that sends particles into the main storage ring. The initiative has attracted about $30 million in donations from outside the region, including $11 million from the European Union, supplementing the construction costs financed primarily by Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Iran has pledged $5 million, but sanctions have delayed its contributions.
The operation costs are shared by the members states. While the SESAME accelerator is much smaller than the Large Hadron Collidor that discovered the Higgs Boson, it is still expected to make significant contributions to physics when it opens up for science at the end of this year:
Sesame’s scientists plan to open the synchrotron with three main beamlines, though the project can house up to 20. The first is an X-ray beam which scientists say can be used to analyse soil samples and air particles, identifying contaminants in the environment, as well as, potentially, their sources, in a region suffering from high levels of pollution. 
The second will be an infrared beamline, which will allow researchers to study living cells and tissue. Some preliminary tests at the centre have focused on studying the evolution of breast cancer cells, potentially opening avenues that would help with much earlier detection. 
The last beamline, currently under construction, will be used in protein crystallography, a technique that would allow scientists, among other applications, to study in more depth the structure of viruses and develop drugs that are better able to target them.
This is one of the projects that everyone should be rooting for. Yes - designing accelerators is hard. But having a successful partnership of countries that consider each other mortal enemies is not only a miracle, but it also gives hope - however slim it is, for a peaceful future. Hats off to these physicists, engineers and the diplomats behind the project.

Read the full Guardian article here.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Three excellent "Great Courses" to recommend: Two on Middle East and one on the Higgs Boson

by Salman Hameed

I am a Great Courses addict (the picture above is my shelf for these courses gathered over the past 10 years or so). Rarely there is a time when I'm not listening to one in my car (oh-yes. I still use CD's!). In fact, one downside of us moving closer to Hampshire College is that it now takes me much longer to finish a course. I like these more than audio books as I prefer more structured material when I'm listening in the car.

So I thought I'll recommend three recent courses that I recently listened to and loved (and for bonus, I'll throw two of my all-time favorite ones as well). And no I am not being paid by the Great Courses for these recommendations. One word of caution: You should only get the courses when they are on sale - and every course is on sale at least once a year. Otherwise, you will end up paying a fortune.

The first one is United States and the Middle East: 1914-9/11 by Salim Yaqub. The course is relevant and sets the stage beautifully from late Ottoman era and World War I to trace the role of the US in the Middle East. Couple of things that struck me: First, the absolute tragedy of the people of Palestine. Yes, we hear about this more in contemporary terms. But the way the British played a role in their displacement is still shocking. Second, the history of various US administration vis a vis Israel is utterly fascinating. I was struck by the fact that Kennedy was quite critical of Israel's nuclear ambitions. But Israel hid from the US the work it was doing on building a bomb. Of course, all of this becomes more ironic considering Israel's stance towards the Iranian nuclear program. Third, I think the discussion of Iran in the course is fascinating. It talks about the disdain that US officials showed towards Iranians ("they are just slow to get out of the way") who got run over by US automobiles - when cars were still relatively new. Also, the efforts - again by Kennedy - to reign in the Shah, and the complete cozying up to the Shah in the 1970s. Perhaps, the most fascinating part is about the various misunderstandings/miscalculations that led to the Iranian takeover of US embassy and its aftermath.

And perhaps most crucially, Salim Yaqub has the perfect tone and demeanor for this tricky political subject. It is also appropriate for the election year, as the course provides a broader lens onto the US foreign policy.

Here is the description of the course:
At the dawn of World War I, the United States was only a rising power. Our reputation was relatively benign among Middle Easterners, who saw no "imperial ambitions" in our presence and were grateful for the educational and philanthropic services Americans provided. Yet by September 11, 2001, everything had changed. The U.S. had now become a "world colossus so prominent in the political, economic, and cultural life of the Middle East that it was the unquestioned target of those bent on attacking the West for its perceived offenses against Islam."
The second course is Turning Points in Middle Eastern History by Eamonn Gearon. I am currently going through these lectures. I was hesitant first that I will be familiar with much of the material. But I have been pleasantly surprised and it is spurring to read more about the various topics. Partly it is because Eamonn Gearon's specialty is North Africa and so he brings up parts of history that I'm not hat familiar with. Two examples regarding this: It was fascinating to learn that one of the graduates of the University of Qairouan - the world's first university - was Gerbert d'Aurillac, who introduced the decimal system and the Arabic numerals to Europe, and went on to become a pope (Sylvester II) in the year 999. Second example is that of the 14th century emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa. The Forbes magazine recently listed him as the richest man of all time. But it was fascinating to learn about his 2-year journey and how his philanthropy and other spending impacted the economies of the various regions he crossed, and created a myth about the riches of Mali, in particular, of Timbuktu. And needless to say, Eamonn Gearon is an excellent story teller.

Here is a brief description of the course:
In this riveting inquiry, you’ll witness world-changing occurrences such as the birth and phenomenal rise of Islam, the expansion and decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the dramatic discovery of Middle Eastern oil. You’ll accompany the armies of Islam as they invade North Africa and Spain, forever altering civilization in those regions, and witness the Battle of Karbala, where Muhammad’s heirs—the Sunni and Shia—split once and for all. 
In the course’s middle section, you’ll discover the wonders of the Islamic Golden Age, and marvel at the superlative advances in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and literature—and the preservation of classical Greek and Roman wisdom—that unfolded in global centers of learning such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. 
You’ll follow the dynamic empire building of the Persian Safavids, the Egyptian Mamluks, and the legendary Ottomans, among others. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire yielded most of the modern states of the Middle East. The far-reaching impacts of its rise and fall, plus the long-lasting influence of the 18th-century Saud-Wahhab Pact—between a desert ruler and a religious reformer, creating today’s Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—are two more expressions of how the past suffuses the present. 
Throughout the course, you’ll rub shoulders with numerous remarkable people, including the brilliant and famously chivalrous Muslim general Saladin; Shajar ad-Durr, the only female sultan in Islamic history to rule in her own right; and the dashing Lawrence of Arabia, a key player at the birth of Middle Eastern nationalism.
And I also wanted to recommend a short course (12 lectures) on The Higgs Boson and Beyond by Sean Carroll. This is of course a timely subject and it does a wonderful job of explaining why we should care about the Higgs Boson (and the Higgs Field). The subject matter can get a bit heavy in a one or two of the lectures in the middle - but don't give up - as it picks up again and provides a great overview of the state of current physics.

Here is the description of the course:
The search for, and ultimate discovery of, the Higgs boson is a triumph of modern physics—a global, half-century effort whose outcome would make or break the vaunted Standard Model of particle physics. The hunt for the Higgs was the subject of wide media attention due to the cost of the project, the complexity of the experiment, and the importance of its result. And, when it was announced with great fanfare in 2012 that
physicists has succeeded in creating and identifying this all-important new particle, the discovery was justly celebrated around the world.

Here are two bonus courses (again - I am focusing on history) that I think are just brilliant:

The Long 19th Century: European History from 1789 to 1917 by Robert I Weiner. The professor is outstanding and the course provides a great historical/political/sociological journey into the factors responsible for the world we live inhabit today. It is also provides a nice background context to the US and the Middle East course above. Here is the description for the course:
History at its most interesting is complex, a fascinating whirl of events, personalities, and forces, and few periods of history offer us such captivating complexity as Europe's 19th "century"—the often-broadly defined period from the French Revolution to World War I that formed the foundation of the modern world. 
How was that foundation built? And what did that transition to modernity mean for peasants, workers, the middle class, aristocrats, women, and minorities? 
Why did an era that began with the idealism of the French Revolution and the power of the Industrial Revolution culminate in the chaos of World War I, considered by most historians to be the greatest tragedy of modern European history? Did nationalism and imperialism inevitably lead in such a direction, or were there other factors involved?
Even these questions, as important as they are, can only hint at the complexity of this period, just as this course can really only put us on a path toward the answers.
And for the second bonus course, I recommend a trilogy of Middle Ages courses, The Early Middle Ages, The High Middle Ages, and The Late Middle Ages by Philip Daileader.

I absolutely loved these set of lectures partly because of the delivery of Daileader. He has a dry sense of humor and that works wonderfully for a material on the Middle Ages (I'm sure he is funny about contemporary events as well...but his passion comes out about the Middle Ages. If you want to live in the Middle Ages for a few months - and I highly recommend that you - then do through these set of lectures (I think you can buy them as a set as well).

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Following Ahmed Zewail's death, Egypt's Science City may be in trouble

by Salman Hameed

Early in August, Egypt lost its Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Ahmed Zewail. He was 70 years old. Apart from his scientific contributions, Zewail was heavily invested in improving the scientific infrastructure of Egypt. For this purpose, he was planning an elite research university within a science city. I was a bit reminded of Pakistan's Nobel prize winner, Abdus Salam, in this regard. He wanted to have a world class physics institute in Pakistan. However, in his case, the government had by then decided that his religious sect was no longer welcome in the country, nor really was any large-scale project spearheaded by him. Salam ended up creating the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and it now bears his name.

Zewail's project, on the other hand, has the full backing of the government - at least on non-monetary matters. In 2011, the project was deemed as a national project for scientific renaissance and was named Zewail City of Science and Technology. The project depends on outside donors, and Zewail's name provided the prestige. With his death, however, the future of the project is in doubt.

Here is a take from Nature in the project, and it highlights its existing and future challenges:
The institute had relied heavily on Zewail’s star name and contacts to attract the support of scientific luminaries and millions of dollars in donations and government loans. It is now running out of money, has not yet raised enough cash to support a planned move to a new campus and will probably have to rely on more state support, say researchers working there. 
“Fundraising has always been a challenge, and I think it is likely to be affected by the loss of Dr Zewail in the short term,” says Sherif El-Khamisy, a molecular biologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, who is also director of Zewail City’s Center for Genomics. “But the logistical support envisaged from the state is expected to override the initial fear or uncertainty.”
But the project is well behind the fundraising already:
Uncertainty has plagued Zewail City since its inception. While working at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Zewail proposed in 1999 to found the university and technology hub near Cairo as a flagship science project, essential for Egypt’s research development. But it was not until 2011 that the institute launched — a delay that Zewail has ascribed to political instability and bureaucracy. 
The young university was quickly plunged into controversy, after Egypt's first not-for-profit private research institution, Nile University — also outside Cairo — argued that it owned some of the buildings gifted to the science city. Nile University ultimately won the legal dispute — although it has allowed researchers from Zewail City to stay on in its buildings until a new campus is complete. 
Zewail City began accepting students in 2013; it currently has more 500 students and 150 academic professors and researchers. The first class of students will graduate next year, many of whom have received scholarships to cover their tuition fees. 
The project’s new campus is expected to be finished in 2019, at a cost of at least US$450 million; a first phase should be complete by July 2017, when many faculty and students are to move there. But Zewail City hasn’t raised enough money to finish even its first phase, says Sherif Fouad, a spokesperson for the institute. 
To pay for scholarships and campus construction, it has almost used up the 700 million Egyptian pounds (around US$80 million) raised from donors; its other funding comes in the form of a 1-billion-Egyptian-pound loan from the ministry of defence, which ultimately must be paid back. A shaky economy and the widely expected devaluation of Egypt’s currency is not helping matters. 
For the time being, it has the support of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. From the science perspective, a supporting president is a good thing, but his record in terms of stifling decent and democracy has been quite appalling. Lets see how things go:
How the state deals with that intervention could affect whether the institute can maintain the support of scientists whom Zewail sought to attract, says Ibrahim el-Sherbiny, joint director of the institute’s Center for Materials Science. “If they feel the reassurance on the ground, they will remain and attract others because they loved Dr Zewail, and I am sure they would love to support him after his death,” he says. 
Zewail City enjoys an unusual autonomy: unlike other Egyptian state-sponsored institutions, it has been granted a decree that allows the campus to outline its own structure and governance, guaranteeing its independence from the education ministry. Obayya says that he does not expect such autonomy to be affected by closer government intervention. 
At a meeting on 8 August, Zewail City’s board of directors vowed that their pioneer’s “national mission” would carry on. British-Egyptian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub of Imperial College London is widely tipped to take Zewail’s place at the head of the project, says Fouad.
Read the full article here.