Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What to make of the NYT UFO story? Read it with a dose of skepticism

Salman Hameed

UFO's have again crossed over into the mainstream. New York Times had a front page story on Sunday about a secret Department of Defense program that investigated reports of UFOs from 2007-2012 (and may be it is still active). Politico also has an independent article on the same UFO program. I have been teaching a class called Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind for the past ten years. In the class we look at the claims of UFOs and alien abductions from a historical, sociological, psychological, astronomical, and religious perspectives. It is a lot of fun and a story like this pretty much hits the bullseye for the topics we discuss.

So what do we make of the claims in the NYT article?

I think there are two key stories here. First, it is about the allocation of at least $22 million from late 2008 to 2011 and the second is about the investigation into UFO claims.

For the first one, $22 million is a lot of money for academics, but the DoD has an annual budget of $600 billion! Nevertheless, the powerful Democratic senator Harry Reid managed to get this money to fellow Nevadan Harold Bigelow - who owns a hotel chain and also an aerospace company:
Mr. Reid said his interest in U.F.O.s came from Mr. Bigelow. In 2007, Mr. Reid said in the interview, Mr. Bigelow told him that an official with the Defense Intelligence Agency had approached him wanting to visit Mr. Bigelow’s ranch in Utah, where he conducted research.
Nevertheless, Pentagon was involved and via its secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP):
For years, the program investigated reports of unidentified flying objects, according to Defense Department officials, interviews with program participants and records obtained by The New York Times. It was run by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring, deep within the building’s maze. 
The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties. 
Where did the money go?
The funding went to Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, which hired subcontractors and solicited research for the program. 
Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of strange aircraft.
Well - this is the part that piqued my interest. There have been earlier claims of "recovered" metal alloys from alien spacecrafts. It is part of Roswell mythology as well (for example, see a few minutes here from the movie Roswell: The UFO Coverup). From that perspective, the military has been hiding this since 1947. Of course, these alien metal alloys are always "top secret" and have not been subjected to any peer-review study. And for some weird reason have not revolutionized the world either (unless, of course iPhone is an alien technology). My point is that these type of claims are standard part of UFO contact mythology for 60-70 years. But this time, the New York Times is reporting on it and so my assumption is that it may have more backing to the reported story.

Alas - when you dig a bit deeper, you find a lot of red flags that suggest that you will be wise to take these claims with a healthy dose of salt (and earthly salt will do - you don't need salt from the mineral planet Crait from the latest Star Wars).

Here are a few reasons that have made me skeptical of the claims:
1) Association with other fringe ideas: Bigelow - whose company got most of the money - also bought Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. This ranch is one of favorites for people who believe in all sorts of paranormal activities. There are claim of cattle mutilations (yes - aliens travel lights years to mutilate earthly cows), poltergeist, and bullet-proof wolves on the ranch, and have been part of stories of Coast to Coast AM.

A number of people associated with this program have joined together to be a part of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Humanities (TTS/AAS). It is founded by UFO enthusiast and former Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge. The person who ran the AATIP initiative at Pentagon, Luis Elizondo has now joined this venture as well. The Vice President of Science & Technology, Hal Puthoff, was the founder of CIA's psychic program in the 1970s and also believed that Uri Geller had real psychic powers (despite the prominent debunking of Geller's claims by Johnny Carson - see this fantastic clip). One of the authors of a book on the Skinwalker Ranch, Colm Kelleher, is a biotech consultant of TTS/AAS.

A major major red flag comes up when you look at the Science section of TTS/AAS website. Just look at their approach to claims of telepathy. They are not even questioning if the phenomenon of telepathy is real. Instead, they are already going forward to "Explore the location in the brain where this phenomenon is centered, and develop protocols for its enhancement and use". This tells you a lot about the people involved in the project. Instead of taking of a skeptical stance (hallmark of any good science), they are already believers. For a contrast, look at how claims of microbial lifeforms in Viking Lander experiments on Mars were treated or in the meteorite from Mars, ALH84001.

I haven't looked into all the members associated with this group. But already we can see that it is not just about UFOs, but that now it involves other paranormal phenomena as well. And that is a pretty good sign that we are now heading to the crazy town.

2) Alien technology - always just 1-step beyond reach: There have been claims of alien spacecrafts since 1896-1897. There were multiple sightings of cigar shaped alien crafts. Of course, airship designs were known at the time and interestingly "aliens"  already that those in our skies. A few decades later, when humans had propeller planes, alien spacecrafts were advanced enough fly without propellers. Now that we have supersonic planes, the alien spacecrafts look slicker than our planes they move vertical and at a very high speed. It is just interesting that aliens are usually just 1-step ahead of us - but then this could just be a coincidence.

And of course, as mentioned above, alien artifacts haven never been subjected to any peer-review studies or have had any discernible influence on the human technology.

3) For-profit venture and the closed cycle of credibility: Many of these stars of research are now part of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (as mentioned above). It is a for-profit venture in what its founder calls it a "Public Benefit Corporation" and they have a button to "invest" right on their front page. They have so far sold $2 million in stock shares so far and the NYT story is a perfect boon for such an organization - which already has plastered quotes from the article on its website. In its launch video, the founder Tom DeLonge talked about making this venture a "perpetual funding machine".

Both Politico and NYT stories detail how Harry Reid bypassed the Senate and got support from Alaskan senator, Ted Stevens, and the then head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawai'i) to appropriate this "black money" channeled for this questionable research. But then Tom DeLonge and others used the fact that they have been funded by DoD as way to argue for their credibility. This is a closed cycle of credibility without much due process or any minimal peer review by scientists (if they consider this research scientific).

But what do we do about the video of an "encounter" of F/A-18 pilot released by DoD's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP)

It is intriguing. The right answer is - we don't know what this is. I would love to know more about it and have the data analysis being open for a peer-review process by scientists. But just because we don't know what it is, doesn't mean that it is a spacecraft from another planet. That is a huge leap that is not justified by the data. Pilots have reported seeing lights since the early days of flight. Foo Fighters (not the band - but wandering lights) have been reported at least since WWII. Are these ionized gases in the atmosphere? Are these things that people imagine in a low oxygen environment at 15,000 feet? Are these refractions off our atmosphere? Are these spacecrafts from other planets? Are these ethereal beings imagined in numerous folk stories? 

Well - we don't know and we do need to find out what is being seen on the radar. 

If you want a good example on how to approach aliens then look no further than the way astronomers have approached the weirdness of Tabby's Star (KIC 8462852). Astronomers detected a strange pattern in the dimming of this star. Something that had never been seen before and that could not be explained easily with any natural astronomical phenomenon. The presence of a possible Alien megastructure was/is being suggested as a far-fetched possibility. While this is an amazingly exciting possibility, astronomers have been trying their best to to find a natural explanation. This is not because they don't want to believe in presence of intelligent beings out in the universe - but rather that the presence of intelligent beings elsewhere is such a huge claim that we have to be absolutely sure that we are missing out something more simple.  "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence", as Carl Sagan used to say. 

I will leave it up to you to see if the UFO claims made by DoD's AATIP program or the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTS/AAS)

Also, here is my conversation on this topic with Monte Belmonte on Monday for our fantastic local indie radio station, The River - 93.9FM

Friday, December 15, 2017

Fantastic Iraqi Translation Project for Science

Salman Hameed

I have just returned from Qatar after attending a workshop on science education in the Gulf. More on that soon. But there were interesting discussions about the medium of instruction for science classes. This is a tricky issue as children learn best in their mother language. But good translations (our any translations) are not available, thus limiting what can be taught and learn in school. Within this context, is fantastic to know about the Iraqi Translation Project. Paul Baterman has a nice article about this project and its promise in the Arab world:
The Iraqi Translation Project (ITP) is one of several similar projects that have sprung up in recent years, spurred on no doubt by the disappointments of the Arab Spring. The potential audience is enormous; these projects keep well-curated Facebook pages, and according to the Dubai-based Arab Social Media Report, there are over 150m Facebook users in their target areas.
ITP started in 2013. Its materials are archived on its website, and accessible through Facebook, where it has over 140,000 followers, and on YouTube. The closely related Arabic-language Real Science, founded in 2011, also has its own website (now bilingual) and Facebook page. 
The co-founders of ITP, several of whom are also involved in Real Science, include Hassan Mazin Alkhayuon, currently a PhD candidate in applied mathematics at the University of Exeter – and my own main contact with the project – a biology teacher, a construction engineer with experience in popularising science, a surgeon and an English literature graduate. 
ITP translates cultural articles, videos and documentaries, with particular concentration on science-related digital materials for a general audience, of which there is a severe lack in Arabic. The project runs entirely on a voluntary basis, and currently has over 50 active volunteers, including some qualified or qualifying as a translators.
This is a fantastic effort and needs to grow. The impact is not immediate, but it needs a sustained effort. One of the offshoots of this kind of effort is that it may also allow a broader discussion of topics that are not usually addressed. Now evolution, unfortunately, is becoming one of the topics that is being considered more and more controversial in several Muslim countries (it wasn't the case in biology textbooks even a few years ago - and places like Saudi Arabia were more of an exception in their opposition to evolutionary theory). Therefore, it is great to know that ITP has been translating works on evolution as well, including that getting the support of Neil Shubin:
The project has managaed to attract some high-ranking support. Neil Shubin, discoverer of Tiktaalik (the “missing link” between lobefish and amphibians), gave an interview on his motivation as a scientist. His book, Your Inner Fish, is one of my favourite accounts of evolution science, and ITP has provided the documentary version with Arabic subtitles. 
So far, ITP has translated over 2,000 articles, 60 documentaries and 150 videos. Topics cover a wide range of subjects, from Sumerian civilisation, gravity waves and political secularism, to female philosophers and interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.
The project does not shy away from sensitive topics, although of course publication does not imply agreement, and recent posts discuss anything from the nature of religious belief to the politics of separatism in Catalonia and Kurdistan. Evolution is one of the most popular subjects, with the first instalment of Your Inner Fish having received over 90,000 views since August 2016. 
And yes, you should definitely check out Your Inner Fish - both the book and the documentary.

At a time when there is a shortage of good and positive stories, it is great to hear about the Iraqi Translation Project.

Read the full article here.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A couple of phenomenal digitized manuscripts: From Marvel of Things to Turkish Fairy Tales

by Salman Hameed

I am more or less despairing on the broader negative turn of the Internet - in particular the addictiveness of social media sites like Facebook. More on that later. On the positive side, however, we can access and explore books in a way never before possible. In fact, there are books that we may never have encountered, unless we were doing research on that particular topic. With this spirit in mind, here are three books from The Public Domain Review that got my attention.

The first one is an illustrated version of a 13th century book by physician and astronomer, Zakariya al-Qazwini. Here is a brief description of the book Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing from the Public Domain Review site:
Images from an illustrated version of a 13th-century Arabic treatise by Zakariya al-Qazwini titled ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing). The text is probably the best known example of ‘ajā’ib or ‘jā’ib al-makhlūqāt literature, a genre of classical Islamic literature that was concerned with “mirabilia”: cosmographical and geographical topics that challenged understanding. Al-Qazwini’s treatise explored an eclectic mix of topics, from humans and their anatomy to strange mythical creatures; from plants and animals to constellations of stars and zodiacal signs. The treatise was extremely popular and was frequently illustrated over the centuries into both Persian and Turkish. The images featured here are from an exquisitely illustrated Persian translation, thought to hail from 17th-century Mughal India.
And here a couple of images from the manuscript (in the last one below, you can also read "Parinda" (bird) in Persian/Urdu next to a cat with wings):


Then there are the 16th century maps of Bosnian-born Ottoman Matrakçı Nasuh. Again from The Public Domain Review
In addition to his important writings in the fields of both mathematics and history, the Bosnian-born polymath and all-round genius Matrakçı Nasuh is best known for his exquisite miniatures depicting various landscapes and urban centres of 16th-century Persia. The images can be found spread across his four historic volumes, with perhaps the most important being Fetihname-i Karabuğdan — now at the library of Istanbul University — which addresses Suleiman the Magnificent’s Safavid War of 1532–1555. In the work Matrakçı Nasuh illustrates the cities encountered by the Ottoman army as they marched from Istanbul to Baghdad, then Tabriz, and the return journey through Halab and Eskisehir. 
The name Matrakçı was not, in fact, his name by birth but rather a nickname referring to his invention of a kind of military lawn game called matrak (a word which means “cudgel” or “mace”, the main weapon at the heart of the game). The name stuck, and later would come to label its very own genre in Ottoman miniature art, the “Matrakçı style”, describing works echoing his penchant for detail and precision of execution, perhaps nowhere better encapsulated than in the famous image of Istanbul from 1536. 

Here is this amazing 1536 map of Istanbul referred above: 

And to cap it off, here is a 1913 book of Forty-Four Turkish Fairy Tales

And a description from The Public Domain Review:
The most famous collectors of folk stories remain, at least in the West, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, but many others followed in their influential wake. Among them was Ignác Kúnos (1860-1945), who compiled this volume of Turkish fairytales in the same tradition. A Hungarian-born linguist, Kúnos also had an interest in the Turkish dialect and folk tradition, and collected several volumes of oral fairytales, not through reading and study, but by travelling around the Turkish country and listening to storytellers. 
In this elaborately produced volume, beautifully illustrated by Willy Pogany, Kúnos describes the stories as being closer to the fairytales of European tradition than those in Arabian Nights, seeking to dissuade his readers of any notion of Orientalism. However, the fact that these tales are thematically similar to their Western counterparts — containing stories of princesses and dragons, witches and white horses, heroes and villains — should not be surprising to any frequent reader of fairytales. They are so often, in some way, international. 
One striking element of these tales from Turkey is the frequent presence of the over-sized supernatural beings referred to as “Dews” (or on occasion simply “Arabs”!) — known elsewhere in Islamic folklore as “Devis” or “Jin” (Europeanized as “Genie”). With their towering form their closest cognate in the European tradition would be the figure of the giant, with some fairy-like elements thrown in for good measure. Like giants they are normally malevolent towards humans, but are sometimes friendly and helpful.
Good stuff!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Iranian scientists' death sentence

by Salman Hameed

An Iranian scientist was sentenced to death last month on the charges of spying. Apart from the inherent problematic nature of capital punishment, this is deeply troubling. Now 75 Nobel laureates have written to the United Nations appealing for his release:
The group wrote to Gholamali Khoshroo, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, on 17 November, and the letter was made public on 21 November. The Nobel laureates express their concern for the conditions of Djalali’s detention; they deem his trial “unfair” and “flawed”, and they urge the Iranian authorities to let him return to Sweden,
where he lived. 
The list includes prominent names such as Harold Varmus, a former director of the US National Institutes of Health, now at the Weill Cornell Medicine institute in New York, and Andre Geim, a physicist based at the University of Manchester, UK. They wrote: “As members of a group of people and organizations who, according to the will of Alfred Nobel are deeply committed to the greatest benefit to mankind, we cannot stay silent, when the life and work of a similarly devoted researcher as Iranian disaster medicine scholar Ahmadreza Djalali is threatened by a death sentence.”
Djalali has been accused of spying and for the providing information that led to the killing of several Iranian physicists (which in itself was an abhorring act conducted by Israel and/or US - and should have been denounced more broadly):
Djalali carried out research on emergency medicine — specifically, on the response of hospitals to terrorist attacks — while based at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Novara, Italy, and at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. 
He was arrested in Tehran in April 2016 and accused of collaboration with a hostile government. On 21 October this year, Djalali was convicted of espionage and sentenced to death, according to Djalali’s wife Vida Mehrannia and Italian diplomatic sources.
Tehran’s prosecutor linked Djalali to the murder of several Iranian nuclear physicists. But a document thought to have been written by Djalali has claimed that he was sentenced after refusing to spy for Iran. Djalali’s lawyer has appealed against the death sentence and is awaiting the court’s decision.
Read the full story here.

In the mean time, US-Iran relations keep on heading south. US is even blocking the deals which were explicitly negotiated as part of Iranian's freeze of the nuclear program. From Science:
The Iran nuclear deal was meant to usher in a new era of science cooperation between the Islamic republic and other parties to the landmark agreement, which deters the country from pursuing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. But nearly 2 years after implementation began, few projects are underway. And Science has learned that the United States has frozen Iran out of a collaboration that the deal expressly brokered: ITER, the multibillion-dollar fusion experiment in France. 
Iran has been poised for months to ink an agreement to join ITER in a limited capacity. “It was all moving well, until President [Donald] Trump took office,” says Ali Akbar Salehi, president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran here. An ITER official who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity confirms that the United States is blocking Iran through its seat on ITER's governing council, which must approve Iran's participation unanimously. Bringing Iran into ITER was expected to be straightforward. The long delay, European and Iranian officials say, casts a pall on other scientific collaborations expected under the nuclear deal. An ITER council meeting later this month is expected to take up the issue. 
To prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is formally known, curtails Iran's uranium enrichment program and mandates the redesign of the Arak research reactor to greatly reduce plutonium production there. Last month, Trump declared that the JCPOA is not in the United States's national interest; his decertification gave the U.S. Congress 60 days to reevaluate it.
Read the full story here.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Women in Muslim-majority countries are flocking to STEM fields

by Salman Hameed

There are some fascinating recent trends that suggests that a high proportion of women in Muslim-majority countries are going into engineering and other sciences related fields. Elizabeth Weingarten has an excellent article on Slate that explores why that is the case, and compares it to the relatively low fraction in the developed countries. And some of the reasons are fascinating. But she starts with Tunisia:
In March, inside a small room at Tunisia’s National Engineering School of Tunis, six women listened, eyes wet, as one played an old song on her iPhone. The Arabic tune was a lullaby from a popular 1950s TV show that mothers had sung to their baby girls. The lyrics envision a future in which the little girl starts school and earns excellent grades: “And I will say ‘My girl has grown up, she will be an engineer’/ Oh people, oh people! I love her!/ She’s her mother’s lovely girl.” 
For the Tunisian women—faculty members at the school—the song was a reminder of their childhoods. For the Americans, it was a reminder that they were in the right place. They had come to dig into an emergent and counterintuitive pattern of data: There are, in many cases, a larger proportion of women studying and pursuing STEM careers inside developing, Muslim-majority countries than in the U.S.—and in some countries, those numbers are rising further. 
For Americans, the vision of a 1950s mother crooning such a lullaby to her daughter probably sounds anomalous. Back then, most women were neither encouraged nor permitted to work in a masculine career like engineering. And today, they are still underrepresented in STEM careers overall and in engineering specifically: Only 18.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering go to women, and women make up between 8 and 34 percent of the engineering workforce, depending on the subfield. 
And indeed, if you look at this data, you can see some of the dramatic differences:

And this trend continues for 8th graders as well: 
Charles and other academic partners continued the research by asking eighth-graders around the world about their career aspirations. Once again, they found the same pattern: The more developed and affluent the country, the fewer female students said they wanted jobs in STEM when they grew up and that they liked math and science. This meant that the STEM gender gap contrast couldn’t be fully explained by economic decision-making—women (rationally) choosing more lucrative career paths in financially unstable environments. Separate from economic concerns, career preferences, too, were also divided along gender lines.
But why is this happening? And this is where this becomes utterly fascinating and data will test this hypothesis: 
When it came to some of the more basic indicators of gender equality—women’s political participation, access to education and economic opportunities, and existence of overtly discriminatory laws or policies—women were for the most part faring better in the U.S. than in some of these developing nations.
Though Charles and Bradley tried to answer that big question raised by their research, their theory was limited by the data: They had quantitative research but no qualitative interviews. Now, DeBoer, Ater Kranov, and other researchers intend to interrogate the original theory by holding interviews and focus groups like the one in Tunisia. To help them analyze their data, they’ll use Charles and Bradley’s original hypothesis: that encouraging young women to “follow their passion” can lead to a reliance on gender stereotypes. How? Imagine a 10-year-old kid who’s told to “follow her passion” in order to figure out her career path. Though it’d be nice to think that she will find this passion by looking deep into her soul, she’s far more likely to settle on a path by observing what people who look like her do, by thinking about what she’s good at, and by considering what’s expected of her as a girl. 
“In Western industrialized countries, we believe that women and men are innately and fundamentally different and tend to celebrate those differences,” DeBoer explains. Another contributing factor is the tendency to “assign gendered labels to different fields. In other words, we see engineering as a man’s work and a caregiving field like nursing as a woman’s work.” 
In the imaginations of citizens of developed countries, “curricular and career choices become more than practical economic decisions … they also represent acts of identity construction and self-affirmation,” wrote Charles in Contexts magazine in 2011. But as Charles puts it, “occupational aspirations are social products, not intrinsic properties of individuals.”
There are many factors that comer into play, but sometimes opportunities can just line-up with academic performances. When I was in Pakistan, if you did well in 11th/12th grade, then you were likely to go pick either an engineering or a medical college. Those choices were imperative - if you had high marks. This is also the case mentioned here for Tunisia and Jordan:
For instance, in Tunisia and Jordan, all students take a national exam after high school regardless of socio-economic status, and depending on their scores, they are funneled into particular career tracks. “The majority of women didn’t choose their professions; it was the scores that chose for them,” Ater Kranov explains. Top scorers are admitted to medical school, second-tier scorers are admitted to engineering schools, and third-tier are law students. 
“A large percentage of girls aren’t driven by passion for engineering but by performance,” says Raja Ghozi, a Tunisian engineering professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis who has also studied in the U.S. Though Tunisian women can change their field of study to the humanities, they tend to stick with engineering because it’s something that’s been encouraged by their parents—often their fathers, Ghozi says—and because they know they’re more likely to find jobs in engineering in a country with a 15 percent unemployment rate. These women, she says, are taught to “complete the mission. Quitting or changing career direction for them is a failure, at least when they embark on their engineering education.” In many ways, that’s a virtue. But as a professor, Ghozi says she sees the dark side of this system in women who are burned out and unmotivated by the content of the work: “I think many of the girls could have been happier by allowing themselves to change careers, but the Tunisian engineering education system may not be that flexible.”
The article concludes by looking at this issue of choice and conformity regarding gender inequality in STEM fields:
We may think we’re rooting gender inequality out of our systems and institutions by targeting formal restrictions and overt discrimination, but it can still exist in covert ways. Often times, “equality is defined in formal procedural terms - as equal opportunities to realize preferences, which are understood to be properties of individuals” and therefore sacrosanct, Charles wrote me in an email. If a woman pursues a career as a teacher, she’s unlikely to see this choice as one of forced conformity to gender norms but rather think her aspirations reflect a unique mix of interest and ability. “This emotional buy-in is where gender segregation gets its staying power,” Charles says. 
Though this may sound like a bleak assessment, it’s actually a freeing realization: Say you’ve always thought you were destined—or designed—for a particular career. That’s a powerful narrative and one that’s reinforced by the media we consume and the people we talk to about their supposed career trajectories. But this narrative can also be powerfully constraining—especially if you experience failure or crises of confidence, which most of us will or already do. If we let go of the idea that our preferences, aspirations, and capabilities are completely self-determined, perhaps we’ll truly experience a freedom of choice that has so far eluded us.
Read the full article here

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

And Iran just beat the US in the race for science advisers...

by Salman Hameed

For a while it looked like that both Iran and the US were competing to go the longest without a science minister (in the Iranian case) or a science adviser (in the case of the US). President Hassan Rouhani started his second term in office in May of this year and had reportedly submitted 20 names for approval. None of these names garnered support from the conservatives. However, on Oct 28th Iranian parliament approved Rouhani's nominee, Mansour Gholami for the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology.

In the US, Donald Trump just broke the record for going the longest without a science adviser:
Donald Trump has now gone longer without a science adviser in place than any recent first-term US president — by any measure. 
On 23 October, Trump broke the record set by former President George W. Bush. Bush’s science adviser, physicist John Marburger, was confirmed by the Senate on 23 October 2001. That was 276 days after Bush took office, and 120 days after he announced that Marburger was his pick for the job. 
Trump has also waited longer than any president since at least 1976, when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was created, to name his choice for the science-adviser job. 
So I guess, Iran 1, USA 0.

On the other hand, may be we should be grateful for this. After all, his choice for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt is doing his best to dismantle everything about protecting the environment and has eliminated science panels. So who knows - he may think that Ken Ham of the Creation Museum is a good idea for a science adviser.

Just for the record, Obama made his choice for science adviser a month before inauguration. Sigh! Yes, yes. Times have changed.

Here is a graphic from last week's Nature:

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Peter Adamson's recommendation for 5 books on Philosophy in the Islamic World

by Salman Hameed

If you are looking for books on Islamic philosophy, then you can start with the recommendation from philosopher Peter Adamson. However, he starts with the relevant question: What do we even mean by 'the Islamic World'?
There’s been a debate about how to refer to the field. An obvious choice would be ‘Islamic philosophy.’ Some people have preferred to say ‘Arabic philosophy’. I even co-edited a Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy before I changed my mind about the right way to describe it. But both of these phrases have problems. The problem with ‘Islamic philosophy’ is that some of the philosophers that we’re interested in weren’t Muslims. It would be strange to call a Christian philosopher like ibn ʿAdī, or a Jewish philosopher like Maimonides, an ‘Islamic’ philosopher. What we’re really studying here is this shared culture of philosophical work in the Islamic world. 
Some people also feel that calling it ‘Islamic philosophy’ presupposes that the main issues are all going to be about Islamic religion, which is possibly true for some figures in the tradition, but not for all of them. The description ‘Arabic philosophy’ is meant to highlight the fact that this is a philosophical tradition that gets going through the Arabic translations from Greek philosophy. But this is also problematic in various ways. If you think about really late thinkers like Mulla Ṣadrā who was active much, much later in Safavid Iran—almost a millennium after the Greek translation movement—it seems a bit strange to say that we’re still thinking about the translation movements. 
Also, some works in the philosophical tradition are not in Arabic: there’s quite a bit in Persian later on, there are Hebrew works too. So ‘Arabic philosophy’ is not really satisfactory as a name. There’s also a common confusion that people have: they are always saying, ‘how can you call it Arabic philosophy when most of these thinkers were not Arabs?’ That, to me, is a spurious objection because there’s a difference between Arabic and Arab: to my ear Arabic is a language and Arab is an ethnicity. This causes confusion and people are always complaining about that and, even though they’re wrong to complain about it, it’s still worth avoiding this misconception. 
What I like about ‘philosophy in the Islamic world’ is that, in a way, it’s a neutral designation. It just says we’re going to be looking at philosophical texts that were produced in a certain geographical and historical framework. So, really, all I mean by ‘the Islamic world’ is regions of the earth under the political domination of Islam. That means that it could be written by Christians and Jews—it often was—because they lived in the Islamic world, and, for the most part, it was easier for them to engage in intellectual endeavour than it would have been, for example, for Jews working in Christian medieval Europe. Especially in certain times and places in the Islamic world, you actually had very fruitful interchange and cooperation between people of different religions. 
As soon as you have the massive expansion of the Islamic caliphate in the generations following the death of Mohammed, you have this enormous empire that stretches from Spain in Europe all the way to central Asia. The borders fluctuate: they lose Spain after a while, and it’s not even mostly under one single ruler. Much later, in the period that is the same timeframe as early modern Europe, you have a fracturing into three large empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Iran, and the Mughal Empire in India.
But, to me, that’s all the Islamic world. Roughly speaking, if the local authorities are Muslim, then it’s the Islamic World. This defines a very clear context for philosophy and it turns out that that is, more or less, a good way of thinking about a certain philosophical culture. 
There is actually a word, ‘Islamicate,’ which was invented to refer to the same idea. So, the Islamic world would be the Islamicate. Some people have even suggested saying ‘Islamicate philosophy’, but I resist that because I don’t think that ‘Islamicate’ is a word that most people know. Still, when I say ‘Islamic world’ what I mean is what all these other scholars mean by ‘Islamicate’. 
One complaint I do have is that, although philosophy in the Islamic world is covered sometimes, it is usually only in passing. In the context of courses on medieval philosophy, you might cover Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Avicenna, Averroes, Aquinas, and Scotus. This is the typical itinerary for a medieval philosophy course. Although that is not entirely wrong—because Avicenna and Averroes were very influential on people like Aquinas, something is really wrong about that as well, because it implies that philosophy in the Islamic world really was contemporary with medieval philosophy and then stopped at the end of the medieval period. That’s just not true. The tradition carried on.
You can read more about his book recommendation here

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A robot granted Saudi citizenship...

by Salman Hameed

A robot named Sophia has been granted a Saudi Arabian citizenship. I don't know if they ask the robot first or not. This would be interesting if I thought it was more than just a gimmick. And of course it becomes a bit sad when considering the fact that Saudi citizenship, up until recently, was almost impossible to get for workers from South Asia (i think there is now a 10-year path). And of course, the fact that Sophia is a female robot has generated the requisite social media reaction: Why isn't she wearing an Abaya? Where is her robot male guardian, etc? But ultimately, it is a way of getting publicity and sounding "modern" - which may be enough to divert some attention away from other Saudi issues like the atrocious war on Yemen, rights of women, boycott of Qatar, etc.

In any case, here is Sophia (she is supposed to be in the image of Audrey Hepburn...): 

Now on the other hand, it will be cool if Sophia turns out to be like the protagonist in Ex Machina

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Science and Sir Syed's "Thet Musalmaan"

by Salman Hameed

Last week was the bicentennial of Sayyid Ahmad Khan's birth (I am using a different spelling for Sir Syed). There were a number of workshops and conferences in both Pakistan and India. He is a fascinating and influential South Asian personality - and I think his legacy is only going to grow. While he is credited with education reforms and Muslim nationalism, his religious ideas have largely been ignored for being too controversial. For example, he did not believe in supernatural explanations for miracles. Either miracles had  natural explanations or were mentioned as an allegory. He also laid out in detail his principles for his commentary on the Quran - and placed an emphasis on reason and science in his interpretation.

I had an oped on his science for Express Tribune. Here it is below:

Science and Sir Syed

In 1848, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote an essay that fervently argued against the motion of the earth around the sun. However, within fifteen years he had abandoned this position and had started developing a framework of reconciling findings of modern science with Islam. On October 17, 2017, the earth had gone around the sun 200 times since the birth of Syed Ahmad Khan in Delhi — the capital of the then waning Mughal empire.

Sir Syed has a complicated legacy. We have schools and colleges named after him and stamps commemorating him as one of the pioneers of the Pakistan movement. India has also honoured him with stamps for his education efforts. And yet, one of his most ambitious set of writings — his Tafsir of the Quran — was not published in Pakistan until the 1970s. It is still relatively hard to find in print and is rarely discussed beyond a few clichéd sound bites.

The bicentennial of Sir Syed’s birth is perhaps a good opportunity to look at his views on science and religion. We are today living in a world that is shaped by modern science and its derivative technologies. Some origin questions that were traditionally in the domains of religion and philosophy now lie within mainstream science. We have good evidence to believe that our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, that the Sun and the Earth were formed in a gaseous nebula 4.5 billion years ago and there are billions of solar systems in our own Galaxy alone, and that all life on Earth is related to one another both in composition and through the evolutionary processes that have shaped it.

Understandably, some of the origin questions have also led to tensions and conflicts with traditional religious interpretations. Many Evangelical Christians in the United States, for example, reject much of modern astronomy because they believe in an earth that is only a few thousand years old. Similarly, some Muslims and Christians are uncomfortable with one of the central ideas of biology that deals with evolution of life on earth. Of course, none of these are monolithic group rejections and there are diverse interpretations within each religious group as well.

It is in this context that we can look at Sir Syed’s approach to science and religion. One of the foundational principles he laid out for his tafsir stated that, “nothing in the Quran contradicts the law of nature”. For him, the “Work of God” cannot contradict the “Word of God” (Sir Syed used these English words in his Urdu tafsir). Any contradiction is apparent, according to him, and he provides a detailed framework for interpreting the Quran in any such circumstances.

For example, he blamed the adoption of Greek astronomy into the commentaries of the Quran for the resulting Islamic opposition (and presumably his own earlier position) to the earth’s rotation around the sun. For our purposes, what is important is not the specific case, but the broader principle of incorporating established ideas of science.

In fact, for Sir Syed, the study of nature in itself takes on a religious duty. For him, advances in science will get us closer to reality, which in turn will get us closer to the real meaning of the Quran. To critics who thought that the studying of modern science can lead to atheism, his retort was clear: “It is an idiocy (baywaqoofi) for people to think that those who follow natural science…can lead to raising the flag of the kingdom of atheism.” There can be atheists (dahirya) and agnostics (la idriya). But “naturebeen” are the ones who believe in the laws of nature and that a Creator created those laws. For Sir Syed, these “naturebeen” are the real Muslims (“thet Musalman”) and the followers of real (“thet”) Islam.

It is not just the questions about origins that are important. Today we are facing a range of ethical issues stemming from advances in gene editing to the impact of humans on the climate of our planet. The next century is also going to see humans establish their presence on other bodies of the solar system. These possibilities are both awesome and fearsome at the same time. In order to form thoughtful responses, we need a good understanding and appreciation of the sciences.

I can imagine that for some Sir Syed’s emphasis on science in the matters of religion is not only misplaced, but also misguided. His instance on the existence of natural explanation for religious miracles was, and is, considered too controversial. For some, his unabashed admiration for the British is the problem.

However, there are others who may find his approach refreshing and a recipe for a successful engagement with some of the challenges posed by contemporary science. While Sir Syed’s educational and political legacies have been well appreciated, his principles of approaching science and religion may leave him with a longer and a more global legacy.

Happy 200th birthday, Sir Syed!

Monday, October 16, 2017

New Science Fiction from Iraq

by Salman Hameed

This is a great premise for science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you are being picky): Imagine Iraq a hundred years after the US invasion. The Atlantic has an article about a new collection of 10 short stories titled Iraq + 100. It is edited by writer and filmmaker, Hassan Blasim:
Blasim and Ra Page—the founder of Comma Press, which originally published Iraq + 100 in England—envisioned a mosaic of tales that projected Iraq’s entire present and past into an uncertain tomorrow. Page states in his afterword, “The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict.” Blasim has also pointed out the relative lack of technological innovation in Iraq throughout the last century as a perception he hopes to counterbalance. Baghdad is where algebra, the decimal point, and the first method to calculate the radius of the Earth were invented in ancient times—and Iraq, Blasim feels, is a rightful heir to the sci-fi tradition. 
Accordingly, the stories in Iraq + 100 ripple with speculative energy. Written by authors who range in age and style, the tales take place in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Najaf, Ramadi, and Sulaymaniyah—all are set in the year 2103, a century after the U.S. invasion. In “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili (translated by Andrew Leber), Basra has continued to be ruled by a succession of tyrannical theocrats, the latest of whom has overseen a wave of famine, human trafficking, and even cannibalism. Using history to twist the present, the dictator spouts a perverse moral relativism—all while his citizenry scratches for survival amid the ruins of lost technology.
One of the stories that seems particularly interesting is Operation Daniel by Khalid Kaki:
In the author Khalid Kaki’s vision of 2103, a Chinese city-state has arisen on Iraqi soil. It’s a classically Orwellian dystopia, where a charismatic yet brutal leader—in this case, Gao Dong, the Beloved Benefactor—has installed himself as a godlike giver and taker of good fortune. Gao Dong’s greatest weapon, like Big Brother’s in 1984, is his dominion over language. All citizens must speak Chinese, and the region’s ancient tongues—Syriac, Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen—have been banned, and a government department called the Memory Office serves to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Rashid Bin Suleiman, or RBS89, as the government has renamed him, works alongside hovering droids as a cog in the Memory Office’s apparatus. His job is to dig up computers, compact discs, or any other means of information storage that might alert the populace to Iraq’s former sovereignty. That is, until he comes across an old folk song that radically shifts the way he sees himself and his world. 
“Operation Daniel” also yields one of Iraq + 100’s most indelible lines. There’s an underground resistance movement struggling within Gao Dong’s dictatorship, and one of their slogans is “History is a hostage, but it will bite through the gag you tie around its mouth, bite through and still be heard.” It’s just one way the story (translated by Adam Talib) is rendered poetically. During his work, RBS89 unearths “glittering discs or dull cuboids with spindles of tape inside,” as if he were a treasure hunter in some futuristic version of One Thousand and One Nights. Even Gao Dong’s favored method of execution—which he calls “archiving,” a process where language offenders are incinerated then turned into diamonds, whose crystals audibly reverberate with their memories for eternity—elevates the tale from cautionary to sublime.
I have not yet read any Iraqi science fiction. But Ahmad Saadawi's book, Frankenstein in Baghdad looks terrific. Saadawi doesn't have a contribution in Iraq + 100, but here is a bit about his book from the same Atlantic article:
A winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Frankenstein in Baghdad (translated by Wright) startles and stuns. Hadi Al-Attag is a scavenger who scours the streets of Baghdad during the U.S. occupation, subsisting on whatever he can find. His conscience compels him to undertake a ghoulish project: gathering body parts from the casualties of war, terrorism, and sectarian violence, then stitching them together into a hideous sculpture of flesh. The book’s speculative element arises when Hadi’s monster disappears, just before a rash of murders erupts throughout the city. 
Saadawi explained in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the creature—or “the what’s-its-name,” as he calls it—can be seen as a mosaic, morbid though it is, of the Iraqi
people. “Since it is made up of parts taken from Iraqis of different races, sects and ethnicities,” he said, “the what’s-its-name represents the complete Iraqi individual. In other words, the what’s-its-name is a rare example of the melting pot of identities. Iraq has suffered from this chronic problem ever since it was established early in the 20th century.” Like the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Frankenstein in Baghdad—a patchwork of all three genres as formidable as Hadi’s own creation—stretches the fabric of logic. In that distortion, hidden truths emerge. Eventually the what’s-its-name transcends its atrocities to become worshipped by the masses, a parallel to the rampant populism that has resulted in the kinds of dictators that are by no means restricted to Iraq.
Saadawi depicts his creature’s patchwork composition as both a strength and a curse, driving home the idea that collective identity can either heighten or suppress the individual, and that those in power often wield such distinctions for their own political benefit. The astrologers begin manipulating playing cards in order to divine the whereabouts of the creature—a clash of superstition, science, and the supernatural that Saadawi uses to highlight Iraq’s internal struggle between the past, the present, and the future. The creature’s response to such arcane efforts calls to mind the brooding fatalism of Shelley’s own wretch: “The cards don’t matter. What’s important are the hands that dealt them.
Read the full article here. And these two books look fantastic!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Ismail Serageldin of Library of Alexandria needs support

by Salman Hameed

The former director of the Bibleothica Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) has been sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on the charges of negligent management of the library. Many of the accusations stemmed soon after Mubarak was ousted from power in 2011 and Ismail was considered Mubarak's stooge. I don't know the details but it is quite likely that this was a politically motivated trail, even though Morsi is also now out of power. Nevertheless, both Science and Nature and close 90 Nobel prizewinners have come out in his support. This is from a Nature editorial:
The political turmoil that followed the uprising against the regime of Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, was a time for opportunists. Some library workers with grudges, together with those who considered Serageldin a Mubarak stooge, issued more than 100 different accusations against him, ranging from corruption to money laundering. Prosecutors investigated for more than a year. Finding no evidence, they dropped the criminal charges and instead referred three minor accusations of negligent management to an administrative court in 2012. 
One of the three charges claims that the 110 permanent library staff (the other 2,300 employees are on renewable contracts) were not given enough to do, and thus their government salaries were being wasted. Another refers to a collective life-insurance policy that had been taken out on behalf of staff, which they objected to. The charge claims that Serageldin, who cancelled the policy after three years, deceived the board of directors into agreeing to repay staff for the contributions they had made. The third charge claims that Serageldin incorrectly negotiated a favourable rent for a cafeteria to operate in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, without putting it out to public tender.  
Nothing happened for a few years while the court waited for the prosecution to submit a technical report about the case, which finally arrived this year. Serageldin says that the report led him to expect a dismissal of all charges. Instead, the court found him guilty. And rather than dishing out the usual modest fine for such cases, it issued a prison sentence, something usually reserved for cases in which negligence leads to loss of life.
The appeals court was planning on hearing his case on Sept 19th. I haven't been able to find what happened to the case. Nevertheless, you can find more about his support, including the names of the Nobel laureates, on helpforserageldin. Unfortunately, that website itself was last updated on the day of the appeal hearing.

By the way, I attended a fantastic conference at Bibleothica Alexandrina in 2009 celebrating the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Here and here are two posts from 2009 with some pictures of the library.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Fascinating new Pew poll on US Muslims: From religiosity to acceptance of homosexuality

by Salman Hameed

A new Pew poll on US Muslims came out earlier this month and I think it is absolutely fascinating. There is much focus on the way Muslims see themselves in the society and those results by themselves are interesting. For example, close of half of US Muslims report personally experiencing a case of religious discrimination in the past year. However, about half also report that they received expressions of support for being a Muslim. Both of these numbers are significantly up from 2007.

But couple of things that caught my attention. First of all, the opinions on religiosity are fascinating. About 60% of US Muslims identify themselves as "religious". The remaining are split evenly between "spiritual but not religious" (19%) and "neither spiritual nor religious" (21%). Now this last category reminds me a bit of the growing category of "Nones" - people who do not identify with any religious tradition (about 23% of US population). Now of course, here they are identifying themselves as Muslims (and 15% in this category consider religion "very important") and will be interesting to get an insight into this population.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, more than half of US Muslims say that traditional understandings of Islam need new interpretation. Of course, there are a lot of ambiguities in the question - nevertheless, the emphasis is on new interpretations:

Now the respondents were also asked what they think is "essential" for being a Muslim. Not surprisingly, 85% considered Belief in God as being essential - though 15% did not and may be the ones who are "neither religious nor spiritual". Love of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is next. But then it is followed by "Working for justice and equality in society" (69%) and then "working to protect the environment" (62%) before we get to "Following the Quran and Sunnah". Just by comparison, only 22% US Christians thought that working to protect the environment is essential to their Christian identity. So instead of "creeping Shariah", the worry should be creeping environmentalism? 

One of the surprising results from the Pew poll is the rising acceptance of homosexuality amongst US Muslims. This is an issue that was used politically after the Orlando nightclub shooting and Trump presented himself as a defender of LGBTQ rights against Muslims. Of course, we now know where he (and many of the Republicans) really stand on these issues. Nevertheless, over half of US Muslims say that homosexuality should be accepted by society and this number has almost doubled since 2007: 

Considering that 66% of US Muslims identify themselves as Democrats and that they are also likely to be more educated than the US general population, it is perhaps not surprising that the acceptance of homosexuality is high. However, the rate of change is striking and - again - this is something worth exploring. 

And while we are at it, the US Muslims are more against the killing of civilians than the general US public. Now some of this may be an overcorrection for Muslims (i.e. they may feel themselves a bit defensive on this particular question), but still 76% say that the targeting and killing of civilians can never be justified:

These were more or less positive aspects of the poll. On the negative side, half of the US public thinks that Islam is not part of mainstream society, with white Evangelicals expressing the most doubts on the place of Islam in the US society:

There is a lot more to explore in the survey. You can read get the full pdf here

Monday, August 07, 2017

Arrests in protest against Solar Telescope in Maui

by Salman Hameed

You are probably familiar with protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea. These protests halted the construction of the telescopes and initiated a review of the permit process. Just last week, a judge recommended the construction of the telescope - though the legal challenges are far from over. Nearby, on Maui, there is another telescope being built. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) will be world's largest solar telescope and it is located on top of Haleakala - the peak of Maui. The construction on this telescope began in 2012 and First Light is expected in 2019. It also faced protests and legal challenges, but nowhere close to the level Mauna Kea. However, this past week, six people were arrested in protests as they tried to block the equipment convoy to the telescope:
An early-morning attempt by protestors to block the delivery of telescope equipment to Haleakalā resulted in six arrests, including one man who was hospitalized.  
The protest was organized by a group called Kākoʻo Haleakalā, which stands in opposition to the further desecration of sacred space.  

Last week's issue of Science also has a good summary of the controversy regarding DKIST. In fact, one of the central questions is why DKIST has been successful compared to TMT on Mauna Kea. While the article came out before the latest protests, DKIST is far along in its construction and I doubt that the project will even be delayed let alone be stopped altogether. Here is the key bit from the article that talks about the difference contexts of DKIST/Haleakala and TMT/Mauna Kea:
The DKIST’s ability to investigate the solar eruptions that can endanger electric grids and communications may be one reason why it received more public support than the TMT, which is solely a research tool, Hasinger says. But he believes a more important difference between the two projects is simply their scales. At 18 stories, the TMT would be not only the largest telescope on Mauna Kea, it would be the largest humanmade structure on Hawaii Island. The TMT’s footprint—2 hectares including its roads and parking lot—is 10 times the size of the plot used for the DKIST. “It’s just a huge structure,” Hasinger says. “In relative size you could say it’s similar [to the DKIST], but in absolute size it’s much bigger.” Moreover, Mauna Kea is not only higher than Haleakalā, it’s the highest peak in the Pacific—and, consequently, it offers Native Hawaiians a higher-profile platform to air their grievances. 
Mauna Kea also poses a bigger management challenge for the University of Hawaii. The science reserve on the Mauna Kea summit spans nearly 5000 hectares—an area more than 650 times larger than Maui’s compact Science City. “If someone is not happy with the management of Mauna Kea, it falls directly on the university,” Hasinger says. “On Haleakalā we only have the small area of Science City. The rest is managed by the national park.” And although the university owns Science City, its preserve on Mauna Kea is a lease, which means it is subject to state audits. In 1998 and 2005, the auditor released critical reports about IfA’s stewardship of Mauna Kea, providing ammunition to groups opposed to mountain telescopes. (A follow-up audit in 2014 reported improvements in IfA’s management of environmental and cultural resources.) 
The organizations behind the two projects are very different, astronomers note. The DKIST is a national project, funded by the National Science Foundation and owned by NSO. Using federal funds meant that NSO had to follow strict accounting procedures, perform a federal environmental impact assessment, and satisfy U.S. historic preservation rules. By contrast, the TMT, a private consortium supported by institutions in five countries, received no federal funds for construction. That meant it didn’t have to deal with those same regulations. “The opponents were able to sell it as this foreign company coming in and basically using our mountain for their purpose, whereas [the DKIST] at least is a national interest,” Hasinger says.

But often times it comes down to understanding the grievances and acting accordingly:

The DKIST team. 
The groundbreaking ceremonies for the two projects reflected the stark differences in their characters—and also exposed their different vulnerabilities. Kuhn remembers going as a guest to the TMT ceremony in October 2014. He stayed at a fancy Hawaii Island resort, surrounded by scientists and media from around the world, as big-screen TVs ran a live feed of the TMT’s construction site on Mauna Kea. But the celebratory atmosphere faded when Native Hawaiian protesters blocked a convoy of dignitaries heading up the mountain for a blessing and groundbreaking. As protesters shouted and chanted, organizers eventually turned off the live feed. “It was a disaster,” Kuhn says. “I understand why they wanted a great big party—it was a way of saying, ‘Yes, we’re moving forward, partners, come and join us, and bring your checkbooks.’ But I think it had the opposite effect, which was to put up a lightning rod that attracted lightning.” The event “marked real doubt” about the project’s future, he recalls. 
TMT Executive Director Ed Stone, who is also a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, concedes the event didn’t go as planned. “Certainly whatever groundbreaking there was could have been done better than what happened,” he says. 
In contrast, the groundbreaking ceremony for the DKIST, in November 2012, was kept “very private,” with only a handful of people closely involved with the project, Kuhn says. “I think there was an honest sensitivity to those people who felt strongly that it shouldn’t be there,” he says.
Furthermore, the access to Science City on Haleakala is much more controlled than the Science Reserve on Mauna Kea, and there is the presence of the military as well. All of this makes protests and blocking of roads much more difficult. Nevertheless, for a while the protestors were successful, before the equipment got to the telescope.

Lets see what happens next. But I think there will be a lot more activity about TMT on island next door.

World Science Forum in Jordan this year

by Salman Hameed

Jordan has been making some waves in the science world. I think the Jordan-based multi-country collaborative effort of the synchrotron particle accelerator (SESAME) is outstanding and may end up being quite fruitful to all the countries involved. The country is also hosting the World Science Forum this year. These kinds of events are rarely that productive, as the focus is usually on the parading guests. Nevertheless, this week's Nature has an article on Jordan with relation to WSF:
When the World Science Forum kicks off on the shore of the Dead Sea in November, it will be the latest jewel in the crown for one of Jordan’s biggest champions of science. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan successfully lured the high-profile biennial conference to the Middle East for the first time — part of Jordan’s ongoing push to transform itself into a regional research powerhouse. The country hopes to emphasize the power of science to transcend politics and war in the increasingly volatile Middle East.  
It’s a tall order, but there are signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off for Jordan, which created its first national science fund in 2005. In February, the country cemented plans for a reticular-chemistry foundry, the world’s first. And in May, the Middle East’s first synchrotron, SESAME, opened near Amman with the backing of seven nations and the Palestinian Authority.  
Jordan’s leaders see science, engineering and technology as an engine of economic growth for their 71-year-old country, which lacks the oil resources of many neighbouring states. The nation’s political stability and central location have aided these ambitions. So has its diplomacy: Jordan is one of the only places in the Middle East where scientists from Israel and Arab countries can meet. “We are all in the region facing issues with energy, water and the environment,” El Hassan says. “A bird with avian flu does not know whether there is a peace accord between Israel and Jordan, it just flies across the border.”
Now of course, one of the immediate issue that comes to mind is that of the monarchy (and yes, there are good and bad monarchies - nevertheless, the issue of appointing family members may still be problematic for genuine development. See also Trump!). However, I was struck by this very sensible way of boosting research funds by the Jordanian government:
To help build research capacity, the government set up the Jordanian Scientific Research Support Fund in 2005. The fund was initially supported by a law that required all companies in Jordan to pay 1% of their profits into the fund. By 2012, when that statute was overturned, the fund had acquired US$85 million. It is now kept afloat by Jordan’s universities, which must spend 3% of their annual budgets on research or contributions to the fund. Between 2008 and 2016, the foundation gave a total of $35 million to 325 projects, mainly in the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural sciences. 

The goal of hosting the World Science Forum is to bring attention to science in Jordan. Hope that spurs further development. 
Powered by Blogger.