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: