Monday, February 20, 2017

The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction and other related news

by Salman Hameed


There are couple of good signs about recognizing Professor Abdus Salam in Pakistan. If you are a science fiction writer, then you have an opportunity to compete for the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. It is the brainchild of Tehseen Baweja and Usman Malik, and you have to submit your entry by July 31, 2017. Here are the rules:
  1. Original content, must be written by you
  2. Never published before
  3. Not more than 10,000 words
  4. PDF or Word Document
  5. Submitted on or before July 31st, 2017
  6. Participants must either be currently residing in Pakistan, or be of Pakistani birth/descent
  7. Entries must be in English
  8. One story per entrant
  9. Please don’t place your name, address, or other identifiers within the body of the story. Please place those in the submission email with the story attached as .pdf or .doc
  10. Please don’t quote another author or poet whose work is not in the public domain unless you have explicit permission from said author or poet.
If your story gets recognized by the judges, you will get: 
  1. A cash prize of Rs 50,000
  2. Review by an established literary agent for market guidance and possible representation
  3. An editorial review by a professional editor for critique and potential publication in a multi-award winning science fiction magazine
There are two other significant Salam related developments. In December, the government decided to rename the National Centre for Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad after the Noble Laureate. Underscoring their consistently regressive agenda, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) predictably opposed this move. 

Second, this summer, we hope to the release of a documentary about Professor Abdus Salam. I have covered its production several times here on Irtiqa. The films looks awesome. It is a such a delight to see this result of pure ambition and passion of its producers, Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal. And of course, all the others supporting the project. 
More on the film as time comes closer to its release. In the mean time, here is the latest trailer:

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Science Organizations and Universities speak up against Trump's travel ban

by Salman Hameed


First of all, there is a March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd. Apart from Washington D.C., there will be satellite marches as well. Here is the blurb for the March:
We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone. 
Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels - from local schools to federal agencies - throughout the world.
In another move, 151 science organizations and universities have denounced Trump's Muslim ban from seven countries. The list includes pretty much any science related organization you know of, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and International Council for Science (ICSU) that represents 142 countries (they also have a separate statement, and you can read it here). Here is the letter against the ban:


While these are utterly depressing times (see the conformation of Attorney General and Education Secretary for some of the low points in the last two days), it is great to see science organizations standing up both for immigrants and for science itself. And it makes sense. The US has become a scientific powerhouse by attracting the best minds from all over the world. The visa restrictions has started to get crazy even under the Obama administration. But now with this ban, it will take years to reverse the damage. Apart from impacting individuals and their families, this action will also have an impact on science conferences as well as the ability to do broader scientific collaboration work.

One of the organizations impacted more directly impacted by it is the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Its meetings always happen here in US (it is an American association). However, this year there had been calls to move the next MESA meeting outside of US. They have decided against it, but have issued the following statement:
MESA strongly condemns the Executive Order limiting the entry of Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants to the U.S. and urges the President and Congress to lift the ban. The ban impedes the mission of the Middle East Studies Association, which is to bring together scholars, educators, and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world. Further, the ban disproportionately discriminates against individuals from the Middle East, many of whom are members of our community. With other universities and academic associations, we call on the President and Congress to lift this Executive Order
The next four years are going to be long.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Middle East Particle Accelerator Success Story Amidst the Doom and Gloom

by Salman Hameed


In a topsy-turvy world, an unlikely scientific collaboration in the Middle East provides a ray beam of hope. This is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science in the Middle East or SESAME saw the first beam circulate around it just this past January. This accelerator, located in Jordan, was first proposed by Prof. Abdus Salam and established under the auspices of UNESCO. The most amazing part of SESAME is not the instrument itself, but the collaboration behind it: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. This is the Who's Who of who doesn't like each other. And yet, scientists and engineers from these countries have managed to work together to get this project to completion. As the Economist puts it:
 Proposals to build this device, the world’s most politically fraught particle accelerator, date back nearly 20 years. The delay is understandable. Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Authority, three of the project’s nine members, are better known for conflict than collaboration. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, but both have worked together on the accelerator. As well as Jordan, the other members are Bahrain, Egypt and Pakistan. Nonetheless, Sesame, a type of machine called an electron synchrotron, is about to open for business.
And on January 17th, it had its first beam:
“This is a great day for SESAME,” said Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, President of the SESAME Council. “It’s a tribute to the skill and devotion of the scientists and decision-makers from the region who have worked tirelessly to make scientific collaboration between countries in the Middle East and neighbouring regions a reality.”
The first circulating beam is an important step on the way to first light, which marks the start of the research programme at any new synchrotron light-source facility, but there is much to be done before experiments can get underway. Beams have to be accelerated to SESAME’s operating energy of 2.5 GeV. Then the light emitted as the beams circulate has to be channelled along SESAME’s two day-one beam lines and optimised for the experiments that will take place there. This process is likely to take around six months, leading to first experiments in the summer of 2017. 
Yes, yes. Things can change for the better. This is another version of Scientists' March for a Better Future.

You can learn more about the project from the SESAME website.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Back to the blog world...in the Trump era of Muslim travel bans

by Salman Hameed

Hello folks. For various reasons (not the least of it - the depressing political climate here in the US), I had taken a break from posting on Irtiqa. The landscape of blogs have also changed substantially in the past couple of years. One of my initial goals here was to highlight and comment on stories related to science in Muslim societies, and those science and religion stories that I think would be of interest to the readers here. But now it has become much more easier just to share it on Facebook or other sites like that. However, I think there is still a difference between passive sharing versus commenting on the specifics in the article, even if it is the highlighting of only a couple of paragraphs. Plus, in the Trump era, we need to get as many voices out there as possible - no matter how insignificant (I learnt that from reading Horton Hears a Who! to my 3-year old. Come to think of it, most of my life lessons  come from Dr. Seuss).

It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of things and hope that the posts will become regular again. In the mean time, here is the journal Science about the impact of last week's travel ban in scientists from Iran and other countries:

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.
Furthermore, it is not just the travel of immigrants in the US. It also isolates them. Their family members cannot travel to them either. This will have a tremendous long-term impact.
Scientists of all nationalities and religious persuasions are up in arms. An open letter signed by more than 7000 academics and counting, including 43 Nobel laureates warns that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” “We recognize the importance of a strong visa process to our nation’s security,” Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., said in a statement yesterday. But the order, she says, “is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible.”
...
Perhaps more Iranian academics will be hit by the order than any other nationality. The open letter notes that approximately 1500 students from Iran have received Ph.D.s from U.S. universities in the past 3 years. Hananeh Esmailbeigi, an Iranian-born biomedical engineer at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), says that many UIC faculty and department heads are Iranian. “I joke that you would be OK knowing only Farsi on campus,” she says. 
Now, Esmailbeigi’s mood is bleak. The green card holder says she teaches 300 students a year about how to design medical devices. “Now, I’m flagged as being a threat to the country. It just doesn’t make sense.” Iran’s foreign ministry yesterday labeled the executive order “a great gift to extremists” and vowed to take reciprocal measures that may include suspending issuance of visas to U.S. citizens. 
Scientists from the other six countries are suffering too. Wael Al-Delaimy, an Iraqi-born physician and chronic disease epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), travels six times a year to U.S.- or UCSD-funded projects in Ecuador, Mozambique, Jordan, and India that address topics such as indoor air pollution and refugee mental health. A green card holder, Al-Delaimy says he is now afraid to leave the United States, which will hobble his work. He takes no solace from the fact that the executive order’s ban on Iraqis entering the United States is limited to 90 days. “I am fearful that this is just going to be extended and extended. That this is just a litmus test to see the reaction, and once people are complacent they go ahead and [a permanent ban] becomes OK.”
Folks. Things are going to get far worse before they get better. The ban is expected to be expanded to other countries. Here is a New York Times article from yesterday talking about the centrality of anti-Islam views in the Trump White House policy:
Mr. Trump was echoing a strain of anti-Islamic theorizing familiar to anyone who has been immersed in security and counterterrorism debates over the last 20 years. He has embraced a deeply suspicious view of Islam that several of his aides have promoted, notably retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, now his national security adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s top strategist. 
This worldview borrows from the “clash of civilizations” thesis of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and combines straightforward warnings about extremist violence with broad-brush critiques of Islam. It sometimes conflates terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with largely nonviolent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots and, at times, with the 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. In its more extreme forms, this view promotes conspiracies about government infiltration and the danger that Shariah, the legal code of Islam, may take over in the United States. 
Those espousing such views present Islam as an inherently hostile ideology whose adherents are enemies of Christianity and Judaism and seek to conquer nonbelievers either by violence or through a sort of stealthy brainwashing. 
The executive order on immigration that Mr. Trump signed on Friday might be viewed as the first major victory for this geopolitical school. And a second action, which would designate the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement in the Middle East, as a terrorist organization, is now under discussion at the White House, administration officials say.

and here is Stephen Bannon himself:
Mr. Bannon has spoken passionately about the economic and security dangers of immigration and took the lead role in shaping the immigration order. In a 2014 talk to a meeting at the Vatican, he said the “Judeo-Christian West” is at war with Islam.
“There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” Elsewhere, on his radio show for Breitbart News, Mr. Bannon said, “Islam is not a religion of peace — Islam is a religion of submission,” and he warned of Muslim influence in Europe: “To be brutally frank, Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise.”
And here is an excellent article in Mother Jones: The Dark History of the White House Aides Who Crafted Trump's "Muslim Ban":
One of Bannon's guests on the show, Trump surrogate Roger Stone, warned of a future America "where hordes of Islamic madmen are raping, killing, pillaging, defecating in public fountains, harassing private citizens, elderly people—that's what's coming." 
Another frequent guest was Pamela Geller, the president of Stop Islamization of America, whom Bannon described as "one of the top world experts on radical Islam and Sharia law and Islamic supremacism." Geller told Bannon that George W. Bush's description of Islam as a "religion of peace" was something "we all deplore," that there had been an "infiltration" of the Obama administration by radical Muslims, and that former Central Intelligence Director John Brennan may have secretly converted to Islam. Bannon never pushed back against any of those unfounded claims. 
In other exchanges on the show, Bannon described the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that defends the rights of Muslims, as "a bunch of spin" and "a bunch of lies." He accused the mainstream media of "basically going along the lines of being Sharia-compliant on blasphemy laws." He warned of "Sharia courts taking over Texas" and said that he opened a Breitbart News bureau in London in order to combat "all these Sharia courts [that] were starting under British law." 
Sorry folks to leave you with these disturbing articles. But here we are...