Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Science academies - old and new

The Royal Society is now 350 years old. To celebrate its 350th anniversary, last week's Nature had several article on the role of science academies in shaping public opinion. If you are at all interested in the history of science and public policy, check out this short article: Scientific Academies - In the best company (you may need subscription to access it). Here are couple of paragraphs that talk about the difference between the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS):
The Royal Society and the NAS are two of the largest independent scientific academies in the world (see 'Two elites'), and illustrate two principal models of operation. The Royal Society is a self-constituted club with no formal, official role in government; the NAS is chartered to provide advice at the behest of the US Congress. (A different type of academy, of which the Chinese Academy of Sciences is an example, is effectively part of the state and runs many of the government science programmes in several communist and formerly communist countries.)
Some of the differences between the Royal Society and NAS models can be traced back to their respective histories. The NAS, like many other national academies, was set up by a patron — President Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the American Civil War, in 1863. The Royal Society, in contrast, was started by scientists themselves, expressly to promote science (see 'The Royal Society through the ages'). But these founders were strong supporters of a monarchy recently restored after the English revolution — and their society soon sought, and got, the patronage of King Charles II.
Early on, the Royal Society made clear that it owed allegiance not to king and country but to scientific truth. The society maddened King George III, for example, by siding with its fellow Benjamin Franklin in a debate about the shape of lightning conductors, even as Franklin fomented rebellion in the colonies.
The society has continued to chart its own course. Like other national academies, it establishes its rules and elects its own members — an arrangement that draws charges of elitism.
"There's a sense of pride here in being elitist: the proportion of scientists who are fellows is very small," says Martin Rees, who became the society's president in 2005. "But we're elite only in the sense that we ought to be elite." 
Now there are national science academies in more than 100 countries - and this elitism is a bit relative in other places. You should also check out another article in the same issue that implores the science academies to play a more active role in the public and policy sphere:
There are several crucial ways in which academies can champion science and technology in their countries. The first is to promote excellence in scientific research and stimulate the public understanding of science, for example by awarding grants, publishing high-level proceedings or organizing public debates. They can also release reports on issues of public interest, such as the US National Academies' On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, published in 2009.
Second, academies can mediate between scientists and politicians. This role has been pioneered particularly successfully by the UK Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year. In 2001, the Royal Society established a scheme that pairs scientists with a Member of Parliament (MP) to help scientists understand the parliamentary process and the pressures that politicians work under and to help MPs to improve their knowledge of how science works. More than 170 of these pairings, which involve reciprocal visits to the Houses of Parliament and to research facilities, have been established. Inspired by this, the French Academy of Sciences launched a similar project in 2005 in which an academy member teams up with a member of the French parliament and a promising young scientist. So far about 50 of these three-way partnerships are up and running.
Third, academies can bolster science education. For example, those of Australia, France and the United States have pioneered a worldwide effort to promote a hands-on approach to teaching science in schools, known as 'enquiry-based learning'. This has led to specially tailored education initiatives in many countries. Fourth, academies can help boost science in less developed countries by giving financial support to scientists, such as the many grants and fellowships offered each year by TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, in Trieste, Italy. Last, academies can help increase prestige for scientific disciplines by organizing prizes, such as the Nobel prizes awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
As mentioned above, collaborations between science academies will be especially beneficial to the developing countries (see an earlier post about the US-Indonesia collaboration on scientific issues).

As an aside, I thought it was interesting that in 2006, science academies of 68 countries, including 14 Muslim-majority countries (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Palestine, etc.), signed a strong statement in support of the teaching of biological evolution (including human evolution) in schools. Check out the press release related to it here (pdf). I don't know if it led to any practical measures, but it is good to see such a strong statement in support of science.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

University of Hawaii Regents approve plans for TMT on Mauna Kea

This is an update of the controversy over the presence of observatories on top of Mauna Kea. Yesterday, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents unanimously approved the plans for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - one of the largest planned telescopes for the next decade (it is expected to be operational by 2018). Some of the Native Hawaiian and environmentalist groups are unhappy about it and still plan to challenge the approval in the courts. The TMT now will now apply for a permit from the state, however, it is looking more and more likely that TMT will indeed be located on Mauna Kea. As an astronomer myself, I'm happy to see that this time astronomers have been more sensitive to the local concerns over Mauna Kea and I really hope that relations improve between scientists and those opposing the new telescope. Perhaps the key is for us to recognize that there is a real loss of a sacred space for some native Hawaiians and be mindful of the fact even when in disagreement about the future telescope.

Here is the story from the Washington Post. In case you want to hear from the locals on both sides of the debate, here is a letter to the editor (on behalf of The Sierra Club?) in West Hawaii Today against the proposed telescope, and here is a letter in response in the same newspaper (also see this blog post: Is The Sierra Club Anti-Hawaiian?). As you can see this is a complicated issue with religion, politics, environmental concerns, economics, and US history in Hawaii, all mixed in together. While this case is different from the run-of-the-mill science & religion issues (such as evolution), it is still in the domain of science & religion. Instead of epistemology, the debate here is over identity. Tracy Leavelle (Creighton University) and I are close to finishing a paper on the topic, and I hope to provide you with an update on it soon.

In the mean time, here are previous posts on the issue:
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update
Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pigliucci and the Islamic Civilization

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
In my previous post, I reviewed Massimo Pigliucci’s new book about science and non-science (“Nonsense on stilts”), and in passing stated boldly that one of the big gaffes there is the woefully uninformed and brief treatment (dismissal) of the Islamic Civilization’s contribution to science during its history. I also stated that his attempt at tracing the emergence of modern science from older human endeavors failed as he could not show any link between the medieval thinkers, the Renaissance scholars, and the modern scientists. And I promised to come back to at least show the extent of the gaffe(s) committed by Pigliucci.
Just briefly on the emergence of modern science, first our author assumes that its roots are purely western and that they must be found somewhere in the late medieval ages (“What exactly happened during the late Middle Ages”, he asks himself at the start of the chapter titled “From Natural Philosophy to Modern Science”). That is why he focuses on important figures like Albert the Great (ca. 1200-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225 – 1274), the latter’s disciple, even though he states “I do not wholly subscribe to what is sometimes scornfully referred to as ‘the great men theory of history’…”). But in the next paragraph, and without transition, he begins: “I will start my story with Francis Bacon” (1561-1626)…There are no transitional figures or ideas; somehow, the inductive method (largely attributed to Bacon – another hasty assumption) comes from somewhere, directly to or from Bacon’s mind… And there you have it: the emergence of modern science… according to Massimo Pigliucci!
In the chapter previous to that, and having spent many pages reviewing the Greek era (from the pre-Socratics to Ptolemy), Pigliucci remembers that before jumping to the early European universities (“before adjourning”, he says), he needs to deal with “the Arabs”, which he lumps with the Romans and the Medievals in a section he titles “intermezzo” (interlude), one which includes all the Romans (Galen et al.); he devotes a total of two paragraphs to “the Arabs”.
About these “Arabs”, our author tells us simply that “[t]he fact of the matter is, however, that once again we see little in the way of either conceptual advances or even genuine discoveries and much in the way or copying and translating other people’s work”! Well, that’s clear and definitive! On what basis does Pigliucci make this very strong statement? He footnotes David Lindberg (“The Beginnings of Modern Science”) who, he says, “claims that to ‘recount Muslim contributions to the various sciences would require volumes’ ([p.] 175) and yet is unable to cite much in the way of examples, except for disputes among Islamic scholars on detailed aspects of the Ptolemaic description of the solar system.” (Note the dismissive “disputes” and “detailed aspects”… Tell that to George Saliba and other specialists of that part of astronomy’s history.)
So, that’s it: because Lindberg didn’t list the scientific achievements of the Islamic civilization, Pigliucci dismisses it as nothing more than translating and copying “other people’s work”! He does not even know the simple facts and figures that have by now become standard acceptance among people who discuss science, its history, and its philosophy, for example that Algebra was almost single-handedly invented by Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi (ca. 780 – ca. 850), that Optics was revolutionized by Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (965-1039), that major (pre-telescopic) observatories were built from early on (Baghdad, 827 CE) to very late (Istanbul 1577 CE), including the hugely important Maragha observatory, where Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201 – 1274) did his work, observational and theoretical, which included his “Tusi couple” idea, later adopted by Copernicus (though Kepler, rightfully, got rid of it when he replaced the orbital geometries with ellipses).
Note that I am limiting myself to the most major figures and developments, and only to the fields of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy. I don’t even want to get to Medicine (Avicenna/Ibn Sina, Avenzoar/Ibn Zuhr, Ibn al-Nafis, etc.) and other fields…
Let me for a moment, however, focus on Ibn al-Haytham both for the contributions he made to (real) science and for his truly scientific approach (empirical, theoretical, and naturalistic, as Pigliucci concluded, in 2010, is the true hallmark of science, while Ibn al-Haytham practiced it a thousand years before…).
In January 2009, Jim Al-Khalili, a British physicist and award-winning science popularizer of Iraqi origin, presented a three-part TV series on Science and Islam on BBC 4. Here’s how he introduced Ibn al-Haytham to his viewers: “Isaac Newton is the undisputed father of modern optics – or so we are told at school… Yet… in the field of optics, Newton himself stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier… Without doubt, another great physicist, who is worthy of ranking up alongside Newton, [is] Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham.” He added: “Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method… Most people in the West will never have even heard of him.”
While it may be exaggerated to declare Ibn al-Haytham as “the father of the modern scientific method”, there is no doubt that he was one of the greatest scientists of the Islamic era, if not in the history of humanity. Abdelhamid I. Sabra,  an eminent Harvard expert on Ibn al-Haytham, wrote an article on him in 2003 where he described the book Kitab al-Manadhir (known in the west as De Aspectibus, or more simply, Optics) as “monumental… combin[ing] experimental investigations of the behavior of light with inventive geometrical proofs and constant forays into the psychology of visual perception—all systematically tied together to form a coherent alternative to the Euclidean and Ptolemaic theories of ‘visual rays’ issuing from the eye.” If this is not “conceptual advances or even genuine discoveries”, I don’t know what it is.
And last but not least, it is clear that Pigliucci is totally unaware of the important high-level series of letters exchanged between Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Al-Biruni (973-1048) on issues pertaining not only to physics (and I mean to use that term) but to the philosophy of science, or at least the scientific method, where Al-Biruni defends his inductive approach and Avicenna sticks to the “more rigorous” (mathematical and philosophical) deductive method.
It would do well for Pigliucci (and others) to review the (whole) history of science carefully before making such pronouncements. On the Islamic Civilization, there have recently been some very good, general-public books; I would particularly recommend Jeffrey Lyons’s The House of Wisdom and Ehsan Masood’s short and easy Science and Islam, a history.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Movie Trailer: The Nature of Existence

Here is a trailer for a documentary film, The Nature of Existence. It is not playing in theaters near me - and it is hard for me to predict the leanings of the films just from the trailer. On the one hand, I'm afraid that this film may be like the other absolute trash What the Bleep Do We Know. On the other hand, it does seem to contain interviews with some credible physicists and biologists (Susskind, Dawkins, Woosley, etc), and it is directed by Roger Nygard, the director of the very funny and amusing Trekkies (check it out if you haven't seen it). This can potentially be an interesting film and I hope it stays away from crap like quantum spirituality etc. From reading a bit on the movie website, I think I'm cautiously optimistic.

If you have seen it, let me know what you think about it. Here is the trailer:

The Nature of Existence - Original Trailer from Roger Nygard on Vimeo.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Obama's science initiative in Indonesia

I have posted about Obama administration's efforts for scientific outreach to the Muslim world before (see Obama's Science Envoys to the Muslim World and Obama's Science Outreach to the Muslim World). I think this is a positive step with potential long-term benefits. One of the first efforts in this regard is taking place in Indonesia and it gives an idea of potential collaborations. From Science:
In its first international mission, the U.S. research vessel Okeanos Explorer early this summer will team up with an Indonesian vessel, the Baruna Jaya IV, to probe the ecological hotbed.
The expedition ushers in a new era in science cooperation between Indonesia and the United States. The two countries have just inked their first S&T agreement, which is now awaiting ratification by Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. And two high-profile initiatives are in the works. In the coming weeks, the United States is expected to unveil an extensive education package, including university partnerships and dedicated funds for S&T collaboration; funding for the package could top $150 million. It will also tap Indonesia to host a regional center for climate change, one of the centers of excellence for the Muslim world that U.S. President Barack Obama promised to establish in a landmark speech in Cairo last year. (Both initiatives were to be announced this month during Obama's planned visit to Indonesia, which was postponed.)
Other signs of a closer relationship include an annual Frontiers of Science meeting that the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) and the U.S. National Academies intend to launch next year to spark collaborations between top young scientists. And an Indonesian-U.S. team is now drilling ice cores from a tropical glacier (Science, 28 May, p. 1084). "This whole spectrum of activities will strengthen ties between our two countries," says Jason Rao, a senior policy analyst at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Perhaps a better sign is structural help in the formation of a national science organization:

Yudhoyono spoke of Indonesia's own efforts to bolster science in a January speech to AIPI, urging researchers to take risks and "be much more open-minded and more progressive" than in the past. He returned to the theme in a meeting in Jakarta last month with Bruce Alberts, Science's editor-in-chief and one of three science envoys appointed by Obama to explore collaborations with Muslim-majority countries. Discussions are also under way on creating a merit-based agency similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). After years of stagnation, researchers here sense "the beginning of a renaissance," says medicinal chemist Umar Anggara Jenie, chair of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta.
The United States is playing a critical supporting role in this revival. In his speech, Yudhoyono cited cooperation in technology and education as key elements of a "new strategic partnership" between the two countries. Another impetus is Indonesia's problem with homegrown terrorists. In Cairo, Obama vowed to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries. "We understand his intention to bridge Islamic civilization and the West. Science is the best way to do this," says AIPI President Sangkot Marzuki, director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology (EIMB).
And you can add science education to the agenda as well and its great to see National Science Resource Center getting involved in it:
A more fundamental concern is science education. The government intends to triple university enrollment in natural sciences to 12% by 2014. But students are ill-prepared: Primary school science education is woeful, researchers contend. Plans are under way to bring Indonesian educators to a workshop on inquiry science for children next month at the National Science Resource Center in Washington, D.C., run by the National Academies and the Smithsonian Institution. "The hope is to initiate an impressive program of science education in one or two carefully selected Indonesian school districts," says Alberts.
I'm quite impressed by the breadth of involvement here. It wasn't clear earlier on, what kind of activities will be included in these scientific collaborations. But if we take this Indonesian example as a model, then we are looking at a potentially deep and fruitful collaboration beyond simple political rhetoric between the US and at least some of the Muslim countries.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Plato's cave in clay

This post is dedicated to Laura Sizer. I co-teach classes on science & religion with her (one on the theme of Origins and one on The History and Philosophy of Science & Religion). Every time we teach, she has to explain Plato's allegory of the cave from The Republic. Well, here is a very cool claymation version of the allegory - and I think it does a great job with the visuals (and audio as well - love the camel!). If you want to know more about the meaning of the allegory, check out this excellent episode of Philosophy Bites on the subject. (tip from Open Culture)

Monday, June 21, 2010

“Nonsense on Stilts” by Massimo Pigliucci – a review

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist who now teaches philosophy at the City University of New York, has just published a book titled “Nonsense on stilts”, with the more telling subtitle “How to tell science from bunk”. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, so this provides it with some backing. The aim of the book is to determine the boundary separating science from non-science. This is known among philosophers of science as the “demarcation problem”, famously addressed by Karl Popper. Pigliucci, however, promptly tells us that not only will it be difficult to find a clear demarcation line between science and “bunk”, we will quickly identify gray zones of “almost science” and “pseudo-science”.
This is a very interesting book in many regards, and I’ll try to say a few words about several, though not all, of its main themes; in fact, I will soon come back and devote a post to one of the (few) glaring gaffes in the book, namely its awful (hasty and woefully uninformed) discussion of the Islamic civilization’s contribution in the history of science.
Pigliucci first explains the enigmatic meaning of his book’s title on page 4: it is an expression used by the philosopher Jeremy Bantham to mean “a really, really tall order of nonsense”… Thank God there was a clarifying subtitle. And thank God Pigliucci is somewhat well-known in the blogosphere and in some “skeptic” (non-believing) publications, so his book got noticed and talked about, which made me decide to get a copy and read it quickly. Otherwise I and many others would never have noticed his very good book. Indeed, it provides for a very enjoyable read: Pigliucci is spirited and witty, he pulls no punches; in fact, one of the (mildly) annoying (and a bit surprising) aspects of the book is the vocabulary he uses when criticizing his opponents (who range from the creationists to the postmodernists, all the way to the famous “anarchist” philosopher Paul Feyerabend), words like “pompously”, “ranting”, etc. Another critique I might formulate while I’m at it, is that the book spreads itself a bit too thin at times, often getting sidetracked to stories and subtopics that are either well-known or only marginally relevant.
The book is divided into roughly three parts: (1) several chapters dealing with Science (hard and soft), “almost science”, “pseudo-science”, and “non-science”; (2) a discussion of how modern Science came about; (3) a critical review of the contemporary debates about Science (the “science wars” with postmodernists and “denialists”, of global warming for instance). The first part is the most interesting, well written, and almost right on target; the second part is the weakest, for we learn essentially nothing, as Pigliucci jumps from Albert the Great (~1200-1280) to Francis Bacon (1561-1626); the third part is all right and quite relevant, though it’s a battle that has been fought at length elsewhere (e.g. the Sokal Affair).
The main part is the careful examination of the “demarcation problem”: what makes a subject part of science or outside of its methodology and area of respectable investigation? The good thing about this part is that Pigliucci shows us very interesting cases and explains why it’s sometimes difficult to bestow or deny the Science label on them, cases such as SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence), Evolutionary Psychology, and even History (yes, history, which, Pigliucci shows, is in the process of being pulled into the bona fide Science domain, though these attempts may or may not succeed in the end). And why is SETI, for example, not clearly within the Science purview? Because it is clear that one could never answer the SETI question negatively, since no amount of negative data will amount to a definite falsification of the research question.
Ah, falsification – a very important word and concept! This is what Popper introduced when he famously defined for us what separates science subjects from non-science. To him, and to most scientists since, a topic falls within the Science domain if it can make predictions that can potentially be “falsified”, i.e. proven to be false. A statement that can never be shown to be false is not a scientific one. Interestingly, Pigliucci tells us early on that this “demarcation” criterion is not satisfactory and that developments in the philosophy of science have since made it quite obsolete. However, I believe he is mixing up two different aspects of Popper’s work, two aspects which unfortunately are both usually referred to as “falsification” or “falsificationism”: the first is the simple (“descriptive”) criterion I just mentioned; the other is Popper’s (“prescriptive”) proposition that Science (and scientists) should adopt “falsificationism” as a general approach in their research, namely by coming up with or picking propositions that they can show to be false, thus pruning the subject from one erroneous idea after another, until the correct one is revealed (the last one standing, so to speak). Pigliucci and others show(ed) that this approach cannot work (basically, a hypothesis cannot be rejected just because some data seems to contradict it), and in this he is correct. But this is not the same as the demarcation criterion by which we distinguish science from non-science, and to shed doubt on the criterion because Popper’s “falsificationism” often does not work, only confuses the issue. In fact, as I was reading the book, I could find many statements where our author implicitly or explicitly adopts Popper’s criterion to distinguish “science from bunk”.
Still this first part is quite excellent, as one is continually challenged to find the flaws (and the surprising strengths) in fields like Astrology, Ufology, and Paranormality, in one’s attempt to figure out exactly what makes (real) science. I wish the other parts of the book were nearly as good…
So, to make a long story short, after a long sinuous treatment and several detours and “intermezzos”, what result does Pigliucci reach in his investigation of “How to tell science from bunk”? He does well to summarize his findings for us in a short concluding chapter. First, he reminds us that there is a spectrum of sciences (ranging from soft to hard, more or less complex, involving human factors or not), and it is simplistic and naïve to believe that “hard” fields are more scientific or even more successful than “soft” ones. Now, what all scientific investigations have in common, according to our philosopher, is three elements: naturalism, theory, and empiricism. Naturalism is the insistence that all explanations be confined to natural causes and factors. Theory is the requirement that there be some explanation proposed of the explored phenomenon (and this is where Astrology fails, in particular). And empiricism is the necessity for any proposed explanation to be confirmed by the experimental/observational (empirical) data.
Pigliucci is also very honest in admitting the human factor in the scientific enterprise. This is a very sticky issue, and one which has led to major troubles (the postmodernists taking it to the extreme of claiming science to be a “relative” construct), but here too he provides a very good review of the topic and reaches reasoned conclusions, such as the “perspectivist” solution, which consists in presenting science as simultaneously an objective and subjective perception of the world, just like colors are a human perception with an objective basis (specific wavelengths). And finally, the zone separating science from bunk is a gray one, with fields in the middle moving either toward the solid land or the deep waters depending on the progress (or lack thereof) being made in each case…

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Paris Zodiac and science & religion

Nature has a review (you may need subscription to access it) of an interesting book about an Egyptian artifact that ignited an interesting debate about science & religion in the early 19th century. The title of the book is The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate Between Religion and Science by Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz. The book sounds really interesting, though I'm a little cautious about the ambitious claim in the title about science & religion:
Compared with other ancient astronomical artefacts, the Egyptian carving known as the Dendera zodiac has been largely forgotten. Yet, two centuries ago, it was as celebrated as the just-discovered Rosetta Stone. The zodiac relief is now the subject of a groundbreaking study by historians of science Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz.
After Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798, the elaborate panel was encountered on the ceiling of a temple at Dendera, north of ancient Thebes, now Luxor. The main part of the zodiac was removed by an enterprising, if unscrupulous, French engineer and shipped off to Paris in 1821, where it resides today at the Louvre Museum.
For decades after its discovery, the dating of the 'zodiac of Paris' was contested. Leading French scientists bitterly disagreed about the artefact's age on the basis of their astronomical calculations, including physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot and mathematician Joseph Fourier, who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. So too did other public figures, from sympathizers of the French revolution to supporters of Napoleon and his royalist successors.  
Key to determining the zodiac's age was the historical position of stars in the depicted ancient sky. Fourier and others estimated that the object, and thus Egyptian civilization, was much older than the age permitted by the biblical account of human creation — as much as 15,000 years BC. Competing experts suggested that the zodiac was merely Greek or Roman, only 2,000 years old, post-dating the Egyptian pharaohs.
Ah. So the age of the Zodiac becomes the central controversy:
The zodiac became a cause célèbre for left-wing atheists and the right-wing devout. A vaudeville theatre production, Le Zodiaque de Paris, was staged in 1822 even though it had been censored by the French government. Actors played the signs of the zodiac accompanied by a chorus of wailing mummies to satirize the popular, official and scholarly reactions to the antique.
In the end, the Gordian knot was cut not by the quarrelling scientists but by a young philologist, Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822–24. Studying a drawing of a surrounding part of the zodiac that had been left behind in the Dendera temple, he translated the meaning of a hieroglyphic cartouche within it as autocrator, a Graeco-Roman title. The Catholic Church was delighted that this agreed with their view and the Pope offered to make Champollion a cardinal — much to his disgust, given that he was an anti-royalist religious sceptic.
Ironically, the drawing was erroneous: when Champollion visited Egypt in 1828 he saw that the crucial sketch did not match the in situ Dendera cartouche, which was empty of hieroglyphs. But different evidence from the site confirmed that the Roman dating was correct. The modern date is the first century BC, which is in the time of Cleopatra, who is depicted in the temple. Yet the church's glee at this later date was not to last — other hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Valley of the Kings showed, to the satisfaction of Champollion, that Egyptian civilization went back at least 5,000 years. The zodiac did not support creationism after all.
Okay - this bit is interesting. But I'm still not sure how big was this an issue for science & religion in early 19th century France. After all, around the same time, Cuvier is talking about major extinctions and Lamarck has brought his version of evolutionary theory. But back to the review:
The Zodiac of Paris provides an intriguing insight into a tumultuous era. The story was hardly a triumph for “the calculating savants” over “their pious antagonists”, say Buchwald and Josefowicz — astronomy alone did not establish an age. Champollion eventually succeeded in understanding the zodiac because his decipherment embraced both the logic of science, the ambiguity of the humanities and the exigency of ancient Egyptian religion.
Hey - why take an indirect swipe at astronomy and "the calculating savants" at the end? After all astronomers did establish the age of the Sun and the age of the universe - all by themselves - thank you very much. Okay - may be I should not take this personally :)

Read the full review here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Next time you eat a grape...

Well, the mini blog-break is over. But in the mean time I did discover that we have to show a bit more respect towards grapes (and don't panic if you hear a grape talking back at you). Here is the current estimate of genes, and it seems that we humans are somewhere between a grape and a chicken:

Figure: Gene counts in a variety of species. Viruses, the simplest living entities, have only a handful of genes but are exquisitely well adapted to their environments. Bacteria such as Escherichia coli have a few thousand genes, and multicellular plants and animals have two to ten times more. Beyond these simple divisions, the number of genes in a species bears little relation to its size or to intuitive measures of complexity. The chicken and grape gene counts shown here are based on draft genomes [50,51] and may be revised substantially in the future. 

But it is reassuring that our dominion over chickens extends into the genome. Read the full paper here. And while talking about chickens, check out this story of Mike the headless chicken from Barbara King's blog (also see here for the full story).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blood samples back to Yanomamo

The name of Yanomamo is often associated with controversies in anthropology (see here and here). But for a change, here is a positive step being taken to repair some of the relations with the Yanomamo tribe: Researchers will return 40-year old blood sample taken from the tribe members. From Science:
Now, in an agreement being worked out by Brazil, he and others are pulling tissue samples out of storage and preparing to have them shipped back to the jungle.
Weiss says he accepted the vials years ago as a favor to his postdoctoral adviser James Neel, who was retiring and wanted them preserved. Along with cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, Neel collected the samples from the Yanomamö in Brazil and Venezuela during fieldwork in the 1960s and early 1970s, and they've been stored since then in labs around the United States. (Neel died in 2000.) Weiss and others will be releasing parts of their collections to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which in turn will escort them back to Brazil and the Yanomamö tribe. Venezuela has not asked for samples taken from its Yanomamö tribes, Weiss says.
The return marks at least the third time that an indigenous group has retrieved DNA or other tissue from scientists, suggesting a shifting landscape in genetics studies on indigenous people.
There are still some interesting problems associated with the return:
Researchers and diplomats alike want to ensure that the samples are safe and free of contaminants. That's easier said than done. The usual approach—heating material at very high temperatures—would cause the vials to explode. A suggestion to sterilize some samples with bleach was rejected, says Karen Pitt, special assistant for biological resources at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which holds 477 vials. NCI is investigating the possibility of irradiating them. "We'd like to accelerate this," says Pitt.
Still, I think this effort is a step in the right direction. Yes, there was no "Informed Consent" procedure forty years ago, but now we do have stricter procedures in place - so why not follow them more consistently. Just a few months ago, I had posted about the contentious DNA research involving the Havasupai tribe. However, in general, it seems that scientists are becoming more sensitive to issues involving indigenous tribes and is pointed out in the Science article:
Scientists are increasingly trying to accommodate demands from indigenous groups. Three years ago, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Ottawa released new recommendations for aboriginal research requesting, among other things, that research be of benefit to the community, that researchers translate their publications into the language of the community, and that researchers get consent before transferring samples to a colleague.
"If you have a sample in your lab, you have been loaned it, you haven't been given it," says Laura Arbour, a medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada who helped craft the Canadian guidelines. Arbour, who works with Canadian aboriginal populations, believes they should be treated as collaborators and shown drafts of papers prior to publication, something she routinely does in her own genetics work.
"I don't object" to this approach in principle, says Kenneth Kidd, a population geneticist at Yale University, but it would make research "a lot more difficult." He and his wife, Judith Kidd, have amassed 3000 samples from 57 populations over the years. It would be virtually impossible to find a nomadic tribe from whom samples were collected a decade ago and share a planned publication, he says.
I think the idea of shared publication is excellent! In any case, read the full article here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Face of God – the French version

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics atAmerican University of Sharjah.

In a recent post, I decried the exaggerated usage of God metaphors by scientists or writers each time some (presumed) breakthrough or important result or idea is communicated to the public. And I specifically mentioned the recent references to “God’s toe” and to “the face of God”.
Now, when I got a moment to take a look at the French scene (of Science, Religion, and Media), I was stunned to find a book, fresh out of the presses, titled… you guessed it… “The Face of God” (Le Visage de Dieu).
I haven’t read the book, and I don’t intend to, so this is not a review; it is a commentary on side issues raised by this book, its authors, its title, etc.
The first thing that should be mentioned is that the book has been given unprecedented exposure in the French media, especially considering its overt spiritual tone. Indeed, the Bogdanov twins (more on them in a minute) state clearly that they believe that the Creator conclusion is inescapable from the results of modern Cosmology. They themselves are not particularly religious, in the sense that they do not relate to any specific affiliation, but they insist on the divine inference. What “cosmological results” are they basing themselves on to make that “divine inference”? Simply put: the anthropic principle, or more precisely, the fine tuning of the universe. (For those who are not very familiar with this concept, it is – in a nutshell – the fact that many/most of the fundamental properties of the universe, from the charge of the electron to the speed of light, and the total content and rate of expansion of the universe have values that could not have been even slightly different if life, intelligence, and consciousness, like humans and other such creatures, were to exist. Needless to say, many have concluded that a Creator must be behind such “fine tuning”, and this whole “anthropic principle” has for the past few decades become a very controversial topic. More on this some other time, if you wish…) In a recent TV interview, the Bogdanovs referred to this fine tuning of the universe as the “cosmic code” and said that it must have been written by a Creator.
The second thing that must be noted is the fact that three (not just one) illustrious scientists have endorsed the book by writing a preface and two post-faces. This, in itself, is notable, but not overly surprising, as oftentimes authors seek the support of heavyweights in the field to give credence to their work and help increase its sales. But in this case the feat is simply extraordinary. Why? Because of the huge asymmetry between the authors (who are very lightweight and even controversial) and the three endorsers (who are very heavy weights)! The latter are: Robert Wilson, who (with Arno Penzias) discovered the microwave cosmological background in the 60’s and received the Nobel Prize in 1978; John Mather, who (with George Smoot) in 2006 received the Nobel Prize for the variations they found in the microwave cosmological background, which Smoot likened to "seeing the face of God"; Jim Peebles, a renowned cosmologist who has received half a dozen medals, awards, and honors (though not the Nobel Prize). Needless to say, any author would dream of having such people preface his/her book or even write a short blurb. Now, don’t the Bogdanovs deserve that? How do I know that their book is not superb enough to receive such accolades (since I haven’t read it)?

Well, the Bogdanovs started their careers in France as presenters of science-fiction TV shows. But their shows, while futuristic and avant-garde, were always loaded with science material and often raising “metaphysical” issues. Then in 1991, they published a book from a series of interviews with the French philosopher Jean Guitton under the title “God and Science” (Dieu et la Science), and it became a best-seller. But soon the “Bogdanov Affair” exploded when the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan (TXT) accused them of having plagiarized from his best-selling book “The Secret Melody” (La Mélodie Secrète), where indeed he makes the same “creator inference” from the fine tuning of the universe; they later settled out of court. (Full disclosure: TXT is a friend of mine, though one can easily show objectively that he is a great scientist and author.) The Bogdanovs later sought to beef up their scientific credentials and obtained doctorates (after great difficulties) and published a couple of papers, which the scientific community duly ignored. They then turned to writing more science-and-God books, including “Before the Big Bang (Avant le Big Bang, 2004), “Voyage to the initial instant” (Voyage vers l'Instant Zéro, 2006), “We are not alone in the universe” (Nous ne sommes pas seuls dans l'Univers, 2007), and “At the beginning of time” (Au commencement du temps, 2009); they have been very productive, as you can see…

Success in book writing has always been a mystery: why some authors achieve astronomical sales figures while often not deserving it and others remain obscure – if they get published at all – depends on many factors, mainly sociological. Why the media latch on to some authors much more than others, even when they expound views that the “intelligentsia” doesn’t quite like (e.g. the “divine inference”) is also something that few people have figured. And why some heavyweights accept to write prefaces to books by controversial authors is totally puzzling to me. If one of them had been Smoot, we could have related it to the “face of God” metaphor (the authors having borrowed it from him), but he’s not even one of the three; besides, some (like Peebles) are known to be atheists…

Can somebody help me understand some of these phenomena?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why do Muslims look for modern science in the Qur'an?

Nidhal's earlier post about "Islamic Astronomy" has generated some spirited discussion. One of the comments on the post speculated that were Einstein familiar with the Qur'an, he might not have introduced his Cosmological Constant (he introduced it to make his theory of general relativity consistent with the widely held view of his time that the universe is static. Soon after, though, Edwin Hubble provided evidence for an expanding universe). This view - that expansion of the universe was already in the Qur'an - is cited as one of the evidences for the superiority of the Qur'an. In fact, finding discoveries in the Qur'an is a popular activity and you can find many websites and books devoted to it, and may also be sent e-mails propagating these "discoveries". A couple of comments about this:

I was thinking of writing about the nature of science in this context - that it depends on precise statements that can potentially be tested and verified, etc. However, Emre in the comments has already made some excellent points. So I will focus more on the motivations behind the effort to find science in the Qur'an.

But let's start with a more basic questions: Why do we do science, in the first place? It is usually driven by curiosity and an urge to find out more about the physical world. This curiosity can be driven by science teachers, first time looking through a telescope, by being inspired by religion to understand God's work, or as in my case, by being Saganed (oh - yes, Sagan gets a category by himself). But you have to see where the evidence leads you - and some of your most cherished and well-established ideas can turn out to be wrong and you abandon it. In fact, the scientific process encourages scientists to poke holes at its own theories - and if one is successful in bringing down a giant from the past - the community honors this person with the highest award. And this new idea is simply the beginning of inquiry. This combination of creativity, curiosity, and skepticism, is what has made science so successful - and by far the best way to understand the physical world.

But motivations for finding modern science in the Qur'an is mostly driven by apologetics. The primary concern is usually not finding out about the natural world, but rather showing that Qur'an (and Islam by proxy) is correct. In fact, one starts with this assumption. Once "evidence" for science in the Qur'an is found, inquiry stops. There is nothing more to do with this information - except for claims of religious superiority. At the same time, I cannot see a point where any of the believers will be willing to change their minds in the face of a counter-evidence (for example, claims about people living hundreds of years in the past can run into trouble). Of course, the reply would take shelter behind a "wrong interpretation" - which is usually easy to make given the lack of scientifically specific details in the Qur'an. Let me be very clear here. There is nothing wrong for Muslims in believing that the Qur'an is the true word of God or that it contains moral truths worthy of shaping one's life around. These are statements of faith! Problem comes in when this attitude is translated into doing science.

Funny thing is that adherents of other major religions have also been trying to show the superiority of their own respective religions by finding evidence of modern science in their respective holy texts or by showing that their texts can make predictions. For example, you can check out the work of the crank Hugh Ross on Christianity and Bible, also the whole industry behind The Bible Code, find revelations about quantum mechanics in holy texts for Hinduism, and perhaps elements of String Theory in the Torah. These are just a few examples, and all these groups of people are also equally convinced that their religion is superior because of their respective findings. However, the narrative of science in the Qur'an is far more prevalent than these other ideas.

Needless to say, there have been no contributions - let me repeat no contributions - to modern science from any of these apologetics. This is not surprising, as this is not how science is done! If any of these groups had any serious validity, numerous Nobel prizes would have been scooped up by these guys (and yes, these are mostly guys). In fact, medieval Muslim scholars can set a nice counter example. Al-Haytham, Al-Bitruji, Ibn-al-Shatir, etc. did not use the Qur'anic text to raise objections to Ptolemy's models. Rather, their dissatisfaction with the Ptolemaic model was based on superior observational data, and philosophical objections regarding the Equant, etc. (update: please also see our Science & Religion lecture by George Saliba on this piece of history of science)

But why seek affirmation of one's religion from science at all? Well, this is a fascinating issue - and it has to do with the spectacular success of science in the last 200-300 years. Now religions look to science for validation. For Muslims, this reaction is buried in the colonial past and the efforts of the reformers at the end of the 19th century. More on this some other time.

For present, if you want to make progress in science, please keep it separated from religion.

Also see earlier post:
"Science in the Qur'an" in Algiers...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Film Autopsy of SPLICE

Yes, there was hope regarding this film. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are two smart actors who usually make good film choices. And then also, this movie got a huge unexpected boost from the recent announcement by Craig Venter of the creation of the first synthetic DNA. Everything was lined up perfectly for an intelligent sci-fi film that tackles some of the tough moral and ethical issues surrounding the creation of life in a laboratory. So we got Splice last week (See the trailer here). Unfortunately, a better movie on the topic is waiting to be made. The science in here is atrocious and morality and ethical discussions are at the level of 5th-graders. However, there are some intriguing plot lines involving the two main human characters - and wish they had explored those themes further.

Well, as I pointed out in an earlier post about the film Vincere, Kevin Anderson and I usually have conversations about the films playing in the theater. Kevin is a serious film buff and is a lecturer in anthropology and film studies at UMass-Amherst. We will be collecting our reviews of films at the Film Autopsy blog (there are 6 more recent reviews ready - but I still have to convert them into slide-videos. Check back the site in a couple of days).

In the mean time, here is an autopsy of the film Splice (about 7 minutes long):

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Streamlining the gene pool through religion

Here is a fascinating study that shows how Jewish populations end up sharing a similar genetic background. From New Scientist:

Jewish populations around the world share more than traditions and laws – they also have a common genetic background. That is the conclusion of the most comprehensive genetic study yet aimed at tracing the ancestry of Jewish people.

In a study of over 200 Jews from cities in three different countries, researchers found that all of them descended from a founding community that lived 2500 years ago in Mesopotamia.


The main reason that Jews continue to form a distinct genetic group, despite their wide dispersal is the exclusivity of the Jewish religion and the tight restrictions it imposes on marriage to those outside the Jewish faith.

Ostrer's colleague Gil Atzmon of Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York says that the religious traditions and laws shared by practising Jews around the world, and their isolation from their non-Jewish neighbours, means that Jews share many more genomic segments with each other than they do with non-Jewish people.

The study is based on the DNA analysis of Jews in several countries and is a good demonstration of the power of cultural studies through DNA:

Atzmon and his colleagues studied the DNA of 237 Jews from New York, Seattle, Athens and Rome, representing Ashkenazi, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi groups. They searched for genetic similarities among these populations, and compared them with the DNA of 418 non-Jews.

The study compared 2 million distinct DNA markers known as SNPs spread across the entire genome. That's four times the number of markers used in previous studies. "We are the first to analyse genome-wide differences," says Atzmon.

Atzmon's team found that the SNP markers in genetic segments of 3 million DNA letters or longer were 10 times more likely to be identical among Jews than non-Jews.

And here is a fascinating bit about the tracing of history as well as the benefits of such a study:

The genetic tree shows that between 100 and 150 generations ago – the equivalent of 2500 years – the founder population split in two, with half the Jews being dispersed into Europe and North Africa, the other half remaining in the Middle East.

This corresponds with accounts of the expulsion of the Jews into exile in 587 BC by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.

The genetic analysis shows that amongst modern Jews, the populations that are most genetically similar are those originating from Iraq and Iran. The rest share much more of their DNA with non-Jewish Europeans and North Africans, which may be why many Jews whose recent ancestors lived in Europe or Syria have blond hair or blue eyes.

The team found genetic traces of a period of intense conversion to Judaism during the time of the Roman Empire, when up to 10 per cent of citizens were Jewish. Among modern non-Jewish Europeans, Italians, Sardinians and the French are most closely genetically similar to modern Jews, the team found.

Atzmon says that the analysis could bring medical benefits by helping to identify genetic markers for diseases common in Jewish communities breast cancer, prostate cancer and the inherited metabolic condition, Tay-Sachs disease, which kills in infanthood.

You can access the full article with a very looong title here: Abraham's Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Report from the Islamic Astronomy Conference

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics atAmerican University of Sharjah.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged (in anticipation) about a conference that was going to take place in Abu Dhabi in the field often referred to as “Islamic Astronomy”. This phrase itself may be awkward, if not controversial and objectionable; indeed, how could anyone define an “Islamic” astronomy, could there be a Jewish astronomy, a Buddhist astronomy, etc.? Well, the phrase may be awkward, but I did not invent it; it has been used by some of the world’s foremost (non-Muslim) experts, e.g. Owen Gingerich (who wrote an article with that very title in Scientific American in 1986) and David King (who has published several works with that title or something very close, e.g. “Mathematical Islamic Astronomy”). It is simply a short phrase by which experts refer to one of two intertwined fields: (a) the astronomy that was developed during Islam’s “golden age”; (b) the applications of Astronomy to Islamic areas, such as prayer and fasting times.

Anyway, the conference in Abu Dhabi took place with about 200 participants from 26 countries, not counting 20 Muslim scholars (jurists) and some media reporters (including Al-Jazeera TV, which recorded a few of the talks for later broadcast). As I noted in my preliminary blog piece, although Muslim astronomers who contribute to this field have often had encounters with Islamic scholars, this was the first time that the latter were invited to such a conference as a large group, representing Saudi Arabia (at least 4 Sunni and 1 Shii scholars), Oman, UAE, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, UK, USA, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Sweden… None of them were speakers, although they insisted on giving talks, complaining that just listening and asking questions or making short comments did not put them as equals with the astronomers. The organizers (me among them, at least on the science side) refused this, insisting that this was an Astronomy conference, with papers refereed by a scientific committee made entirely of astronomers (fifteen experts from 11 countries, including two non-Muslims from the UK and the USA), and that full rigor and scientific integrity had to be maintained.

The solution we found to this (diplomatic) conundrum was to hold two side meetings between a dozen astronomers and a dozen Islamic scholars. This too was a first, and a “Memorandum of Understanding” was reached at the end. The scholars wanted to establish a number of “certainties”: they repeatedly asked whether our calculations – and which ones – could be taken as absolutely certain, so as to base Islamic decisions (when to start and end fasting, for instance) upon them. The astronomers, without being so explicit, wanted to establish themselves as the body who speaks on such matters; in other words, we wanted to impart on the jurists the idea that scientific topics must be the exclusive province of scientists, and theologians and jurists must abide by those conclusions and not step in front and start making proclamations. We ended up reaching a reasonable agreement, one which the astronomers considered to be a huge quantum leap, considering the Islamic scholars’ past reluctance to give any ground on such topics. The document, which is being translated, will be widely distributed (the media will surely find it very interesting!) and posted around. I will let you know when that happens – hopefully very soon.

OK, so what topics were addressed and which ones saw some interesting contributions and discussions? The issue of the Islamic calendar has now stepped to the front, I am happy to note. Why (am I happy)? Because for the first time in decades, if not centuries, there is now a wide realization that constructing and implementing a calendar for all Islamic events, whether religious or social, is the one way to avoid the chaos that we continue to witness whenever an occasion like the start of Ramadan comes up. And Muslim astronomers have really made significant progress on this, both on the science itself and on raising everyone’s understanding and awareness of its significance. In some future piece, I will explain the status of this topic.

Another issue saw some significant astronomical propositions, that of the prayer times at high latitudes, where the Islamic “canonical” rules for determining prayer times (ones that apply in moderate latitudes) do not work. This is a rather timely and urgent issue now, both because Muslim communities in high-latitude regions like Canada, UK, and Scandinavia have become very large, and because Ramadan is gradually shifting and will soon be taking place in June and July when the problem is most acute.

Finally, for the first time in such a conference, a session was devoted to Islam, Astronomy, and Environment, and it met with high interest, which was somewhat surprising to the organizers. This is a welcome development, and it has been concluded that the Environment is now an important topic for Muslims, and future conferences will feature it more prominently. And last but not least, half a dozen papers revolved around Education (and Astronomy and Islam), with one (female) presenter showing the results of a survey among students and graduates on their knowledge/ignorance of basic astronomical concepts, particularly what relates to the Moon and the Sun and their daily and monthly motions/variations. The results were, not surprisingly, depressing, but they served to underscore the need for everyone to work harder on that front. It was also decide to enlarge the scope of such a survey to as many countries and institutions (schools, mosques, work places, etc.).

To summarize: A really good conference in practically every way, with progress on many issues and fronts, particularly the thorny one of the relation and turf battle between the astronomers and the Islamic scholars.

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