Sunday, March 20, 2011

Blogging from Pakistan: New Rock Star Authors!

Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid

By Salman Hameed

Pakistan's literature is booming right now. Even better, some of these authors - "Pak-Lit Pack" - are also getting the attention they deserve. I recently had a post about the special edition of Granta that was dedicated to writers from Pakistan. Even issues pertinent to science & religion have featured some of the writings. For example, one of the featured writers in Granta, Uzma Aslam Khan, wrote Geometry of God, where the story involves the discovery of Pakicetus - a key transitional link between land mammals and whales (see an earlier post: Whales and the Geometry of God). Oh - and sorry creationists. Whales are mammals and scientists are finding out more and more about how and when some mammal species transitioned back to water - and some of the key fossils have been found in Pakistan. 

Couple of days ago, I was visiting a coffee shop in Karachi and saw a large magazine with the cover blaring "Pakistan's New Rock Star Authors!!!". This was the March issue of Xpose - a "fashion and lifestyle" magazine. Much of the issue was dedicated to Karachi Literature Festival that was held in early February and organized by the British Council and Oxford University Press. I've heard that the festival was fantastic and I hope to time one of my visits to Pakistan around the festival time.

In any case, it is delightful that authors are being treated as rock stars. I think it would be great to organize a Pakistan science festival also. One problem I see is that, instead of science, it will be overrun by pseudo science of a) people claiming to find science in the Quran, b) minions of Harun Yahya and Zakir Naik pretending to be scientific, and c) astrology and other new-agey science. Perhaps, just like the literature, we will have to wait for the maturation of science in the public conscience. A festival hijacked by these pseudosciences will be even more detrimental than having no festival at all. I think amateur astronomy in Pakistan is at this threshold. There are sizable number of people doing serious astronomy. But, at present, I don't see a window for a science festival free of the pseudosciences. May be in a few years! Or may be in Sharjah or Cairo? But this could have a good impact on the society - as long as we keep the pseudosciences out.

In the mean time - we can perhaps all read some good Pakistani literature. For starters, read "Granta" issue on Pakistan here.


Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

You are right. Science festivals are prone to be hijacked by such a lot. But this is the way it works here. So far we have been partly successful in bringing up the astronomy culture in Pakistan and the public response has been encouraging. We haven't really had that problem of pseudo-sciences as one might have anticipated. And the real fun of discussion is to be versatile and able to answer critical questions rather than passing judgement that the particular person seems to have no idea how science works. In fact this is the way science works :-)

Salman Hameed said...

Astronomy is actually one of the easier thing to get across. Methodology of science is much harder. In astronomy there has been a growing number of people involved with actual astronomy - and that critical mass helps to keep the pseudosciences out. In science, in general, that is not the case. And we may end up with a science festival that is not only an embarrassment - but that may even give legitimacy to ideas that are not even close to science. For a versatile discussion - have astrologers join-in for the annual meeting of Pakistan astronomical society - and address their critical inquiry :)

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

To narrow down the problem, it is actually evolution only that gathers much nuisance. But we can prepare a list of tangy answers to the most anticipated questions or objections, should such a situation arise. Rest of the advanced ideas like cloning, novel propulsion, alternate ideas for interstellar journies, or innovative treatments of cancer etc (long list) is where you will get mostly positive, sometimes brilliant ideas from the general public. (Interestingly, there hasn't been any adverse reaction against the idea of cloning in Pakistani gereral population). So there is still a long list of venues we can work on for any science festival in Pakistan. And if you are seriously thinking of organizing a small science fair some time in future, I am willing to do whatever I can to contribute. I have a small team astronomy enthusiasts aching for some action :-)
For astro-logy, yes, we HAVE to observe absolute ZERO TOLERANCE in any such events. An astro-loger knows what he/she is saying. The kind of knowledge astro-logers have of the skies and the orbits of planets etc, they could be the best astro-nomers, yet they choose to follow the opposite route.

Salman Hameed said...


I think a science fair would be hugely beneficial. But I think we are looking at 3-5 year plan. This will require a coalition of the sane on science - and I think it is possible. We'll definitely call on the help of astronomers - as astronomy is doing well in Pakistan.

By the way, a bunch of us organized a space exhibition in 1992 (to celebrate International Space Year) in what was then called Hotel Taj Mahal - and we had over 10,000 people in 3 days. So a science festival can be done.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

I visited one such science festival in Islamabad sports complex (I think in 1992) when I was 12. It was a huge event with lots of organisers including Geological departments, Suparco, Pakistan Defence Forces, and even teams from China. It was really a helful experience. Science was starting to stretch wings in Pakistan, but then I don't know what happened? I am totally with you when you say the state of science culture in Pakistan is appalling. Don't expect anything from the government. They can build a monument or a squash court spending 20 million rupees but they cannot build a small observatory costing less than that for general public.
3-5 years...that is good enough time. Hopefully I would be summing up the paper work of my conceived public observatory then (haven't worked out location and parameters yet, but it is definitely in the pipeline). We can work out a science festival sponsored by private companies. Mehdi (my brother you met) is into the corporate circles of Pakistan and can be immensely helpful, I reckon, and he is always keen to go extra miles for any such things. And then our team of astronomers is enthusiastic and resourceful too. That would be our two cents for this idea if that would be at all helpful. I guess you must be much more resourceful to actually benefit to any extent from our little contribution.

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