Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Earliest urban culture in Kuwait, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia

by Salman Hameed

This area is currently in turmoil. But these countries host the remains of some of the earliest cities - dating back to more than 7000 years ago! Yes, older than Sumerian Uruk. The ancient urbanization seems to have been linked to the Ubaidian period. Here are some excerpts from Science (you may need subscription to access the full article):

 “This is the earliest complex society in the world. If you want to understand the roots of the urban revolution, you have to look at the Ubaid.” 
At Bahra, archaeologists have found the oldest permanent settlement south of Mesopotamia. The finds come on the heels of a joint U.S.-Syrian discovery of a surprisingly large and sophisticated Ubaid town on the northern fringe of the Mesopotamian plain. Data from both sites contradict the old assumption that Ubaid culture was spread by precocious southern Mesopotamians who colonized their more primitive neighbors—a harbinger of the militaristic Mesopotamian empires to come. Instead, these and a handful of other sites suggest that a loose network of local peoples from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf helped shape a way of life that eventually spawned cities. 
Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky. 
Although researchers agree that factors such as irrigation and trade were key to seeding civilization, the emphasis has shifted to how those ideas grew and spread. The new data suggest that the Ubaid was a time of mutual exchange among independent peoples rather than control asserted by a single sophisticated group. “Like the Ottoman Empire, people may have adapted in different ways,” Bielinski says, his face ruddy from the sun and wind. Stein, who leads the dig in Syria, uses another analogy: “It's almost like the European Union,” he says. People shared a common identity but retained their own local traditions. That view puts a radically different spin on civilization's emergence.
here is the timeline of the birth of these cities: 

But by 4000 B.C.E., Ubaidian materials vanish from the records and the more familiar Uruk culture starts to dominate: 
Ultimately, archaeologists say, the Ubaid's most important innovations were not technological but social. A new style of housing, blossoming trade, specialty jobs, temples, and growing acceptance of a budding social hierarchy changed the way people saw themselves and related to others, Bielinski says. Practical acceptance of outside ways rather than “slavish imitation” was the Ubaid way, Stein adds. 
And southern Mesopotamia was not the source of the entire culture. At least one form of pottery, a greenish buff ware with black paint, seems to appear in northern Mesopotamia first. Iranian digs have revealed some of the earliest examples of banding infant skulls. The popularity of wool provided new markets for a growing number of pastoralists, who may have played a key role in transmitting goods and ideas. 
In this emerging picture, the Ubaid is a dress rehearsal for the radical changes to come. Across an area of unprecedented size, a complicated mix of peoples experimented with what became the building blocks of civilization. “There were tremendous integrative forces coming into play at this time,” Carter says. Despite the similarity of pots and architecture from Turkey to Oman, “it was not a homogenous cultural landscape.” What began to emerge, Harvard's Lamberg-Karlovsky says, were the “technologies of social control,” such as writing and organized groups of laborers that ultimately created our modern complex society. 
But further exploration of the deeply buried Ubaid sites in Iraq will not be easy. Sectarian turmoil in Syria has halted the excavations at Tell Zeidan, preventing Stein's access to what he calls “archaeological heaven.” And Iran remains off-limits to foreigners. Such constraints suggest that the Ubaid peoples will retain some of their ancient mystery for years to come.
Read the full article here.                   

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Billy the Kit" - 2000-2012

by Salman Hameed

I have mentioned Billy the Kit (Urdu speakers should put an added emphasis on the two "Ls" in Billy) couple of times on Irtiqa. Just this past week we detected a big inoperable tumor under his tongue. He had always been healthy and led an active life. Now he is permanently a part of the White Rose Garden in Brattleboro, Vermont. I got him from an animal shelter in Las Cruces, New Mexico and, a few months later, drove across the US to western Massachusetts. He was my first pet and I just didn't realize how much these pets become a part of you. I know he was a cat - and that he didn't know anything about death. But I find it intriguing/perplexing that this loss has gone into a peculiar grief component (dedicated for non-humans) that I didn't really know that it existed. Well...almost all of the atoms in Billy's body were formed in the Big Bang and in the stars, and now they have been recycled back into our planet. So good bye to this celestial cat :)

Just this past December, the New Yorker published this fantastic poem by Franz Wright:

On the Death of a Cat
In life, death
was nothing
to you: I am

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occurrred

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised
to an infinite
power and perfection)--no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered


- Franz Wright

Monday, February 27, 2012

Science Literacy and Guesstimating Skills

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

The past two Fridays, GulfNews published two columns of mine that try to highlight the importance of science literacy and the rarely appreciated, much less taught, art/science of “guesstimating” (producing educated guesses or “back-of-the-envelope” estimates for questions without or before having to perform the full calculation).
Here are excerpts from each article, starting with the science literacy one:
On the first day of my Astronomy course, I give students a “pre-assessment” quiz for me (and for them) to get a general idea of the knowledge – and misconceptions – they bring in. Questions include: how old are the universe, the sun, and the earth; who was Copernicus; and what is the difference between a planet and a star… Few students are able to answer these questions correctly.

What I don’t tell my students is that a famous documentary once asked Harvard students on the day of their graduation why it is hotter in the summer than in the winter (in the northern hemisphere), and fewer than ten percent of them answered correctly. Similarly, at George Mason University, half of the seniors who were surveyed could not state the difference between an atom and a molecule. Such ignorance is much more widespread in the general public, as half of the (surveyed) American public does not know how long it takes the earth to orbit around the sun, and one in five thinks the sun goes around the earth. In recent studies, only about 7 % of American adults were judged to be “scientifically literate”…

Science literacy is the general understanding of scientific ideas (facts, terms, theories); it allows a reasonably educated person to digest scientific information that is received from various media; it also allows one to follow the discussion on a science-related topic (say stem cell research) and come to an informed conclusion. It is important to stress that such literacy is broad and does not depend on one’s scientific training. Indeed, studies (in the west) have shown that many scientists who possess high but narrow expertise in their fields do not have enough general and broad knowledge in other areas. (How many non-biologists know the difference between genes and chromosomes?)
Why is this type of literacy important?
The situation in the United States is quite instructive, because it has been studied for many years and in different population samples, and experts have been able to draw some useful conclusions. They have found that while the general public in the US is not very scientifically literate (not at international standards), Americans who have gone to college and majored in any field end up acquiring significant science literacy. This is because contrary to most other higher education systems, American universities require all students (even those majoring in arts or humanities) to take and pass 1 to 3 science courses.

Another important remark is the realization that Americans go to museums, zoos, and aquariums quite frequently; indeed, 30 % of US residents visit a museum in a given year, compared to 16 % of Europeans and 14 % of the Japanese; 58 % of Americans visit a zoo or an aquarium each year, compared to 9 % of Europeans and 32 % of the Japanese.
Read the whole (800 words) article here.
And here are a few paragraphs from the piece on guesstimating skills:
My students are often stunned to hear me ask them to estimate or even guess some answers. The expressions on their faces, and often the words from their lips, say it clearly: are you asking us to guess in a technical, scientific course at a respectable university? Yes, indeed, I not only ask my students to “educate-guess”, I try to show them the importance of this skill and how to learn it.

It was the Italian-American Nobel Prize winning physicist who made this skill popular when he posed to his (doctoral) students such questions as: how many piano tuners are there in Chicago; how far can a duck fly; and other such strange questions, which “obviously” had nothing to do with science or with education… Answering these kinds of questions, for which one could never obtain a precise result, became known as “guesstimating” or performing “back-of-the-envelope” calculations.

Why did Fermi want his students to be able to answer such questions? Why is this guessing/ estimating an important skill to acquire? I tell my students (most of whom are Engineering majors) that when they have an idea or a project they wish to propose to their supervisors, or if one of their staff members brings a proposal to them, that they better be able to quickly estimate the cost, the feasibility, the timescale needed, and the drawbacks in the idea under consideration. Moreover, if they want to convince their superiors of the need for some projects, they should be able to show simple and convincing numbers to the decision-makers.

For example, one should be able to estimate the amount of water lost in the undammed rivers of a given state, or the amount of time wasted by drivers or pedestrians or employees due to certain urban or architectural constructions, or the amount of energy that could be saved (and the attached costs) in placing solar panels on the roofs of a building. One simple and favorite question of mine is to ask students to estimate/calculate the amount of money they waste by skipping one class, knowing how much their parents have paid for their tuition in a given semester…

The tricky part is that for one to do a good estimate, one needs some facts/knowledge, some of which may not be available or easily accessible. And that is when the skill of “educated-guessing” comes in as an important tool. Conversely, when one is shown a result (say a student or an engineer brings me a calculation), one must be able to quickly check (by guesstimating) whether the result makes sense or not. This is where one combines some essential knowledge, some sharp mental skills, and some critical thinking. This is how the above components of education combine; this is what makes a smartly educated person in today’s era of quickly accessible facts.
Einstein once said “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. By this he meant that one should be able to solve problems as simply (not as precisely) as possible, but simplicity must not sacrifice the above elements of: basic facts/knowledge, sharp logic/skills, and critical thinking. We need to integrate this more fully into our approach to education.

Read the whole thing here, including some such questions I proposed that the readers try to tackle…

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Video: Teaching Everyday Science in Afghanistan

by Salman Hameed

As part of  TEDx Pioneer Valley, here is a talk on science education in Afghanistan. I had/have no idea of the status of science and science education in Afghanistan. For example, we do hear a bit about primary and secondary education, especially when it comes to girls' education, but what kind and level of science is included in such schools? I'm sure there is more to the picture, but here is one snapshot. This is Camilla Barry on Teaching Everyday Science in Afghanistan:

Friday, February 24, 2012

TEDx talk: When Evidence is Powerless...

by Salman Hameed

Last month I had a chance to give a talk as part of TEDx Pioneer Valley program: How Learning Happens. It was actually a fantastic experience and had a chance to sit through some fascinating talks and interact with some very interesting people. I will be posting some other talks in the coming days. In the mean time, here is the video of my talk When Evidence is Powerless... (about 19 minutes). Here is a brief description:
Millions of individuals in the United States believe in UFOs and ghosts; yet we know that there is no credible evidence for any visitation from outer space or for dead souls hanging out in abandoned houses. In contrast, there is now overwhelming evidence that humans and other species on the planet have evolved over the past 4.5 billion years; yet 40 percent of Americans reject evolution. It seems that for many there is no connection between belief and evidence. If evidence is powerless, what are some other factors that shape their beliefs, and what are the implications for science education?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Einstein 1, GPS 0

by Salman Hameed

It seems that neutrinos got a bad rep. They after all behaved well within the rules - and did not travel faster the speed of light. Phew! On the one hand we don't need new textbooks just yet. On the other hand, this was exciting - and it would have been cool to have some major shuffle in physics. We still have to figure out laws that work consistently at both large and small scales. But Einstein's speed limit stands for now!

Here is the story from Science. It seems that there was a communication error between the GPS unit and the computer. Khaaaaaaaahn! Oh I mean - GPPPPPPS! What? Too soon for a Star Trek joke?

It appears that the faster-than-light neutrino results, announced last September by the OPERA collaboration in Italy, was due to a mistake after all. A bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame.
Physicists had detected neutrinos travelling from the CERN laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso laboratory near L'Aquila that appeared to make the trip in about 60 nanoseconds less than light speed. Many other physicists suspected that the result was due to some kind of error, given that it seems at odds with Einstein's special theory of relativity, which says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That theory has been vindicated by many experiments over the decades.

According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos' flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos. New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Is there ever a justification for a fake vaccination program?

by Salman Hameed

I have had several posts about the challenges of polio eradication in Pakistan (for example, see here and here). Part of the problem was the mistrust that many have of NGOs working in the northern areas of Pakistan. But then we got the reports that a doctor - working for the CIA - was conducting a fake-vaccination program to get the DNA sample of Osama bin Laden. Now, whatever importance one places on bin Laden, the fake-vaccination effort is despicable - and it sows mistrust for hundreds of authentic health-related efforts in the region. In one of its less proud moments, the prestigious science journal Nature responded to this news with an editorial titled, Don't Blame the CIA (From July 2011, it is available free of cost). No seriously. It pointed to other problems in Pakistan's healthcare system, but the editorial did not find a reason to raise any questions about the ethics of a medical doctor running a fake vaccination program. Shame on Nature.

Now Salim H. Ali brings up this issue in an excellent article for the Huffington Post, Why Pakistanis Don't Trust America 

In mid-February, Californian Congressman Dana Rohrabacher announced his desire to nominate Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, for the Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest civilian honor bestowed by our legislature. The deed which merits this accolade is his supposed assistance to the CIA in finding Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year. Dr. Afridi is now languishing in a Pakistani prison under indefinite detention on charges of treason. Congressman's Rohrabacher's efforts to stand by the man who risked his life for this mission, and perhaps for monetary rewards and relocation to the United States, are understandable. Most Pakistani-Americans, including myself, are certainly relieved that a maniac like Osama bin Laden is no longer able to plan further acts of terrorism.

However, what is missing from this narrative is the method that was used by the CIA to glean the information about bin Laden's whereabouts. A fake hepatitis vaccination campaign was carried out by Dr. Afridi at the behest of the CIA to go door-to-door and ascertain who was residing in particular homes. If actual vaccine was administered, one might even consider the operation to have derivative health benefits. However, Dr. Afridi's mission from the CIA was not to incidentally deliver immunity but rather to collect blood samples from the children residing in the bin Laden compound for DNA confirmation of the culprit.

There are conflicting reports about whether or not Afridi's nurse was actually able to get the blood samples. U.S. officials can claim that this strategy was pursued to ensure they hit the correct target and to minimize collateral damage. Yet, most accounts of the bin Laden raid suggest that the decision to attack was largely based on tracking bin Laden's courier rather than any biological proof of his family's residence there.

So consider the episode from the perspective of a Pakistani. The trust that the public usually gives medical professionals on public health campaigns is being used as subterfuge to gather biological intelligence. There was complete disregard for the negative impact this action would have on the perception of future health campaigns in a country which is already paranoid about conspiracy theories regarding vaccination. Polio and other rare and obsolescent infectious diseases are making a rude comeback in the country because of such fears of vaccination. According to the World Health Organization in 2011, Pakistan led the world's tally in polio cases with 83, followed by Nigeria, which had 23 cases, and Afghanistan, with 12. Out of the children diagnosed, 50 had vaccination offered to them but their parents refused due to conspiratorial fears.
When actions like the CIA's fake vaccine campaign vindicate conspiratorial beliefs, one begins to see why even educated Pakistanis have begun to deeply distrust the United States.There were further revelations of U.S. complicity in co-opting humanitarian goals in Pakistan for "security objectives" in a recently published book by Marc Ambinder on U.S. Intelligence (The Command). During the devastating Kashmir earthquake of 2005 in which 90,000 people were killed, Arbinder notes that: "Using valid U.S. passports and posing as construction and aid workers, dozens of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and contractors flooded in without the requisite background checks from the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency."
You add regular attacks to the mix and you have the recipe to loose the support of even the most liberal and left-leaning Pakistanis. 
The very basis of trust between nations is assistance in times of need. When trust between nations is violated during such times of humanitarian urgency, a great disservice is done to the principles and ideals which we as Americans are so proud to preach to the world. Such acts also make it subsequently more difficult to have genuine travel for citizen diplomacy since visa regimes get even more rigid and insurmountable. The willingness of the U.S. government to discount the impact of intelligence operations on long-term humanitarian goals is deeply disturbing. At the end of the day, we will only find collective security in South Asia and the United States when both Americans and Pakistanis feel that their lives are equally precious.
Read the full article here

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

Akyol’s book on liberal Islam

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

A few months ago, Mustafa Akyol published a book which I fear will not be paid enough attention to among the Muslim educated public, for reasons I wish to explain before I present the ideas contained in it.
First, the title, ‘Islam without extremes: a Muslim case for liberty’ was clearly chosen by its US publisher, surely with the American public in mind, and probably with the conservatives in mind. (Liberty?? Extremes?)
Secondly, Akyol is a bright young Turkish columnist and thinker with a moderate Islamic tendency, who has dealt with a large variety of topics, but unfortunately at some point he got enamored with Intelligent Design, and his support and collaboration with the American ID movement (the Discovery Institute) stained him for some time (he has since backed away from that belief and relationship).
These conservative links, I fear, and the fact that the title does not give a clear indication of the author’s thesis, may negate the book’s impact.  That would be a shame, because this is truly an important book, one of the most important ones to come out on Islam in recent years!
The book should have been titled “A case of Islamic liberalism”, with perhaps as a subtitle, something like “how Islam can support various freedoms”. Indeed, what Akyol is arguing in this book is the fact that Islam not only can support a variety of freedoms (of speech, of belief and unbelief, of capital venture, etc.), it indeed started out that way in the first century or two, before veering toward what is now seen as the “orthodoxy” and before, in the past century or so, producing extremism, i.e. fundamentalism and even jihadism.
What is important to stress is that Akyol is not a secular humanist who believes that religion should just be abandoned or relegated to the mosques or at most to the privacy of one’s home life; he is a young modernist (has gone to school in private English-language schools in Turkey), one who is well read, well-traveled, and well connected with thinkers and institutions worldwide; he believes that secularism (that a state should not be built on religious principles but rather constructed by society on the basis of the best management methods) must not oppose people’s religiosity, and Islam can indeed fit well within a liberal political, economic, and social system, where everyone lives freely and happily. Indeed, Akyol is equally strong in his condemnation of, on the one hand, the “brutal non-Islam” of rulers like Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and somewhat milder versions elsewhere (in Syria, for instance), and on the other hand of fundamentalist movements like the Taliban and somewhat milder versions like Wahhabism.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first one, Akyol reviews the pre-modern history of Islam, with the intention of showing that Islam started right and produced a liberal system where freedom in society increases and widens in all areas and at all levels, but then it went wrong. He pinpoints the double shifts in Islamic thought in: a) the turn in jurisprudence from Abu Hanifa’s (d. 767) principles of reason in constructing Islamic law (based on qiyas, analogy, istihsan, preference for the common good, and ra’y, scholarly opinion) to Shafi’i and others; b) the defeat of Mu’tazilite theology (in the 9th century CE) and the dominance of the conservative Ash’ari theology ever since. He also bemoans the Islamic culture’s failure to adopt Al-Farabi’s philosophy of democratic rule and political freedoms.
Indeed, one of the strengths of Akyol’s book is in showing, with serious references throughout, how the principles of liberalism (minimal involvement of the state in the lives and affairs of the citizens, plus full rights for everyone, including non-Muslims) can be found in Islam and indeed in the Qur’an itself.
In Part 2, Akyol looks at the history of the Ottoman Empire and attempts to show how it did gradually move toward liberalism, at least in terms of giving non-Muslims full citizenship rights. Indeed, he finds support to his earlier thesis in the fact that the Ottomans (and Turkish Muslims today) subscribe to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence (although the later versions of it substantially diluted Abu Hanifa’s rationalist methodology) and to the Maturidi school of theology (which is somewhere between Mu’tazilism and Ash’arism).
Then Muslims went wrong again, early in the twentieth century due to the following causes: a) western colonialism and imperialism (political, military, cultural); b) Muslim rulers’ turn to communism and to suppression of Islam. Akyol sees Islamism in general, and jihadism in particular, as reactions to the general western offensive again Muslims, their lands and their culture, and to the subjugated state of Muslims who saw it as an obligation to fight back (with various means).
The last part of the book is the boldest and most important. In it, Akyol presents his views for the future of the Muslim society. His vision is a resolutely liberal one, albeit one where Islam remains as a prime social factor, but where subscription to and practice of Islam becomes a purely individual decision. He explains that the current “Turkish model” (the AKP’s socio-economic policies), now widely seen as a positive model to be emulated by Islamic movements elsewhere, is the result of fifty years of development and progress on the Turkish socio-political front.
Akyol is not afraid to tackle the most difficult issues facing Muslim leaders today, i.e. freedom of apostasy and freedom of blasphemy; indeed, the titles of the last three chapters are clear and bold enough: “freedom from the state”, “freedom to sin”, “freedom from Islam”. He does his best to convince the reader that there are Islamic principles to allow of that (the pages on the difficult topic of apostasy are quite good); for instance, he distinguishes between the “rights of God” and the “rights of men” in people’s actions; he reminds us that Prophet Muhammad never punished anyone for apostasy, that Islam rejects coercion, that punishing people for not abiding by Islamic rules only needs to hypocrisy, etc.
I think this last part is not as tightly argued as the previous ones, but for a first attempt, this is already a very strong effort. I don’t think the orthodox minds will be happy with these propositions and they will probably have strong (traditional) arguments to hit back with, but at least we are now seeing serious debates on such crucial questions.
This is a bold and important book, and I hope I’ve convinced you to put it near the top of your reading lists. I honestly think it is one of the most important books of 2011; if you have any serious interest in Islam and its future, do make sure you read this.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Iqbal: Pro-modernity in English, Anti-Modernity in Persian/Urdu?

by Salman Hameed

In my class (Evolution, Islam, and Modernity) for tomorrow we are looking at the Modernist Islamic Movements at the end of the 19th century and extending into the first half of the 20th century. Of course, we are looking at familiar names such Muhammad Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Aghani, Rashid Rida, etc. But Allama Iqbal - who ended up being celebrated as the national poet of Pakistan - presents an interesting case. His book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought is indeed important. But in Pakistan, at least when I was growing up there, we mostly talked about his poetry (and his idea of Pakistan) and rarely had discussions about his book. The book may be important, but is it also influential? The reason I thought about this is that one of the readings (from Kurzman's Modernist Islam) claimed that Iqbal's Persian and Urdu poetry often denounced modernity, but his English-language prose embraced modernity. I didn't know that such differences were so explicit in Iqbal.

For example, at one point Iqbal praised Turkey for its wide scale westernizing reforms: "The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom: she alone has passed from ideal to the real - a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle". This bit is from his Reconstruction. But then in his Persian poetry, he turns on Turkey's Westernizing project in his Javid namah:
The Turk, torn from itself,
Enravished by the West, drinks from her hand
A poison sweet; and since the antidote
He has renounced, what can I say except
God save him. 
I just find the use of different languages for different messages, not necessarily surprising, but definitely interesting. He is talking to two different audiences. I know that another modernist Jamal al-din al-Afghani also faced a similar criticism.

But to be fair, Iqbal was a thoughtful writer and was placing his own struggles and contradictions straight on the paper. He even talks about biological evolution in Reconstruction and begrudgingly accepts it - though he leaves room for a higher plane of spirituality. Similarly, in one of his famous poems, Masjid-i-Qurtuba (Cordoba Mosque), he says a few positive things about benefits of reason (and may be even the Enlightenment) [quoted from Kurzman]:
Germany has witnessed the upheaval of the Reformation,
    which has erased all marks of earlier times.
The sanctity of the temple priest has been nullified,
    and the delicate ship of thought has embarked on its course.
The French have also seen a revolution,
    which has overturned the world of Westerners.
The descendants of the Greeks, aged by their worship of antiquity,
    have become youthful again with the pleasures of renewal.
The soul of the Muslim has a similar ferment today,
    [but] this is a divine secret which the tongue in unable to express.
Let us see what springs from the bottom of this ocean;
    let us see what colors the sky now turns. 
This is fascinating stuff. We have been having a ball in our class sorting through the various definitions of modernities as well as terms such as westernization, secularization, and tradition.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012

The slow and persistent decline of our uniqueness...

by Salman Hameed

Okay this might a bit too strong of a statement. But I was struck by two articles in last week's Nature. The first one was about the possible detection of two Earth-sized planets orbiting around a Sun-like star located about a 1000 light years away. The system is called Kepler 20, it consists of at least 5 planets - 3 comparable in size to Neptune and 2 Earth size. No - none of these planets are in the habitable zone. In fact, all of them have orbits smaller than Mercury. Liquid water probably doesn't exist on these planets - and most likely no life. But is there really any reason to believe that we won't find any earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star? If you are betting person, would you really bet against this possibility? In fact, guessing from the pace of things, I think we will have such candidate planets within the next 2-3 years, if not sooner. Wither the uniqueness of Earth.

And then we have competing animals threatening claims of the uniqueness of human intelligence. This should not completely a surprise considering the close genetic link between humans and some of its cousin apes. But here is a review of a collection of articles in a new book, Primate Minds: Built to Connect with Other Minds:

Ten years ago, human minds were thought to be unique in their ability to connect. But as The Primate Mind shows, there has been a revolution in our understanding. This collection of essays, the result of a 2009 conference organized by primatologist Frans de Waal and ethologist Pier Francesco Ferrari, presents an authoritative, surprising and enriching picture of our monkey and ape cousins. We now know that they have remarkably sophisticated social minds, and that their poor performance in social tasks set by humans was more a result of researchers asking the wrong questions than deficiencies in their experimental subjects.
And actually some of the wrong assumptions are quite fascinating:

            A. SHAH/NATURE PICTURE LIBRARYYoung chimpanzees watch and mimic an adult as she digs for termites, showing that the ability to learn by observing others is not unique to humans.
For example, a chapter by psychologists April Ruiz and Laurie Santos explores whether non-human primates can monitor where others are looking and use that information in their own decision-making — a test of whether the animal understands what another perceives. Primatologists first tested this by seeing whether monkeys followed an experimenter's gaze to find a box containing food. The animals performed unexpectedly poorly. But changing the task from cooperation to competition unleashed the primates' true potential: macaques readily stole food from humans who looked away, but refrained from doing so when watched. Placing the task in a setting more relevant to macaque social life, which is less cooperative than our own, emphasized the continuity between our social mind and that of our primate ancestors.
And this is a spectacular example of not only our misunderstanding, but also of our underestimation regarding ape intelligence:
The Primate Mind shows how this discrepancy between neural similarities and behavioural dissimilarities has been resolved. There is more than one way to copy others: one can either mimic every detail, or achieve the same goal by different means. Recent studies, reviewed in chapters by cognitive biologist Ludwig Huber and by primatologist Andrew Whiten and his colleagues, reveal that apes will rationally shift between these alternatives. 
If apes see a man pressing a button with his head because his hands are occupied holding a blanket, they will press the button with their hands. Apes thus demonstrate something smarter than simple imitation — the ability to infer why a person is doing something in a particular way. But if the man's hands are not occupied, giving the ape no clue as to why the person would push a button with his head, chimpanzees tend also to use their heads. It is one of many illustrations of how easy it is to misinterpret experimental results: the apes' ability to copy the details of an action only when it makes sense was misinterpreted as an inability to imitate fine details.
And here is the larger perspective:

One by one, claims to human uniqueness have fallen. Other essays by de Waal and anthropologists Brian Hare and Jingzhi Tan show that our primate cousins share empathy and the inclination to cooperate. Apes console other apes after conflict. Chimps overcome their fear of water to save a drowning chimp. Monkeys can favour actions that benefit other monkeys. Apes even recruit other apes to collaborate with them, and will negotiate a fair distribution of pay-offs. 
Clearly, we are different from other primates. I have never seen macaques display anything like a toddler's eagerness to imitate. The Primate Mind suggests that it may not be the capacity to imitate, but the motivation to do so that sets us apart from other animals. Like all good suggestions, this opens the door to more questions about the mechanisms and evolution of such motivation — and, ultimately, about how our own social minds evolved from the deeply interconnected minds of our primate cousins.
Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access it).

And far from being threatened by this decline of uniqueness, celebrate the interconnectedness. It is these connections that also illuminate the way things have come to be - from stars and planets to cauliflower and humans.

Daily Show on religion and birth-control issue

by Salman Hameed

The whole debate over the availability of contraception is stunningly insane. It is also quite incredible that not more people are upset about the collapse of Church and State separation in this particular case (and yes, I know that the Establishment clause is meant to protect religion also and not just separation...). On a more practical level, the Catholic Church is fighting a loosing battle considering the fact that a majority of Catholics in the US support the measure. In any case, I will have a post on it later, but in the mean time, enjoy Vagina Ideologues from The Daily Show:

and this Sean Hannity piece is hilarious (really - he never thought that it is odd that his focus group contains only men!):

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Notorious Hitchcock

by Salman Hameed

On of my all time favorite films is Notorious. The story, the cinematography, the dialogue - everything is just superb. It is now out on blur-ray along with other Hitchcock classics, Spellbound and Rebecca. I was reading this article about Notorious this past Sunday and I was struck by this paragraph which illustrates the way films became a different art form than novels and plays:
It’s with Hitchcock that many of us begin to sense the presence of the director, to understand that movies are more than a matter of attractive people reciting their lines in front of a camera. Along with Orson Welles, Hitchcock is the filmmaker most responsible for making viewers aware of form, for showing us that what we have here is something distinct from novels and plays, a medium with its own things to say and its own way of saying them.
Very cool! It makes sense, and of course, Citizen Kane is a perfect example of this. The article goes on to talk about Notorious and how it switches the points of view in the film and then makes an interesting comment about authoritarian cultures. First the bit about Notorious:
“Notorious,” for example, could be considered an exercise in the artful variation of points of view, as created through camerawork that is, with one conspicuous exception, almost entirely objective. As he would do 14 years later in “Psycho” (1960, and perhaps the film most closely related to “Notorious” in the Hitchcock canon), Hitchcock begins the film with a kind of journalistic detachment, offering a precise dateline (“Miami, Florida. Three-Twenty P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six ...”) and inviting the audience to share the predatory curiosity of the reporters and photographers waiting outside a courtroom for the “notorious” Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the beautiful and loose-living daughter of a Nazi spy who has just been convicted of treason. 
An alcoholic with a reputation for sleeping around, Alicia is far from the typical Hollywood heroine of 1946. But Hitchcock quickly transfers our sympathy to her with a single, audacious image: at a party at her house, a dark silhouette, seen from behind, dominates the scene with a supernatural presence: this is Devlin (Cary Grant), a man without a past (or even a first name) who turns out to be a federal agent, sent to manipulate Alicia into signing up for a dangerous secret mission. As irresponsible as Alicia may be, we learn from the lighting and his position in the frame that Devlin is something much worse: a user, a schemer, a cop.
 The point of view now widens to embrace the couple, as Devlin struggles to complete his mission and get Alicia out safely. These passages become the occasion for some marvelously executed set pieces: the theft of the key, the discovery in the wine cellar, Alicia’s realization that Sebastian knows of her treachery (by now, they are married) and is slowly poisoning her.
But Hitchcock has one more shift of perspective to execute. With the discovery of his wife’s infidelity Sebastian too has become a victim. He has loved inappropriately, against the wishes of his mother — a figure (the actress is billed as Madame Konstantin) as stern and desiccated as Mrs. Bates in “Psycho” — and now he must pay for his error.
This is what makes both Psycho and Notorious extraordinary. But the article goes further to talk about the embedded critique of suppression in the name of preserving order and morality. We see this in the rhetoric of the religious-right in the US and I'm familiar with even more pronounced debates in Pakistan (it also reminded me of the recent episode of TV vigilantism against couples in Karachi by the host of a morning TV program): 
For Hitchcock, this is nothing less than the error of being human, of having needs and feelings within an authoritarian culture, a compound of church and state, that insists on suppressing such things in the name of order and morality. At the end of “Notorious” Hitchcock doesn’t focus on the glamorous couple escaping into a future of shared romantic ecstasy but on the isolated figure of Sebastian, slowly climbing a short flight of stairs (always a weighted image in Hitchcock) on the way to facing a lonely death.
It is at such moments as this that we finally and most fully appreciate Hitchcock. Behind the dazzling entertainer, behind the peerless master of form, there is a man of great heart, who sides not with the judges but with the judged, who reserves his compassion for those unfortunate creatures — like Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo,” or the entire uncomprehending population of Bodega Bay in “The Birds” — who must live under the eyes of angry gods. Which is to say, all of us.
Read the full article here and here the trailer for Notorious:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dickens, Darwin and Spontaneous Combustion

by Salman Hameed

Last week was Charles Dicken's bicentennial. Nature has an interesting article on Dickens that talks about his views on science and religion:
Science, in Dickens's view, does immense good — moral, social and intellectual — but only when it works hand in hand with imagination and reverence. Relations between science and Christianity in the nineteenth century were often more harmonious than we might imagine, if we focus only on the challenges that natural selection posed to some kinds of religious belief. Dickens is an interesting case study. 
He was a Protestant Christian, but had no strong affiliation to any particular sect, and did not see science as a threat to religious faith. On the contrary, he argued, learning the true nature of forces or objects brings us closer to their creator. In a speech he gave in 1869 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, he speculated that Jesus might have taught scientific truths about the “wonders on every hand”, but chose not to because “the people of that time could not bear them”. 
It is characteristic of Dickens's undogmatic attitude to both science and religion that he was largely unfazed by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (John Murray, 1859). He published a review of the Origin in his magazine, All the Year Round, in 1860. Although not wholly persuaded by Darwin, the author did acknowledge that the theory “entails the vastest consequences”, and quoted Darwin at length. Darwin in turn was a long-time fan of Dickens's novels, and literary critic Gillian Beer has suggested that Darwin drew on Dickens in writing the Origin. In Darwin's Plots (Cambridge University Press; 2000) Beer highlights the shared concerns of these two eminent men — among them, the relationship between the extraordinary profusion of people and things, and the many-layered interconnections between entities.

And then perhaps we can all agree that science without imagination is - well not very good science. After all, imagination is also an essential component of science and this is something that people forget. Newton, Einstein, Bohr - they could not have come up with their ideas without a healthy imagination.
Dickens was appalled by people whose scientific knowledge was not connected to imagination or feelings. As soon as we meet Bradley Headstone, the teacher in Our Mutual Friend (1865), we know that he will prove a villain, because his mind is rule-bound and sterile: “From his earliest childhood up, his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage ... astronomy to the right, political economy to the left — natural history, the physical sciences, figures, music, the lower mathematics, and what not, all in their several places.” The same tidy-mindedness that indicates the barrenness of the little Gradgrinds' natural specimens foretells Headstone's descent into criminal insanity. 
What excited Dickens most about science was its ability to reveal an unimagined world behind ordinary objects. “The facts of science are at least as full of poetry, as the most poetical fancies,” he wrote in an 1848 review of Robert Hunt's The Poetry of Science. By revealing the wonder of everyday things, science compensates us for the beloved but ignorant beliefs it destroys. “When [science] has freed us from a harmless superstition,” Dickens wrote in the same review, “she offers to our contemplation something better and more beautiful, something which, rightly considered, is more elevating to the soul, nobler and more stimulating to the soaring fancy.” Dinosaurs, he went on, are really far more impressive than dragons, and coral reefs more so than mermaids.
 But then here is the bit about spontaneous combustion:

Even though Dickens was happy to endorse contemporary science when he judged it to be supporting religion, feeding the imagination and telling stories, he was not above flouting scientific law for the sake of sensation. In Bleak House (1853), for example, two men in search of a crucial lost bundle of letters visit Krook's rag-and-bottle shop, only to find that “a smouldering suffocating vapour”, “a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling”, and a thing that looks like a small burnt log are all that remain of Krook: he has been the victim of “Spontaneous Combustion”. 
The controversy that followed the publication of this unscientific episode is well known. Reproached in print by science writer George Henry Lewes for perpetuating a “vulgar error ... peculiarly adapted to the avid credulity of unscientific minds”, Dickens responded with a list of apparent real-world cases of spontaneous combustion and a defiant preface defending them as authentic, even though they had been thoroughly discredited by Lewes and others.
Aware that this was not enough to regain credibility, Dickens concluded his preface with an appeal to the imagination: “In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.” 
It was the same argument that he had always made: that everyday things, and ordinary people, contain the potential for astonishing transformation. In the past he had championed science as a way of revealing this “romantic side”, but this time, backed into a corner, he used it to defend a belief that no man of science could countenance. 
For Dickens, science was compelling when it could be domesticated, moralized and made into an updated version of the old fairy tales, a way of telling poetical and magical tales about the world. But when science conflicted with a good story — he combusted it.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the full article).

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