Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Keep Creationism Away from Children - Bill Nye

by Salman Hameed

Here is Bill Nye simply saying that evolution is an essential concept in biology, and if we want a scientifically literate society, then it is important to understand it. And for the sake of the future, keep the children away from the idiocy of creationism. This is a short 2 minute video - and I agree with his basic message. I liked his analogy of biology without evolution is like geology without plate tectonics. But what I didn't like was the sole focus on young earth creationism (YEC) - the idea that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. I know that this is the most popular form of creationism in the US, but this is  a geology/astronomy problem and not a problem of biology. If one starts with the premise that the world was created with the last 10,000 years, then the implausibility of evolution would naturally follow from that. From science communications perspective, I think it is better to separate out the the problem of understanding deep time and the fact that species have evolved over billions of years. By the way, this simple video has generated quite a bit of a reaction in the comments - and the video has been viewed 2.5 million times!

We have been looking at the responses to evolution in the Muslim world and find that young Earth creationism is completely missing (though biological evolution - and in particular, human evolution, is rejected by a significant part of the population, depending on the country). The only place it has popped its head is amongst some Muslim groups in North-America - which is a fantastic example of how cultural influences shape these views. 

Paper for next Irtiqa Friday Journal Club

by Salman Hameed

We will continue the theme of understanding the reception of biological evolution with a recent paper by Heddy and Nadelson: A Global Perspective of the Variables Associated with Acceptance of Evolution published in Evolution: Education and Outreach this past May (Doi: 10.1007/s12052-012-0423-0). If you don't have access to the paper and are interesting in reading it, you can drop me an e-mail and I can send you a pdf copy.

Here is the abstract:
 A Global Perspective of the Variables Associated with Acceptance of Evolution
by Heddy and Nadelson 
The controversy of biological evolution due to conflicts with personal beliefs and worldviews is a phenomenon that spans many cultures. Acceptance of evolution is essential for global advancement in science, technology, and agriculture. Previous research has tended to focus on the factors that can influence acceptance of evolution by culture or country. Our research explored the relationship on an international scale using secondary data analysis to research evolution acceptance for 35 countries. Our results indicate significant relationships between public acceptance of evolution and religiosity, school-life expectancy, science literacy, and gross domestic product per capita. Implications and future directions for research are addressed. 
I will post my comments on the paper on Friday and will be looking forward to your input as well (for comments, please do read the paper or at least skim through it).

Check out past Irtiqa Journal Clubs here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Suspicious Urdu: Shameful profiling in NYC

by Salman Hameed

One of the great things about New York City is the cacophony of languages you hear on the streets. In fact, it is this diversity that makes New York - well New York. I did my undergraduate near NYC and had a chance to visit the city on many occasions. As far as a I remember, I had conversations in Urdu on many occasions - and no one batted an eye. Oh - but that was the 1990s. As it turns out, Urdu has become a suspicious language - at least for the NYPD. Here is an article about this profiling based on Urdu and Bengali. Okay so I can potentially see why Urdu is considered suspicious (thanks to people like Faisal Shehzad), but how did Bengali speakers got roped into this? May be the NYPD is still using some pre-1971 maps. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Earlier this summer, Thomas P. Galati, commanding officer of the New York Police Department’s elite intelligence division, sat for an unusual legal interrogation, during which he talked of his keen interest in Urdu-speaking New Yorkers. 
“I’m seeing Urdu,” Assistant Chief Galati said of the data generated by his eight-person demographics unit, which has eavesdropped on thousands of conversations between Muslims in restaurants and stores in New York City and New Jersey and on Long Island. “I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in.” 
Chief Galati, whose job it is to stalk the terrorists who may live in our midst, continued along this line. “A potential terrorist could hide in here,” he said. “Most Urdu speakers would be of concern.” 
All of which sounds reasonable, sort of, maybe. Except that something in the neighborhood of 80,000 New Yorkers, mostly of Pakistani and Indian descent, speak Urdu. 
A little later, Chief Galati turned to those New Yorkers — perhaps another 20,000 or 30,000 — who speak Bengali. 
“The fact that they are speaking Bengali is a factor I would want to know,” he said, adding that the information was used solely to be able to determine where “I should face a threat of a terrorist and that terrorist is Bengali.” 
Hmm..interesting. From that logic, there must be a lot of other potentially suspicious languages (kind of like Minority Report for languages - and, there is an unintentional pun in here as well). But I'm sure that this program of tracking Urdu and Bengali speakers must have led to a number of terrorist leads:

But here is the problem for those eager spies among us. Asked if all of this compiling of Urdu- and Bengali- and Arabic-language hangouts, and all of this listening in on the chatter, had resulted in tips about potential terrorist plots, Chief Galati conceded it had not. 
“I could tell you that I have never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a demographics report,” Chief Galati said. (His larger intelligence division has participated in many terror investigations.) 
The lawyer Jethro Eisenstein, arguing on behalf of plaintiffs in a long-running civil liberties dispute, conducted the legal grilling of Chief Galati. He is trying to determine whether the Police Department’s counterterrorism policies violate a consent decree limiting surveillance of political groups. 
Oh - okay. So there were no leads from this kind of profiling - and the Chief still thinks it is/was a good idea. Yikes! I wonder how many people were investigated for this particular linguistic proficiency and who now have a file in the police investigative record.

Read the full article here.

And while on the topic of languages, it appears that Turkey is now even expanding its influence over English. Researchers are now claiming that Indo-European languages, including English, had its origin in Turkey 9000 years ago. How convenient - and I would say, a bit suspicious...

New images from Curiosity

by Salman Hameed

Mars is no longer looking like an alien planet. Here is a spectacular image that shows geological layering on Mars. This is the where the rover is eventually headed - the base of Mount Sharp - about 10km away. I don't know about this particular image, but it is possible that the colors may have been scaled here to show the geological layering more clearly. Nevertheless, this is breathtaking!

And here is another image with another camera with slightly less resolution. But you can also get a sense of distance with the annotated picture:

For more images, go the Curiosity website.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Complex Landscape of Higher Education in Afghanistan

by Salman Hameed

There is a nice piece by John Bohannon on Afghan universities in last week's issue of Science (you may need subscription to access the full article). Where do we even begin in a country that has been at war for over three decades, and where basic infrastructure is lacking outside its capitol and a few other cities. While it is a hopeful article, one can also see the challenges associated in building a good educational foundation:
In 2002, Afghanistan had 12 barely functioning universities; now it has 30, and they enroll roughly 100,000 students. Secondary education has enjoyed an even more impressive recovery, with the number of high school graduates increasing sevenfold since 2002.
In fact, that surge has overwhelmed the country's system of higher education. Admission to public universities is based on a nationally administered exam, and students pay no tuition. The Ministry of Higher Education projects that, without a significant increase in capacity, universities will be able to offer spots to only one in 10 students who apply in 2014. 
The anticipated leap in demand was one reason the government created AUAF as the country's only not-for-profit, private and independent university. The U.S. government is its main funder: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent $200 million on higher education programs in Afghanistan since 2002, and half of its current tranche of $90 million for program funds is designated for AUAF. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah calls the school a “best-in-class institutional partner” and says the university is intended to show “the value of true, high-quality higher education in helping societies grow and develop.” 
Okay - it is good to see US money going into educational projects. But it is the large public universities that can have a larger impact:

But while AUAF may ultimately train the elites, the vast majority of Afghans seeking higher education will find it in the public university system. And that system is creaking.
Only a 10-minute drive away, Kabul University represents the yin to AUAF's yang on the circle of Afghan higher education. Its leafy, walled-in campus serves as a quiet oasis in a city that struggles to provide even the most basic amenities—water, power, waste disposal—for its 5 million residents. Its 20,000 students make it by far the largest university in the country. 
Founded in 1931, Kabul University is also the country's most prestigious, and its science programs are bulging at the seams. “This is introductory physics,” says Mohammad Arif, a chemist and dean of the faculty of science, poking his head into a lecture hall. The sweltering, windowless hall, with hundreds of students crammed into every seat right up to the top wings, looks more like the setting for a rock concert than a physics class.
“We are at double capacity,” Arif says. Some 1500 students are pursuing science and math degrees in the departments under his watch. The total does not include applied science majors in the university's schools of engineering, agriculture, and medicine. 
But it is vital to keep the long history of Afghanistan in mind - and the fact that it has largely been part of the big game between other powers: 
The current situation is a far cry from the recent past, says the 62-year-old Arif, who has taught at Kabul for 2 decades. “In the days of the Taliban, it was normal to have only one or two students in our classes,” says Arif, a cosmopolitan intellectual who was forced to wear a beard and turban during their reign. And that era was only the latest insult to the country's system of higher education. 
Arif had just finished his Ph.D. in chemistry in Moscow in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded his homeland. “That's when everything fell apart,” he says. The departure of Soviet troops in 1989 led to a civil war that subsided when the Taliban took over. “We just never recovered.”
It wasn't always so. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed with each other to invest in Afghan higher education. “The early 1960s was a golden age,” says AUAF's Fayez. There were academic exchanges and research collaborations with U.S. universities such as Purdue University, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Columbia University went a step further, building an institute in Kabul to train future teachers. Fayez was one of many Afghans in the program, which included a year in New York City. 
Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union invested heavily in science and engineering. It helped to build up Kabul's polytechnic universities, and by the 1970s Afghan academics were shuttling constantly between Moscow and Kabul. One reminder of that partnership is the fact that the older generation of Afghan scientists and engineers, like Arif, are just as likely to speak Russian as English. But the Soviet invasion soured that relationship. 
Nevertheless, the literacy rate has hovered around 20%. It is now up to 28%,  but there is still a long way to go. There are some positive signs now and I hope that the country see an end to the war at some point.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday Video: R.I.P. Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

by Salman Hameed

I just heard that Neil Armstrong passed away. Here is a part of the footage of his famous phrase, "One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind".

You can also check out the front page of the New York Times from July 21, 1969. Here is a collage of Walter Cronkite's coverage of Moon landing:

Farewell, Neil Armstrong.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Journal Club: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology

by Salman Hameed

For our Friday Journal Club, here is a recent paper by Ronan Southcott and J. Roger Downie:  Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach.

This paper used a questionnaire-based survey to look at the acceptance/rejection of biological evolution amongst first-year and fourth-year bioscience students at Glasgow University. I actually really like the paper as the authors take a nuanced approach to the reasons why people accept and reject evolution. Let me highlight here a few items that I found interesting (this is not an exhausted list - but biased towards my interests):

1) Here is a table that looks at the response to the following question: "Do you agree that the process of biological evolution lasting many millions of years has occurred in one form or another?"

Level 1 includes first year biology students and level 4 are final year biology students. The "High" level 4 means that these students took evolution courses beyond their first years (usually the zoology students), whereas "Low" level 4 students only covered evolution in their first year. 

Couple of things immediately jump out. The overall rejection of evolution is low (around 7%) even amongst the first-years who haven't had any exposure to a university level biology course. But it is really striking that all students who took evolution course(s) beyond their first year accept biological evolution. And this is from a decent sample of 255 students. So good news here: Education actually matters! 

2) But the reasons for rejection can be complex. The authors did ask an interesting set of questions to assess if the rejection is linked to a general skepticism about the claims of science. The table below list their four questions grouped by acceptors and rejectors of evolution. While there is no significant difference between the two groups on CO2-climate change and smoking-lung cancer connections, the responses do differ on Einstein's energy-mass equation as well as on plate tectonics (you will have to click on the table to see the larger font).

The interpretation here can be tricky. It seems that smoking and climate change similarities may simply be due to media exposure of those two topics. But the difference on the other two questions may be related to general lack of exposure to science, the authors conclude, and not due to a general skepticism of science by the rejectors. I think it will be interesting to see how these responses relate to social class and the education of parents, etc. Nevertheless, I think this an interesting avenue to explore effects of media and education.

3) I think one of the most interesting result lies in Table 10 of the paper (you will have to click on the table to see the larger font):

This exemplifies the messiness of how people think. Yes - overall there is an expected trend: those who agree with evolution have a higher acceptance rate for human evolution, macro-evolution, and micro-evolution, compared to those who reject evolution. No surprise there. However, what is interesting is that a substantial fraction of students who said they rejected evolution not only accept micro-evolution, but also agree with the statement that humans have descended from ancient species of apes! Conversely, a few acceptors also reject not only human evolution, but also micro-evolution. This is fascinating! We have been encountering similarly complex responses in our oral interviews with Muslim physicians and students and it will be fascinating to explore the reasons for these contradictory responses.

4) One last thing. The authors also looked at final year students who rejected evolution. Remember, these were the ones who did not did not take any evolution course after their first year. The numbers are low (7), but it is interesting that most of them agreed that there would never be enough evidence to overcome their religious beliefs. It is a small number, but it represents an important sub-group of students. Similarly, the authors looked at those students who used to reject evolution, but then changed their mind over the course of their time at the university. The number is again small (7), but this is what they found:
Again, this is an interesting case where evidence takes a back-seat to the reason why they accept or reject an idea. This is again a small sample - but it is fascinating that the change of mind is related to their accommodation with religion.

A very interesting paper and I will be interesting in their follow-up studies.

You can find past Irtiqa Friday Journal Clubs here.
Southcott, R and Downie, JR. (2012), Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology 
Evo Edu OutreachVolume 5, Number 2 (2012), 301-311, DOI: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Strife amongst Maulvis give astronomers a rare opening in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

There were three Eids (celebrating the end of Ramadan) in Pakistan this year. This beats even the usual controversy over the sighting of the evening crescent that announces the beginning of a new lunar month. What is fascinating is that there is an official moon-sighting committee (Ruet-e-Hilal Committee) - but that doesn't include any astronomers (at least that was the case a few years back). Instead, it has maulvis of various denominations. They usually sit on top of the tallest building in Karachi, and try to see the Moon and/or wait for testimonies of sightings from elsewhere. Here is a picture of the committee with the chair, Mufti Muneebur Rehman right behind the telescope:

Well as it turns out, other maulvis - especially those living in the northern areas of Pakistan (close to Peshawar) do not agree with this government-sponsored committee. So they tend to announce the sighting of the Moon on their own (often when the sighting of the Moon is not even theoretically possible) and Peshawar usually celebrates Eid a day before everyone else in Pakistan. This is an annual drama which is more predictable than the lunar calendar.

This year, however, things got even more problematic. First, a cleric in the northern province (K-P province) announced Eid two days before everyone else. He was promptly arrested by the police (I actually agree here. Finally some accountability for some bad astronomy!). But it was then followed by the usual sparring of maulvis from Peshawar versus the government lunar sighting committee over the one-day difference of Eid. Here is a clip from an evening talk-show on this matter, where two maulvis "discuss" the matter. The clip is in Urdu. But even if you don't understand Urdu, you can enjoy it as a dramatic discordant opera - especially towards the end of the clip. Here is the first part (thanks to Zakir Thaver for finding the clips):

It will not add any thing substantive, but you can watch the second and third part as well. Actually, the host did try to raise an important question at around 5 min into the clip: If there was no possibility of lunar sighting according to astronomy, why was the committee still on top of the building? The implication is that if science has nothing to do with this, then why dismiss the testimonies from Peshawar? I think it is an important question. Unfortunately, all we got was more shouting from the two maulvis.

But here is an interesting bit of news today. The critic in the clip (Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi of Pakistan Ulema Council) has decided to take the issue of multiple Eids to court. And here is the kicker: He distrusts the government sponsored Moon-sighting committee so much that he wants astronomers to decide on the dates lunar calendar.

Woo hoo! Here is an opening for astronomers in Pakistan. Science can accidentally win this calendar battle. The strategy of having no say at all finally payed off! 

Archaeology! Not a field for women in Iran.

by Salman Hameed

This is really bizarre. The Iranian government has decided to bar women from taking certain courses. It seems that one-half of the Iranian population was getting well-educated and the other half feared that they will be left behind. So, of course, the obvious solution is to restrict access to education:

In a move that has prompted a demand for a UN investigation by Iran's most celebrated human rights campaigner, the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, 36 universities have announced that 77 BA and BSc courses in the coming academic year will be "single gender" and effectively exclusive to men. 
It follows years in which Iranian women students have outperformed men, a trend at odds with the traditional male-dominated outlook of the country's religious leaders. Women outnumbered men by three to two in passing this year's university entrance exam. 
Senior clerics in Iran's theocratic regime have become concerned about the social side-effects of rising educational standards among women, including declining birth and marriage rates.
And what subjects will bar women?
Under the new policy, women undergraduates will be excluded from a broad range of studies in some of the country's leading institutions, including English literature, English translation, hotel management, archaeology, nuclear physics, computer science, electrical engineering, industrial engineering and business management.
Yes - we don't need women in those fields. What do they know about atoms and nuclei? Or about circuits and literature? Oh - but they definitely don't know about oil:
The Oil Industry University, which has several campuses across the country, says it will no longer accept female students at all, citing a lack of employer demand. Isfahan University provided a similar rationale for excluding women from its mining engineering degree, claiming 98% of female graduates ended up jobless.
Yikes! But in Iran's defense, their chief rival is Saudi Arabia - and it is hard to keep up with their misogynistic laws. This is the regional misogyny arms race.

Read the full article here.

By the way, this reminded me of the gender-based quota system that Pakistan used to have for admission into medical colleges. The score requirement for female students used to be 7-8 percentage points higher than the male students. However, in the mid-80s, a lawsuit was filed against this gender discrimination, and the courts ruled in favor of gender equity. That tilted the ratio of students decidedly in favor of females. I think it was fantastic that the courts didn't buy into the arguments that "women just get married and don't become professionals".

I hope the Iranian government reverses this idiotic decision.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Upcoming Irtiqa Friday Journal Club

by Salman Hameed

Our next Journal Club this Friday (August 24th) will address a paper by Southcott and Downie: Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology (Evolution: Education and Outreach, Volume 5, Number 2 (2012), 301-311). If you don't have access to the paper and are interested in reading it, drop me an e-mail and I will send you a pdf copy.

Here is the abstract for the paper:
Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology 
In a questionnaire-based survey, the proportion of Glasgow University first year biology students who rejected evolution in 2009–2011 was about 7%, similar to the previously reported average figure for 1987–1999. However, by final year, evolution rejection was absent in students who studied evolution beyond first year and 4% among those who did not. Evolution rejection was closely related to accepting a religion-based alternative, whereas acceptance was related to finding the evidence convincing. Although many religious students accepted evolution, 50% of Islamic students were rejecters, compared to 25% of Christians. A question testing acceptance of several scientific propositions showed no evidence that evolution rejecters were generally more skeptical of science than accepters. Rejecters were overall less secure than accepters in their identification of the correct definition for terms related to evolution and creationism, but, surprisingly, more than 10% of final year students chose a Lamarckian definition for Darwinian evolution. Accepters and rejecters responded equally poorly to a question on Darwin’s history, but level 4 was much better. A breakdown of evolution into three components (human origins, macroevolution, and microevolution) found that some evolution rejecters accepted some components, with microevolution having the highest acceptance and human origins the lowest. These findings are discussed in terms of strategies for evolution education and the phenomenon of evolution rejection worldwide.
I will post my comments on the paper on Friday and will be looking forward to your input as well (for comments, please do read the paper or at least skim through it).

Check out past Irtiqa Journal Clubs here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Waiting to hit the bottom on Pakistan's blasphemy law...

by Salman Hameed

Just when we think that the blasphemy accusations in Pakistan cannot get any crazier, we turn out to be wrong. The latest case is that of an 11-year old Christian girl - possibly with a Down Syndrome -  who is accused of blasphemy for burning pages of a booklet (not even the Qur'an itself) that teaches how to read the Qur'an. From Express Tribune:

An 11-eleven-year old Christian girl was accused of blasphemy and arrested for allegedly burning pages of a Noorani Qaida, a booklet used to learn the basics of the Holy Quran. 
Officials of the Ramna Police Station told The Express Tribune that the girl, named Rifta Masih, had burned a Noorani Qaida on August 16 and threw it in garbage after putting it in a plastic bag. Masih belonged to the rural area of Mehrabadi, which is next to the G-11 sector in Islamabad. 
Soon after the incident, residents of the area had gathered to lodge their protest. The protesters also allegedly beat up the girl and her mother, while the rest of the girl’s family managed to escape. 
The Kashmir Highway was also blocked by the protesters, but they dispersed after the police lodged an FIR of the case and took Rifta into custody.
This case is not in some remote area of Pakistan. Instead, this is close to Islamabad. All we can do is to constantly raise our voices against such acts and the laws that allow these things to happen.

Here is an excellent article by Mahdi Hasan in reaction to this episode:

I, for one, am fed up with politicians, mullahs and mobs using my religion to further their own vicious and sectarian agendas. So here's my own very simple message to the bigots, fanatics and reactionaries of the Islamic world: whatever intellectual or theological disagreements we may have with them, the fact is that Christians (and, for that matter, Jews) are our brethren; the Quran respectfully refers to them as the "People of the Book". Nor should we extend our tolerance, compassion and solidarity only to members of Abrahamic faiths while demonising and discriminating against everyone else. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists - all of them are also our brethren. Don't believe me? Listen to the verdict of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, the great Muslim caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad: "Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind." 
The imprisonment of this Christian child isn't only about Pakistan or Pakistanis. Those of us who claim to be members of a global Muslim ummah cannot be silent when such flagrant human-rights abuses are committed in the name of Islam and in the world's second-biggest Muslim-majority nation. Denial is not an option, nor is turning a blind eye. We have to speak out against hate, intolerance and the bullying of non-Muslim minorities - otherwise we risk becoming complicit in such crimes. "Not in my name" has to be more than just an anti-war slogan.
Read the full article here.

And this is not just about the treatment of Christians. The Ahmadis are treated even worse. That despicable bigot, Aamir Liaqat, is back on TV after his incendiary remarks about Ahmadis - and he is being assisted in his bigotry by the "father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb", Dr. A.Q. Khan. As long as people feel safe to make hate-statements against minorities in such an open manner, we will keep on seeing violence against the minorities. They are an easily identifiable target. The national identity card in Pakistan identifies the religion.

Here is an NPR report on the return Aamir Liaqat on TV:

Ottomans in the Indian Ocean

by Salman Hameed

The Age of Exploration - spanning roughly from the 15th through the 17th centuries - is usually centered on European expeditions. A new book by Giancarlo Casale looks at the expeditions of the Ottoman Empire during that time and it looks like a fascinating read (tip from Jenny White's fantastic blog, Kamil Pasha). Here is a review by Christopher Mott at Muftah:
In The Ottoman Age of Exploration, author Giancarlo Casale tackles the Ottoman Empire’s naval exploits in the Indian Ocean during the 16th century, a topic long-neglected by scholars. While demonstrating the importance of these exploits to Ottoman geopolitical grand strategy, Casale also works to challenge the Eurocentricism that surrounds the Age of Exploration, the era in the late 15th through 16th Centuries when European states began to project their power over significant parts of the globe, and highlights the campaigns waged by other powers in the Indian Ocean region against these European explorers. 
In contrast to the Ottoman naval build up in the Bosporus or North Africa (where the Empire’s navies secured coastlines for amphibious landings and to facilitate military goals), Ottoman exploration in the Indian Ocean did not grow out of the Empire’s expansionistic drive. Instead, its involvement in the region was a defensive reaction to Portuguese incursions into Indian Ocean trading zones. 
The Ottomans originally regarded the Indian Ocean as foreign and removed from their sphere of influence, as did most of the European powers of the time. The Indian Ocean was a self-contained trading system stretching from the Swahili Coast all the way to South-East Asia. The sailors and merchants who dominated the region were largely Arabs from the Gulf area while India served as the geographic lynchpin and largest market of goods within this network. 
In 1498 the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of Africa and broke into this trading system. Vasco de Gama saw the immense wealth and opportunity and immediately set about re-aligning trade relations in Portugal’s favor, often at the point of his ships’ cannons. 
And so a new, dynamic, and destructive force exploded onto the scene: the heavily armed Portuguese galleon. Even with the Portuguese strong-arming their way into strategic possessions along the trade routes scattered throughout India and Africa, the Ottomans only became actively interested in exploring opportunities within the region after 1517 when they successfully invaded and annexed the Mamluk Sultanate, which was based in Egypt but extended to the Levantine Coast. While the Ottomans initially expanded into the Indian Ocean with the purpose of securing the southern flank of these new territories, they quickly realized they too could reap significant financial rewards by securing the region’s trade routes.
Read the full review here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Pew Survey: Mahdi, Jesus, Devotional Dancing and Sorcery

by Salman Hameed

This is a follow-up to two previous posts on a recent Pew Survey of the Muslim world. The first post looked at religiosity patterns across different countries and the second looked at the sectarian divide across the Muslim world (you can also download the full report here). Here is the third and final post looking at the way Muslims across different nations look at Islamic eschatology, sorcery and devotional dancing.

Couple of quick points. I find it fascinating that throughout history people find that their time is the really important time. This is the reason they look for signs of end-of times in their own particular era (see my recent post: The Folly of Seeking Premonitions in Sacred Texts). For many, this provides meaning and value to their lives and beliefs.

The second coming of Jesus is also accepted within the Islamic tradition and is expected to happen close of the End-times. Here is how Muslims in different countries view that Jesus' imminent return will be in their own lifetimes:

What struck me about these statistics was the striking difference between Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly of the same country) and Malaysia and its next door neighbor, Indonesia. Why would there be such huge differences between these two sets of countries? Is it a particular popular culture meme (say a movie or a television serial) that has skewed the numbers higher in Pakistan compared to Bangladesh, and the same in Malaysia with respect to Indonesia.

And then here are the stats about the appearance of Mahdi (he is considered to be the 12th Imam for Shias, but he is mentioned in some Sunni traditions as well). Here the differences between Pakistan-Bangladesh and Malaysia-Indonesia are still significant, but less sever than the plot above. Interestingly, I don't see any significant jump in countries with large Shia populations (Iraq and Lebanon).

And here is the belief in witchcraft. First of all, Tanzania is off the charts here - but this belief is common more or less throughout the Muslim world. But note again the striking difference between Pakistan (50%) and Bangladesh (9%). Indonesia, on the other hand, has a higher belief in witchcraft that Malaysia. I don't think there is enough information here to say anything about the causal relations for these differences - but it would be fascinating to explore the cultural and societal factors that shape these diverse responses:

And it seems  that there is not much love for devotional dancing with the huge exception of Turkey! C'mon - what happened to sufi-incpired devotional dancing to Qawwali?

These are all fascinating numbers and it will be interesting to see how they track over the coming years. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Poem - "The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"

by Salman Hameed

Eid Mubarak!

And for this Sunday, here is a poem by Tracy K. Smith from her spectacular poetry collection, Life on Mars (see an earlier Irtiqa post about her book: The Poetry of Cosmology and Grief). In fact, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this year.


The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
by Tracy K. Smith

The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.

Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,

Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

The dark we've only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.

Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Vigilantism and class warfare in The Dark Knight Rises

by Salman Hameed

I know it has been a few weeks since the release of The Dark Knight Rises. But better late than never for the reviews. What did you think of the film?

Here is our Film Autopsy (review) of The Dark Knight Rises:

And here is our Review Essay: Vigilantism and Class Warfare in The Dark Knight Rises (this contains plot spoilers):

Of course, you can find our other Film Autopsies at our website or at our Facebook page.

Friday Journal Club: "Science, Religion, and Society"

by Salman Hameed

For our Friday Journal Club, here is a recent paper by biologist Jerry Coyne: Science Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America, published in the journal Evolution.

The paper looks at the reasons why a majority of Americans reject biological evolution. Coyne attributes the central reason reason to the "extreme religiosity of the United States". I think the Abstract does a pretty good job of laying out the basic position of the paper:
American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the United States suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the United States is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.
I have to say that I expected more from this paper. I think the topic is really interesting and it is, of course, worth exploring the reasons why a majority of the population in the world's most advanced nation reject evolution. The paper, instead, turns into a polemic against religion and is often sloppy with definitions. Even if religiosity (or religion) is the main correlation with the rejection of evolution, one has to look into the reasons why evolution became a controversial topic for American religions. Just saying "religion is the cause" is too simplistic and too broad. For example (from the Pew Survey), within the US, 81% of Buddhists, 80% of Hindus and 77% of Jews agree with the statement that "evolution is the best explanation of human life on Earth" (in case, you are wondering 45% of US Muslims also agree with this statement). So one has to be careful in using the term "religion" or "religiosity" for the causation.

Now it is true that much of the US resistance to evolution comes from Evangelical Christians. But that opposition has a particular context rooted in the politics and culture of early 20th century US. For example, it became part of the Evangelical opposition as a reaction to the spread of public education, as well as a legitimate complaint of having Social Darwinism (which is not biological evolution, but its application to society) and Eugenics as part of biology textbooks (plus, Eugenics-based compulsory sterilization was part of 30 US states in the early 20th century). This is not to excuse the poor reception of evolution in the 21st century, but to provide some context of why most Evangelical groups ended up rejecting evolution. I find it a bit odd that a paper focusing on the reasons for the rejection of evolution in the US does not mention - even in a cursory manner - any historical or cultural context.

Much of the remaining paper focus on showing the incompatibility of science and religion, and then arguing that the only reasonable solution to increasing the acceptance of evolution is by reducing religion in the US:
After having taught evolution for years, we have finally recognized where our real opposition lies: creationism is simply one of many symptoms of religion. A continuous stream of anti-evolution propaganda pours from the religiously motivated, distorting the public understanding of evolution. It follows that naturalistic evolution will not attract a majority of Americans until our nation becomes less religious. That, of course, is contrary to accommodationism, which takes religion as a given.
Okay - now these are huge topics to cover - bit couple of quick points. Coyne argues that "religion breeds resistance not only to evolution, but also to science itself (emphasis in the original paper). Well - it depends on what science and what religion. I know that Coyne is critiquing Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) - and indeed there are some valid critiques out there - but a blanket statement regarding religion and science is equally problematic. Most religions (and most religious beliefs) do not have much to say about most sciences. It is only a small sub-set of sciences - usually dealing with the questions of origins - where there is explicit interaction with some (or most) religions. But then we have to address the myriads of ways individuals address these questions of origins and interpret those within their own religious traditions. Wait a minute - but then this becomes a complicated mess which cannot be reduced to a simple answer: "religion did it". In fact, the blame for all this messiness goes to the long process of evolution that led to these complex bipedal species that defy simple explanations.

Towards the end of the paper, Coyne looks at socio-economic factors that may explain the high religiosity of America, which for him, explains the high rates of rejection of evolution. Josh Rosenau on his Thoughts from Kansas blog has done a thorough job addressing this part of the paper, so I will let him deal with this:

Coyne’s causal model holds that income inequality (and economic insecurity in general) -> religiosity -> creationism. To back this causal model, he works from aggregate levels of support for evolution in 34 industrialized nations, correlating those with national measures of religiosity, then correlates national religiosity with national income inequality. As we know, correlation is not causation, and this pattern of correlations could imply many other causal pathways: e.g., religiosity -> creationism -> income inequality or income inequality -> creationism -> religiosity. 
Certainly, the inequality -> religion -> creationism causal chain has an intuitive logic, but there’s an intuitive logic to other causal chains of these three items. Correlation alone doesn’t let us decide what order makes the most sense for a causal chain. For instance, Coyne and other gnu atheists have long sought to attribute all manner of social ills to the persistence of religion, so might high levels of religiosity cause both social inequality and creationism? Or might income inequality create little incentive to learn science, and then low science literacy leaves the population without a viable alternative to religious explanations? There are, naturally, ways to statistically test these different causal chains, but this would require Coyne to have tested his model by seeking to falsify alternative explanations, or even in considering potential confounding factors, and he shows no interest in rigorously testing his model. 
As with all such correlational studies, it’s also possible that the three variables at issue are connected by some fourth factor not present in Coyne’s model. The most obvious factor which Coyne ignores is education. Studies consistently show that, even after controlling for religiosity, how educated someone is has a tremendous impact on his or her views on evolution. Countries with better educational systems also tend to be more accepting of evolution, and countries with high income inequality tend to have worse education systems. The correlations Coyne uses to justify his causal model may, then, be spurious. Oddly, his paper never even mentions differences between national educational systems in discussing different nation’s attitudes towards science. Nor does the paper discuss differences in economic and social development, as measured by GDP or GNI or broader measures like the Human Development Index (which includes economic factors, life expectancy, educational statistics, and other factors to generate a more comprehensive picture of a nation’s development). 
This omission is surprising because controlling for GNI per capita is common in such international comparisons. Lots of things correlate with economic development, and factoring that out of a comparison is usually an important first step. Indeed, among the 34 countries Coyne examines, income inequality has a strong negative correlation with GNI per capita, and the median years of schooling among adults has a strong positive correlation with GNI per capita. Many measures of religiosity also correlate with GNI per capita and income inequality. These correlations make causality especially tricky to ascertain, though he could have controlled for them if he wanted to. 

You should read his full post here.

One final thought on the paper. I think it is important to understand the impact of religion on evolution acceptance,  debates over stem cells, issues related to the beginning and the end of life, etc. However, we need to do it in a way that takes into account the complex ways people interact with their beliefs. Plus, we need to appreciate the interplay of religion with culture and politics - and devise ways to distinguish them for a study on evolution acceptance.

Also see last week's Friday Journal Club: "Science Teachers' Views of Science and Religion vs the Islamic Perspective".

Coyne, J. A. (2012), SCIENCE, RELIGION, AND SOCIETY: THE PROBLEM OF EVOLUTION IN AMERICA. Evolution, 66: 2654–2663. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01664.x

Thursday, August 16, 2012

NYT and CNN on racial profiling and Islamophobia in the US

by Salman Hameed

Last Sunday, the New York Times had a front page article on racial profiling at the US airports - in particular, the Boston Logan airport. It turns out that it is serving as a testing ground for an "expanded use of behavioral detection methods". The article is overall quite critical of the methodology, but its first paragraph was unintentionally informative: 
More than 30 federal officers in an airport program intended to spot telltale mannerisms of potential terrorists say the operation has become a magnet for racial profiling, targeting not only Middle Easterners but also blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. 
So would the outrage had been less if the racial profiling was limited only to the Middle Easterners?? To be fair, the article clearly states that any profiling based on nationality, religion, or skin color, is wrong, nevertheless, the article did not use any examples of the profiling of Middle Easterners. On the other hand, at least now I know why I have been frequently sent for secondary passport control when I have entered US via Logan airport. And no, it doesn't matter that I have been in the US for 23 years. Ah - but I have family members in Pakistan and I visit them once a year. 

But here is what triggered this particular article:
That is what happened last month at Logan airport to Kenneth Boatner, 68, a psychologist and educational consultant in Boston who was traveling to Atlanta for a business trip. 
In a formal complaint he filed with the agency afterward, he said he was pulled out of line and detained for 29 minutes as agents thumbed through his checkbook and examined his clients’ clinical notes, his cellphone and other belongings. 
The officers gave no explanation, but Dr. Boatner, who is black, said he suspected the reason he was stopped was his race and appearance. He was wearing sweat pants, a white T-shirt and high-top sneakers. 
He said he felt humiliated. “I had never been subjected to anything like that,” he said in an interview. 
Officers in Boston acknowledged that they had no firm data on how frequently minority members were stopped. But based on their own observations, several officers estimated that they accounted for as many as 80 percent of passengers searched during certain shifts.
The officers identified nearly two dozen co-workers who they said consistently focused on stopping minority members in response to pressure from managers to meet certain threshold numbers for referrals to the State Police, federal immigration officials or other agencies. 
The stops were seen as a way of padding the program’s numbers and demonstrating to Washington policy makers that the behavior program was producing results, several officers said. 
Instead, the officers said, profiling undermined the usefulness of the program. Focusing on minority members, said a second officer who was interviewed by The Times, “takes officers away from the real threat, and we could miss a terrorist we are looking for.” 
Yikes! This is all outrageous. But the problem is that the level of tolerance for singling out Muslims in the US is getting quite high. If you want an example, check out this excellent piece on CNN (yes - CNN can still occasionally produce decent stuff) on the struggles of a mosque in Tennessee. This is about a year old, but it was shown again last week as the mosque finally opened this year:  

The fascinating thing about this documentary is that so many Americans, including politicians, are willing to come out as bigots in front of the camera - but that's because they don't think that such Islamophobia is bigotry. Check out the lawyer prosecuting the case against the construction of the mosque (he does have funky suits and bow-ties) - and the way he questioned if Islam can even be considered a religion (see the clip at 27 minutes into the documentary). At the same time, it is good to see many people - including those who granted the permit for the mosque unanimously - came to the defense of the freedom and respect of religion. Nevertheless, the lack of mainstream outrage over this and a host of similar cases in the US is stunning and a shame for the larger society.

And of course then you have Michelle Bachmann and her brand of McCarthyism against Muslims. She has written a letter to the Congress to investigate the infiltration of the US government by...Muslim Brotherhood. What? Yes. And you can read the letter here (pdf). Apart from the general ignorance, the letter claims that the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) "wants to impose shariah worldwide". And who specifically done the infiltration? Well, it is Huma Abedin - the deputy Chief of Staff for Hillary Clinton. Since, it is hard to maintain any sanity regarding Michelle Bachman, I'll let Jon Stewart deal with this:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pew Survey: How does the sectarian divide looks across the Muslim world?

by Salman Hameed

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on the importance of religion across the Muslim world. I know that in Islam, as like other major religions, there are historical schisms. The big one for Muslims is between the Shia and the Sunni - and further variations there in. There are places where Shias are living peacefully, and then there are places where they are killing each other. Pakistan is one of the battlegrounds for Shia-Sunni rivalry, which is played on the larger level between Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni).

Here are the results from the Pew survey of how do Muslims (this includes both Sunni and Shia) view the religious standing of Shias:

It is interesting that there is a sizable fraction Malaysia and Indonesia have never heard of Shias (this is not that surprising in former Soviet Republics). But I'm shocked to see that over 50% of the respondents in Egypt and Morocco think that Shias are not Muslims! One of the reasons, of course, is that they may not have many Shias in their countries - but still, they must know about them. Interestingly, there is also an almost 20 point difference in the attitudes towards Shias between Pakistan and Bangladesh. On the other hand, Azerbaijan say - Mmeh - of course they are Muslims!

What if we take the relative Shia populations into account? Here are the results and it seems that familiarity does increase acceptance from Sunnis:

But what about groups other than Shias? Here is a breakdown of different regional groups:

I'm again struck by the difference between Pakistan and Bangladesh over the Ahmadiyya sect (by the way, also check out the recent post about A.Q.Khan making a disgraceful statement about the Ahmadis on a Pakistani television program). But hey - check out Islam Liberal in Indonesia. So first the good news: It is fantastic that this is considered a recognizable group (it follows in the footsteps of Mutazillah). The bad news is that only 16% of Indonesians consider them as Muslims - though this is still a higher fraction that the acceptance of Ahmadis in Pakistan.

More to come. In the mean time, you can read the full Pew Report here. In addition, see the earlier post on Muslim religiosity here

Sadakat Kadri's book on the origins of the Shariah Law

by Salman Hameed

The new book by Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law From the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, is on my reading list. It has been getting fantastic reviews and is relevant to many of the debates taking place in the Muslim world today. The latest review appeared in last week's Book Review of the New York Times - and it reminded the readers about the importance of learning about historical contexts. For example, here are the relevant bits about Ibn-Tamiiya's unusually harsh interpretations of the Islamic law and his continuing influence in certain parts of Muslim societies:

 In the 13th century, as the Mongols swept across Asia and sacked Baghdad, the Mongol warrior Hulegu (a grandson of Genghis Khan) rephrased al-Ghazali’s query and posed it to Muslim jurists: Would they prefer to live under an unjust Muslim ruler or a just nonbeliever? Wanting to keep their heads, most preferred Hulegu’s rule. But one forcefully rejected the Mongol invasion, and his decision reverberates to this day. Ibn Taymiyya, a scholar from Damascus, issued several fatwas against the Mongols, who were threatening to overrun the Levant. (After Hulegu, some Mongol leaders nominally converted to Islam, but Ibn Taymiyya still considered them infidels.) He also argued that it was permissible for believers to kill other Muslims during battle, if those Muslims were fighting alongside the Mongols. Ibn Taymiyya is the intellectual forefather to many modern-day Islamic militants who use his anti-Mongol fatwas to justify violence against fellow Muslims, or even to declare them infidels. 
Kadri argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s writings were the product of a particular time and place, and that militants have twisted them to fit their own purposes. “His fatwas against the Mongols were intended to warn people that lip service to Islam is no proof of religious sincerity and peaceful intentions,” Kadri writes. “They are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.” 
Ibn Taymiyya inspired the father of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia today, the 18th-century cleric Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who decreed that many Muslims had abandoned the practices of their ancestors. Al-Wahhab’s followers led a failed uprising against Ottoman rule in the Hijaz, the region of Saudi Arabia where Islam was founded. The Wahhabi appropriation of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings would have a profound impact on the future of Islamic militancy, and their brief reign over Islam’s holy sites, Kadri writes, “introduced pilgrims from across the world to the concept that violent revolution might be a pious jihad.” 
The Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb took that idea a step further. His 1964 manifesto “Milestones” argued that holy war should be waged not only defensively to protect Muslim lands but also offensively against the enemies of Islam. Qutb also claimed that a Muslim ruler who does not apply Shariah should be declared an infidel and removed from power. 
Read the full review here. Unfortunately, the New York Times further reinforced the caricature of Islam and the Shariah Law by using a picture of an Indonesian woman being publicly caned by the Sharia police for having premarital sex. Gee - that's a gift for Islamophobes like Michelle Bachmann, who will read neither the book nor the review, but will get all the information from one picture.

Disgraceful statement by A.Q.Khan about Ahmadis

by Salman Hameed

Another low for A.Q. Khan - the "father of Pakistan's nuclear program". Fresh from endorsing the miraculous "water-kit" (see his statement more clearly here), he has now casually insulted the persecuted sect of Ahmadis. He made his statement while appearing on the television show of the despicable and bigoted host, Amir Liaqat (and yes, I have chosen my adjectives carefully to describe Amir).

Here is what A.Q Khan said (you'll have to forward the clip to 37:00 minutes and then you'll find the words of A.Q Khan's in all their glory):

Here is the statement again, with a translation by Let Us Build Pakistan (tip Khurram Nasser):

Sitting on a throne in Geo TV’s grand Ramzan show set, Dr. Khan said (in Urdu): “Hum Bhopalion ko do cheezon per fakhr hai, aik tau ye ke humaray haan aaj tak koi ghaddaar peda nahin hua, aur humain iss per bhi fakhr hai ke humaray haan aaj tak koi Qadiani peda nahin hua” 
Loose translation: “We, the people of Bhopal origin, are proud of two things: first, Bhopal has never produced a traitor. Second, Bhopal has never produced a Qadiyani”
Qadiyani is a derogatory term used by Sunni Muslims to describe the members of the Ahmadiyya community. And just note the jubilant reaction of the host and the applause of the crowd. This is embarrassing and sad.

Shame on A.Q. Khan.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pew Survey: Importance of religion for Muslims and their religious practice

by Salman Hameed

Just a few months ago, I had a post about a Pew Survey that looked at how the Muslim world sees American science and technology as well as the drone warfare. Now there is another Pew report out that looks at the religious practices of Muslims worldwide. I will have a couple of posts highlighting various aspects of the report pertinent to our discussions here. In fact, just this past Friday we had talked about the importance of religion in the worldview of Egyptian science teachers. So let's start with the importance of religion for Muslims across the globe:

This is a striking plot. It highlights the need for sensitivity towards religion when dealing with issues at the intersection of science & religion in much of the Muslim world. By sensitivity I don't mean to play down the science - but rather to be cognizant of the important role that religion plays in everyday life. Biological evolution, for example, is accepted by many Muslims and rejected by others. From science communication perspective, it will be a loosing battle if evolution is presented as an idea inherently against religion.

How often do Muslims pray in different countries? This is a question that we had included in our own work on Muslim physicians and medical students and had found a large variation between countries - with Malaysia and Turkey on two extremes, and Pakistan in the middle. Here is the Pew survey that more or less gives us a similar trend.

I think Bangladesh is a surprise here - it is even lower than Turkey.

There is one other plot I wanted to share here. The survey also asked a question about the perceptions of religious orthodoxy. In particular, it asked about if "there is only one interpretation of Islam" or can it be interpreted in different ways. Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents in most countries agreed with the single interpretation statement, with Morocco, Tunisia, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Iraq being the exceptions, with under 50%. And here is a plot that shows that the opinion of Muslims in the US on this matter is different than the global Muslim community.

I will have more from this Pew survey tomorrow. In the mean time, you can access the full report here.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Existentialism in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters"

by Salman Hameed

A little while ago I had mentioned that our local theater is doing a Woody Allen retrospective. I just came back from Hannah and Her Sisters, which I had not seen before (It is good - but not in the league of Annie Hall). One of the story lines involves hypochondriac Mickey, played of course by Woody Allen. Here is a very funny 10 minute segment where Mickey goes through an existential crisis. It includes an apt response to the problem of evil (and the Nazis): " How the hell do I know about the Nazis. I don't know how the can-opener works".

Martian surface from Curiosity

by Salman Hameed

It is thrilling to see images of another planet - but surface images takes the excitement to a new level. I really hope that that the successful Mars landing gives a jolt to the idea of human space exploration (I know...I know, unmanned vehicles also have a good rationale, but doesn't compare with humans on another planet). By the way, here is my chat about the Mars rover with Monte Belmonte on the fantastic Northampton station, WRSI - The  River,  and on the Bill Newman Show (last 25 minutes of the show) on WHMP.

But check out these early images from Curiosity. The first one is of the wall of Gale crater - the place where Curiosity has landed:

Oh - so hazy and dusty. If humans were on Mars, they would have decided to stay inside their biodome. Here is the description of the image:

This image of the crater wall is north of the landing site, or behind the rover. Here, a network of valleys believed to have formed by water erosion enters Gale Crater from the outside. This is the first view scientists have had of a fluvial system - one relating to a river or stream -- from the surface of Mars. Known and studied since the 1970s beginning with NASA's Viking missions, such networks date from a period in Martian history when water flowed freely across the surface. The main channel deposit seen here resembles a dirt road ascending into the mountains, which are actually the north wall and rim of Gale Crater.
Although Curiosity is about 11 miles (18 kilometers) away from this area and the view is obscured somewhat by dust and haze, the image provides new insights into the style of sediment transport within this system. Curiosity has no current plans to visit this valley system, since the primary objective of the rover is south of the landing site. But images taken later and with the 100-millimeter Mastcam are likely to allow scientists to study the area in significantly more detail.

And here is a closeup of the surface right next to Curiosity. It looks just like the Earth, except for the rectangular boxes and arrows...

And here is the description of the image: 
With the loose debris blasted away by the rockets, details of the underlying materials are clearly seen. Of particular note is a well-defined, topmost layer that contains fragments of rock embedded in a matix of finer material. Shown in the inset in the figure are pebbles up to 1.25 inches (about 3 centimeters) across (upper two arrows) and a larger clast 4 inches (11.5 centimeters) long protruding up by about 2 inches (10 centimeters) from the layer in which it is embedded. Clast-rich sedimentary layers can form in a number of ways. Their mechanisms of formation can be distinguished by the size, shape, surface textures and positioning with respect to each other of the fragments in the layers. 
Of course, learn more about the latest images and the status of the mission at the JPL Curiosity website

Saturday, August 11, 2012

An Underground Muslim sect - no really under the ground...

by Salman Hameed

Here is an Islamic version of a weird sect: Faizrakhmanists. They are not an apocalyptic sect, but they did shun the world to go underground for decades - and some wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate beneath the ground:
Four members of a breakaway Muslim sect in Russia's Tatarstan region have been charged with cruelty against children for allegedly keeping them underground.
Police discovered 27 children and 38 adults living in catacomb-like cells in an eight-level underground bunker. 
The sect's elderly leader, Faizrakhman Sattarov, had reportedly wanted to build his own Islamic caliphate beneath the ground. 
Prosecutors said some of the children had lived there for more than a decade.
The sect was uncovered last week in a suburb of the city of Kazan during an investigation into recent attacks on Muslim clerics in Tatarstan, a mainly Muslim region on the River Volga.
Nineteen under-age children were removed by the Russian authorities, some of them placed in care, others in hospital, Russian government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reports.
Officials said the children, aged between one and 17 years, had never left the compound, gone to school or been treated by a doctor, and had rarely seen the light of day.
And here is how the sect started - and you can see a connection to technology:
According to the Russian website Islam News, Mr Sattarov, 83, declared himself an Islamic prophet in the mid-1960s after interpreting sparks from a trolleybus cable as a divine light from God. 
He and his followers began to shun the outside world in the early part of this century.
The sect, dubbed Faizrakhmanists after their founder, reportedly do not recognise Russian state laws or the authority of mainstream Muslim leaders in Tatarstan.
Only a few sect members were allowed to leave the community to work as traders at a local market, local media report. 
The cramped cells descend on eight levels under a decrepit, three-storey brick house on a 700 sq m (7,530 sq ft) plot of land, the Associated Press reports.
But now they have been charged with the crime of arbitrariness. Hmm...I think there may be a number of other crimes in here. But okay - arbitrariness is a start. Here is how it is defined in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation:
Article 330. Arbitrariness
1. Arbitrariness, that is the unauthorized commission of actions contrary to the order presented by a law or any other normative legal act, actions whose lawfulness is contested by an organization or individual, if such actions have inflicted substantial harm, shall be punishable by a fine in the amount of 100 to 200 minimum wages, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of one to two months, or by compulsory works for a term of 180 to 240 hours, or by corrective labour for a term of one to two years, or by arrest for a term of three to six months.
2. The same deed, committed with the use of violence or with the threat if its use,
shall be punishable by restraint of liberty for a term of up to three years, or by arrest for a term of four to six months, or by deprivation of liberty for a term of up to five years. 
Read the full story here.
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