Monday, February 26, 2007

134)"Pillars of Creation" or "Fingers on the Hand of God"; take your pick.

The following image from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website, appropriately titled "Pillars of Creation", has become one of the most famous astronomical pictures of modern times:


Picture 1) is a close-up of extremely dense finger-like projections within the Eagle Nebula, which is a collection of matter made up of dust, debris and atoms of mainly hydrogen gas. To observe where these finger-like projections are situated in the big picture, look at picture 2):


If you draw a line from the center of picture 2) towards 4 o'clock, you will pass right through what looks like "Fingers on the Hand of God". This is not an entirely inappropriate description because within these densely-packed fingers, which are light years or tens of trillions of kilometers long, brand new baby stars are fashioned or "composed", to use the word of 10th century Ismaili Muslim cosmologist Abu Yakub Al-Sijistani. When matter congregates with such density, individual particles attract one another with increasing force of gravity, one of the four forces of nature discovered so far. As the matter gets more and more progressively packed together in smaller spaces, the pressure, kinetic energy and temperature of the system increases. When the temperature increaes to millions and millions of degrees the strong nuclear force, another one of the four forces of nature, which holds protons and neutrons together inside the atomic nucleus, is breached, causing individual atomic nuclei of hydrogen to fuse together to form helium nuclei. Eventually helium nuclei fuse together to form carbon nuclei and so on and so forth. This is the process of nuclear fusion and vast amounts of energy are released outward to eventually balance the inwardly attractive gravitational force that started the reaction in the first place. This is how our glorious 5 billion year old sun operates in equilibrium as it reaches the half-way point in its 10 billion year expected life expectancy. Eventually, the hydrogen atoms used as nuclear fuel will start to deplete, the equilibrium will be shattered, the outward expansion force will overcome the inward gravitational attraction and the star will start to expand and heat up even further("red giant") until it becomes a supernova and explodes, only to fling out and seed the universe with its load of newly-synthesised carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc, of which we and all other living systems are made.

Reference to the Quranic "Hand of Allah", an anthropomorphism of immense symbolic significance, finds its way into the daily prayers of Ismaili Muslims worldwide but that is another story altogether.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

133)Timeless sayings of Aga Khan III, consolidated.

Owing to the much-visited blogpost entitled 'Quotes of Aga Khan IV, consolidated', I seized on the opportunity to consolidate four earlier blogposts of utterances by Mowlana Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III, made by me on this blogsite(posts no. 2, 10, 22 and 35) . I first placed this consolidated post on the Ismaili Mail website and now post it here as well. These 5 sayings by our 48th Imam are indeed timeless and would be valid during the era of any Imam because they deal with a quintessentially Ismaili Muslim vision of the material universe and how this vision meshes with knowledge of higher realities. Some of these utterances also make up one of the two signature posts that appears after every one of my entries on this blogsite :

1) Quote from a letter written by Our 48th Imam to a friend in 1952 under the title: “What have we forgotten in Islam?”:

Islam is fundamentally in its very nature a natural religion. Throughout the Quran God’s signs (Ayats) are referred to as the natural phenomenon, the law and order of the universe, the exactitudes and consequences of the relations between natural phenomenon in cause and effect. Over and over, the stars, sun, moon, earthquakes, fruits of the earth and trees are mentioned as the signs of divine power, divine law and divine order. Even in the Ayeh of Noor, divine is referred to as the natural phenomenon of light and even references are made to the fruit of the earth. During the great period of Islam, Muslims did not forget these principles of their religion. Alas, Islam which is a natural religion in which God’s miracles are the very law and order of nature drifted away and still drifting away, even in Pakistan, from science which is the study of those very laws and orders of nature.

……Islam is a natural religion of which the Ayats are the universe in which we live and move and have our being……

…..The God of the Quran is the one whose Ayats are the universe……

2) About Hafiz, the renowned Iranian poet:
“Then came Hafiz - by far the greatest singer of the soul of man. In him we can find all the strivings, all the sorrow, all the victories and joys, all the hopes and disappointments of each and every one of us. In him we find contact, direct and immediate, with the outer universe interpreted as an infinite reality of matter, as a mirror of an eternal spirit, or indeed (as Spinoza later said) an absolute existence of which matter and spirit alike are but two of infinite modes and facets.”

-Inaugural Lecture Before the Iran Society by Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan, November 9, 1936 London, United Kingdom.

3) There is a fundamental difference between the Jewish idea of creation and that of Islam. The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought. Outside His will, outside His thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allah alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine will (Memoirs of Aga Khan, 1954).

4) Islamic doctrine goes further than the other great religions, for it proclaims the presence of the soul, perhaps minute but nevertheless existing in an embryonic state, in all existence in matter, in animals, trees, and space itself. Every individual, every molecule, every atom has its own spiritual relationship with the All-Powerful Soul of God. (Memoirs of Aga Khan, 1954).

5) Thus there was an absolute need for the Divine Word’s revelation, to Mohammed himself, a man like the others, of God’s person and of his relations to the Universe which he had created. Once man has thus comprehended the essence of existence, there remains for him the duty, since he knows the absolute value of his own soul, of making for himself a direct path which will constantly lead his individual soul to and bind it with the universal Soul of which the Universe is, as much of it as we perceive with our limited visions, one of the infinite manifestations. Thus Islam’s basic principle can only be defined as mono-realism and not as monotheism. Consider, for example, the opening declaration of every Islamic prayer: “Allah-o-Akbar”. What does that mean? There can be no doubt that the second word of the declaration likens the character of Allah to a matrix which contains all and gives existence to the infinite, to space, to time, to the Universe, to all active and passive forces imaginable, to life and to the soul. Imam Hassan has explained the Islamic doctrine of God and the Universe by analogy with the sun and its reflection in the pool of a fountain; there is certainly a reflection or image of the sun, but with what poverty and with what little reality; how small and pale is the likeness between this impalpable image and the immense, blazing, white-hot glory of the celestial sphere itself. Allah is the sun; and the Universe, as we know it in all its magnitude, and time, with its power, are nothing more than the reflection of the Absolute in the mirror of the fountain (memoirs of Aga Khan, 1954).


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

132)Vivacious Valentine's Day Vista.

Even the folks at NASA's 'Astronomy Picture of the Day' have a sense of humour and propriety. For the romantic in us and to commemorate Valentine's Day, today's February 14th 2007 picture is of the Rosette Nebula with its resemblance to a red rose:

On a more serious note, the central cluster of bright young stars was formed 'only' 4 million years ago and the ultraviolet radiation these stars emit is what gives the the surrounding nebula its red glow and rose-like appearance.

A fitting picture to send to one's valentine especially if he or she is inclined to gaze up at the night sky.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

131)Summary of the seven posts in my "Ayats(Signs) in the Universe series".

Blogpost no. 127 was the 7th in the above series, dealing with how proteins are made inside living cells and what, if any, allegories and symbolism about religion can be extracted from this sign or ayat in nature. This effort is based on the premise that the material universe is part of the structure of truth, the ultimate nature of which it is the goal of religion to reach.

The other 6 postings in the series have been summarized in blogpost no. 89, as follows:

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

89)'Ayats'(Signs) in the Universe series: previous postings.

As I began to put my thoughts down on this blogsite, some of my posts took on a decidedly personal flavour in so far as my appreciation of various objects and events(also known as signs or ayats) in the universe were concerned. I therefore created a specific grouping of posts and titled them "'Ayats'(Signs) in the Universe series". So far I have written 6 such posts and they are numbered 19, 29, 31, 38, 39 and 41 on the blogsite. The topics covered are varied and include:

1)a natural, pristine lakefront scene(post 19);
2)the goings-on inside a living cell(post 29);
3)the dynamic earth and the plate tectonics revolution(post 31);
4)the glorious, life-giving process of photosynthesis(post 38);
5)speeding angels and the relativity of time and space(post 39);
6)the beauty and evil of the HIV/Aids virus(post 41).


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Monday, February 12, 2007

130)"If you think of this Universe, He is above this Universe; if you think of a thousand other Universes, He is above a thousand other Universes...."

For Torontonians(and other Canadians), the Zion Heights Junior School mentioned in this piece will ring a bell: it has been the location of the weekend Bayview Jamat Khana since the late 1980s.:

Physicist's guiding star put universe at his feet
Globe and Mail

Young as he still is at 34, Professor Nima Arkani-Hamed was far younger when he walked into a high-school classroom and found proof that the universe was, indeed, expanding.

He was in Grade 8 at Zion Heights Junior High School in northern Toronto, and the classroom belonged to Charles Ledger, a teacher who had developed his own brand of supercharged math instruction for high-performing students ready to go beyond their textbooks.

Of course, Dr. Arkani-Hamed could not have predicted the precise sequence that would land him where he is today: at the utter limit of humanity's understanding of the universe, as one of the world's top particle theorists, with a fully tenured teaching post at Harvard to boot.

Instead, he focused on what was in front of him -- interesting problems and drills, drills, drills -- and suddenly, his world got bigger.

"It was an amazing atmosphere that wasn't replicated for me until well into my college years," Dr. Arkani-Hamed said this week, seated beside his former teacher, now 74, after they reunited in a high-school classroom in Waterloo, Ont.

"At a very truly fundamental level, it started me off in the sort of frame of mind that I keep and carry with me today.

"Moments later, that frame of mind opened up for a crowd in the Waterloo Collegiate auditorium when the long-haired physicist, in his black pants and black untucked shirt, took the stage to deliver a mind-bending public lecture called The Future of Fundamental Physics.

"I realize this is a rather modest title," Dr. Arkani-Hamed said to laughs from an audience dotted with scientists from Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which played host to the event and arranged to bring Mr. Ledger and his family to it from the Toronto area.

While the former teacher beamed from the front row -- reflecting, perhaps, on the math competitions Dr. Arkani-Hamed helped his school to win, or the dense Russian math book he and a classmate excitedly brought in to school after finding it at the Canadian National Exhibition --the professor explained how the scientific community is on the brink of "a real revolution in the understanding of physics.

"The catalyst for that potential revolution lies in what will be the largest experiment in human history, in a vast cavern built beneath the French-Swiss border, where a mammoth contraption called the Large Hadron Collider is expected to power up this fall.

Through a circular tunnel with a 27-kilometre circumference, scientists will send protons (smaller than atoms, invisible to the eye) hurtling in opposite directions at insanely high speeds, because "when they smash into each other, something interesting happens," Dr. Arkani-Hamed said.

From that "something," experts hope to divine answers to questions that have lingered since the last major step forward in physics, in the 1970s, when the so-called Standard Model was developed to explain how particles of matter interact.

The Standard Model explains all the physical forces except gravity, which is by far weaker than all the others. The new collider, the most powerful ever built, could help researchers find out why.

More specifically tantalizing to Dr. Arkani-Hamed is the potential for it to reveal what he and a group of like-minded mavericks have come to suppose: that our vast universe might be but one of billions, each governed by its own physical laws.

"Our entire universe could be this tiny, minuscule speck of nothing in this giant multiverse," he said, underscoring both the insignificance and the wonder of human reality, given the delicacy of the balance of forces that underpin it.

"Everywhere else in the multiverse is lethal; a few places allow us to exist," he said, adding that a "big crunch," or collision, could one day spell our doom.

"Fortunately, we won't know what hit us," he said, prompting another among several bursts of laughter earned by the amiable genius through the evening. Others came courtesy of periodic fumbling with the overhead projector, from which an audiovisual technician finally rescued him, and from his endearingly crude, out-of-scale illustrations on the slides.

Added to the fact that he still has trouble calling Mr. Ledger anything other than Mr. Ledger, it all hinted at the value of maintaining a subtly childlike outlook when working in a field based, in essence, on learning what no one else knows.

For his part, Mr. Ledger could relate.

"We were very much standing alone on what was happening in the classroom," he said after Dr. Arkani-Hamed's speech, "but I had other teachers standing behind me.

"Mr. Ledger began to develop his unique teaching method in the mid-1970s in response to difficulties students at Zion Heights were having with algebra.

He came up with a series of drills, and then backed them up with a process of teaching to support them. All of it was more complex than what was contained in the math textbooks of the day.

As he fine-tuned his methods, "we started to work away from the texts," Mr. Ledger said, and "eventually we were teaching without using the texts at all.

"Before long, Zion Heights teams were cleaning up at regional, provincial and national math competitions, and Mr. Ledger's program, eventually dubbed Spirit of Math, began to attract notice. Still, education officials deemed it impractical to adapt for widespread use, mainly because of the retraining teachers would require to deliver it.

So, after he left teaching at the school in 1993, Mr. Ledger took the program private. His daughter, Kim Langen, now oversees Spirit of Math, in which parents can enroll children who are already adept at math for weekly, 90-minute classes to hone their creative problem-solving skills.

The approach aims to equip students (900 are enrolled in Greater Toronto and Winnipeg) to discover answers on their own, rather than by rote. Ms. Langen said teachers are also encouraged to challenge students, and to teach to the top third of the class, rather than to the weakest.

"Our whole methodology was so different, and because of that, people were really hesitant to accept it," Ms. Langen said, recalling the public-school system's refusal to embrace the program despite its clearly positive results.

"And like any place, there's some jealousy happening," she said, perhaps since it arose organically, out of a single teacher's simple desire to find a better way.

Back at the Perimeter Institute after his talk, relaxing in the Black Hole Bistro, Dr. Arkani-Hamed used the same kind of language to describe the forces that push scientists to the frontiers of understanding.

"What really drives them is a deep sort of curiosity," he said. "It doesn't feel like playing a game; it doesn't feel like chess; it doesn't feel like solving a puzzle; puzzles are invented by humans.

"In physics, there's a sense of discovery, and what it contains is far beyond what we imagined we could have imagined."

Across the multiverse

Physicists have long been perplexed by the apparent weakness of gravity compared to the three other basic forces in nature: electromagnetism, the weak force associated with atomic radiation and the strong force that holds atomic nuclei together. One answer may lie in the concept of multiple universes in dimensions beyond the space and time we experience. To visualize this idea, the illustration depicts our universe collapsed onto a flat, two-dimensional plane. The stacked planes represent alternative universes -- they exist alongside ours, but unless we could extend our perceptions beyond our limited plane, we would be totally unaware of them.

A force such as electromagnetism might act only within our universe ...

... while gravity might act throughout multiple universes ...

... effectively diluting its perceived effect in our own universe.


My added note: To prove to yourself how weak the force of gravity is compared to the force of electromagnetism in our universe, place a metal paper clip onto a table and place a magnet a few inches above it. See how quickly the paper clip shoots up and clings to the magnet. This despite the force of gravity of the entire earth acting to pull the paper clip towards its center versus the small magnet yanking the paper clip up to itself. Apparently this may be due to the fact that the force of electromagnetism exists only in our universe whereas the force of gravity is shared among many multiverses all adjacent to one another.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Saturday, February 10, 2007

129)Quotes of Aga Khan 4, Consolidated.

I notice that many visitors to this blogsite, when asking for "Aga Khan quotes" or "Farman's of Aga Khan" or "Hazar Imam's farmans" on their respective search engines are directed to only one of the two posts I have on the speeches of Mowlana Hazar Imam. So I am creating a new post entitled 'Quotes of Aga Khan 4, Consolidated' to include information from both of the blogposts I currently have(posts no. 9 and 74):

Indeed, one strength of Islam has always lain in its belief that creation is not static but continuous, that through scientific and other endeavours, God has opened and continues to open new windows for us to see the marvels of His creation. [Speech 16 March 1983]

It is no exaggeration to say that the original Christian universities of Latin West, at Paris, Bologna and Oxford, indeed the whole European renaissance, received a vital influx of new knowledge from Islam -- an influx from which the later western colleges and universities, including those of North Africa, were to benefit in turn. [Speech 16 March 1983]

It (Surah of Light from the Quran) tells us that the oil of the blessed olive tree lights the lamp of understanding, a light that belongs neither to the East nor West. We are to give this light to all. In that spirit, all that we learn will belong to the world and that too is part of the vision I share with you. (Speech 25 Sept. 1979)

Above all, following the guidance of the Holy Quran, there was freedom of enquiry and research. The result was a magnificent flowering of artistic and intellectual activity throughout the ummah [Speech 16 March 1983]

The tapestry of Islamic history is studded with jewels of civilization; these jewels poured forth their light and beauty; great statesmen, great philosophers, great doctors, great astronomers; but these individuals, these precious stones were worked into a tapestry, whose dominant theme was Islam, and this theme remained dominant regardless of the swallowing up of foreign lands, foreign cultures, foreign languages and foreign people. [Speech 30 Jan 1970]

What does it (the West) know about the Islamic world? Is anything taught in secondary education? Does anybody know the names of the great philosophers, the scientists, the great theologians? Do they even know the names of the great civilizations? [Interview 2 Feb. 2002"]

The truth, as the famous Islamic scholars repeatedly told their students, is that the spirit of disciplined, objective enquiry is the property of no single culture, but of all humanity. To quote the great physician and philosopher, Ibn Sina: "My profession is to forever journeying, to travel about the universe so that I may know all its conditions." [Speech 16 March 1983]

The faith of a billion people is not part of the general education process in the West - ignored by school and college curricula in history, the sciences, philosophy and geography. [Houston Speech 2002]

The basic problem is the enormous lack of knowledge of the Islamic world in the general world-culture. It's a rather remarkable thing and a very sad thing to me, that over a billion people, their 1400 year history, of civilizations, are simply not part of general education in the general Western world. It's a remarkable knowledge gap. [PTV Interview]

One of the first and greatest research centres, the Bayt al-Hikmah established in Baghdad in 830, led Islam in translating philosophical and scientific works from Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian classics. By the art of translation, learning was assimilated from other civilizations. [Speech 16 March 1983]

"An institution dedicated to proceeding beyond known limits must be committed to independent thinking. In a university scholars engage both orthodox and unorthodox ideas, seeking truth and understanding wherever they may be found. That process is often facilitated by an independent governance structure, which serves to ensure that the university adheres to its fundamental mission and is not pressured to compromise its work for short-term advantage. For a Muslim university it is appropriate to see learning and knowledge as a continuing acknowledgement of Allah's magnificence. As one looks back over the history of learning and of advancement, one sees time and again that centres of learning flourished in strong, outward-looking cultures. Great universities and libraries benefited from the nurturing conditions provided by self-confident civilisations and in turn gave back to those civilisations the useful products of scholarship. The strong university was not a sign of government's weakness, but rather its aspirations and its strength. In the great expansion of Muslim culture from the 8th through the 11th century, centres of learning flourished from Persia to Andalusia. I do not have to tell this audience about the glories of Al-Azhar established 1000 years ago by the Fatimids. This audience knows full well about the foresight of al-Ma'mun and the Timurid empire and in taking knowledge from all quarters and using it to benefit their society. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, "the Muslims desired to learn the sciences of foreign nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mould of their own views. They took them over into their own language from the non-Arab languages and surpassed the achievements of the non-Arabs in them." (Aga Khan IV at the 10th anniversary of the founding of the AKU.)

From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilizations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded. And yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today, be it in the West or in the Muslim world, and this amnesia has left a six hundred year gap in the history of human thought. [Brown Univ. 1996]."A great risk to the modernization of the Islamic world is identity loss — the blind assumption that we should give up all our essential values and cultural expressions to those of other civilizations. In order to contain this risk, for it cannot be totally eliminated, we must re-invigorate our own value systems and cultural expressions. This includes the sciences and the ethical structures that go with them, but also architecture and the design of landscape and towns, literature, music, philosophical thought, and the free space they require, which are unfailing signs of a nation's vitality and confidence". (Address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Convocation of the Aga Khan University Saturday, 3 December 2005)

Excerpt of address made by Mowlana Hazar Imam to the graduating students at the Aga Khan University, December 2nd 2006:

"That quest for a better life, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, must lead inevitably to the Knowledge Society which is developing in our time. The great and central question facing the Ummah of today is how it will relate to the Knowledge Society of tomorrow.

If we judge from Islamic history, there is much to encourage us. For century after century, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks and many other Islamic societies achieved powerful leadership roles in the world—not only politically and economically but also intellectually. Some ill-informed historians and biased commentators have tried to argue that these successes were essentially produced by military power, but this view is profoundly incorrect. The fundamental reason for the pre-eminence of Islamic civilizations lay neither in accidents of history nor in acts of war, but rather in their ability to discover new knowledge, to make it their own, and to build constructively upon it. They became the Knowledge Societies of their time.

Those times are over now. They are long gone. But if some people have forgotten or ignored this history, much of the Ummah remembers it—and, in remembering, asks how those times might be recaptured. There may be as many answers to that question as there are Muslims—but one answer which can be shared across the whole of the Ummah is that we must become full and even leading participants in the Knowledge Society of the 21st Century."(Aga Khan 4).

Excerpt from a speech by Mowlana Hazar Imam in Lahore, Pakistan on December 5th 2006 regarding pluralism, knowledge, intellect, knowledge society:

"Stressing the need for the promotion of pluralism of Islamic civilisation, the prince said the spirit of the knowledge society was the spirit of pluralism — a readiness to accept the other, indeed to learn from him, to see difference as an opportunity rather than a threat.He said AKDN had set up an institute in London which was teaching an MA course in Islamic civilisation. He said Ummah also needed to move into the knowledge society.He said AKDN was planning to set up a network of schools in 14 to 16 countries of Asia and Africa, adding these educational institutions would provide world-class education. These schools would ultimately be linked to the university system, he said"(Aga Khan 4).

Regarding the above-quoted excerpts during the recent visit to Pakistan, the theme of knowledge has now become a standard theme in the Imam's speeches as well as farmans. I think back to the farman in Toronto in June 2005, the convocation address at American Cairo in June 2006, the interview to Spiegel magazine in Oct 2006, the AKU convocation speech and the speech in Lahore, Pakistan in Dec 2006. There have been many more in other speeches and farmans, of course, but the acquisition of knowledge in all its nuances, from the rational knowledge provided by a solid education to the transcendental knowledge of the divine, is now a recurrent theme in the Imam's thoughts and messages. All the Imam's educational institutions, from the schools and academies to the universities in Africa and Asia, are designed to impart a solid education in rational knowledge, which can lay the groundwork for incitement towards more esoteric and suprarational forms of knowledge.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

128)An interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and author of the Teaching Company course 'My Favourite Universe'.

I came accross this interview on another website and post it here because it touches on many subjects I discuss in my posts on this blogsite. Professor Tyson can be considered to be an expert in his field of research.

A Conversation With Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is used to wearing a lot of hats. He is a leading astrophysicist, the director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, a columnist for Natural History Magazine, and the author or coauthor of six books. As host of NOVA's "Origins" miniseries, Tyson donned yet another hat, one that forced him to suppress his customary outspokenness to serve as dispassionate guide on a journey into the mysteries of the universe, the Earth, and life itself. In this interview, Tyson returns to his old self, holding forth on why he's not convinced there's intelligent life beyond Earth, why he feels role models are overvalued, and how he copes with the astronomical numbers that swirl around his head every day.

The start of everything.

NOVA: What makes the study of origins so hot right now?

Tyson: Well, one thing that distinguishes us today from the discoveries of the past is the extent to which the exploration of the universe has become multidisciplinary. It was unthinkable not long ago that a biologist or paleontologist would be at the same conference as an astrophysicist. Now we have accumulated so much data in each of these branches of science as it relates to origins that we have learned that no one discipline can answer questions of origins alone. It requires the additional insights that one gets by merging not only the questions, but the answers, among scientific disciplines.
Now, for example, when you look for life on Mars, you need the astrophysicist to characterize the environment in which the planet is found. You need the chemist to understand the chemistry of the soils. You need the geologist to understand the rock formations. You need the biologist, because no one else will know what life will look like. You might even need a paleontologist to look for life that doesn't exist there today but might have left fossil remains.

NOVA: It's hard to imagine scientists in such diverse disciplines working well together. Do they?

Tyson: Initially it was like a shotgun wedding, where you'd say, "Well, I guess we have to talk to each other." And scientists in different disciplines don't speak the same language. They publish in different journals. It's like the United Nations: you come together, but no one speaks the same language, so you need some translators.
But in the end, what happens is that new fields of astrobiology and astrogeology and astroparticle physics arise, and they begin to develop their own language that represents the intersection of the two—say, between astrobiology and biology. That's when you know you've created a new subdiscipline, or even a brand-new discipline.

NOVA: What are some of the most exciting recent discoveries in origins science?

Tyson: I would say one, we nailed the age of the universe. Two, we have measured the existence of dark matter and dark energy. Even though we don't yet know what they're made of, we know we can measure the effects they have on the origin and evolution of the universe. Another is the discovery that the moons of the solar system may be more interesting than the planets themselves.

NOVA: How so?

Tyson: It's contrary to our earliest expectations. We used to think, Our moon is dry and barren, so why should we believe anybody else's moon is interesting? But if you look at the moons of Jupiter, for example, you find that one of them, Europa, is covered with ice, and below the ice is an ocean of water that is maintained in the liquid state by energy pumped into it from its orbit around Jupiter. Where there's water on Earth, you find life as we know it. So if you find water somewhere else, it becomes a remarkable draw to look closer to see if life of any kind is there, even if it's bacterial, which would be extraordinary for the field of biology.

NOVA: The Cassini spacecraft has just reached Saturn, whose moon Titan is of special interest too, right?

Tyson: Yes. Of Saturn's 31 moons, Titan is especially targeted for its richness in organic compounds. That moon has its own probe, the Huygens probe, which is a deployable subprobe attached to the main Cassini spacecraft. The Huygens probe will plunge through the atmosphere, because Titan has an atmosphere for goodness sake! And it might have oceans, not of water but of liquid methane. You can only begin to imagine what kind of interesting chemistry we might find and what forms any possible life might take under such circumstances, perhaps life not as we know it, but as we don't know it.

NOVA: What great origins-related discoveries would you hope for in the coming decades?

Tyson: The discovery of life somewhere other than on Earth. That is an unimpeachable first goal in our exploration of the cosmos. And what's fascinating is the question of whether that life has DNA. It's a fascinating question, because either DNA is inevitable as the foundation for the coding of life, or life started with DNA in only one place in the solar system and then spread among the livable habitats through panspermia. Panspermia allows life on one planet to be thrust back into space by some meteor impact that sends a little shock wave and flings a rock to escape velocity. If you have stowaway bacteria on that rock, they could easily travel through space, particularly the radiation-hardy bacteria we know exist. They can land on and seed another planet, thereby not requiring that you have to create life from scratch multiple times and in multiple places.
Another possibility is that the life has encoding that has nothing to do with DNA. That would be more important for biology than finding other life with DNA, because it would be a way to encode life that no one has dreamt of before.

NOVA: What about as an astrophysicist? Do you have hopes for specific discoveries?

Tyson: I want to know what dark matter and dark energy are comprised of. They remain a mystery, a complete mystery. No one is any closer to solving the problem than when these two things were discovered.
It may be that the answer to those questions has implications elsewhere in science, and those are the best kind of discoveries, because you're not just addressing the question you sought to answer. It was the same with Einstein's relativity, for example. He didn't start the day saying, "I'm going to explain this peculiar behavior of Mercury's orbit." He had a whole other fish to fry. It turns out, the oddities of Mercury's orbit naturally flow out of this concept of relativity. That lends credence to the truth of the idea, because it answers questions you didn't even think of asking yet.

NOVA: Speaking of great discoveries, do you believe there's intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and, if so, will we ever detect it?

Tyson: I'm not convinced yet. I think that intelligence is such a narrow branch of the tree of life, this branch of primates we call humans. No other animal, by our definition, can be considered intelligent. So intelligence can't be all that important for survival, because there are so many animals that don't have what we call intelligence, and they're surviving just fine.
I prefer to think of the search for life as the search for anything that falls between single-celled bacteria and life that has some kind of interesting purpose or function to perform. Then if we discover life that doesn't seem to have as much of a purpose, but it's still crawling around on the planet's surface, I think that would be an extraordinary discovery that's undervalued given how much Hollywood worries only about intelligent animals.

The sky is not the limit

NOVA: Having gone to the Hayden Planetarium as a boy, what's it like to be its director now? A dream come true?

Tyson: No, I never dreamed that I'd be director of the Planetarium. But now that I am, one of my greatest privileges is signing the certificates of completion for classes taken by youths and adults. I received these same certificates, signed by the head of the Planetarium, when I was a kid taking classes. I see it as a real honor and privilege and duty to serve others in their ambition to become scientists the way scientists and educators served my interest when I was young. To the extent to which it fulfills that goal, my role in the Planetarium creates for me a significantly more magnified pleasure in holding the position.

NOVA: What advice would you have for a budding astrophysicist?

Tyson: It depends on their age. If they're really young, I'd say the parents just need to get out of the way! So often parents will interfere with the curiosity of their kids without even knowing they're doing it. They'll interfere under the guise that the child is misbehaving, when if you look carefully at the behavior of children, in almost all cases it's exploratory.
If they're a little older, I'd say take full advantage of the cultural resources that your municipality has to offer. Usually it's free, or if it's not free, it's relatively cheap. My parents didn't know much science; in fact, they didn't know science at all. But they could recognize a science book when they saw it, and they spent a lot of time at bookstores, combing the remainder tables for science books to buy for me. I had one of the biggest libraries of any kid in school, built on books that cost 50 cents or a dollar.

NOVA: In your memoir, The Sky Is Not the Limit, you devote a chapter to discussing the challenges you and other African-American colleagues have faced, just because of the color of your skin.

Tyson: Yes, "Dark Matters."

NOVA: What advice would you give prospective young minority scientists on how to cope with such challenges?

Tyson: What you need, above all else, is a love for your subject, whatever it is. You've got to be so deeply in love with your subject that when curve balls are thrown, when hurdles are put in place, you've got the energy to overcome them. I can think of no greater, more important need than this, because when I look behind me, I don't see all that many [young minority scientists] coming after me. It would be one of the greatest tragedies in our society if that absence was only for want of support that could have completely transformed their life's trajectory.
That said, the racial challenges of today do not compare with the racial challenges of yesterday. My father tells of not being admitted into hotels. He had to go around to the back door, and he couldn't use the water fountain. I have no counterparts to those stories. But on whatever level it's happening, it can be corrosive to one's personal integrity and one's sense of self. It's essential to stay strong throughout all that and not let it get the best of you.
Also, I think role models are overvalued as something important in society. Typically, when you look for role models, you want someone who has your interests and came from the same background. Well, look how restricting that is. What people should do is take role models à la carte. If there's someone whose character you appreciated, you respect that trait. Someone whose moral fiber meant something else, you respect that aspect. I think that will increase the likelihood that you'll find a role model, amalgam though it is.

Cosmological questions

NOVA: What are you working on now in your work as an astrophysicist?

Tyson: Right now I'm part of a major collaboration to look at data from the Hubble telescope. It's a patch of sky that's being imaged to very, very deep sensitivity levels to try to get the limit of all galaxies in the universe. Once we resolve this, we're worried about how galaxies cluster, how they respond to their own mutual gravities, how they evolve over time.

NOVA: Do you have high hopes for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is designed to study distant galaxies?

Tyson: Absolutely. That telescope, although it's been billed as the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, will not have the same image appeal. But it will be unprecedented in its ability to measure the formation of galaxies in the early universe, something the Hubble can't do. The Hubble telescope can measure them in different evolutionary states, but it can't see them actually forming. And that's a big gap in our current knowledge right now, how galaxies form. It doesn't have the sex appeal of the question What is the origin of life?, but it's no less important.

NOVA: Regarding the origin of life, the astronomer Alan Dressler has written that every atom in our bodies save hydrogen was once at the center of a star. Can you explain that?

Tyson: Sure. The big bang endowed the universe with hydrogen and helium and not much of anything else. That is, nine out of ten atoms are hydrogen, about one out of ten atoms is helium, and there are only trace amounts of other things. If there were no stars, that would be the beginning and end of the universe.
But there are stars, and stars manufacture heavy elements from light elements. They take hydrogen in and fuse the atoms to become helium, and helium fuses to become carbon, and carbon fuses to become silicon and nitrogen, and so on. Thus, elements other than hydrogen and helium have no origin other than the centers of stars. And stars not only manufacture the heavy elements, they also explode them into space. Since life itself thrives on these heavy elements, we owe our very existence to stars.

NOVA: One final question I've always wondered about: How do you get your mind around the astronomical distances and mind-boggling time spans you work with every day?

Tyson: You don't, you just grow accustomed to them. You have to keep telling yourself how much bigger a billion is than a million, how much bigger a million is than a thousand, and how much bigger a thousand is than a few. You keep reminding yourself of this, to the point where thoughts then occur naturally out of habit. But it's not a natural habit. It's a very unnatural habit to understand what a billion years is.
Consider the wealth of Bill Gates versus my own, for example. I'll still pick up a quarter if I see it on the street. Now, let's take the ratio of that quarter to my net worth, and I'm probably kind of average for people who are fully employed, and figure out what the corresponding amount would be to Bill Gates. It's like $45,000! In other words, if Bill Gates is in a hurry because he has to get to a meeting, it might be too much effort for him to bend over and pick up $45,000 on the street. You need examples like this to bring astronomical figures down to Earth, as it were.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Friday, February 9, 2007

127)No. 7: Ayats(Signs) in the Universe series. How are proteins made inside living cells and what does this have to do with religion?

I have always been fascinated by proteins. Commonly called the workhorses of living cells, proteins exist and operate in every nook and cranny of living systems. Amazingly, the function of a protein is totally determined by its 3-dimensional shape and orientation in space. This 3-dimensional shape of a protein, in turn, is determined totally by the precise sequence of amino acids, the building blocks of a protein, that make up the protein. The unique set of electrostatic forces engendered by the unique sequence of amino acids making up a protein determine the ultimate shape and 3-dimensional structure of the protein. How does this precisely-determined linear sequence of amino acids come about?

It turns out that the sequence of amino acids that makes up a protein is determined from a coded sequence of information in a master molecule called DNA, the molecule of heredity. Linear sequences of code, themselves made up of unique molecules within the DNA macromolecule, which resides inside the nucleus of a living cell, are copied onto a molecule called messenger RNA, which then travels from the nucleus into the main part or cytoplasm of the cell. There it links up with a large molecular complex called a ribosome. Another type of RNA molecule, called transfer RNA, of which there are about 21 or so types, each ready and attached to its own specific amino acid, are then summoned to the messenger RNA-ribosome complex, and deposit their amino acids based solely on the coded information given to the single-stranded messenger RNA molecule by the DNA master molecule in the nucleus. This process is all the more remarkable by virtue of the fact that it is a submicroscopic process and therefore invisible to the naked eye. In a previous blog(no. 29 on my blogsite) I opined in mind-boggling fascination about how an entity as small as a living cell could have so many moving parts.

That proteins are called workhorses is no exaggeration. The sequence of protein synthesis as described above occurs ubiquitously in every type of cell in the human body, animals, plants and microorganisms like bacteria, but not in viruses. As I showed in blogpost no. 41 in talking about the HIV/AIDS virus, viruses have the genetic information to make more of themselves but lack the cellular machinery to carry out the process. They instead behave like pirates, breaking and entering into a human or other cell, commandeering its cellular apparatus to create more copies of themselves, then killing the hapless cell they just abused. As far as workhorsing goes, if a protein is made inside a stem red blood cell in the bone marrow, it becomes a hemoglobin molecule. 4 chains of these protein molecules link up with an iron atom in the center and this rapidly-moving bloodstream protein complex seizes oxygen from the air at an interface in the lungs and rapidly releases it to tissues all over the body, then takes carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs to release into the air, then repeats the sequence. A protein from another blood stem cell becomes an antibody whose amino acid sequence creates a pincer-shaped molecule capable of neutralizing an invading bacteria, virus or other microorganism. Another protein, called an enzyme, made in a liver cell, can create or break down cholesterol molecules: how well it does this can determine whether or not we need to take the famous 'statin' tablets to lower our blood cholesterol. Other proteins like those made in the skin cells of our scalps end up being the hair we have on our heads; proteins and RNA made in brain cells are involved in creating and storing our memories; a structural protein can straddle the inside and outside of a cell membrane and serve a transportation function, where it pumps certain atoms or ions into and out of cells as part of their daily critical life processes. There are numerous and fascinating examples of the multiple functions that proteins perform. It is safe to say that life can absolutely not exist without proteins.

In putting an Ismaili Muslim spin on this crucial ayat or sign in nature I am reminded about the many rites and ceremonies carried out in Jamatkhana. Every one of these has a symbolic significance when performed, whether it is the sipping of holy water('niaz') or the eating of a morsel of substance prepared from specific ingredients('sukreet'), or the auctioning off of a food offering('nandi'). Likewise in the big Jamatkhana of the Universe, every object, event, ayat or sign has a symbolic significance as we have been told in farmans by our Imams, in ginans by our Pirs and in treatises by our cosmologist-philosopher-theologians of yesteryear. What, then, to make of the ubiquitous and enthralling ayat of protein synthesis?

A protein made up of a specific amino acid sequence initially lies flat on its back. Electrostatic forces then come into play and suddenly, like a phoenix, the protein stands up and assumes a unique 3-dimensional shape and structure based on its amino acid sequence. The protein as it stands represents microcosmically the multidimensional universe in which we live, move and have our being. We know and understand for sure that the protein is shaped the way it is only because of the unique sequence of its amino acid structure. However, in order to truly understand the protein, we have to look at the master molecule of DNA that exists at the geographical center(literally) of that protein's universe, the molecule solely responsible for giving that protein its structure and, therefore, its function. The master DNA macromolecule is, in a very real way, the celestial essence of that mutidimensional protein. In order to truly understand and gain knowledge about that protein, we need to search for, and find, its essence.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3

Thursday, February 1, 2007

126)Taking some R and R from blogging.

I am taking a short break from blogging and will resume a few days from now. Visitors to my blog might want to review the evolution of my thinking on the subject of the link between science and religion in Islam(in particular Shia Ismaili Islam) by starting at blog no. 1 and working upwards to the present day. My early posts try to establish the doctrinal basis for the study of objects and events in the material universe by studying utterances from our 49th and 48th Imams, Quranic ayats, Prophetic sayings and Hadith, and cosmological doctrines from early Shiism to the end of the Fatimid period.

Once I establish a firm doctrinal basis for the study of the perceptible universe, I spend a significant amount of time talking about the amazing discoveries that have been made over the past 500 years by western science as well as scientists during the golden age of Islam. I am considerably aided by access to NASA's Astronomy picture of the day website, and other sources, to show the wonder of the dynamic, macroscopic world of stars, galaxies, planets and other large objects in the universe and, particularly, the vast and unimaginable sizes and distances in space relative to the miniscule distances on planet Earth. Conversely, I try to balance that out by talking about the microscopic and sub-microscopic world invisible to the naked eye as well.

I go further by also talking about how signs in nature can and do have allegorical, symbolical, esoteric and hermeneutic significance just as written ayats from the Quran do. The material universe is, after all, one component of the structure of truth the ultimate nature of which it is the goal of religion to reach. Well known experts of this type of Ismaili exegesis are quoted and I try my own hand at some of this as well. At heart I am a student of science trying to create a holistic picture of the cosmos for myself and mesh it with well-aged and seasoned Ismaili doctrines, the purpose of which is to become fully aware of the cascading upward and inward sequence of knowledge ranging from rationally-acquired knowledge of the mind to transcendental knowledge of the heart, ie, timeless, instantaneous Intellect.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3