Monday, 30 August 2010

Book Review: Why Does E=mc2? (And why should we care?) by James Ellor

Ask a person on the street about the famous E=mc2 equation and you might get a vague response about it having something to do with Einstein. A person with some degree of scientific training (like myself) could tell you it has something to do with energy, mass and the speed of light squared, but how and why we know this and more importantly, why it is so, would stretch even those with a physics degree.

With Why Does E=mc2? Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, come into their own by explaining the most complex, incomprehensible and downright weird niceties of quantum physics in a simple, accessible manner. That they do this with only the one mild instance of blinding the reader with maths speaks volumes about their skills. The apparently mundane revelation that, as a direct consequence of E=mc2, a sprung mousetrap weighs ever so slightly less than a set one, sends as much a tingle down one’s spine as contemplating the size of the universe.

The last chapter on Einstein’s general relativity, and the resulting warping of space and time due to gravity, adds a final dose of weirdness, just in case special relativity wasn’t enough for you.

The British Science Festival's coming to Birmingham! by Tulpesh Patel

The British Science Festival, organised by the British Science Association travels to cities across the UK showcasing the latest developments in science, technology and engineering, and from Monday 13 to to Sunday 18 September it’s coming to Birmingham, and even more excitingly, Aston University

Here's a montage (painstakingly put together using my awesome Paint skills!) of the posters for just a small selection of the amazing events taking place over the week.

The festival's Online Programme Page  lets you search for specific events or topics, browse day by day and has all the information on prices and booking tickets. The alternative Aston booking page lets you search events that are specifically held on the university campus. Videos giving a taste of some of the talks can be viewed here

Most of the events are free, the paid events are £3 or £5 (and probably the most popular, so it’s a good idea to book in advance), which isn’t bad for some of the amazing things you’re getting to see and take part in! For the super-keen science geek with a bulging wallet, a weekly pass for £120 (£60 for students or the unemployed) will get you into everything.

I was lucky enough to be picked for the X-change team for the festival, and one of my jobs is to pick the best speakers and help organise discussions at the end of each day. On the first go through the program, I picked only the events that got me really excited ended up with a diary that looked like this:

Realising that unless I find some way to clone myself I won’t be able to be in three places at once, I’ve tried whittling it down, but it’s proving nearly impossible. To that end though, here’s a list of just some of the events that I think would be most worth checking out if you’re pushed for time 

They are of a brain/evolution theme, as that’s what I’m most interested in, but there are practical workshops, magic and hip-hop thrown in there too!

Monday 13 September

Tuesday 14 September

Wednesday 15 September

This event is particularly close to my heart and one that I’m very excited about as it’s hosted by the department and research group I work in and showcases some of the exciting Neuroscience research that Aston is involved in. If you're so inclined, you can read about some the work I do using Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy here (excuse the shameless plug!).

Thursday 16 September

Standing Up For Science are an excellent charitable organisation that  promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion and do a great job tackling misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence in the public sphere.  The excellent Voice of Young Science does some sterling work helping early career researchers get to grips with dealing with the media and giving them advice on how to stand up for science themselves. You can support the charity by donating here

Friday 17 September

Saturday 18 September

I’m a huge fan of the Skeptics in the Pub (SITP)  movement and am a part of the Birmingham SITP  and occasionally write for their great blog. Those who’ve read the few post so far on here will recognise the Princess and Starting the Aston Humanist Society articles, but there’s a bit I wrote on Science in the media  after a talk from David Gregory (BBC Midlands science and environment correspondent), who is incidentally part of the Making Science News event  with one of my heroes, Ben Goldacre.

The Skeptics Roadshow will feature bunch of short talks and discussions on topics as diverse as homeopathy, ESP, UFOs, and libel law.  If they’re anything like the monthly meetings they’re guaranteed to be informative and cracking fun!

This deserves a particular plug because I absolutely love this guy’s work and he deserves to be huge. You can listen and download The Rap Guide to Evolution here (it’s free, although you should, of course, make a voluntary donation to prove you’re not a Creationist!). Darwin’s Acid has to be one of the best hip-hop songs ever, nevermind best Darwinsim-related hip-hip songs.

Sunday 19 September

It promises to be a spectacular week celebrating the best of the fascinating research being done in and around Birmingham, and it’s guaranteed to have something for everyone.

Keep an eye out on the British Science Festival and Aston University websites for all the latest news. There will also be regular blogposts during the festival and you can follow all the goings-on on Twitter: @BritishSciFest, @TheXchangeTeam  and #BritSciFest as well as me (@Tulpesh) and @astonhumanists!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Non-Believers Give Aid Too! by Tulpesh Patel

In the letters section of the Metro newspaper this morning, I read an interesting discussion on charitable aid, particularly for the Pakistan flood disaster. What irked me were the accusations that whilst there was a Christian Aid, there wasn't an Atheist Aid, ergo non-religious folk are tight-fisted and uncaring. What utter rubbish.

Non-Believers Giving Aid was set up with the aids of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS) in response to the January 2010 Haiti earthquake disaster as an umbrella organisations for people to donate much needed money, whilst also countering the idea that charity comes only through loving God. PZ Myers wrote a great blog about it's inception, so I won't cover old ground.

The RDFRS are once more partnering with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, this time to bring much needed help to people whose lives have been torn apart by the floods in Pakistan. You can donate here and I urge you to do so. It is especially important given the aid that is still needed and the responses of some countries to the disaster. There have been suggestions in some quarters that Pakistan isn't getting the aid it needs because of the baggage that the country has in the eyes of Westerners, which, sadly, may not be wholly unfounded.

It's dangerous to affiliate charitable intentions with belief or your general worldview (which is exactly what religious folk often do), and, of course, the best kind of charity goes unspoken, but Non-Believers Giving Aid is important in counteracting the common idea that not believing in god equates to being an uncaring, amoral nihilist. 

As well as giving Non-Believers Giving Aid a well deserved plug, now's a good a time as any to mention that some of the Aston Humanists are also doing their bit for Charity in the next couple of months!

In the 2009/2010 academic year the Aston Humanist Society raised over £500 for various charities including Amnesty International (AmnesTea Party) and CRUK (Relay for Life) and we're hoping to double that this year. James is running the Birmingham Half Marathon  to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières: I'm running the race with him to raise money for the Birmingham Children's Hospital Charities: and also the CRUK 10km Race for Life in September:

This is not about patting ourselves on the back or feeling virtuous: What's really important is that those that can help do their bit to support the great work that lots of charities do. Proving the point that godless people care is just a bonus.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Book review: The Bible According to Mark Twain by Tulpesh Patel

The Bible According to Mark Twain is collection of his writings on Eden,  God’s flooding of the Earth and Heaven, written over a period of nearly 40 years. I must confess, for my sins, that this is the first Mark Twain I have ever read, save for his countless quotations and aphorisms which litter books and websites of an atheistic bent.

The book is composed of two main sections, the first is Twain’s understanding and re-working of the Christian creation myth through fictionalised diary accounts from Adam and Eve, the second concerns Heaven and the afterlife. Each piece begins with a short introduction by the editors, who place it in historical context, referring to either Mark Twain as the writer, or (his real name) Sam Clemens, when referring to events in his personal life.

The background reading provides an interesting account of how the pieces were composed. Some of them evolved over decades and we get an insight into Mark Twain’s battle with both the literature and the numerous re-writes and edits, but also how he wove personal tragedy such as the loss of his young daughter into this his musings on heaven and how he wrestled with the effects his writings would have on the religious establishment.

Mark Twain knits issues of the time from biology, technology and sociology into Adam and Eve’s account of their time in Eden and the ideas still have remarkable resonance today. The Extracts from Eve’s Diary capture some of the real wonder and curiosity that many of us feel when observing the world around us. Adam’s grapple with ‘science’ the description of Eve’s love for nature and Adam are genuinely funny and affecting. A recurring theme in all the pieces is the objection to God’s punishing Adam for eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge with death, even though they would have had no concept of it as the Moral Sense, death and evil had not yet entered the garden. Twain also repeatedly emphasises the sheer vastness of the universe and the inconsequence of man in a miniscule corner of it.

A shorter third section, ‘Letters from Earth’, is a collection of letters written Satan recounting his visit to Earth and his wonder at the illogical nature of man and the God they create(d) to worship. This is Twain’s most devastating appraisal of Christianity, and religion in general, as some of the wonderful allegory and story-telling of the previous works is stripped back to really hammer home some astutely observed and eloquently constructed arguments for the fallacy of man’s belief in God, particularly a personal one that cares for humans.

With these various writings, Mark Twain achieved the incredible feat of weaving together an extraordinary deconstruction of religion, with funny, touching fables that far exceed the morality and humanity of the source material.  

Book review: Princess by Jean Sasson, and the inculcation of fear in young Muslim girls - am I making a mountain out of a mole-hill? by Tulpesh Patel

I started writing a review of Princess, a biography of a Saudi princess written by Jean Sasson,  but, as the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways, something happened at work very shortly after that prompted me to also turn this into a blog post.

First the book. Princess recounts the life of Saudi Princess, Sultana, from childhood in the 60s to her own motherhood in the 90s. It was lent to my wife by a friend, I casually started reading the blurb and found it so engrossing I was a couple of hundred pages in before I realised the time. This book is one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read and I can say with complete sincerity, unputdownable.

Sultana tells of ritual and absolute oppression by the men of the household and wider society. The men hold untold wealth and absolute power, able to deny or cover up their own offence or justify any/all behaviour as that sanctioned or encouraged by their faith or tradition. The women are denied education (save for reciting the Koran); forced to wear an abaaya (not unlike a burkha, but even more covering) from their first menstruation, which incidentally makes them eligible for marriage to whomever the father chooses usually for simple financial gain;  routinely mentally, physically and sexually abused and killed.

The treatment of women is so vile that it is actually difficult to grasp the reality of a woman’s life in this period. Most of this book reads like science fiction set in a whole other world; that it does so, makes the story’s impact all the greater. For someone raised in Britain without really a religious upbringing and only having ‘moderately’ religious friends, I did not know anything like it. Seeing women in a full burkha complete with a metal mask on the streets of Dubai is the closest I’ve ever come to such closeting of women.  To quote the book: “those who are free cannot fathom the small victories of those who live on a tether”, and this is simply the princesses response to the unprecedented decision of allowing her to see her fiancé before she married him.

The second strand of the story, on the near limitless wealth of the Saudi royalty, is one less emotional and nearly as interesting. The princess astutely observes how the such wealth, and lack of drive that usually entails, is stagnating progress in oil-rich states; princes live on huge monthly stipends, and women are placated with more jewels, homes and finery than they know what to do with.

This book is a remarkable insight into the role of women in Saudi cultures, but what is also striking is how women hold their oppression and faith in tandem. Sultana praises Mohamed and turns to God and the Koran, which gave us Shariah and yet denounces her faith’s sanctioning of the maltreatment of women . The book begins with the caveat that it does not intend to offend Islam, but routinely demonstrates how, in actuality, what morals can be gleaned from the Koran are routinely ignored by men who’s urges and wallets are beyond control, and it is more truthfully used a manual for the oppression of women.

Princess is set in a period 40 to 20 years ago in Saudi Arabia. Since that time the world has become smaller and the ability of the followers of Sharia law to stifle human rights violations have become tougher than ever.  There are still, however, despairingly regular, prominent cases of female oppression, the most recent being the impending execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani  by Iranian authorities for alleged adultery.  The fact that these cases exists, and the international legal wrangling surrounding her proper defence, shows how tenaciously the (male) enforcers of the law have clung to old, repressive traditions and resisted fair, secular values. Daughters of Arabia, Sasson’s follow-up to Princess, concentrates on Sultana’s daughters and as an heart-wrenching and depressing as I know it’s going to be, I can’t wait to read it. 

Now on to what made me want to write more than just a review of the book. As part of my PhD I routinely perform cognitive assessments on children aged from 4 to 18.  On one particular occasion, just a week or so ago, I introduced myself to the patient’s mother, who was a head-scarfed Muslim, and immediately found that she was anxious about the assessments and asked if I was just me administering them. It isn’t unusual for parents or the children to be anxious about being left with strangers to do ‘tests’ in an unfamiliar environment, and we often let parents or guardians sit in the corner in order to help the child relax (as long as they don’t start to sign language answers, which has happened before). In this case, however, the patients were fine but it was anxiety solely on the mother’s part about my being male and left unsupervised with her daughter. Leaving your young daughter in the company of strangers is perhaps a legitimate fear, but this was a research facility in a hospital and was beyond the Stranger Danger stuff you usually teach to kids.

We are normally on a tight schedule on assessment days and run tests in parallel so the mother had to accompany the sibling for the physio tests in another department. She insisted that there be another woman in the room with me during the cognitive assessment and didn’t otherwise feel comfortable with it taking place. Despite the hassle, we acquiesced and managed to get a research assistant to sit in for the duration of each if the 90 minute assessments. It was a frustrating waste of resources to have the nurse just sitting there, but we needed to do our upmost to appease the mother because clinical research participants, particularly from ethnic minorities, are few and far between (an issue for a whole other article).

Having just finished reading Princess only a couple of days beforehand I suppose I was more sensitive of the situation than normal and although I know it has nothing to with me personally, and only a matter of my being male, it is still hard not to take exception to the insinuation.  My offence, however, is really a non-issue. What shocked me at the time was that , hard-line Muslim or not, this practice of not leaving a female with a man unaccompanied was still being practiced in the Britain in 2010.

I’m not sure of the root reason for this behaviour. I’ve heard and read different versions from as many sources, but it is categorically unhealthy: it treats men as unrestrained sex-obsessed fiends to be constantly feared, and women as weak, and constantly vulnerable; the girls were barely pubescent and yet they were made acutely aware of their sexuality and that I, men, should not be trusted.

I’m still wrestling with just how big a deal the whole situation was. It falls well outside the remit of my PhD but what I would really like to do is sit down with that woman and ask her why she really feels the need to shield her daughters from male company; what exactly she expects to happen and what might happen in situations where it is not possible to provide a chaperone. What might be even more interesting would be to probe the thoughts of the daughters and how they feel about men, perhaps, being children, they don’t really notice or care as yet.

Mostly I worry about the kind of message she is sending her daughters who are growing up in a liberal and permissive society. These girls are second generation immigrants subjected to an insidious way of making them fear men from childhood. Whilst it’s not quite full on Sharia law, it’s one of these traditions subsumed by it that are easily practiced behind closed doors and I imagine very rarely surfaces as a problem in the wider community, or comes to the attention of people like me who are acutely aware of it. 

How and Why I Started the Aston Humanist Society

I founded the Aston Humanist Society in February 2009, quite simply because there wasn’t a society anything like it that I could join myself. Perhaps the idiom that ‘getting atheists together is like trying to herd cats’ had put off anyone who had tried to start a non-theist society before me. I’m not even sure what took me so long to get round to it, perhaps my PhD finally wasn’t keeping me as busy as my supervisor would have liked.

Of the 48 societies at Aston University, there are nine religious ones, including all the biggies: Islamic Soc, Hindu Soc, Christian Union, Sikh Soc and Jewish Soc. Although there are many more denominations who are not officially listed with the Student Union). It’s a good reflection of the multicultural environment that the university is well known for. What the list of societies doesn’t reflect, however, is that there also are many students that lead a secular life that would enjoy meeting like minded people too.

Having decided to take action, I faced two big problems: deciding what the society was actually about and almost as importantly what to call it. Like the Skeptics in the Pub groups, but unlike religious societies or the increasing number of nationality/culture-based societies at Aston, there was no pre-formed idea of what you had to be/know in order to join. Because there was no precedent, I set the society up to be some nebulous idea of what I thought was missing: an open forum promoting values such as freedom of expression, and scientific and personal inquiry, centred around free discussion of philosophy, politics, science, religion and history.

I could have could just have easily called it the Aston Secular/Rationalist/Skeptics Society (or the slightly more fun Thinkers-Not-Drinkers), but settled on Humanist simply because I am one, and I feel that humanism neatly captures the secular/rational vibe I was aiming for. Lots of people are essentially humanists, but just don’t know the term or decide not to call themselves by such a name. I guess the trouble with people who insist on thinking for themselves is that they don’t usually like being labelled! I deliberately steered clear of ‘atheist’ as it has (sadly) come to have connotations of exclusivity and I didn’t want anyone to think that the group had an anti-theist agenda and be put off from joining.

It was more than just a riposte to all the religious groups, although I must admit that walking past ‘boarding the Jesus Train, WOOP WOOP!’ and ‘Obligatory Islamic Knowledge’ posters on my way to the office every morning had a little something to do with it. Starting the Aston Humanist Society was my pro-active response to something else that had been bothering me throughout my studies. Without (I hope) sounding too high-minded, I was increasingly bothered by what I saw, and still see, as a pervasive culture of having ‘just enough education to perform’ at university. I know that for some, being at university is about getting a degree and then getting a job; no more, no less, and it is not really my place to judge that ambition. I think AC Grayling eloquently captures exactly how I feel (as he almost invariably does) in this quote from a short essay on Education:

Liberal education is a vanishing ideal in the contemporary West, most notably in its Anglophone regions. Education is mainly restricted to the young and is no longer liberal education as much as something less ambitious and too exclusively geared to specific aims – otherwise, of course, very important – of employability. This is a loss; for the aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased; who think and question, and know how to find answers when they need them. This is especially significant in the case of political and moral dilemmas in society, which will always occur and will always have to be negotiated afresh; so members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable  ... People who are better informed and more reflective are more likely to be considerate than those who are – and who are allowed to remain – ignorant, narrow-minded, selfish, and uncivil in the profound sense that characterises so much of human experience now”.

To help get the group started I was lucky enough to have had the help of a number of organisations. Happenstance meant that I decided to start the group at the very same time that The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies was being launched. I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural event, speak to lots of other societies, get a ‘starting a student society’ help pack, and even get some helpful advice from Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. I also joined the Secular Portal which was a great way of getting in touch with other secular students, and sharing practical ideas, and managed to rope in the Birmingham Humanists to help out with our Fresher’s Fair recruitment stall  at the start of the 2009/10 academic year. The brilliant cartoonist Thad Guy was also kind enough to let us use his images for posters and flyers.

We’ve held weekly meetings which have attempted to try and answer, or at least think about, some of the questions that god wasn’t going to answer for us: “How do we deal with the involvement of religion in major health issues, namely the Pope and his reigniting of the condoms/Aids situation”, “Should we treat paedophiles and criminals or mentally ill?”, “Trust in doctors or trust in god: how should society deal with clashes between people's beliefs and medical ethics?” and “Do criminals should have the right to vote?”. None of these questions are going to help anyone pass their degrees directly, but I’d like to think that everyone benefited from the critical thinking and discussion that took place. I certainly left each meeting feeling a little more enlightened and with a lot more to think about.

We’ve also worked in collaboration with the Birmingham SITP on a couple of occasions and hosted both Ariane Sherine and Rebecca Watson for special ‘Skeptics in the Classroom’ meetings, held fund raising AmnesTEA parties, the Aston Happy Humanist team raised over £500 for the Cancer Research UK Relay for Life and we’re working with Aston’s Environment and Sustainability office to sponsor a university-wide bookswap scheme to promote the pleasures of environmentalism and reading.

It started out as just a few of my friends meeting in the university bar, but over the last year and a half the AHS I would like to think that the AHS has been a success and achieved at least some of its lofty ambition. The start of the 2010/11 academic year brings fresh hope, ideas and scope for growth. I’m not sure where I’ll end up once my PhD is over, but if there isn’t a society to join, I’ll use this experience to start another one. The ubiquity of social networking makes starting and maintaining societies much easier.

I hope that I have at least laid the foundations of some form of secular society at Aston. I hope the meetings, events, and this blog will allow people get together in some form or other discuss the world around them, for no other reason than because they want to think for themselves and learn what others have to say.

[A version of this post has been published on the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub page]