This is the third in our four part interview with renowned Astrophysicist, Professor Arif Babul. To read the first and second parts, please click:
Part I Voices: Brilliant Astrophysicist, Arif Babul, in Conversation with Simerg
Part II Voices: Babul on the Bootes Void, Galaxies, Benefits of Studying Science, Creation, God and Intellect
Simerg: You have mentioned about the importance of funding basic research in science, as opposed to only paying attention to the applied fields. Many people seem to have a misperception that “basic science” is entirely self-contained, and that it confers no tangible benefit to society. Could you reflect on this sentiment, and discuss why you feel investment in basic science is so important?
Dr. Babul: It is true that most people harbour the misconception that basic science confers no benefit to society, that it is purely a curiousity-driven endeavour, and the latter is true to some extent but the “no benefit” idea is definitely wrong.
Let me explain: If you ask me why I do what I do, I do it because I just want to understand and to know. I really don’t think about application of knowledge that I create. But on the other hand, when you step back and look back at the developments in science over a fifteen-twenty year window, it becomes clear that most of the technological revolutions of the past two hundred years have occurred as a direct result of major conceptual breakthroughs that emerged from basic research. On the average, the estimate of the annual rate of return on investment in basic research ranges from 28% to 50%. In the case of astronomy, for example, for every dollar that the Government commits to research, the return to the economy has been estimated to ten dollars.
Let me give you a specific example of how this works. If you look at the sky, the reason why stars look like they’re twinkling is because as light passes through our atmosphere, which is moving, it bends, and when you see this light bending, it seems like the star is moving, which gives it its twinkling effect.
“…..when you step back and look back at the developments in science over a fifteen-twenty year window, it becomes clear that most of the technological revolutions of the past two hundred years have occurred as a direct result of major conceptual breakthroughs that emerged from basic research.”
For astronomers, twinkling is an irritation because it smears out the light, and you want the sharpest image possible. What somebody figured out was that if I take a laser beam and shine it from the ground up, a part of the atmosphere lights up so I see a dot in the sky. I know that the dot should be absolutely round and sharp, but because the atmosphere is moving, it doesn’t look round and sharp. So I point a telescope at that dot, and program a computer to alter the shape of the telescope optics so that the image of the dot is perfectly sharp. In this way, the telescope is calibrated to account for the so-called “twinkling effect,” and now all the stars and galaxies in the vicinity of the laser dot will appear extremely sharp.
You’re probably thinking in the back of your mind, “So what?”
Well, a few years ago, the Optometry school in Waterloo sent some of its researchers to the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria; they wanted to learn about these technologies. It turns out that when optometrists look in your eye and try to image the retina, they have to look through all that fluid in your eye, and the fluid is moving, and that moving fluid distorts the image of the retina. But the same technology that allows astronomers to correct for the atmospheric distortions can also correct for the distortions due to the moving fluid in the eye resulting in pictures of the back of your eye that are perfectly sharp. And the sharper the picture, the earlier you can detect diseases of the eye such as glaucoma and even signs of diabetes. So in a secondary way, innovative new technology has been introduced into the health system.
“the same technology that allows astronomers to correct for the atmospheric distortions can also correct for the distortions due to the moving fluid in the eye resulting in pictures of the back of your eye that are perfectly sharp. And the sharper the picture, the earlier you can detect diseases of the eye……innovative new technology has been introduced into the health system.”
Let me give you one other very quick example. As early as 1917, Albert Einstein had described the theory of stimulated emission but it took 30 years before physicists, motivated by successes in developing masers (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) figured out how to make lasers. Initially, nobody could figure out what to do with a laser. It was dubbed “a solution looking for a problem.” Today, 30 years later, the laser is at the heart of virtually all high-tech devices we use, from DVD and CD players to supermarket bar code scanners and laser scalpels for surgery. Laser light is even used to transmit telephone calls and internet signals.
So you can ask the question, “did the inventor of the laser, in his wildest imagination and dreams, anticipate that laser would turn out to be so useful?” The answer is no but others did and they turned it into a versatile, highly useful, even indispensible tool. Still, Einstein, deserves the credit for providing the conceptual spark, as do the individuals responsible for the pushing ahead with the first laser device. In the same vein, basic scientists are people who sometime purposefully, sometime accidentally provide the all-important sparks, sparks without which the fires of innovation would never get started.
Simerg: You reflected earlier on how Muslim contribution to modern science is very small. Do you see this changing?
Dr. Babul: Yes, I think the seeds are there, and now need to be cultivated. I was in Malaysia recently, and I was pleased to see that the government there had been building universities, and were starting to make it an active policy to invest in basic sciences. There’s still a long way to go, but the fact that there’s thinking in that direction is a good sign to me.
Iran is another country that I see as being in the same position. They’re investing in the pure sciences knowing that their future development depends on innovation. So it’s a good start. I would like to see more concerted efforts being made to encourage individual scientists in these countries to start to develop pockets of excellence. And once we start to develop these pockets of excellence here and there, the overall culture across the Muslim world will start to change. The trick is to encourage this development at the grassroots level and nurture it while it is still taking root.
The 57 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference are home to 1.3 billion people. But science in these nations is weak, with spending on research and development far lower than the global average. Source: Nature Magazine.
|Islamic Era: Science Timeline|
|c. 750-1258 Abbasid Era
c. 756-929 Umayyads rule over Spain The Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, which had spread Islam through Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The Abbasids moved the caliphate’s capital from Damascus to Baghdad. Umayyads, however, retain control over the Iberian territories. This was a particularly productive period for science in Islamic history.
c. Late 700s Muhammad al-Farabi
Al-Farabi lived during the time of first Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur and is credited to have built the first astrolabe in the Islamic world. Along with his father and Yaqub ibn Tariq, he helped translate the Indian astronomical text by Brahmagupta (fl. 7th century), the Brahmasphutasiddhanta, into Arabic as Az-Zīj ‛alā Sinī al-‛Arab, or the Sindhind. He lived at the beginning of the concerted effort, involving Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian and even Sabian scholars, to translate Greek and Hindu works into Arabic.
c. 721-813 Jabir ibn Hayyan
Works attributed to this alchemist had lasting influence in Europe until the sixteenth century. He is credited, for example, with introducing a completely new approach – controlled, systematic experimentation – that has since become a hallmark of contemporary science’s empirical effort. Many words in chemistry have Arabic roots including alkali (al-qaliy) and alcohol (al-kohl). Jabir is believed to have been an apprentice of Ja’far al-Sadiq.
c. 813 Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun
One of the great patrons of intellectual inquiry in Islamic history and in due course, establishes the House of Wisdom.
c. 830-1258 House of Wisdom, Baghdad
Activities at this library and research centre included translation of Greek works into Arabic by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. Free public libraries later spread to other cities.
c. 780-840 Al-Khwarizmi
Mathematician who gave his name to ‘algorithm’ and promoted the use of Indian numerals. Latin translations of his books introduced algebra (derived from al-jabr) to Europe.
c. 850 Banu Musa brothers
Published their first book of ingenious mechanical devices. Examples include fountains that change shape by the minute, clocks with all sort of gimmicks and contraptions, flutes that play by themselves, water jugs that serve drinks automatically, and even a full-sized mechanical tea girl that actually serves tea!
c. 875 Ibn Firnas
Iberian scientist, constructs a hang-glider from silk and eagle feathers on a wooden frame and successfully floated in the air, circling for up to ten minutes, before gradually crash-landing. It was only later, he realized that birds use their tails to slow down before landing.
c. 865-926 Al-Razi (Rhazes)
Persian who contributed to medicine, alchemy and philosophy. He formulated the first known description of smallpox, which the Ancient Greeks had confused with measles.
c. 909-1171 Fatimid Era
The Fatimid Caliphate was an Ismaili Shi’a dynasty that ruled over varying areas of the Maghreb, Egypt, Sicily, Malta and the Levant from 5 January 909 to 1171. Along with the Abbasids, the Fatimid period represents one of the greatest eras in Islamic history. Fatimids patronized intellectual activies and created major libraries and Cairo, their capital city(founded in 969), grew into a centre of scholarship and science. The Fatimid intellectual activities centred around two institutions: al-Azhar and Dar al-Ilm.
c. 988 al-Azhar
Established in the time of Caliph al-Muizz, the Fatimid Caliph who built Cairo, al-Azhar is the Fatimids’ most famous legacy and is often described as the world’s oldest fully-functioning institutions of teaching and scholarship. al-Azhar was concerned mainly with religious sciences and related studies, including jurisprudence.
c. 996 Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim
al-Hakim becomes Caliph at the age of 11. In due course, he establishes a unique centre of excellence for teaching and research known as Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge).Fatimid-era intellectual scholarship and pursuits reached their zenith during the reign of al-Hakim. Louis Massignon,the renowned French Orientalist, has designated the 11th century as the Ismaili Century of Islam.
c. 1005 Dar al-Ilm
Dar al-Ilm was founded by Caliph al-Hakim in 1005. Dar al-lm was the first institution of its kind. It drew together research and teaching of a wide variety of subjects such as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, philology, logic, law and like, under a single “roof”. The scholars, teachers and the librarians were supported by an endowment – the first known record of an institution of research and teaching being supported in this fashion – and scholars who achieved high standards were awarded with robes of honour, much like today’s universities award degrees and gowns.Additionally, the Dar al-Ilm housed one of the largest, most extensive libraries in the world (at the time).
c. 965-1039 Ibn al- Haytham (Alhazen)
Basra-born Fatimid polymath researcher, and one of the most brilliant of all Islamic scholars, who lived in Cairo in the time of Caliph al-Hakim, al-Haytham made significant contributions to the principles of optics, as well as to anatomy, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, medicine, ophthalmology, philosophy, physics, psychology, and visual perception. He is credited with refuting Greek models of vision using “controlled experiments” and arguing instead that vision is the result of images being formed in the eye. He also developed the basics of the camera obscura. Due his foundational work in optics, al-Haytham is often referred to as the “father of optics”. Due to his formulation of a modern quantitative and empirical approach to physics and science, and especially the central role of experimentation and observations as the only legitimate way to arbitrate between competing explanations, he is also acknowledged as the pioneer of the modern scientific method.
c. 973-1048 Abu Rayhan al-Biruni
A brilliant Persian polymath of the 11th century, al-Biruni was a scientist and physicist, an anthropologist and comparative sociologist, an astronomer and chemist, a critic of alchemy and astrology, an encyclopedist and historian, a geographer and traveler, a geodesist and geologist, a mathematician, a pharmacist and psychologist, an Islamic philosopher and theologian, and a scholar and teacher. He was the first Muslim scholar to study India and the Brahminical tradition. Like al-Haytham, he was one of the earliest exponents of the experimental scientific method, and was responsible for introducing the experimental method into mechanics. He was one of the first Islamic astronomers to seriously consider the possibility that the earth orbited the sun (as we now hold today) than the other way around. George Sarton, the father of the history of science, described Biruni as “one of the very greatest scientists of Islam, and, all considered, one of the greatest of all times.”
c. 980-1037 Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Persian physician and philosopher born in an Ismaili family from Bukhara. The Latin translation of his Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) was a highly regarded medical text in Europe until the sixteenth century.
c 1090 – 1256 Alamut Library
Following a schism, the the Nizari Ismailis established a state centred on the fortress of Alamut. In keeping with their traditions, the Ismaili leadership maintained a sophisticated outlook and placed a high value on intellectual activities. They created impressive libraries of which the library at the fortress of Alamut was the most famous. The Alamut library contained not only important collections of religious and philosophical texts, but also scientific treatises and instruments. Among the eminent Muslim scholars who availed themselves of the patronage of the Ismaili rulers (and access to their libraries) during time was Nasiral-Din al-Tusi, who spent three decades with the Ismailis.
c. 1126-1198 Ibn Rushd (Averroës)
Spanish-born Islamic philosopher who tried to reconcile the contradictions between Aristotelian ideas of studying nature through observation and reason, and religious truth. His writings and translations had considerable influence in Europe.
c. 1201-1274 Nasir al-Din al-Tusi
Persian astronomer, mathematician and astronomer who worked under Ismaili patrons in various centers including at Alamut Fortress. He established the Maragha Observatory and introduced several mathematical devices, including the ‘Tusi couple”, that Islamic scholars to greatly improve ptolomeic models of planetary motion. The “Tusi couple” as well mathematical models for planetary motion by Tusi’s student, Mo’ayyeduddin Urdi, was instrumental in Copernicus’s reformulation of the solar system where planets revolve around the sun (see also Al-Shatir below).
c. 1259- c.1304 Maragha Observatory
One of the top three observatories in the Islamic world, this was built in Maragha in modern-day Iran. Maragha had a library of 400,000 books and a school of astronomy.
c. 1213-1288 Ibn al-Nafis
Damascus-born physician who worked in Cairo hospitals and produced the first recorded explanation of the blood leaving the heart for the lungs. William Harvey’s discovered the full pulmonary cycle in the 1600’s.
c. 1281-1923 Ottoman Era
The Ottoman Empire spread from Anatolia into north Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and eastern and southern Europe.
c. 1284 Al-Mansuri / Qalawun hospital, Cairo
Specialized institutions that treated disease for free and conducted research took root under Islamic rule, building on Roman efforts. The hospitals in Cairo and in Baghdad had wards for different illnesses. Clinicians took detailed case notes, which were collated into teaching manuals.
c. 1304-1375 Ibn al-Shatir
Damascus-born astronomer and mathematician who developed new models of the Moon and planetary motion that eliminated problems with Greek models. Aspects of his work are identical to that produced by Copernicus.
c. 1332-1406 Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Khaldūn born in North Africa in present-day Tunisia. is considered a forerunner of several social scientific disciplines: demography, cultural history, historiography,the philosophy of history, and sociology.While he is considered one of the forerunners of modern economics, he is preceded by the Indian scholar-philosopher Chanakya.He is considered by many to be the father of a number of these disciplines, and of social sciences in general, for anticipating many elements of these disciplines centuries before they were founded in the West. He is best known for his Muqaddimah (known as Prolegomenon in the West).
Timeline compiled by Simerg; Nature magazine was used as a reference for some of the material above
Simerg: When you look back at Islamic history, which Islamic scientists are your inspirations?
Dr. Babul: The two people that stand out in my mind are Ibn al-Haytham and Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi. Al-Haytham worked at the Dar al-Ilm in Cairo under the patronage of Imam al-Hakim. He was given a stipend – a sort of a “research grant” and did groundbreaking work in the area of optics. It is only over the past few years that his contributions to the field of optics have started to be recognized and he is increasingly referred to the “father of optics.” I seem to recall somewhere that Newton acknowledged his debt to Al-Haytham.
:….Al-Haytham was in the vanguard, resisting a growing movement within the Muslim world at the time to try and limit the scope of scientific discoveries….Dogmatism, which was always present but kept in check, was beginning to spread, and if your scientific work was not quite in consonance with “accepted” interpretations of the Qur’an, you would come under pressure to abandon your work….He believed that nature too is God’s Book; God commands us in the Qur’an to go out and understand it, and that’s exactly what we should do.”
Al-Haytham was also one of the pioneers of what we today call the “scientific method” because he was a strong proponent of empirical tests of scientific theories. He was one of the earliest scholars who argued that to understand nature, one must study nature firsthand. And if the observations and experiments say that something is untrue, then we have to accept that our preconceptions are not quite right. Observation must take supremacy over our ideology or myth. That is also a foundation of modern science method: You test your ideas, and reject them if nature rejects them. Contemporary scientists like to say, “Man proposes, Nature disposes.” The kernel of that idea were already present in Ibn Al-Haytham’s work.
In keeping with the above approach, Al-Haytham was in the vanguard, resisting a growing movement within the Muslim world at the time to try and limit the scope of scientific discoveries based on interpretations of the Qur’an. Dogmatism, which was always present but kept in check, was beginning to spread, and if your scientific work was not quite in consonance with “accepted” interpretations of the Qur’an, you would come under pressure to abandon your work.
Al-Haytham was an active opponent of that approach. He believed that nature too is God’s Book; God commands us in the Qur’an to go out and understand it, and that’s exactly what we should do. And in his writings he was already trying to establish that if there are tensions between these two areas, we should acknowledge that nature, as a book of God, is worthy of study in its own right and on its own terms. So in many ways Ibn Al-Haytham was a dramatic figure, and unique too.
Simerg: And how about Tusi?
Dr. Babul: Tusi was influenced by al-Haytham, and carried on his legacy. In doing so, he laid down many of the foundational ideas, particularly the mathematical ones, for the study of the solar systems, which allowed Copernicus to develop his heliocentric model. In fact in Tusi’s own model, it was straightforward to exchange Sun for the Earth as the center of the solar system because the mathematics was already there. And I’ve often wondered why it was that Tusi did not consider the possibility.
I remember talking to a scholar who has studied Tusi’s writing extensively, and he mentioned that in some of Tusi’s writings, it’s hinted that he actually did think about it, and asked the question, “what if the earth was moving?” In fact, I have since learnt that a several other Muslim astronomers considered the possibility but at the end of the day, they concluded that this model offered no advantage. Tusi tried to test the idea. If the earth was moving, he expected the positions of the stars to change over the course of a year, but he couldn’t see the change in the positions of the stars, so he decided that the earth was not moving. And that’s an interesting argument, because to detect the changes in the positions of the stars, he would have needed a telescope, which was three or four hundred years into the future.
So it was interesting that he was far ahead of his time in terms of thinking, but being a good scientist he rejected the idea on the basis that he did not have the empirical evidence to support it.
Simerg: This tension between science and religion is even perceptible today, particularly with respect to the evolution/creationism debate. How do you, as a scientist, reflect on the movement towards creationism?
Dr. Babul: Well, creationism is rooted in the claim that Biblical (or Qur’anic) allegories are literal statements. I mentioned earlier that I don’t relate to these texts in this fashion. In fact, I am saddened by the superficial way these texts are treated today. The creation stories, and specifically, the idea of a somebody or something having put in place the order that we see around us, goes back to the very beginnings of mankind.
It is one of three motifs that appear in creation stories around the world. In fact, the idea of a superior being making humans out of clay is not unique to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Ancient Egyptians worshiped a deity who was a potter and fashioned humans out of clay and silt deposited by the river Nile. Ancient Babylonians accorded this role to a goddess. And one of the many Chinese creation myths speaks of a goddess, Nuwa, creating animals and human beings as figures out of clay from the banks of the Yangtze River. So these are ideas and images that human beings have used since time immemorial to understand the world around us.
“…And it saddens me to think that after 10,000 years of civilization and intellectual growth, we still don’t know better than to take these ancient stories, strip them of their rich insights and wisdom, and reduce them to “literal soundbites”. Instead, we go to great lengths to make the latter palatable by giving it a new name – Intelligent Design, for example – and try to repackage them as “scientific theories”.
And even through these stories may seem simplistic or even naïve at first glance, they are tremendously rich. They weren’t just talking about the story of physical creation; those stories incorporated elements of how they saw themselves, how they related to each other, what place they saw themselves occupying in the world in the broader scheme of thing, their struggles to carve out a sanctuary of order amid the chaos of the world around, what the purpose of life was, etc.
And it saddens me to think that after 10,000 years of civilization and intellectual growth, we still don’t know better than to take these ancient stories, strip them of their rich insights and wisdom, and reduce them to “literal soundbites”. Instead, we go to great lengths to make the latter palatable by giving it a new name – Intelligent Design, for example – and try to repackage them as “scientific theories”. Of course, just because you call something a scientific theory doesn’t make it so.
Simerg: Does this worry you?
Dr. Babul: As a Muslim, I worry even more that such this type of thinking is starting to become the norm rather than the exception in the Muslim world, that we collectively are turning our backs on the very teachings and ways of thinking that in the past propelled the Islamic civilization to glory. And I see this as a potential danger for the further development of these communities in that if they become sufficiently anti-science in their approach and understanding, their communities may never reach their full potential. And that goes back to the problem I discussed earlier about human development.
Simerg: The Aga Khan has mentioned that the development of intellect requires free inquiry, and that’s basically what you’re supporting here.
Dr. Babul: Yeah exactly. If you tell me that you personally believe in Intelligent Design, you and I can sit down and discuss it and if, at the end of the day, I can’t convince you, then fine.
But what becomes dangerous is if you then decide that your idea is the absolute truth and my children, when they go to school, must learn your ideas even if they are seriously flawed and even more importantly, ideologically motivated. And not only should they learn it – maybe it’s okay to learn it in a social science class – but they should learn it in a science classroom. Then we have a problem, because then we need to think about what science is, what it means to study natural phenomena scientifically.
Simerg: You interact with other scientists outside your own area, and even with faculty in the social sciences, humanities, etc., and this interaction has led to a collaborative project involving a computer scientist, and another involving a mathematician, a neuroscientist, an electrical engineer, and a medical physicist to study brain activity using MEG technology. What is this and what have you achieved thus far in your work?
Dr. Babul: This work in neuroscience came about because my wife, Naznin, is a neuroscientist who works on MEG, which is short for Magnetoencephalography. It’s a state-of-the-art device for studying brain dynamics. Every time you think, electric currents run through your brain, and these currents generate tiny magnetic fields which these machines can register.
If you look at something, the first thing that happens is the part of the brain connected to your visual system lights up, and you can see that it’s receiving information. And then it shoots off this information to different parts of your brain almost simultaneously, so four or five different parts of your brain will light up. And then all of this starts to come together in yet another part of the brain which supposedly puts all of this information together, and then you have a conscious thought—recognition of what’s going on.
Simerg: So how did you specifically get involved in this work?
Dr. Babul: Well Naznin was showing me pictures of these signals running around in your brain, and I was just fascinated by this, and I started asking her questions. It turns out that in the way they do their data analysis, they have to make certain assumptions. It’s a normal thing in science: when you have very complicated problems, you try to simplify them by making certain approximations that make your life easier. The question then is whether those approximations were reasonable.
So it was in the course of thinking whether these approximations were reasonable, and how you would test whether or not they were reasonable, that I sort of hatched an idea of how to simulate the patterns in the brain while being able to manipulate them at will to produce patterns I want. But I’m just a theorist, so I spoke to my colleague who was a medical physicist, and he thought it was an interesting idea, so we worked with a student who actually built a prototype. It worked quite well, but since we weren’t experts in electronics, it was very noisy and the MEG was picking up a lot of noise. So we thought there must be a better way to build this device, now that we had shown that the idea was viable. So we talked to some of our colleagues in the faculty of engineering at Simon Fraser University, and they became interested and so now we have this nice little team working on this project.