science

On the Prowl for the Perfect Job

I’m at a crossroads in my career. At the end of June, I’ll have completed the organization of the World Conference of Science Journalists 2011. I have been working on this conference for two years.

It’s time for me to look for a job.

Thing is, I don’t want just any job. I want the PERFECT job.

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Should science transcend political conflicts and wars?

This morning I posted a note about a claim that a US journal refused the publication of an Iranian research study because it was conducted in Iran Are US science journals not allowed to publish Iranian research?

I asked the questions: When do political sanctions go too far? Is it smart to sanction science and scientific research?

To this post, I got responses like the following on Twitter:

Thats sad!.. Science should be separated from politics!.. he can really publish it in EU or some other better place than US.

that is sad, I am sure that we can do something in the international forum of physics in this case.I will write a letter immediatly.

that’s probably bcse of the sanctions, Europe may too. Unfortunate falling thru the cracks of politics.

I also received this very valid question from another Twitterer:

do you think it’s OK to to have scientific relations/research with israel for example ?

When I visited Jerusalem and the West Bank in 2006, I covered the issue of Palestinian-Israeli scientific collaboration and wrote this article: Israeli-Palestinian research: walking on eggshells.

You will see that scientific collaboration between “enemies” is complex and does not have easy answers.

What do you think? Does science transcend political tensions, occupation, and war? Should it? Or is science part of the systems within we work and live and thus it is – and perhaps should – be affected by them?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this through comments to this post or by responding to the following poll:

Wanted: Gorgeous Lebanese Man for Scientific Research and the Head of a Certain Saudi Scholar

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about segregation of the sexes among some conservative Muslims in mosques, educational lectures and conferences.

I got some rather interesting responses to that, mainly on my Facebook page, which I only allow close friends to join.

One discussion was related in a way to the poll I had posted: “For you, is it terribly distracting to sit next to someone of the opposite sex during an educational lecture?”

I asked that question because I wanted honest answers from people: is it really true that we need to segregate the sexes so that the men and women can focus on the subject matter rather than on each other?

One female Facebook friend jokingly sent me this answer on my Facebook profile, “It depends. How good-looking is this person sitting next to me? Is he Lebanese? And most importantly is he wearing Axe for men cause the TV commercials say it makes men irresistible.”

I asked this friend, “What IF he was a Lebanese man wearing Axe? Would that mean you’d jump on him if he was sitting next to you in a lecture?”

She answered, “I cannot answer that truthfully unless u present me with this opportunity but please make sure he ‘s really good-looking so we can accurately test this theory of urs. I will atnazil [humble myself] and be ur guinea pig purely for research purposes.”

My other Facebook girlfriends and I jumped on this as an opportunity for scientific experimentation that I must admit included a lot of giggling.

One girlfriend wrote out a hypothesis for our experiment:

Hypothesis 1: Axe for men, when applied on square Leb. men, acts as a catalyst to socially unacceptable behavior in Egyptian women.

I suggested we needed a control for our experiment and that control should be an average looking Egyptian man (not as attractive as a Lebanese man to our feminine Egyptian eyes).

So friend number 2 came up with a second hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Axe-for-men, when applied to Egyptian men, is neutralized, resulting in a pleasant-yet-platonic effect on Egyptian women.

And I posted a wanted ad on Twitter:

A group of female friends & i will be conducting a scientific experiment based on my blog post from yesterday. We r looking for a male specimen of lebanese nationality. Must be very attractive and put Axe cologne during experiment. We will put said specimen in our midst during an educational lecture to test our ability to sit without pouncing on said specimen. Applications are open to all who fit those criteria till 5pm cairo time @NadiaE.

Of course, it doesn’t take much to be able to tell that my friends and I were just having some semi-innocent fun.

BUT, a Palestinian nanotechnologist who follows me (and who is also a good friend) did not recognize that this was a bunch of women joking around and took us quite seriously.

Quite interestingly, he supported our idea of scientifically testing the logic behind some religious edicts, or fatwas.

I spent the rest of my day spinning this around in my head. Why is it that we do not put the logic used by some Islamic scholars to test?

So if a scholar uses the logic that putting men and women together in one room can lead to men being distracted or to unacceptable behaviors, why not actually test this logic by conducting a scientific study?

Why not find out if science supports the logic behind many religious edicts?

Isn’t that a brilliant idea?

So I started looking at fatwas that prohibit the mixing of genders in the workplace. And of course, one of the first fatwas that comes up in searches now is a recent fatwa issued by Saudi scholar, Sheikh Al-Barrak. I will translate the most important part of his fatwa for you:

The mixing of men and women in the workplace and in educational institutions – and this is what modernists call for – is haram [prohibited in Islam]. This is so because it involves looking at haram [prohibited things], the prohibited unveiling of the face, the prohibited dressing oneself up [of women in front of men], prohibited talk between men and women, and all this leads to what happens afterwards.

And what causes modernists to call for such things is a tendency towards the life of the Western non-believers. Their minds [the modernists] have become westernized and they want to westernize the Islamic nation. Nay, they want to force this westernization [on the Islamic nation].

He who legitimizes mixing – and if this leads to prohibited activities – legitimizes the prohibited activities. And he who legitimates them is a non-believer. And this means he has become an apostate, in which case he should be informed [of the truth] and given the evidence and if he still [continues with the same stance] he should be killed.

YIKES!

I must warn you, this is a very extreme fatwa and even most Saudi scholars who support segregation of sexes will not say that those who support non-segregation should be killed.

But the logic Barrak uses in prohibiting mixing of sexes is similar to the logic used by many conservative Muslims all over the world. If you put men and women together in the same room (and here I’m talking about the workplace and educational institutions, for example, and not the bedroom), then bad things will ensue. Basically, they won’t be able to control themselves, or so the conservative scholars believe.

I had started out my search in wont of discovering a scientific process to test these theories. I still think this is a brilliant idea.

But as I read this fatwa a second thought came to mind.

The above logic states that when men and women are placed together in the same room their instincts of lust take over in many cases and thus in order to prevent the prohibited acts of non-marital lust we must prohibit the precursors of such lust (in this case putting men and women together in the same room).

In Saudi Arabia, where segregation of the sexes prevails, homosexual practices sometimes happen.

So using the above logic, wouldn’t that mean that putting women and women together in the same room, for example, can sometimes result in homosexual acts (prohibited in Islam) and thus we must prohibit the precursors of such acts (putting women and women or men and men together in the same room)?

And using the logic of Barrak’s fatwa, wouldn’t that mean that he who encourages women only or men only gatherings is encouraging the possibility of homosexual acts taking place, and since homosexual acts are forbidden in Islam that person is thus encouraging a forbidden act, thus becoming an apostate deserving to be killed? Would that mean that Sheikh Barrak just issued a fatwa allowing himself to be killed?

I’m just saying!

Science and the Importance of Space: Not Outer Space, Mind you, Just Space

The fact that I’ve lived now for over 20 years in a city as crowded as Cairo, Egypt makes me very conscious of the concept and importance of space. To get from one part of Cairo to another one moves literally sometimes at a crawling pace as streets have become over-burdened with more cars than the city can handle. Egyptians have a very small space bubble. We hug and kiss almost everyone we greet, we hold hands as we talk to each other, we throw ourselves into crowded markets and bazaars with the same excited feeling we have when we jump into a swimming pool. Our apartment buildings are packed one right beside the other and our apartments one atop of the other. Open any window and you can easily hold a conversation with the person living on the same floor across the street.

It is this constant awareness of space that gave me pause for reflection while visiting the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.

The Perimeter Institute (PI) specializes in cross-disciplinary research in cosmology, particle physics, quantum foundations, quantum gravity, quantum information theory and string theory. One day I’ll figure out what all that means. But for now, as I went on a guided tour through the Institute I was fascinated by the way space was designed to maximize researchers’ opportunities to think, be creative, and to interact with one another.

Draw a line under the word “cross-disciplinary”. After years of scientists22102009296 living in the micro-cosmos of their ultra-specialized fields, they are now realizing more and more how important it is for science to reach across disciplines. Our realm of knowledge cannot grow and develop and mature unless scientists from different disciplines work with each other, share what they know and build on that shared knowledge.

PI is bringing theoretical physicists to Canada from all over the world to share the knowledge of their different disciplines in order to solve some of the most complicated questions about our micro- and macro-universes. Their ambitious plan is to eventually house the largest concentration of theoretical physicists anywhere in the world.

And PI clearly realizes the importance of providing the necessary space for22102009297 creativity and collaborations to happen. The magnificence of architectural design starts in the office. One of each researcher’s four office walls is a window that peers out onto the world beyond. Perimeter itself is surrounded by relatively open space so that researchers see earth and grass and trees and water and the buildings of the town beyond. A second of the office’s four walls is a blackboard or a whiteboard. There was not one office that did not have one of these, full of what my eye sees as endless scribbles but what I’m sure are most probably complex equations.

Walk out of the office and on every floor of this three-storey building you22102009293 find cozy lounge areas with leather couches, a refreshment booth, and yes, a huge blackboard full of scientists’ doodles. On the third floor scientists can walk out onto a veranda that seemingly projects itself from this black-mirrored building and seamlessly hangs over the green below. The veranda is lined by wooden benches and smack in the middle is a blackboard that scientists can use on both sides. Part of the building also surrounds a ground-floor garden that one can see from any of the multitude of glass walls in the building’s hallways. And what does one find right beside the bushes, their leaves a brownish green as autumn draws to a close? A huge blackboard, probably 2 x 3 meters large.

These areas are designed to encourage scientists to leave their offices and lounge with colleagues from their own and other disciplines. In one lounge area, scientists can drink coffee, play pool, and either chat about their 10-year-old’s crush on the girl at school or idly discuss their latest thoughts on loop quantum gravity, cosmic acceleration, and black rings and then suddenly jump to the blackboard as their conversation progresses to some stroke of genius thinking.

I see this and heart-wrenchingly remember a recent visit I made to Cairo University’s Faculty of Science. There’s not much to see really other than dark, moldy labs full of dusty, cracked equipment to a large degree from the 1960s. Even when the equipment is more recent, it’s still placed in the dark, moldy labs. Think grave and you sort of get the idea of the environment Egyptian scientists have to work in.

Scientists need knowledge, equipment, labs, and grants in order to be productive. But today I’ve learned something else. Scientists also need light and space to think creatively and they need each other to take the science to new frontiers.