Inspiring the Sagans of Tomorrow

An interview of Dr Salman Hameed where he talks about Science, Religion and Cosmic Exploration.

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Salman Hameed in his interview talks about being inspired by the Cosmos series.
Salman Hameed in his recording studio at Hampshire College (Courtesy: Dr Salman Hameed) 

It is no exaggeration to say that the award-winning TV series Cosmos made science and astronomy household names around the world. Created in the 1980s by the celebrated American astronomer and science popularizer, Carl Sagan, the show influenced a whole generation of scientists. Sagan passed away in 1996, yet his work continues to inspire the youth, while his torch is carried by thousands of scientists and science communicators whose lives he touched. One of them is the Pakistani astronomer, Dr Salman Hameed, who to this day takes inspiration from Sagan – so much so that he never forgets to quote him in his invited talks. 

Dr Hameed received his early schooling in Pakistan and moved to the USA to study physics and astronomy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For his PhD at New Mexico State University, he investigated star formation in spiral galaxies. Later, he did a postdoc at Smith College in Massachusetts.

For a decade and a half, Dr Hameed has been at Hampshire College, these days as an Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities. His research is concerned with studying the reception of scientific ideas like the biological evolution in Muslim societies. Apart from that, he divides his time between teaching exotic courses — covering interdisciplinary topics in history and philosophy of science, perception of science and science popularization — and making YouTube videos about astronomy in Urdu.

In this interview with Dr Hameed, we ask him about his extraordinary background, his ambitions and his wide range of interests. We also pick his brains about the state of astronomy, the question of evolution and the recent controversy of moon sighting in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, there is a dearth of academic programs in astronomy. Even when you were growing up in Pakistan, not many resources were available. What inspired you to pursue astronomy?

I was interested in stars and galaxies but did not know I could do that as a profession. I thought I would do computer science or engineering.

In 1984, I watched the first episode of the original Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It ended with something called ‘the cosmic calendar’. It was an idea by Sagan where he compressed the entire age of the universe into one calendar year. So if the Big Bang happened on January 1, today would be December 31 at midnight. At that scale, the Earth would not even appear until early September; and humans would appear only in the last few minutes of December 31. The entire history that we know of humans would be in the last second of the last day. That blew me away and got me hooked to astronomy.

As you said, there were not many resources available at that time. But there was the Karachi Planetarium. I went there and asked them if there was any astronomy society or club that I could join. It turned out there was none.

So, along with a couple of my friends, I actually started the first astronomy society in Pakistan.

It was called Amastropak – Amateurs Astronomical Society of Pakistan.

What became of that astronomical society?

We were a few high-school kids who started this society. The society had a couple of successful symposiums. The first big event that we did was to celebrate the closest approach of Mars in, I think, about 25 years. It was actually held at the American Center in September 1988.

The highlight of the event was a teleconference with a famous Mars astrobiologist, Christopher McKay. We asked him questions live from Karachi. And he was out there at his breakfast table in California. That was an amazing experience. It’s hard to explain how unusual it was to have that kind of live conversation in those days. Later, we had a couple of other events and it continued for a few more years. And then it sort of petered out. I also left for the US to study.

Salman Hameed became interested in Astronomy at a very early age.
(From Left) Salman Rashid, Arif Abbasi (Manager, Karachi Planetarium), Ali Kamran, Salman Hameed, and Larry Corwin (Director, American Center) at the American Center live teleconference with Mars astrobiologist Chris McKay in 1988 (Courtesy: Dr Salman Hameed)

The good news is that many other astronomy societies have now come up in Pakistan. In Karachi, for example, you have Karachi Astronomers Society. In Lahore, you have Lahore Astronomical Society and so on. I am glad that, over the years, astronomy, especially amateur astronomy has really been thriving in Pakistan. I think we are now over the hump of critical mass. You need a certain number of people to actually sustain an activity.

And I think, in Pakistan, a sufficient number of people are interested in astronomy.

Of course, more people can come in, but it won’t die off if one or two people leave.

Indeed, there has been a spurt in amateur astronomy and outreach activities in Pakistan. However, on the academic horizon, there still hasn’t been equally remarkable growth. What do you recommend? 

There are two major problems. The first is about training the students who want to pursue astronomy. I think in this day and age of global communication, you can potentially find Pakistani experts from around the world. They can actually come back and teach. Also, from the crop of many individuals who are now interested in astronomy and are running these astronomy societies, some are also getting their PhDs. So, in some sense, I think this problem is solvable.

The larger problem, I think, is about the research aspect. It is not just about astronomy, but about our basic investment in research to begin with. Astronomy just plays a small part in it.

It boils down to whether we actually value basic research.

And remember, basic research doesn’t necessarily have immediate benefits but is valued simply for curiosity purposes.

In Pakistan, we are not consistently good at basic sciences in general. We should have institutions, which have world-class departments in different areas, including astronomy, of course. As far as I understand, astronomy cannot be in isolation. It has to be a part of the larger infrastructure of research. If that is there, you can teach those who are interested. Once taught, they can contribute to research in the same infrastructure.

I think the second one is a harder problem. The first one is maybe easier because that is just a logistical issue. So, do I have a solution? No. I mean, I’ve been out of Pakistan for a long time and may not be the best person to answer this. But what you are observing and what I can say is that we lack a critical mass of high-quality research universities.

It seems that, nowadays, you are more interested in questions pertaining to the philosophy of science and religion. Starting from astronomy, how did this change come about?

My earlier research was in observational astronomy. I absolutely enjoyed my PhD which revolved around how stars form galaxies. It was in New Mexico, where a lot of people believe in UFOs, because of the Roswell incident. So I was, in general, interested in why people – especially university students – believed in UFOs. This got me interested in the social and cultural factors that shape an individual’s beliefs more generally. 

As you can imagine, growing up in Pakistan, questions regarding religion were always around.

I started thinking more about some of these questions in grad school. Later, my postdoc was at a liberal arts college where I had a chance to interact with people from other disciplines like philosophy, history and sociology. Eventually, that expanded my outlook and got me really interested in other areas.

When I took a faculty position at Hampshire College (where I am right now), I was lucky to get an endowed chair in Integrated Science and Humanities. It was not purely astronomy but was designed to create bridges between science and other disciplines. I was initially interested more in the cognitive perspectives of why people believe. But when I started working in this area, I got more and more involved with the sociology of science — questions like which factors lead people to believe certain things.

Why are you interested in evolution and how is it perceived in religious societies?

Let me explain this through an example. We don’t ask whether you believe in thermodynamics or not. We don’t talk about if you believe in Newton’s first law. I mean, you can ask that question, but it will be really boring. I hope the answer is: it’s not about belief. That’s the way it is, right?

Now, in my mind, it should be the same for evolution. But it’s not. Evolution is one place where you can actually try to understand how people think about science and religion. In many Muslim societies, if you want to ask, ‘What do you think is the relationship between science and Islam?’, most people would say the relationship is great. But it doesn’t tell us anything about what it actually means. People usually are not going to give many different answers to such a question.

However, if you ask what they think about biological evolution, you actually start to see many different types of reactions and responses.

And that, I think, may tell us about how people think about science and religion or science in Islam or science in general, and then you start to figure out the various cultural, social, and religious factors that shape these responses.

I find this question absolutely fascinating. When I’m doing my research in sociology, it’s not simply about just one question. It is surrounded by other questions and how people think about them. Even with evolution, there are many nuances. Is it about microbial evolution? Is it about the evolution of animals? Is it about human evolution? Within evolution, what are we talking about? There is a whole set of questions that comes in, and then you can study how people respond. That is what I’m interested in.

Discussions on ideas like biological evolution are usually either avoided or presented in a religious context in Pakistan. What are your thoughts on this issue?

The evolution issue is actually very interesting in different Muslim societies. Actually, a lot of Muslims have no problem with evolution, especially in Pakistan. It is included in textbooks as well.

We have done some limited qualitative studies and we found that there are a lot of people who accept evolution. Many actually see it from the Qur’anic perspective as well and find no inconsistency. Some think that science and religion should be separate. They argue that evolution is a scientific idea, but Islam tells us about morals and other things about life.

Some people reject evolution as well. But, then, what do they reject?

Very few people reject microbial evolution, because they know that antibiotic stuff works. Some people say all evolution is okay, including animal evolution; it is just the humans’ evolution that they have objections to. But then the question comes in: What about humans? What type of evolution are we putting a break at humans? So there are all these different shades. Many people who don’t accept evolution erroneously think that evolution means atheism or denial of God. It is important to understand all these shades of acceptance and rejection and how evolution can mean different things to different people. And sometimes, different things even to the same person!

Will this become a big battle issue in Pakistan? I don’t think so. It doesn’t have to be. Nonetheless, people should realize that understanding the real theory of evolution, about how species change, is actually crucial. Nowadays, evolutionary theory is central to medicine, agriculture, and gene editing and is the cornerstone of modern biology. You cannot do any of those things without having a thorough understanding of evolution.

What was the idea behind your Urdu videos on astronomy? 

A couple of years ago, I started making a video series in Urdu, called Science ka Adda+. It was inspired by a conversation with the late brilliant Sabeen Mahmud at T2F. I had given a talk at T2F and she suggested that we should start up a video series as well to reach a broad audience on the internet. I had been making some of these videos for the past few years. But then a few months ago, I started a YouTube channel called ‘Kainaat Astronomy in Urdu’, which not only hosts Science ka Adda+ but also hosts Kainaati Gup Shup and a few conversation shows about astronomy. In fact, one of them is called Hamari Kainaat and it is hosted by one of the leading astronomers of Pakistan, and a wonderful science popularizer, Umair Asim. The main goal of the videos is to make astronomy videos in Urdu that are accessible to everybody.

In these videos, I try to talk in a way a lot of conversational Urdu happens. English terms are interspersed with Urdu. So I don’t translate every astronomy term that I use. My goal is to reach a broader audience in Pakistan. These videos are available for free. People can use them to show in classes or just to start up a discussion about the nature of our universe.

The Kainaat Astronomy Channel on YouTube, founded by Salman Hameed, is a hub of original astronomical videos in Urdu

The videos are not meant to give facts about astronomy. Nor are they meant to form a course on astronomy. The reason I’m making these videos is to develop curiosity, a way, driven by wonder, to think about the universe. So it is not about what we learn, but a bit about how we learn and why.

Do you feel your science outreach activities compromise your research? Do you face criticism for doing outreach and taking time out from your research?

Everybody is different. For me, outreach is actually a big part of who I am and my work. I personally believe that we have to give back. As I mentioned earlier, I was inspired into astronomy by somebody whom I never met in my life. I never had a chance to even say thank you to Carl Sagan.

My whole life changed because of one episode of Cosmos which I watched from a home in Karachi 35 years ago.

And I’m not the only one! When I was in graduate school, pretty much every graduate student at that time was inspired by Sagan’s Cosmos.

It is incredible that Sagan could change people’s lives through his efforts into Cosmos. Now, you can ask if he was criticized for outreach activities and for not spending much time on his research. Nothing comes for free. Of course, if you are spending time on something, you have to take time from somewhere else. But I believe that it is worth every second of it.

Which of your courses do you enjoy the most?

I teach a course called ‘Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind’ in the spring semester. That is, by far, my favourite course because I look at the topic of extraterrestrials from many different perspectives. From a historical lens, I look at the history of the claims of UFO. I also look at the psychology of perception of why people do see UFO in the sky. I also look at the psychology of alien abductions – why do people claim that they were abducted by aliens? And I take a sympathetic stance on that. I think it’s actually utterly fascinating that people think they’ve seen UFOs and that people think they’ve been abducted by aliens, and that there are interesting reasons why people believe that. And no, I don’t think that there is any evidence that we have ever been visited by aliens, but we have plenty of evidence that people believe in UFOs. 

As part of the course, I also spend two weeks looking at the actual search for life in the universe from astronomy perspective – extrasolar planets and on the possibility that there might be intelligent life out there. Then, at the end of the semester, I talk about the religions that are based on UFOs, like Scientology or Raëlians. I also discuss the ramifications of an actual discovery of extraterrestrial life.

What if we really detect an extraterrestrial signal beyond any doubt and we know that it is from an intelligent civilization?

How would that change our society over a period of, say, 100 or 500 years? And it is a lot about exploring ourselves. So questions about aliens actually are, in fact, questions about ourselves.

Recently, there was an uproar on the issue of moon sighting in Pakistan. What’s your take on that?

The problem of moon sighting is related to the question of authority: who gets to decide. In Pakistan, there is the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee which says, ‘We are the religious authority that decides the month of Ramadan or Eid’. All over the world, Muslims are actually using different ways to decide the Eid days. Yes, some are actually using calculations. Others use calculations for all months except for Ramadan and Eid.

20 years from now, moon sighting will become a normal calculation thing – just like watches. Prayer times, 100 years ago, were determined by masjid imam and muazan. When the watches came, there was opposition. Nowadays, as you can see, not only do we use watches, but in fact, pretty much every masjid has a prayer clock.

We are having this spirited debate because we have the means to do calculations for the sighting of the new moon. Astronomically, you can really calculate when there is the new moon. Seeing the first sliver of the new moon is hard, but there are sophisticated algorithms to do that. I must say that people, in general, are both sensible and pragmatic. It’s becoming clearer that calculations can be helpful. So I think it’s only a matter of time that it’s going to get adopted. We just happen to be in the middle of it.

What would be your advice to aspiring popular science writers and video makers?

Well, there are two things.

First, you should always be curious. Find your inner 5-year old.

Whatever you are addressing, you have to be curious about it and find the interesting question in there, and, through that transmit the joy and excitement of getting to the answer. If you yourself are not curious, you won’t be able to transfer that excitement to your readers. So it’s really crucial that you yourself are excited about it. That is what people like; otherwise, it’s a boring lecture.

Secondly, always know your audience.

Who are you talking to? You should always have that in your mind. If your audience comprises of 10-year-olds, your writing or your video would be different from the case when the audience comprises adults. Knowing your audience is crucial because that defines the voice you want to use. If there is a mismatch in there, it will not work. So, know your audience and be curious.

Read: Spectra Joins Hands with Kainaat Astronomy

The thoughts, views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Dr Salman Hameed and do not reflect the views of Spectra Magazine.

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