Category: Science & technology

To think differently

Apple: time to make a conflict-free iPhone

By , Friday 30 December 2011 15.38 EST

My name is Delly Mawazo Sesete. I am originally from the North Kivu povince in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a deadly conflict has been raging for over 15 years. While that conflict began as a war over ethnic tension, land rights and politics, it has increasingly turned to being a war of profit, with various armed groups fighting one another for control of strategic mineral reserves.

Near the area where I grew up, there are mines with vast amounts of tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold – minerals that make most consumer electronics in the world function.

These minerals are part of your daily life. They keep your computer running so you can surf the internet. They save your high score on your Playstation. They make your cell phone vibrate when someone calls you.

While minerals from the Congo have enriched your life, they have often brought violence, rape and instability to my home country. That’s because those armed groups fighting for control of these mineral resources use murder, extortion and mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, which helps them secure control of mines, trading routes and other strategic areas.

Living in the Congo, I saw many of these atrocities firsthand. I documented the child slaves who are forced to work in the mines in dangerous conditions. I witnessed the deadly chemicals dumped into the local environment. I saw the use of rape as a weapon. And despite receiving multiple death threats for my work, I’ve continued to call for peace, development and dignity in Congo’s minerals trade.

But the good news is that your favorite electronics don’t have to fund mass violence and rape in the Congo, and neither do mine.

That’s why I’m asking Apple to make an iPhone made with conflict-free minerals from the Congo by this time next year. Apple has been an industry leader in both supply chain management and making corporate social responsibility a priority. In the past two years, Apple has taken great strides to source minerals responsibly and control their supply chain.

Apple is perfectly positioned to be the first company to create a Congo conflict-free phone, using minerals from Congo that further stability and economic development and don’t use slave labor or fund mass atrocities.

I believe that other Apple customers want what I want: the world’s first conflict-free iPhone. That’s why I launched a campaign on asking Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, to commit to making an iPhone with conflict-free minerals from the Congo by Christmas 2013. In the five weeks since I launched my campaign, nearly 50,000 people from more than 75 countries have signed on in support.

Apple, if you’re reading this, please give my family and my people a chance for a better future by being a leader for a clean minerals trade in eastern Congo. Commit to purchasing minerals from my country, but do so in a way that benefits communities, not destroys them.

You’ve always shown you know how to think differently. Now it’s time to think conflict-free. or

Photograph of Congolese miners at a gold mine in Montgbawalu, Ituri district, eastern Congo, September 8, 2005 (REUTERS/Jiro Ose).

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The irony would not have been lost

The near-religious zeal that drives the godless

By Howard Jacobson, Saturday 24 December 2011

May I take this opportunity to wish readers a happy “moral and aesthetic nightmare”.

That definition of Christmas belongs to the late Christopher Hitchens. Anybody can slag off Christmas, but it takes a smart way with words to make so few of them so telling: the short-tempered, hyperbolic Scrooginess turning the tables on Christianity by accusing it of offending not only against taste but morality. It also takes a brave indifference to the affection of the multitude.

In an age of emoticons, smiley voices and glutinous celebrities, when the din of television audiences applauding mediocrity seems to drown out all other sounds, and when those who are too ideological to smile pursue their affiliations like drilled recruits – left, right, left, right – how badly we have needed Hitchens’ gruff recusancy, his principled refusal to be emollient and of like mind.

Yet, for a writer who wrote so much that was contrary, he was the recipient – as his obituaries have shown – of an uncommon devotion. It isn’t to deny his gifts or achievements in any way to wonder about that devotion. Love is its own subject, and the question of what inspires it, especially where it appears not to have been sought, is one no serious person should baulk at.

That he was loved to the degree he was by his friends doesn’t surprise me a jot. He had a genius for friendship. I didn’t know him well, but, on the few occasions I met him, I felt the power of his personal charm and was able to imagine what fun it would have been to while away an afternoon talking and drinking in his company. As someone you might bump into on the street, he was beguilingly courteous, and, when mention of mutual friends arose, fiercely loyal.

If his Oxford friendships, especially with Martin Amis, have become mythologised, that is partly the doing of a literary readership that is fascinated (or repelled) by the idea of a charmed circle, but it was also, to a degree, the doing of the charmed themselves. We can allow that. Modesty goes with the territory and will show as a virtue or a vice depending on what’s made of it. The proper study of mankind is man: and, all along, Hitchens used his infamous burning the candle at both ends to great effect, making his bohemianism its own answer to sanctimony, and finally letting us into the physical, unmysterious anguish of his dying, an unsparing self-scrutineer to the last.

It intrigues me that the cooler appraisals of his genius have come from women. It isn’t that they don’t get him, but that they don’t get him the way men get him. Though we fight shy of gender distinctions, there is, it seems to me, roughly put, such a thing as a man’s writer, and Hitchens was one. The unequivocation of the argument, the wit that revels in destroying everything in its path, the open declaration of hostilities and abjurations – these are not the qualities you look for in novels, where meaning lurks round corners, and straight lines don’t take you anywhere you want to go, and if men, by and large, don’t read novels with the passion women do, the circuitous perplexities of fiction might explain why Hitchens’ polemics found a more direct path into their hearts.

It is, anyway, in the heroic language of warriors unashamed to express their love for one another that he’s been mourned, by friends and by bloggers the world over. “Farewell comrade”, “goodnight sweet prince”, etc. You can see why this muscular sentimentality might exclude some women.

Of the unambiguous polemics for which he was revered, the least successful, to my mind, was the assault on God, though I don’t doubt it’s for that work that a whole generation (of men?) fell in love with him. I don’t, let me be clear, speak as a believer; I, too, abominate certainty, and pound for pound probably believe in less than Hitchens did, never having made a god, for example, of Trotsky or an idol of Orwell. But it was his thoroughgoing independence and scepticism I admired most, and he betrayed both, in my view, when he voiced an utterly conventional atheism, aping Dawkins in supposing that all people who call themselves religious are fools and every verse of the Bible was written by a “crude uncultured mammal”.

Dawkins’ virtual appropriation of Hitchens’ illness – finding in it proof that an atheist dies better than a Christian – strikes me as tasteless. Altogether, there was a terrible cruelty, whether Hitchens felt it this way or not, in his having to die in the full glare of anticipation – no matter if it was the religious who were waiting for him to crack, or the atheists who were willing him not to. I have no reason to believe, and no interest in believing, that he wavered, however unbearable the suffering, but it was his right to do so had he wished. And it would not have been an apostasy.

As it was, in the months of his dying and in the immediate aftermath of his death, something in the nature of a religious cult grew up. A godless god of reason dying not for our sins but the erroneousness of our beliefs. The irony would not have been lost on him. or

Illustration from Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, by John Tenniel (1820 – 1914).

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Sansour censored

Nation Estate (2012)

Photo and video by Larissa Sansour

The Nation Estate project is a sci-fi photo series conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. Three preliminary sketches have been developed especially for the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011 – an award I was nominated for until Lacoste decided to censor my work and revoke my nomination.

Set within a grim piece of hi-tech architecture, this narrative photo series envisions ‘la joie de vivre’ of a Palestinian state rising from the ashes of the peace process.

In this dystopic vision, Palestinians have their state in the form of a single skyscraper: the Nation Estate. Surrounded by a concrete wall, this colossal hi-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem, third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor. Intercity trips previously marred by checkpoints are now made by elevator.

Aiming for a sense of belonging, the lobby of each floor reenacts iconic squares and landmarks – elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor opening onto a full-scale Dome of the Rock. Built ouside the actual city of Jerusalem, the building also has views of the original golden dome from the top floors.

The Nation Estate project consists of 8-10 large-format photos. It is scheduled for production in early 2012.

In addition to the photo series, a sci-fi video version of Nation Estate is currently in production.

French fashion brand Lacoste demands the removal of Bethlehem artist Larissa Sansour from major photographic prize.

By Iqbal Tamimi, Tuesday, 20 December 2011 10:47

Palestinian artist and photographer Larissa Sansour has recently seen her nomination to the prestigious €25,000 Lacoste Elysée Prize revoked on the basis that it is ‘too pro-Palestinian’.  Larissa Sansour was among the eight artists shortlisted for the 2011 prize.

Sansour’s shortlisted work, Nation Estate, is conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for UN membership. Nation Estate depicts a science fiction-style Palestinian state in the form of a single skyscraper housing the entire Palestinian population. Inside this new Nation Estate, the residents have recreated their lost cities on separate floors: Jerusalem on 3, Ramallah on 4, Sansour’s own hometown of Bethlehem on 5, etc.

However, in December 2011, Lacoste the clothing brand sponsoring the award have demanded that the project be removed from the competition.  Regretting Lacoste’s decision to censor Sansour’s work, Musée de l’Elysée has offered to exhibit the Nation Estate project outside of the confines of the Lacoste sponsorship.

As a nominee, Sansour was awarded a bursary of €4,000 and given carte blanche to produce a portfolio of images for the final judging. In November 2011, three photos for Sansour’s Nation Estate project were accepted, and she was congratulated by the prize administrators on her work and professionalism. Sansour’s name was included on all the literature relating to the prize and on the website as an official nominee. Her name has since been removed, just as her project has been withdrawn from an upcoming issue of contemporary art magazine ArtReview introducing the nominated artists.

Sansour says:

“I am very sad and shocked by this development. This year Palestine was officially admitted to UNESCO, yet we are still being silenced. As a politically involved artist I am no stranger to opposition, but never before have I been censored by the very same people who nominated me in the first place. Lacoste’s prejudice and censorship puts a major dent in the idea of corporate involvement in the arts. It is deeply worrying.” or

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Dwindling congregations


By Martin Redfern, Sunday 24 December 1995

FOR THE first time in 400 years, sensible people are saying some very dangerous things. Theologians are discussing the origins of the physical universe, the beauty of the fundamental laws of physics and the wonder of the complexity of nature. Scientists, too, are discussing what they suggest may be a sense of purpose behind the universe and questioning why those laws of nature should be exactly the way they are and why they give rise to those wondrous complexities. This year, a flurry of new books has been published, written by eminent scientists and with the word “God” in the title. It may be that this is in part due to pressure from publishers – “God” sells well – but it also represents a profound change of attitude since, until recently, few scientists who value their reputations would have risked the G-word even in private. That scientific books invoking God should sell well is also a reflection on the rest of us. Society seems to be searching for something which neither religion nor conventional science on its own has been able to deliver.

Science and religion began to go their separate ways in the Renaissance. The process continued when Galileo and Descartes started to ponder on the nature of the universe. To do so, they had to stray into the territory traditionally the exclusive domain of the church and, in Europe in the first half of the 17th century, the church was powerful indeed. Those who offended it too loudly or too fundamentally could burn in a hell that was very much on earth. So it was out of an instinct of self-preservation that Galileo divided the world into two. He said that there are primary qualities that are external and objective, such as temperature, wavelength, hardness and so on, and secondary qualities that are subjective, such as the sensations of heat, colour and pain. Thus he gave the primary qualities to science in comparative safety and left the secondary qualities to the church: on these he said, I am silent.

This was developed by Descartes into what we now know as Cartesian duality. Mind was declared separate from matter; God separate from the universe; our souls separate from our bodies. In this model God was the ultimate scientist, tinkering with nature yet apart from it. It also helped the scientist to feel a little like God. This God was a very male god, an engineer keeping the great machine of planets, stars and atoms whirling its well-oiled, pre-ordained way through the cosmos. He ruled with strength and firmness, very different from the more feminine nature spirits of some of the mystical traditions that had preceded Christianity. He was the sort of god who suited scientists and suited rulers out to build empires and fight battles in His name.

Science has lived with this dualistic legacy ever since, and so has the church. With the church confined to the subjective and divine worlds, the existence of God became a question of belief that could never be proved or disproved. Science, on the other hand, had the whole universe to play with and proceeded systematically to define it all in terms of primary qualities, forcing God into an ever tighter corner. Such a god is often referred to as the god of the gaps. Ancient peoples imagined God’s anger in a thunderstorm because they could not explain thunder and lightning. Sun-worshippers believed the sun to be divine because they could explain it no other way. Science today feels it has explained the planets and thunder, the nature of matter, and the fundamental laws that control its behaviour. Even the need to invoke God to explain how the universe began in the first place is becoming tenuous. Science has become so strong that many scientists feel they have no need of a god at all. The purpose of dualism has gone full circle and instead of protecting science from a strong church, it now threatens to marginalise religion in the face of invincible science.

Many scientists seem quite happy with this state of affairs, and the majority of ministers of religion appear to be happy and continue to preach about a dualistic god of the secondary qualities to their dwindling congregations. But there are some who are not happy with it. They are the people who are buying books on mystical traditions or science books with God in the title.

The problem comes to a head in cosmology where it is hard to explain what happened in the early universe without asking why. It also crops up in the study of our internal, psychological world and in particular in the study of consciousness. Reductionist scientists hover like vultures around this last refuge of the secondary qualities of mind, seeking explanations through physical brain function. Daniel Dennett, with his bold title Consciousness Explained, and Francis Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis feel that they have achieved this in all but detail. Others are not so sure. However much you correlate brain function with sensations, thought patterns and so on, all you find is brain function. You never find subjective experience in itself. To the atheists this is mere pedantry but it is on this issue, the so-called hard problem of consciousness, that numerous conferences and publications are based. The issue which is still the most divisive is that of the locality of the mind. If, as the atheists believe, it is entirely rooted in physical brain function, then they feel they can forget about the secondary qualities, the spirit and the soul, for good. The slightest proof of the non-locality of mind, be it from near-death experiences or ESP experiments, and the whole applecart of reductionism is overturned. That is why the few who conduct such experiments properly are often ignored by sceptics and why so many believers seek proof through rather inconclusive tests.

Attempts by objective scientists not to colour their understanding of the universe with personal prejudice have meant that they have always left themselves out of the picture. If people are to be found in the universe of science, they are restricted to the small corner of it occupied by their physical bodies. If people are to be denied a consciousness extending out into the fabric of the universe, then science cannot allow there to be a consciousness “out there” in the universe either. An increasing number of scientists, particularly cosmologists, are beginning to admit that this view seems wrong. The most revolutionary move in this direction has been the development of what is known as the anthropic principle – a cosmological principle that looks at the place of humanity within the universe.

In its simplest, or “weak”, form, the anthropic principle emphasises what a mind-boggling coincidence it is that we are here at all. If the fundamental constants of physics did not have the precise values they do, the universe would be either too small and too hot, or too big and too cold for life. Carbon and oxygen would not form in stars and be released into the nebulae out of which planets could form and life could arise. That we are here at all must mean one of two things: either our universe is just one of many, the only one in which everything worked out just right, or those universal constants were designed to lead to a conscious life. The writer Douglas Adams attempts to parody this idea with what he calls “puddle theory”: how, each time it rains, the puddles that form are completely amazed by the coincidence that there should be holes in the ground exactly the same shape as they are. But for many scientists this misses the point: that life will only fit into one shape of hole – the one we have got.

It is a tribute to the power of science that we have come to discover just how fine-tuned the universe is. It almost seems as if nature has written laws of mathematics and physics in a form that we understand. The Oxford mathematician David Deutch suggests that the understandability of the universe is itself either a fantastic coincidence or there is some deep reason why it had to be that way. If it had to be that way, he says, then we, in being able to understand its laws, occupy a very special place in the universe indeed. That is sometimes referred to as the strong anthropic principle. It says that the universe must give rise to intelligent life.

Yet more daring are the implications of the participatory anthropic principle: that intelligent life, including human life, is the very means by which the universe is created. That apparent blasphemy arises out of the principles of quantum physics. Quantum systems create waves or particles with inherent uncertainty. There are situations where a single atomic process can produce, for example, two photons of light with opposite polarisations. Under quantum theory they remain part of the same mathematical equation and in an indeterminate state until the polarisation of one of the photons is observed. But the moment one photon is observed, the polarisation of the other becomes fixed. There has been no communication between the two, yet, by observing one, we are influencing the atomic process which produced both. If that process holds true within a laboratory then it must also hold true across the scale of the universe. It is possible to imagine such an atomic process taking place in a distant galaxy and the photons taking billions of years to reach us. We would thus be influencing processes within that galaxy by pointing our telescope at it. It is arguable that an observer, be it a mouse, an astronomer or even a computerised detection system, could have the same effect. In some real sense the act of observation is a creative one.

That leads to the greatest heresy of all, the final anthropic principle. If the universe is dependent on conscious observers deducing knowledge of it for its very existence, then knowledge and consciousness must come to pervade the entire universe, for without its place in consciousness nothing in the universe can have existence. Scientists such as the US physicist Frank Tippler, who have proposed this, provoke extreme reactions among their peers. Yet all they are saying is what mystical religions have been saying for centuries – that the universe is held in consciousness.


There are many scientists who feel that they do not need any religious belief or even a philosophy beyond that of science itself to explain the universe. Some of them are particularly outspoken on the subject. The biologist Professor Lewis Wolpert, of University College, London, says that he can find no evidence in science for a god, and that if there were one he can find no evidence that such a god would match that of any religion. Wolpert upholds the dualism formulated by Galileo. “Science,” he says, “is about the external world and does not need God. The world of religion is an internal world and thus unverifiable. Science and religion have no common ground whatsoever.”

Another outspoken critic of attempts to bring God into science is Professor Richard Dawkins, also a biologist, from Oxford. The title of his book The Blind Watchmaker turns on its head the assertion of the 18th-century English theologian William Paley, who stated that the likelihood of the intricate structure of the world being the result of chance is comparable to the suggestion that a watch might have been assembled by random causes. In the book, Dawkins uses his knowledge of modern genetics and evolution to show how complex structures in nature, such as the eye, might have come about solely by random variations guided by Darwinian natural selection.

Dawkins suggests that, in asking “why” questions about the universe, the more mystical scientists are doing something that is not scientifically valid. “Why” questions are reasonable in the case of something that has been designed for a purpose, such as a car, a tin opener or a screwdriver, but are not valid when applied to things such as mountains or the universe. In between the two, he suggests, lie living creatures. The purpose of all living creatures, according to Dawkins, is to perpetuate their genes. Living forms in all their diversity are merely survival machines to propagate DNA. His world of the selfish gene seems ever more remote from a caring god than that of the random fluctuations of quantum physics. “So long as DNA is passed on,” he writes, “it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process. Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything.”


Science, just like any other profession, has its complement of those who, privately or publicly, hold religious beliefs. Historically, when most scientists were amateurs, clergymen were some of the few with the time, education and means to practise it. Even the great Sir Isaac Newton considered his theological works to be of equal importance to his scientific ones. Today there are many professional scientists who, in private, are practising Christians or of other faiths. There are others who hold professional qualifications in both spheres.

The Rev Professor John Polkinghorne, now Master of Queens’ College, Cambridge, had a distinguished career in theoretical physics before taking ordination and becoming a vicar. He feels that science and religion should be seen as complementary pursuits capable of trading with each other in rewarding if sometimes puzzling ways. He feels that the worlds of science and religion both explore different aspects of reality, using different language. Together they provide the conceptual framework within which we can seek to make sense of the world as a whole. In his 1993 Gifford Lecture, he said: “What I can aspire to is a candid and honest attempt to explore the foundations of Christian belief and to try to offer explanations for that belief comparable to the kind of explanation one might offer of one’s conviction that matter is composed of quarks, gluons and electrons.”

Responding to a challenge from the biologist and atheist Professor Lewis Wolpert, who asked why religious experience should be treated as different from any other experience and not subject to scientific enquiry in the normal way, Polkinghorne said: “All experience should be subject to rational enquiry, and part of that necessary rationality is to conform one’s investigation to the nature of the entity being investigated. I very much doubt whether Professor Wolpert subjects his enjoyment of music or his encounters with people to `scientific enquiry in the normal way’, if that phrase is to be interpreted in some flat, universal catch-all reductionist way.”

As an Anglican clergyman, Polkinghorne accepts the totality of Christian belief. He feels that scientists such as Paul Davies, who search for deeper meaning in the universe without the aid of religion, are taking significant steps but will only ever paint a thin and impersonal picture of God. For Polkinghorne, personal religious experience plays an essential part. Another Christian physicist, Professor Russell Stannard of the Open University, agrees. He suggests that most of the references to “God” in recent popular science books and even by Einstein do not refer to a deity but to the fundamental laws of nature. Such a god of physics, he says, is cold and unresponsive to prayer – perhaps a bit like an objective scientist.

Russell Stannard agrees that a central issue is that of the origin of the universe. While he does not underestimate the power of science to describe what must have happened in the first fraction of a second, as theoreticians run the clock backwards through that first second, all the scientific criteria break down. The mathematical equations start producing values of infinity and raise metaphysical questions that science cannot touch. The laws of quantum physics, he agrees, allow for the possibility of a random fluctuation in the nothingness of no time to give rise to the universe. But, he asks, why leave quantum physics in charge of the universe. Where did the laws come from? Could it not be God?


Paul Davies is a British-born mathematical physicist who’s now Professor of Physics and Natural Philosophy at the University of Adelaide. He has written many popular books on physics and cosmology as well as highly regarded textbooks. God and the New Physics and The Mind of God set the recent trend to put the deity in a science book title. They also attracted the attention of the Templeton Foundation, a charitable trust for the advancement of religion, and resulted in Davies being awarded the 1995 Temple-ton Prize for Progress in Religion, worth $1m. Previous recipients have included Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, yet Paul Davies says he is not religious in any conventional sense. He does not go to church, read the Bible or pray. But he is deeply interested in the profound issues of existence such as the nature of time, consciousness and the origin of the universe, which for centuries have been the province of theology. He feels that science can not only inform theology but can develop its own framework of ideas that will eventually cater for the spiritual requirements of people in a way that traditional religions are failing to do.

Central to Paul Davies’s ideas is the sense of purpose he sees in the universe and our place within it: “I find it very hard to accept that our existence in the world is something that just happens to be. It seems to me that the fact that the universe is self-aware is something that’s written into the laws of nature. We are here as part of the action and not just for the ride.” Paul Davies is keen to point out that the Templeton Prize is for progress in religion; in order to be able to make progress, this suggests to him, religion does not have all the answers. Science too should be progressive and not dogmatic, he says. Scientists must always be prepared to change their minds in the light of new evidence; that is the power, not weakness, of science. Such an approach brings a sense of humility that tells us we do not yet have all the answers, nor are we not necessarily the pinnacle of creation.

Dr Peter Fenwick of the Institute of Psychiatry in London has investigated the links between brain function and transcendental experience. With the latest scientific tools for scanning the living brain and even recording electrical activity as individual thoughts pass between brain centres, he is able to see how different heightened experiences and emotions are localised in different parts of our minds. But he also finds things that he cannot explain. For example, people who have been pronounced clinically dead but are then resuscitated often seem to experience a sensation of travelling down a tunnel towards a bright light and a deep sense of love. Is this simply the brain being starved of oxygen or does it reflect some other reality? Sometimes, under such circumstances, patients report seeming to float above their bodies. Evidence that this was really the case would transcend science: it would imply that mind was not localised solely in the brain. Evidence for phenomena such as telepathy would do the same. That would open up to science concepts such as the spirit or the soul that have previously been firmly in the realm of religion. Peter Fenwick is very cautious in interpreting evidence so far, but he is a leader in the growing body of scientists who feel that there is something here worthy of serious investigation. ! or

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Script and art and religion

Will computers make extinct the last of Islam’s proud and honourable calligraphers?

By Robert Fisk, Saturday 12 November 2011

Dr Jamal Naja meets me in a coffee shop just down the road from his home in Alamuddin Street, a quiet almost mischievous face, greying hair, and he lays – with great care – a black packet on the table in front of him.

Tripoli in northern Lebanon is an overwhelmingly Muslim city and Naja has a PhD in Islamic studies. But he is also a calligrapher and the black packet contains his pens and brushes. “Now, Robert, take these two pencils and drop them on the floor.” I do. One sounds low and hollow. The other sounds high and brittle. “The higher the note, the better the pencil,” he says.

Calligraphy is an Islamic rather than a mere Arabic form of art, partly because Muslims disapprove of the human image in religious work. Iran has at least 200 calligraphers but in Beirut, it is a dying art – Naja is one of 10 authentic calligraphers left – and the computer is slowly destroying these craftsmen. Naja picks a sheaf of glossy, bright pages and a tiny inkpot and his pens and pencils scream over the surface as if they are alive, louder than chalk on a blackboard.

I am reminded of illuminated bibles, for these are letters and words in the nearest you can get to pictures. Naja copies out a sura from the Koran and his pen screams and squeaks and screams, his script moving up and down the page, bottom to top, measured in the number of little “diamonds” – five at the most – and their place within and below the consonants, usually indicating vowels. In the past, this was also the language of government, of Ottoman Firmins and of authority. The ink is special, and they say it smells of oranges.

Naja calls his work “the trade of honour”, and I realise at once that 200 years ago, anyone who was literate would want to write like this, not only a proof of power, but of learning. How typical that our laptops are now destroying the literacy of the past. Naja still copies the text of the Koran and his eyes narrow in concentration. It is script and art and religion rolled into one. Who would today ever copy out the Bible by hand? I think of Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells lying now in the great library of my old university of Trinity College, in Ireland.

“Calligraphy cannot be learned immediately – and it is a hobby as well as a practice,” Naja says. “There are Christian calligraphers, though not many. The script is hidden in revealing itself to the teacher. How can I explain it to you? My father was my first teacher. Then I travelled to Turkey, Egypt and many Arab countries, and I would learn, little by little, to create this experience.” I wonder if, in fact, calligraphy is a linguistic version of singing. Naja gives me a sidelong glance. “Given that the Koran is not poetry or regular when writing it, reading it is not as regular as singing. It has its own identity.”

The Prophet, famously, was himself illiterate – his words were copied down later – but Naja adds that “illiteracy does not mean lack of education – the Prophet was wise and spoke to calligraphers”. In olden times, they would receive a certificate of calligraphy, a practice that has now largely disappeared, although Naja himself has won international awards in calligraphy and has been a judge of calligraphic art. The Diwani script in which he is writing was developed under the Ottoman empire and perhaps the most famous calligraphy – still found on old fountains in Beirut – is the Ottoman official seal.

Naja is a serious man – you’d have to be to write like this – but he enjoys life as a university professor in Beirut. “I pray, of course, but I am an open person. I enjoy all countries and all civilisation. Islam is a moderate religion, not a fundamentalist one. It is a mix and an integration of civilisations.”

Alas, that will not maintain the calligraphers of the Middle East. Some earn their living today (though not Naja) by writing out restaurant menus or inscribing dinner menus for presidents. It seems a sad outcome of centuries of art, although Naja will be going for many years yet. And then I look at my own notes of our interview, in shabby pencil, in handwriting I can scarcely read. This is what writing with a computer has done for me. I have started to write not letters and words but the imitation of words, pictures of words where I now have to second-guess missing letters. I suspect this is because the laptop allows me to think faster than I can write and when I return to pencil, my words trip over each other.

Naja has started work on another sheet of paper and the screaming pen begins again. Then I realise there is a silk ribbon through the pen and that is what is screaming, the ink running on to the material and the pressure of the pen is applied to the silk. I slowly read as he writes. R-Wow-Bay-R-T-F-Yay-Sin-Kaf. “Robert Fisk,” it says in Arabic. And he writes his own name in tiny letters beneath: “Jamal Naja, Tripoli, on 5/11/2011.” or

Persian calligraphy by Zurhan Bahrai, “In the city, even the veils of light are split asunder and vanish away…” (Baha’u’llah).

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A new physics

Gone in 60 nanoseconds

By Charles Krauthammer, October 6, 2011

“We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” says the bartender.

A neutrino walks into a bar.

— Joke circulating on the Internet


The world as we know it is on the brink of disintegration, on the verge of dissolution. No, I’m not talking about the collapse of the euro, of international finance, of the Western economies, of the democratic future, of the unipolar moment, of the American dream, of French banks, of Greece as a going concern, of Europe as an idea, of Pax Americana — the sinews of a postwar world that feels today to be unraveling.

I am talking about something far more important. Which is why it made only the back pages of your newspaper, if it made it at all. Scientists at CERN, the European high-energy physics consortium, have announced the discovery of a particle that can travel faster than light.

Neutrinos fired 454 miles from a supercollider outside Geneva to an underground laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy, took less time (60 nanoseconds less) than light to get there. Or so the physicists think. Or so they measured. Or so they have concluded after checking for every possible artifact and experimental error.

The implications of such a discovery are so mind-boggling, however, that these same scientists immediately requested that other labs around the world try to replicate the experiment. Something must have been wrong — some faulty measurement, some overlooked contaminant — to account for a result that, if we know anything about the universe, is impossible.

And that’s the problem. It has to be impossible because, if not, if that did happen on this Orient Express hurtling between Switzerland and Italy, then everything we know about the universe is wrong.

The fundamental axiom of Einstein’s theory of relativity is the absolute prohibition on speed faster than light. Einstein’s predictions about how time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence. As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time dilates, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And nothing ever has.

Until two weeks ago Thursday.

That’s when the results were announced. To oversimplify grossly: If the Gran Sasso scientists had a plate to record the arrival of the neutrinos and a super-powerful telescope to peer (through the Alps!) directly into the lab in Geneva from which they were being fired, the Gran Sasso guys would have “heard” the neutrinos clanging against the plate before they observed the Geneva guys squeeze the trigger on the neutrino gun.

Sixty nanoseconds before, to be precise. Wrap your mind around that one.

It’s as if someone told you that yesterday at drive time Topeka was released from Earth’s gravity. These things don’t happen. Natural laws don’t just expire between shifts at McDonald’s.

Not that there aren’t already mysteries in physics. Neutrinos themselves are ghostly particles that travel through nearly everything unimpeded. (Thousands are traversing your body as you read this.) But that is simplicity itself compared to quantum mechanics, whose random arbitrariness so offended Einstein that he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe.

Aphorisms don’t trump reality, however. They are but a frail, poignant protest against a universe that often disdains the most cherished human notions of order and elegance, truth and beauty.

But if quantum mechanics was a challenge to human sensibilities, this pesky Swiss-Italian neutrino is their undoing. It means that Einstein’s relativity — a theory of uncommon beauty upon which all of physics has been built for 100 years — is wrong. Not just inaccurate. Not just flawed. But deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong.

It means that the “standard model” of subatomic particles that stands at the center of all modern physics is wrong.

Nor does it stop there. This will not just overthrow physics. Astronomy and cosmology measure time and distance in the universe on the assumption of light speed as the cosmic limit. Their foundations will shake as well.

It cannot be. Yet, this is not a couple of guys in a garage peddling cold fusion. This is no crank wheeling a perpetual motion machine into the patent office. These are the best researchers in the world using the finest measuring instruments, having subjected their data to the highest levels of scrutiny, including six months of cross-checking by 160 scientists from 11 countries.

But there must be some error. Because otherwise everything changes. We shall need a new physics. A new cosmology. New understandings of past and future, of cause and effect. Then shortly and surely, new theologies.

Why? Because we can’t have neutrinos getting kicked out of taverns they have not yet entered. or

Photograph of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO):

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