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Two Malaysian talks in the next fortnight in #histsci #philsci #histbook

March 3, 2015

Here is the schedule, which I am told is not completely final, but almost so. I speak on Sat, March 7, at 3 pm. The title in the schedule is in Malay Teori Spekulatif: Ilmu Mantik dalam Interpretasi Teori Kuantum di Anjang Timur-
Barat but in English it is Speculative Theory: the logics of thought in quantum theoretical interpretation at the intersection of ‘East’ and ‘West’


That said, watch out for this space as I announce the public lecture I will be giving at UCSI University, Kuala Lumpur, on “History of the Book in the English Language: An Overview” on March 13, starting at 12:30 pm, at the auditorium on the third floor of Block C of the university. Mark your calenders if interested.

The Astrolabe: Its History and Application Workshop by the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science, and Civilization (CASIS) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (25 & 26 Feb, 2015)

February 26, 2015

UPDATE: Rather comprehensive, though certainly not exhaustive, bibliography of scientific instruments published in 1997, that also included the role of gender. It would be interesting to know more about the position of women in Eastern civilizations in relation to these instruments, given the centuries of an educated woman’s role as helpmeet to their men who ‘produce’ the sciences (

Astrolabes from the Museum of Boerhave at Leiden and A full resource page on the astrolabes from the same site.

MIT page containing links to catalogs, archives, and galleries of scientific instruments, including astrolabes.


So, I’d attended my first history of science workshop in Malaysia, which was exciting for me, since it brought me into connection with a community of people interested in different aspects of the history of physical sciences. Unfortunately, I was the only non-Muslim Malaysian attending the workshop, though there were a number of participants from Indonesia and elseshwere. Given how such workshops are entirely lacking around here, it would be great to have more of them around here, and even at the regional level. That said, I have had good fun as I not only learned how to use an astrolabe at a very basic level; I also learned how to analyze cosmographic texts produced in language cultures alien to me just by learning how to interpret clues that are provided while also learning how to read Arabic numerals, despite having minimum knowledge of the Arabic script, on manuscripts containing mathematical tables (that included trigonometric tables). While I hope to write a more nuanced post on this issue at a later date, for now, I just want to post my most immediate reaction in the aftermath of attending the workshop.

I actually missed much of the first day since I could not take time off from my teaching obligations then, so I missed the introductory lecture by Dr Robert H. Van Gent on the origisn and mathematical background of the astrolabe, though the reader  (and myself) get a sense of what he was talking about from his earlier writing on the topic, which was incidentally reproduced in Malay by CASIS, in their program book. I also missed a potentially interesting talk  by Dr Salim Ayduz on the relation between Astronomy and the Ottoman empire (though I found an article of his on a similar topic here that is targeted at a more general audience) and another on eclipses in al Biruni’s Treatise VII on al-Qanun al-Mas’udi (though in this case, I was given a handout of the lecture, which I plan to take time to digest over the weekend and give a summary of later). I caught the tail-end of Dr Tatiana Denisova‘s talk on orientation, navigation and seafaring  within Malay historiography between the 14th and 19th century (the tail end of her talk I caught is focused on the circulation and importation of scientific knowledge among seafarers from within and without the Malay world, her analysis is derived from textual analysis of available primary sources concerning maritime practices in the Malay world. My intention is speak to her more about her work a little later, once I have time to take everything in). Dr Muhammad Zainiy Uthman gave a presentation on the ‘Batu Bersurat Terengganu’ which is connected to a book he recently edited “Batu Bersurat of Terengganu: Its Correct Date, Religio-Cultural and Scientific Dimension,” where he  was identifying astrological (and elements of ilmu falak) inscribed within the royal edicts carved on the stones, as well as the confusion that one gets sometimes from paleographic analysis.

The 'Batu Bersurat' of Kuala Terengganu, with hints of horoscopic predictions.

The ‘Batu Bersurat’ of Kuala Terengganu, with hints of horoscopic predictions.

It appears that astrological and astronomical practices are long conflated in the practices of early Malay cosmology and knowledge; even then, one might consider the existence of such traces evidence of intellectual exchanges that were going on within Southeast with other parts of the world.  That said, I hear that the centre intend to publish the proceedings of the talks later this year, so we will see what we will get. Based on my still rather limited knowledge of how area studies on SEA is conducted within Malaysia, one can see a divide between those who concentrate on SEA studies largely from the confines of post-war Malaya/Malaysia (including those working in areas of literature, cultural studies, film studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology, economics, policy studies, development studies etc) and those more interested in older historiographical knowledge (whether through textual or artefactual analysis) that encompasses not very new fields of the contestable ‘ethno’ science/mathematics and recently, the archaeology of a particular science.

Nevertheless, the real fun for me began on the second day, which was when the actual workshop took place (the first day saw more of presentation of works by various individuals as I’d mentioned). The workshop was conducted by Dr Robert H Van Gent (a historian of science) and Wilfrid de Graaf, the latter being a mathematics lecturer who happens to be interested interested in history of mathematics and astronomy in Islamic thought and civilization, particularly in Iran.

2015-02-26 20.06.38

Plastic Astrolabe calibrated to Kuala Lumpur’s latitude, 3º above the equator . You can determine the location of the sun on the day you are born, and then used it to determine the position of the sun during sunrise and sunset to discover the hours of daylight you have in a day (which is fairly predictable if you live that close to the equator). You can also measure the direction in which the qiblah should face from your local position.

In the second workshop, we were shown how we can also determine the direction the qiblah should face through both approximate measure on a two-dimensional map and through the use of trigonometric spherical calculations that also involve using a string to find the shortest distance between Mecca and one’s local position. It is like revisiting old high school geography and geometry combined – and got me thinking how much more interesting school geography lessons would have been if they have demonstrated the relevance of cartography to both geometry and cultural practices, rather than merely focusing on physical and economic geography (though I do appreciate the geography teacher who coerced us into drawing world maps from memory).

In the third workshop, we finally got down to the business of analyzing cosmographical texts that involve knowing how to interpret symbolisms, icons, and also available knowledge models represented by the cosmographic charts. The process reminded me of my even more intensive training at the Rare Book School in the course Scientific Illustration up to the 18th Century, where we concentrated on looking at known Western textual sources (you can find posts on this in the archives of July and August 2013). The first was Seyyed Loqman Ashuri’s Zubdat al_Tawrikh. The one we looked at is

Zodiac and Ecliptic Phases as represented by the Mansions

Though, if you look visit this page by Prof G’nsel Renda from Ankara on the miniature paintings found in the compendium, you will find description of other pages in the volume. We also look at the birth chart of the grandson of the great Mongol conqueror (Tamerlane). The same knowledge we obtained from determining the zodiac position based on one’s birth chart and alignment to constellations (obtained through direct observations) is then used to understand how everything is aligned in this birth chart, though we did not get any training on how one makes predictions out of these alignments, but that is another workshop in itself.

Horoscope of Iskandar, Grandson of Tamerlane, born in the 12th century AD.

And the Wall Cloth by Hossein Fakhari depicting late nineteenth century Persian understanding of developments in astronomy (one thing I find very interesting is the use of various mythical figures, which one finds conflated from multiple cultures of the ‘East’ and ‘West’, to represent constellations and planets.

The Persian, Hossein Fakhari's 19th century wall cloth depicting the solar system, which I need to research more on before I can say more).

The Persian, Hossein Fakhari’s 19th century wall cloth depicting the solar system, which I need to research more on before I can say more).

Then, there is the “Adjāyeb al-makhlouqāt wa gharāyeb al-mawdjoudāt” by Zakariya Qazwimi that can be found online at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and also, the Ottoman reproduction of his work can be found here.

The final workshop concerns understanding how Arabic numerals are written in the Arabic script, and how one can decipher them. Below are the two tables we used for this exercise, as well as a reproduction of a print of a manuscript with lists of Arabic numerals. The exercise was easier on my Muslim colleagues than me, given that most have learned the script through having to read the Quran, among other things. That said, thanks to the patient explanation of one of my group members, I finally understood how the alphabets and stringed together, as well as how their formulation change, depending on how you write them and what word you desire to formulate.

2015-02-26 20.57.472015-02-26 20.57.47 2015-02-26 20.57.582015-02-26 20.58.40That is all for now. Watch this space for more updates as I obtain more information and explore more into this area.

Finally, I bought a book while at the workshop, which I am curious to read more about, as it seems potentially interesting and also contentious. I was introduced to this book by Dr Wan Suhaimi Wan Abdullah from CASIS.

2015-02-26 18.49.32

New Life, New Move, New Job, New Year

January 6, 2015

The past quarter have been a series of letting go (more like tying up loose ends) of old stuff that kept annoying, and preparing myself for exciting new projects to come. I have been moving around quite a bit, but am happy to finally have my own place in the big city of KL (though I am ambivalent about returning to a big city and its high density population after enjoying the idyllic life of a small town). I am also starting out a faculty role in an intensive teaching university, and will have to begin applying for research grants, help in curriculum development and supervise research students. On top of that, I have decided it is time to start a teaching portfolio section, now that I am teaching a lot more! Will be back with more updates.

Here to a bigger and better 2015.

Ebola: an opportunity for an interdisciplinary approach to the crisis of the ‘anthropocene’

November 11, 2014

UPDATE 3: An article I wrote for Malaysiakini on this issue. It is less the story of Ebola than what it tells us. Also, sometimes, I think we need footnotes in more ‘general’ pieces to aid those who are less subtle readers.

UPDATE 2: The Hewletts, who did in-depth study into the anthropology of the Ebola, confirm my own uninformed intuition. I am trying to get a copy of their book to read!

UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, here is a link to an article that looks at Ebola from a medical anthropological perspective

Between moving and traveling, I had not always been the most up-to-date with what was going on the world beyond what was most pressing to my immediate circumstance. When I first heard about the Ebola break-out going out in Sierra Leone, then in Guinea and Liberia, there was then a belief that the situation was not that bad because they appeared confined to the poorest African countries, and they appeared to be contained. However, things started to change when the virus was brought onto the shores of the United States, and as the virus circulates, a sense of near hysteria turned it into an international crisis. The same thing had happened with AIDs in the 1980s even if the epidemiology of that disease is different, with a less obvious and visible symptoms due to a longer incubation period.

Of course, Ebola is an international crisis. It is rare for an outbreak to be contained when there does not yet exist a systemic structure for containment (not even if you make it difficult for those from the poorest nations to enter your land of promise). Moreover, we do know that devastation at the health level also means devastation at multiple levels. History has multiple narratives and recollections of the various recorded plagues known to mankind, and their implications in the aftermath. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen more than its share of epidemic, from the SARs to avian flus. Steven Sonderbergh’s Contagion (2011) almost seems like an eerie premonition of what is to come.

But as everyone knows/suspects by now (even Bloomberg has been alternating its news concerning decelerating stocks with tactical concerns surrounding the issues of Ebola), Ebola is not just a healthcare crisis but perhaps a crisis at the level of the anthropoce and humanitarian. Injecting funds and facilities and expertise helps,  but as we know, an insular approach has not been helpful and could potentially be the impediment to finding a solution. However much experience and knowledgeable medical expertise can contribute to combating the disease, the only way to do something different than before is to also engage the interdisciplinary expertise that include not only economists, communication experts, and strategists; but also sociologists and historians of medicine (and perhaps even philosophers of science), as well as cultural geographers, who had made it their business to study the implications of healthcare and medical practices not just within the presentist regime, but across different lifetimes, to lend insights and even provide recommendations that would have escaped the purview of those very much focused specifically on contingencies. Even scientists working in other non-medical areas could use the models and knowledge base they have developed to aid greater understanding of the system surrounding the epidemic, and it is a systemic problem in itself.

However, pure scientism is not going to give the needed holistic view needed to deal with the problem beyond the fire-fighting level.  After all, even those tasked with dealing with the problem are still humans, and we need to understand how to create solutions that work with human nature and predisposition, as well as with cultural and infrastructural conditions. In fact, if interdisciplinary knowledge and application is ever needed, this is the time when it is in greatest dire need, and not merely at a sophistical or rhetorical level. Interdisciplinarity is also needed to break out of the provincialism that inhabits the practices of scientific disciplines, given that localized assumptions about epistemic practices are what can contribute to communication breakdowns

One of the problems with the whole approach to dealing with this outbreak at the policy level is the lack of engagement with the people who study both the sociology and history of infectious diseases, and the lack of ability of the people making policy decisions at the highest level in knowing how to work collaboratively on the issue (or to know how to assemble different cells of expertise) – this probably stems too from a shallow understanding of the meaning of expertise and the lack of epistemic trading between various specialists who are the gatekeepers and the decision-makers. It does not help of course that having in-depth knowledge of a disease without the accompanying ability to compare across different facets of the system of which the disease is a constituent produces half-baked attempts at arriving at any resolutions. Decision makers need to include humanists and social scientists who study the organic/human conditions in relation to the sciences that desire to palliate and alleviate the negative conditions.

That said, there is no easy way to deal with the problem, and that an interdisciplinary approach brings with it new challenges as one has to be willing to take the time to shifts one’s mental framework at a time of high duress and great difficulties. But it also the ripe time to begin forming interdisciplinary teams that would produce recommendations and alternatives through their analyses of whatever information and data there are

Information, Research and Trends: the Malaysian Case

November 9, 2014

Among the things I have been grappling with, upon my return to Malaysia, is in making sense of all the changes that had taken place in my more than two-years of extended absence (as I had not returned since the mid-summer of 2012). However, much of my observations could only be made from my hometown in Perak, as I had not had time to go anywhere much (other than a day-trip to KL with my family). But, thanks to the combination of Astro satellite TV (which became my best friend for the first time since the turn of the century), my rather limited internet access, and newspapers passed on by others (I refraining from buying local magazines for the time being), and also in talking with random people around, I was able to obtain a cultural snapshot of all that had been happening in my absence. It also allows me to see how the exceptionalism of North America has blinded those of us living in it to the capital ascendancy of Asia (though it is up to you to decide how you will view it); glimpses of that could be observed while I was in Europe while the American media is almost blind to much that takes place in Asia. A summary of my observations can be seen here, though you would have to read it in Malay or plug it onto Google Translate.

One thing about Asia, and Malaysia in particular, is the lack of any clearinghouse of information (though that is changing, extremely slowly still, as the newer generation are beginning to put more things onto the Internet) that you can go to for seeing what is going on, regardless of field of investigation you are interested in pursuing. As someone who had years (like a little over a decade) of experience in the research industry (both academic and non-academic) in Malaysia and elsewhere, I can attest to how the concept of the archive is not very much within the consciousness of Malaysia, though as I said, that is changing with the more digitally literate generation coming to fore. China, on the other hand, is trying to make up for its cultural misdeeds, so to speak, by going full-force to document every area of knowledge, historical and current, that it could get its hands on (even if the country has not changed too much in its stance with regard to informational democracy or the rights of its citizens). Here, it is still very much dependent on the grapevine, your contacts, and being part of an insider information group – the oral tradition of handing down information still operates through much of the knowledge economy of Malaysia, and probably much of other South East Asian countries (even if Singapore is becoming more sophisticated in the manner in which it is archival and informational database practices).  Therefore, much of information you want to collect has to come through a keen sense of observational practice, informational interviews, and going out and talking to people within the community. Further, much of the published information of the world are locked up in very expensive databases monopolized by wealthy publishing conglomerates, and not always available even to universities and other bigger research organizations in the country, let alone to an independent or freelance researcher.

However, to have more than a partial view of Malaysia requires one to have a good grasp of the different languages available, which is also what makes doing research in Malaysia both exciting and challenging. One might refer to only resources in languages you are most comfortable with, but that would mean that your knowledge is always partial. In fact, even knowing all languages does not guarantee full access unless one can consider that which is not said. Let’s consider the media for instance: due to stringent control through the Printing and Publications Act, and also Sedition Act, among others, much of media published in English and Malay could afford you only the blandest view of politics. On the other hand, the Chinese newspapers, that are illegible to the majority group of Malaysia, could get away with more and therefore, are able to publish political news sanctioned from most other newspapers. That had been the case until the advent of alternative presses, but even then, one will still get different perspectives. Of course, one would always have to differentiate sensationalism from information, but the history of newspapers in Malaysia, and the multiplicity of languages in which its newspapers come in, is a subject for much interesting research, as one can find in the unpublished master and PhD theses of the universities (unfortunately, I don’t think the idea of a digital thesis has made its ways here yet). That said, in the field I am interested in exploring further, which is intellectual history in relation to the history of science, being able to communicate with more members of the community would assure one the ability to access materials not available in every language, while also building hitherto unobserved connections. This is at least what I am trying to do to understand, for example, the history of alternative medical treatments and therapies in Malaysia that are derived from various cultures and even from centuries old traditions that are beyond the shores of the country.

As far as trends of consumption, I see not much change in that area. Having recently emerged out of the university system (though I might be returning to one soon again) for so long, it still comes as a shock (even if not a surprise), to see how much money that members of the public pay to attend particular talks and seminars, except for political talks, obviously. Some major universities in the country organize talks, but given the fact of the bigger public universities are disproportionately located in one state (Selangor), and that most private universities and colleges are more about providing ‘job and vocational training’ rather than in intellectual advancement, there is not a whole lot of edifying forum for public to engage with ideas. Most of the expensive talks and seminars are related to capital gain (targeted at, corporations, business professionals, or potential customers) and are more about marketing a particular service or product. For certain, there there is unabashed commercialism, that the most interesting public spaces are the shopping malls, even in smaller towns such as my hometown. In fact, for the smaller towns, the taste of cosmopolitanism can only be had at shopping malls; not even at libraries, bookstores or cultural places such as museums and galleries. In fact, I once reviewed a book about the importance of studying shopping malls as a sociological critique in Singapore.

Then, there is the entertainment industry. I do not claim to ever have been always an observant connoisseur of any forms of pop-culture, though my short stint in market research some months prior to commencing my PhD studies opened up my eyes to the importance of cultural critique in all areas of consumer research. The same holds true for understanding the rise and fall of particular pop cultures, such as the ones in Asia. As of now, I was informed that K-pop is all the riot now (that has impacted some members of my extended family as well). However, with the rise of technicolor and sharp images afforded by the HD technology and an increase in the deployment of animated special effects in cinematography (often to offset a not very great script or plot) in the Chinese movie industry, and of course, the increasing robustness of entertainment in, once again, China, we see the advent of C-dramas, especially costumed period dramas, into the overseas market, most particularly in South East Asia. With a few exceptions, it appears that most of the C-dramas that made it into the general channels of the television, such as the Malaysian satellite TV Astro, are kinds that support the status quo rather than ruffle feathers. The same can be said about the local (largely Malay) channels (though I have not spent time looking into the channels catered to Indian-dialect speakers) .That stands in contradistinction to some, though not all, of the American TV dramas that are accessible through the regular behemoths (Fox, HBO etc). There is much that can be said about the onslaught of global celebrity cultures upon the average consumer of entertainment, but I will let scholars or critiques who study such phenomena do the honors instead.

I have only been around for a month, but am looking forward to seeing what new things will I discover, and where my intellectual and research interests will be able to find its niche. At this time, on top of my regular ‘work,’ I am also spending time reading up on Malaysiana and other Asian materials that I had no time to consume while doing the PhD. For sure, understanding cultural implications and affectivity are important to understanding the movement of trends from a qualitative perspective. I welcome further suggestions and recommendations by anyone reading this.

#Cosmoschat for Writing in the Natural Sciences Unit (July 14-18, 2014)

July 18, 2014

We did it the old-fashion way!

We did it the old-fashion way!

cosmoschat 8

#opinions vs #facts

What they thought of the presenters

What they thought of the presenters

Cosmoschat 5


#finale for the new cosmos series.

#finale for the new cosmos series.

All the thoughts came running out, beyond the mandatory questions!

All the thoughts came running out, beyond the mandatory questions!

cosmoschat 7

#origins and #myth-making



Science Fiction as Science Studies on the History of Science

July 17, 2014

What you see in this post are some reactions and thoughts that came to mind in this very intense week as I think about my own larger intellectual interests, my recently completed dissertation, my organization of my ECR research projects and publications, and the class that I have been teaching this week.

If you have seen my previous post and also the tweetchat, most of you reading this probably already know that I have been teaching a week-long intensive class on science communication that tries to bring in a bit of history of science (and some history of technology). What I did not quite emphasize was also the role of fiction in science communication and in communicating the history of science.

On Wednesday this week, I brought in not only some science news magazines, but also two issues of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact. This came in the heel after I assigned them their first homework, which was to analyze between historically scholarly scientific writing with more recent publications, as a way for them to understand that style is not static; neither does academic scientific communication has to be inscrutably unreadable to a non-specialist. That established the historical aspect of the craft, though, had there been more time, we might have gone a little bit more into how that craft develops differently by the content being produced. Even then, I gave them, in the first lecture, the different forms of overlapping science communication, across different platforms, that share similar raison d’etre even if at first glance, they appear different in their purposes.

So, when I ended up bringing those magazines, including the hard SF journals, to demonstrate the humanistic relevance of scientific thinking in the past, despite the divergent direction that the sciences have taken today, I was able to show them videos produced by scientists/science communicators that connect current day science with historical science, and that fiction is the key to tracing that genealogy of science, from a perspective that is irremediably historically contingent. From there, I could also begin to explain that connection to other humanistic studies. I find such a strategy to be more attention grabbing to the students than if I were to spend too much time pontificating about how literature tries to study science or why philosophy and science have strong historical connections. In fact, I am interested in thinking about how I could one day produce a course that is all about learning history of science through works of hard science fiction, or even just fictions that are interested in interpreting science contemporary to the period in which the fictional universe is set in.

As part of understanding the role of fiction not only in scientific pedagogy, but also in humanistic interaction with science, I was amazed at the number of the students readily adopted such forms of thought experiments (even if rather unconsciously on their part), a fictive-factive motif, in their class presentations, after having only had three days of 90 minutes of class, with my having barely scratched the surface of that! One of the joys of teaching science communication is demonstrating not only the multiple ways of conveying what science is about, which is what I have been trying very hard to convince scientists and humanists alike of, but also of other ways of thinking about the production of scientific knowledge, why we choose to produce scientific knowledge only in particular ways, or inhibit the parameters of acceptability and legibility of scientific theories and facts.

A student astutely pointed out that there is nothing new about scientific communication or even the production of science, which seems to follow the same narrative path for decades on end. Fiction allows one to historicize the moments in science that never went down into the history books of science because they remain ‘crazy’ conjectures and a series of what-ifs – through fiction, one is able to bring all of these speculations to light; speculations that are important in the production of the science which made it as the ‘science’ that remain in the fringe or is largely not visible. What I want is not for the students to become creative writers of fiction, though there is nothing barring them from that, but to understand how fiction can be a way of studying facts directly, and that such a method can be deployed even for the production of non-fictional works to allow critical discussions of the science to happen.

Such an experience, in connecting between my own research and an experimental andragogy (I wonder how such an experiment would work when one teaches an interdisciplinary course of science and the humanities to both middle school and high school students), really got me thinking again about whether fiction, through much modifications at a logical, philosophical, and other methodological levels, could become that medium where we can have not only a rich conversation about science-to-science intra/trans/interdisciplinary relations ie bio-physics or medicine and the environment, but what it means to do science studies within the humanities. It means the reconsideration of a landscape that has dictated how the sciences have been discussed by humanists, and the suspicion in which scientists have often viewed humanistic interpretations of their very epistemically hierarchical fields.


P.S. Some of the more opinionated students in the class did not find the Carl Sagan Cosmos to be very compelling (too ponderous and what they thought were not very compelling use of history), at least the pilot episode, so they do not want to watch more. Be interesting to hear more tomorrow,  at the tail end of the class!


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