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Mohammed: the Anti-Innovator, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now," argues that Mohammed was a creative genius who, upon his death, froze innovation in Islam forever.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Early on, it seemed as if Mohammed's ambition was simply to go from door to door from person to person and say, "Leave alone what you believe in. Believe in the one God, the one who spoke to me through the angel Gabriel." That's how you say it in Arabic and Gabriel in English, and then exhort people to do certain things that in the 21st century we understand as religion: prayer, fasting, congregations — that sort of thing. In the first 10 years in Mecca, I would say largely harmless. There's that Mohammed. And in a very modern way, I don't know if you know Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but you can understand him as a Dr. Jekyll. Then he goes to Medina and there you have the Mr. Hyde side of Mohammed. Suddenly there's a militia. And now he's a politician. He's not only preaching please come to the one God; he's demanding come to the one God and accept me as the prophet and if not, I declare war. And he declares war. And with a relatively small militia, at least according to the Islamic perception — these are the Muslim documents — with a relatively small militia or small number of men he defeats much larger, a much more well-established army. And that victory leads to another victory and it leads to another victory and it leads to another victory, but it also leads to complexities. Because the more he gains power he has a say over more people and that then leads to the necessity of legislation. In hindsight, if you're in the 21st century, you are a political scientist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a historian, any kind of social scientist. You look back at that time and you read that narrative, you'll be impressed. You'll say goodness this man was great. He defeated large armies; he established an empire; he legislated; he kept them together; and he left a narrative behind that lasted for many centuries, well beyond he was born. Wonderful.

Of course I don't argue with that. But, what he also did was he froze his innovation in place. He was the last prophet. Nobody else could come and innovative on what he said. In fact he declares innovation the biggest sin that a believer can commit, thus the fate of the heretics of Islam. And so if you take Mohammed as the Steve Jobs of the seventh century, I want you to imagine, I want you to think of a Steve Jobs leaving a legacy behind where he says you can never and you may never change, the minute he finds himself on his deathbed, never change the iPhone 4 or the iPad Air; I forget which rendition these things were back then or the Mac, so that Tim Cook could never have. He would only have one thing, which would be to continue it and to say these are timeless. And that's pretty much what Mohammed did. The Koran is a timeless document. His example is rendered timeless. And I think that is a disservice that Mohammed did to his own innovation. His great achievement was the fact that he managed, if that narrative, again that narrative is a contested narrative, but if that narrative is true, his greatest innovation was to unite the Arabs, make them transcend themselves, unite into a super tribe and conquer. But the biggest mistake he then made would be to freeze things in place. That is the curse of Islam is the fact that innovation is a sin; innovation is bad thinking. They closed the gates of reason. That is the curse; that's the firewall to Islamic thinking. And we can see the result in everyday life. Again I repeat, it's the perception of the people who put these beliefs into practice; what really happened is still a Muslim study.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, argues that Mohammed was a great innovator who, upon his death, froze innovation in Islam forever.


Within relatively short order during his lifetime, Mohammed went from obscurity to leading a new, united Arab nation. In the process, says Ali, he underwent a transformation from seeker to autocrat. As a result, she claims, Islam has resisted social and ideological progress since his death.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
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