Literary, Bangladesh, International, Technical, Life as it is, Cultural, Advanced science

Tagore’s philosophical views and Quantum Mechanics

Rabindranath Tagore (actual Bengali name: Rabindranath Thakur) (1861–1941), the great Indian philosopher, a Bengali poet and a polymath, who received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, lived during a transition period of Indian history in general and the Bengali culture in particular, when physics also went through revolutionary changes. Albert Einstein (1879–1955), the most prominent physicist of the 20th century, was the pioneer of modern physics, who produced theories which advanced physics to unprecedented levels. Although Einstein produced the ‘the principle of photoelectric effect’ for which he received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 and which was pivotal to the advent of quantum mechanics, he could not fully reconcile with the multifarious implications of quantum mechanics. The two stalwarts of the first half of the 20th century met a number of times from 1926 onwards. When Tagore visited continental Europe and then America in 1930, they met at least four times in Berlin and New York. The meeting at Einstein’s summer villa outside Berlin was of particular interest when they exchanged views and philosophical ideas extensively. During that meeting – poignantly described by Dmitri Marianoff, a journalist in the New York Times, as being between ‘Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet’ – the two exchanged views on the reality of nature.

Einstein held the view that the world and, for that matter, the whole universe, is there independent of humanity. Tagore held the view that the world is a human world and hence without humanity, the world is irrelevant and non-existent. Einstein persisted and queried that aren’t beauty and truth absolute and independent of man? Tagore disagreed and said that truth is realised through man and without man it does not exist. The whole conversation between these two giants was absolutely fascinating – it brought out the mindset of a scientist seeking out nature as it exists and that of a poet observing nature through the eyes and minds of human beings.

Einstein’s commitment to the reality of nature was absolute, and that absolutism brought him into conflict with the quantum reality proposed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others. Einstein believed in the existence of causal, observer-independent reality; whereas quantum mechanics considers reality dependent on the act of observation. Bohr/Heisenberg proposed that an atomic particle like an electron is there only when it is observed. If it is not observed, it is not there; it could be anywhere only to be described by quantum functional description. But Einstein would not accept that. He retorted by saying that the moon is there in the sky whether you observe it or not. Quantum mechanics states that an entity having unobserved presence cannot be claimed to be present with absolute certainty (with the probability of 1). Quantum mechanics tell us that the observer and the observed are entwined. The reality is not pre-ordained; reality is what is observed.

In 1928, Tagore received Arnold Sommerfeld, professor of theoretical physics at the university of Munich and a pioneer of atomic spectra, at Shantiniketan, West Bengal. Sommerfeld stated, “Tagore is to India what Goethe (pronounced as Görta) is to Germany”. Sommerfeld’s student Werner Heisenberg visited India the following year.

Heisenberg was one of the principal architects of quantum mechanics and his ‘uncertainty principle’ is the cornerstone of quantum mechanics. During the 1920s, he, along with Niels Bohr and others, produced what is now known as the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics’, where multiple existence of an atomic particle at different locations with superposition of quantum states was considered to be the reality of nature.

Although quantum mechanics had enormous success and explained various physical phenomena, which classical physics was incapable of explaining, the conflict with Einstein on quantum mechanical fundamental assumptions of probabilistic description was deep rooted. Einstein considered quantum mechanics as an incomplete description of nature.

In 1929, when Heisenberg undertook a lecture tour around the world, he came to India. On 4 October 1929, he visited the University of Calcutta and in the afternoon, he visited Tagore. In fact, he was taken to Tagore’s house at Jorasanko by the scientist Debendra Mohan Bose, a nephew of Jagadish Chandra Bose, and they had a number of conversations over the next few days. Heisenberg was very much impressed by Tagore’s philosophical views. Fritjof Capra in his book Uncommon Wisdom wrote,:

“In 1929 Heisenberg spent some time in India as the guest of the celebrated Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he had long conversations about science and Indian philosophy. The introduction to Indian thought brought Heisenberg great comfort. He began to see that the recognition of relativity, interconnectedness and impermanence as fundamental aspects of physical reality, which had been so difficult for himself and his fellow physicists, was the very basis of the Indian spiritual traditions.”

Heisenberg said, “After these conversations, some of the ideas that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was great help for me.”

Heisenberg’s comfort was to be seen in the context of a great intellectual battle that had been raging at that time between Einstein and Bohr/Heisenberg on the reality of nature. Indian mysticism or more accurately, Tagore’s interpretation of Oriental (Brahma) philosophy, giving a support to modern physics and quantum theory, was undoubtedly a great comfort to Heisenberg. No wonder, Heisenberg even said after their conversations that Tagore reminded him of a prophet of the old days!

Tagore’s philosophy of viewing the world with human eyes may seem to conflict with Einstein’s observer-independent reality, but these are two perspectives of the reality. Tagore’s view of reality resonates very well with the quantum philosophy of observer-dependent reality.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Can Biden save our planet from overheating?

Biden in climate summit

Every year, the Earth Day comes and goes while we continue to dig ourselves deeper and deeper toward climate and ecological disaster. Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, we have pushed our planet to the brink of climate catastrophe, so much so that for those of us born in this century, every year has been warmer than the 20th-century average with last year rivalling the hottest year in modern times.

For the first time in recorded history, concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured last month at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was more than 420 parts per million. It is a distressing milestone, especially if we note that the planet has already warmed by more than one degree Celsius around halfway to doubling pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide. 

Then there is methane, a greenhouse gas that is a shape-shifter. The rapid rise of methane from an obscure trace gas to a major player in forcing climate change is often ignored by the policy makers, although global methane concentration in the atmosphere is now nearly two and a half times the pre-industrial levels of roughly 770 parts per billion. Methane may account for a minuscule portion of the greenhouse gases, yet it is extremely effective at trapping heat from the Sun. Over a period of 20 years, it is 80-85 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Armed with these alarming data, on this year’s Earth Day, President Joseph Biden of the United States of America invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for a two-day virtual summit to discuss plans on how to save humankind from the looming “existential threat” resulting from anthropogenic climate change. At the summit, he urged them to combat climate change collectively in order to prevent the planet from heading toward the climate tipping point—a critical threshold where a tiny change could push the climate system into a completely new, irreversible state. Some scientists believe that a “global disaster” is already unfolding because the climate may have crossed the tipping point. 

Biden announced an ambitious plan to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to half their 2005 levels by 2030, reaching zero emissions no later than 2050. Although the proposed cut was part of the Nationally Determined Contribution under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the White House did not provide a specific road map outlining what has to be done to implement the plan. Nevertheless, the target of 50 percent cut by the end of the decade will entail a steep and rapid decline of fossil fuel use in virtually every sector of the US economy. And that will require, among other things, producing electricity from renewable sources, cars and trucks running on electricity, phasing out chemicals used in refrigeration and air-conditioning that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, and using greenhouse gas removing technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

While a broad spectrum of people in the USA and elsewhere welcomed Biden’s plan as an encouraging starting point, environmental activists argue that his aggressive goals to switch to clean energy by 2030 is “nowhere near enough” to keep our planet habitable. According to them, as the “biggest historical polluter,” the USA needs to aim for at least a 70 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels—the high point for US emissions—if he wants to achieve zero emissions by 2050. More importantly, they are justifiably concerned that Washington’s history of backing out of or failing to ratify climate commitments will jeopardise support for Biden’s plan.

To the conservatives and anti-environmental groups, Biden’s plan is a political hot air. They fear that if implemented, there will be massive destruction of wealth, surrender of America’s international trade advantages, creation of a huge intrusive government-run bureaucracy, inhibition of free markets and a precipitous drop in the living standards of most Americans. A cadre of Republicans beholden to Donald Trump and the ultra-right Fox News even claimed, albeit falsely, that Biden will take hamburgers and steaks off the menu as part of his plan.

It is, therefore, an open question whether Biden’s new policies will survive the American political system. In the past, policies on climate change have repeatedly shifted when Republicans were in power—first with George Bush undoing Bill Clinton’s attempt to join the Kyoto Protocol, and then with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated by Barack Obama. Hence, for Biden’s policies to succeed, he has to convince moderate Republicans to break ranks with their conservative colleagues who have succumbed to Trump’s fallacious argument that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Biden’s policies could also face obstacles in the courts.

Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans, he will also have to balance the demands of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy while at the same time be wary of what it will mean for organised labour—in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector.  

Biden’s age is also a big factor. In the best-case scenario, setting an emissions target for the next ten years seems plausible if he remains president for two terms. In the worst-case scenario, 78-year-old Biden will in all likelihood be president for only one term. What if Trump or another Trump-like chump comes to power in 2024 and rolls back everything put in place by Biden? After all, the Republican-controlled Congress wiped out most of the Obama administration’s environmental rules in the first 16 weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Biden’s plan overlooks an important aspect that plays, and will continue to play, a devastating role in heating up our planet. It totally ignores the fact that the heat-trapping gases presently in the air will not magically vanish even if we instantly stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That is because different greenhouse gases take different amounts of time to break down via chemical reactions. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of hundreds to even thousands of years whereas nitrous oxide lingers for about 100 years. Methane dissipates relatively quickly, persisting for about 12 years. But there is a problem—a feedback-loop situation. When methane breaks down, it can turn into carbon dioxide, thereby replacing one greenhouse gas with another.

So, can Biden save our planet from overheating? Anyone hoping that Biden’s plan will lead to a habitable future on this fragile planet should be circumspect because like most politicians, Biden is working with targets, not solutions. Moreover, he is trapped by the short-term self-interest of multi-national corporations and fossil fuel industries who fear that any real change will cut into their profit and power. Besides, his initiative of cutting greenhouse gas emissions without simultaneously removing the ones currently in the atmosphere will not be enough to stop the nightmarish effects of climate change.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Advanced science, Astrophysics, Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Religious, Travel

Einstein’s hand written letters are intensely sought after

Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of the 20th century and the most iconic figure of a physicist, had lost not an iota of world’s admiration and fascination even after 65 years of his death. The world, it seems, is keen to grab whatever bits and pieces it can get bearing Einstein’s name or attachments at any price.

This was evident from the recent auction of a single-page hand written letter by Einstein in German to a Polish-American physicist Ludwik Silberstein by a Boston based RR Auction house. The interest in this hand written letter of Einstein was so intense that the auction started on the internet on 13th of May, 2021 with lots of internet bidders and concluded on 20th of May, 2021 when two anonymous final bidders slogged it out in a desperate bid to procure it and eventually it was sold for $1.2million (£850,000).

This Einstein’s letter written on 26th October 1946 on the Princeton University letterhead addressed to Ludwik Silberstein, who was a severe critic of Einstein, said cryptically, “Your question can be answered from the E=mc2 formula, without any erudition.” The letter was kept in Silberstein’s personal archives and nearly 70 years later his descendants retrieved it recently and sold it in the auction.

The letter in itself contained no new material of scientific or technical interest that may stir intense interest to anybody. The novelty was purely of Einstein’s hand-written element. In fact, it contained a somewhat incomplete mass-energy equivalence equation, which Einstein produced some 40 years earlier (before he wrote the letter) in 1905 and published in the Annalen der Physik, world’s leading physics journal at that time. The original equation that he produced was

                                    E = m c2 / √(1 – q2/c2

where E is the energy, m is the mass of a body when at rest,

            q is the speed of the body and c is the speed of light.

If the body is at rest, q is 0 and so the term within the square root is 1 and hence the equation becomes E = m c2. This is what Einstein communicated to Silberstein in his letter. If, on the other hand, the body happens to travel at the speed of light (most unlikely) meaning q = c, then the term within the bracket would become 0 and the energy becomes infinite. This indicates that nothing can travel at or above the speed of light.

A photo below where the full mass-energy equivalence equation that Einstein produced in 1905 is shown. This photo was taken by the author of this article when he visited Einstein’s apartment in Bern, Switzerland, which is now a museum, in 2017. At the top part of the photo, the Einsteinhaus (Einstein house, in Bern, Switzerland) is shown in which Einstein rented the second-floor apartment after he got married in 1903. His wife, Mileva Marić, is shown at the lower part of the photo. They lived there from 1903 to 1905. While living in that apartment, Einstein produced the special theory of relativity, the photoelectric effect for which he received the Nobel Prize as well as the above equation, all in 1905!

Einstein alongside his mass-energy equivalence

This was not the only letter that excited the collectors’ imagination of Einstein’s souvenirs world-wide. Eight years later in his life, in 1954 (just one year before his death), he wrote a letter to the German philosopher, Eric Gutkind, that drew even more interest. That letter, though, had material content of interest that expressed Einstein’s religious views. That letter had been sold in an auction at Christie’s in New York in 2018 for the staggering sum of $2.9 million (£2.3 million).

Religious people of all religious persuasions had been claiming that Einstein was a religious man, because of his quotation, “God does not play dice”. The interpretation from this quote, the religious people claimed, was that he believed in God’s absolutism and determinism in designing the universe. But the reality could not be furthest from this truth.

Albert Einstein made that remark as a riposte to the quantum physicists upholding the “Copenhagen Interpretation” that a fundamental particle’s existence is probabilistic in nature. Einstein held the view that a particle would exist or not-exist with absolute certainty, it cannot be probabilistic. His views were very well articulated in his one and half page letter written in German to the German philosopher, Eric Gutkind, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable but still primitive legends, which are nevertheless pretty childish”. He also said, “No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this”. Thus, his views on religion could not be more forthright than this and this letter had put an end to all those egregious interpretation of religious people.

Hounded by Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideology, Einstein had to leave Germany and eventually settle in America to work at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton University in New Jersey. When he arrived at the Institute, he was asked, what equipment would he require to work properly. “A desk or table, a chair, paper and pencils”, he replied, “Oh, yes, and a large waste basket, so I can throw away all my mistakes”. He was working on the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of physics, which would merge the four forces of nature into one unified force. He worked on this GUT for well over 25 years without being able to crack it and possibly made lots of “mistakes”. Those “mistakes” were not collected by the Institute, when it was under overwhelming pressure from the WWII events. But if it did, who knows those “mistakes” could give a technical direction to the problem he was tackling and bear handsome fortunes to the Institute in auction sales now.

The bits and pieces of great men (and women) of science and literature might be deemed “mistakes” and worthless now, but in the fullness of time those pieces might turn out to be invaluable gems. For example, when Einstein produced the general theory of relativity, he introduced a term called the “cosmological constant” in his equation to cater for the prevailing perception of static universe. Only a decade or so years later, when universe was found to be not static but expanding, Einstein admitted that the insertion of cosmological constant was the “biggest mistake” in his life. But now with the discovery of dark energy and dark matter, this cosmological constant is throwing a lifeline to the modern-day cosmologists. His admission of “biggest mistake” of cosmological constant itself seems to be a mistake.

Einstein’s contemporary man in the Eastern World, Rabindranath Tagore, the myriad-minded man and a Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1913, wrote a short but simple verse with a profound philosophical significance, which reads in Bengali:

Tagore’s verse:

যেখানে দেখিবে ছাই

উড়াইয়া দেখ ভাই

পাইলে পাইতে পার

অমূল্য রতন !

Translated into English, it could read like this:

                        Whenever you find ashes

                        Sift carefully my friend,

                        Might you even find

                        Gems invaluable.

Einstein was not only a man of great intellect, but also a great showman and a humorous individual. When he met Charlie Chaplin in January 1931, he said to Chaplin: “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the whole world understands you!”

“It’s true,” replied Chaplin. “But your fame is even greater; the whole world admires you, when nobody understands what you say.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

Can we create an environmentally habitable Bangladesh?

Since independence, Dhaka’s population had exploded from just about 1.5 million in 1971 to over 21 million in 2020, a 14-fold increase as opposed to 2.5-fold for the entire population of Bangladesh. Hence, for all practical purpose, Dhaka is Bangladesh. As a consequence, Dhaka has undergone rapid unplanned urbanisation that has replaced its natural environment with a new environment. It is now a boom town with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class, and a vibrant gastronomic, cultural and intellectual life. In a nutshell, Dhaka is an incredibly bubbly city, full of energy and pizzazz.

Having said that, amongst the least liveable cities in the world, Dhaka is ranked behind Lagos in Nigeria, and the capitals of war-ravaged Libya and Syria. And in the Human Development Index, Bangladesh stands at 133 out of 189 countries. These statistics, though unflattering, reflect the myriad of problems with which Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh are beset with, thereupon making them surreal places to live, places that are both frenetic and paralysed.

Unbridled expansion of cities in Bangladesh has often meant inept replacement of houses in residential areas of yesteryears with multi-storied luxury apartments, high-rise offices, ritzy shopping malls, cultural centres, sports facilities, private schools and universities. In the process, low-income families have been forced into slum-like neighbourhoods, while the poorest of the poor have been pushed into omnipresent slums, where communicable diseases fester and fires sporadically raze homes to the ground.

Stifling in the summer, often overrun with cockroaches, rats, stray cats and dogs, with trash littered all over the neighbourhood and obnoxious odour emanating from the sewer-less, burlap draped, precariously perched outhouses, a slum is unquestionably a rotten place to stay. In their zeal to gentrify cities so that they become liveable for the upper- and middle-class people, city fathers often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Instead, with a more humane approach, slums can be improved to the point where they become safer and environmentally cleaner places to live. As an example, Harlem in Upper Manhattan in New York City once epitomised poverty, crime and crumbling infrastructure. In the 1980s, urban renewal projects that included community revitalisation and housing rehabilitation programmes radically transformed the ghettos of Harlem into endurable hamlets.

In the race to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of people, cities and suburbs are likely to continue to sprawl across Bangladesh. The sprawl, however, need not be chaotic. In the new cities and suburbs, there should be preservation of some open space through parkland, promenades, scenic easements and cluster zoning that will provide breathing space and a sense of relationship between man-made environment and natural environment. Schools, houses of worship and neighbourhood parks, to name a few, should be within walking distance of the residential areas. This will reduce dependence on cars that are a major cause of global warming, not counting traffic jams. Simply stated, before any amelioration of the grimmer aspects of urban life can be hoped for, long-range green planning is imperative. Otherwise, we will be living in an eco-unfriendly jungle of concrete structures.

As cities grow in size, so does their impact on the environment. Most importantly, they can modify some of the local climatological factors in their immediate vicinity, resulting in a relatively small-scale but tangible variation in the local climate, which is called “urban heat island effect,” or more generally microclimate.

On a hot summer night, when we walk down a city street, we can feel the heat shimmering up from the dark asphalt roads and concrete pavements which absorb copious amount of solar radiation, whereas in wintertime, we can see clouds of steam pouring out of manholes or sewer gratings. With the loss of evaporative cooling normally provided by vegetation and exposed soil, the gain of reradiated heat from these surfaces, sewers and buildings, along with the heat produced by industries, the mean temperature of cities is on the rise. While microclimate does not produce dramatic changes in temperature, over the years the cumulative effects of these heat sources are clearly noticeable in the average temperatures of 1970s Dhaka and present Dhaka.

For the improvement of urban microclimate, it is important to maintain and/or create cold-air areas, open spaces and wooded patches. Trees an effective tool at fighting global warming will help to reduce temperature of the air by a process known as transpiration cooling. Furthermore, connected parks and green zones, preservation of lakes and rivers, creation of artificial water surfaces and large-scale heat retention expanses are essential elements of a habitable city.

Apart from microclimate, buildings contribute substantially to global warming because they use lots of energy usually generated by fossil fuels for cooking, lighting, heating and cooling. The reduction of heat loss in the winter and cool air in the summer through poorly insulated old windows is the key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Additionally, within the context of local environmental and socioeconomic factors, several studies have been conducted to find innovative green solutions to the many climate-related problems caused by buildings. One of them is white roof which, according to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, reflects three times the sunshine than a green rooftop garden that is used in many residential buildings in Dhaka.

In terms of air quality, Dhaka ranks as one of the worst cities in the world. Because the city is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, it is often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” Indeed, the entire population of Bangladesh is regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air.

Most of the pollutants in Dhaka’s air and elsewhere are anthropogenic, such as effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. Other sources are roadside waste dump facilities, methane-emitting agricultural waste, contaminants from foundries, not to mention dust and smoke from the thousands of slender, cylindrical chimneys attached to the wood- and coal-fired kilns of brick fields. The large quantities of pernicious pollutants emitted by these sources are precursors to the formation of smog, the worst form of air pollution with dangerous health consequences, especially for children and the elderly.

While Millennium Development Goals have helped many countries combat the issue of unsafe drinking water, majority of Bangladeshis still do not have access to clean water. Tap water supplied by local municipalities is dirty and therefore undrinkable, while people in the countryside are drinking water contaminated with arsenic and other life-threatening heavy metals.

A possible solution to the freshwater problem is rain and the roof a la Bermuda. Made of limestone blocks and sliced into individual slates, the roofs of houses in Bermuda are fashioned in step-like sloped surfaces with gutter ridges to collect rainwater, the most precious liquid in the tiny island nation. The ridges direct the water through a long concrete trough to a pipe that filters and funnels it into a tank buried alongside the house so that it can be pumped and used throughout the household.

All the cities in Bangladesh are dirty beyond description. Garbage can be found everywhere—by roads, on the roads; around parks, in the parks; by rivers, in the rivers; inside trash cans, outside trash cans. Garbage disposal is not a recent problem, though it certainly has been made more difficult by the sharp rise in population in the past few decades. Despite some progress, the overwhelming mass of household garbage is thrown into landfills in the outlying areas of the cities and left untreated. These unsightly and smelly midden heaps not only emit poisonous gases that are harmful to human health, but also provide a cosy home for the disease carrying vermin, mosquitoes and flies.

The problem is exacerbated during the monsoon season, when cities become submerged for days in a row. Consequently, the storm drains, albeit few and far between, clog up and the cities resemble a huge pond filled with filth and scum.

Finding a clean public toilet anywhere in Bangladesh is next to impossible. Decency dictates that women must suffer, yet allows men to indulge in the malpractice of emptying their bladder by the roadside. The offensive smell of urine, together with malodorous roadside trash, not only makes walking on the sidewalks a horrific experience, it also contributes markedly to odour pollution which, in turn, worsens the already poor quality of air.

As much as the government is battling to tackle this civic problem with signs at strategic points warning of prosecution for infractions, the seemingly endless number of offenders ignore the warning and happily continue to relieve themselves in public. That being so, we have no choice but shame the perpetrators.

Humans are not the only waste producers in Bangladesh. Industries are not far behind. Of the many industries which add hazardous wastes to the load already present from domestic wastes, two stands out conspicuously. They are garment factories and tanneries.

The canals and wetlands of Savar and Ashulia, located near Dhaka and home to hundreds of garment factories, are now effectively retention ponds of untreated waste and effluents produced by these factories. Nearby rivers are so polluted with toxic materials that they run purple, blue and black. Aside from making agricultural land barren and useless, the pollutants are loading the local air with noxious fumes.

Hazaribagh in the heart of Dhaka was once home to a slew of tanneries. Before their relocation to Savar, the tanneries discharged unprocessed liquid waste containing deadly chemicals into the nearby ponds, rivers and canals. These wastes eventually ended up in the Buriganga River whose once pristine blue water now looks like turbid sewage water. Needless to say, the river has suffered irreversible biodiversity loss.

Another plague from which there is virtually no escape, irrespective of where we are—in our homes and gardens, on our streets, inside our cars, parks and in other public places, is noise. Like second-hand smoke, noise has become an unwanted pollutant produced by others and imposed on us without our consent, often against our will. Without question, noise can damage hearing and there is no threshold for ear damage. But more subtly, noise increases tensions already heightened by other stresses of urban life.

Among the many sources of outdoor noise pollution, cacophony produced by the horns of automobiles, trucks and buses are the worst offenders, followed closely by construction equipment. The sound intensity level from these sources often exceeds 120 decibels, which is the threshold of pain.

Noise is a controllable pollution, but sadly the government has done very little to alleviate the suffering of its citizens from this scourge. Nevertheless, there is something we can do to stop noise from invading the interior of our house. Within the buildings, we can dampen sound significantly by constructing walls with dead air spaces.

Forests are the lungs of a nation, purifying the air we breathe. However, the increasing demand for land for agriculture, homes and industries caused by population explosion is taking a heavy toll on the forests in Bangladesh. To meet the demands, close to half the forests have been destroyed in the last 20 years or so by indiscriminately cutting down trees. Moreover, once the coal-fired Rampal Power Plant goes into operation, one of the most ecologically sensitive rainforests in the world – the Sundarbans – will be in its firing line.

Lest we forget, nature not only abhors vacuum, it abhors human interference, too. A true wilderness should be viewed bio-centrically. The forests should be free to burn, free to be blown away by storms, free to be washed away by floods and free to be attacked by insects. These are natural events to which forests are adapted to respond. The new forests that will emerge may be different from the old ones, but that is the way things change in a natural ecosystem.

The present problems of Bangladesh, alarming no doubt, are not unsolvable. There is every reason to expect that the country can be made habitable. To that end, policymakers need to know how transportation system can be designed to meet the needs of the people; what makes one neighbourhood exciting to live in and another boring; what human needs are not met in present housing; what environmental steps should be taken to improve the quality of air and water, and so on and so forth? The answers to these questions can then be incorporated in any future plans for redesigning old cities or building new ones, so that they not only become liveable but enjoyable as well.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s transformation into a liveable country cannot be achieved overnight. It will perhaps take decades, but before that climate change will leave an indelible mark on the country, thereby making the task of restoring liveability conditions even more arduous, mainly in the low-lying coastal areas.

Bangladesh is Mother Nature’s punching bag. The country is experiencing extreme weather phenomena that are growing only more dramatic, more devastating and more lethal by the year. Of the many threats from climate change, sea level rise will certainly be amongst the most impactful, making the entire coastline of Bangladesh uninhabitable and potentially displacing tens of millions of people in the coming years.

Preparing for climate change is much more than a technological challenge. It is primarily a problem of mindset and collective action. The way to outsmart breakdown due to climate change is to build climate resilience. We can surely do this by adopting environmentally sound lifestyles, not by reverting to antiquated ways, but by creating a new synthesis, a new way of life that utilises modern technology and knowledge to protect the Earth’s environment from destruction and foster its renewal.

Finally, grappling with the problems of Bangladesh and keeping the country liveable is a daunting task. Even so, with clear vision and open mind, it can be done. Success will hinge on the courage of the government to make bold moves and resist the temptation of easy fixes. Once we adapt ourselves to the vagaries of climate change, as well as achieve the balance of a liveable environment, life will be worth living for our children and grandchildren.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Sister, my Sister

My sister: Your departure from this Earth on 25th April 2021 was a great shock and deeply painful to everybody who knew you. You touched the hearts and minds of not only your near and dear ones, but also everybody who happened to come across you.

But why did you have to leave Earth on the day I was born? Was there a sublime message you were leaving behind for me? Couldn’t we stay together, as we had been doing for many, many years now? A few more years together, happy care-free lives, wouldn’t have caused anybody any harm. So, why did you have to go now? Life is undoubtedly brutal and Tagore expressed that very succinctly in one of his songs:

আমি তোমারি মাটির কন্যা        

জননী বসুন্ধরা !!

তবে আমার মানব জন্ম

কেন বঞ্চিত করো ?

Translated in English, it may read like this:

I am the product of your soil, Mother Earth,

then why do you deprive me of my human life?

Your life and my life, as your younger brother, kept flashing in front of my eyes now. The days when I was just a tiny tot, I used to trail you, follow you, copy you, do everything you did. In my childhood years in Hemnagar, Mymensingh you were my guide, my mentor. Although I was not of schooling age, but you showed me the English alphabet and taught me very gently and lovingly how to write my name in English. I used to wonder how on Earth you can read English and even understand it! You used to tell me stories from your books.  You told me the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, which I liked very much and asked you to tell me over and over again. Years later in Dhaka, you told me in simple Bengali language the story of The Merchant of Venice, and I developed a deep dislike for Shylock who asked for a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body for non-payment of debt!

As our father was the Manager of the Hemnagar Zamindari – appointed by the government of Pakistan in the absence of Hindu Zamindar after the partition of India – we had all the trappings and social privileges of zamindari life style. Although we did not live in the Zamindar’s palace, our home was quite spacious and very comfortable. At the crack of dawn, you used to wake me up, put a flower bucket (ফুলের ডালা) in my hand and asked me to go and collect ‘bokulful’ (a very fragrant flower of jasmine genus). There were two or three bokulful trees just outside our house. Bokulful opens up its buds and becomes extremely fragrant in the early morning and drops on the ground. When I used to bring back bucket full of ‘bokulful’, you used to make garlands. The perfume was simply divine. The habit of rising in the early morning that you induced in me stayed with me almost all my life.

In the tin-roof bungalow type of house where you used to stay while in Hemnagar, there were two tiger cages at one side, each about 3ft high. You used to have one tiger cage and I had the other. There were four mango trees behind the bungalow you had been staying. During the seasonal fruit time, at the slightest of breeze, the ripe mangoes would fall on the ground and that was the time when you and I would compete. Although I was much smaller, I managed to fill my ‘tiger cage’ almost to half of its height, whereas your cage was no more than third full. The reason was that I was more persistent in collecting mangoes than you were. Eating mangoes was not the purpose, filling the cages was.  

When we came back to Dhaka to live permanently and you were in Kamrunnesa Girls school, I was your outside arm. You used to ask me to take your sarees to the laundry that was good 15 minutes’ walk and then a day or two later I had to go and collect the sarees. You used to give me your letters to post at the post office, which was more than 15 minutes’ walking distance. All these things I used to do for a little cuddle and a praise from you. When I learnt how to ride bicycle, one day I borrowed an almost dilapidated bike from my cousin next door and as I was going out, you gave me a letter to post. So, I headed for the post office. On the way there, through the bumpy road, bicycle chain fell off and it took me quite a while to put the chain back, post the letter and come back home. Seeing me back, you said, “You came back quite quickly”. Although that was not exactly true, but that pleased me quite a lot.

Years later, after the death of our father, when within a few months your marriage had been arranged, it was a big occasion. However, the arrangement of this wedding was bit dramatic. In the summer of 1958, you and I went to Boro Khalamma’s (eldest auntie) house in Boiyder Bazaar for a holiday. After about three days, we saw that our Mum had sent a man to Boiyder Bazaar to bring us back to Dhaka immediately. As per instructions, we came back to Dhaka cutting short our holiday and found that your marriage had been arranged. The groom’s side needed no meeting with the bride, no background check of our family etc, as the groom’s side had surreptitiously been fact finding for months and just waited for the opportune moment to propose to our family.

The wedding was on 27th June. I do remember the date because many of the wedding presents came with the inscription, 27th June, Zu-un’s wedding (২৭ জুন , জুনের বিয়েতে). The large gathering, the glitch and the glamour of the wedding party were all very enjoyable to us all. I was at the centre of attraction in the party as the younger brother of the bride. But within a month, Dulabhai took you away to Karachi, his place of work. When after three or four months, you did not come back, I got impatient. I asked my mum, “Mum, why Chhoto Apa is not coming back?”. Mum said, “She is married now.”, I said, “So what? Pay back all the money Dulabhai had spent on Chhoto Apa and bring her back”. That did not go down well with Dulabhai! I was only 12.

About ten years later, in February 1968, after my M.Sc. exam I went to visit you and our other siblings in Karachi. Probably realising that 10 years earlier I had to endure the agony of losing you to Dulabhai, he made up for everything. He treated me as if I was the most precious person in the whole world! I had the most fantastic time with you in your house at the Karachi University campus. After coming back, when I got the M.Sc. result and immediately got the University Lecturer’s job; you and Dulabhai were the first persons to congratulate me.   

Just after a short four years, after the liberation of Bangladesh, all of you came back to Bangladesh and Dulabhai took the teaching position at Jahangirnagar University Bengali Department. By that time, I came to England to do my Ph.D. However, I visited your place at Jahangirnagar University every time I went to Bangladesh and found you so happy in the academic atmosphere of the University. After Dulabhai’s retirement from University, you did come back to our parental home in late 1980s(?), with Dulabhai of course, from where you left with Dulabhai over 30 years earlier. Of course, our parental home had changed into a multi-storied apartment block and my apartment was right next to your apartment and then I would have no grounds to complain that you were not with me.

I visited your apartment many times. In fact, most of the times when I visited Bangladesh, I stayed with you. Years earlier when I was staying with you, on the second or third day, you wanted me to make sure that I dine with you. Not knowing what was going on, I stayed home to dine with you and you brought duck meat. I said, “Oh, my God, this is my most favourite meat”. You said, you knew and that’s why you had cooked it by yourself. And then you brought Bhuna Khichuri. I was taken completely aback. I thought, only my Mum knew about my most favourite dish. But you knew too and entertained me with such a dish. You took the role of our Mum.

You were the glue to the whole of our family. You always treated everybody with love, care and affection. Even if someone misbehaved with you, you never fought back. When you told me many of such instances, I used to ask you, why didn’t you reply back? You used to say, what was the point in hurting the feeling of that person. You were always compromising to maintain amity within the family. 

You were very proud of all of us. When I wrote a text book about 10 years ago on “Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management” for graduate and post-graduate studies in British and European Universities, you asked me to give you a copy. I said, I wouldn’t expect you to read it. You said, “No, but I would show others that my brother had written it.” So, I gave you a copy.

Your love and affection to all our relations, even to strangers, were legendary. When you were in the ICU with Covid infection only a few days ago, a doctor came to see you; after his visit, you asked the doctor whether he had his lunch yet. The doctor was stunned, no patient ever enquired about doctor’s well-being or his lunch. The doctor said that she was like his mother. You loved and empathised with anybody who came in contact with you. That is why, the helpers in your apartment building were so very distraught at your demise.

We all love life and despise death. It is definitely very painful to see someone gone forever. But to create a false narrative that heaven and hell are all waiting (somewhere) is just misleading and delusional. The poet, D L Roy expressed the ultimate truth in more realistic and mundane way when he said:

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

আলোর মতন, হাসির মতন

কুসুমগন্ধ রাশির মতন

হাওয়ার মতন, নেশার মতন

ঢেউয়ের মতন ভেসে যাই

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

Translated in English, it may look like:

“We just come and float away

            like the ray of light, like a smile,

            like the sweet smell of a fragrant flower,

            like a breeze, like an intoxication,

like the crest of a wave,

            We just come and float away.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist