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Bangladesh, International, Technical, Environmental, Life as it is

Was Alchemists’ dream realised in plutonium?

Glenn T. Seaborg
Glenn T Seaborg

In the history of human civilisation, no scientific discovery exploded in the face of mankind as did plutonium-239. The element was produced for the first time on March 28, 1941 at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California by a team of physicists and chemists led by Glenn T. Seaborg, the 1951 Chemistry Nobel Laureate. It was the realisation of an alchemists’ dream of large-scale transmutation, a synthetic element produced by human being.

Seaborg submitted the paper on their discovery to the journal Physical Review, but the paper was not accepted after it was assumed that plutonium may be used to build an atomic bomb. The existence of plutonium was nonetheless loudly announced to the world by the nuclear bomb dropped over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Thus, plutonium came into existence as a lethal weapon-grade material. Also, the discoverers of plutonium were allowed to publish their findings after the war ended.

Plutonium-239 is a highly radioactive element. A radioactive element disintegrates emitting energetic nuclear particles and radiation. The potency of a radioactive material is determined not only by the radiation it emits but also by its half-life. A radioactive material that emits alpha particle is highly hazardous, if it is inhaled or ingested. On the other hand, materials which emit penetrating x-rays and gamma rays are hazardous even at large distances as these radiations can travel large distances in air and irradiate the whole body. The time period over which the radioactive material remains hazardous is determined by its half-life. The half-life is the time period over which the activity decays to half of its original value. A radioactive material with short half-lives will become relatively harmless in a short period of time. On the other hand, a material with long half-life will remain radioactive for a long period of time. The significant parameter from hazardous point of view is the specific activity – activity in unit mass of the substance.

Plutonium has 20 isotopes – nuclei with the same number of protons but different number of neutrons. The longest-lived is plutonium-244, with a half-life of 80.8 million years. Two other isotopes with long half-life are plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,100 years and plutonium-242, with a half-life of 374,000 years. All of the remaining isotopes have half-life that are less than 7,000 years.

All the isotopes of plutonium are primordial elements, meaning they existed (albeit in low concentrations) since the Earth was formed 4.55 billion years ago. However, since their half-life is much less than the age of the Earth, nearly all of them had decayed into lighter elements by now. Nonetheless, small traces of plutonium-239, a few parts per trillion, were found in some uranium ores, such as the natural reactor in Oklo, Gabon. In 1971, trace quantities of plutonium-244 were discovered in Precambrian-era phosphate in southern California.

Currently, most of the plutonium found in the Earth’s environment resulted from human activities, in particular, from the now banned atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. It is estimated that since 1945, about 7,700 kg has been released through nuclear explosions. As there are no natural sources of plutonium, all of the plutonium presently in stock throughout the world is produced in commercial power reactors, as well as in special purpose reactors designed for weapons production.

Plutonium-239 decays by emitting alpha particles, which is the helium nucleus. External exposure to alpha particles isn’t much of a health risk. Because of their low penetration, they are stopped by the outer layer of the skin. But they are highly dangerous if inhaled. They cause damage to DNA, which, in turn, increases the risk of cancer. Plutonium-239 in the atmosphere can enter our body through body wounds. Once inside, it remains within the body for a long period of time and irradiate the body organs and tissues by the  emission of alpha particles. It is, however, eliminated from the body very slowly through excretion. It may take around 30 to 50 years for plutonium to become biologically insignificant within our body.

The adverse effects of plutonium on the environment are not that alarming. They may enter the soil and groundwater from accidental releases and improper disposal of wastes from a nuclear reactor. Soil can also become contaminated through fallout during underground nuclear weapons testing. Plants absorb plutonium, but the levels are not high enough to cause bio magnification of plutonium up the food chain, or accumulation in the bodies of animals.

Besides using it to make nuclear weapons, plutonium is used for some peaceful purposes too. Along with uranium-235 and uranium-233, plutonium-239 as well as plutonium-241 is used as fuel in reactors at commercial nuclear power plants.

Nuclear powered cardiac pacemakers use plutonium-238 batteries. They can keep the heart ticking for up to 30 years, much longer than pacemakers using lithium-iodine cell batteries which last anywhere from about five to 12 years. When one of these patients dies, the pacemaker is removed and shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory where the plutonium is recovered. People using plutonium-powered pacemakers are still alive though.

The US space agency NASA has used this isotope of plutonium to power its space instruments–  all the way from the experiments for the Apollo lunar missions to the deep-space probes, such as the Pathfinder, Pioneer, Voyager, New Horizons and Cassini.
Today, plutonium serves as an explosive ingredient in tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the possession of a Superpower led by a person with questionable mental stability and a rogue nation with an enigmatic and unpredictable leader. There is a high risk that these two men may unleash this weapon of mass destruction and annihilate not only each other but also the whole of mankind.

  • The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York
Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

How ‘Democracy’ had been massacred in the EU referendum

4200The word ‘democracy’ came into English from Greek words demos meaning ‘the people’ and kratos meaning ‘the rule’. The joined-up word, democracy, thus defines ‘the rule of the people’. A system of governance, using what is called ‘direct democracy’, was invented by the Greeks more than two and half thousand years ago when every piece of legislation was voted by eligible Athenian voters. However, this eligibility excluded women, slaves and people who had not completed military services. That left only 20% of the population to have the benefit of the ‘direct democracy’.

That form of democracy became eventually the blueprint for democracy adopted round the world with some alterations, modifications and qualifications to suit socio-economic and political imperatives of the land. In the UK, the system is called ‘parliamentary democracy’, where parliamentarians elected directly by the people are responsible to formulate and pass legislation. Thus, the system is, what is known as ‘representative democracy’. In almost all the countries of the world, which operate ‘democratic’ systems, there are single or multiple layers of election processes.

Whatever the process, the system is fraught with shortcomings, inadequacies and downright failings of the original spirit. Bernard Crick in his book ‘Democracy’ commented, “If there is one true meaning of democracy, then it is indeed, as Plato might have said, stored up in heaven; but unhappily has not yet been communicated to us”.

Plato, the great Greek philosopher at the time when democracy evolved in Greece, detested intensely the system that was practised. To him, that was the rule of ‘opinion over knowledge’. The British sociologist of the last century, Beatrice Webb, said that if we are talking of justice and of good governance, then we are talking of multiplicity of concepts, values and practices which never remain the same. It cannot be the ‘multiplication of ignorant opinions’.

This ‘multiplication of ignorant opinions’ is what is passed on as democracy now. Democracy can never be considered as sacrosanct, particularly the way it is exercised in practice. Plato sensed that calamity lies at the heart of democracy, if it is abused, and may lead to tyranny and subjugation.

In his book, The Republic, Plato described several stages of democratic process where the system could be abused and manipulated. In a segregated and differentiated society, the process would invariably turn tribal and societal discord would be aggravated. The leaders elected by sectarian support may be alienated from the electorates and impose punitive measures to enforce sectarian interests and views, which may create dissent, dissatisfaction and may lead to revolution, bloodshed and subjugation. Even if violent overthrow can be averted, the leaders would be isolated from a large section of the voters and the leaders would take steps to protect themselves from those who voted for them. Gradually the government would lose support of majority of the people , become oppressive and tyrant in order to maintain power.

Plato’s concern (as well as Socrates’) was not far-fetched at all. One can see it has great resonance even in the modern society of today, nearly two and half thousand years later. In the majority of countries in the world, ‘democracy’ is used only as a badge of honour for the country, but then invariably there is abuse in its implementation. In highly autocratic countries, democracy is used as a shield to deflect any criticism, whereas in other countries, it is used to legitimise its rule. Basically, it is used as a smokescreen.

But probably nowhere the system is more brutally abused as in Britain and America. In both of these countries, they claim to uphold a true form of democracy, but, in reality, nothing can be furthest from the truth. In Britain, it is claimed to have the ‘mother of parliamentary democracy’; whereas in America, liberty, freedom, human rights, which are the key attributes of democracy, are proclaimed. But neither of them can truly justify them.

Take America in the first instance. Donald Trump came into power by propagating racist, xenophobic, bigoted messages; he stoked up peoples’ prejudices and shamelessly polarised the society. A multi-billionaire Trump projected himself as the champion of the downtrodden underclass of the society. He averted paying hundreds of millions of dollars as taxes by using tax advisers, and then his propaganda machinery projected him as a clever guy to avoid tax. He stands against all decent and moral rectitude, and he is blindly followed by “a basket of deplorables who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic bunch”. If this is what democracy produces, then vulgarity could be a preferred option.

Britain is no better than America in its track records. In the EU referendum last year (23 June 2016), the Leave camp had persistently used blatant lies, deception and misrepresentation to persuade ignorant voters to vote for Leave. £350 million per week extra for the NHS; stopping millions of EU workers streaming into the UK; maintaining sovereignty of the British parliament; rejecting unelected EU legislators etc. and many more were the slogans for the Brexiters. Each one of these was a lie and mendacious presumption. But the election commission, advertising ombudsman etc., in general the administration, was unable to stop such lies. ‘Mother of parliamentary democracy’ went in a coma.

Even more pertinent point is that despite 651 democratically elected representatives in the British parliament, why and how could they have relegated their responsibilities on such a vital issue to decide whether or not to remain within the EU to the general public? Is that not an abject failure of the system? If this was beyond the intellectual capabilities of the elected representatives, how reliable is the democratic system to pick up competent legislators?  How can the presumed legislators even imagine that the illiterate and semi-literate general public comprising factory workers, farmers, fishermen, shop workers and shop keepers, plumbers, roofers etc can make a better decision? Have they all lost their senses?

The fact was that the referendum process was hoisted on to the public by the internal squabbles of the Tory party. The previous Tory party leader had to agree to have a referendum under duress from the Eurosceptic Tory political agitators. When the referendum came, the vile instincts of the Eurosceptics burst out into open to stir up fear and prejudices of the ignoramus people. Lies, deception, xenophobia, bigotry, innuendos and all other vile instincts that run counter to the spirit of democracy had been played out.

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, decency, morality etc. are divorced, democracy takes leave too. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

No matter how loudly Brexiters shout, “Brexit is the will of the people”, if the voters had been fed with misinformation, fear and prejudices, the outcome is bound to be anything but sensible. When over a million people ‘Google searched’ the word ‘EU’ a day after casting vote on the EU referendum, one can say that there was something grossly wrong. Democracy had been massacred in the referendum. Sir Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

–  Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

 

Bangladesh, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious, Technical

Is human race heading towards extinction?

If we are spared the nuclear holocaust, then pollution and climate change would be responsible for our extinction

human-race-heading (2) - Copy

Since life on Earth evolved in the form of bacteria approximately 3.5 billion years ago, there had been five mass extinctions. The first one occurred 440 million years ago and the last one 65 million years ago. They had been caused by such things as climate change due to severe ice age, volcanoes, restructuring of the Earth’s crust during the formation of the super-continent Pangaea 250 million years ago, other forces of Nature and an asteroid impact.

Extinction, albeit not on a massive scale, is a natural phenomenon, a part of evolution. An examination of the evolutionary records reveals that extinction follows a pattern of species gradually becoming extinct and being replaced by newly evolved species. That’s because there is only a finite number of available niches on our planet for species to survive. Moreover, each species has a unique lifestyle not shared by any other species. As their habitat changes, their lifestyle also changes. If species cannot adapt to these changes, they become extinct. Their place is taken by species which evolves to fit the changed environment. This is known as a gradual extinction.

In the last 500 years, a short period of time on the geological scale, some 320 birds, mammals and reptiles had become extinct. The extinction of so many species over a few hundred years makes it difficult to ascribe the phenomenon to climatological, geological or astronomical events alone. It leads one to speculate that something unusual must have happened during this time frame. In particular, were these extinctions caused by humans who had and still have a greater impact on his environment? The answer is, yes.

With our entry as an ecological factor, there has been a shift from gradual extinction to abrupt, habitat-emptying extinction. We have profoundly affected the species that share the planet with us. Because of our activities, they seem to be vanishing at an unprecedanted rapid rate. This raises the question: Are we also pushing ourselves to the precipice of mass extinction?

Indeed, many scientists are predicting that we are on track for a sixth mass extinction. This time the cause won’t be global cooling or volcanic eruptions. It will be the work of a single species ‒ the Homo sapiens.

Of the many possible scenarios, nuclear conflict is the most likely one by which human civilization may become extinct in a jiffy. With the fingers of two mentally unstable men on the nuclear button, this scenario seems to be ever more likely now. After Trump’s “fire and fury” threat, the infamous Doomsday Clock was moved ahead by 30 seconds closer to midnight. The clock was created by former Manhattan Project scientists in 1947 in an effort to bring public attention to the threat of nuclear war!

If we are spared the nuclear holocaust, then pollution and climate change would be responsible for our extinction. Today, we live in a planet poisoned by toxins dumped by us. All forms of life, including human beings, are mired in a toxic swamp. The toxins are in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. As renowned explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau said: “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”

We are changing the global climate by pumping about 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere. According to the World Meteorological Organization, last year’s emission was 50 percent higher than the average of the past 10 years. The present concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 403 parts per million, is the highest in recorded history.

Thus, the dangers posed by the greenhouse effect are real and scary. Global temperature is increasing, ozone layer has been depleted, hydrological cycle is being disrupted, sea levels are rising, polar ice caps are melting, tropical rainforests are disappearing, wildfires are on the rise, semiarid lands are turning to deserts and bizarre, violent weather patterns have grown in numbers in recent years. The utter devastation of Houston, many Eastern Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico by relentless rains, punishing winds and dangerous storm surges caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in August and September of this year are still fresh in our memory.

What is more alarming is that if we allow our planet to become even warmer, then hundreds of millions of tonnes of frozen methane buried under the Arctic Ocean floor, often referred to as the “Arctic Time Bomb,” would be released into the atmosphere. In an article published in 2014 in the journal Science, researchers report that concentration of methane in the atmosphere has been growing rapidly since 2007. They believe that due to rising temperatures across the entire Arctic region, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, the trapped methane is being released into the atmosphere.

In addition to methane, carbon dioxide in the rocks would be “baked out” and ocean water would evaporate into the atmosphere. Water vapor and methane are more cogent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. The increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor would raise the global temperature further, thereby causing more ocean evaporation, baking out of carbon dioxide and release of methane. The synergistic feedback of continued emission of these and other greenhouse gases could trigger the onset of runaway greenhouse effect which will eventually turn the Earth into an inferno with virtually no life.

Runaway greenhouse effect is not a “Chinese hoax.” Several billion years ago, Venus was cooler than what it is now and had abundance of water in oceans overlain by an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The current hellish condition on Venus where the surface temperature is a blistering 460 degrees Celsius was caused by runaway greenhouse effect.

A rapidly growing human population that more than doubled in just the last fifty years is also putting us on the throes of extinction. With a burgeoning population, food, water and a whole lot more required for sustenance of life will be in short supply. Natural resources vital to our survival are already running out faster than we can replace them with sustainable alternatives. In some cases, they have already reached their limits. Hence, it is not unlikely that once the population reaches a “critical mass,” our resources won’t be adequate enough to sustain us. As a result, starvation will bring us face-to-face with extinction, sooner rather than later.

Finally, we cannot rule out the possibility of a fast-spreading devastating disease that could wipe us out. Furthermore, with the advancement in DNA manipulation technology, it is quite likely that scientists working for the leader of a rogue nation could engineer a vicious virus or bacteria for a biological warfare and in the process obliterate our entire civilization.

For most part of the evolutionary past, we lived in a sustainable relationship with Nature, not necessarily out of choice but out of necessity. But in the past few centuries, we have gone astray. Now, we are living at odds with the natural world. We seemed to have lost touch with the magnitude of our effect on the environment. In fact, we have become a super predator pushing other species that call this planet home toward extinction.

 

As for ourselves, by letting population grow exponentially, burning fossil fuels unchecked, polluting the environment with toxins and facing the threat of extermination with weapons of mass destruction, we have embarked on the path to self-annihilation. Such a human race cannot survive for long unless dramatic changes are made to create a sustainable future.

Barring a nuclear armageddon, we may not witness the sixth mass extinction during our lifetime. However, one hundred years or so from now, more of human-caused stress on our planet could accelerate the occurrence of the sixth and perhaps the last mass extinction.

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

 

Bangladesh, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious, Technical

Tagore’s philosophical views and quantum mechanics

Tagore , ca, 1930
Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

Rabindranath Tagore (actual Bengali name: Rabindranath Thakur) (1861 – 1941), the great Indian philosopher, a Bengali poet and a polymath, lived during the 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 the modern physics who produced theories which advanced physics to unprecedented dimensions. Although Einstein produced the ‘the principle of photoelectric effect’ for which he received the Nobel Prize for physics 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 onward. 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. That meeting was very poignantly described by Dmitri Marianoff, a journalist in the New York Times, as “Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet” exchanged views on 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 human, 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 stalwarts 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 reality of nature was absolute and that absolutism brought him in 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 tells 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 corner stone 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 to explain, the conflict with Einstein on quantum mechanical fundamental assumptions of probabilistic description was deep rooted. Einstein considered quantum mechanics as 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 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 the 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. But 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, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

How noble are the Nobel Peace Prize winners?

The Nobel Committee has at times tarnished the sanctity of the peace prize by awarding it to terrorists, warmongers, mass murderers and human rights violators.

nobel_3

Out of 215 individuals and 103 organizations nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, it was awarded to ICAN ‒ the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. According to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, “The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

By honouring ICAN with the prize, the committee has adhered to the intended purpose of the award which, as stated in Nobel’s will, should be awarded to individuals and institutions that “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.

Since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, peace prizes have been perhaps the most controversial of all the Nobel prizes. The endless controversies surrounding the prize stems not only from the ambiguity of the concept of peace on this war-torn planet, but also from the increasing geopolitical pressure that influences the selection of the recipients.

The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to stop the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas by her proxy government, the Myanmar Army, in the country’s Rakhine state begs the following questions: How noble are the Nobel Peace Prize winners? In choosing the recipient(s), does the Nobel Prize Committee comply with the rules as outlined in Nobel’s will?

Not everyone who wins a Nobel Peace Prize is undeserving. However, the committee more often stretched the interpretation of the rules by giving the prize to people with despicable pasts, or who have gone on to launch wars or escalate them after receiving the prize. Listed below are some of the most controversial peace laureates of the last fifty years.

Leading the pack of the not so noble Nobel laureates is the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who condoned the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh and was instrumental in the ouster of the Chilean President Salvador Allende in favor of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. He shared the 1973 prize with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for negotiating the truce that ended the Vietnam War. Ironically, at the time of the award, Kissinger was spearheading the carpet-bombing of neighbouring Cambodia, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Le Duc Tho declined the award, one of the two laureates ever to do so, saying “peace has not yet been established.” The other was Jean-Paul Sartre, who too declined the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature because, according to him, “all the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable.”

Four years after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat for their Camp David peace accord, Israeli leader Menachem Begin, once a member of the terrorist organization Irgun, ordered the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sadat was no saint either. He was a ruthless dictator who used the state’s security apparatchik to silence his opponents, including Mohammed Heikal, a distinguished journalist of the Arab world and editor of Egypt’s leading newspaper Al-Ahram.

Begin’s terrorist compatriot Yitzhak Rabin and the man responsible for developing Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal, Shimon Peres, shared the 1994 prize with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, often dubbed as the Father of Modern Terrorism, for signing the Oslo Accords. Two years after the award, Peres was responsible for the Qana massacre in Lebanon. Needless to say, the Oslo Accords have not brought a lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflict still persists with the merchant of death Benjamin Netanyahu using weapons of mass destruction to kill women, children and unarmed civilians.

South Africa’s F. W. De Klerk, a staunch supporter and practitioner of apartheid, won the prize in 1993 for his role in the abolition of the apartheid laws. This racist bigot shared the prize with Nelson Mandela, an international emblem of “dignity and forbearance” who, in the fight to emancipate his people from white minority rule, served 27 years in prison.

The award given to Barack Obama in 2009 just nine months after taking office as the President of the United States is a reflection of the committee’s penchant for giving out peace prizes over expectations, and not results. By the time Obama came to Oslo to collect the prize, he had ordered the tripling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, stepped up missile strikes and significantly extended the use of drones in the war against terrorism. The drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Syria have killed more civilians than terrorists. After receiving the award, he was engaged in more war than his predecessors. Surely, Obama didn’t turn out to be the kind of peacemaker the committee had anticipated.

One of the biggest blunders in the history of Nobel Prize is the prize that never was. Although nominated five times between 1937 and 1948, Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of non-violent struggle, has not been awarded the honour, not even posthumously. According to the Nobel Committee, they could not find a “suitable living person” deserving of the prize in 1948, the year of Gandhi’s death.

Under the rules governing the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, there was nothing to preclude the posthumous conferral of the award. In 1974, the rule for posthumous award has been changed to “work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award,” unless death has occurred after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Yet, in 2011, Ralph Steinman, who died three days prior to the announcement, was awarded the prize for medicine.

The Nobel Committee, which rarely concedes a mistake, eventually acknowledged that not awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Gandhi was a mistake. When the prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989, the chairman of the committee atoned for the mistake by saying that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.” What a joke!

Coming back to Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1991 she was portrayed by the Nobel Committee as the champion of “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” applauded for her “courage in the face of tyranny,” hailed as Myanmar’s Mandela and called a Gandhi-type leader by many. Today, her bewildering silence and “complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya” show that she is an ignoble Nobel laureate engaged in crimes against humanity. She belongs in the refuse heap of history.

The Nobel Committee has tarnished the sanctity of the peace prize by awarding it to terrorists, warmongers, mass murderers and human rights violators. The committee also has a propensity to award the prize to the Most Valuable Player of the season. It doesn’t wait until the player has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, or like Suu Kyi, into the Hall of Shame. Moreover, the award to Kissinger, whose hands are stained with the blood of Cambodians and Vietnamese, proves that the driving force behind the committee’s decision is not always the word “peace.”

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