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Advanced science, Astrophysics, Life as it is, Religious, Technical

Everything from Nothing

Can everything we see on earth and the planets, the stars, galaxies, supernovae and so forth come from nothing, from absolute vacuum, from empty space and can even empty space prop up from nowhere? This sort of query, some might say, is an absurd baseless query; while others might say it is a profound scientific inquiry, beyond the pigeon-holed mode of thinking.   

Philosophers and theologians of all persuasions tried to convince us that everything we see in the universe is the divine creation. But we must set off with certain fundamental assumptions – we have to accept the existence of an all-powerful, omnipresent, omniscient entity called God or Yahweh or Allah and we cannot question his origin, his present whereabouts or his mode of creation etc. Based on these premises, the revelations, directives etc as stated in the ‘Book’ should be followed as ordered by the creator!   

But science is unwilling to accept this premise without any evidence or verification. That is why there is a conflict between science and religion. As Richard Dawkins, Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford and Evolutionary Biologist said, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with but not understanding the world”.

Science had moved away from accepting the divine proclamation that human beings are at the centre of creation of the creator, Earth is at the centre of the universe and the Sun goes around the Earth! Scientific discoveries have proved many of these proclamations, if not all, are blatantly wrong.

Science explored material objects on Earth – day-to-day objects to their physical and chemical composition, physical objects to molecules to atoms and sub-atomic particles. On the smallest scale, quantum mechanics explored the origin of matter and anti-matter and on the mind-boggling expansive scale of the universe the general theory of relativity explored the stars, galaxies, black holes, warm holes, universe and even multi verse.

The theologians would burst out in fury if someone, be it scientist or a science writer, tries to give the scientific explanation of something or everything coming from nothing. They would throw out their anger, what is then the omnipresent omniscience divine power called God or Yahweh or Allah doing? Is He not the undisputed Creator of everything in this universe? For centuries the religions had been proclaiming and propagating this message relentlessly. Now any attempt to explain it otherwise, on the basis of scientific ideas and theories, would be branded as heretics and atheism.

Nonetheless science has progressed enough to give a rational explanation to the creation of everything from nothing. But, first, we must understand the scientific meaning of the term ‘nothing’. In everyday language, nothing means the absence of anything. If we consider a volume of space say, 20cm by 20cm by 20cm, in front of our eyes, we may say there is nothing in there as there is no book, no pencil, no string, no fruit or anything else in that small volume and so, we may consider, there is nothing. But then, we must recognise that there are millions of air particles of various types in that volume that we cannot see but we breath all the time. So, there are things where we perceive to have nothing.

Let us take an air-tight glass case where obviously there are air particles along with air pollutants, allergens etc. Now if we pump out these particles very carefully and make it an ultra-high vacuum, can we say that there is nothing in the glass case? No, we cannot say that there is nothing in the glass case and that is because the modern physics shows us otherwise.

Quantum fluctuations in an absolute vacuum

The two branches of modern physics – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics – give us a description of physical processes which are mind-boggling, counter-intuitive and occasionally plainly weird. Even Einstein, who singlehandedly produced the general theory of relativity and pioneered quantum physics, had extreme difficulty in absorbing the full implications and interplay of these two theories.

Einstein produced the mass-energy equivalence, which is: E=mc2; a very elegant and at the same time extremely important equation. What it means is that the mass of an object such as an atom or a molecule or a large number of molecules in a ball or an apple or a pencil and so forth has an equivalent energy and conversely an amount of energy has an equivalent mass. It is not theoretical physicists’ crazy idea, it had been found in practice in particle physics experiments, in radioactive decay and in nuclear reactors. A certain amount of energy suddenly disappears and a very small particle called electron and its anti-particle called the positron appear. The electron is what we use to generate electricity and is used to run a television, radio, mobile phone etc and in our everyday parlance, it is a matter. On the other hand, positron is an anti-matter. When this matter (electron) and anti-matter (positron) come in contact, they annihilate each other and an amount of energy is produced which is exactly equal to what disappeared in the first place to produce this electron and positron pair.

Alongside this mass-energy equivalence, one may consider quantum physics’ uncertainty principle produced by Werner Heisenberg. We must remember that quantum mechanics deals with very small particles such as electrons, positrons, atoms and sub-atomic particles. The basic tenet of this principle is that we cannot simultaneously measure certain pairs of observables such as energy and time or position and momentum of a particle with absolute accuracy. The degree of inaccuracy or uncertainty of the pair of observables (ΔE.Δt or Δp.Δx is always higher than a quantity called Planck constant (h/2π). In other words, if we measure the energy of a quantum particle very precisely, then there would be an inherent uncertainty in time at which the energy measurement had been made and the product of these two uncertainties is going to be higher than the Planck constant, h/2π. This uncertainty principle is the bedrock of quantum mechanics. It had been proven time and time again that this uncertainty principle is inviolable and holds true in all quantum events. Heisenberg received Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 for his contribution to Quantum Mechanics.

In the sub-world of quantum mechanics, there may be a situation which is known as quantum fluctuation. In an otherwise complete vacuum (having nothing), a quantum fluctuation can produce an amount of energy and that energy can generate a virtual electron-positron pair in the system. Now that energy comes from the nature, as if the nature is lending that energy to the system. When the electron-positron pair comes in contact with each other and they do it in a flash, both of them disappear instantly, and an amount energy is produced (equal to the energy that produced the pair in the first place) and that energy is returned to the nature and everything is squared up.

This borrowing of energy from nature, electron-positron pair formation (or for that matter matter-antimatter formation) and annihilation and then returning the energy to the nature are taking place all the time everywhere, even in a vacuum where we consider there is absolutely nothing. These are the quantum fluctuations. These are not mad professor’s or mad scientist’s utter gibberish, these are actual physical phenomena which have been demonstrated in high-energy physics laboratories. If one measures the charge of an electron with high precision, one can find a sudden fluctuation in the charge of the electron or a slight wobble in the electron trajectory. This is due to interaction of the real electron and the momentary appearance of the electron-positron pair.  

Billions and trillions of matter-antimatter particles are being generated and annihilated all the time in space. Now a situation may arise when a small fraction of these particles is not annihilated instantaneously and these matter, anti-matter particles move away from each other. In fact, it had been estimated that approximately one in a billion of such pairs had escaped annihilation and moved away to lead separate lives at the time of Big Bang. Electrons and other matters (atoms) in our everyday world (called fermions) came out and formed our world or the present universe, and the positrons and other anti-matter particles formed the anti-matter world somewhere far away from matter world, or they may have formed a separate anti-matter universe.

Our matter universe and the anti-matter universe are blood enemies. Should they come in contact, they will kill each other instantly and an unimaginable release of energy will take place. However, this energy is what these matter universe and anti-matter universe owe to the nature, because this energy was borrowed at the time of forming matter and anti-matter particles in a gigantic scale. Whereas all the other particles returned their energies to the nature, these particles, statistically one in a billion particles, escaped repayment and formed the universe.

The Big Bang from quantum fluctuations

This is how the universe, as perceived now, came into existence. It is the formation of universe out of nothing and the likely disappearance of the universe to nothing. There is no need to invent a divine power and then lay everything at the feet of that invented divine power. In fact, such an invention, all within the confines of our minds, would create more insurmountable problems in explaining things as they stand – such as where is the divine power now, how did he create these things, did he create the universe on a whim or did he have an ultimate purpose etc?

Albert Einstein was deeply sceptical about the divine power. He expressed his thought quite bluntly in saying, “I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details”.  

It must be stated that the present perception of creation of the universe is not a done deal. The debate about the universe, its progression, its ultimate fate etc are all raging in the scientific community. This is the credit for science – science never claims to have achieved the ultimate truth; anything that is held to be true now can be changed in the light of new evidence, new facts. This is in stark contrast with religion where everything is claimed to have come from God or Allah and hence not subject to any alteration or modification. This is what science rejects.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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

Abnormal of the past becomes normal of the future in climate change age

Sandbag embankment in Khulna, Bangladesh after the cyclone, Fani in 2019

For millions of years, we were in equilibrium with our environment. Over the past 11,500 years, a period in Earth’s history called the Holocene Epoch, there had been a global climatic stability with the average surface temperature fluctuating around one degree Celsius up or down. Our civilisation emerged and progressed against this backdrop of a relatively stable climate.

Melting glaciers

But then something happened that led to the change of whole edifice for worse. The Industrial Revolution that began around 1760 had drastically changed, indeed corrupted, our environment. Today, we live on a planet whose air is polluted, whose water is contaminated and whose soil is chemically altered. Indeed, human influence is so substantial that Earth is no longer in the Holocene Epoch, but rather in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. For comparison, the epoch before Holocene, the Pleistocene Epoch, lasted nearly 2.5 million years.

Our insatiable appetite for energy using fossil fuel to have higher and higher living standards is placing unbearable burden on the planet. Until 1970s there had been little or no concern about the detrimental effects of extraction and use of fossil fuels on an industrial scale, particularly the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.  The current concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, is about 415 parts per million. It is the highest concentration since the Pliocene Epoch, which extended from about 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago.

We now live in a world where “abnormal” of yester-years have become “normal” of present day. Examples of present day normal that were abnormal some 50 years ago are Bombogenesis, Arctic Amplification, Hell Fire, Pyro-cumulonimbus Storms aka Fire Tornadoes, Heat Waves and Climate Refugees, Derecho, Sneaker Wave, Squall Line, Microburst, Frankenstorm, and so forth.

Under normal conditions, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. It is a large, low-pressure zone that exists at two levels of the atmosphere, one in the troposphere, where most of the weather-related phenomena occur, and the other a bit higher up, in the stratosphere, home of the ozone layer that protects us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. The vortices are seasonal atmospheric phenomena.

However, scientists believe that the phenomenon of Arctic Amplification, which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than rest of the world, distorts the vortex in the North Pole, thereby resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle. This anomaly, a consequence of global warming, was abnormal before the 1970s, but quite normal today.

It is no longer implausible to have record snowfall and record high temperature on the same day. On November 16 of last year, Anchorage in Alaska saw its high temperature top out at plus seven degrees at 2:30 a.m. (Average November temperature in Anchorage is negative five degrees.) Before midnight that day, 21 centimetres of snow fell on the ground. This oddity, as well as 20-25 degrees swing in daytime temperature within 24 hours in the winter months—abnormal few decades ago—are normal now.

Located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions, permafrost is one of the most unique kinds of soil containing more carbon and methane than any other soil on Earth and twice as much carbon as is available in the atmosphere. But as global temperatures rise, Arctic permafrost thaws and greenhouse gases trapped in ice are released. Clearly, permafrost thawing is opening up additional pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming. Besides, ancient carcasses are emerging from the melting permafrost, and with them germs from illness long thought eradicated.

Nowadays, Australia and California are ground zero for out-of-control wildfires. As cataclysmic wildfires continue to rage across Australia, the loss of life—humans and animals—has reached staggering numbers. An estimated one billion animals have been killed so far and approximately 107,000 square kilometres—roughly 70 percent the size of Bangladesh—burned on the east coast.

Climate change is making heat waves longer and more frequent. Temperatures soaring over 50 degrees in many parts of the world are becoming the norm, while nice and comfortable weather has become the exception.

Some other wild weather phenomena due to climate change that were rare or considered abnormal in the past but not anymore are Derecho—a straight-line wind storm with hurricane-force winds; Sneaker Wave—a disproportionately large wave that suddenly appears during a wave sequence; Squall Line—a line of thunderstorms preceding a cold front; Microburst—severe downdraft caused by a thunderstorm; Frankenstorm—remnants of a super storm reinvigorated by an early winter storm and a blast of Arctic air.

Rising temperatures due to climate change is driving out oxygen from our oceans, threatening many species of aquatic life. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s. Lest we forget, oceans are the source of most of the oxygen we breathe.

If the seas ever do rise by even a meter, our children and grandchildren may find themselves living cramped lives with other climate refugees on shrinking continents. “Humorously speaking,” they may even try to adopt the underwater lifestyle of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, provided ocean acidification caused by absorption of carbon dioxide has not already wiped him and his pineapple home from the bottom of the rising seas.

Few years ago, the sight of polar bears roaming the streets of a village or town would have been abnormal. Nowadays, it is normal because the land on which they live and hunt is under siege. As Arctic ice thins from melting, an occurrence linked to global warming, their habitat is shrinking and food supply is decreasing. As a result, they are moving out of their natural habitat and traveling hundreds of miles south of the Arctic region in search for food.

To tackle these and other new normals, every year since 1995, our leaders and/or their disciples have been meeting at various world capitals or cities, some of which are tourist hot spots―Bali, Cancun, Marrakech, Montreal, Paris―debating climate change in climate-controlled halls at the so-called Conference of Parties (COP). In order to feel what it is like living in one of the hottest places on Earth, maybe they should hold a future COP in halls without air conditioners in Jacobabad (Pakistan) during July when the average daytime temperature regularly surpasses 50 degrees.

The hype around these conferences is high, but expectations of the people are low because the proposals are not bold enough and interests of the developing countries are marginalised. Gone is the focus on establishing global “top down” approach for stabilising emissions of greenhouse gases that would be legally binding. On the contrary, focus is on voluntary “bottom up” commitments by individual nations to reduce emissions.

It has become clear that the much-touted Paris Agreement thrashed out at COP-21 for keeping the rise in global temperature this century to two degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even lower to 1.5 degrees is on life-support system. America under Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement as Donald Trump categorises global warming as “fake news!” Subsequent summits, including COP-25 in Madrid two months ago, were stuck in a rut. There is no agreement yet and none is in sight.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres roped in some world leaders, members of civil societies and corporate executives at a climate summit in New York on September 23, 2019 to highlight their plans to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. As expected, they “prioritised” a laundry list of Action Portfolios without any firm commitment to implement them.

The star of the summit was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year old Swedish activist, who delivered a blunt speech, excoriating world leaders for their inaction. And the shameless world leaders clapped and cheered every time she chastised them with phrases like “How dare you,” or “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” If they had any self-respect, they should have hung their head down in shame instead of applauding. They did not do so because they are “normal” 21st century leaders.

All said and done, what is the end game? Can pre-emptively embarking on a revolutionary change that will lead us away from dependency on fossil fuels and embracing eco-friendly renewable energies save our planet? Can we avoid the risk of a catastrophic failure of our increasingly ephemeral and tightly interlinked global civilisation as we know it? The answer to the above questions is NO, because our leaders lack the collective will to take the decisive steps required to keep our planet liveable for the future generations.

Scientists believe that if we started to cut down on emissions of carbon dioxide even by one percent in 1990, tackling climate change would have been manageable. Instead, we wasted 30 years by inaction. The inertia of the climate system is such that even if we stop introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now, the ones already in the atmosphere will keep on warming the Earth for another one to two hundred years before equilibrium is reached. In other words, climate change would keep on accelerating, regardless of what measures we take to mitigate its effects.

We can, however, partially solve the seemingly unsolvable problems we have created by changing the unsustainable lifestyle of many of us. More importantly, we have to work to address the problem of the world’s ever-growing population. We are probably within a few decades of a point in time where the sheer number of people on Earth will make continuing degradation of our planet irreversible. So, it is up to us whether we choose to take actions in a direction which will reduce overall global population.

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

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Solzhenitsyn – an ardent Communist to a devout Christian

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11 Dec 1918 – 3 Aug 2008) was a Russian novelist, short story writer, philosopher, historian and a political ideologist. Born a year after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 and in the immediate aftermath of WWI, his life and works were shaped by the harsh realities of life during his formative period and the consequences of war. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

His parents had all the trappings and background of Imperial Russia. His father, Isaakiy Solzhenitsyn, was an officer in the elite Cossack Brigade (which was fiercely Tsarist) of the Imperial Russian Army and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy landowner in the Kuban region in the northern foothill of the Caucasus. Thus, his family fitted the typical bourgeois family, as defined by the revolutionary Bolshevik party, against which Bolshevik revolution was carried out in 1917. His father died soon after his mother conceived him and so he was brought up by his widowed mother in extreme hardship deprived of her wealth by the communist regime of Soviet Russia. Although he was to become a great literary giant, he studied Physics and Mathematics at Rostov State University.

As he grew up as an ardent communist, the drums of next war (WWII) were beating louder and louder and, inevitably, he had to join the Russian Army against Nazi invasion to save his motherland. As a brilliant officer of Cossack heritage, he showed his military excellence and was twice decorated. But the war left a very painful imprint on him. He witnessed war crimes by the Soviet Army against German civilians – the non-combatants and the elderly were robbed of meagre possessions, women were gang raped and killed, houses were burnt and the whole village pillaged. On atrocities, he wrote in agony, “You know very well that we have come to take revenge against the Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union”.

While serving in the Red Army in WWII, he was arrested for derogatory remarks on the conduct of the war by Josef Stalin in a private letter to a friend in 1945, just a couple of months before the end of the war, and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in labour camps. He was in a prison in Moscow when on 9th May 1945 Germany had surrendered. While the whole city erupted in jubilation, the person who fought for the country and risked his life was in the prison!

His sentence started in 1945. He chronicled his life in labour camps as forming three phases. In the last phase, from 1950 to 1953, he was in a ‘Special Camp’ for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where was forced to work as a miner, bricklayer and a foundry foreman. His experience during this time formed the basis of his novel ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1962). This was the only book that was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union after the reforms that were carried out by Nikita Khrushchev and, even then, only after Khrushchev’s personal patronage. That reform also freed him from exile in 1956 and allowed to go back to Moscow. His books ‘Cancer Ward’ (1968), ‘August 1914’ (1971), ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ (1973) and many more were all published abroad.  

In all of his books, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ received most attention in the West, as it was in this book, he exposed the moral depravity of communist ideology. The Gulag, in Russian, is the acronym of Main Directorate of Camps (labour). It was written over a period of ten years taking materials from reports, interviews, diaries as well as legal documents and his own experiences. The three volumes of this book published in 1973 in the West led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union.     

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. The authorities in Soviet Union were very much angered by his supposedly anti-communist moral and ethical propaganda in the form of literary contributions. In 1974 Soviet Authorities withdrew his Soviet citizenship. He was then flown to the then West Germany and after protracted negotiations, he was allowed to move his family to America in 1976. He lived in America from 1976 until 1994 when he returned to Russia after the fall of Soviet Union. During this period, he wrote the dramatized account of Russian Revolution of 1917 in “The Red Wheel”.

Although in the West he is portrayed as the voice against communism, a lone writer standing up to the might of an ‘Evil Empire’ etc, in reality, he was simply expressing his moral values – be it against communism or capitalism. He wrote a number of articles, while in America, showing the vacuousness of American capitalism and its moral degradation. He strongly criticised America for invading Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He wrote, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State”. This narrative is now relevant to many countries, East or West.  

He also wrote, “Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle”. It may have been written against the backdrop of Josef Stalin’s atrocities and violent measures in WWII, but it also applies very well to modern day politicians – democratically elected in Western affluent countries – like George W Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Trump and many more.

In 1994 he returned to Russia with his family and lived in Western part of Moscow. Although he lived over 17 years in America, he never accepted American culture and way of life. As he became old, he moved away from socialism and became a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. He died on 3 August 2008 of heart attack.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Travel

Brexit – the most pointless masochistic step in UK's history

It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by Theresa May then, briefly, Boris Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamt of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay. A majority voted in December for parties which supported a second referendum. But those parties failed lamentably to make common cause. We must pack up our tents, perhaps to the sound of church bells, and hope to begin the 15-year trudge, back towards some semblance of where we were yesterday with our multiple trade deals, security, health and scientific co-operation and a thousand other useful arrangements.

The only certainty is that we’ll be asking ourselves questions for a very long time. Set aside for a moment Vote Leave’s lies, dodgy funding, Russian involvement or the toothless Electoral Commission, consider instead the magic dust. How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority? A parliamentary paper at the time of the 2015 Referendum Act hinted at the reason: because the referendum was merely advisory. It “enables the electorate to voice an opinion”. How did “advisory” morph into “binding”? By that blinding dust thrown in our eyes from right and left by populist hands.

We endured a numbing complicity between government and opposition. The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through.

What did we learn in our blindness? That those not flourishing within the status quo had no good reason to vote for it; that our prolonged parliamentary chaos derived from an ill-posed yes-no question to which there were a score of answers; that the long-evolved ecology of the EU has profoundly shaped the flora of our nation’s landscape and to rip these plants out will be brutal; that what was once called a hard Brexit became soft by contrast with the threatened no-deal that even now persists; that any mode of departure, by the government’s own estimate, will shrink the economy; that we have a gift for multiple and bitter division – young against old, cities against the country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; that all past, present and future international trade deals or treaties are a compromise with sovereignty, as is our signature on the Paris accords, or our membership of NATO, and that therefore “Take Back Control” was the emptiest, most cynical promise of this sorry season.

We surprised ourselves. Only a few years ago, asked to list the nation’s ills – wealth gap, ailing NHS, north-south imbalance, crime, terrorism, austerity, housing crisis etc – most of us would not have thought to include our membership of the EU. How happy we were in 2012, in the afterglow of our successful Olympics. We weren’t thinking then of Brussels. It was, in Guy Verhofstadt’s famous term, a “cat-fight” within the Tory party that got us going. Those cats had been fighting each other for decades. When they dragged us in and urged us to take sides, we had a collective nervous breakdown; then sufficient numbers wanted the distress to go away and “get Brexit done”. Repeated ad nauseam by the prime minister it almost seemed impolite to ask why.

In the early days of the referendum campaign we learned that “on the doorstep” it was all about migration; but we also learned that it was the UK’s decision, not the EU’s, to allow unlimited migration from the accession countries before the permitted seven years were up; it was the UK’s choice to allow EU migrants to stay more than six months without a job; it was the UK that successfully campaigned to enlarge the EU eastwards; it is the UK, not the EU, that lets non-EU migration continue (and why not?) as EU migration declines. We also learned that the UK, not the EU, opted for our maroon rather than patriotic blue passports. Though, as I look, my old passports seem almost black.

There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU. Brussels didn’t insist that we neglect the post-industrial towns of the Midlands and the north; or demand that we let wages stagnate, or permit multimillion handouts to the CEOs of failing companies, or prefer shareholder value over the social good, or run our health service, social care and Sure Start into the ground, close 600 police stations and let the fabric of our state schools decay.

It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least. To cause sufficient numbers to believe that the source of all their grievances is some hostile outside element is the oldest trick in the populist handbook. As Trotsky was for Stalin, as the USA is for the mullahs of Iran and Gülen is for Erdoğan, so Brussels has served its turn.

Hedge fund owners, plutocrat donors to the cause, Etonians and newspaper proprietors cast themselves as enemies of the elite. More magic dust. The claim that the Northern Ireland issue has been settled is a dangerous pretence. We have witnessed reasoned argument’s fall from grace. The Brexit impulse had strong elements of blood-and-soil, with hints of Empire nostalgia. Such spooky longings floated high above mere facts.

We acquired an argot. “Article 50”, “frictionless trade”, “just in time”, “the backstop” – how they tripped off the tongue. We learned to respect an “invisible border”. Before it all began, only a very few knew the difference between the customs union and the single market. Three years on, not much has changed. A survey last year showed that quite a lot of us thought that “crashing out” was the same as remaining. If only.

The Brexit leadership and the leader of the opposition were always in a hurry to start article 50’s two-year stopwatch. They feared that leave voters might change their minds, that those who didn’t vote last time were 2:1 for remaining, and that young voters coming on to the rolls would be mostly pro-EU. The Brexiter generals reasonably feared a second referendum.

At least, we can all agree that we will be a bit poorer. As one of my school teachers used to say, if a thing is really worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Theresa May could never bring herself to say that Brexit would make us better off. She wouldn’t even tell us if she would vote to leave in a second referendum. We should credit her honesty. By contrast, Boris Johnson, laying his post-Brexit vision before parliament, promised he would narrow the UK’s wealth and opportunity gap between north and south, and make it the home of cutting-edge battery technology. He forgot to mention that the EU never stood in the way of either project.

Redefining our new trade relations with the EU will preoccupy us for years. As for the US position, take a long walk in the American mid-west and you’ll go a month across a monoculture desert and not see a wildflower. To compete, our own agriculture would have to welcome the hormone hypodermic. Our farmers will need to divest of inefficient hedgerows, boundary trees and three-metre field margins – museum pieces all. When it was in trade talks with the EU, the US wouldn’t contemplate higher standards of husbandry, food standards and environmental protection, even though they would have granted access to half a billion consumers. American farming corporations will not be changing their ways for a nation of a mere 65 million. If we want a deal, it is we who must downgrade.

We sense damage and diminishment ahead. In a dangerous world crowded with loud-mouthed “strongmen”, the EU was our best hope for an open, tolerant, free and peaceful community of nations. Those hopes are already threatened as populist movements have swept across Europe. Our withdrawal will weaken resistance to the xenophobic tendency. The lesson of our nation’s history these past centuries is plain: turmoil in continental Europe will draw us into bloody conflicts. Nationalism is rarely a project for peace. Nor does it care to counter climate change. It prefers to let tropical forests and the Australian bush burn.

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over, and for now the force is with English nationalism. Its champion is Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back in the days of the old Soviet Union. I’m lying, you know I’m lying and I know that you know and I don’t give a damn. As in, “The five-week prorogation of parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.” Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg were masters of the mocking grin. The supreme court’s inconvenient judgement that this prorogation was illegal clearly still rankles. Recently, the ex-home secretary Michael Howard was set on to murmur against the judges. Extending political control over an independent judiciary would be consonant with the Johnson-Cummings project. Victor Orbán of Hungary lights the way.

The remainers held out for a kinder sort of world, but we were always the herbivores in this debate, with our enormous, good-natured and derided marches – “a hate-filled crowd”, the Sun; “an elite”, the Daily Telegraph. If 16 million remainers are an elite, then we may rejoice that the UK is a model of meritocracy.

We were, in truth, the left-behinds. By the grace of Corbyn and his grim lieutenants, we had no effective voice in parliament. On her first day as prime minister, Theresa May promised outside No 10 that she would govern for us all. Instead, she threw half the country to the dogs to appease her party’s right wing. Initially, Boris Johnson’s elevation was decided by a tiny, ageing constituency, the majority of whose members told pollsters that they wished Donald Trump ruled Britain and that they longed for the return of hanging. In similar spirit, Johnson found fresh depths of populist vulgarity when he spoke last June of pitchforking the EU incubus off the nation’s back. He has realised his dream.

As for the outer extremes, the occasional milkshake aside, we never violently assaulted a Brexiter in the street; we only rarely inclined to sending anonymous death and rape threats such as came so abundantly the way of Gina Miller, Anna Soubry and many female MPs. However, the antisemitic emails from within the Labour party were a disgrace. So too was the bullying mob jeering outside the Rees-Mogg home. But we remainers did not slyly exhort our compatriots to riot in the event of a second referendum going against us. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not vote to leave; most of business and the trade unions, agriculture, science, finance and the arts were against the Brexit project; three-quarters of MPs voted to remain. But our representatives ignored the evident public interest and shrank behind party cabals and “the people have spoken” – that bleak Soviet locution – followed by “get Brexit done”, the mind-clouding magic dust which has blinded reason and diminished our children’s prospects.

Ian McEwan is a Guardian columnist (published in the Guardian on 1 Feb 2020)

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

What is the difference between lies and post-truth in politics? A philosopher explains.

If I wrote “The first sentence in this article is a lie”, is this sentence true, or is it a lie? And, if a liar declares “I am lying”, is the liar telling the truth? In philosophy and logic, this is known as the Liar’s Paradox: the liar is a liar, and if the liar is indeed lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied.

Lies are part of the DNA of modern society, though we often now refer to them with the more dignified terminology of marketing, advertising, propaganda or spin. From unscrupulous sellers of used cars to prime ministers making unsubstantiated declarations about weapons of mass destruction, it seems that many people now make a living from lies.

In the public imagination politicians are professional liars par excellence, or as the writer George Orwell once put it: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

In her essay Truth and Politics, published in The New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was already lamenting the fact that politics and truth don’t mix. But even Arendt was aware that not all lies are the same. There are lies that are minimal forms of deception, a micro-tear in the fabric of reality, while some lies are so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture, a shift to another reality. In today’s terminology, Arendt was alerting us to the difference between a lie, and the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year – “post-truth”.

One way to understand the difference between lies and post-truth, which I’ve written about in a new paper, is that a liar denies specific facts that have precise coordinates in space and time, whereas post-truth questions the very nature of truth. A liar knows the truth, and, by trying to persuade us of an alternative narrative, a liar is paradoxically honouring the truth, whereas post-truth allows no last refuge for the truth.

Clinton versus Trump

This distinction between a lie and post-truth becomes clearer by comparing two recent American presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. At a White House press conference on January 26 1998, Clinton famously said:

I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never.

Clinton’s statement, given the subsequent revelations and a semen-stained blue dress, is disconcerting. It’s possible that Clinton did not consider his intimate interactions with Lewinsky as a “sexual relation”, but that is unlikely – it would require a phenomenal effort of self-deception, or ingenuity, to defend that position with honesty and integrity. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, because he lied under oath, but he was ultimately acquitted in a Senate trial.

Subverting truth itself

Clinton lied, and that was inexcusable. But Trump’s relationship with truth is even more disturbing, and dangerous. Trump’s incessant accusations of fake news against the main media outlets, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN, reflects a longstanding disdain for the truth. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not simply denying certain facts, instead he is determined to undermine the theoretical infrastructure that makes it possible to have a conversation about the truth.

Trump’s response and demeanour to the impeachment allegations made against him is a typical example of post-truth. By spurning the impeachment proceedings as a “charade” and a “witch-hunt”, his strategy is to create an environment where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, where theoretical frameworks necessary to make sense of certain events are scorned, and where scientific truth is delegitimised.

This is the major difference between a lie and post-truth. While a lie subverts a specific truth, post-truth tries to subvert truth itself. Trump’s abhorrence of truth is reflected in the remarkable claim by one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, that “truth is relative”. Giuliani was talking on NBC News about the request by special counsel Robert Mueller for an interview with Trump regarding the Russia investigation. Giuliani raised concerns that Trump could perjure himself because “truth isn’t truth.”

Post-truth is a murky concept, but it should not be confused with a lie. Post-truth is much more devious and dangerous to the democratic fabric of our society. The prefix “post” in post-truth refers to the claim that a specified idea has become redundant and therefore can safely be discarded. Post-truth is the belief that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete.

We can cope with politicians lying, but we cannot afford the risk of allowing politicians to delegitimise truth.

The author, Vittorio Bufacchi, is a Senior Lecturer at the Dept of Philosophy, University College Cork, Republic of Ireland. (From: The Conversation, January 24, 2020.)