Advanced science, Astrophysics, Environmental, Technical

How global warming is impacting on Earth’s spin

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions might be affecting more than just the climate. For the first time, scientists at NASA presented evidence that the orientation of the Earth’s spin axis is changing because of global warming.

global_warming_1[1]The Earth spins from west to east about an axis once every 24 hours, creating the continuous cycle of day and night. The north-south spin axis runs through the North and South Poles and is tilted by 23.5 degrees from the vertical. The axial tilt causes almost all the seasonal changes.

But the tilt is far from constant. It varies between 21.6 and 24.5 degrees in a 41,000-year cycle. This variation together with small fluctuations in the Sun and Moon’s gravitational pull, oblate shape and elliptical orbit of the Earth, irregular surface, non-uniform distribution of mass and movement of the tectonic plates cause the spin axis, and hence the Poles, to wobble either east or west along its general direction of drift.

Until 2005, Earth’s spin axis has been drifting steadily in the southwest direction around ten centimetres each year towards the Hudson Bay in Canada. However, in 2005, the axis took an abrupt turn and started to drift east towards England at an annual rate of about 17 centimetres, according to data obtained by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites. It is still heading east.

After analysing the satellite data, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California attribute the sudden change in direction of the axis mainly to melting of Greenland’s ice sheets due to global warming. The reason: Melting of ice sheets and the resulting rise of the sea level are changing the distribution of mass on Earth, thereby causing the drift of the spin to change direction and become more oblique. The axis is particularly sensitive to changes in mass distribution occurring north and south of 45 degrees latitude. This phenomenon is similar to the shift in the axis of rotation of a spinning toy if we put more mass on one side of the top or the other.

Since 2002, ice sheets of Greenland have been melting at an annual rate of roughly 270 million tonnes. Additionally, some climate models indicate that a two-to-three degrees Celsius rise in temperature would result in a complete melting of Greenland’s ice sheets. If that happens, it could release the equivalent of as much as 1,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, enhancing global warming even further. It would also raise the sea level by about 7.5 meters. By then, the wobbling of the Poles would also be completely out of whack.

The ice in the Arctic Ocean has also decreased dramatically since the 1960s. For every tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, about three square meters of Arctic’s ice were lost in the last 50 years. This reflects a disquieting long-term trend of around ten percent loss of ice per decade. Furthermore, Antarctica is losing more ice than is being replaced by snowfall. The influx of water from the melting of ice of the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica together with the melting of glaciers and the subsequent redistribution of water across the Earth is also causing our planet to pitch over.

What does this mean for us? Although something as small as we humans shook up something as massive as the Earth, it won’t turn upside down as long as the Moon, which acts as a stabiliser of the Earth’s spinning motion, stays in the sky as our nearest neighbour. However, if the shift of the spin axis maintains its present rate and direction, then by the end of this century, the axis would shift by nearly 14 meters. Such a large shift will have devastating consequences for climate change and our planet.

The orientation of the Earth’s spin axis determines the seasonal distribution of radiation at higher latitudes. If the axial tilt is smaller, the Sun does not travel as far north in the sky during summer, producing cooler summers. A larger tilt, as could be in the future, would mean summer days that would be much hotter than the present summer days. In addition, it would impact the accuracy of GPS and other satellite-dependent devices.

Since global warming is causing the Earth’s mass to be redistributed towards the Poles, it would cause the planet to spin faster, just as an ice skater spins faster when she pulls her arms towards her body. Consequently, the length of a day would become shorter.

Our biological clock that regulates sleeping, walking, eating, and other cyclic activities is based on a 24-hour day. Faced with a shorter day, these circadian rhythms would be hopelessly out of sync with the natural world. Moreover, a rapidly spinning Earth will be unstable to the extent that the Poles would wobble faster. This would create enormous stress on the Earth’s geology leading to large-scale natural disasters that will most likely be disastrous for life on Earth.

We may not witness the effects of a rapidly spinning Earth by the end of this century or the next. Nevertheless, the effects will be perceivable a few centuries from now if the global temperature keeps on rising and the ice sheets keep on melting in tandem.

The shift in the Earth’s spin axis due to climate change highlights how real and profoundly large impact humans are having on the planet. The dire consequences of the shift in the axial tilt towards a larger obliquity, as noted above, is not a wake-up call, but an alarm bell. There is still time for our leaders to listen to the scientists and formulate a long-term approach to tackle the problem of climate change instead of a short-term Band-Aid approach, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which will see us through only to the end of this century. Therefore, our foremost goal before the death knell should be to reverse global warming, or at the least, to stop further warming instead of limiting it to 1.5-degree in the next 75 years or so.

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

 

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Technical

Harnessing the Solar Energy absorbed by ocean waters

solar_energy

The world’s oceans constitute a vast natural reservoir for receiving and storing solar energy. They take in solar energy in proportion to their surface area, nearly three times that of land. As the sun warms the oceans, it creates a significant temperature difference between the surface water and the deeper water to which sunlight doesn’t penetrate. Any time there’s a temperature difference, there’s the potential to run a heat engine, a device that converts thermal energy into mechanical energy.

Most of the electricity we use comes from heat engines of one kind or another. The working principle of such an engine is very simple. It operates between two reservoirs of thermal energy, one hot and one cold. Energy is extracted from the hot reservoir to heat a working fluid which boils to form high-pressure vapour that drives a turbine coupled to an electricity-producing generator. Contact with the cold reservoir re-condenses the working fluid which is pumped back into the evaporator to complete the cycle.

The idea of building an engine to harness energy from the oceans, mainly to generate electricity, by exploiting the thermal gradient between waters on the surface and deeper layers of an ocean is known as OTEC—acronym for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. With OTEC, the hot reservoir is an ocean’s warmer surface water with temperatures, which can exceed 25 degrees Celsius, and the cold reservoir is the cooler water, around five to six degrees, at a depth of up to one kilometre. The working fluid is usually ammonia, which vaporises and condenses at the available temperatures. This is analogous to choosing water as the working fluid matched to the temperature differential between a fossil-fuel-fired boiler and a condenser cooled by air or water.

The maximum efficiency of a heat engine operating between reservoirs at 25 and 5 degrees Celsius is 6.7 percent. This means efficiency of an actual OTEC engine will be much less, perhaps 2-3 percent. But low efficiency isn’t the liability it would be in a fossil-fuelled or nuclear power plant. After all, the fuel for OTEC is unlimited and free, as long as the sun heats the oceans.

The greater is the temperature difference, more efficient an OTEC power plant would be. For example, a surface temperature of 30 degrees would raise the ceiling on efficiency to 8.25 percent. That’s why the technology is viable primarily in tropical regions where the year-round temperature differential between the ocean’s deep cold and warm surface waters is greater than 20 degrees. The waters of Bay of Bengal along the shores of Bangladesh, a country that enjoys a year round warm, and at times very hot weather, have excellent thermal gradients for producing electricity using OTEC technology.

The world’s biggest operational OTEC facility, with an annual power generation capacity of 100 kW, was built by Makai Ocean Engineering in Hawaii. Tokyo Electric Power Company and Toshiba built a 100 kW plant on the island of Nauru, although as much as 70 percent of the electricity generated is used to operate the plant.

The US aerospace company Lockheed Martin is building an OTEC electricity generating plant off the coast of Hainan Island in China. Once operational, the plant will be able to generate up to at least 10 MW of power, enough to sustain the energy requirements of a smaller metropolis. India is building a 200 kW plant, expected to be operational before 2020, in Kavaratti, capital of the Lakshadweep archipelago, to power a desalination plant. Other OTEC systems are either in planning or development stage in Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and several countries along the Indian Ocean, mostly to supply electricity.

Like any alternative form of energy, OTEC has its advantages and disadvantages, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Among the advantages, the one that stands out is its ability to provide a base load supply of energy for an electrical power generation system without interruption, 24/7/365. It also has the potential to produce energy that are several times greater than other ocean energy options, such as waves and tides. More importantly, OTEC is an extremely clean and sustainable technology because it won’t have to burn climate-changing fossil fuels to create a temperature difference between the reservoirs. A natural temperature gradient already exists in the oceans. The gradient is very steady in time, persisting over day and night and from season to season. Furthermore, the desalination technology as a by-product of the OTEC can produce a large amount of fresh water from seawater which will benefit many island nations and desert countries.

However, recirculation of large volumes of water by OTEC power plants could have negative impacts on the aquatic environment. In particular, the introduction of nutrient-rich deep waters into the nutrient-poor surface waters would stimulate plankton blooms that could adversely affect the local ecological balance. Additional ecological problems include destruction of marine habitats and aquatic nursery areas, redistribution of oceanic constituents, loss of planktons and decrease of fish population.

Since OTEC facilities must be located closer to the shores due to cabling constraints, they could have significant effect on near-shore circulation patterns of ocean water. As a result, open ocean organisms close to the shores will be especially affected because they are known to have very narrow tolerance limits to changes in the properties of their environment.

The biggest drawback of OTEC is its low efficiency. This implies that to produce even modest amounts of electricity, OTEC plants have to be constructed on a relatively large scale, which makes them expensive investments. It’s the price we should be prepared to pay to curb global warming. Industry analysts however believe that in the long run, low operation and maintenance cost would offset the high cost of building OTEC facilities.

The current effort, as agreed in the 2015 Paris Accord, to keep our planet lovable is like taking one giant step backward before trying to move one step forward. If technology for OTEC and other eco-friendly renewable sources of energy are fully developed and globally commercialised, it would indeed be one giant step forward in mitigating global warming. They would also equip communities worldwide with the self-empowerment tools that are required to build an independent and sustainable future.

 

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

Advanced science, Astrophysics, Bangladesh, Economic, International, Technical

Orbit of Bangabandhu-1 and other satellites

May 12, 2018 is a red-letter day in the history of Bangladesh. On this day, “Bangladesh started a glorious chapter in the history with the launching of Bangabandhu-1 satellite,” President Abdul Hamid said in a message to the nation. Indeed, Bangabandhu-1 added a new milestone to the path of continued advancement of the country. Proudly displaying the flag of Bangladesh on its solar panels, the satellite is orbiting the Earth in a geostationary orbit located at 119.1 degrees east longitude.

The physics of a satellite’s orbit is remarkable. For our current knowledge of orbital motion, we owe tons of gratitude to Johannes Kepler who, in the early 17th century, relentlessly pursued the planetary orbits by putting the Sun at the centre of ‘his’ Universe. In this pursuit, he gave us three laws of planetary motion that endure to this day. Of particular interest to the motion of satellites is his third law, which states that the square of a planet’s orbital period (in years) is equal to the cube of the planet’s average distance (in astronomical unit) from the Sun. One astronomical unit is the average distance of Earth from the Sun, which is approximately 150 million km.

By working with his laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, Isaac Newton found that Kepler’s third law is a special case of a more general law. He showed that in addition to the cube of the average distance of a planet from the Sun, square of the orbital period is also inversely proportional to the mass of the Sun. Moreover, according to Newton, the orbital speed of a small object orbiting a much more massive object depends only on its orbital radius, not on its mass. Accordingly, if satellites are closer to Earth, the pull of gravity gets stronger, and they move more quickly in their orbit.
The speed, however, depends on the mass of the massive object. That is why an astronaut does not need a tether to stay close to the International Space Station during a space walk. Even though the space station is much bigger than the astronaut, both are much smaller than Earth and thus stay together because they have the same orbital speed.

Satellites can be placed in different kinds of orbit – geosynchronous, geostationary, Sun-synchronous, semi-synchronous, orbit at Lagrange points.When a satellite is placed in a ‘sweet spot’ where, irrespective of its inclination, it orbits the Earth in the same amount of time the Earth rotates with respect to the stars, which is 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds, it would appear stationary over a single longitude in the sky as seen from the Earth. This kind of orbit, where communication satellites are placed, is called geosynchronous orbit.

A special case of geosynchronous orbit is the geostationary orbit, which has a circular, geosynchronous orbit directly above the Earth’s equator. Besides communications, both orbits are also extremely useful for monitoring the weather because satellites in these orbits provide a constant view of the same surface. Using the rotational time and known mass of the Earth, we find that the orbital radius of a geostationary orbit is about 42,220 km from the centre of the Earth, which is about 35,850 km above the Earth’s surface.

Just as geosynchronous satellites have a sweet spot, satellites in a near polar orbit have a sweet spot too. If the orbits of these satellites are tilted by about eight degrees from the pole, a perturbing force produced by Earth’s oblateness would cause the orbit to precess 360 degrees during the course of the year. Satellites in such an orbit, known as Sun-synchronous or Helio-synchronous orbit, would pass over any given point on the Earth’s surface at the same local time each day. Additionally, they would be constantly illuminated by the Sun, which would allow their solar panels to work round the clock. Orbiting at an altitude between 700 and 800 km with an orbital period of roughly 100 minutes, satellites in a Sun-synchronous orbit are used for reconnaissance, mapping the Earth’s surface and as weather satellites, especially for measuring the concentration of ozone in the stratosphere and monitoring atmospheric temperature.

Many Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are in another sweet spot known as semi-synchronous orbit. While geosynchronous orbit matches Earth’s rotational period, satellites in semi-synchronous orbit, at an altitude of approximately 20,000 kilometres, are in a 12-hour near-circular orbit. With a smaller orbital radius, a satellite would have a larger coverage of ground area on the Earth’s surface.

Other orbital sweet spots are five points located on the Earth’s orbital plane. The combined gravitational force of the Earth and the Sun acting on a satellite placed at these points, known as Lagrange points, would ensure that its orbital period is equal to that of Earth’s. Hence, the satellite will maintain its position relative to the Earth and the Sun.
The two nearest Lagrange points, one between the Earth and the Sun and the other in the opposite direction of the Sun, each 1.5 million km away from the Earth, are home to many space-based observatories. Some of them are the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory designed to study the internal structure of the Sun, the Deep Space Climate Observatory producing accurate forecasts and providing warning by monitoring dangerous space-weather conditions, and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe measuring the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang.
The writer is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

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

Are teachers the “Luddites” of higher education

It is obvious that online education has cut out the bricks and mortar frills of a normal campus and replaced classrooms with a computer screen on top of a desk at a student’s home.

luddites

According to tech-employment experts, more than half the jobs in the United States would be automated in a decade or two. That should not come as a surprise. Robots are already working as telemarketers, replacing assembly line workers, whisking products around Amazon’s huge shipping centres, diagnosing medical conditions and performing minimally invasive surgeries. They are writing stories for newspapers and magazines, too.

For all of its ambiguities, technology has also made its way into the arena of higher education. Today, we are fascinated by videotaped lectures. We revel at the online learning format MOOC ‒ acronym for Massive Open Online Course. We rave at Coursera ‒ a venture-backed, education-focused technology company. We rant about Udacity ‒ a for-profit educational organization offering MOOCs.

Courses offered by these asynchronous programs do not take place in a real-time environment. As a result, there is no class meeting time. They enrol tens of thousands of “followers,” a Twitter term I prefer to use, because it offers a more apt label than “students.” The followers are provided with syllabi and assignments and are given a time frame to complete the course work and exams. Interaction with instructors usually takes place through discussion boards, blogs and Wikis.

So, what happens next? One clue might lie in the early nineteenth century Britain when the intrusion of mechanized technology into the textile production process ignited the Luddite rebellion, named after Ned Ludd, a mythical weaver who lived in Sherwood Forest. He supposedly broke two mechanical knitting machines to vent his anger against automation.

Incensed at the machines that they believed would replace them, the textile workers or the Luddites, as they were called, raided factories and sabotaged machinery by night, in the hopes of saving their jobs. The rebellion was a total failure. Nonetheless, the Luddites bequeathed us a namesake pejorative hurled at anyone daring to stand in the way of technological progress. The term Luddite has now become a synonym for technophobe.
I write this piece not as a technophobe, but as an open-minded professor sceptic about technology’s impact on the state of higher education. I have enthusiastically experimented with YouTube clips, Facebook course pages and discussion blogs in many of my courses. I appreciate the word processors, particularly TeX/LaTex ‒ a high-quality typesetting system designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. I value the usefulness of the Internet that gives me access to a treasure trove of information on an untold number of subjects, as well as technical journals essential for doing research. As a theoretical nuclear physicist, I am grateful for the open-source software, such as Mathematic that took the sweat out of high-level mathematical calculations.

Nevertheless, I am also disturbed by some aspects of online education’s impact on learning and scholarship. That is because from the vantage point of science pedagogy, technologies have still to offer an adequate answer to a question that should always be at the forefront of our conversations: How much does the whole person matter?

It is obvious that online education has cut out the bricks and mortar frills of a normal campus and replaced classrooms with a computer screen on top of a desk at a student’s home. While proponents of online learning would like us to believe that their ostensibly laser-like focus on higher education is admirable, one cannot help but wonder about the value of the traditional liberal arts college experience that is lost in the process.

As many have noted, the experience of a lecture hall ‒ usually a metaphor for college as a whole ‒ has not changed all that much in the last 500 years or so. Standing astride at the podium or writing on a chalkboard, professors edify the students by pouring forth their knowledge. Whether the endurance of this long-established format is either a virtue or vice depends on how close your postal code is to California’s Silicon Valley.
Against this age-old backdrop, enter the heroic innovators ‒ the techno utopians. In their view, online learning offers a solution to the various crises higher education is facing today.In particular, it accommodates adaptable scheduling, comfortable learning environment, variety of programs and courses to choose from, and strips down costs, so that education could be spread to people not privileged enough to afford the sticker shock of today’s tuition fees.

Is online learning really making good on the promises the techno utopians are claiming? Numerous studies over the years have shown that technology hurts students’ progress more than it helps. The studies conclude that students who rely solely on modern technology to get their degree in quick and easy doses often lack the ability, and more importantly patience, to think and study the old-fashioned way. They belong to a generation of digital natives who are apparently incapable of prying themselves away from their computer screens for even a 50-minute classroom lecture.

Furthermore, recipients of degrees from online educational facilities should be prepared to face a few initial hiccups, simply because there is a greater likelihood that their degree would be considered to have much lower value than the one obtained via mainstream classroom education. Consequently, prospective employers may be sceptical about the credibility of even well-known online learning enterprises that generally offer only certificates of course completion. They are, however, appropriate learning environments for adults with time constraints or busy schedules, or those who want to take enrichment courses to enhance their career.

Others have noted that online course innovations seem uniquely tilted in favour of fields like science, engineering and mathematics and less suitable for subjects like history, philosophy, or English. In that sense, technology has a bit of bias, as any bleary-eyed humanities professor who cannot feed a stack of essays into Scantron will tell us.
Even if online learning does get better at spreading knowledge, can it ever match college’s time-honoured strength in cultivating wisdom? Confronting that challenge requires us to answer the question of how much the whole person really matters. Technology seems to suggest it does not and should not. Indeed, the ideology of technology is to disaggregate the whole person ‒ to stretch human faculties to the point where space and time become irrelevant.

Arguably, college, at its best, is all-encompassing. It is a place where one undergoes intellectual, social and spiritual transformation. Yes, education happens in the lecture hall. An ineffable, unpredictable vibe that a great class discussion generates leaves its participants buzzing.

But education also happens on a theatre stage, in museums and art galleries, at an atelier, at a research lab at a hospital, in the study abroad program and many other places outside the classroom. It remains unclear how MOOC, Coursera, Udacity, or technology in general can help cultivate wisdom across all of these fronts and thus enrich the whole person that college education epitomises.

Although we may be at the dawn of a post-human era, as some have argued, I do believe that we are losing more than we are gaining from a technological hypnosis that has the potential to reclassify the teacher as a network administrator. If we could avoid bowing to the pressures to convert higher education into virtual reality, we will preserve something essential to our humanity, a sense of community.

To that end, we still need to be face-to-face with the students, to meet with them in groups for discussion, or to have one-on-one meeting with a student seeking guidance. These relational roles and human touch of a teacher can only be accomplished in a campus environment.

Having said that, are we facing our own virtual obsolescence just like the Luddites? Only time will tell whether we will become neo-Luddites or not. However, if the prediction and vision of automation is even halfway correct, I am afraid higher education in a campus setting may soon become redundant, as techno utopians are forecasting, when a one-size-fits-all online education presents itself to institutions looking to streamline the overhead. If that day arrives, it won’t just be faculty’s loss; it could be a loss of our students’ sense of wholeness too.

 

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

 

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

Ranking of Human Civilisation

Despite what the great ‘Divine Books’ such as Torah, Bible, Quran, Bhagavat Gita and so on and so forth say about the existence of life on earth, scientifically life on earth originated from single cells which then mutated to form multi-cellular organisms. The evolution of primates (comprising apes, chimpanzees, gorillas and eventually humans) can be traced back to over 65 million years. Primates are one of the oldest of all placental mammal groups, which withstood the vagaries of life.

There is now a consensus of opinions among the evolutionary scientists that evolution of Hominidae (apes) took place around 28 million years ago and then subsequently subfamilies – homininae (humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas), homo genus (humans, Neanderthals, homo erectus), homo sapiens (intelligent humans) and finally anatomical modern humans took place about 8 million years, 2.5 million years, 0.5 million years and 200,000 years ago respectively. This chronological development of evolutionary chain is what is accepted now as incontrovertible scientific fact.

The anatomically modern human beings who first appeared in South West Africa – near the coastal borders of Namibia and Angola – were intelligent animals with highly developed brains, and this intelligence led them to become savage animals in the rough and tough world to survive. Around 50,000 years ago, they started migrating to other continents (as permafrost offered them land migration routes) and colonised other areas. When they came across Neanderthals (a subspecies of homo genus) in Europe and other hominins in Asia, they were systematically eliminated. Neanderthals completely disappeared around 30,000 years ago. The victorious modern human beings were, nonetheless, hunter gathers competing for food with four legged animals like wolfs, hyenas, dogs etc. That was the time when one can call human civilisation at level 0.

Since that time, human brain rather than brawn evolved drastically, which is directly attributable to evolutionary mechanism. Although evolutionary process was in action for millions of years, it took a step change. Humans as a distinct species (two legged animals) coalesced together and started to fight jointly against other species. They developed cooperation, communication, collectivism etc, all of which gave them superior strength which no other animal species could muster. Human civilisation was gradually progressing, but still it was stuck at the primitive level 0.

A step change in civilisation came about at around 10,000 years ago, when ice in the Ice Age started to recede after hundreds of thousands of years of permafrost. As ice melted, soil started to surface and vegetation, plants, grasses etc appeared. The human beings with their ingenuity started to farm land, domesticated animals such as cows, horses, dogs etc., produced agricultural products, formed communities and tribes. The hunter gathers were no longer solely reliant on animals for food, they developed diversified food products and eating habits. Whereas previously they used animals for food, now they started to produce food with their own hands. The energy they expended per capita could be estimated as around quarter of a horse power (~200W). This development can be designated as level 1 of type 1 civilisation.

From that time on, human civilisation started to progress at accelerated pace. Humans started to appreciate, admire and even worship the powers of nature; wondered about the might of the sun, rain, storm, fire, earth and so forth and created in their minds and thought processes various deities, gods etc, who were perceived to be more powerful than mere mortal human beings. These fictitious constructs gradually got embedded in the minds as irrevocable entities and these formed the seed corns of numinous undertakings, which flourished eventually as religions.

About 5,000 years ago, Abraham in the land of Canaan (in the Middle East) merged all these disparate and conflicting gods and divine constructs into a single entity and created a unitary God. That was the beginning of monotheism which culminated into three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The unitary God was proclaimed to be all powerful, all knowledgeable, all pervasive, eternal creator of everything. Over the centuries, these three versions of the unitary God fought for supremacy and allegiance of human beings.

Whether the advent of religions, either monotheistic or polytheistic, is a progress in human civilisation or a sheer retrogressive step is open to question. This religious mindset, relegating human beings to moronic state totally reliant on the whims of abstract all-powerful non-existent God is delusional, to say the least. This transfer of human accountability to this God is so tempting and enduring that religions have taken over the thread of civilisation in a way that no other philosophical undertaking could possibly do. For centuries since Abrahamic time, through Jesus Christ and Mohammad, literature, art, culture, architecture, philosophy etc were dominated by religious ideas. Numerous sculptors, painters, poets, authors and so forth all eulogised the existence and powers of God.

Around 300 years ago, another civilizational step took place with the coming of industrial revolution. Steam engines started to drive machines and locomotives. No longer humans were dependent on their bare hands or on animals. Cars, trucks, trains etc were driven by steam engines or internal combustion engines. Electricity was produced by steam engines (turbo-generators) due to the motion of electromagnets. Industries of various sorts started to develop, human population increased, towns, cities started to develop. Population grew not only due to the availability of food but also due to the advancement of biological/medical sciences taming all diseases in general and diseases like cholera, TB etc, in particular, causing epidemic among population. Progress in science and technology steamed ahead and civilisation went up few notches.

Another enormous step change came during the past few decades. This time it was not the physical expansion of wealth generation and prosperity, but the increase in information technology. No longer humans were dependent on mode of communication by notes on papers, letters, telegrams or even fixed line telephony, but on electronic communication, where electrons danced through cables, fibre-optics etc. People now communicate live in various continents, send photos, documents etc instantaneously. A man in the UK can talk simultaneously to people in Japan, Australia, America and Argentina all at the same time. People can move from one place to another at enormous speeds.

Satellites in the sky can detect an object anywhere on the ground as small as few meters. Satellite navigation is a common mode of identifying location, particularly for transport vehicles, replacing age-old traditional maps. Letters, parcels etc can be delivered by drones, flying in air and descending at the back of gardens within a matter of hours. Although drone technology is available now, but it could not be put in practice until some safety provisions and regulatory requirements are enforced. This advanced state of civilisation can be placed as level 7.

There are yet many more technological advancements to be had in this world and we can gradually move towards civilisation levels 8, 9 and 10. At that stage, human beings would be looking beyond our planet into the outer skies.

Now the readers must be admired at this stage who had come this far without knowing what this ranking of civilisation is and what are these levels? Back in 1964, a Russian astrophysicist by the name Nikolai Kardashev was probing the outer skies – planets, stars, galaxies etc – for signs of civilisation. But then he was confronted with the very fundamental question of ‘what is civilisation’? Is civilisation just an abstract concept which cannot be quantified and ranked, only felt and sensed? If that is the case, are we not constrained in categorising a civilisation as to its level of achievement?

Kardashev realised that different professions would tend to define civilisations differently – an artist might define a civilisation by the creative flavour of paintings by its inhabitants; a poet might define it by the quality of poems, culture and the society; a philosopher might try on the basis of abstract theological ideas, its society, government and so on. A physicist might like to quantify on the basis energy it needs. And that is how the scientific ranking of the civilisation is portrayed here.

According to Kardashev if the civilisation of a planet or heavenly body is solely dependent on the energy or power it receives from its primary source – Sun in the case of Earth – then that civilisation is Type I. He then quantified that a ball point figure of 1017 watts as the limiting power for Type I civilisation. A Type II civilisation is one which harnesses stellar energies – energies beyond the constraints of the planet itself. A Type III civilisation is galactic, harnessing energies in the outer skies coming from millions and billions of stars and galaxies.

The human civilisation has not even reached the zenith of Type I civilisation. With all the advanced technologies, we may be hovering around level 6 or 7 and so we have three more levels to go before we could be harnessing around 1017 watts to reach the end of Type I civilisation. It might take a century or two before we reach that stage.

Two more articles will be presented here dealing with Type II and Type III civilisations. So, watch out readers for stellar and galactic civilisations!

 

A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.