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

COVID-19 vaccine facing temporary problems

The COVID-19 vaccine development round the world is going ahead in serious earnest. World’s top pharmaceutical companies are going head to head, throwing up their top scientists and technologists as well as investing large amounts of scarce resources, even when their businesses are in doldrums. The governments of various countries are also scrambling to get to the most promising candidate and at the same time hedging their bets simultaneously on a few rival companies.

What is pushing the whole world to this mad rush? The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, is the most vicious virus to ravage human species during the last 100 years or so. This virus has claimed more than 27.6 million positively identified infection cases and 898,000 deaths round the world. Needless to say, many more infections and many more deaths had gone unreported and unidentified.

The vaccine against this virus, as in all other viruses, has to go through certain internationally accepted and proven steps to ensure safety and effectiveness to the public. If any short-cut is made or any corners are cut, then the confidence of the public to accept this medicine or any future medicine will be seriously shaken.  

Of the hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines now in development round the glove, six are in the final stages of testing. This final stage is known as phase three clinical trial. Each one of these vaccines had gone through phase one and phase two testing before reaching the final phase. Only compromise that was allowed to these vaccines because of the urgency of this medication that phase one and phase two were allowed to be combined and run concurrently. These phases had to show that they are safe (with only short-term side effects, if identified, and no unexpected serious effects) and they elicit an immune response. The third phase is the final stage before approval is offered.

Usually the phase three trial comprises, what is known as case-control study, which is primarily a statistical process. The case group receives the actual vaccine which is being tested and the control group receives placebo i.e. simple saline or vaccine against a different disease. The selection of case-control groups of sample requires careful consideration and vetting. These sample groups should favourably reflect each other in parameters like racial mix, age distribution, gender distribution, economic conditions, patterns of behaviour and social habits.

To demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine, there must be significantly fewer cases of the target disease in the vaccinated group compared to the control group. Depending on infection rates of the disease, a phase three vaccine trial may involve thousands to even tens of thousands of people. The bigger the sample size, the more reliable would be the output. To be approved, vaccines need to demonstrate that they are safe and effective.

One of these is the vaccine that the University of Oxford is developing – known as Oxford vaccine. This vaccine has passed through phase one and phase two testing with flying colours and now undergoing phase three testing. The purpose of a phase three trial is to assess whether this vaccine-induced immune response is strong enough to actually protect people from COVID-19. The vaccine is designed to provoke a T cell response within 14 days of vaccination – when white blood cells attack cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus – and an antibody response within 28 days – when antibodies are able to neutralise the virus so that it cannot infect cells when initially contracted.

In the Oxford vaccine clinical trial, five countries in five continents have been chosen – India, the UK, South Africa, Brazil and the US. Thus, a wide variety of rich and developing countries in different climatic conditions had been chosen. The vaccine is being evaluated in these regions and hence the result would give a generic output applicable to almost the whole world.

In the first instance, nearly 17,000 people in three countries – the UK, South Africa and Brazil – have received the vaccines, with half being in the control group. These people would then receive booster vaccination between one and three months after the first vaccination. Exactly the same procedure is followed for both case and control groups, so that the volunteers do not know whether they received actual or placebo dose against COVID-19.

The data will be analysed statistically for each country and the results will be scrutinised and assessed by the regulatory bodies. If the results are positive, then regulatory bodies will approve of the vaccine for general use. On the other hand, if the result is marginal then there may be requirements of further improvement in the quality of vaccine or further clinical trial. This will inevitably delay in the use of vaccine by the general public.

AstraZeneca, the firm partnering Oxford to develop the vaccine, is overseeing a scaling up of manufacturing in parallel with clinical testing so that hundreds of millions of doses can be available if the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective. India’s Serum Institute has already started manufacturing the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate before clinical trials have even been completed. This is to avoid any subsequent delay if the vaccine is approved.

However, a spokesman for AstraZeneca told the Guardian newspaper in the UK that the trial had been stopped to review the “potentially unexplained illness” in one of the participants. The spokesman also stressed that the adverse reaction was only recorded in a single participant and said pausing trials was common during vaccine development.

Notwithstanding the technical issues involved in producing medicines, Donald Trump tarnished the world-wide efforts to produce vaccines with his political agenda of getting re-elected. He declared that the vaccines would be available two days before the US presidential election on 5 November and thereby implicitly and egregiously taking credit for producing COVID-19 cure under his watch!.

However, a group of nine vaccine developers has announced a ‘historic pledge’ to uphold scientific and ethical standards in the search for coronavirus vaccine. The group includes such giant pharmaceutical companies as Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna and Novavax. By their pledge, they asserted that no matter what the politically motivated pressure may be exerted on them, they will ‘always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals their top priority’. Self-publicised egoistic egregious political leaders will come and go, but the pharmaceutical companies are here to stay to produce and serve the people.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Advanced science, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Coronavirus pandemic – opening the eyes

Human beings had been fighting against the nature, against other animals and even against other human beings for centuries; in fact, ever since human consciousness arose. In doing so, the prevailing science and technology and natural defence were the main armoury of human beings. But now this little virus called Covid-19, so little that it is invisible even to the microscopes, has brought home to human beings in no uncertain terms that human existence is at the mercy of this virus or any similar strain of virus or mutated viruses.

What is this insidious virus that has brought virtually the whole world to a standstill, that is banging the heads of ardent capitalists, committed communists, socialists, devoted Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, mullahs, ayatollahs, rabbis, priests, atheists, agnostics and all other strands of human dogmas come together to fight against it? Political, social, economic, religious divisions are now totally irrelevant against this virus. This virus does not distinguish or differentiate between the prime ministers, presidents, princes, ministers, millionaires, billionaires and destitute, paupers, street beggars etc. This virus can strike anybody at any time and that’s why it is a pandemic now.

This coronavirus is a virus – a miniscule biological entity, a microscopic parasite – that can infect living organisms. The coronavirus is a collective name for a group of viruses that covers everything from common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The covid-19 is a particular strain of coronavirus which had popped out, or one can say evolved, only a few months ago (in late 2019) in the wholesale fish market in the city of Wuhan, China. However, Covid-19 strain is somewhat different, more aggressive and contagious than SARS or MERS. Even Covid-19 has a number of strands

This Covid-19 is a variant of SARS that can go from human to human in aerosol form and through body contacts. Although some virologists speculate that it may have jumped from animals or reptiles to humans through food chain, there is no definitive evidence to support this hypothesis. Few days ago, there had been a report that some animals in the zoo in Bronx, New York had developed coronavirus symptoms, probably due to infection from zoo-keepers. This means that this virus or some variation of this virus has the ability to jump back and forth between men and animals.

The virus consists of a nucleic acid molecule (typically RNA or even DNA) with a protein coating to protect itself and distinctive spikes at the outer surface to anchor into a particular type of human cells. As it is a virus, it hasn’t got the ability to replicate itself and multiply. Nevertheless, it does want to survive, as all genes do, by multiplying and moving from body to body to improve its chances to live. To survive and replicate, it needs to find a host cell where it can make use of host cell’s genetic material and protective coating and then it strangulates the host cell so that the host cell cannot hit back and the host cell gradually withers away and dies. This virus when multiplied many times within the safety of a host cell bursts open and spreads out and each one of them then attacks surrounding cells and the process proliferates.

The victory by the virus following the first attack is by no means a smooth affair; it’s a bloody war. When the parasitic virus attacks the body, the immune system of the body (which is a system of proteins and cells that are distributed throughout the body) responds to the invasion. These proteins include antibodies, which lock on to the bits of the virus such as the spike ‘S’ protein. It was this spike ‘S’ protein that was used by the virus in the first place to home in to the body cell and go through the cell membrane. Now this very spike is used by the defence mechanism of the body to identify and target the virus.

Thus, the immune system tries very hard to exterminate the invading virus. A life and death struggle ensue; the virus (Covid-19) knows that unless it can colonise the host cell, it will die and the host cell also knows that if the invading virus wins, it will suck life out of it and the cell will die.

Thus, the immune system tries very hard to exterminate the invading virus. A life and death struggle ensue; the virus (Covid-19) knows that unless it can colonise the host cell, it will die and the host cell also knows that if the invading virus wins, it will suck life out of it and the cell will die.

As this struggle continues, the host body – the survival machine – is blissfully unaware of what is going at the cellular level. There is no outward symptom, no discernible ill effects. It is called the asymptomatic condition meaning no symptoms. After a few days, if the body immune system wins, the invading viruses are crushed and disposed of. On the other hand, if the invading viruses start winning and keep attacking cells after cells, alarm bell starts ringing and messages go out throughout the body that it is under attack. The organs which are lost or partially lost start showing up symptoms. These are sore throat, headaches, persistent coughing as respiratory tract cells gradually become dysfunctional and high body temperature. There may be reduced functionality of other body organs. For example, there may be loss of appetite, aches and pains, dizziness etc.

The body nonetheless keeps fighting. If the invading army of viruses attack and destroy lung cells, which in turn affect alveoli sacs, breathing becomes difficult and artificial breathing using oxygen masks and, in extreme cases, ventilation units may be required to supply oxygen to the body. All is not lost even at this stage and the body can recover. It is anticipated that at least another week or so would be required to recover. However, if there are pre-existing health conditions wherein the immune system was weakened already, such as pre-existing diabetes, heart conditions, kidney problems etc., then the chances of recovery become that much difficult.

Once the viral attack has been successfully overcome, the cells of the immune system would ‘remember’ the virus and its characteristic make-up and any future attack by this virus would be immediately repelled. However, this immune system memory would not last for very long period. Normally two to three years is the maximum for this memory.

To counter this virus, a vaccine is needed to be developed. The vaccine is likely to be a harmless subcomponent of the virus, and the idea is that the vaccine would stimulate the immune system, to develop antibody by lymphocytes and get the body well prepared in anticipation of viral attack.

The presumption among the political and economic leaders of the world is that once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic is overcome and the fatality figure is brought down to nil, everything can be scaled down and life will turn normal again. The reality is likely to be far from this situation. When fatality is brought down to zero in an area or in a country, it does not mean the virus is finished; it is just contained away from human beings. It can come back at any time, despite some precautionary measures.

The graph above shows that a physical system – an earthquake, a disease, a pandemic and so on – may appear multiple times, albeit in damped condition, after the first incidence. The first peak may be much bigger than the second peak, but the second and subsequent peaks cannot be ruled out. Moreover, the time gap between the peaks would depend on the measures taken to terminate such occurrences. The Spanish Flu of 1918 is a case for pandemic example; it came back and ravaged the world number of times over a number of years. So, every precaution must be taken to counter such recurrence.

Admittedly this pandemic is causing untold misery and pain to millions or billions of people round the world. The economy of each and every country is suffering and will bear unimaginable strain due to this pandemic. The social structure is irrevocably strained: social gatherings, public performances, national and international sports and games would be severely curtailed, if not completely abandoned. The education system is at doldrum. In fact, everything that the present civilisation pursues has to be reconsidered.

But much of it, if not all of it, is due to our unbridled activities, as if there is no tomorrow. The Earth had been poisoned endlessly with greenhouse gases (CO2, NOx, CFC etc) leading to unprecedented global warming – the devastating impacts of global warming are yet to come, the Earth and the seas are endlessly exploited, the population is going up and up and within 20 to 30 years it is likely to be over 12 billion. The worst thing is that there is no recognition that we are destroying this planet.

Take, for example, the actions of Donald Trump, the president of the most powerful and flamboyant nation on Earth. He has withdrawn America from the Paris Agreement of 2016 (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) meaning that he can pursue whatever he wants to do regardless of what happens to Earth’s climate. Only about a month ago, he was dismissive of coronavirus as a common flu and asked people to have common flu precaution. Now, when thousands of Americans are dying in all major cities every day in America, he is blaming the States for not taking measures in time!

Political leaders must understand that short term measures to boost their public rating are causing long term damage to the Earth and the livelihood of common people who live on it. The leaders must be made to bear the consequences of their actions.  World order needs to be rearranged and made favourable to the Earth. Otherwise, the existence of humanity will be at stake.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

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.

Advanced science, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious, Technical

Are we heading towards genetic disaster?

Lives on earth in various forms and shapes have come about through very complex and convoluted processes. Single cell organisms like amoeba to multi-cellular organisms like plants and animals have progressed through millions of years of slow and painstaking developments of trials and errors, alterations, modifications and so forth, which are collectively called the evolutionary process. Eventually, when an organism emerges in some viable form, it is not the end of the process, it is only the beginning. It will go on for further refinement to a better, fitter form of life. It may, nonetheless, take a wrong evolutionary step and suffer the wrath of nature and be extinct. For every surviving form of life, there are hundreds of similar lives that had either failed to develop properly and gone extinct.

Life, particularly human life, comes into existence in a tortuous way. When a male sperm cell fertilises a female egg cell, the combined single cell, called the zygote, is formed. The sperm cell and the egg cell are the reproductive organ cells – each containing 23 chromosomes – when they combine, they make up a fully developed cell containing 46 chromosomes. It may be noted that not all sperm cells fertilise egg cells. What triggers this fertilisation is still a mystery; it may just be a draw of the luck. However, this single cell zygote keeps dividing by a process called cell division, as it moves along the Fallopian tube towards the uterus. The zygote contains all the genetic instructions inherited from the father and the mother. When it reaches the uterus in three to five days, the zygote becomes what is called a blastocyst or a ball of cells. The blastocyst consists of two parts: an outer cell mass that becomes part of placenta and an inner cell mass that becomes the human body.

A cell is the basic functional unit of life. A cell is surrounded by a cell membrane and within the membrane lies a blob of transparent dilute fluid, cytoplasm and within the cytoplasm lies the cell nucleus. The nucleus of human beings contains 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs. A chromosome consists of very long DNA helix on which thousands of genes are embedded. It was anticipated that the secrets of life are all hidden within these DNA molecules. The discovery of this secret is a fascinating story.

In the early 1940s, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, wrote a very thoughtful science classics book called ‘What is Life?’. He maintained that there was no divine power or mysterious spirit that needed to animate life. He speculated that life force must come from within the body, probably embedded within the molecules of the body. Inspired by Schrodinger’s book, physicist Francis Crick teamed up with geneticist James Watson and Maurice Wilkins to study molecular biology and discovered the structure of the DNA molecule within the cell. They proposed that the DNA molecule has a double helix structure and the interlink between the base pairs of the double helix contains the codes necessary for life. For their discovery, the trio won Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962. The segments of the DNA molecule with specific instructions for particular actions are called the genes.

Thus, the cells with all the internal complexities and functions constitute the smallest unit of life. There are multitudes of cell types, but the basic structure is the same. The blastocyst formed out of zygotes contains embryonic stem cells. It is estimated that humans contain 40 trillion (40,000 billion) cells in a fully developed body.

The embryonic stem cells are extremely important as they contain all the genetic information of an individual, unmodified and unaltered. These embryonic stem cells are pluripotent stem cells, meaning they can divide into more stem cells or can change into any type of tissue cell like the blood cell, liver cell, skin cell, brain cell etc. Because of this ability and its unaltered state, embryonic stem cells are highly prized for medical research. But there are downsides too; the embryo has to be sacrificed to extract these cells and that raises serious ethical objections. 

When embryonic stem cells mature, they become tissue-specific somatic cells tasked to produce body tissues and there are more than 200 types of tissue-cells in the body. Each of these cells contains the full genetic code, no matter where it finds itself, although all instructions to divide and grow are suppressed, except for this particular tissue. For example, blood cells are only responsible for generating blood, liver cells for liver, skin cells for skin etc, although each one has the full blue print for life. There are also non-embryonic stem cells, namely adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells.

Medical research is going ahead using stem cells to cure humans from ailments like strokes, repair heart muscles following heart attack, cure neurological problems like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease etc. Stem cells can also be used to produce insulin to cure people with diabetes.

Stem cells can also be used to regenerate or repair organs such as nose, ear, lungs etc or limbs such as arms, legs etc. This aspect promises to have tremendous beneficial effects on soldiers who have lost their organs or limbs in battle fields. They can have their limbs repaired genetically or even have them newly grown in the laboratory. These are not pie in the sky aspirations. Already some organs such as hearts or lungs have been developed in the laboratories, but not in situ in primates or humans.   

With such wide-ranging medical benefits against incurable and debilitating diseases and ailments, why then Western Countries are putting restrictions on the use of stem cells and particularly embryonic stem cells in medical research? It is due to the fact that from the cure of these diseases, it is a small step to modify human genome in such a way that artificially super humans can be produced. In other words, super human Frankensteins can be produced with all the attributes one desires. Thus, uncontrolled medical research can lead to Eugenics or make it a distinct possibility.

Before and during the second world war, Hitler and his Nazi party seriously considered developing a super Euro-Aryan race where people would not only be physically strong and intellectually superior, but also free from all genetic diseases. It may, however, be noted that this idea of Eugenics was not the original Nazi invention, it was imitated from a Californian company who had been working on it for quite a few years prior to 1930s.

When the cloned humans with edited and vetted genes are produced, what would be the fate of normal human beings born traditionally with male and female fertilisation with normal genetic make-up? Eugenics proposed that all those people who were deemed by the State to be racially inferior such as Jews, gypsies etc, as well as handicapped, genetically abnormal people etc were to be exterminated to make way for the superior human race! That Eugenics died with Hitler was a great blessing for human race.

Stem cell research with the specific purpose for curing diseases like diabetes, cancer, genetic disorders, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s etc is the beneficial aspects. But this can go a little further and pave the way to dehumanize humans or even destroy humanity. It is a double-edged sword – use it carefully, otherwise risk it to destroy you.

One thing that this genetic manipulation has done or almost at the brink of doing is to make human immortality a reality. Although sheep, cattle etc. have been successfully cloned, but primates and human beings have not yet been cloned. It is primarily because the research and in-situ testing of cloning on humans are banned in almost everywhere in the world. But if that ban is removed, the technology can be developed in a short period of time. An adult stem cell is removed from a human being, its DNA is extracted and the cell is inserted in an egg cell and let it develop in the normal way and then a clone copy of the donor human being is going to come out! Of course, it is not as easy as said, but the technology is almost there to achieve it.

The implication of human cloning is enormous. A very rich man (or woman) at nearer the end of his (or her) life may decide to live on for ever. Of course, he himself cannot live for ever; as he will age, his body functions will deteriorate and his body will gradually decay. But what he can do is to donate his cells, particularly stem cells for future fertilisation. His stem cells may be deep frozen and, as per his instructions, they may be fertilised at the desired time and a human being will come out of the cloning process. That particular (rich) man is thus reborn; one can say he is reincarnated. That rich man can also in his Will transfer his wealth to the child (yet to be born) and when the cloned child is born, he is as wealthy as his predecessor. The boy will have all the body functions, body characteristics etc of the donor, but not his memory nor the characteristics derived from the memory. In other words, he will have a blank brain slate. He will have to learn everything afresh, go to schools, play games and develop his individuality, but with the exact replica of the body of the donor. Thus, this man can replicate himself over and over again and live for ever.

We are now at the threshold of genetic revivalism, for good or for bad. Gone are those days when we had to blindly believe in fictitious divine power creating life on earth (through Adam and Eve) and submit to religious edicts without any question! In reality, life evolved from the single cell amoeba to multi-cellular organism. Now science and technology have progressed sufficiently enough to create and recreate lives with any genetic make-up. But if we allow artificial genetic creation take over the natural evolutionary process, it would be a disaster of unparalleled proportions. We must resist that temptation at all costs.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

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

Entropy and the arrow of time

Greek philosophers some millennia ago and since then many philosophers over the centuries round the world had been raising the deep-rooted perennial questions: what is life, where was its beginning and where is its end, what makes life continue and many more intractable questions like these. These are perennial questions of profound significance, which had so far been answered in many divergent ways – in pure incomprehensible philosophical terms, in supernatural religious terms and so forth.

However, scientifically inclined people, who used to be branded centuries ago as natural philosophers, would pose the same questions in somewhat different terms: how did life begin, when is the beginning of life, how did it evolve, what is the nature of time and what is the flow of time etc? Again, these questions are not easy to answer, but at least scientists have structured and sequenced the questions so that answers become easier.

Natural philosophy evolved from pure philosophical inquiry and inquisitiveness. Scientific disciplines were considered effectively the extension of wider philosophical queries. That is why even today the highest academic degrees, both scientific and non-scientific, are titled as Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Physical sciences are the ones which describe physical processes of natural sciences in numerical and quantitative terms.  

Heat, temperature, enthalpy, entropy, energy etc are quantities within the subject matter of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. These subject matters along with Newtonian physics, electricity and magnetism, optics etc were bundled together as the ‘classical physics’. This naming of ‘classical physics’ does not mean that these subjects have become ‘classical’ – sort of outdated and outmoded – and there is nothing more to learn from these subjects; far from it. It only means that these traditional subjects have been set aside in order to concentrate on newer disciplines (roughly from the beginning of 20th century) like the general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, particle physics, cosmology etc. which are called the ‘modern physics.’

This traditional segregation of branches of physics into classical physics and modern physics is purely arbitrary. There is no boundary line, no demarcation either in terms of time or disciplines between classical and modern physics. Entropy, the parameter which was invented in the 19th century as a thermodynamic quantity, has profound implications in the concept of space-time continuum and the big-bang theory of modern physics!

Entropy measuring disorder and the arrow of time.

First of all, we need to understand what heat is before we can go to understanding entropy. In olden days – 17th century or earlier – people used to visualise heat as some sort of fluid called ‘caloric’. In fact, this caloric is composed of two parts – hot and cold parts. A body is hot because it has more hot fluid and less cold fluid. On the other hand, a body is cold because it has more cold fluid than hot fluid. When hot and cold bodies come in contact with each other, hot fluid moves from the hot to the cold body and thereby rendering the cold body somewhat hotter! Nonetheless, those scientists did manage to identify a very important parameter called ‘temperature’ that measures the body’s ‘hotness’ or ‘coldness’.  

In reality, heat is the thermal energy which arises due to vibration, oscillation or physical motion of atoms and molecules that make up the body. When a body at a higher temperature comes in contact with another body at lower temperature, the excess vibrational energies of the atoms and molecules are transferred to the body at lower energy. It is the temperature that dictates the direction of flow of heat.

Let us now consider what entropy is. Entropy is a thermodynamic quantity that is the ratio of amount of heat energy that flows from one body (hot) to another body (cold) at a certain (absolute) temperature. As the probability of energy flowing from higher energy to the lower energy is much higher than the other way around, it has always been found heat flows from a hotter body to a colder body and entropy is assigned to be positive in that situation. Should heat flow from a colder body to a hotter body – its probability being very low indeed -, entropy could theoretically be negative. But in nature heat never flows from colder to hotter body and entropy is never negative. The very nature of heat (arising from motions of atoms and molecules) being transferred from hot to cold bodies, entropy is a measure of disorder in the composite system. As disorder increases, so does entropy.

It may be pointed out that when heat is shared between the bodies, it does not matter the relative sizes of these bodies. For example, A hot tea spoon dipped in a bucket of water would have some amount of heat transferred from the spoon to the water, although the total energy of the bucket of water may be much higher than that of the spoon. As stated above, it is the temperature which dictates the flow of heat and thereby the increase in entropy.

This increase in entropy or the degree of disorder is intricately linked to the flow of time or in physics terminology, the arrow of time. As neither time nor entropy does flow in reverse, they are always moving in the forward direction. From our previous example, the heat from the spoon is transferred to the bucket of water as time passes and that is the arrow of time. A situation can hardly be visualised (although theoretically possible with infinitesimally low probability) when heat flows in reverse, that is, the dipped spoon would recover heat from the bucket and become hot again!

From the time of big-bang, the entropy had been going up i.e. the degree of disorder had been spreading. That is quite natural as heat flows from one hotter part of the universe to another colder part of the universe and that means entropy is always increasing.

With the advancement of biological sciences, it had been speculated that a time will come when human beings will live for a very long time and may even become immortal. Living longer with better medical care is already happening. People on the average now live almost double the age of what they used to live about a couple of centuries ago. But being immortal means humans will not age in time and that implies that the past, present and future will all merge into one – no change in age, no change in body functions or flow of nutrients from one part of the body to another! It is a continuation of the same thing over and over again. In other words, human beings will live in suspended animation – neither alive nor dead – as energy flow will stagnate to zero entropy and there is no arrow of time. If that is what is meant by immortality, then probably that can be achieved. But, in reality, human beings, or for that matter, any form of life can never be immortal in true sense of the term. A body can live for a long period of time and gradually decay, but can never last forever.

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist