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

Dark Matter and Dark Energy – Part II

In the 1st part on this topic the essential attributes of dark matter had been described. Dark matter was necessary in order to hold the basic fabric of galaxies together; otherwise, billions of stars at the edges of the galaxies would experience weaker gravitational pull and could even fall away from the galactic orbits. So, dark matters were invoked to be present all over the galactic system.  In this part, the role of the dark energy will be considered. Dark matter may keep the individual galactic system intact and maintain higher orbital speeds to outlying stars, but then what is giving the Universe impetus to expand?   

The ‘Standard Model’ of the cosmological system predicted that the Universe simply could not exist in a quiescent steady state – it has to be dynamic in nature, meaning it either has to expand or contract. Indeed, in 1929 Edwin Hubble made an astronomical observation and that had become incontrovertible showing that the Universe was actually expanding. That made Einstein to admit that his cosmological constant, Ʌ (lambda) introduced in the general theory of relativity with a particular value to force a steady state condition for the Universe was flawed. For the next 70 years, until 1998, cosmologists implicitly took Ʌ to be zero and the Universe was described as per Einstein’s field equations. Nobody thought of discarding the cosmological constant that Einstein had introduced, albeit mistakenly.

Then in 1998, another even more astounding evidence was produced based on observation using Hubble telescope, when it was shown that light from very distant supernovae was fading away and showing red shifts indicating supernovae were receding and receding at faster rates further they were from the Earth. In other words, there was an accelerated expansion in the Universe. The Universe’s current expansion rate is known as the Hubble constant, H0 which is estimated to be approximately 73.5 km per second per megaparsec. A megaparsec is the distance of 3.26 million light years. As the speed of light is 3×108 m/s or 9.46×1012 km/year, 1 megaparsec then equals to 3.08×1019 km. A galaxy 1 megaparsec away (3.08×1019 km) would recede from Earth at 73.5 km/s; whereas another galaxy 10 times of 1 megaparsec from the Earth would recede at 10 times of 73.5km per sec = 735 km per sec.  That was a shocking result and the cosmologists were taken completely by surprise.  

What is providing this gigantic Universe enough energy to expand and expand at an accelerated rate? Further observations had demonstrated that this accelerated expansion is in fact taking place in the vast extra-galactic spaces. This came to be known as the ‘metric expansion’. There was no evidence or verifiable evidence of expansion within the individual territories of galaxies. It may indeed be argued that if there were any expansion within a galactic system, then stars would move away from each other and even the planets revolving round the stars would recede. For example, Earth would recede from the Sun and that recessive path would look like a spiral trajectory and eventually Earth would secede completely from the Heliosphere! This would be a recipe for a total disaster for the Earth-bound lives like ours and luckily there was no such evidence of recession. 

Expansion of the Universe as per Standard Model

Albert Einstein’s cosmological constant, Ʌ in the general theory of relativity came to the rescue of this paradox of cosmological expansion. Dark energy was invoked to solve this problem. Dark energy is perceived to be the intrinsic energy of the empty space or simply the vacuum energy. It may be pointed out that space is viewed in the general theory of relativity as the product of gravitational field. As there are limitless empty spaces in the cosmological scale, dark energy can also be limitless. Although the precise mechanism of generation of dark energy is unknown, but some of the essential characteristics may be drawn. Dark energy is repulsive in character. Thus, dark energy can be viewed as something that reacts with ordinary matter (baryonic matter) making up the celestial bodies, but in opposite direction to ordinary gravity. Some scientists speculate that dark energy may even be a form of a new type of force – the fifth force – which is as yet unknown. The known four forces are: electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force and the gravitational force and the properties of these forces are well known. If indeed the fifth force does come into play, it would offer a situation where gravity and anti-gravity may come to exist in the same Universe. It may be that the attractive gravity exists within the scale of galaxies, whereas repulsive gravity exists in the vast extra-galactic space!  

Taking material accounting of galaxies into consideration, it is estimated that on the basis of mass-energy composition, the Universe is only 4.5% of ordinary matter, 26.1% of dark matter and 69.4% of dark energy. However, this distribution of mass-energy composition in observable celestial bodies and unobservable black holes do not remain fixed or invariant. At the early part of the Universe’s formation, after about 380,000 years following the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago), the distribution mass and energy was quite different. Ordinary matter was 12% and dark matter was 63% and there was no dark energy, as shown in the Table below. The situation is quite different now and this shows that the Universe is changing or one can say evolving.

Universe’s mass-energy composition

 13.8 billion years agoPresent day (2000 CE)
Dark energy69.4%
Ordinary matter12%4.5%
Dark matter63.0%26.1%

In the Universe, the amount of ordinary matter (baryonic matter) is fixed and as the Universe expands, the average density of ordinary matter in the Universe is continuously diminishing; as density is the amount of material divided by the volume. Similarly, the dark matter density of the Universe is also decreasing as Universe expands. But the dark energy density had been found to remain constant, no matter how much or how fast the Universe expands. It is due to fact that vacuum energy is constantly added (as space has intrinsic vacuum energy) to the pool of dark energy as Universe expands and hence the dark energy density remains constant.

In the metric expansion, the space or more appropriately, spacetime fabric is created extra-galactic. Space is not something which is devoid of other things. Space is the gravitational field. Like electromagnetic field, gravitational field generating space is granular in character. The quantum of space is so incredibly small that we cannot sense them, similar to solid granular atoms we cannot feel. Space granules are literally trillions of times smaller than atoms. Space granules or space quanta are not within the space, space quanta are the space. A new branch of physics, called ‘loop quantum gravity’ shows how space quanta make up the space. When Universe expands, space is produced with spacetime quanta and the intrinsic dark energies increase.

Although the evidence of accelerated expansion of the Universe was baffling, but it was not unexpected. The Universe had undergone very rapid expansion at the early phase of its existence, some 13.8 billion years ago, after that it slowed down for billions of years and then the expansion phase started about four or five billion years ago. When this expansion will stop or even reverse, nobody knows. But it is definite that the Universe as a whole is not static, it is very much dynamic, vibrant and evolving. If anybody says that the Earth, Sun and Moon and even the whole Universe were created by some unknown Creator and then he left the whole thing in a quiescent state, then there is every reason to question such unfounded claims and discard them as totally baseless.  

  • Dr A Rahman MSRP CRadP FNucI
Advanced science, Astrophysics, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Religious

Dark Matter and Dark Energy – Part I

Until about 100 years ago, the prevailing scientific perception was that our universe was eternal, invariant and in quiescent state. But science has progressed tremendously since then and the very perception of Universe had changed significantly. Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916 had revolutionised our view of spacetime of the Universe. Following the general theory of relativity, the Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann in 1922 as well as Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre in 1927 independently produced solutions to Einstein’s field equations to show that Universe is actually expanding. 

The planet Earth is one of the eight planets orbiting the Sun. The Sun has curbed out a region of space in the sky where its influence is most dominant and that is called the Heliosphere, as shown in the diagram below. This Sun provides us on this planet, Earth with all the energy we need to live and flourish. The distance between the Sun and the Earth is known as one Astronomical Unit (au) and it is estimated that the gravitational field of the Solar system fades away at about 100,000 au (~1.58 light years).

The Sun may seem overpowering to us and indeed it is, but in the wider perspective the Sun is just an average or below average star in our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is estimated that there are around 300 billion stars, yes, 300,000,000,000 stars in an average galaxy and our galaxy is no more than an average galaxy. In a galaxy there are lots of other celestial bodies such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, supernovae, pulsars (pulsating stars), black holes and many more. Our spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light years (ly) across, which means that travelling at the speed of light (300,000 km per second) it will take 100,000 years to go from one end of this galaxy to the other end. One may consider that the speed of light is such that it would go round the Earth seven and half times every second! Our nearest galaxy is Andromeda, which is roughly 2.5 million light years away from us and that galaxy is about 220,000 ly across. It is estimated that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the Universe! So, altogether there would be 30 billion trillion stars (like our Sun) in the Universe (=300 billion stars per galaxy x 100 billion galaxies). The extent of the observable Universe is estimated to be about 93 billion light years across following the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)! Now you have a feel of the enormity of the Universe! An image of the Universe is shown below.

WMAP – 2010 image of the observable Universe

In 1915-16 when Albert Einstein produced the general theory of relativity, his field equations predicted that the Universe was expanding. But the prevailing scientific perception (as well as theological dictum) was that the Universe was static and in Steady State. So, he introduced arbitrarily (against the grain of the field equations) in 1917 a quantity called the cosmological constant, Ʌ, with a particular value which would block out the expansion of the Universe. The cosmological constant is the energy density of space or vacuum energy. But in 1929 American astronomer, Edwin Hubble made astronomical observations of distant galaxies that showed red shifts, which was an evidence that the Universe was actually expanding, not static. That red shift was shown to be proportional to the distance of that galaxy from Earth (linear redshift-distance relationship). It did turn the whole of prevailing wisdom on its head and Einstein was left deeply embarrassed. He humbly admitted that the introduction of the cosmological constant was the ‘biggest blunder’ of his life. Without this constraining factor, the equations would naturally lead to predictions of an expanding Universe.

The general theory of relativity produced the spacetime continuum. There is no gravitational force of attraction in the conventional sense. The gravitational field is the space. The gravity creates a curvature in space, more like a heavy body when placed in a trampoline would create a dent, which other lighter bodies would roll down in particular trajectories and that is the analogy of gravitational attraction. Within about two months of publication of the general theory of relativity, the German physicist Karl Schwarzschild provided the proof of existence of gravitational sinkholes, now called the black holes, in the Universe. By solving the field equations, he produced a radius, now called the Schwarzschild radius, that defines the boundary of a black hole. A black hole curves the space towards itself so sharply that nothing, not even the light, can escape it once it is within the grip of the black hole and that is why this body is termed as the black hole.

As mentioned above, Universe is truly unimaginably large. The visible part of the Universe contains celestial bodies that are made up of ordinary baryonic matter such as protons and neutrons, and non-baryonic matter such as electrons, neutrinos etc. For each one of these ordinary matters, there are corresponding anti-matters. For example, there are anti-protons, anti-neutrons, anti-electrons etc. The sinister attribute of these ordinary matters and anti-matters is that when they happen to come in contact with each other, they annihilate each other in a flash and an equivalent amount of energy is created as per Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation. Since we are in this ordinary world, there may be anti-world somewhere, made up of anti-matter. But we must never meet each other. If we do, we will end up in a flash into an enormous bundle of energy – creating billions and trillions of times more energy than the Sun.  

In our visible Universe containing billions of galaxies and each galaxy containing billions of stars, it is estimated that there are also a large number of black holes hidden in each galaxy. Black holes exert tremendous amount of gravitational pull to keep billions of stars within the galaxy together. But there is a physical dilemma. If black holes are situated nearer the central core of the galaxy where most of the turbulent celestial activities are taking place, then what is keeping the outlying stars in place where the gravitational pull is much weaker? Still, it had been found that even the remotest of the stars have the same orbital motion as the ones nearer the centre. How do those stars get sufficient gravitational pull to have same orbital motions? To resolve this dilemma, astrophysicists and cosmologists came up with the solution that there must be large amounts of unseen matter dotted all over the galaxies which exert gravitational pull to the stars to have similar orbital motion! This unseen matter is called the dark matter.

There are similarities and dissimilarities between ordinary matter and dark matter. Whereas ordinary matter interacts with light, or generally speaking with electromagnetic energies, dark matter does not. Light goes straight through the dark matter. But it has gravitational pull exactly like the ordinary matter. Although unseen by modern scientific devices, dark matter can be detected by its gravitational fingerprint. Dark matter keeps the fabric of the galaxy intact.

What is this dark matter and what are their constituents, the modern physics has no clue. It cannot be made up of baryonic matters, meaning ordinary protons and neutrons. If they were, they would react to light energy, but they do not. It is speculated that it could be made up of esoteric constituents such as axions, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), Gravitationally Interacting Massive Particles (GIMPs), supersymmetric particles etc. These are pure speculations. Also, as dark matter and dark energy together comprise 95.5 per cent of Universe’ all mass-energy composition, they may be coupled or tangled quantum mechanically! 

The next article will deal with the dark energy and why dark energy is needed to have the expansion and accelerated expansion of the Universe that is taking place at the moment. In fact, without the dark energy the Universe might have collapsed under its own gravitational pull or might not even have come into existence in the first place.

Dr A Rahman MSRP CRadP FNucI

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

Einstein’s hand written letters are intensely sought after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einstein alongside his mass-energy equivalence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagore’s verse:

যেখানে দেখিবে ছাই

উড়াইয়া দেখ ভাই

পাইলে পাইতে পার

অমূল্য রতন !

Translated into English, it could read like this:

                        Whenever you find ashes

                        Sift carefully my friend,

                        Might you even find

                        Gems invaluable.

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

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

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Advanced science, Astrophysics, International, Technical

Black Holes and the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics

2020 Physics Nobel Prize winners

Three scientists have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. They are the British mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, German astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel, and American astronomer Andrea Ghez.

Penrose, a professor at Oxford University, is recognised for his research on black holes carried out in the 1960s. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Penrose has been honoured “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of [Albert Einstein’s] general theory of relativity.” Professors Genzel of Max Planck Institute and Ghez of the University of California in Los Angeles were awarded the prize “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object” in a region called Sagittarius A*, located at the centre of our galaxy, The Milky Way.

The criteria for awarding Nobel Prize in Physics are defined in specific terms. Alfred Nobel’s Will stipulates that the prize should be awarded “to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics.” The crucial words in the Will are “discovery” and “invention.” It is arguable whether developing a theory can be considered a discovery per se, but it is certainly not an invention in the sense that we normally associate an invention with. That is why the prize is seldom given to theoretical physicists, unless their theory is testable or verifiable.

When theorists won the prize by themselves, for example John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer for their theory of superconductivity, it was for a major theoretical formulation of an existing phenomenon, and thus can be considered as part of the “discovery” of that phenomenon. And theoretical physicists Peter Higgs and François Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize after the particle—Higgs Boson—predicted by their theory to complement the Standard Model of the Universe was experimentally detected.

While the awards to Genzel and Ghez are incontrovertible because they fit Nobel’s criteria quite nicely, Penrose is a rather unusual choice in that his award is not for a discovery. It is for using ingenious mathematical methods to reveal the implications of Einstein’s tour de force—the intimidatingly difficult-to-comprehend Theory of General Relativity.

However, long before Penrose’s prize-winning work on black holes, German physicist Karl Schwarzschild provided the proof of their existence just less than two months after Einstein published the general relativity equations in 1915. By solving the equations exactly, he identified a radius, known as the Schwarzschild radius that defines the horizon or boundary of a voracious gravitational sinkhole—a single point of zero volume and infinite density.

If a massive object could be compressed to fit within the Schwarzschild radius, which is three kilometres per solar mass, no known force could stop it from collapsing into the sinkhole. Today, we call this sinkhole a black hole. His work formed the basis for later studies of black holes, showing that the concentration of matter in a black hole is so great that no light could escape its staggering gravitational pulls, but rather follow a trajectory curving back towards the black hole, thereby making it unobservable.

Lest we forget, Einstein did not win the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary work on general relativity or special relativity. The Nobel Committee decided against them on grounds that the relativity theories were abstract and unproven, although observational proof of general relativity was provided in 1919 by the Cambridge astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. He famously measured the deflection of starlight passing near the Sun during a total solar eclipse. The deflection, known as gravitational lensing, resulted from warping of space, as predicted by general relativity. Instead, Einstein received the deferred 1921 prize in 1922 for his 1905 quantum interpretation of the photoelectric effect because it can be attributed to the discovery of the effect—emission of electrons from metal surfaces under certain illuminations—by the German physicist Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1887.

Despite his fame and impact on theoretical physics, Nobel Prize eluded the brilliant physicist, mathematician and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, even though there is a general consensus that he has done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge about the cosmos. As noted by Penrose, a Nobel Prize for Hawking would have been “well-deserved” yet was possibly held back by the committee’s desire to honour observable, rather than theoretical scientific studies that are difficult, or almost impossible, to verify experimentally. Penrose’s work, albeit monumental and worthy of the Nobel Prize, cannot also be experimentally verified because of the very nature of the topics. So why relax requirements for work which are mostly theorems, some hypothesised in collaboration with Hawking?

Penrose is not the first scientist to predict the existence of black holes. The idea of black holes dates back even before Schwarzschild, to 1783, when an English cleric and amateur scientist named John Michell and more than a decade later French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace used a thought experiment to explain that light would not leave the surface of a very massive star if the gravitation was sufficiently large. Michell called them “dark stars.”

In 1930, during a long voyage to London, 19-year-old Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar showed via calculations that when a massive star runs out of fuel, it would blow itself apart in a spectacularly violent explosion into a black hole. He received the Nobel Prize in 1983, not for his work on black holes, but for “studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.”

For decades, the concept of black holes was no more than a mathematical aberration. They are well-nigh impossible to detect because light, one of our cosmic messengers, cannot escape from black holes. Hence, there is a total information blackout. How do we then infer about their existence? As the physics of black holes developed through the years, physicists realised that indirect routes were available. Consequently, our current understanding of black holes is built on inference drawn from data collected by X-ray, optical and radio telescopes.

Indeed, their existence was eventually confirmed in 1971 when astronomers detected a hint of radio wave emissions coming from an object in the constellation Cygnus. The emissions were later interpreted as the fingerprint of the black hole Cygnus X-1. Since then, numerous black holes, including supermassive ones, have been detected in our galaxy and elsewhere in the Universe.

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

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

Our frontier mentality and the Future of Earth

No one witnessed the birth of Earth. The Earth does not have a birth certificate to authenticate its age. But there is no doubt about Earth’s antiquity. It is 4.55 billion years old. In the context of the Universe which burst into existence 13.7 billion years ago, Earth is in its early middle age. It will live for another five billion years, when the Sun will become a Red Giant, swallowing the nearby planets and ending its luminous career by dwindling into a white dwarf.

Although Earth is very small—a mote of dust—in the vast cosmic arena, it is the only planet that is filled with exquisite beauty, a cornucopia of boisterous wildlife slithering, scampering, soaring and swimming all over the planet. It showcases timeless marvels—a panoply of wonders—sculpted by Nature over millions of years. It is home to towering mountains, alpine glaciers, lush green rainforests, subtropical wilderness and millennia-old humongous trees, gushing geysers, beautiful coral reefs, lofty waterfalls and pristine lakes. The Earth is also home to incredible sandstone arches, deep canyons, varicoloured petrified wood and multi-hued badlands, massive caves filled with imposing stalagmites and stalactites, sparsely vegetated and colourfully painted deserts, gigantic sand dunes, and hundreds of species of flora and fauna.

Evidence of life—bacteria and single-celled organisms—date to 3.85 billion years ago. Since then, life suffered wave after wave of cataclysmic extinctions. The dinosaurs are perhaps the most famous extinct creatures who roamed the Earth’s surface unchallenged during the Mesozoic Era. After surviving for nearly 165 million years, they became victims of the greatest mass deaths in the history of our planet 65 million years ago when a large asteroid hit the Earth.

About 25 million years ago, most of the present day species emerged. Now, fast forward to about two million years ago and we see the evolution of our ancestors—upright, biped, primate mammals. Evidence shows that modern humans originated in Africa within the past 200,000 years, yet there was no move toward high level civilisation. It was the Sumerians of Mesopotamia who developed the world’s first civilisation roughly 6,000 years ago.

We have had the planet to ourselves for a small fraction of time. During this short time interval, we outfoxed other species in the game of survival. Maybe they ran out of luck in evolution’s lottery, or perhaps sometime in the distant past, we became completely dissociated from the checks and balances between man and nature and became a super-predator.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution circa 1760, we made a toxic mess of our natural environment, resulting in an ever-hotter climate, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, widespread droughts, frequent and much wilder storms, crop failures and tens of millions of climate refugees. Our unrestrained use of fossil fuels for more than a century had been slowly pushing the planet toward climatological catastrophe.

Today, we are fixated on enjoying the present and refusing to account for the consequences of our actions on tomorrow. Social scientists interpret this type of behaviour as frontier ethic, prevalent in Western culture as well as others. This ethic embraces a rather narrow view of humans in the environment and even a narrower view of nature. It is characterised by three tenets.

The first is that the Earth has an infinite supply of resources for exclusive human use. There is always more and it is all for us; humans are apart from nature and immune to natural laws; and human success derives from the control of nature.

This tenet no doubt evolved in the prehistoric time when human numbers were small and the Earth’s resources did indeed appear inexhaustible. Not anymore. The massive increase in economic activity and the upsurge in population growth in the last 200 years have brought us face-to-face with the planet’s limitations.

The second tenet sought to position humankind outside the realm of nature. Many people still continue to view human beings as separate from nature and persist in thinking we can do whatever we please without harming the planet. To the contrary, our independence is an illusion, engendered by our remoteness from a world we see through rose-coloured glasses and thermo-paned windows.

As for the third tenet, industrialised nations view nature as a force that must be conquered and subjugated. Hence, we manipulated wildlife, fisheries, land, rivers, oceans and forests like so many pieces in a board game, until the environment reached a dangerous point of disequilibrium.

Over the years, the frontier ethic permeated our lives so much that we became more remote from the natural world outside our artificial environments. It influences our personal goals and expectations without thinking about the effects on the long-term health of the planet.

It cannot be overemphasised that the fate of the planet, our home, and the millions of species that share it with us, as well as the fate of all future generations, lies in our hands. Do we realise that because of resource and ozone depletion, global warming and other problems, the human species will be wiped off the face of the planet if we do not change our lifestyles? At the least, things will deteriorate to the extent that we could lose centuries of technological and economic progress in the next few decades. Our wonderfully diverse biological world, the product of billions of years of evolution, could be eradicated in a fraction of the Earth’s history.

So, what should we do to keep the planet habitable for our future generations? Scientists have urged world leaders in vain to combat global-warming emissions, which have only continued to soar upward. Should we instead rely on a pandemic, such as the coronavirus that is shutting down countries across the globe, slowing down economic activities, halting industrial productions and travel, thereby causing a significant decline in air pollution and carbon/nitrogen emissions all over the world?

The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy—a palpable human nightmare unfolding in overloaded hospitals with alarming speed, racing toward a horizon darkened by economic disaster and chock-full of signs showing more sufferings to come. This global crisis is also an eye-opener for the other global crisis, the slower one with even higher stakes—anthropogenic climate change.

The cure due to coronavirus is temporary and totally unacceptable, whereas the threat from the adverse effects of climate change will remain with us for years, unless we shape up pronto. Nevertheless, coronavirus should make us wonder if lessons learned from the pandemic might be the beginning of a meaningful shift from business-as-usual attitude.

On this International Mother Earth Day, let us pause for a moment and imagine what the Earth would look like when it will be bereft of mirth, when there will be no wilderness and wildlife, when lakes will be filled with sudsy waters, when coastlines will become unrecognisable and when the air will become a witch’s brew. Can our planet still be called Earth? The answer is no, because we do not have the insight to predict the consequences of our frontier mentality and exercise restraint where we must.

I end the piece with the following words of wisdom from the Native American Chief Seattle. “The Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

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