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

Isn’t Great Britain in existential threat?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

It may sound utterly surreal – a country with long and admirable tradition of tolerance, inclusiveness, multiculturism and parliamentary democracy is now in utter disarray due to onset of intolerance, bigotry, populism and ugly nationalism that may well lead to disintegration of British unionism. Decency, honesty, fairness and truthfulness are all attributes of the distant past. Ideological arrogance, spinning of facts to meet one’s selfish ends are more in keeping with the reality of Britain today, particularly with Tory political elites, than with the traditional virtues. In the pursuit of selfish benefits, the interests of the country and people had been blatantly abrogated. These are the sad realities of Britain today.

One may say, leaving the EU on its own volition is the beginning of Britain’s decimation. Nothing could be furthest from the truth. Leaving the EU (with or without a deal) may be the symptom but not the cause. The real cause is more deeply rooted and strongly anchored in the psyche of the British people – more accurately, the English people.

One must look at the inner causes that led Britain to opt to leave in the first place. What was so abhorrent in the EU that Britain, after over 40 years of association, had to leave the EU? Was that a genuine reason or a manufactured reason by some opportunistic political leaders? Was there an aspiration, an unfulfilled ambition of ‘English Elites’ that could not be met by being in the EU? Was it the ideology that the second era of British Empire, another ‘Golden Age’ of British Imperialism, thwarted by the EU can be fulfilled by leaving? All these unfulfilled ambitions, dormant aspirations were confluenced to arouse British people to go for it.

The present predicament could be seen to have started more than 100 years ago – from the beginning of World War I – when Britain was at the height of Imperial Power. Britain was ruling the waves of seven seas, Sun never set in the British Empire . A tiny island at the western fringe of Europe was ruling nearly half of the world. That mighty Empire was lost since World War II and, surely, it can be regained! This aspiration of a certain section of the British people, aided and abetted by delusional ‘Imperialist Elites’, became so vivid that it found expressions in the EU referendum in the form of ‘take back control’, ‘establish sovereignty of the parliament’, ‘day of independence’, ‘future is bright’ etc. The uninitiated general public fell for these deceitful pronouncements of the opportunist politicians.

The WWI did damage Britain significantly, not only militarily and economically but also reputationally. The mighty Empire was found by the colonies not to be invincible. Then came the World War II, only about 20 years later, when Britain hardly had had enough time to recover. The end of WWII in 1945, even with a victory, was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Within short two years, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – India became independent – followed in quick succession in other parts of Asia and Africa.

The USA did come to the rescue of Britain but extracted a high price for it. On high moral grounds, the USA demanded Britain should forgo its colonies and offer freedom to all nations. A new world order was established – USA would lead the western powers and Britain would follow it subserviently. This is what was dubbed in British diplomatic circles a ‘special relationship’.

The waves in the seven seas are still there, but there is no single power to rule them anymore. However, USA is gradually taking over the role vacated by British Empire and it is now called America, comprising the central mainland of 50 States and hundreds of overseas territories, protectorate and sovereign lands with their military bases. America’s overseas territories are almost as big as the original USA mainland, both in terms of territorial size and population!

When given the opportunity in the EU referendum, the deprived underclass of Britain blamed the EU for the demise of British power and opted to leave the EU in the vain hope of regaining the bygone glory of ‘British Empire’. Of course, they had been incessantly fed by the opportunistic, populist politicians the messages that getting out of the EU would usher in the opportunity of regaining world power without the shackles of the EU, Britain would ‘take back control’, Britain would be ruled by ‘elected representatives’, Britain be ‘sovereign again’, Britain would make better trade deals with countries etc. Those deceitful politicians claimed (egregiously) that £19 billion that is paid to the EU as annual fees would be given to the NHS – £350 million per week extra! None of these claims is true. But the unpretentious general public did fall for such mendacious claims and voted to leave.

But the question is, why did this bunch of politicians mislead the public with downright falsehood to leave the EU? Apart from personal financial gains – most of these politicians are wealthy tax dodgers and supporters of overseas dwellers of tax havens – they had the agenda of getting back the second era of British Empire! The EU was, in their minds, the only impediment. Once free from that shackle, they would be able to go around the world, make trade deals with various countries and everything would be just hunkydory.

Those delusional Tory politicians started going around the Commonwealth countries to make trade deals which would be needed post-Brexit. Liam Fox, ex-International Trade Secretary, went to India to draw deals under the guise of Commonwealth fraternity. But he had been told bluntly by India that any future deal would be made on purely commercial basis, no amount of Commonwealth or past Imperial flag waving would cut any ice. However, special relaxation of travel restrictions, residence requirements etc for Indians might persuade India to come to a trade agreement! In other words, India would extract special price for any future trade deal. Of course, the same practice would be applied by other Commonwealth countries. The delusional Tory Brexiteers thought making new deals would be a breeze with their imperialist past! Liam Fox said before the EU referendum that making new trade deals would be ‘the easiest thing in the world’!

Leaving the EU, the largest trading block (44% of all exports from the UK goes to the EU), without a deal would leave Britain so severely damaged that other countries would definitely try to extract heavy price for any export-import relationship. No country would even come to make a fair-trade relationship with a lame duck country. After all, Britain under the British Imperialism, did the same thing! Now the hunter has become hunted and that is by choice!

Another sinister issue is the likely disintegration of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Why would Scotland be dragged out of EU against the will of their people by England, when 62% of Scots voted to Remain? Where is the democratic accountability and fairness to the constituent countries of the United Kingdom? In the EU, every Member States (MS), no matter how large or small, has equal say. A small country like Malta (population 500,000) or Luxembourg (population 600,000) or Cyprus (population 1.2 million) has equal say as big countries like France (population over 67 million) or Germany (population 83 million) on all matters of interest. And here is Scotland with a population of over 5.4 million has no say at all in the union with the United Kingdom. This is creating a great deal of strain in Scotland and the demand for its independence from the United Kingdom is growing ever louder. The same narrative goes for Northern Ireland which voted 56% to Remain in the EU.

Gordon Brown, the ex-prime minister of Great Britain, said in an article in the Observer on 11 August 2019 that Britain is sleepwalking into oblivion fuelled by destructive, populist, nationalistic ideology deployed by Boris Johnson. This is not an alarmist view; it is an honest view of a senior politician. When the idea of inherent unfairness will go into the minds of people of those countries within the United Kingdom, it would be extremely difficult to put a stop to it. The strident calls by delusional Boris Johnson to ‘do or die’ and ‘come what may’ will come to haunt him as the disintegration of the United Kingdom rolls on. History will come to look in utter amazement how a country which ruled over half of the world came to smithereens in just about seventy to eighty years!

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, Environmental, International, Life as it is

America’s ‘Last Frontier’ becoming the ‘Lost Frontier’

Missing glaciers at Denali, Alaska

Nick-named the “Last Frontier”, Alaska is the largest state (in area) of the United States. It is also one of the richest states; thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, gold and fish. The state is home to a vast expanse of pristine wilderness, towering mountains, breathtaking glaciers and big game animals.

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envisage as a vacation spot, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Finally, our 10-day jaunt started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords near Seward.

We also took a 90-minute flight-seeing tour of Mount Denali followed by landing and strolling on a glacier at 1,750 metres. At 6,200 metres, Denali is the highest peak in North America. A panoramic cruise through the Orca Inlet at Cordova allowed us to see the highest concentration of sea otters in the world. We saw the midnight sun at Anchorage and basked in 24 hours of sunshine at Healy, a backwood small town close to the Arctic Circle.

Besides appreciating the awesome natural beauty of Alaska, what struck me most during the trip is how global warming has pushed this Arctic region into an entirely new climate regime, one that is outside the experience of the aboriginals and native wildlife.

Climate change is occurring faster in high-latitude regions–twice as fast as the rest of the world–due to the phenomenon of “Arctic Amplification,” which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than the rest of the world. Being located on both sides of the Arctic Circle, effects of climate change in Alaska are no longer yearly anomalies; rather, they are daily occurrences.

Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased approximately by 1.7 degrees Celsius. Warming in the winter has increased by more than three degrees. Temperature in Anchorage three days after our arrival was 32 degrees.

As Alaska continues to warm, average annual temperatures are estimated to increase by an additional 1-2 degrees by the middle of this century, while precipitation is projected to increase during all seasons by the end of this century. Despite increased precipitation, Alaska is likely to become drier due to greater evaporation caused by warming temperatures and longer growing seasons.

With rising temperatures, the threat of massive wildfires continues to grow over time across Alaska all the way to the Arctic. During our stay, about 350 wildfires were raging in south and south central Alaska. Smoke from the fires made driving hazardous, particularly through the scenic backroads.

Warmer temperatures have left vegetation more susceptible to parasites and spruce bark beetles. They have killed more than four million acres of trees in Alaska. Indeed, we saw thousands of dead trees in the Denali Wilderness.

Alaska is full of eye-catching glaciers adorning majestic mountains, but most of them are melting at an accelerated rate. The US Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing 75 billion tonnes of glacier a year. Melting glaciers have implications for hydropower production, ocean circulation patterns and global sea-level rise. In addition, glacial meltwater from tidewater glaciers, which are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea, has chemical properties that can exacerbate ocean acidification that is already threatening the fishery industry.

As we cruised on the Prince William Sound, arguably the best place in Alaska to see spectacular tidewater glaciers, we saw fewer glaciers due to warmer temperatures. The largest glacier accessible by car, Matanuska Glacier near Anchorage, is shrinking dramatically at its toe. Furthermore, during the flight-seeing tour of Denali, we saw many mountains with barren slopes and valleys. According to our pilot, they were once packed with glaciers.

Nearly 80 percent of Alaska’s surface lies above permafrost—frozen ground that is typically located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions and remains frozen year-round. However, as air temperatures are rising, permafrost is thawing in many areas, causing the soil above to sink, resulting in ground subsidence that is damaging highways, railroads, airstrips, homes and other structures. Moreover, shrubs and spruce that previously could not take root on the permafrost now dot the Alaskan landscape, potentially altering the habitat of the native animals.

Because of melting permafrost and subsequent caving of the road, we could not drive from Healy to Valdez via the scenic Denali Highway. Instead, we had to take a 320km detour.

Arctic permafrost acts like a gigantic cap over mineral resources and fossil fuels containing greenhouse gases. But melting permafrost is releasing these gases, particularly methane trapped in ice. Clearly, the loss of permafrost and glaciers is opening new pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming.

Erosion of Alaska’s coastline is increasing due to the decline in sea ice that protects the coast from storms and tidal surges. The coastal areas are now more vulnerable to devastating storms and heavier rainfall.

The ripple effect of ice loss does not stop here. In the sparsely populated areas, where roads are few and far between, frozen rivers are indispensable for transporting goods, visiting family and taking children to school. With the loss of ice, their communication routes are cut off. Additionally, many people in northern Alaska depend on hunting on the ice. They no longer have access to traditional hunting areas, or access is much more dangerous because the ice is less stable.

Although climate change is having deleterious effects on people all over Alaska, those most affected are the Alaska Natives. Since they live so closely with the land and nature, small shifts in the ecosystems can perturb their way of life. Also, they get food mostly through fishing and hunting, including animals like polar bears, walruses and seals. Changing climate has resulted in the habitat destruction of these animals.

In summary, climate change in Alaska is not a distant or abstract concern, as some would like us to believe. It is real—simply because there is water where there was once ice. Hence, with a gloomy, disaster-prone future, it seems America’s “Last Frontier” will eventually become the “Lost Frontier.”

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

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

Frailty in our ubiquitous Democracy

In the 1950s and 1960s, communism or socialism or their various shades of colour swept across the whole world, particularly across the developing countries (used to be called under-developed countries). Those political dogmas, however, did not or could not take firm grip on most of those countries. They came about on utopian sentimentality of certain sections of the public and faded away under the harsh reality, leaving behind a spattering of dogmatic title-tattle and lots of bitter memories.

The aspiration to move from proletariat dictatorship to democratic expropriation was strong among the left-outs of the great socialist revolutions. Democracy became the buzz-word, a tool which would offer the same fruit without the associated thorn. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt called his dictatorial regime ‘presidential democracy’, General Ayub Khan of Pakistan formulated ‘basic democracy’ for legitimacy, Sukarno of Indonesia devised ‘guided democracy’, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay legitimised his 35-year long rule with ‘selective democracy’ and many countries adopted democratic veneer such as autocratic North Korea called itself ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ and so forth. The appellation ‘democracy’ became a touchstone for legitimacy, regardless of whether there is any semblance of democratic tit-bits or not in the country.

Nearly 50 years on, right wing fanatics and extremists seized on this opportunity to grab power through the democratic veneer. Once in power, by hook or by crook, clutching the touchstone of ‘democracy’, the ‘non-democratic’ power becomes almost invincible; no popular movement or ideology could dare touch it. Such is the magic of democracy.

The xenophobic racist views such as – “America first”, “Brazil first”, “Philippines first” etc – are sweeping across the world.  Whereas in the communism-socialism rounds there were at least some semblance of social care, workers’ rights etc; but now in the right-wing extremism all those things have become peripheral and have been contemptuously dispensed with. The veneer of ‘democracy’ is only required to get to the power and the rest becomes superfluous.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’, which is an amalgam of demos (mob, the many) and kratos (the rule). Thus, the original word signifies the ‘rule of the many’. The Greek philosophers Socrates and then Plato along with his disciples had high hopes in democracy. Aristotle over the centuries looked at various forms of governance and gradually the consensus view emerged that democratic participation of the citizens as equal would ensure free and fair form of governance; where rights, liberty and freedom of the people would be preserved.

But there were many shortcomings and apprehensions in that form of ‘democracy’, which Plato did pointedly bring out. He asserted that democratic system might lead to the establishment of the view of the majority, but that might not encompass the view of the whole or a large fraction of the society. He particularly disliked the connotation of ‘rule’ over the whole society. Wouldn’t that ‘rule’ by the majority mean the tyranny of the majority? And what form or type of ‘rule’ that would be applicable over the whole society?    

A true ‘democracy’ is something that may offer good governance, political justice, liberty, equality and human rights. Of course, not all of them can be fulfilled all at the same time. But the majority of these attributes can be met with the majority of the society. And the concept of ‘rule’ can be kept in abeyance, as it inherently means dictation over the society.

The more important point is the ‘issue’ (the choice of government; a matter of national interest in a referendum etc) on which consensus of the society is sought. Has the ‘issue’ been brought to the attention of the public with its pros and cons truthfully? In other words, are public knowledgeable or suitable to pass their opinion on the ‘issue’?

The outcome would be blatantly distorted if people are ignorant or misinformed or misled with different or conflicting interpretations of the same issue. There are plenty of opportunistic populist politicians in this country and around the world who are ready to manipulate the situation to gain the support of the majority and gain power. This practice does constitute a blatant abuse of ‘democracy’. It is very easy to mislead the public with convenient lies. Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling is eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association.

For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what ‘EU’ means. Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on prejudice and ignorance. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally corrupted the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became skewed.

David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.”

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

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Advanced science, Astrophysics, Cultural, International, Technical

Mysterious dark matter and dark energy

Physics is traditionally viewed as a hard subject requiring a great deal of mathematical prowess, devotion and perseverance to muster the subject matter. To a large extent, it is definitely true. But it does also offer, in its turn, a great deal of satisfaction, excitement and sense of achievement.

The 21st century physics, spanning from quantum computing to super-thin layer material called graphene to ultra-efficient LED bulbs to efficient harnessing of renewable energies to black holes to dark matter and dark energy, the range of topics is endless and it will disappoint no one with its vast challenges and ensuing excitement.

In our day-to-day lives, we encounter matter comprising protons and neutrons bundled together at the centre, called nucleus, of an atom and electrons whizzing around the nucleus. Some decades ago, these protons, neutrons and electrons were thought to be the fundamental particles of all matter; but not anymore. Now, quarks (six types) are thought to be the fundamental matter particles, which are glued together by force particles to form protons and neutrons.

These atoms and molecules making up matter here on earth are what we are accustomed to. The laws of physics, or for that matter of natural sciences, were developed to explain the natural processes as we encounter in our lives.

The basic physical principles are like these: a body has a definite size comprising length, breadth and height; it has a mass and weight; it is visible when there is sufficient light. If we push a body, we impart momentum, which is the product of mass and velocity. As it has the mass, it has gravity, meaning it attracts every other body and every other body attracts this body. These are the basic properties of a body as described in classical physics.

But there is no reason to be dogmatic about these basic principles. These principles can change here on earth or in our galaxy or somewhere outside our galaxy. When they do change, we would feel that things have gone topsy-turvy.

We live on a very tiny planet, called Earth, which revolves round the star, called Sun. There are eight other planets, thousands of satellites, comets and asteroids, all held together by the gravity of the Sun. The Sun, though extremely bright and overwhelmingly powerful to us, is a small star in our galaxy, called the Milky Way. It is estimated that there are over a billion, yes, 1,000,000,000 stars, many of them are much bigger than the Sun, in our galaxy. Now our galaxy is by no means the biggest or dominant galaxy in the universe. Cosmologists estimate that there are around one billion galaxies in our universe! Some of these galaxies are hundreds or even thousands of times bigger or massive than our galaxy. There are massive black holes at the centres of most of the galaxies, exerting gravitational pull to keep the galaxy together. Some of these black holes are millions of times bigger than the Sun. Now we can have a feel of how big our universe is!

Physics, or more appropriately astrophysics, studies the processes of these vast expanse of celestial bodies. The Sun as well as our galaxy, the Milky Way having over a billion stars are not static. The stars are spinning, the galaxy is spiralling, and everything is in motion.

Strange glow from the centre of the Milky Way

It was estimated, purely on physical principles, that the stars at the edges of a galaxy should move slower than the central ones, as the force of gravity of the galaxy is weaker away from the centre. But astronomical observations show that stars orbit at more or less at the same speed regardless of their distance from the centre. That was a great surprise, indeed shock, to the astrophysicists. The way this puzzle was eventually tackled was by assuming that there are massive unseen matters that exert tremendous amount of gravitational pull to keep the outlying stars moving at nearly the same speed and that mysterious matter is called the dark matter.

There are other tell-tale signs that there is something amiss in the material accounting of the universe. A strange bright glow spread over the length of the Milky Way was thought to be due to ordinary pulsars (pulsating stars) along the length. But now it is thought that dark matter may be responsible for this glow! But how does it do that, physics does not know yet.

But is this dark matter a fudge to solve the apparent conflict of physical behaviour with observations? Not really, this is how science progresses. Well thought out ideas are advanced and those ideas are tested and cross-examined against observations and the idea or concept that passes the tests is taken as the valid scientific concept.

But how do we know dark matter is there, if we cannot see them. We cannot see them because dark matter does not interact with light or electromagnetic radiation such as visible light, infra-red, ultra violet, radio waves, gamma rays and so on. Light goes straight through the dark matter, as if it is not there.

It should, however, be pointed out that dark matter is not the same thing as black hole. A black hole is made up of everyday particles (matter particles and force particles) – electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, photons etc. Its gravity has just become so strong (because of its mass and super-compacted size) that it pulls and crushes everything to its core and nothing can escape from its clutches, not even light! A beam of light coming close to a black hole is pulled right insight and that is the end of that light beam never to be seen again!

Dark energy expansion

Dark matter, although invisible, does exert gravitation pull and this gravitational pull that makes dark matter attractive to scientists. The Universe, although expanding, is not in danger of runaway expansion. There is something that is holding the whole thing together and that something may be the dark matter.

Immediately following the Big Bang, the then Universe expanded very rapidly, known as inflationary phase, for tens of millions of years followed by expansion for some billion years and then it stabilised for a few billion years and now it is again in the expansion phase. The present expansion is that the space itself is expanding and so every star and every galaxy is moving away from every other star or galaxy. What is giving these celestial bodies energy (repulsive in this case) to move away from each other? Scientists came up with the proposition that there must be some unknown, unseen energy, which is now called the dark energy.

On purely material and energy balance of the Universe, it is thought that our visible (and known) Universe accounts for only 4.9 percent of the total Universe, dark matter accounts for 26.8 percent and dark energy for 68.3 percent. So, we only know in the vast mind-boggling universe extending over 13.8 billion light years a meagre 5 percent and the remaining 95 percent is hidden or unknown to us!

Scientists all over the world are trying hard to find evidence of dark matter and dark energy. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is trying to find any remotest evidence of dark matter and energy. On theoretical basis, some scientists are proposing that dark energy may emanate from a fifth form of force, which is yet unknown. The four forces that we know are electromagnetic, weak nuclear, strong nuclear and gravitational forces. The fifth force may be a variant of gravitational force – a repulsive gravitational force – that comes into play in the vast intergalactic space.

When Einstein produced the general theory of relativity in 1915, he introduced, almost arbitrarily, a parameter, called the cosmological constant, into the theory to counter the effects of gravitational pull and make the Universe a static one. That cosmological constant effectively introduced the repulsive effects. It may be pointed out that the Universe was thought to be static at that time. But only a few years later when it was incontrovertibly shown that the Universe was, in fact, expanding, Einstein humbly admitted that it was his “biggest mistake”. Now, more than hundred years later, it is assumed that the cosmological constant may be considered to be the quantity to cater for the dark energy! Could Einstein’s “biggest mistake” be a blessing in disguise, it offers not only a correct presumption but also a saviour of modern cosmology?

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

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

Isn’t black hole a black mystery?

A black hole – hitherto an invisible celestial body – was in cosmological vocabulary even before Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1915. But when the relativity theory predicted with full scientific rigour that a massive stellar body can have such a strong gravitational pull that nothing, no object, not even electromagnetic radiation such as light, can escape from it, the concept of a black hole became firmly established in scientific parlance. But it remained at that time only a mathematical curiosity, as no scientific evidence or mechanism of formation of a black hole was put forward. However, it became a realistic possibility after the detection of pulsars some decades later.   

The detection of pulsars (rotating neutron stars) by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a research student at the University of Cambridge in 1967, gave renewed spurt to the concept of gravitational collapse and the formation of black holes. A normal star, when it comes to the end of its life due to lack of fusion fuel, collapses under its own gravity and becomes a neutron star. It may be mentioned that an atom consists of neutrons (neutral in charge) and positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. If gravity becomes too strong, protons and electrons are pulled together to merge with each other, neutralise their charges and become neutrons and the whole star becomes a neutron star. (For the detection of neutron star, which was considered as “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century” by the Nobel Committee, her supervisor and another astronomer were awarded Nobel prize in Physics in 1974, but Jocelyn Bell was not even mentioned in the citation. However, years later, in 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to the Institute of Physics in the UK to help female, minority, and refugee students become physics researchers.

Not all stars eventually become neutron stars. If the mass of a star is less than 2.6 times the mass of the Sun, the gravity would not be strong enough to turn it into a neutron star. The gravitational pull in a neutron star ultimately becomes so strong that all its mass and its nearby matters are pulled to a small volume and the star becomes a black hole. A black hole can merge with another black hole to become a bigger and stronger black hole.

It is speculated that there are black holes of various sizes in most of the galaxies and in some galaxies, there are supermassive black holes at their centres. The nearest black hole from Earth is quite a few thousand light-years away; but they exert no influence on this planet. The supermassive black hole in our galaxy (the Milky Way) is about 26,000 light-years away.

Despite the name, a black hole is not all black. The gas and dust trapped around the edges of the black hole are compacted so densely and heated up so enormously that there are literally gigantic cauldrons of fire around the periphery of a black hole. The temperatures can be around billions of degrees!

The first direct visual evidence of a black hole had been produced on 10 April 2019 by a team of over 200 international experts working in a number of countries. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) was used to detect the existence of a colossal black hole in M87 galaxy, in the Virgo galaxy cluster. The computer simulation from data collected in the EHT is shown below. This black hole is located some 55 million light-years from the Earth and its estimated mass is 6.5 billion times that of the Sun! So, this black hole is truly a monster of a black hole.

Computer simulation of black hole from real data

Although it is a monstrous black hole, its size is quite small and it is enormously far away (520 million million million kilometres away) from Earth. To observe directly that elusive black body that far away, astronomers require a telescope with an angular resolution so sharp that it would be like spotting an apple on the surface of Moon from Earth and the aerial dish that would be required for such a detection would be around the size of Earth! Obviously, that is not possible.

Instead, the international team of experts devised a Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) technique, which involves picking up radio signals (wavelength 1.3 mm) by a network of radio telescopes scattered around the globe. The locations of these eight radio-telescopes are shown below. When radio signals from these radio-telescopes are joined up, taking into account their geographical locations, lapsed times for signal detection etc, and processed in a supercomputer, an image can gradually be built up of the bright part of the periphery of the black hole.

Locations of Event Horizon Telescopes (EHT)

The key feature of a black hole is its event horizon – the boundary at which even light cannot escape its gravitational pull. The size of the event horizon depends on the mass of the black hole. Once an object crosses the boundary of the event horizon, there is absolutely no chance of coming back. A lead astronomer from MIT working on this EHT team said, “Black hole is a one-way door out of this universe.”

The general theory of relativity also predicted that a black hole will have a “shadow” around it, which may be around three times larger than the event horizon size. This shadow is caused by gravitational bending of light by the black hole. If something gets nearer the shadow, it can possibly escape the gravitational pull of the black hole, if its speed is sufficiently high (comparable to the speed of light).

It is postulated that the “shadow” comprises a number of rings around the event horizon. The nearer a ring is to the event horizon, the more rigorous and compact it is with extreme pressure-temperature conditions. 

If, hypothetically, an unfortunate human being falls even into the outer ring of a “shadow”, he will be pulled towards the black hole initially slowly and then progressively strongly – his leg will be pulled more vigorously than his upper part and consequently, his body will be deformed into a long thin strip like a spaghetti. And when that spaghetti shape crosses the event horizon, it will be stretched so much that it will become a very thin and very long string of atoms!

Is wormhole the link between a black hole and a white hole?

The general perception of a black hole is that it is a monster vacuum cleaner where everything, even light, is sucked into it through a funnel and nothing, absolutely nothing, can come out. It absorbs enormous amount of matter and squashes them into tiny volumes. What happens to this gigantic amount of matter is a mystery, a black mystery.

There are two parallel streams of pure speculative thoughts. One is that when a black hole becomes too big – either by incessantly swallowing up matters from its surroundings or by merger with other black holes – a super-giant explosion, more like a big bang, may take place. So, a black hole may be the mother of a new big bang, a new generation of universe.

The other thought is that the funnel of a black hole is connected through a neck, called the wormhole, to a different spacetime and hence a different universe at the other end. All the materials that a black hole sucks up at the front end in this universe go through the wormhole to another reverse funnel where all the materials are spewed out into a different spacetime. That funnel is called the white hole. Thus, a black hole and a white hole is a conjugate pair – a connection between two universes!  But the question is, since there are billions of black holes in our universe, then there could be billions of corresponding wormholes and white holes and universes.

One universe is big enough or bad enough for human minds to contemplate, billions of universes will make humans go crazy.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist