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

Cultural, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Are these the dying days of the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is in existential crisis. It is not so much because of external threats, although there are definitely such threats all the time, but because of an implosion from within. It is unfortunately the perennial story of great powers or civilisations decaying or withering out due to internal conflict, political dogma, economic decline or social instability. It is no different in the case of the United Kingdom.

It is a historical fact that Great Britain used to rule the waves of the seven seas, the sun would never set in British Empire – from New Zealand at the south-east corner of the Earth through Australia, Malaysia, India, Middle-East, the large swathes of Africa and South America to Canada and beyond. The Empire was truly mind-bogglingly vast. Historians and political analysts were musing how a small country like Great Britain could colonise and control an Empire more than 100 times larger in size and more than 50 times bigger in population? But it did and probably that was how it acquired the lofty title of ‘Great Britain’.

There was a time at the early part of the 20th century when a country or even a collection of countries could hardly contemplate going against the wishes of Great Britain and if they did, they would have to prepare for all eventualities. The regional conflict that started in the Balkans in the year 1914 somehow dragged Britain into it and escalated regional war into World War I. The Allied Powers comprising Britain and its colonies, France, Russia, Italy fought tooth and nail against the Central powers of Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire. But Allied victory was only sealed when America eventually put its weight behind the Allied forces. That was the beginning of the end of the myth of British Empire’s invincibility in military might and America started taking full advantage of it.

The World War II which started only 20 years after the end of WW I by Germany due to its grievances of blatant unfair treatment in the peace treaty of WW I could be regarded as the nail in the coffin of the British Empire.  America after staying neutral for a couple of years of this war and selling arms and ammunition to both the sides at vast profits joined the war when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Although eventually the Allied Forces did win the war, the vulnerability of the British Empire was exposed again and America, taking the high moral ground, pressed Britain to dismantle the Empire – the colonies must be set free and given independence. Within two years India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, as well as New Zealand got independence and within the next decade or so, large parts of Africa also got independence. Without the colonies, Britain is no more than a hollow shell. The sources that nourished the Empire had disappeared leaving only sore memory and wild dreams of revival.

However, Britain did manage to adjust itself and survive in the post-colonial era by pragmatic politicians. The statesmen like Sir Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and so forth did realise that Britain can only survive in the modern era by joining together with European countries in the Common Market and its follow up European Union (EU).

While this development in the overall survival strategy was going on, there was an under-current of die-hard nationalism among the Conservatives that was driving them to resuscitate the second era of British Imperialism. For years these dreamers viewed Europe vas an impediment to British greatness. When in 2016, the then Tory prime minister David Cameron conceded to have a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or out of Europe, the Tory right-wing xenophobic elements came out in strength with the slogan “Take back control”. The implication was that taking back control from Brussels would help Britain restart a second era of British Imperialism!

Boris Johnson, the present Tory prime minister, most egregiously run a battle bus in the 2016 referendum campaign with the depiction, “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead, Vote Leave”. Such mendacious claims abounded in the referendum. Liam Fox, a Tory leader and an ardent Brexiteer, claimed, “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.” Michael Gove, another Tory Brexiteer, when faced with predictions of adverse economic consequences of exit from the EU produced by the economic experts of the Bank of England, IMF, OECD and so forth, thundered, “The experts were wrong before and they are wrong again now.”  Such imbeciles proliferated the Tory leadership then (and now) and persuaded the common people to vote “No” to Europe in the referendum.

Now in the forthcoming national election on 12 December 2019 the Tories, who had been peddling lies and deceits, are clearly in the lead and may win the election. Their aim, as repeated umpteen times by their leader Boris Johnson, is to “get Brexit done”. What it means nobody can fathom. If it means getting out of the EU with or without a deal, then that would be the biggest act of self-harm by any nation in the modern history.

Let us look realistically the consequence of Britain leaving the EU. First of all, this act of withdrawal will put tremendous pressure on the Good-Friday agreement of Northern Ireland. If the fragile peace treaty breaks down, and there are signs it will, the old days of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and the violence spilling over the mainland Britain will return. Death and destruction will become everyday affair! Only way that can possibly be stopped is by allowing Northern Ireland to be subsumed by the Republic of Ireland.

Scotland under the leadership of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is making no bones about their aspiration to go independent of the United Kingdom (effectively England) and join the EU. They have a valid point. As the Scottish Kingdom, they had voted to remain in the EU (56% overall) and their view was completely disregarded by the so-called ‘will of the people’ (people of England’s deprived and dysfunctional areas). Plaid Cymru of Wales is also going the same way as the SNP. The demise of this country and the civilisation it enshrined over the centuries will be utterly diminished by the misguided delusional imperialist bigots dreaming of another colonial era of the past centuries.

If Scotland, in the near future and Wales somewhat later, manage to secede, the name the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be nothing but totally hollow, only suitable for a place in the history book.

It is not for nothing that John Major, ex-Tory prime minister, had been pleading ardently with the voters to vote for a Remain party like Lib Dems or ‘Remainers’ in other parties, not Boris Johnson, the arch delusional Brexiteer and his party which happens to be the Tory party now. Similar messages had been put forward by Tony Blair, another ex-prime minister of the Labour party as well as from Michael Haseltine, ex-deputy prime minister from Tory party. These leaders from yester-years of the main political parties have national interests at their hearts, unlike the present misogynist, racist political opportunist prime minister of the Tory party. Can these past leaders along with the sensible pragmatic voters of today save the United Kingdom against the xenophobic delusional imperialist tide led by the incumbent prime minister?

(Updated on 15 December 2019: (The national election on 12 December 2019 produced overwhelming majority – 80 seat majority – for the Tory party of Boris Johnson! It only shows that Boris Johnson can now do whatever he likes with regard to his Brexit agenda and Scotland and Northern Ireland may be in direct conflict with British government. The future of Great Britain is truly bleak.)  

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Advanced science, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is

Blue energy: Can it power a sustainable future?

Statkraft osmotic power prototype is the world’s first osmotic power plant

Ever since global warming became a hot button issue, our leaders have told us umpteen times that “climate change is the greatest environmental threat and the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.” Yet, they are not “bold enough to do enough” to pull us out of the climate change conundrum soon enough.

In the meantime, impacts of climate change are being felt in communities across the world. Average global temperatures have risen every decade since the 1970s, and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997. If the trend continues unchecked, very soon we will be living on a planet with unbearable heat, unbreathable air, inundated coastal areas, widespread drought and wilder weather. Indeed, an Australian think tank warns that climate change could bring about the end of civilisation, as we know it, within three decades.

So, what should we do to tackle the disastrous effects of climate change? Since human activity is responsible for climate change, human activity can also mitigate it. To that end, we have to force our national governments to stop using the suicidal fossil fuels without any further delay. In other words, we need a carbon negative economy, or at the least, a zero-carbon economy.

We already have the potential to produce everything we need with no or very little greenhouse gas emissions. It is “green” energy solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, nuclear that provides an alternative, sustainable and cleaner source of energy. Promising new green technologies, such as tidal, wave and ocean’s thermal energy, are also on the horizon.

There is a third type of energy many of us are not familiar with—another alternative, sustainable source of energy that could be the next frontier in clean-energy technology. It is energy released during controlled mixing of a stream of saltwater and a stream of less saline water and can, therefore, be found in abundance anywhere a river meets the sea. Since energy at the river-sea nexus is produced in naturally occurring waterbodies, which are blue, it is called “blue” energy.

Blue energy exploits the phenomenon of osmosis, which is the spontaneous movement of molecules of a solvent through a semi-permeable membrane from the side of lower concentration into the side of higher concentration until the concentration becomes equal on both sides. In the process, energy is released which could be used to generate electricity. That is why it is also called “osmotic power,” or “salinity gradient power”.

The energy output would depend on the salinity and temperature difference between the river and seawater and properties of the specific membrane. The greater the salinity difference, more energy would be produced. In fact, based on average ocean salinity and global river discharges, it has been estimated that if blue energy plants were to be built at all river estuaries, they could produce about 1,370 terawatts of power each year, according to the Norway Center for Renewable Energy (a tera is a trillion.)

The concept of blue energy is not new. It was first proposed in 1954 by a British engineer named RE Pattle, although it was not possible to implement his idea for power generation until the 1970s, when a practical method of harnessing it was outlined.

The first osmotic power plant was built in 2009 in Tofte, Norway. It produced only four kilowatts of power, which was not enough to offset the cost of construction, operation and maintenance. Consequently, it was shut down in 2013.

Since then, improved technologies to tap blue energy have been developed at various laboratories, primarily in the Netherlands and Norway. Using these technologies and the difference in salt concentration in the surface water on each side of the Afsluitdijk dam, the Dutch built a power plant in 2014 generating enough electricity to meet the energy requirements of about 500,000 homes.

Blue energy is not limited to mixing of river and seawater because osmosis works with any concentration difference of dissolved substances. It may thus be possible to generate electricity from dissolved carbon dioxide, which could be captured from fossil-fuel power plants. Researchers believe that worldwide, the flue gases of fossil fuel power plants contain enough carbon dioxide to make around 850 terawatts of blue power. Hard to believe that the villain of climate change could be part of the solution after all.

In a paper published in July 2019 in ACS Omega, one of the journals of the American Chemical Society, researchers of Stanford University claim to have made a battery that runs on electricity generated by harvesting blue energy from wastewater effluent from the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant and seawater collected from Half Moon Bay. Their work clearly demonstrates that blue energy could make coastal wastewater treatment plants energy-independent and carbon neutral.

An advantage of blue energy technology is that it does not depend on external factors like wind or sun. Another advantage is that a commercial plant would be modest in size, but still produce a significant amount of energy. Moreover, compared with, for instance, wind and solar energy, implementing a blue energy power plant would have a smaller impact on landscape, and it requires less land usage. Besides, once fully developed and deployed, the technology would be able to generate energy continuously and would not emit greenhouse gases. Hence, it would ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and clean energy for all.

There are some drawbacks of blue energy though. Power plants exploiting blue energy may have an effect on the marine life, hydrological systems and water management rules of the region. The main drawback, however, is the cost. Compared to a conventional power plant using fossil fuels, the cost of construction of a blue energy power plant would be several times higher because artificial membrane is very difficult and expensive to make. Nevertheless, once built, the expectation is that blue energy would succeed in generating power at a much cheaper rate than solar and wind.

Finally, blue energy is potentially one of the best sustainable energy resources we have at our disposal. The raw material is free and inexhaustible. “Blue” could be the “green” of the future. And the blue-green combination can match the urgency of the climate change crisis.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Travel

Autumnal Colours in America

In America’s Northeast covering New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and so forth the dramatic explosion of colour during autumn season starts typically in late September. It peaks in mid-October when leaves on the trees are emblazoned in gorgeous shades of red, orange, yellow and gold. After that, a gradual decline would ensue as the locust and maple leaves fall to the ground first, followed by the golden brown oak hanging on until late November, while the beech trees might let their leaves go sometimes in the middle of winter.

This year, all the precursor conditions—chilly nights and sunny, warm days—were in place for a fabulous fall foliage season. The display of bold colours confirmed that fall has finally taken over from the dog days of summer. But the days are also growing shorter which means the frosty days and nights of winter are around the corner. So, at this time every year, we throw the thought of winter out of our mind and venture into the wilderness to look at the transformation of the leaves. It gives us the feeling of “walking into fire without the heat.”

Some of the best places to see fall foliage are right in our backyard—the Catskills, Adirondacks and Bear Mountain, all within a short driving distance from our home in the lower Hudson Valley.  In the Northeast, New England reigns supreme for fall foliage viewing. Though the entire region is renowned for its vivid display of eye-catching colours, there is perhaps no other place more picturesque than the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Hence, it is one of our favourite places to gawk at the many trees—maple, beech, birch, elm and hemlock—burst into brilliant colours.

The nearest place where we can watch the fall fiesta is the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. One of the greatest attractions in the Catskill is the Hunter Mountain, where leaves change into a multicolour canopy in mid-October. For a glimpse of the delicate brushstrokes of Mother Nature on a larger landscape below and around us, we took the scenic skyride to the 3,200-feet summit of the mountain. The colours on the nearby Kaaterskill Mountain, as seen from the Hunter Mountain, were simply awesome. The mountain also offered incredible 360-degree views that reach out to and beyond the Catskill Mountains.

Few places in New York rival the Adirondacks for viewing fall foliage. The Adirondacks offer a different sort of autumnal splendour—lakes, mountains and forests combine to create a canvas upon which nature paints her annual pièce de résistance.  During our visit to Lake Placid, Adirondack was an unbelievable kaleidoscope of colours. The roads through the mountains of Adirondacks also afforded us one of the finest views of fall season’s palette—a photomontage of colors one finds in rainbows. The banks of the Ausable River were decked out in shades of crimson, orange and yellow.

While driving along the 35-mile stretch of the scenic Kancamagus Highway that cuts through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, we were treated to sceneries of majestic alpine mountains, quaint covered bridges, crashing waterfalls and colourful foliage. The splendid transition of colours throughout the mountains created a wonderful morphing beauty that accentuated our experience of viewing fall foliage.

As they say, “Fall is our jam here in the Northeast—when the colours switch from green to vibrant oranges, reds, yellows and gold.” For us, it is the time of the year to relax and enjoy the ravishing display of nature’s seasonal gift—the gallery of flaming colours, the “year’s last, loveliest smile” before the trees retire for the long winter slumber.

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