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

Everything from Nothing

Can everything we see on earth and the planets, the stars, galaxies, supernovae and so forth come from nothing, from absolute vacuum, from empty space and can even empty space prop up from nowhere? This sort of query, some might say, is an absurd baseless query; while others might say it is a profound scientific inquiry, beyond the pigeon-holed mode of thinking.   

Philosophers and theologians of all persuasions tried to convince us that everything we see in the universe is the divine creation. But we must set off with certain fundamental assumptions – we have to accept the existence of an all-powerful, omnipresent, omniscient entity called God or Yahweh or Allah and we cannot question his origin, his present whereabouts or his mode of creation etc. Based on these premises, the revelations, directives etc as stated in the ‘Book’ should be followed as ordered by the creator!   

But science is unwilling to accept this premise without any evidence or verification. That is why there is a conflict between science and religion. As Richard Dawkins, Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford and Evolutionary Biologist said, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with but not understanding the world”.

Science had moved away from accepting the divine proclamation that human beings are at the centre of creation of the creator, Earth is at the centre of the universe and the Sun goes around the Earth! Scientific discoveries have proved many of these proclamations, if not all, are blatantly wrong.

Science explored material objects on Earth – day-to-day objects to their physical and chemical composition, physical objects to molecules to atoms and sub-atomic particles. On the smallest scale, quantum mechanics explored the origin of matter and anti-matter and on the mind-boggling expansive scale of the universe the general theory of relativity explored the stars, galaxies, black holes, warm holes, universe and even multi verse.

The theologians would burst out in fury if someone, be it scientist or a science writer, tries to give the scientific explanation of something or everything coming from nothing. They would throw out their anger, what is then the omnipresent omniscience divine power called God or Yahweh or Allah doing? Is He not the undisputed Creator of everything in this universe? For centuries the religions had been proclaiming and propagating this message relentlessly. Now any attempt to explain it otherwise, on the basis of scientific ideas and theories, would be branded as heretics and atheism.

Nonetheless science has progressed enough to give a rational explanation to the creation of everything from nothing. But, first, we must understand the scientific meaning of the term ‘nothing’. In everyday language, nothing means the absence of anything. If we consider a volume of space say, 20cm by 20cm by 20cm, in front of our eyes, we may say there is nothing in there as there is no book, no pencil, no string, no fruit or anything else in that small volume and so, we may consider, there is nothing. But then, we must recognise that there are millions of air particles of various types in that volume that we cannot see but we breath all the time. So, there are things where we perceive to have nothing.

Let us take an air-tight glass case where obviously there are air particles along with air pollutants, allergens etc. Now if we pump out these particles very carefully and make it an ultra-high vacuum, can we say that there is nothing in the glass case? No, we cannot say that there is nothing in the glass case and that is because the modern physics shows us otherwise.

Quantum fluctuations in an absolute vacuum

The two branches of modern physics – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics – give us a description of physical processes which are mind-boggling, counter-intuitive and occasionally plainly weird. Even Einstein, who singlehandedly produced the general theory of relativity and pioneered quantum physics, had extreme difficulty in absorbing the full implications and interplay of these two theories.

Einstein produced the mass-energy equivalence, which is: E=mc2; a very elegant and at the same time extremely important equation. What it means is that the mass of an object such as an atom or a molecule or a large number of molecules in a ball or an apple or a pencil and so forth has an equivalent energy and conversely an amount of energy has an equivalent mass. It is not theoretical physicists’ crazy idea, it had been found in practice in particle physics experiments, in radioactive decay and in nuclear reactors. A certain amount of energy suddenly disappears and a very small particle called electron and its anti-particle called the positron appear. The electron is what we use to generate electricity and is used to run a television, radio, mobile phone etc and in our everyday parlance, it is a matter. On the other hand, positron is an anti-matter. When this matter (electron) and anti-matter (positron) come in contact, they annihilate each other and an amount of energy is produced which is exactly equal to what disappeared in the first place to produce this electron and positron pair.

Alongside this mass-energy equivalence, one may consider quantum physics’ uncertainty principle produced by Werner Heisenberg. We must remember that quantum mechanics deals with very small particles such as electrons, positrons, atoms and sub-atomic particles. The basic tenet of this principle is that we cannot simultaneously measure certain pairs of observables such as energy and time or position and momentum of a particle with absolute accuracy. The degree of inaccuracy or uncertainty of the pair of observables (ΔE.Δt or Δp.Δx is always higher than a quantity called Planck constant (h/2π). In other words, if we measure the energy of a quantum particle very precisely, then there would be an inherent uncertainty in time at which the energy measurement had been made and the product of these two uncertainties is going to be higher than the Planck constant, h/2π. This uncertainty principle is the bedrock of quantum mechanics. It had been proven time and time again that this uncertainty principle is inviolable and holds true in all quantum events. Heisenberg received Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 for his contribution to Quantum Mechanics.

In the sub-world of quantum mechanics, there may be a situation which is known as quantum fluctuation. In an otherwise complete vacuum (having nothing), a quantum fluctuation can produce an amount of energy and that energy can generate a virtual electron-positron pair in the system. Now that energy comes from the nature, as if the nature is lending that energy to the system. When the electron-positron pair comes in contact with each other and they do it in a flash, both of them disappear instantly, and an amount energy is produced (equal to the energy that produced the pair in the first place) and that energy is returned to the nature and everything is squared up.

This borrowing of energy from nature, electron-positron pair formation (or for that matter matter-antimatter formation) and annihilation and then returning the energy to the nature are taking place all the time everywhere, even in a vacuum where we consider there is absolutely nothing. These are the quantum fluctuations. These are not mad professor’s or mad scientist’s utter gibberish, these are actual physical phenomena which have been demonstrated in high-energy physics laboratories. If one measures the charge of an electron with high precision, one can find a sudden fluctuation in the charge of the electron or a slight wobble in the electron trajectory. This is due to interaction of the real electron and the momentary appearance of the electron-positron pair.  

Billions and trillions of matter-antimatter particles are being generated and annihilated all the time in space. Now a situation may arise when a small fraction of these particles is not annihilated instantaneously and these matter, anti-matter particles move away from each other. In fact, it had been estimated that approximately one in a billion of such pairs had escaped annihilation and moved away to lead separate lives at the time of Big Bang. Electrons and other matters (atoms) in our everyday world (called fermions) came out and formed our world or the present universe, and the positrons and other anti-matter particles formed the anti-matter world somewhere far away from matter world, or they may have formed a separate anti-matter universe.

Our matter universe and the anti-matter universe are blood enemies. Should they come in contact, they will kill each other instantly and an unimaginable release of energy will take place. However, this energy is what these matter universe and anti-matter universe owe to the nature, because this energy was borrowed at the time of forming matter and anti-matter particles in a gigantic scale. Whereas all the other particles returned their energies to the nature, these particles, statistically one in a billion particles, escaped repayment and formed the universe.

The Big Bang from quantum fluctuations

This is how the universe, as perceived now, came into existence. It is the formation of universe out of nothing and the likely disappearance of the universe to nothing. There is no need to invent a divine power and then lay everything at the feet of that invented divine power. In fact, such an invention, all within the confines of our minds, would create more insurmountable problems in explaining things as they stand – such as where is the divine power now, how did he create these things, did he create the universe on a whim or did he have an ultimate purpose etc?

Albert Einstein was deeply sceptical about the divine power. He expressed his thought quite bluntly in saying, “I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details”.  

It must be stated that the present perception of creation of the universe is not a done deal. The debate about the universe, its progression, its ultimate fate etc are all raging in the scientific community. This is the credit for science – science never claims to have achieved the ultimate truth; anything that is held to be true now can be changed in the light of new evidence, new facts. This is in stark contrast with religion where everything is claimed to have come from God or Allah and hence not subject to any alteration or modification. This is what science rejects.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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

Are we heading towards genetic disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Is India going to lose its soul?

As the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) risks defining Muslims as ‘infiltrators’, Tushar Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, joins the protest to save India’s heart and soul.

Protest against the CAA after Friday prayers outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi

Last week 25,000 protesters gathered in Mewat, in the Indian state of Haryana, to begin the historic five-mile walk to Ghasera village. It was here, 72 years ago, that Mahatma Gandhi made the same journey during the turmoil of partition, visiting the area with the promise of a dignified life for local Muslims.

While millions have retraced Gandhi’s steps before, this time felt different. Against the backdrop of a new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) passed by the Indian parliament last week, which many believe is openly discriminatory against Muslims and relegates them to second-class citizens, honouring Gandhi’s words of religious harmony and reconciliation felt like a powerful political statement. “Mewat has witnessed many protests, but this is the biggest in our life,” resident Shahzad Khan told local media.

As India has seen some of the biggest protests in four decades, the image and legacy of Gandhi, known as the “father of India” for his role in independence, has been omnipresent. Across India people have voiced fears that the new act, passed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s right wing, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, risks destroying the secular, pluralistic India that Gandhi dedicated his life to building.

It was no accident that on the same day that protesters marched in Mewat last week, thousands of demonstrators gathered at August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai, the spot from which Gandhi gave his famous “Quit India” speech to the British government in 1942.

Among the millions who have taken to the streets defending Gandhi’s inclusive vision of India has been Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Arun Gandhi. “For the first time in independent India,” said Tushar Gandhi, “laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion.”

Tushar Gandhi has dedicated much of his life to his great-grandfather’s legacy, establishing and running the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Mumbai, but he said with the passing of the new citizenship law something had shifted. “Everybody has a turning point in their life. If being thrown out of the train was a turning point in my great-grandfather’s life, I think this issue of trying to change the soul of my nation is the turning point in my life,” he said. In 10 years, he added, this country “won’t be India any more. It will be a fascist dictatorship. And, mind you, it will be a dictatorship using democratic process, and that is even more dangerous”.

Under the new legislation all Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants who arrived from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before 2014 will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship.

However, the same will not apply for Muslim immigrants. In conjunction with a planned initiative by the BJP government to begin a national register of citizens (NRC), where every person in India will have to present paperwork to prove their Indian lineage, the new act means that it is only Muslims in India who face the possibility of being defined as “infiltrators”, to either be deported or put into detention centres being built across the country.

Tushar spoke of his pride at seeing Gandhi’s image being brandished as thousands of protesters defied the bans on public gatherings by the authorities and turned out on to the streets in a wave of peaceful mass civil disobedience reminiscent of Gandhi’s movement 90 years ago.

“Just think of the far-sightedness of that man in 1930,” said Tushar. “When he was asked to send out a message to mankind, he wrote, ‘I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might,’ and today we are again fighting a battle of right against might, so it’s very natural that he becomes the icon of the protest.”

He was also adamant that the effects of the citizenship act would be felt far beyond India’s borders.

“There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology.”

While Modi has often described himself as a follower of Gandhi, Tushar said that this was meaningless in the face of the Hindu nationalist agenda being pushed by Modi’s BJP government, which aims to irreparably fracture the country down religious lines. “It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.

Over a week since the passing of the citizenship act, the protests in India have showed no sign of abating and indeed have gathered even more momentum over the weekend. Like so many, Tushar Gandhi said he would keep turning out on the streets to fight for an India where religion did not determine your status as a citizen.

“We will have to keep up the momentum, we will actually have to increase the intensity of the protests if we are to bring this government to its knees,” he said. “Because you must remember this is an arrogant government. It is not going to come to its knees that easily.”

While the authorities are increasingly meeting the protests with suppression and violence, with the death toll from the demonstrations reaching 17 by Saturday, Tushar said it was more important than ever that Gandhi’s legacy remain at the heart of the protests.

“A long-drawn-out agitation can only be sustained if it is peaceful and non-violent,” he said.

This article by Zoe Osborne and Hannah Ellis-Petersen was first published in The Observer on 19 December 2019.

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

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political, Religious

Cultural and National Identity

Most of us have differed often enough with one another on what precisely constitutes culture. That is hardly surprising in view of the fact that it is common for even erudite philosophers to disagree and debate with each other on the raw definition and nuances of culture. The way we perceive culture is very much a mirror of our philosophy in life and of our view of the society we live in. It is but natural that we differ. But does it really make any material difference to a society on what exactly a culture is or on what a particular cultural guru enforces the cultural attributes of a society at a particular point in time and space?

Culture is more like the free-flowing water in a river. It takes on the colour of the alluvium soil it flows over at any particular moment. Culture of a people is anything but static; it changes, it merges, it meanders, it evolves like the life on earth.

The so-called Calcutta Book Fair fiasco had prompted certain coteries of vested interest to make mountain out of a mole hill. At the forefront was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which had donned the mantle of the keeper of Muslim Bengali culture. It had self-proclaimed the distinctiveness of Muslims to create a separate identity for Bangladeshi culture.

The party was founded by a freedom fighter who fought for the liberation of Bangladesh or Bangla nation. But the Kakul trained former Pakistani army officer who spoke Bangla with a distinct Urdu accent, due to his long stay in the western wing of Pakistan, ultimately took on the role of a Trojan Horse. When he assumed the charge of independent Bangladesh in the aftermath of a series of coup d’etats and assassinations (which many people claim may have been through his acquiescence), he took upon himself the task of rebuilding the nation in the model of “Pakistan.” Thereby, he failed to live up to his glorious deeds during the days of blood and thunder. The unholy coalition that he forged with the religious right had made him to rehabilitate those hated anti-Bangladeshi forces in the independent Bangladesh. It brought back the ghost of Pakistani oppression in Bangladesh.

The Bengalis in Pakistan had made sacrifices to found a modern state based on secular ideology. The Sufi tradition had deeply influenced the Islam in Bengal. Its tolerant ethos was a far cry from the religious intolerance of West Pakistan that would later spawn into Taliban movement.

The Bangladesh Liberation War was a struggle against the hard-line exclusivist tradition of West Pakistan that was trying to supplant the liberal tradition of the eastern wing and turn it effectively into a colony. Under the guidance of the Pakistani junta from the west, the Islamist parties made it their goal to eliminate religious minorities and to discard the secularist strands from the composite culture of Bangladesh. They cried “Islam is in danger.” to garner supporters for their invidious goals.

It was a national goal in certain quarters during the Pakistani era to erect a psychological barrier between West Bengal and East Bengal in the guise of championing the cause of Islam. There was a crack in that barrier for a brief period during 1971-75. But, after 1975, for the next two decades, that barrier was restructured and reinforced to mirror the prejudices and predilections of the past. The master architects of that barrier were the Pakistan trained officers of the Bangladesh army who continued to look back to the pre-liberation days towards Islamabad for political inspiration.

The balance of power in Bengal in the era of Permanent Settlement had indeed tilted disproportionately in favour of the Hindus. The 1947 partition did serve to restore the balance. But it can just as easily be argued that East Bengal got rid of the over-lordship of the local Hindu zamindars only to embrace the colonial shackles of West Pakistan. Furthermore, it was demanded by its new masters to sever all ties with “Hindu” West Bengal with which it shared many common cultural heritage and where at least a quarter of the population was Muslim.

The Bangabhumi of yore was today’s East Bengal. It had always been the core of Bengali language and culture. West Bengal was the Rarhbhumi which was part of Greater Bengal and had, till the coming of the British, looked up to East Bengal for cultural inspiration and sustenance. So, in a sense, Bengal’s cultural heritage had its root in East Bengal. The proponents of Bangladeshi nationalism had their own agenda. It was to erase West Bengal from the canvas of Greater Bengal with a view to turning Bangladesh into a puppet in the hands of Islamabad’s rulers, who would only be too happy to use Bangladesh as the cat’s paw to further their own interests.

Then there were those who had vested interests in declaring, “Hindus of West Bengal and Muslims of Bangladesh are two distinct peoples; they have absolutely nothing in common” Inevitably, proponents of this delinquent ideology ignore the cultural affinities of West and East Bengal to emphasise only on religious differences. That was the only way they could erect a barrier between the two Bengals. But even that was not easy because a quarter of West Bengal’s population was Muslim. Would the religious fanatics disown Poet Nazrul Islam because he was from West Bengal?

There are some differences between the inhabitants of the two Bengals. But it is not simple to cut off West Bengal from our cultural canvas on the basis of these differences. Religion, ethnicity, dialect, and regional characteristics, all play an important role in defining our cultural ethos. It is as disingenuous as it is dishonest to try to define it in terms of religion alone.

Consider the regional component, for example. The immigrants in Calcutta from East Bengal, from long before the 1947 partition, had indulged in their regional pride by cheering for the East Bengal team on Calcutta’s football fields. And to this day they continue to do so. It pleases them no end when East Bengal defeats Mohan Bagan. The Islamists in Bangladesh
will be hard put to explain this exultation in the football fields of Calcutta in terms of their mindset of seeing everything with religious lens.

Region-based differences indeed seems far more significant than religion-based ones. A Muslim Bengali from West Bengal is likely to feel more at home with a Hindu Bengali from West Bengal than with a Muslim Bengali from Bangladesh. The age old Ghati-Bangal issue has always transcended religion to give primacy to geography instead.The cultural tradition of the subcontinent kept apart the Hindu migrants from East Bengal to India from the Hindu natives of West Bengal. Even some half a century after the partition of India, Calcutta newspapers continue to conspicuously mention the ancestral roots of prospective brides and grooms in matrimonial columns. One may attribute that to the discriminatory practices of the natives or to the exclusivist practices of the immigrants. But the fact remains that ancestral district can come in the way of tying matrimonial bonds between the Hindu natives and the Hindu immigrants in West Bengal. In fact, even among the Hindu immigrants themselves, a Baidya from Jessore or Bikrampur might find it beneath his dignity to have matrimonial ties with a Baidya from Sylhet or Comilla!

Many a nation state in the world exhibits regional variations in dialect and culture. The regional dialect and the local customs give the nation a “salad bowl” cultural milieu. Thus, Bavarians in Germany have the image of hillbillies. After the reunification of Germany, the people from the former East Germany were often perceived by their newfound compatriots as third worlders! Belgium and Switzerland have people speaking different dialects and even entirely different languages.

In USA, the Mecca of multi-culturalism, people speak of the East Coast, the Mid West or of the deep South with very specific cultural connotations. Let me narrate a personal anecdote. I took a speech course in an American college. During a discussion session, one student was frank enough to admit to her cultural bias based on regional accent. She told the class that Jamal has a non-American accent which is okay with her. But if she hears somebody with a southern accent, she seems to struggle with the thought that the person is of inferior intellect!Most religionists in Bangladesh take a victimological stance to justify their prejudices. They blame the arrogance of the Hindus from West Bengal or of the Hindu zamindar of yore from his own East Bengal for their antagonism toward all Hindus. But if they were honest enough, they would have readily admitted that there could be just as much a tradition of arrogance among the Muslims of Bangladesh. For many years, educated Bengali Muslims inhabiting the central part to the north western part of Bangladesh were extremely reluctant to enter into matrimonial ties with people from Noakhali, Chittagong and Sylhet. Similarly, many
Chittagongians and Sylhetees never could harbour the thought of marrying “foreigners.” I know of people from Noakhali who feel ashamed to disclose their roots. Many of them feigned to be from Comilla or Chittagong to get accepted by the Dhaka-centric “Bhadrolok” culture.

I was still a school kid when my father got transferred to Chittagong. It was a big cultural shock for me. I was afraid that I would never master the Chittagonian dialect, which is significantly different from the standard Bengali language. To my relief, I finally learnt to not only understand the local dialect but even speak in it after a fashion. A few years later, my father was transferred to Sylhet where I stoically withstood the scorn of my classmates who called me a “Bangal.” Needless to say, it was a pejorative. It was then that I learnt that the Sylhetees considered themselves to be from Assam. They were telling me that they did not think I was worthy of being a friend because I was nothing better than a “Bangal.”

I am sure I will have far less of a cultural shock if I visit Nadia in West Bengal. If I visit the Calcutta metropolis, I may cross path with some Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims alike) who may turn out to be somewhat different. But I doubt they will find me as different as I was found by my Chittagongian and Sylheti classmates. But then I have to bear in mind an
important aspect of social anthropology – many a person I will befriend in this old city have had the advantage of a college education and of urban living for many more than a generation or two. So, there is bound to be some difference between them and those I had encountered in Chittagong and Sylhet who were of rural background and may have belonged to the first generation in the quest of college education.


Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC. The original article was published on March 19, 1999 in NEWS FROM BANGLADESH in its Commentary Section.