Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious, Technical

Taliban – Pakistan’s weapon of mass destruction

Protection against terrorism

The world is horrified at the speed and extent of Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the consequent collapse of Afghan military force. Afghan military has shown that it is as strong and stable as the house of cards; when just nudged by Taliban, it starts to collapse and has the domino effect under its own momentum. At this point in time, the 15th of August 2021, Taliban is poised to take over Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and thereby bringing an end to the American invasion of Afghanistan about twenty years ago and completing the utter humiliation of mighty America.

But Taliban is not the rag-tag of rebel soldiers or tribal gangsters with slings and arrows. Taliban had been put together by Pakistan, made into a fighting force and, above all, the strategy of ensuing battle in Afghanistan had been master minded by Pakistan. Pakistan may be a rogue and failed state, but its military machine is very much functional and ready to meddle in other state’s internal affairs. As Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician, said some years ago, “The state of India has an Army, the Army of Pakistan has a state.”  

In particular, one would say, Pakistan always had the inclination to fish in the muddy waters of other countries, particularly Afghanistan. Following the coup d’état in April 1978 (Saur Revolution) by the People’s Democratic Party in Afghanistan against its President Daoud Khan, a chain of events was set in motion. America wanted to sabotage the coup to undermine its cold war rival, the Soviet Union; and the Soviet Union in response sent in troops in December 1979 to prop up the collapsing government of the coup leaders.  

That is when Pakistan found enough ammunition to trump up the situation. How could an atheist communist state be allowed to take over a Muslim state, they thundered? Pakistan drummed up support from Western capitalist states as well as Muslim states to avenge the situation. Mujahedeen, a conglomeration of rebel soldiers with Islamist zeal along with some pro-Chinese elements, were formed by Pakistan with the direct help and administrative support of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan back in the early days following the invasion of Soviet Union. Pakistan took the central role in procuring funds from America and other Western states as well as unlimited funds from the oil-rich Arab states. On top of that, the 34-nation Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) gave Pakistan full political and financial backing. In return, Pakistan was entrusted with military training, logistic and intelligence support as well as arms and ammunition to the Mujahedeen.

It was a perfect win-win situation for Pakistan. Almost the whole of Pakistan’s military machine was bank-rolled on Mujahedeen’s expenses financed by Arab states and America. At the same time, Pakistan formed a gangster fraternity with the CIA and American military machine. Mujahedeen had been made into a fighting force much better than that of many third world country. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was bleeding profusely under the twin attack of the capitalist world and the Muslim world. By 1985, Soviet Union expressed willingness to negotiate its troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, but neither Afghanistan nor America was willing to negotiate. However, in 1988, Soviet Union decided to withdraw from Afghanistan and leave the country to fend for itself. Within a year, the Soviet Union itself was in turmoil and started to break up.

Pakistan was basking in the glory of defeating the mighty Soviet Union. It is said that Afghan war might have contributed, at least partially, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ISI’s chief, Gen Hamid Gul, twirling his moustache bragged to the world that his men had brought down the mighty Soviet Union. However, radical Islam and political Islam got a new lease of life and a safe sanctuary in Pakistan. But that was a small price to pay for Pakistan for the wider geo-political victory and the concocted world status. America also in its turn declared that Soviet Union had been ‘taught a very good lesson’ and the ‘job was well done’. But hardly did the so-called victors realise that they had created a monster, a monster of Frankenstein’s proportion, which one day might devour the masters!

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, America considered the job well done and lost any interest in the back waters of geo-political schism. Mujahedeen had been left in the lurch, with thousands of heavily armed soldiers roaming around aimlessly in the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s ISI which had initiated and guided the Mujahedeen right from 1979 took advantage of this vacuum. In doing so, Pakistan received financial help and military assistance from Western countries to manage the situation. But that was not enough to Pakistan’s liking and Pakistan started to play a duplicitous role. On the one hand they continued to get American and Western help to disassemble Mujahedeen and on the other hand they surreptitiously helped to re-organise the terrorist groups into al-Qaeda and others groups including Taliban.

The word Taliban is a Pashtu word – the plural of ‘talib (student)’. The Taliban were students who were trained in the strict Islamic fundamentalism, the Deobandi ideology and vowed to follow the strict interpretation of Sharia or Islamic Law. These hardcore Islamists were put together in 1994 along with the remnants of Mujahedeen as Taliban under the tutelage of Pakistan’s ISI.

The stray Mujahedeen fighters started dispersing to various Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda, ISIS (Daesh), other fringe terrorist groups. American exploitation of Saudi oil, the invasion of Iraq, its blatant opposition of Iranian theocracy etc were all the powder keg of anti-Americanism. America’s desertion from the region without any reconstruction was very much resented in the region. America thus became the culprit, the root cause of the suffering of the people of the country and Pakistan fanned the flame of this narrative. 

When Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, America realised that they had created a monster and that monster had been let loose. The erstwhile ally and reliable foot soldiers in the shape of Mujahedeen had become America’s blood enemies. Afghanistan became the centre of world terrorism and al-Qaeda was the main operative. After the 9/11 attack in 2001 on America by al-Qaeda and when Osama bin Laden was tracked to be hiding in Afghanistan, America demanded his immediate extradition. Taliban being the ideological bedfellow of al-Qaeda refused to do so. America along with other Western countries invaded Afghanistan in December 2001 and dislodged Taliban within a year or so. Although most of the Taliban leadership had been killed and its offices had been massacred, but the brain behind Taliban ideology was safely tucked away across the borders in Pakistan.

Taliban had suffered temporary set-back but not destroyed. They were dispersed to outlying areas in the countryside in Afghanistan and regrouped in Pakistan. America thought that with their fire power and sophisticated military machine, they would annihilate Taliban in a short period of time and leave the country with ‘job well done’ after 2001 invasion! But after 20 years (from 2001 to 2021) of blood, sweat and tears, with over 1.3 trillion dollars cost and more than 2,300 American soldiers’ fatality (along with more than a thousand British, Canadian, Australian and other soldiers’ fatality), America lost any appetite to fight with the Taliban and decided to withdraw on the anniversary of al-Qaeda (supported by Taliban) attack on America!   

America announced its intention more than a month ago, which means more than two months before the intended withdrawal date, and since then America had been haemorrhaging in military capability and political credibility. At that time, the expert opinion was that within two months of America’s withdrawal, Taliban may take over the control of the country. Since that time, the time scale of collapse of Afghan government had been progressively reduced and now, one month prior to American withdrawal, the collapse is imminent. American soldiers, about few thousands remaining, haven’t got enough time to evacuate and any soldiers sent to rescue them will themselves be hostage! The collapse of Kabul is worse than Saigon. In Saigon, American soldiers at least had time to evacuate, now in Kabul they have no time to evacuate and they are likely to be prisoners in the invaded land. The superpower is a badly defeated party and Russia is having the last laugh. Russia now even can throw back ‘America had been taught a very good lesson’.

What made Taliban carryout such successful ‘blitzkrieg’ attack, albeit without air power, on Afghan soldiers? There must be unseen long hand of ISI directing and giving tactical advice to invade town after town and then closing in on the capital itself. Even America with its sophisticated satellite navigation, aerial survey and intelligence services on the ground caught completely unaware and now probably hoping to have divine help to rescue the American soldiers.

Pakistan with its duplicity has got the upper hand for the time being. They had been squeezing America over the years with the threat of Taliban to pump money into the country. Taliban has become Pakistan’s weapon of mass destruction. But there is always a time when the blackmail victim would say, “enough is enough, we must confront the menace”. That time has probably come. America and the rest of the world must stand up and put an end to the blatant Pakistani blackmail using Islamic fundamentalism and ensuing terrorism. 

Dr A Rahman MSRP CRadP FNucI

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

Amid global warming – why are we in a deep freeze?

Obverse effects of global warming

During winter, more often than not, a large part of northern United States is pummelled by an Arctic blast, sometimes severe, sometimes less so, that lasts for a week or two. But this winter’s blast plunged not only Midwest and Northeast into a deep freeze with bone-chilling temperatures as low as negative 45 degrees Celsius, but it also tested the mettle of millions of people living in the Deep South, particularly Texas, a state that seldom experience sub-zero temperature.

An onslaught of freak wintery weather—a cocktail of heavy snow, sleet and chilling ice storm—with sub-zero temperatures knocked millions of Texans off the power grid and plunged them into deep freeze, the lowest being negative 12 degrees in Houston. Frozen and burst water pipes in homes and businesses were widespread. Unlike northern states, Texas is not equipped to handle ice, sleet or snow. As a consequence, hundreds of vehicles, including dozens of 18-wheeler, were involved in horrific and sometimes fatal pileups on untreated icy roads.

The recent extreme weather is not limited to the United States. That is because when the winter is extreme in one part of the hemisphere, it is often extreme all across the hemisphere. Thus, the “beast” from the Arctic hit Europe too. In January, Spain experienced a deadly snow storm with dangerously low temperatures. Even a tropical country like Bangladesh, especially the northern region, could not escape the wrath of the cold wave.

Snow fell hard in Greece and Turkey, where it is far less normal. Snow also fell in Jerusalem and parts of Jordan and Syria, while snow-covered camels in Saudi Arabia made for a rare sight. We also had more than our fair share of snow. In the lower Hudson Valley of New York, where I live, Mother Nature already dumped around 36 inches of snow since the last week of January, with more in the forecast. Most of the snow—24 inches—fell in a single storm event from January 31 through February 2.

Climate change deniers have often used cold winter weather to advance their argument that global warming is a Chinese hoax. In one infamous example, when an Arctic freeze descended on the northeast, including New York City, in December 2017, former US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming to protect against” harsh winters. Only an ignoramus person like him could make such a stupid statement!

It may be counterintuitive, but paradoxically, among the many factors, anthropogenic climate change is mainly responsible for the short-lived bursts of extreme winter weather that we have been witnessing in recent years. Indeed, there is strong scientific evidence that rapid heating of the Arctic caused by global warming is pushing frigid air from the North Pole further down south due to distortion of the polar vortex.

Under normal conditions, cold air is concentrated in a huge low-pressure gyre around the North Pole in an area called the polar vortex—about 15 to 50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface in the layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. When the vortex is strong, the jet stream—a narrow band of strong, fast-flowing wind in the upper atmosphere that generally blows from west to east all across the globe—acts as a barrier between the spinning cold air in the north and the warmer air to the south. As a result, cold air remains trapped in the Arctic, making winters in the northern mid-latitudes milder.

How does global warming distort the polar vortex? It is well-known that the rise in global temperature is not evenly spread around the world. Because of the loss of Arctic ice which otherwise would have reflected a substantial amount of solar radiation back into outer space, average temperature in and around the North Pole is increasing about twice as fast as in the mid-latitudes. This is known as Arctic Amplification. Several studies show that the amplification is particularly strong in winter. Consequently, a rapidly warming Arctic weakens the jet stream, which in turn weakens the polar vortex to the extent that it becomes distorted, thereby spilling its cold air southward.

According to meteorologists, in a span of two weeks from December to January, Arctic Amplification gave rise to a phenomenon called Sudden Stratospheric Warming, in which temperatures in the atmosphere 15 to 30 kilometres above the Arctic jumped by nearly 55 degrees, from negative 80 to negative 25 degrees. This accelerated warming weakened the jet stream considerably and subsequently distorted the vortex so severely that it got knocked off the pole, resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle all the way to the US-Mexico border. Hence, the once-in-a-lifetime cold winter in Texas and other southern states.

Continued rise in global temperature will not necessarily mean an end to bitter cold waves during winter any sooner. One group of researchers believe that Arctic blasts will still occur, but their intensity will depend on how much greenhouse gases we vent into the atmosphere. It is very probable that they will become rarer over time, but the ones we are experiencing now will more likely persist and last longer. Another group says that warming in the Arctic will increase the chances of frigid polar air spilling further south, leading to more periods of extreme cold days in the future, much colder than the ones we are experiencing now.

Nevertheless, the recent weather pattern clearly demonstrates that both extreme heat and extreme cold can happen side by side. Besides, two to four weeks of cold snaps do not make a winter. They are short-term weather events, while climate is about long-term trends. Arctic blasts are, therefore, not enough to compensate for the overall warming of the climate across the planet. In fact, last year was one of the hottest years on record, with the average temperature surpassing a number of all-time highs. And it occurred without the warming influence of El Niño.

Finally, we are in a deep freeze amid global warming because our “senseless and suicidal” romance with fossil fuels has fundamentally changed the global weather systems for worse.

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

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

Five years since Paris Accord: Are we any better?

Global warming and rise in sea level

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Accord hammered out by more than 190 countries at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). The core objective of the accord is to save humanity from the existential threat posed by climate change. To that end, the participating nations agreed to keep the increase in the average global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius while endeavouring to limit it to 1.5 degrees by the year 2100. Besides pledging to temper the rise in temperature, they agreed to restructure the global economy, phase out fossil fuels over the coming decades, switch to renewable sources of energy, embrace clean technology, and most importantly, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

The Accord gives every country the ability to set its own goals to confront the climate crisis, in line with their specific situation. Moreover, instead of demanding expeditious and deep cuts in fossil fuel usage, it allows parties to peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” followed by a gradual decrease in order to reach the zero emissions goal. It is patently evident that such a vague timetable fits the interests of the major polluters, including the United States, China and India. Nevertheless, beginning this year, each nation is required to reassess its own reduction plans once every five years. However, there is no consequence or penalty if a country fails to reassess or falls short of the pledged reductions.

The Accord also requires nations to address “loss and damage” caused by climate impacts. Since the wealthy, industrialised nations are largely responsible for the backlog of climate changing emissions lingering in the atmosphere, they should compensate poorer nations for unavoidable loss and damage. But even after COP25 held in Madrid last year (2019), wealthy nations are playing Jekyll and Hyde roles—promising to cover losses while dragging their feet on providing new finance.

We are now a full five years into the Paris Accord which, according to the former US President Barack Obama, is supposed to make the “world safer and more secure, more prosperous and more free.” Are we really on course to transform our planet into one as envisioned by Obama? Are we winning the race against climate change? Did we succeed in slowing down the damage resulting from climate change? By all accounts, the Accord did not make an iota of difference in decelerating the progression of our planet, and subsequently our civilisation, toward climatic meltdown. On the contrary, climate change and its deleterious effects are accelerating, with climate-related catastrophes piling up, year after year.

Our planet is now almost at the breaking point. The environmental changes sweeping across the world are occurring at a much quicker pace than five years ago. As the Earth warms, we are witnessing more cataclysmic wildfires turning forests into carbon dioxide emitters, not to mention calamitous floods inundating nearly half of landmasses in countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Thailand and so forth. Persistent droughts, fierce storms and an increase in extreme weather phenomena—derecho, microburst, bombogenesis, Frankenstorm and many more—are on the rise. The fingerprints of climate change since 2015 can also be seen in the exacerbation of internal and international migration patterns of climate refugees.

Scorching heat waves, of all places, in the Arctic region, are now more frequent and long-lasting. It is quite likely that 2020 will be among the hottest years ever, even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Niña. Seas are warming and rising faster, putting more coastal cities at risk of going under acidic water. Warmer waters are wreaking havoc on marine organisms forcing them to migrate away from their familiar habitats. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, thus disrupting availability of freshwater.

Climate-induced mayhem is taking a heavy toll on the Arctic region. The amount of Arctic sea ice whose whiteness normally acts as a natural reflector of heat back out of the atmosphere is dwindling so rapidly that the region may soon become ice-free. Loss of ice is also changing the Arctic terrain—making it greener and prettier, but at the expense of releasing copious amounts of carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the frozen soil, which in turn is making global warming even worse. Additionally, scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean, worrisomely called the “sleeping giant of the carbon cycle,” are escaping into the atmosphere. In fact, northern landscapes are undergoing massive change, with potential ramifications not just for the Arctic itself, but the world as a whole.

Permafrost in cold climate countries is thawing at breakneck speed, releasing, just like Arctic ice, large amounts of long-stored carbon dioxide and methane. In addition, viruses and bacteria that had been buried under the permafrost for thousands of years are being released into the environment, posing health risks to humans and other forms of life. Also, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, a vital carbon sink that retards the momentum of global warming, has surged to its highest level since 2008.

As for peaking of emissions, there is a cavernous gap between the sharp cuts in emissions required to meet the goals of the Paris Accord and current projections. In a recent report, World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, states, “There is no sign of slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement.” Rather, emissions from just about every country are still on the rise, thereby making it difficult to close the gap so as to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

The report further notes that even the coronavirus-related drop in emissions failed to make much of a dent in the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Consequently, WMO warns that the world risks becoming an “uninhabitable hell” for millions unless we drastically cut emissions—by at least 7.2 percent every 10 years if we want to keep the rise in temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius. Otherwise, we will soon be north of 3 degrees Celsius.

The warning from WMO is corroborated by a study published last month in the British journal Scientific Reports, in which the authors assert that we have already passed the “point of no return for global warming.” The only way we can stop the warming, the authors say, is by extracting “enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The Earth’s average temperature has already risen by roughly one degree since the advent of modern record keeping in 1880. The devastation caused by one degree rise clearly indicates that an additional 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius rise before the end of this century will lock in the changes to the Earth’s climate system that will be beyond our adaptive capacity.

Five years ago, the then UN chief lauded the Paris Accord as a landmark agreement, a potent message from world leaders who had finally decided to take on climate change in earnest. Five years later, in a complete volte-face, the present UN chief, in a speech at Columbia University in New York, issued a searing indictment of our utter disregard for the pledges made in Paris. He said, “The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging a suicidal war on nature, facing new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation….”

So much for the Paris Accord! No wonder environmentalists believe that the Accord is meaningless, and with good reason. Indeed, the toothless, nonbinding, non-enforceable accord is an oversold empty promise—a gentleman’s handshake applauding the imposition of a global climate regime on humankind that is harming the planet in the name of saving it.

Finally, world leaders should realise that fixing the climate is not about making pretty promises at grandiose conferences held in glamorous cities. And if we rely on grandstanding and farcical Accords that give us false hopes, we will lose the race to keep our planet cool and habitable.

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

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

An Open Letter to Humans from COVID-19

The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, sends an open letter to Humans on the occasion of Christmas 2020:

COVID-19

Dear Humans,

I am totally astounded and flabbergasted by the audacity you have displayed so far to my strength and ferocity. I may be small, a very small strain of coronavirus, but I am not weak. About a year and half ago, I evolved in your planet in the most populous nation on Earth. I thought I would have a fun time jumping from one to the other of 1200 million of your species. But Chinese government reacted very promptly, to my utter disgust, forcing me to stay within the confines of only 10 million or so Chinese. I will never forget or forgive the Chinese.

You know that I am a virus and hence I cannot live on my own. I need a body, preferably, a sick human body – a body with underlying problems like respiratory illness, diabetes, weak hearts having transplanted or bypassed, kidney problem, dementia and a lot of other problems, as my host. I do not want to go to anybody who is not prepared to be my host. After all, who does not like an easy prey, an easy meal? I hate going to a strong healthy body and fight it out with his or her body protection system.

You call your body protection or defence system an immune system. There is nothing immune from my attack. I am smaller than the smallest of a bacterium. You cannot normally see me or detect me unless you take me to an electron microscope. Even then, you have to be very careful detecting and photographing me. You take the shot from a wrong angle and you miss the point.

As I said, I need a host. I am not even alive on my own; unless I find a live cell in a live body like yours as my host within few hours, I would die. Once I get a host, I seek out the weak organ or tissue where I will have an easy task. First, I go to an organ of your body as an innocent bystander, observe how strong your organ is and how efficiently it is functioning. If the organ I am in is very efficient, then I tend to slip away to another organ. After all, I don’t want to sacrifice my life fighting a losing battle with a strong organ, whereas I could have a very comfortable life in another organ where I can flourish, multiply and even take over the whole organ!

When I multiply in an organ or capture the whole organ, I do not want to rest on my laurel. I want to go from your body to another body and keep capturing bodies. I use your cells as my hosts, your body as my survival machine. Before I make you inert (you know what I mean), I want to send some of us to some other human beings. I make you sneeze, make you cough, touch mucous membrane with your hands and pass it on to another person. I need your helping hand, literally. In fact, the more the merrier.

I hear that you have invented a vaccine against me, you want to kill me. It is then going to be an all-out war with me. I have lots of tricks up my sleeve – actually, up my spike to be precise. You think you can catch me by my spike, sort of catch a bull by the horn? No way. I will change my morphology such that as soon as you plan to bolt on to my structure, I will metamorphose to something else. Actually, I do not like the word metamorphose, as if I am doing a literary piece of work, I call it mutate. I mutate, I make your body cells mutate until those cells fail to function.

Mutation is the word I like most. As soon as you make something to catch me, you would find me that I have changed, I have mutated. It’s a cat and mouse game. And then you start the whole process all over again, back to square one. It goes on and on.

In all of this battle of wits, you forgot that I and my cousin called bacterium were the seed corns from which you were made. From the single cell bacteria to multicell bacteria and then to complex bacteria with RNA, DNA and mitochondria, that is how you came into being. Don’t forget all that of your past.

During the long evolutionary period of nearly four billion years, my cousin bacterium had done tremendous amount of work for you. You, all types of animals from antelopes to zebras, plants, fungi and algae were all made from innocent bacteria. My role was to terminate any unworthy species. Your fellow man, a very clever guy called Charles Darwin, very succinctly said, “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest.” I make that struggle as hard as possible and so don’t underestimate me.

May I remind you that during the last 450 million years when conditions on Earth were getting progressively favourable to you, as many as five times, 70 to 75% of all species of all living animals and plants had been wiped out. In addition, about 250 million years ago, nearly 99% of all life forms on Earth were obliterated. It was nearly going to start from a blank slate again. About 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were wiped out completely and that created conditions for life forms for you to evolve.

Life on Earth is a perpetual struggle. I quote again, Charles Darwin’s dictum, “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest” and this struggle and survival come from evolutionary process. If you, the human beings, think that you are clever enough and smart enough to override the evolutionary process, then you better think again.

One last point I would raise is that do not, not even in your dream, think that you are going to live on this Earth for ever. Since the dawn of life (any life) about 400 million years ago, 99% of all life forms have gone extinct. You came to Earth evolving from chimpanzee about 4 million years ago, less than 1.8 million years ago as Homo erectus or only about 200,000 years ago as Homo sapiens.  A species on Earth lives, on the average, 4 million years and so your time is very much nearer the end. You had been destroying the fabric of Earth, massacring the environment, causing extinction to many species. Probably you had been creating conditions for your own demise. SO BE WARNED!

On behalf of COVID-19   

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Advanced science, Astrophysics, International, Technical

Black Holes and the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics

2020 Physics Nobel Prize winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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