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.

Cultural, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Political, Technical

America at the cliff edge

Why the fate of the American Republic – and the world – could depend on what happens on November 3, 2020.

The survival of the American Republic is at cliff edge now, given the perspective of 244 years of American history. There was the close election of 1800 between Aaron Burr—an unprincipled fellow with dictatorial impulses who was in many ways the Donald Trump of his day—and Thomas Jefferson. The 1860 contest in which Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, with the Civil War looming. Or the 1932 election during the Great Depression, the stakes of which were so consequential that when Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was warned he might be known as the worst president in U.S. history, if his recovery program failed, FDR reportedly replied, “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.”

An extraordinary consensus exists among historians, political scientists, diplomats, national security officials, and other experts that the stakes of the U.S. presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden this November rise to these portentous historical standards. Indeed, the stakes may go well beyond that, considering the central place the United States holds today in the global system—in a way it did not as a much younger nation in 1800, 1860, or even 1932.

Some suggest that Trump and the malign forces he has summoned up have already done so much damage to the institutions of U.S. democracy—especially his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his open encouragement of racial violence and national division—that his re-election in November could damage forever the 244-year-old American experiment of a republic of laws. After a first term in which Trump has openly defied Congress and the courts, twisted foreign policy to serve his political interests, dismissed electoral norms, and turned a terrified Republican Party into his poodle, his return to power would, in effect, legitimize the gutting of the institutions of law and what remains of the founders’ checks and balances. Re-election would vindicate his view that as president he can, as Trump himself said, “do whatever I want.” It would all but destroy the American conceit that the United States is a different kind of democracy, leaving the country as just another abject discard on the ash heap of failed republics going back to ancient Rome and Greece.

The concern is shared by many Republicans—former senior officials who worked for previous Republican administrations stretching back to Ronald Reagan, including several who worked for Trump himself. Some have openly warned that a second Trump term represents an existential threat to American democracy.

“This is a kind of fulcrum moment,” said Edward J. Watts, a University of California, San Diego historian and the author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. “If Trump is re-elected, then I think the norms and restraints of American democracy disappear completely,” in ways that echo what went awry in past republics. Even if Biden wins, Watts added, U.S. recovery will be a long time coming.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s the most important election in American history. The stakes are just enormous,” said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist, former diplomat, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World. “One term is bad enough, but if Trump is re-elected, Americans and people around the world would no longer be able to say the American electorate made a mistake. Instead it would be an affirmation this is the direction Americans want to go.”

Kupchan said the reason this contest is more consequential than those critical elections in 1800 and 1860 is that “the United States was not the most powerful country in the world during those times.

“Basically, we stayed out of other people’s hair then. That’s not the case today, when you have a country this big that has so profoundly lost its way. We are entering an unforgiving period in history. The balance of power is changing. During the era of post-Cold War unipolarity, the system was more forgiving. Even during the Cold War, when the U.S. made a mistake here and there, like Vietnam, it didn’t knock the world off kilter. But at a moment when the West has lost its material preponderance [to China and Asia] at the same time as it’s begun to stumble politically, that’s a double whammy of historic proportions.”

Indeed, because the United States occupies such a central place in stabilizing the global system, the election of 2020 could be compared to other important global realignments that transformed the fates of previous great powers, empires, and diplomatic constructs of international stability.

“Internationally, it is a world-historical moment—America’s role in the world, and the organization of the global system, is also on the ballot,” said John Ikenberry of Princeton University, the author of A World Safe for Democracy, a book chronicling two centuries of liberal internationalism. “If Trump wins, the whole post war liberal order continues to unravel, and democratic and other allies of the U.S., who are hedging and hoping that the U.S. will return to playing a ‘system role,’ will start making other plans.”

Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, also one of the leading political scientists and diplomats of his day, agrees. In an interview, Nye quoted a leading diplomat from an allied European nation as telling him recently: “We can hold our breath for four years. Eight years is too much.”

According to former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, if Trump is re-elected or manages to seize power by contesting the election—he is already accusing Democrats of fraud and in late September refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power—it would be tantamount to a formal divorce from Europe and the West. It would mean that “the way Americans view themselves has become completely alien to what used to be the European view of America.” For four years, Trump has derided long-standing European allies and recently, in a fit of pique, announced he was withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from Germany. The U.S. government’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified this sense of alienation and frank disgust, Daalder said.

(In August, a special report from FP Analytics ranked the United States 31st out of 36 countries for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, coming in below Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and Russia. The report found that the United States ranked so poorly because of the Federal Government’s inability to mount an appropriate scientific response; inadequate emergency health care spending; insufficient testing and hospital beds; and limited debt relief.)

So abysmal has been the country’s performance under Trump that the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in April that for the first time the United States is provoking pity from the rest of the world, which sent disaster relief to Washington rather than the other way around.

“What happened during COVID-19 represents the pinnacle to this disgust,” Daalder said. “The COVID response shows so clearly the deep problems with the American system—with our health care infrastructure, the income inequality and racial problems that persist. America has become something to be looked down at.”

The best hope, many pundits and scholars say, is that Trump is soundly defeated in November and accepts that outcome, even though he has suggested he won’t. Eventually he comes to be seen by the world—and by history—as a strange aberration, a one-of-a-kind oddity whose jingoism, narcissism, and incompetence are unlikely to come along again, whether in a Republican or Democratic president. The United States then re-joins the global system—with its usual blend of nativist reluctance and exceptional arrogance, yes, but on a more moderate (or, to be precise, adult) level than during the Trump era.

Under this scenario, a newly inaugurated President Biden, who is a deeply experienced internationalist committed to U.S. alliances, and his multicultural vice president, Kamala Harris, act swiftly to restore U.S. prestige by reversing Trump’s worst failures on COVID-19, political polarization, the economy, global stability, and climate change, as Biden has promised to do. Pointing out that Trump has failed to replace the many international agreements he has torn up, Biden would immediately rejoin and work to shore up the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement on climate change, which he helped champion as Barack Obama’s vice president (and which the United States is scheduled to complete its withdrawal from on Nov. 4, one day after the election). Going by his campaign promises, he will try to revive the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Trump has discarded and begin talks to extend the Obama-era New START nuclear reduction pact (which would expire only a few weeks into his term, though even now Trump is seeking to blow it up).

Biden would also likely seek to restore something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most comprehensive trade deal in history (which has been kept breathing in reduced form by Japan, the United States’ closest ally in Asia, since Trump pulled out of that accord as well). Because the TPP was designed to exclude and pressure Beijing into accepting fair-and-open trade norms, Biden could thereby do far more than Trump has done to confront a rising China and continue to co-opt it into the global system. Meanwhile a paralyzed and polarized Congress—so traumatized by Trumpian divisions, investigations, and impeachment for the past four years—starts working more effectively again (especially if Democrats win the Senate as well as the House, ending the legislative stalemate).

But even in this scenario it’s hard to imagine that things go back to the way they were pre-Trump. Biden, for example, will find it difficult to simply resurrect the INF Treaty and TPP, in part because he must accommodate the powerful progressive wing in his own party, which rejects untrammelled free trade pacts and over commitment to a U.S. military presence overseas. Biden has already said he would not simply re-join the TPP as it existed, for example, but would seek to renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States and has also said, before entering any new international trade deal, he would focus on a Trump-like $400 billion “Buy America” initiative to boost domestic product. Support for the World Trade Organization, which was initiated by Democrats under President Bill Clinton, is fast waning inside the party as well, amid Trump’s accusations that China has unfairly abused its rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs. And Biden, like Trump, has been seeking to pare down the United States’ role overseas for years; even as Obama’s vice president, he argued vociferously against a U.S. buildup in Afghanistan and negotiated an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq.

Indeed, perhaps the greater threat is that the stakes of this election are not quite as momentous as optimists hope—and that Trump, even if he loses power, proves to be less an aberration and more a symptom of a country that is no longer functioning well, whether as a republic or a global stabilizer, and can’t be fully trusted again.

After all, Trump’s neo-isolationism didn’t spring from nowhere; it had a lot of popular support and still does. In his new book, Kupchan argues that America’s embrace of internationalism is more an aberration than the norm in U.S. history—and he says that even for the prospective president Biden and subsequent U.S. leaders, “it’s not going to be back to the old foreign policy. We’re not going back to the institutionalized, treaty-based system that emerged after World War II. The votes in the Senate won’t be there.” To that point, a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released in September shows an unprecedented breakdown in the old consensus in support of Washington’s role, demonstrating the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party, in Daalder’s words.

Perhaps the greatest fear among U.S. allies is that the American republic may simply be caught up in an inevitable cycle of history by which great powers grow complacent and decadent and eventually collapse or wither away. Prominent realist thinkers such as John Mearsheimer have long argued that American-style liberal internationalism contains the seeds of its own destruction – excessive ambition and overreach. “Liberalism has an activist mentality woven into its core,” Mearsheimer has written. “The belief that all humans have a set of inalienable rights, that protecting these rights should override other [domestic] concerns, creates a powerful incentive for liberal states to intervene” abroad.

In recent decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents gave in to this impulse to differing degrees—from Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq. And in 2016, Trump realized, as his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton did not, that many Americans had grown weary of being global caretakers when so much was going awry at home, especially the decimation of the middle class under the aegis of rapid globalization. Biden is unlikely to make the same mistake.

Thus, in the perverse way Trump has been channelling the deepest of U.S. traditions and the fears of America’s founders, who were always worried about overreach in foreign conflict and constantly warned against its self-destructive effects, including the rise of demagogues like Trump. Most famously, John Quincy Adams said in 1821 that America must not go “in search of monsters to destroy” abroad; to do so, Adams said, would corrupt the very character of the nation: “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” In the spring of 2016, a senior Trump campaign advisor said that Trump’s first major foreign-policy speech—in which he declared that “the world must know we do not go abroad in search of enemies”—was intended as a conscious echo of Adams and a rebuke to his predecessors and their reckless interventions in Iraq and Libya.

(A modified version of the FP article by Michael Hirsh on September 25, 2020)

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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

COVID-19 vaccine facing temporary problems

The COVID-19 vaccine development round the world is going ahead in serious earnest. World’s top pharmaceutical companies are going head to head, throwing up their top scientists and technologists as well as investing large amounts of scarce resources, even when their businesses are in doldrums. The governments of various countries are also scrambling to get to the most promising candidate and at the same time hedging their bets simultaneously on a few rival companies.

What is pushing the whole world to this mad rush? The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, is the most vicious virus to ravage human species during the last 100 years or so. This virus has claimed more than 27.6 million positively identified infection cases and 898,000 deaths round the world. Needless to say, many more infections and many more deaths had gone unreported and unidentified.

The vaccine against this virus, as in all other viruses, has to go through certain internationally accepted and proven steps to ensure safety and effectiveness to the public. If any short-cut is made or any corners are cut, then the confidence of the public to accept this medicine or any future medicine will be seriously shaken.  

Of the hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines now in development round the glove, six are in the final stages of testing. This final stage is known as phase three clinical trial. Each one of these vaccines had gone through phase one and phase two testing before reaching the final phase. Only compromise that was allowed to these vaccines because of the urgency of this medication that phase one and phase two were allowed to be combined and run concurrently. These phases had to show that they are safe (with only short-term side effects, if identified, and no unexpected serious effects) and they elicit an immune response. The third phase is the final stage before approval is offered.

Usually the phase three trial comprises, what is known as case-control study, which is primarily a statistical process. The case group receives the actual vaccine which is being tested and the control group receives placebo i.e. simple saline or vaccine against a different disease. The selection of case-control groups of sample requires careful consideration and vetting. These sample groups should favourably reflect each other in parameters like racial mix, age distribution, gender distribution, economic conditions, patterns of behaviour and social habits.

To demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine, there must be significantly fewer cases of the target disease in the vaccinated group compared to the control group. Depending on infection rates of the disease, a phase three vaccine trial may involve thousands to even tens of thousands of people. The bigger the sample size, the more reliable would be the output. To be approved, vaccines need to demonstrate that they are safe and effective.

One of these is the vaccine that the University of Oxford is developing – known as Oxford vaccine. This vaccine has passed through phase one and phase two testing with flying colours and now undergoing phase three testing. The purpose of a phase three trial is to assess whether this vaccine-induced immune response is strong enough to actually protect people from COVID-19. The vaccine is designed to provoke a T cell response within 14 days of vaccination – when white blood cells attack cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus – and an antibody response within 28 days – when antibodies are able to neutralise the virus so that it cannot infect cells when initially contracted.

In the Oxford vaccine clinical trial, five countries in five continents have been chosen – India, the UK, South Africa, Brazil and the US. Thus, a wide variety of rich and developing countries in different climatic conditions had been chosen. The vaccine is being evaluated in these regions and hence the result would give a generic output applicable to almost the whole world.

In the first instance, nearly 17,000 people in three countries – the UK, South Africa and Brazil – have received the vaccines, with half being in the control group. These people would then receive booster vaccination between one and three months after the first vaccination. Exactly the same procedure is followed for both case and control groups, so that the volunteers do not know whether they received actual or placebo dose against COVID-19.

The data will be analysed statistically for each country and the results will be scrutinised and assessed by the regulatory bodies. If the results are positive, then regulatory bodies will approve of the vaccine for general use. On the other hand, if the result is marginal then there may be requirements of further improvement in the quality of vaccine or further clinical trial. This will inevitably delay in the use of vaccine by the general public.

AstraZeneca, the firm partnering Oxford to develop the vaccine, is overseeing a scaling up of manufacturing in parallel with clinical testing so that hundreds of millions of doses can be available if the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective. India’s Serum Institute has already started manufacturing the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate before clinical trials have even been completed. This is to avoid any subsequent delay if the vaccine is approved.

However, a spokesman for AstraZeneca told the Guardian newspaper in the UK that the trial had been stopped to review the “potentially unexplained illness” in one of the participants. The spokesman also stressed that the adverse reaction was only recorded in a single participant and said pausing trials was common during vaccine development.

Notwithstanding the technical issues involved in producing medicines, Donald Trump tarnished the world-wide efforts to produce vaccines with his political agenda of getting re-elected. He declared that the vaccines would be available two days before the US presidential election on 5 November and thereby implicitly and egregiously taking credit for producing COVID-19 cure under his watch!.

However, a group of nine vaccine developers has announced a ‘historic pledge’ to uphold scientific and ethical standards in the search for coronavirus vaccine. The group includes such giant pharmaceutical companies as Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna and Novavax. By their pledge, they asserted that no matter what the politically motivated pressure may be exerted on them, they will ‘always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals their top priority’. Self-publicised egoistic egregious political leaders will come and go, but the pharmaceutical companies are here to stay to produce and serve the people.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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

Dissecting COVID-19 Mortality Rates

Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is inflicting unprecedented havoc all over the world not only on human lives but also on social, economic, educational and political spheres. The most devastating part is that as scientists, medical professionals, virologists, epidemiologists and so forth come up with a potential cure or preventive medicine, they find that the virus had subtly changed in the meantime such that the medicine is no longer as effective as it is meant to be. It is a sort of cat and mouse game between scientists and the nature, where scientists are pursuing the naturally evolving deadly virus with all its technical arsenals and the nature is changing the characteristics of the viruses to outwit scientists. So far, over the past five months or so, nature is having the upper hand!

Now, setting aside the biological aspects of this devastating virus, parallel work had been going on to find out who the victims were and what were the inherent characteristics of the victims. If these characteristics could be identified precisely, then from the traits of these characteristics adequate protective measures can be prescribed and the likelihood of future damages can be reduced.  

In order to do that, one needs to have sufficiently large database of victims spanning over a period of time covering variables such as races of the victims, genders, demographic distribution, socio-economic conditions, living standards and lifestyle choices, religious adherence etc. Underneath all these variables, there may be few dominant traits which cut across these variables to perpetrate this disease within the population. To filter out these traits, one needs to dissect the mortality figures attributable to various factors.

The overall findings of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) over the past three months or so in England and Wales concur with the statistics in other multicultural and multi-ethnicity countries that black and Asian people, collectively known as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), were at higher risk from the novel coronavirus. But within this overall group, there are sub-groups where the risks are widely distributed – the risks vary on economic grounds, on educational grounds, on professional grounds as well as on religious grounds. But in all of these sub-groups, risks of BAME are higher, sometimes significantly higher, than the corresponding white sub-groups’. However, this article concentrates on risks based on religious subgroup.    

What had been identified from the study of mortality rates over the past three months or so in England and Wales was that religions offer a significant factor in fatality figures. Of course, other factors associated with the religious factor such as communal gathering in private houses, distributing and sharing of food items on religious occasions etc may have played significant roles as underlying causes in increasing the fatality figures. Let us look at the overall statistical figures before going into the underlying causes.

The ONS analysis of the mortality figures in England and Wales from March 2 to May 15 show that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have mortality rates in that order with the Muslims being the highest. The lowest rate is among people who have no-religion. Although the religion of a deceased person is not required to be specified in the death certificate, the ONS had to coordinate the deceased person’s religious affiliation from the 2011 census data, which are the latest available figures. Table 1 shows the percentage distribution of population of various religious groups. It may be noted that study population distribution is somewhat different from the 2011 Census distribution, as some people in the Census may since have passed away or emigrated and hence not available in the study population.

Table 1: Religious groups as used by the ONS
2011 Census
percentage distribution
Study population
percentage distribution
No religion25.126.0
Other religion0.40.4
Not stated or required7.27.0

It had been found that the mortality rate among Muslim men was 98.9 deaths per 100,000 (of Muslim men) and 98.2 deaths per 100,000 for women. For those who said they had no religion in Britain’s 2011 census, the figure was 80.7 deaths per 100,000 males and 47.9 deaths per 100,000 females.

However, when the age-standardised mortality rates (ASMRs) involving COVID-19 were evaluated, the deaths among Muslim religious group became 198.9 deaths per 100,000 males and 98.2 deaths per 100,000 females, which were the highest rates. The corresponding figures among Christians were 92.6 males and 54.6 females. The lowest figures were among those with no religious affiliations; the corresponding figures were 80.7 males and 47.9 females. ASMR is a statistical measure to allow more precise comparisons between two or more populations by eliminating the effects in age structure by using a “standard population”, which is taken as the European Standard Population.

Table 2: Age-standardised mortality rates involving COVID-19 for those aged nine years and over by sex and religious group, England and Wales, 2 March to 15 May 2020
Age-standardised mortality rates involving COVID-19 
Religious groupMalesFemales 
No religion80.747.9 
Other religion or not stated84.249.2 

The ONS report states that with ethnicity included, it demonstrates that a substantial part of the difference in mortality between religious groups is explained by the different circumstances in which members of these groups are known to live – for example, living in areas with higher levels of socio-economic deprivation and differences in ethnic makeup. The adherents of various religions have different levels of education and career pursuits and that may lead to different socio-economic strata.

Figure 1: Muslim, Sikh or Hindu had higher mortality rates compared to the Christian and no-religion populations

Age-standardised mortality rates of death involving COVID-19 for those aged 9 to 64 years by sex and religious group, England and Wales, 2 March to 15 May 2020. It may be pointed out that, for example, ASMR in Muslim males between 9 and 64 is about 47 per 100,000, whereas for the whole population of Muslim males, i.e. age 9 to 64 and 65+, the figure is 198.9 per 100,000. That shows that the mortality in the age group 65+ is 151.9 per 100,000! Thus, the 65+ Muslim group is over 3 times more vulnerable than the under 65 group in England and Wales!

It had also been found out that the highest mortality rate was among black men at 255.7 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 87 deaths per 100,000 white males. The death rate was 119.8 per 100,000 for black women and 52 per 100,000 for white women.

Thus, COVID-19 pandemic had identified the vulnerability of population as a whole and the various subgroups of population. From those sub-groups the underlying causes such as economic deprivation, lack of education, concentration of people in the community, lifestyles, social patterns, religious adherence and many other factors may be identified.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Technical

Building a sustainable society in the age of climate change

In an article published in this website May 15, 2020, I discussed the future of our planet within the context of frontier ethics. The main conclusion was that frontier ethics, which affects our attitudes about the seriousness of environmental problems, will eventually lead to massive resource depletion and ecological disasters, and accelerate the pernicious effects of climate change.

Those who believe in frontier ethics are least concerned about the declining fossil fuel reserves because they are convinced that reserves will never become dry. Their mantra—”Why be efficient if resources are unlimited”—prevents them from using available resources more efficiently. Instead, they maintain that we should increase the search for new reserves, even if it takes us into one of the few remaining pristine wilderness on our planet.

A classic example of someone who preaches and practices frontier ethics is Donald Trump. After becoming president of the United States of America, he signed an executive order opening up the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration. Until then, it was an environmentally sensitive area long closed to drilling. Furthermore, he gave the coal industry in America a carté blanche to dig wherever there may be signs of coal. He also repealed former president Obama’s Clean Power Plan, giving states more flexibility to keep coal-fired power plants open.

Arguably, societies that believe in frontier ethics are low-synergy societies treading on a path of unsustainability. In contrast, high-synergy societies live in harmony with nature and they seek ways to enhance natural systems. Creating a high-synergy society that lives within the Earth’s means is possible if we adopt a set of sustainable ethics that ensures future generations and other species the resources they need to survive.

The tenets of sustainable ethics are: The Earth has a limited supply of resources, and they are not all for us; humans are a part of nature, subject to its laws; and success stems from efforts to cooperate with the forces of nature. Clearly, sustainable ethics recognises our place in the natural order as one of many millions of species and they favour cooperation over domination. Also, they are diametrically opposed to the tenets of frontier ethics. While frontier ethics leads to exploitive behaviour, sustainable ethics will lead to a less exploitive human presence that can endure for thousands of years.

In addition to the three tenets, there are at least six principles that lie at the core of sustainability. They are conservation, recycling, using renewable resources, restoration, population control and adaptability. Among other measures discussed below, if we follow these principles, we can create and maintain a well-functioning global ecosystem.

In order to build a sustainable society in which future generations and other species can survive and live well, we have to change our thinking process too—from linear to system thinking. Linear thinking sees events in a straight-line sequence, ignoring a complex web of interactions, while system thinking recognises how entire systems function. In the environmental arena, system thinking helps us to see how individual parts work together and how interdependent all life forms are. By becoming better system thinkers, we can learn to avoid impacts that threaten the health and wellbeing of the planet and its organisms.

Because system thinking encourages us to look at the whole, it will naturally force us to look at the root cause of problems, especially environmental ones. Additionally, it can help society to identify key leverage points as to where changes can be made. Moreover, system thinking will enhance our ability to see the big picture as well as connections between various parts that are essential to solving the many environmental problems, particularly those caused by climate change, and putting us on a sustainable path. Unfortunately, most of the world leaders are not system thinkers and therefore cannot guide us toward a sustainable society.

Building a sustainable society requires widespread participation with input from the rich and poor, conservative and liberal, young and old. In fact, sustainable solutions call for action from large and small businesses, individuals and governments. Individuals are important because each one of us is part of the problem. In other words, seemingly insignificant actions by us, albeit small, are responsible for many environmental problems we are facing today.

Achieving a sustainable world also requires massive cooperation between citizens and governments. Cooperation must occur on a much grander scale, with countries working together for the common good of their citizens and the planet. At the same time, we have to develop a unified strategy to fight the unique challenges posed by climate change.

But how do we achieve this cooperation and develop a unified strategy in an era when climate change is an impediment towards sustainable development? Since 1995, world governments have met every year at the so-called Conference of Parties to forge a global response to the climate change emergency. However, besides stating lofty goals, these dysfunctional conferences were either fractious or soporific. Interspersed with moments of rare triumph though, such as the Paris agreement in 2015, they mostly failed to deliver strong commitments to tackle the terror unleashed by climate change.

In the meantime, the impact of climate change on humans, animals and the environment are becoming increasingly unbearable. It is dragging millions of people into grinding poverty. That being the case, virtually no one any longer believes that these conferences will ever be able to tackle climate change, thereby allowing us to lead a sustainable life. If it sounds downbeat, that is because it is.

So how do we create a sustainable future? As noted by Einstein, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Indeed, from the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we can observe some encouraging trends in our behaviour and lifestyle that have profound implications in the fight against climate change. If we can hold on to these trends in the post-pandemic world, we will be able to face the ongoing existential threat of climate change effectively and thus create a sustainable society.

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