Que sera sera

Published: April 13, 2019
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The first photograph of a black hole and its fiery halo, released Wednesday by Event Horizon Telescope astronomers, is the "most direct proof of their existence," one of the project's lead scientists, PHOTO: NSF

The first photograph of a black hole and its fiery halo, released Wednesday by Event Horizon Telescope astronomers, is the "most direct proof of their existence," one of the project's lead scientists, PHOTO: NSF

The first photograph of a black hole and its fiery halo, released Wednesday by Event Horizon Telescope astronomers, is the "most direct proof of their existence," one of the project's lead scientists, PHOTO: NSF The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

Nolan Brothers have made quite a name in bringing great mind bending and enthralling movies and TV shows to us. Interstellar, one of their recent movies, is wholly remarkable because it features man’s tryst with a black hole and a wormhole. One scene is simply spellbinding. The protagonist has travelled through a wormhole to a set of habitable planets in a distant galaxy. And these planets neighbour a black hole. On one such planet dominated by ocean when he sees one gargantuan tidal wave caused most probably by the black hole’s gravity. The sight of that tidal wave, against whose size any of our skyscrapers would look like a pebble, takes the viewer’s breath away.

We still have to find visual proof of a wormhole, but mankind has managed to take a mug shot of a black hole. It is larger than our solar system and sits some 55 million light years away from our home. After Dr Brian Greene introduced us to the sound of two colliding black holes on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, this is a veritable coup of sorts for scientists. As per the team that worked the Event Horizon Telescope and brought us this picture, a single night of studying the phenomenon brought to them data in petabytes (1,000 terabytes). This can help scientists ranging from the fields of astrophysics to quantum physics help a lot to learn about how our universe works. But that is for experts. For lay people this picture is a proof that the phenomenon they vaguely know might exist, does exist.

This caused a lot of excitement in the media as well. Julie Woodruff asked Dr Greene if humanity had anything to worry about the black hole. Dr Greene immediately told her that it did not. Given that the mammoth black hole is millions of lights years away, and the closest one, at the centre of our galaxy, is also thousands of light years farther naturally there is no chance of being sucked into their gravitational vortex. But that is a half-truth. Dr Greene wasn’t as forthcoming about it as would seem to a viewer. I hope you realise that the total distance between the photographed black hole and earth also implies that the picture you see is 55 million years old. This is how it would have looked 55 million years ago. Nothing travels faster than light and a light year is the distance light travels in one year.

And that is not all. We know that a black hole can bend light and nothing escapes once it enters its event horizon. But it also bends time. And that is where it all gets crazy. For a long time, it was believed that the matter which entered its outer most boundary (event horizon) got squished into singularity (the zero dimensional point at its centre). What happened to energy entering this space was open to speculation. It was believed that black holes radiate energy. Now every premise we had about a black hole has been challenged. But what should fascinate you more is that light and matter are not the only things that it bends. It bends time too. We still don’t know how the quantum mechanics of it all works. But if you are seeing the million years old sights now what if you are enduring temporal ripples created by it too. The object existed even before we saw what we captured. Could these eddies of time be responsible for why we find ourselves so alone in the universe? What else could it be doing to us? We will have to wait for the experts to tell us more. But these questions remind one of another Nolan TV show ‘Westworld’, where one character asks “Where am I? When am I?”

So these are the tales of cosmic grandeur and of black holes. Just to refresh your memory about black holes before we return to our own planet, a black hole is not a celebration of life. It is a celebration of death. It is dead star after all.

Let us now return to our own planet. A lot has transpired here in recent days. Sudan witnessed a military coup. Erdogan’s party ostensibly lost local elections in Ankara and Istanbul and refused to accept results. Julian Assange just got arrested. India began its electoral cycle which will conclude in one and a half months. And Netanyahu managed to snatch a victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat. What does it all remind you? Celebration of death? Death of democracy? Populism and expedience if kleptocratic demagoguery is proving to be the black hole that sucks the lifeblood out of democracy’s frail body. After such a blatant disregard for the norms of democracy, if Modi’s party also manages to steal the elections like Netanyahu did, it is all folks for democracy. These are not small powers. Both India and Israel have an incredible amount of smart power and influence. They may use this smart power to copy their DNA all over the place.

In Israel we still saw a second contender for power emerging after over a decade of Likud rule. But then it is Israel where the situation has been so disappointing. Unlike Modi, Netanyahu is a cultured and educated man. The man who in his prime was his country’s diplomat cannot actually be that fanatical. However, he has sold his soul, his country’s stability and fate of the West Bank to the fringe elements of the far right in exchange for immunity from corruption trial. Now as he sits in his comfy office he should enjoy as his country gets more exposed to scrutiny and becomes more polarised and unstable. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

The biggest problem with extremists all over the world is that many of them seem in an indecent haste to end this world. We know entropy is irreversible and everything has to end one day but why try to bring it upon ourselves prematurely? Why not leave it to the divine will? Let us hope that the collapsing star of democracy does not take the civilisation along. But what can we do if it does? I am trying to prepare myself for any eventuality. Que sera sera.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2019.

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