Friday, January 8, 2021

Remembering Dr. Stephen Hawking: One of the greatest physicists of our times

This article is by

Share this article

Article Contributor(s)

Oem Trivedi

Article Title

Remembering Dr. Stephen Hawking: One of the greatest physicists of our times


Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 8, 2021


Graffiti art remembering Dr. Stephen Hawking

Graffiti art remembering Dr. Stephen Hawking | Source: duncan c via Flickr

The last 50 years have produced some of the most fascinating ideas from physics which have ever been known to us mere mortals. Whether it is the idea of string theory where the world is made of tiny strings smaller than whatever lengths we can possibly encounter or whether it is the astonishing revelations that we possibly do not understand 96% of what constitutes the Universe, all of these brilliant ideas have caught the attention of both professional physicists and the normal population alike. This has also shot loads of world class physicists to limelight, with the likes of Roger Penrose, Edward Witten, Juan Maldacena, Abhay Ashtekar and Erik Verlinde amongst a huge number of physicists who have achieved great public acclaim for their work on Gravitational theories while the likes of Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, Jim Peebles amongst others have become famous names for their groundbreaking work in Cosmology. But perhaps the best-known figure of theoretical physics in the last half century has been someone who, despite all kinds of odds stacked against him, has contributed deeply to both Gravitational Physics and Cosmology, and his name is Stephen Hawking!

The depth and the length of Hawking’s scientific discoveries can not possibly be described to their full glory in one single article and that speaks volumes of the kind of incredible physics he pursued throughout his life. But intriguingly enough, physics was not what a young Stephen was supposedly going to do in his life. Stephen was born into a family which placed a high value towards a good education, as his father, Frank, was a medical researcher while his mother, Isobel, (having read Philosophy at Oxford, where she met Hawking’s father) was a secretary at a medical institute. While Hawking was named “Einstein” in his school days, his father actually wanted him to also study medicine like him. However, the young Stephen was actually fond of mathematics and since Oxford - where he pursued his undergraduation - didn’t offer a Mathematics degree at the time, he decided to major in Physics instead. Slowly, he gained an incredible amount of interest towards Physics although he was a conventionally “lazy” student throughout his undergraduation. He would not study seriously as he found most of work really easy and interestingly enough, it was the boat club in his university which slowly propelled him towards putting efforts as a student.

When Hawking started his PhD in Cambridge, he was quite disappointed to have not been made a student of legendary astronomer Fred Hoyle, instead he was made a student of Dennis Sciama. This proved fortuitous however, as Sciama was incredibly knowledgeable about almost everything in Cosmology and eventually became a central figure in British Cosmology. It was through him that Hawking got to meet his life-long collaborator and recently awarded Nobel Prize Winner, Sir Roger Penrose.  The meeting with Penrose, who was then working on some bewildering properties of the Black Hole, proved to be a pivotal moment of Hawking’s career. Penrose had shown in a general way the existence of space-time singularities, which is a point inside the black hole where the known laws of Physics, like General Relativity, collapse. Hawking used Penrose’s theorem to show that if one completely rewinds the entire history of the universe, then one would reach exactly to the kind of point which Penrose had described for a black hole; a Space-Time or in this case the Big-Bang Singularity.

Dr. Stephen Hawking at official opening of the Weston Library, Oxford, England | Source: John Cairns via Wikimedia

This idea shows that the universe began from an infinitesimally small point of seemingly infinite density, and hence, Einstein’s seminal theory of General Relativity also fails to explain the properties of the Universe at the time of its creation. This work of Hawking came to be of an astounding magnitude, and this has propelled work on loads of theories both of the early universe and even towards considerations of modifying General Relativity itself! This excellent work got Stephen his doctorate degree at Cambridge, a fact made even more stupendously inspirational considering that he was diagnosed with the Motor Neuron Disease by this time which made him completely paralyzed. He was in a state of depression after being diagnosed with this disease with doctors claiming that he had not much time left to live. It was then through the support of his family and his girlfriend (who soon became his wife) that got him through a very dark realization and motivated him to again pursue physics to the best of his abilities.

After his great work on the Big Bang, Hawking shifted his attention quite literally towards Black Holes. He produced a number of incredible theorems regarding them with Sir Penrose, which are now known as “Penrose—Hawking singularity theorems”. He was also collaborating vigorously with James Bardeen and Brandon Carter at this time, and together they produced some excellent work which showed how Black Holes could lose energy. Around the same time Jacob Bekenstein (who was then a PhD Student at Princeton University) showed that there had to be the existence of some quantum mechanical effects which would lead to the Black Hole having a so-called “entropy” (which is the classical measure of the disorder of a physical system). On the basis of his work with Carter and Bardeen with considerations to Bekenstein’s ideas, Hawking then showed that Black Holes lose energy by radiating it away through a particular mechanism. Considering Einstein’s seminal idea of Mass-Energy equivalence through E=MC2, this incredible work of Hawking meant that Black Holes actually lose Mass by radiating it away in a process now fittingly known as “Hawking Radiation''. Hawking Radiation has become a central idea in studies of Black Holes, Quantum Gravity and the very early universe, and was the key idea which propelled the concept of “Primordial Black Holes”, which refers to the Black Holes which were created in the very early universe. Recently there has been a lot of work which points towards the realization that these primordial black holes may constitute a huge part, if not all, of the dark matter in the universe (which is a mysterious form of matter which forms approximately 23% of the universe). If it is indeed the case, then Hawking’s work will inadvertently be the propeller towards the understanding of dark matter.

Throughout the time in which Hawking did all the above-mentioned work, his research was up there with the finest (if not the finest itself!) on gravitational physics and cosmology in the world. In his later years, Hawking became fascinated with even more exotic ideas which ranged from understanding quantum gravity (the theory of gravity at the smallest scales) and the Multiverse (the idea of an infinite number of universes) to the prospect of Extraterrestrial life and Time Travel. He produced some really insightful work on Quantum Gravity, and his work on Hawking Radiation has fueled loads of work in quantum gravitational theories like String theory and Loop Quantum Gravity. He even hosted a party for time travelers and discussed in length about Aliens & the effects of AI on humans in his later life.

But let’s end this very brief note of his life with this anecdote. Somak Raychoudhary, the current director of IUCAA in India, reminisces how he once met Sir Penrose’s office during his PhD days in Oxford about the allowance to attend one of his classes. Penrose was discussing some work with another PhD student at that time and was startled when he heard Somak’s surname. He said “ Are you related to the Raychoudhary?”. Somak was startled by hearing this and asked who it was that Penrose referred to. Penrose then exclaimed that he was referring to Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri, the Indian astrophysicist who discovered a seminal equation known by his name as the “Raychaudhri Equation”. When Somak told that he had indeed taken classes from Professor Amal, Penrose was very happy and immediately granted him permission to attend his classes. At this, the quiet PhD Student sitting with Penrose said to Somak “ We (him and Penrose) are incredibly inspired by his work and wish to meet him once in person “. That PhD Student was none other than Stephen Hawking and goes to show, the incredibly high regard Raychaudhri’s work is held in, while the general Indian don’t know much about him.

Support us to bring the world closer

To keep our content accessible we don't charge anything from our readers and rely on donations to continue working. Your support is critical in keeping Global Views 360 independent and helps us to present a well-rounded world view on different international issues for you. Every contribution, however big or small, is valuable for us to keep on delivering in future as well.

Support Us

Share this article

Read More

July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

Read More