Friday, January 8, 2021

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

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


Global Views 360

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January 8, 2021


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.

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January 17, 2021 12:28 PM

Storming of the Capitol Hill and the Anatomy of Trumpism

On January 6, 2021, thousands of Trump supporters marched towards the Capitol Hill and stormed the building after outgoing President Donald Trump allegedly incited the crowd during his speech. It is also being called one of the worst security breaches in American history.

One of the often-cited reason for the insurrection is the idea of “Trumpism.” Therefore, this article explores what happened at the Capitol Hill in light of the idea of Trumpism.

What happened that led to the storming of the US Capitol?

Prior to the storming, the protesters assembled on the South Lawn for the 'Save America March'  where President Trump, his lawyer and advisor Rudy Giuliani, and others gave speeches. There,  Giuliani called the election results “crooked” and Trump, who gave the speech behind a glass barrier, declared that he would “never concede”, criticised the media by calling it “fake” and “biased”, and wrongly claimed that the Vice President Mike Pence had the power to overturn the election results. He also went on to tell the crowd to “fight like hell”.

Storming at Capitol Hill | Source: Tyler Merbler via Flickr

After the rally, the crowd of supporters instigated by Trump marched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol Hill and breached security, occupying parts of the building for several hours. They did this in an effort to disrupt the electoral college vote count during a joint session of the Congress and prevent the formalization of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. They ransacked and vandalised several parts of the building including the senate chamber and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. They allegedly wanted to “hang” Vice President Mike Pence and also chanted the slogan “Where is Pence?” The vice president had been whisked to a secure location in the Capitol complex. Apart from that, they were chanting the slogans “stop the steal” and “USA,USA”, among others.

The rioters left the Capitol Hill after hours of looting and riots. It led to 5 deaths, out of which one was a police officer. After the rioting was over, the senate continued its session and declared Biden as the President. It also concluded that there was no voter fraud. There have been many arrests since then and police is still searching for more.

Why do Trump’s supporters believe him?

A supporter of Donald Trump | Source: Lorie Shaull via Flickr

They believe in something which is nowadays termed ‘Trumpism'. Trumpism is a term for the political ideology, type of governance, political movement and set of mechanisms for acquiring and keeping power that are associated with the 45th United States president, Donald Trump and his political base. It is a kind of American politics that is right wing to far-right, and has nationalist sentiments. His ideologies are also believed to be illiberal and close to fascism. Trump also claimed once, in 2016, that he could shoot someone standing in the Fifth Avenue, and his supporters wouldn’t abandon him.

Trump has managed to establish an emotional connection with his supporters, which consists of around 40% of the Americans. An article by Timothy Pytell on Psychology Today pointed out that it is a narcissistic identification with Trump that leads his supporters to follow him. By openly claiming he can do whatever he wants to, shoot anyone and still retain support, or grab women without their consent, he has tapped into the unconscious desires and thoughts of millions of Americans. His vulgarity, indecency, and law-breaking leads his followers into a narcissistic identification – as if they are Trump. Even though Trump may have to leave the White House, he will have the spotlight and Trumpism will not fade away from politics. This is the reason why the protestors believed in the “stop the steal” slogan.

Whenever Trump says “ I’m suffering for you” or shows as if he’s doing everything for America, his followers begin to see him as a true leader and it consolidates belief. Another thing is Trump considers himself God-like, and therefore religious groups and other people start connecting him to religion. They start believing even in his blatant lies.

Another reason that strengthened the Trump ideology are pro-right wing TV Channels like Fox news. They turn everything that Trump did into something “great”. Such channels are able to support the movement on a deeper level by brainwashing the audience.

The way he speaks, behaves and acts – makes such people relate with him so much that they start believing in him. There’s more about feelings, emotions and “dreampolitik realm” in Trumpism rather than economics and policies. The supporters were literally devoted to Trump. And if someone is not believing in his dangerous ideas, such as the liberals, Democrats, and especially some of the Republicans who went against Trump, they have either been termed “weak” or “losers” and in some cases, even traitors. An example of this is - "Where are Republicans! Have some backbone," Eric Trump tweeted in November during the elections. "Fight against this fraud. Our voters will never forget you if your sheep!" Clearly he wanted to convey that the people who are not fighting lack “backbone” and are somewhat like a coward. Such things instigated people in the name of bravery and nationalism.

Many of his supporters and base includes White supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan, an American white supremacist hate group whose primary targets are African Americans. Its lesser enemies include Jews, immigrants, leftists, homosexuals, Muslims and, until recently, Catholics. Other than the above mentioned his main supporters include people from the rural areas, the middle states, white evangelists, and those into blue collar jobs or without college degrees. There’s a small population of non-white as well.

The riots proved that although the President has been defeated in the elections, his Trumpism remains deep-rooted, and will outlast him. “The work of undoing the siren call of Trumpism will require, to begin, a deeper understanding of its appeal”, Jeff Goodwin, an New York University Professor of Sociology and expert on movement politics, told CNN. He added, “A large part of Trumpism's appeal is Trump's personal appeal to a lot of people -- as a celebrity, as a crass speaker of truth, as these people see him, someone who doesn't mince words, someone who really tells it like it is. He's figured things out, he's a billionaire and he knows how the system works. All these elements of Trump's personality and character seem to have a lot of appeal to a big segment of the population. But I don't know if there is Trumpism without Trump.” He describes Trumpism as a “contradictory, unstable amalgam” of five key ideological pieces – Social conservatism (anti-abortion and anti-LGBT policies), Neoliberal capitalism (tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation), Economic nationalism, Nativism (anti-immigration policies), and white nationalism (refusal to condemn Proud Boys and others).

Aftermath and Reactions on the Capitol Insurrection

People commented and condemned the incident, not only in America but from all over the world. “This is what the president has caused today, this insurrection,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney told a reporter. But the President himself didn’t condemn the rioters. Instead, he released a video message, telling his supporters to “go home and go home in peace” and said, “We love you; you’re very special.” He further went on with his false claims that the elections were “stolen”. In fact, in his speech which incited these people, Trump said he would join them and march together towards the Capitol, which he certainly didn’t do and went back to the White House, because most probably he didn’t want the dirt on him. He later tweeted telling the protestors to “stay peaceful”, but did not condemn or tell them to return back.

Reacting to President Trump’s irresponsible behaviour, Facebook locked Trump's accounts and removed posts related to the incident, Twitter locked his account for 12 hours, and then permanently suspended it.

Even the police was criticised for its role in the protests. In several footages, police officials can be seen bringing in the protestors and even clicking selfies with them. They were criticised for their biased attitude towards the riot and the leniency shown towards it as compared to the Black Lives Matter movement, that was comparatively peaceful. Several leaders, including President-elect Joe Biden have pointed out this racism which is visible in the difference between the handling of both the movements by the police.

The flags, signs, and other damaged items, including Nancy Pelosi’s broken name plate, will be preserved as historical artefacts in the House and Senate collections and shared with national museums.

It has also been called a coup d’état, and was a possible attempt to overturn the decision in a forceful manner, which certainly was undemocratic. Several leaders from countries around the world including France, China, Australia, Germany India, Israel, and the UK reacted to the incident and condemned it. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “disgraceful” while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani went on to blame the system itself and tweeted “What we saw last night and today in America firstly proved what a failure the Western democracy is and how fragile and weak its foundation is,” he said.

Democrats have introduced an article of impeachment against US President Donald Trump for his role in the deadly invasion of the Capitol. The article accuses M.r Trump of “incitement of insurrection.” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said, "The president represents an imminent threat to our constitution, our country and the American people, and he must be removed from office immediately," Calls for Mr Trump's resignation, removal from office or impeachment have grown among Democrats and some Republicans in the days following the riots in Congress in which five people died. No US president has ever been impeached twice. However, it’s unlikely that Trump will be successfully impeached, because of his broad Republican support in the Senate.

Trump has said he is ready for a transition, and President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn-in as the 46th President on January 20th. But he added he will not attend the swearing-in ceremony.

In the last four years, the liberals, Democrats, the left and all Trump’s critics were accused of hysteria and hyperbole for calling his movements fascist, authoritarian and lawless. But now, the scenario seems to validate their claims showing how the Trump movement really proved to be a threat to the US as well as to the idea of democracy.

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