The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Continue reading “The Price of Social Distancing”

A Planet Made of Diamond

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Things Ever Discovered in Space

It’s actually really easy to think of space as boring. The planets in our own solar system all seem to be empty rocks or balls of gas, and you find a whole lot of nothing before you get to the next star. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s most creative minds can’t get past populating the place with planets that look a whole lot like Earth (and specifically, parts of California) featuring monsters, rapey aliens or Muppets.

But real space is far, far stranger. You just have to know where to look to find things like …

Science fiction writers have this annoying thing they do where they can only think of like five different types of planets. You know, there’s the ice planets (like Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back) and the forest planets (like in Avatar), desert planets, lava planets, etc.

But scientists have studied almost 700 real planets outside the solar system, and some of them are downright gaudy. Case in point: PSR J1719-1438 b. Planet Fancy isn’t having any of that rocky gassy stuff. Because it’s straight up made of diamond:

Via?Inewp.com
It’s a wedding gem worthy of Jesus or the Sultan of Dubai.

How Is This Even Possible?

The universe’s biggest showoff actually used to be a star, and sometimes the debris that’s left over after the star dies starts a second career as a planet. In this case, Blingworld started off life as one of two parts of a binary star. The larger twin made like a bomb and supernova-ed. What was left behind was a pulsating star, or pulsar, and a white dwarf. The dwarf stabilized just far enough away from its former brother to lose matter to the bully but to keep its carbon core.

Via?Spaceflightnow.com
What a dick!

Carbon is just a shitload of heat and pressure away from becoming a diamond. On Earth, that happens underground and creates little shiny bits for people to dig up and cram into their jewelry. But in this particular spot in space, the conditions were just right for the entire interior of that former star to harden, crystallize and turn into a planet-sized gem.

Damn it, mankind’s single goal should now be to assemble a mission to tow this bastard back to Earth. There’s one pawn shop owner who’s going to be in for a big fucking surprise.

Photos.com
“Yeah, that’s cute. Get your telescope and come with me.”

#5. A Gigantic Rain Cloud

Here’s another thing you never see in space movies: water. The Millennium Falcon doesn’t have windshield wipers. The Enterprise’s huge display screen doesn’t get fogged up because they flew through a space cloud. If you saw that in a sci-fi movie (with the pilot all “Damn, I can’t see due to all of this space rain!”), you’d laugh your ass off. “Have these people even been to space?”

But, guess what: Scientists have found a big-ass pool of water just floating out there in the cosmos. This massive reservoir of floating space water vapor is in fact the biggest collection of water in the universe that we know of.

Photos.com
With the smallest concentration of child urine.

And when we say “big” we’re not talking Pacific Ocean big. We’re talking 100,000 times larger than the sun big. This is a vapor cloud so large it holds 140 trillion times more water than all of our oceans.

Photos.com
And you know what that means …?space sharks.

How Is This Even Possible?

As with everything else on this list, scientists are doing a lot of shrugging and guesstimating at what we’re actually looking at. After all, the water cloud is 10 billion light-years away, so it’s not like the next generation of astronauts are going to be packing their swimming trunks or anything. But they think that what’s going on is that there’s this massive black hole that’s chomping down on everything around it. Instead of spewing out energy like a normal black hole would, the black hole is excreting water vapor. Somehow. They’re still figuring it out.

Basically, picture the big black spot as a gaping mouth and the ring of water around as drool, and you get the idea:

Via?Universetoday.com
And all like, “Duuuuhhhh,” because black holes are stupid.

Or, if that image is disturbing, pretend the big black hole in the center is a space water park and the gassy ring around it is the universe’s most kickass lazy river.

OK, so you could totally wind up flying your spaceship through a rain cloud. But it’s not like flying through a thunderstorm. After all, there’s no lightning in space. Right?

#4. Lightning!

Wrong!

Scientists have known for a while that lightning isn’t unique to Earth. They’ve observed lightning on Mars and Saturn. What they didn’t know is that lightning could occur in the middle of goddamn space, with a force equal to a trillion lightning bolts, or to use the proper scientific terms, 50 million fucktons of electricity.

Via?Newscientist.com
Yeah, where’s your kite now, Benjamin?

That insane electrical current was discovered near galaxy 3C303. But is this huge electrical current serving as an outlet for God to plug in his blow dryer? No, it’s not doing anything that cool … it’s just firing a massive jet of electrified matter 150,000 light-years into outer space.

OK, so maybe referring to this as a lightning storm was underplaying it a bit. Instead, try imagining a single bolt of lightning 50 percent longer than the entire Milky Way galaxy.


Add a skull and the silhouette of a graveyard and you have yourself an ’80s metal album cover.

How Is This Even Possible?

Like most cool things in space, this electrical current is caused by a black hole, the prima donna of the universe. Astronomers speculate that a giant black hole in the center of 3C303 has an unusually strong magnetic field, which in turn generates a ridiculous amount of electricity.

Photos.com
Which in turn makes a wicked T-shirt design.

In fact, it’s the biggest burst of electrical current ever detected in the universe. Maybe that’s how we were able to pick it up from two billion freaking light-years away.

The Dark Side of the Moon

By Saroop Ijaz Published: August 31, 2013

The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore saroop.ijaz@ tribune.com.pk

The passing of the first death anniversary of Neil Armstrong last week is an opportunity to reflect on our own connection (admittedly flimsy) with the first man on the moon. Two years before Armstrong landed on the moon, Ghulam Abbas wrote Dhanak, one of the best satirical short stories (The short story has been ably adapted by Shahid Nadeem into a play named Hotel Mohenjodaro) of all times, and unnervingly prescient. Written in 1967, the story begins with the first man landing on moon, not Armstrong, but a Pakistani PAF Captain, Adam Khan. Local and international dignitaries gather on the rooftop garden of the 71-storied Hotel Mohenjodaro in Karachi to listen to Adam Khan’s message from the moon. His brief message is, “I am Captain Adam Khan. I come from the district of Jhang in Punjab … I have landed safely. All praise to Allah … Pakistan Zindabad.”

Pakistan is congratulated all over the world and celebrations begin all around the country. However, like most good things, the triumph is short-lived. In a small town, outside of Karachi, a local imam terms the journey to the moon un-Islamic and satanic. The call of jihadtravels from one mosque to another and in a jiffy, the whole country is engaged in the holy battle, chanting for Adam Khan’s death for trespassing into the forbidden domain. Briefly, the government loses the fight and an Amirul Momineen takes over. Sharia is imposed. Foreigners are driven out. All languages other than Arabic are banned. Beards are mandatory. Women are forbidden to leave the house. All technology and ‘Western’ medicine is declared haram. The construction of any building higher than the Jamia Mosque is unlawful. This descent into piety happens in just one month from the sanctimonious landing on moon.

All is not well, still. The initially overlooked question of which sect’s Sharia would be implemented rather violently rises up. Blood runs in mosques. Muslims kill Muslims, both sides fighting in the name of faith. Medievalism descends into chaos. The story ends with foreign aircraft bombing Karachi to rubble.

The date of writing is worth mentioning again — 1967. There might be very few writings in all of world literature that get the trajectory of the future so spectacularly, accurately right. Hotel Mohenjodaro, despite being on a par with anything that Orwell or Huxley have ever written on the subject, is not taught in curriculum in Pakistan. That is unlikely to change in the near future, very particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). The K-P government has decided to reintroduce the verses mandating jihad into the syllabus. The K-P government is also firmly against the Muslims fighting Muslims business, even if the other side of the Muslims has no such qualms about blowing up schools and buses filled with schoolchildren, etc. Women were not allowed to vote in many constituencies in K-P and Punjab. Agents of Western medicine, polio workers are still attacked on a regular basis. Adam Khan’s Jhang is not known today for producing top rate astronauts or PAF officers.

Till present, Mian Sahib has not made a serious effort to be appointed Amirul Momineen. However, in Mian Sahib’s Punjab, the Al-Bakistan licence plates are all the jazz. What we lack in the fight against the Taliban is made up by increasing the intensity in the war on technology. The reports on what the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) seeks to ban are contradictory and murky. However, one thing remains clear — that the PTA is extremely concerned about our morality and decency. The Supreme Court has also, in the past, expressed grave apprehension on the issue of late night telephone call packages, no doubt the evil at the centre of all our ills. Websites are blocked to protect us from sin and being led astray. Prime television programmes discuss jinns at length. Economists argue for the virtues and efficiency of ‘bonded labour’. The one point solution that solves our economic problems is to get rid of ‘Riba’, don’t ask how, and just have faith.

The closest thing that we have ever come to landing on the moon is Dr Abdus Salam winning the Nobel Prize. Like, Adam Khan, Dr Salam lost, and the small time, violent Moulvi won. In a country of water kits, the grave of Dr Salam stands vandalised. Ahmadis are being told to leave ‘Muslim’ areas, and the tricky bit here is that all areas are Muslim areas.

Krishn Nagar in Lahore is now renamed Islampura, Dharampura is Mustafabad. Bhagat Singh’s birth and death anniversaries pass unnoticed, while Ghazi Ilm Din is remembered. To use ‘Hindu’ while intending ‘Indian’ is acceptable practice, even in ‘educated and polite’ society. Using condescending terms and tones while referring to ‘minorities’ is not frowned upon. After an attack on ‘minorities’, the educated and liberal feel ‘ashamed’ at not being able to protect ‘them’, noble sentiments, however blatantly exclusionary. Not outraged, like when ‘we’ are attacked.

Dr Aafia Siddiqui is one of ‘us’ never mind the US citizenship and conviction on terror charges. Aasia Bibi is someone that some of us feel sorry about to discharge our civic responsibilities, of course when she is uncomfortably and occasionally brought up. What is happening to Aasia Bibi is at best (or is it worst?) a ‘shame’, whereas Dr Aafia Siddiqui is when our blood really boils, in ‘how dare they’ tones.

We already live in Ghulam Abbas’s, “Hotel Mohenjodaro”, yet worse, the landing on the moon never happened neither the rooftop garden on the 71st floor. We nosedived even before take-off. No high point, not even for false nostalgia.

What is the point of all this, we already know that? Yes, we do. However, the lesson of “Hotel Mohenjodaro” is that not only can it get worse, but it will get worse; inertia. Once the almost twin Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed, it was only a matter of time before other twin structures were hit. What the PTI and Mian Sahib need to wake up to is that appeasement and surrender does not work with those who ask for the entire world, perhaps ponder over Ghulam Abbas’s warning, cities and countries are sometimes reduced to rubble.

P.S.: As August comes to an end and the mighty seek to restrict freedom of expression, while at the same time fumbling with their own speech, WH Auden’s “August 1968” predicting the Prague Spring because of the inability of those in power to speak to the people bears rereading. “The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one Prize is beyond his reach, The Ogre cannot master Speech, About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain, The Ogre stalks with hands on hips, While drivel gushes form his lips.”

Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2013.

The Pale Blue Dot

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By Carl Sagan

Seen from 6 billion kilometers away, Earth appears as a tiny dot (the blueish-white speck approximately halfway down the brown band to the right) within the darkness of deep space. The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance (6 BILLION kilometers. In the meantime, Voyager is more than 16 billion kilometers -10 billion miles- away), showing it against the vastness of space. By request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission and now leaving the Solar System, to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there ? on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”