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75 not out

July 27, 2019

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irfan.husain@gmail.com
irfan.husain@gmail.com

HAVING recently — and against my most optimistic expectation — hit the venerable age of 75, I realise it’s going to be downhill from here.

But it’s mostly been a satisfying journey thus far, apart from the occasional blip. I have been blessed with a wonderful family and great friends. Having travelled widely, I have been able to see things through the prism of diverse cultures, and learned to be tolerant of views opposed to mine.

Above all, I have lived through a period of enormous scientific ferment. When I ordered a few PCs for the government office I ran in the mid-1980s, I needed a certificate from the US embassy to reassure IBM that the computers would not be used for nuclear research. The clock speed on the machines was around 7.4 MHz, blindingly fast for their day, but long since overtaken by the most basic Nokia mobile phone.

It’s been a satisfying journey, apart from the occasional blip.

Other technological advances have helped to transform the world. In just about every field, new developments have ushered in a revolution in our way of life. Perhaps the most pervasive change is the way we communicate and receive information: the internet has made it possible for us to contact friends and relatives on the other side of the world at virtually no cost.

When I make a WhatsApp call to my son in California, I recall being a student in Ankara in the 1960s when, to make a call to Karachi, I had to wait with a token in the central post office, and finally enter a booth for an expensive three-minute chat.

But as with so many other breakthroughs, the new technology is being misused by shady geeks and charlatans. People are mercilessly bullied and trolled on social media. Fake news is being spread, and dubious health products peddled to the gullible.

I have always believed that a healthy scepticism is an antidote to conspiracy theories, but the fact is that people believe whatever fits in with their personal beliefs and prejudices. Thus, if you search for ‘9/11 conspiracies’, you will find literally hundreds of thousands of sites catering to those with an appetite for evil plots carried out by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad. The list of conspirators is long, and the deep state’s proclivity for mysterious and murderous activities endless.

When I am presented with yet another conspiracy theory, the first question I ask is: “Cui bono?”, Latin for ‘who benefits?’ Another test I apply is Occam’s Razor, a philosophical device conceived by an English friar, William of Ockham, in the 14th century. According to him, when faced with two competing hypotheses, the one requiring the least number of assumptions is usually right. So 9/11 conspiracies, involving thousands of US government employees, are unlikely to explain how and why the Twin Towers came down.

However, when education is based on faith and not reason, we get the kind of confusion we see across much of the world. In fact, even in the West where secularism and logic have held sway for centuries, we have Brexit and Trump as examples of irrational behaviour.

Mercifully, we are simultaneously witnessing a surge in pure scientific research. The Large Hadron Collider, with a circumference of 27 kilometres, smashes atoms at near-light speed to produce exotic subatomic particles. This marvel of engineering will be replaced with another one four times its size. The expense and complexity of the project is mind-boggling, and shows what we are capable of once we decide to focus our minds and resources.

Sadly, mankind seldom cooperates to achieve a common goal. But more often than not, competition is healthy: witness the efforts different countries are making to land on the moon, and later, on Mars.

India is the latest entrant to this race, and its Chandrayaan-2 rocket is now orbiting the Earth after a successful blast-off. In September, it will circle the moon before sending down a lander, if all goes well. Here’s wishing the mission success in finding readily accessible sources of water that would permit the establishment of a moon base.

Recently, a team of scientists managed to photograph a black hole. Once thought to be impossible because the phenomenon allows nothing — not even light — to escape its gravitational pull, the team used a network of radio telescopes to capture the dramatic image of super-heated gases at the very edge of the black hole.

Meanwhile, medical research proceeds apace, improving and extending the lives of millions. But even here, the dark side of the web is evident: people with serious illnesses are offered miraculous cures by snake oil salesmen. Desperate for a silver bullet, many fall for these slick sales pitches, foregoing tried and tested treatments.

So here’s a strange dichotomy: on the one hand we are in the midst of a scientific revolution, while on the other, we allow fake news and conspiracy theories to dominate the public discourse.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2019