General

Inertia

In physics, inertia is the inherent property of an object and the force which prevents an object to change its motion, so that it would not move when it is standing still and would keep moving when it is moving. In everyday parlance, it is the state of being powerless to move or too lazy to move. If anyone asks me why I have not written for nearly a month, I would blame it on inertia, but nobody asked me this question. In fact, the most frequently asked question was whether I had been very busy and to which I would reply that everyone in Hong was always busy and would wish that he would remain so.

At a time when unemployment is at all time high and still rising; it is indeed a blessing to be busy. At times of uncertainty and flux, it is natural for the less strong and the average to stand back and step aside, but it is sad to see those in leadership position following like sheep, playing to the gallery instead of doing the right things. A leading Chinese paper quoted John Kenneth Galbraith in its editorial earlier this month; on the eve of civil servants taking to the street their views on Government legislating to take away a long enjoyed benefit and a long assumed right. The paper said that Galbraith dismissed the cliché that politics is about the art of the possible and instead argued that it is a choice between taking on the difficult and courting disasters. It takes men with vision to do the right thing, primarily because it is a difficult and tortuous route to begin with. Leaders have no guarantee that doing the right thing would always win them immediate applause from a common crowd, or support from their faint-hearted colleagues. Little wonders why many have taken the much easier route of appeasing voters and their base demands, for they have probably not read Galbraith who predicted disasters for this option.

Galbraith is an economist and diplomat born in Canada in 1908. He studied in Toronto, California and Cambridge and was professor of economics at Harvard from 1945 to 1975, having spent some time in between at Princeton, Washington and India. He was an advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and is one of the major intellectual forces in American liberalism.

Unemployment, lack of confidence, fear of the unknown, fear of the worst yet to come, performance of the new principal officials, the doubly jeopardized youths and the woes of the middle class: these are the recurrent theme discussed in the radio phone-in programmes. Any one item can be a life-long study for serious students and dedicated public servants. Personally, I am more attracted to the woes of the middle class, most of us, myself included, being classified as such. This is the silent majority that the Government used to refer to as the group having views supportive of the Government but would never articulate them publicly, who would never go to the polls in sufficient numbers, who would vote with their feet in uncertain times, who were willing to pay more for quality services such as education but would not publicly support the Direct Subsidies Scheme, and so on. These days, some of them had taken the trouble to call in, to say that they had never benefited directly from government services, that they have been paying salary taxes at either the standard rate or the highest rates, but that they have never had a representative in the Legislature and no government officials or legislators would champion their causes. Times must be hard, on them in particular.

These middle-class people have a point; and inertia could be the reason for their present miseries: inertia on the part of the policy makers, the legislators, the pressure groups, and most importantly, of themselves. Once again, Galbraith is right. Why would the politicians, policy makers and legislators alike, do anything to change the equilibrium when the middle class appears to be content? There is no incentive, and it is far too difficult to do the right thing.

This reluctance of an object, particularly a massive object, to change its motion, or course, is what Newton’s first law is all about, which is why Newton’s first law is also known as the law of inertia. Sir Issac Newton was recorded to have been born on Christmas Day in 1642 in England. He entered Cambridge in 1661 and had an undistinguished and lack luster career as a student. It was the time of the plague, and the university was partly closed in 1665 and 1666. For Newton, however, these turned out to be exceptional productive years in his intellectual development. Working alone from home, Newton conceived the major theories in optics, mathematics and dynamics. He published his Principia in 1687, or in its full name, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which presented fundamental challenges to the generally accepted view of nature, as described in a textbook then in force, Principles of Philosophy, by Descartes.

Now, Descartes, who lived a shorter life than Newton, from 1596 to 1650, and who developed Cartesian co-ordinates and is a mathematician by his own fame, had taught natural philosophers to reject concepts based on tendencies, appetites, attractions and similar attributes which he said were designed to disguise ignorance. His teachings had a great following principally because his theories were simplistic and therefore intelligible to commoners. For example, two lumps of matter could only interact when they were in direct contact. His followers therefore scoffed at Newton’s rather incomprehensible arguments in Principia where Newton theorized that all objects exerted attraction to each other derived from the force of gravity. Alas, his teachings were only understood by a few in his time, so much so that ten years after Principia was published, Newton’s deputy at Cambridge, William Whiston, had to deal with the moral dilemma of a young man. Samuel Clarke had a tutor who is a Cartesian enthusiast and who asked him to prepare a new edition of classroom textbook of Cartesian physics. Clarke was worried that he could be responsible for perpetuating something false. Whiston dealt with the situation amicably. He told Clarke to go ahead because Newton’s work at the time was unintelligible to most and because his contribution would help to clarify concepts based on Aristotelianism, which would therefore be a contribution in its own right.

Newton is indeed a boon to the human race. The English poet Alexander Pope had tried to immortalize his contributions in a couplet –

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night.

God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.”

Sir John Collings Squire, a writer and journalist, also born in England, known for his light verses and parody, added two lines many years later –

“It did not last: the Devil shouting “Ho.

Let Einstein be.” restored the status quo.”

Einstein lived two centuries after Newton. He is a theoretical physicist and is survived by his theory of relativity. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 for the work he did in 1905 and published in 1915. His work on relativity is certainly vital to science and the human race; but at the time, Einstein could not be sure, saying that, “If relativity is proved right, the Germans will call me German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.” Israel offered Einstein to be President in 1952, but he declined. He helped the production of the atomic bomb, but after the War, he was actively promoting nuclear disarmament, probably because of which he was under investigation by both the CIA and FBI separately. Einstein derived pleasures from simple things in life, sailing and music and died in 1955.

Einstein was in Princeton when John Nash was a bright young thing trying to meet him through his professors. I learnt a lot more on John Nash and the people around him from my good friend past governor Y K Cheng after his recent trip to Princeton. Y K is a thorough and methodical person. He has done justice to our District, and one hopes, would continue to so do.

Before I sign off, I must share with you the good news that Rosita has been enjoying good health these days. The doctors concluded at an examination earlier this month that the cancer cells had become inactive, or had gone to bed, in their parlance. Let us hope that they would remain so forever. Thank you all of you for your prayers and good wishes all the time and may God bless you.

Talk to you next time.

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