The uncertainty of human lives

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My granddaughter, (daughter’s daughter), is studying the subject of mathematical probability. And her younger brother is getting acquainted with the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

My granddaughter, (daughter's daughter), is studying the subject of mathematical probability. And her younger brother is getting acquainted with the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. It was during a recent chat with them that I started thinking about the importance of probability and uncertainty in life.

As I have mentioned before, my elder brother had an irrepressible sense of humour. We were chatting about this and that one afternoon, when he pointed to a bird perched on the sill of a nearby window, and said, "if I threw a pebble at it and it flew away, how would you tell whether it was a he bird or a she bird? I was completely at a loss to find an appropriate answer to that trick question. My brother smiled and said, "Simple. If he flew away, it was a he bird and, if she flew away, it was a she bird!"

In the classes I take for civil service aspirants I also cover the subject of ethics, especially as relevant to the field of governance. Among the many things I teach, while handling that rather complicated subject, is the principle that, good and evil, sinful and virtuous, moral or immoral, as also right or wrong, are not easy to define. They are, all of them, functions of time and space, as well as the culture of the society in the context of which one is defining them.

Many phenomena, such as abortion, polygamy, eating meat, consanguineous marriages, homosexuality or child marriage are held as crimes in some religion or culture, while others have approved them. In the same region, and at different times, views taken have changed, as they have, for instance, in India. The law creating rights for transgender persons or, in another instance, the High Court of Kerala upholding the rights of the children of living persons are recent examples.

The trick, therefore, I tell my students, is to find the golden mean at a given place, at a given time and a given context. And, very often, that will turn out to be neither totally white nor black, but somewhere in the area of greyness. There is, in other words, a certain amount of uncertainty in deciding, precisely what is the right or wrong thing to do, in a given situation. But, then, everything about this universe, and human life, is totally uncertain.

It may sound a little preposterous if I were to ask "where is the guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow"? But a little thinking will make it clear that it is a perfectly sensible question. Do not floods and earthquakes occur suddenly? And do not millions of people who slept happily the previous night, believing that all will be well, fail to see the next morning? Similarly do not stars (the Sun is one), explode and self-destruct, every other second, in this universe? And, but for the predictions and estimates offered by science, what certainty defines the future of this planet in which we live, the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy or the universe itself?

How close did mankind not come to complete annihilation, twice in the past, on account of the world wars? Or in recent times, the pandemic? For that matter, even as this column is being written, the war in Ukraine can escalate, causing, a direct confrontation between the superpowers. A sudden impulse many seize a maverick leader such as the President of North Korea, resulting in disastrous consequences for the whole of humanity.

This is the reason why Kabir said, in one of in his celebrated 'dohas', that what needs to be done tomorrow should be done today, and that which needs to be done today done at once. And Kishore Kumar sings for Rajesh Khanna in the movie 'Andaz' saying that nothing is known about what will happen tomorrow and therefore today should be spent in singing and laughing. In a similar vein Dale Carnegie advises you to live in 'day tight' compartments, forgetting what happened yesterday, and not bothering about what is in store for tomorrow.

The phenomena of uncertainty now is an accepted scientific proposition and is the foundation of most inventions that have made modern life at once comfortable and dangerous. The famous cat of Schrödinger's which is both alive as well dead, (the principle of uncertainty). And tight which can be a wave and a particle (the concept of duality) at the same time, are mysteries accepted by science as fact, thanks to the advantages made in quantum mechanic.

Coming back to day to day life we find that announcements regarding the arrival of aircraft or trains usually use the expression ETA or the expected time of arrival (or departure as the case maybe). I have often wondered why they cannot be a little more precise. Clearly circumstances can change suddenly on account of unpredictable factors. The engineer driving the train can fall sick, or a cloudburst may cause an incoming flight to be diverted to another airport.

The railways, or the airlines, do not take chances, especially in these days when public interest litigation is common and they can be sued by the passengers, or those waiting to receive them, for compensation for the damage caused to them on account of inaccurate announcements.

A somewhat similar experience comes with weather forecasts. The weather forecaster, to plagiarise Shakespeare, is making unsure weather doubly sure! Reminds me of the weatherman has sought a transfer to another place because the local weather would not agree with him! Probably why the word 'anuman' used in Hindi for expectation (In the context of forecasting), means suspicion in Telugu!

The land fall location, and the extent of the coast-line which a depression crosses depends on its direction and speed. The area that is likely to be inundated by a flood which is approaching a city after heavy rains in the catchment area, depends on many factors including the terrain over which the waters travelling, the vulnerability to submersion of different areas in the city etc. both are matters of probability and estimation. Effective preparedness depends on anticipation and expectation, not precise knowledge

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) (The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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