The uncertainty of human lives
“Zindagi khwab hai”, goes that old popular melody from Raj Kapoor’s memorable film ‘Jagte Raho’.
"Zindagi khwab hai", goes that old popular melody from Raj Kapoor's memorable film 'Jagte Raho'. Life is a dream says the lyricist. How very true, in many ways. In a much more sombre manner, Hindu philosophy teaches you that all one experiences is nothing but 'midhya', or totally in one's imagination.
The structure of the fabric of nature is such that certain experiences are beyond the ability of the human senses to record. Take the number pi for instance. One can calculate its value of repeatedly to greater and greater number of decimal places, but can never determine it with precision.
In other words, we know it lies between the two points 3.1 and 3.2, in the line representing the real number system, but can never locate, precisely, the point where it lies. And it is this elusive number that has been used to discover the most fascinating secrets of nature! It also plays a major role in the theme of the celebrated book, by Carl Sagan, about interstellar communication.
The theory of mathematical probability tells us that when one flips a coin, it will land up showing either heads, or tails, with a probability of 50% for each case. But, then, how many of us have not seen the strange occurrence, of a coin standing on its edge on landing?
I remember a game we used to play in Hindu College, Delhi, in the undergraduate days, with a match box. One kept the match box at the edge of the table and flipped it with thumb and forefinger. One scored a point when it landed with the label showing and lost the turn to the opponent if the other side showed up. But a tremendous bonus was attached to its landing on its edge, which still happened once in a way!
All the modern technology, and fancy gadgets, notwithstanding, even in the highly charged atmosphere of the game of cricket, the two umpires in the field sometimes find it necessary to refer a decision to a third umpire, 'go upstairs', as they call it, when, between the two of them they are unable to decide whether a batsman should be given out or a catch cleanly taken. And, as aficionados of the game will tell you, cricket itself called a game of 'glorious uncertainties'.
The chance of conception of a foetus, through the formation of an egg, by the interaction of male sperm with an ovary, is one in a hundred million. Not happy with only pregnancy having been confirmed and denying themselves the thrill of discovery of the sex of the baby after delivery, some people often go for a test which, in fact, is a criminal offence.
Given a half full glass of water, you can never be sure whether filling the glass was stopped halfway, or the top half ----- poured, before it was brought to you. The optimists amongst us always believe that it is half full. A good lesson about the manner is in which life should be viewed.
When I was posted as Collector of Guntur district, in (the then) Andhra Pradesh state, I was once going through some files more than a century old. In the notings, in one of them, a bright clerk had written, about a report received from a tahsildar in the field, that it was 'consistently indefinite!'
By way of another example, just imagine your being in a room with a chair in it. You walk away to the next room, and ask yourself "is that still there"? A $64 million question! It was certainly there when you were there in that room. But just now, without actually seeing it, how can you be sure that it is still there?
As a matter of habit, and consistent with human nature, we rely on our faith in the laws of physics, trust in the consistency of nature, and confidence in the predictability of day- to-day experience, and assume that the chair, in fact, is still, where it was when you were in that room. The only way in which it can be proved, is to go back to that room, in which case you are no longer at the time, or place, when you first asked yourself that question! Such is the nature of uncertainty.
Apart from the theoretical aspects of uncertainty, it is heartening to find that, in recent times, mathematical modelling is assuming considerable importance, in many important areas, such as weather forecasting, disaster management, and agriculture. Mathematics is an extraordinary tool in the hands of planners and makes it possible to use the results of observation to find similarities and differences between phenomena. These relations can then be used to organise the natural world into sets of objects that can be studied.
Scientists are now using modelling as an important tool in the area of mitigation of the impact of disasters. Modelling helps in predicting the results of future events, and their likely impact, on structures housing assets of critical importance, residential, commercial and office buildings and the people live, or working in them. It then becomes possible to focus attention on selected geographical areas plan the use of appropriate manpower and technology.
One method, that is commonly used simulates the phenomenon itself and conducts a scenario analysis. It has proved extremely effective in the management of several disasters including cyclones, floods, volcanic eruptions and landslides, among others.
Another area in which modelling and simulation are finding productive application is agriculture. A crop model is a set of mathematical equations that describes how genetics, management practices and environmental factors, together, determine crop growth. In fact, as I have had occasion to observe elsewhere in this column, agriculture is an all-encompassing subject that demands knowledge, and application, of various disciplines from physics to economics and from zoology to statistics.
Farmers use mathematical skills and science in their day-to-day activities such as estimating the amount of seed required, the timing of application of fertilisers and pesticides, the type of machinery to use, and the best time to dispose of the produce, depending on the behaviour of the market. Modelling techniques can also be used to set priorities in agricultural research and to understand the basic interactions of the soil – plant – atmosphere system.
A mature and wise combination, of modern technology and ancient wisdom, thus reduces the degree of uncertainty about the future, and enables effective preparedness for the various possible eventualities. As the somewhat over used saying goes, "hope for the best but prepared for the worst."
"What goes up must come down" goes the adage. An instinctive statement whose veracity was confirmed by Sir Isaac Newton while (perhaps apocryphally) lying down under the celebrated apple tree. But even our children will tell us, these days, that this will hold good only until the object which is flung up fails to attain what is known as the 'escape velocity,' or the velocity required to overcome the gravity of the earth, the principle upon which all rocket launches are based.
One does wonder, does not one, whether there is not a hidden lesson in this rule, namely, that life on earth will forever remain shrouded in uncertainty? Now if one sits back, and looks at the big picture, what sort of certainty does life offer? I am afraid the jury is still out!
(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)