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Robert Andrew
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Politicians, Like Bats and Edward Hubble, Live In a World of Echoes

04 January 2014, 09:21

The famous Austrian physicist, Christian Johann Doppler, gave his name to a very important phenomenon in physics called the Doppler Effect. Light and sound waves appear to change their frequency if the source of the waves and the detector are in relative motion. A classic example of the Doppler Effect is the way in which a blaring siren on, say, an ambulance appears to have a higher and higher pitch as it approaches one and then, after passing, the pitch becomes lower and lower. What happens is that the sound waves that you hear from the approaching ambulance are compressed and thereby increase their frequency. Once the ambulance races past you, the sound waves stretch out and the frequency drops. If you have an instrument that can measure the change in frequency you can calculate the speed of the ambulance-this is the basis of the dreaded radar speed traps. Edward Hubble (after whom the Hubble telescope was named) used the Doppler Effect to measure the rate at which the universe is expanding. By measuring the change in frequency of light waves emanating from distant galaxies, he found that the light waves are stretched out as the galaxy races out into open space. From this he, and many other scientists, postulated that the universe is expanding and from this they developed the Big Bang theory. By accurately measuring the frequency change Hubble was also able to develop a relationship, now known as Hubble’s Law, to determine the distance to any far-off galaxy.

 The American zoologist Donald Griffin discovered that many species of bats emit complex high-pitched sound waves and rely on responding echoes to find their way about. For these bats, the saying “as blind as a bat” is true. The bats, however, have sophisticated sound receivers, which are far better developed than the human ear. They also have extremely powerful and variable sound-emitting devices and built-in computers to exploit the Doppler Effect to a far greater extent than any instrument made by man. Although they emit pulses of sound, at varying rates upto 200 times a second, they are capable of distinguishing individual echoes from each other and can detect whether the echoes come from nearby or far-off objects, or even whether they come from other bats. They are also capable of varying the signal so as to achieve the greatest sensitivity in the returning signal. The Doppler Effect allows them to know the speed at which an insect is flying and in what direction. With this information, it is a pretty simple job to catch and eat the insect.

 Like bats and Edward Hubble, politicians live in a world of echoes. These come from a variety of sources: constituents, party representatives, alliance partners, worker unions, NGOs, financial institutions, and many others. These echoes are responses to a multitude of continuously emitted signals. Unlike bats, most politicians are poorly equipped to measure or analyse the echoes and to use the information carried by them. Autocratic or disinterested politicians may even go as far as to ignore echoes. Politicians should understand that, like the bat, the echo is more important than the emitted signal, for the echoes coming back carry the information they require for their survival, i.e.  re-election.  

 What lessons can be learnt from sonic bats and how can the philosophy of the Doppler Effect be used by politicians? Firstly, politicians should pay attention to the type of signals they send out in order to maximise the benefit of any information coming back in the response. A vague or poorly structured statement or piece of party propaganda will always evoke a vague or poorly defined answer. Politicians should also acknowledge that they require being flexible in their approach and must design the signal for the given circumstances: e.g. people living in abject poverty are different from affluent people and need to be sent a signal that evokes hope whereas the more affluent may be affected by signals related to economics and opportunities. Young people require information on education and post-education employment so that they can emit signals showing their support or their concerns.

 Responses should be continually measured and analysed and the variation of responses carefully scrutinised. People or groups who respond differently to given signals over a period of time shows that a change is occurring and this change must be investigated. Positive forward-moving changes need recognition and reinforcement and negative retarding changes encouragement or change. Most importantly, echoes should be listened to and acknowledged. Echoes provide bats and politicians with their ‘world view’ and without them, or with poor interpretation, the view obtained will be false.

 If Edward Hubble had ignored the minute changes in the frequency in the spectrum of light coming from galaxies millions and millions of light years away, we could still believe that the sun rotated around the earth or that the earth was flat!

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