Falling apples, projecting fire extinguishers

The weekend before last, we were guests of our friend Michael Aizenman at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, UK. Fortunately, like most very bright people, Michael has many interests besides his specialty, mathematics, so we were able to find things to talk about.

Nevertheless, wandering through the institute and peering at Newton's walking stick and his notebook of living expenses (he'd bought Stilton cheese) got me thinking about math (sort of) as I tried to assemble the bits of Newtoniana scattered through my memory, mainly his three laws of motion (alas, I have yet to master calculus). And the only reason I, science-averse as I was in my student days, have any clear notion of those three laws is the amazing Leonard K. Nash who taught a Natural Science course for nonscientific freshmen at that other Cambridge, the one in Massachusetts. His classes were theatrical performances, with explosions to demonstrate Boyle's Law and, most memorable of all, his lecture on Newton's third law of motion. It came near the end of the hour. An assistant wheeled out a low cart with an upright fire extinguisher mounted behind a padded seat. Without interrupting his talk, Nash sat himself on the cart and pressed the levers of the extinguisher as he declared, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." And propelled himself offstage at precisely the last minute of class.

This was in 1959, and still I remember. And as I looked at the Newton memorabilia, I I began wondering if Newton's Three Laws of Motion might not be applicable to political science. The first one, the law of inertia certainly seems applicable to American politics (and all other social behavior): the parties just continue doing whatever they have been doing forever, unless and until some external force -- riots, a stock market crash, public outrage over the disaster in Iraq -- makes them change course. And once that force is applied, it will keep propelling the pols until friction (there's a lot of that in politics) slows them down (2nd Law). And of course the 3rd Law, which I think of as the fire extinguisher law. We can easily come up with examples of "equal and opposite" political reactions, e.g., to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

I was sure that this could not be a new idea, so I looked up "Newtonian political science" on Google. And sure enough, there's a whole book on "Quantum Politics," claiming to go beyond Newton to base political science on quantum mechanics. And I found this very
amusing review by Ingemar Nordin, Linkiping University, Sweden, who finds that although this whole approach is scientifically absurd (social behavior is not like physics), it may still generate valuable insights.

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