Physics of Poverty: Like a Diamond


Physics of Poverty series by Dr Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson, Madura Microfinance Ltd.About 200 years ago it was discovered that diamond, like graphite, was made entirely of carbon. One brilliantly reflective, the other black; one hard, the other soft. How was it possible that two things with properties so contrasted could be made of the same thing? With this discovery came an extraordinary insight: what mattered was not the element itself, for the single carbon atom in isolation had no particular properties. What mattered was the bond structure.

So what does this mean? A chemical bond is simply a probability of how much time electrons from one atom spend hanging around in the space of another. In the case of the diamond the carbon atoms are strongly bonded to each of their four closest neighbours giving it the property of hardness. And so closely engaged are these atoms that when light energy enters it is not welcomed and it bounces around simply leaving the system giving it its reflective sparkle. In contrast, in graphite the carbon atoms are not all tightly bonded but rather some of them associate with one another in more fluid nature giving it softness and the ability to accept or absorb light energy to make it its own.Atoms are simple entities so the numbers of possible bonds are few and yet the possible outcomes can be as starkly different as night and day. We humans on the other hand are complex aggregations of atoms into macromolecules which in turn combine to form cells which in turn combine to form organs. At each level the elements of the system bond with a new order of complexity. The myriad of human bonds far outnumber the mere handful that atoms are capable of. But the principles are similar. When we are born, each of us on our own, we have few properties of personality and culture - rather these properties are descriptions of how we interact with one another and not properties of ourselves in isolation. The outcomes of society, therefore, like the properties of matter are the manifestations of our bonds or interactions with one another.

And what are the bonds of rural India like? Take P.Manikantan from Vadipatti in Tamil Nadu. He has lived in the same village since birth and works as a Panchayat clerk. He interacts with only about 25 people, mostly his immediate neighbours. The last time he ventured beyond 2 km from his village was over a year ago, and that was a rare occasion. He has a phone but he mainly uses it as an alarm clock, calculator and camera. He only makes a few calls a year. And when asked what he’d like to achieve in the next five years, he shrugs. He doesn’t know. His bonds are few and strong as are the others in the village. It is slow to change, difficult to reconfigure. Hard like a diamond. And what happens to the energy in the system? Money for instance, is a proxy for energy, carrying the potential to change something. When it comes into his hands he uses it for his immediate purchases. It bounces around in the village from hand to hand – tea shop owner to shopkeeper – until it exits the system, as payment for a product or service from outside his village. It is not absorbed. Not used to create something new that stands as an emblem of new capability in the village. If we could see the village the way we look at matter, we would see it reflect rather than absorb the energy. Like a Diamond.

To change such a rigid structure is not easy and yet it is not impossible. The challenge is to lose our enamour with the sparkle and find a way to reconfigure the bonds of society to make them more fluid and varied so that information flows more freely and energy is absorbed for productive purpose.

Diamonds, contrary to popular belief, may not be forever.


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