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When change is hard, blame inertia

Marketplace Staff Jan 21, 2010

When change is hard, blame inertia

Marketplace Staff Jan 21, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: We are now 21 days into 2010. So, how are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Are you actually following through? Or have they been tossed on the pile of ignored good intentions? If so, commentator K.C. Cole says you’ve got science on your side.

K.C. COLE: Ever wonder why it’s so hard to keep those New Year’s resolutions? Get off the couch and exercise every day? Drop that $4-a-day latte habit for some home brew? Stop getting into the same stupid social dynamics and start trying more productive tactics? Turn around a business or, for that matter, an economy?

Much of the problem is inertia.

We all know that it takes energy to get started on something, whether it’s propelling yourself out of bed or propelling a rocket to Mars. What we don’t tend to appreciate is how hard it is to stop what you’re already doing.

In fact, it’s relatively easy to blast your way to a distant planet compared to what it takes to slow down your spacecraft once you get there.

The same is true of anything. Slide into second base? Move journalism from print to online? Resist the temptation to pay out huge bonuses?

In terms of energy required, there’s no difference between a start up and a stop down. At bottom, inertia is simply resistance to change. Fighting it is hard, and frequently generates heat.

Of course, massive organizations — and massive economies — have far more inertia than small ones. Why?

Certainly, complexity is part of the equation. The more tangled the web, the harder it is to move one piece without bringing along all the rest.

But today, physicists are seeking the source of inertia in a kind of cosmic molasses that pervades what we think of as “empty” space — the so-called “Higgs Field.” If they’re right, evidence for this stuff may well show up in the new particle collider recently revved up in Europe.

Such a discovery wouldn’t make it any easier to change personal habits or national policy. But it’s somehow comforting to know that inertia is built into the stuff of the cosmos itself.

When change is hard, you can always blame the universe.

Ryssdal: K.C. Cole is a professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book is called “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up.”

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