The escape velocity of Jupiter

Rahul Gandhi, universally recognized as the village idiot of Indian politics, once, somehow, used the phrase “the escape velocity of Jupiter” in a political speech. I’m quoting from the speech below:

The escape velocity for earth is 11.2 km/sec while that of Jupiter is 60 km/sec. In India we have the concept of caste. There is an escape velocity here also. For a Dalit to achieve success the escape velocity required is that of Jupiter. More effort is needed.

It’s not even that bad an analogy. The “suppressed” classes would have to work harder to succeed in India. But then again, Rahul could have used a less astronomical analogy. He could have used “disabled runner competing with able runners”, or perhaps even “Rahul Gandhi competing with Narendra Modi”. But he chose to borrow an analogy from extra-planetary Newtonian physics that was probably lost on almost everyone.

It was widely thought that Rahul was trying to appear “smart”, in order to counter his widespread image of being “dumb”. Because this effort was so transparent, it only led to more ridicule.

Now I can sympathize with that. I have often given people cause to think less of my cognitive abilities. And in order to counter that, many a time have I dreamed up fantastical scenarios in which I say or do something very smart, that forces people to reassess their previous image of me, and conclude that they were mistaken about my lack of smartness. However, much like Rahul Gandhi, all my efforts in that direction have only led to more ridicule. Perhaps people smarter than Rahul and I are needed to dig us out of our intellectual graves.

Winston Churchill, writer, politician and racist par excellence, was famous for his sharp wit and earth-shaking putdowns. Given below is a sample:

Women (to Winston Churchill): If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee.
WC: If you were my wife, I’d drink it!

All of these jokes follow a similar pattern: someone would try to mess with Churchill, and Churchill would deftly show them who’s boss with a witty reply. Needless to say, such jokes enhanced his reputation as a smart man who shouldn’t be messed with.

However, what is perhaps surprising is that he made almost all of these jokes up! He literally wrote these jokes up, and then asked his subordinates to spread stories of “when Churchill gave these hilarious replies”. A loser move, if there ever was one, that worked wonders!

What lessons can one learn from Churchill? Creating a reputation for intelligence is not a one-person job. You can’t say or do something very “smart”, and hope that people will think highly of your intelligence. You have to “defeat” someone in an intellectual battle to be thought of as “smart”. And, like in the case of Churchill, these intellectual battles don’t even really have to take place! As long as some people believe that you won an intellectual battle, they’ll take you to be smart.

Let’s think of some situations in which people may think you are smart:

  1. You do really well in a competitive exam, thereby beating other people.
  2. You and another person have a bet on a fact or logical puzzle, that you win.
  3. You think of a solution to a problem before everyone else.
  4. You earn much more than other people, and didn’t have an advantage like family wealth or opportunity.

Situations in which people do not think you are smart, but only think you’re annoying:

  1. You quote an obscure philosopher to make your point. People may think you’re snooty, but not necessarily smart.
  2. You tell everybody about the book you’ve been reading recently.
  3. You tell people you only listen to Jazz from the 60s, and that all other kinds of music are too lowbrow for you.
  4. You write a WordPress blog.

This is a pattern followed in being considered as rich, good-looking, whatever. Being rich in absolute terms counts for very little. Although you may be able to afford most of what you want, you won’t be thought of as rich unless you’re richer than the people around you. The same goes for being good looking, etc. Humans give you status only when you have defeated someone else in a status battle. It is a zero-sum game.

I don’t mean to proselytize, but being considered as “kind” does not follow the same pattern. You don’t have to be the kindest individual around to be considered kind. You only have to be “kind enough” or “helpful enough”. Hmm…maybe there’s something here…


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Graduate student

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