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Vale Gerhard Weissmann – John Coulter

Gerhard passed away during November, and John Coulter was invited by Gerhard’s wife Janet to reflect on his life with a few comments. The following is directed to Gerhard’s extended family, friends and colleagues.

Gerhard was one of those rare people who followed where his understanding of truth led and Gerhard’s fundamental truths were derived from a commitment to science. Education in his generation was disrupted by war. Enrolled in a physics degree at Göttingen University, Göttingen University, the Cambridge of Germany and the origin of so many who led the world in Maths and Physics, Gerhard was destined not to complete his degree because of the war.

In 1950 he migrated to Australia, got a job with ETSA, first in Leigh Creek and later in Adelaide where he was able to obtain an engineering degree from what was then the School of Mines, later to become part of the University of South Australia. In 1952 he and Janet met and they were

married in December 1954. In 1975 he left ETSA and he and Janet took on the arduous task of a dairy in River Road, Hahndorf. The family suffered considerable destruction from both Ash Wednesday bushfires: 1980 and 1983. Alex has told me that in the 1983 fire Gerhard turned a sprinkler full on, stood in the midst of the spray and from there fought the fire away from the house with a fire hose.

By early 70s Gerhard had embraced a deep concern for the natural environment. He recognised that the environmentally unsustainable course that humanity was on linked to his understanding of thermodynamics. These matters were further linked to a deeply flawed monetary system. It seemed natural for him to join the then new Australia party. It was about this time that I first remember meeting Gerhard. When the Democrats were formed in 1977 it was the Australia Party and its members that provided a solid core of policies based on environmental sustainability and Gerhard was one of those who came to the Democrats with that solid core of policies. Gerhard also joined Economic Reform Australia and Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population, now Sustainable Population Australia. He was also a contributor to Humanist Society Victoria’s Newsletter where in 1966 he wrote on ‘Science vs Dogma’ and where, just last month he wrote a follow-up letter.

Gerhard did not only contribute to the work of the environment movement as a thinker and a writer. He hopped in and helped physically when the call went out. When the Conservation Council moved from Angus St to the building in Wakefield St the latter needed a lot of work to be done before CCSA could move in.

Gerhard was there with his ladders, scaffolding and paint brush shifting and repainting walls.

Gerhard cemented his academic credentials in this complex and interweaved tapestry of sustainability by gaining a master’s degree in Environmental Studies in the 1990s. This study took him back to his first love: physics. His thesis was on entropy and the place of thermodynamics, especially the second law in an understanding of sustainability/unsustainability. His thesis, ‘The Entropy Field’ based on the integration of thermodynamics with economics and sustainability, being a new and different approach not surprisingly brought him into conflict with quite a few, especially economists. But undeterred Gerhard stuck with his truth, gained his qualification and then published his work as a small book.

It is this quality of honesty and commitment to following the truth that marked Gerhard’s life all the years that I knew him. It is his legacy to us and his call for us to show this same commitment. The time vector is unidirectional; entropy inexorably increases. We must spend our entropy gain wisely.

The time vector is unidirectional. We cannot change the past, but we can use the knowledge to become wiser and with the wisdom gained to shape a different future.

I will finish with two complementary quotations. The first is a transliteration of part of Gerhard’s physics to metaphysics through a verse by a famous poet, astronomer and mathematician from 11th century Persia, Omar Khayyam:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

And now to quote Gerhard’s words from ‘The Entropy Field’ …. with the efflux of time, with increased age, comes the acquisition of data that becomes information. After more ageing and experience, information becomes knowledge. Many people stop there, but some go on getting older and wiser. That may not be the end. As life goes on, new knowledge can be turned into new wisdom. Thus from being through becoming to older being: no knowledge or wisdom can be had without ageing, as there is no being without becoming.

Although wisdom may come as a consequence of perception and conceptualisation, that is not a necessary outcome. Some people stop at being without further becoming. Simply holding information or knowledge does not make anyone wise. Although both knowledge and wisdom can be gained with entropy effort from our surroundings, they are not capital but product, the result of our extractive efforts.

To put great effort into a massive acquisition and dissemination of data and information at tremendous cost to the world, has to be considered with care. If the mass of information becomes huge, much of it passes unused through human systems. If none of it is ever turned into wisdom, it is all dross.

The time vector is unidirectional; entropy inexorably increases. We must spend our entropy gain wisely. That is Gerhard’s legacy. Thank you Gerhard.

Dr John Coulter is an ERA member and former senator living in South Australia

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