Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol 93: Robinson's New Higher Arithmetic, part 3

Last week, I took out the Big Ugly Stick on the English measurement system, the one we use here in the United States and is used nowhere else. I actually gave the system the lightest of taps, not the demolishing I usually perform when the B.U.S. must be deployed.

The idea is simple. Why waste valuable brain space remembering weird numbers, where x blings make a blung and y blungs make a farkle? 5,280 feet make a mile, 3 teaspoons make a tablespoon, 16 ounces make a pound, except when 12 ounces make a pound, as in apothecary's weight system.

Oh, goody! Let's have a special, goofy system for measuring medicines, because nothing could possibly go wrong with that.

Such a headache.

Other countries had stupid measurement systems back in the day, and they threw them over. Maybe they were forced to do so by tyrannical leaders, and if that's the case, let me say...

Yay, tyranny!

Take, for example, the Spanish. They had the vara. In Texas, they said a vara was 33.5 inches. In California, it was 33 inches. In Mexico, a vara was 32.9927 inches. From there, a million square varas (1000 varas x 1000 varas) was a labor and twenty five labors was a league.

The Spanish use the metric system now. Good thinking, Spanish folks!

The French had a weird system in place before metric, and it was still used sometimes in Louisiana, so Robinson's included it in the book. 12 lines made an inch, 12 inches made a foot, 6 feet was a toise and 32 toises made an arpent.

Okay, some new goofy words, but we have that foot and inch thing, so we should be able to work this out.

Fat chance. A French foot was about 12.8 English inches long.

Why does this feel like men bragging about their... measurements?

One last bit of obsolete French weirdness. The three temperature systems mentioned in Robinson's were Fahrenheit, Celsius and Réaumur. Kelvin had been around for about 40 years when this book was published, but who needs something actually scientific? Réaumur was like Celsius in that 0 degrees means water freezes, but water boils at 80 degrees Réaumur instead of 100 degrees, like in Celsius.

The French lost this nonsense. Good thinking, the French. (How often do I write that?)

Next week: A good idea from Robinson's. Casting out nines and elevens, anyone?


Abu Scooter said...

I'm suprised Dennis Miller didn't try to sneak "third and an arpent" when he was commentating football games back in the 90s. Surprised, but glad.

Lockwood said...

The number of inches in a mile (a useful number to know when working with maps in the US system) is 63,360, and is actually pretty easy to remember: sixty-three three-sixty.

Also, a book recommendation: "The Measure of All Things" tells the fascinating and frequently hilarious tale of the French effort (before, during, and after the revolution) to determine the distance from the North Pole to the equator. A meter was intended to be one ten millionth of that distance.

When I was in six and seventh grades we had pretty intense metric units with the expectation of a switch-over in the next few years, so I've been pretty comfortable with the system ever since. I have no idea why the switch was back-burnered; the US system is a mess.

Matty Boy said...

Abu Scooter: I'm going to get on my Jeopardy! champ high horse for a moment here. "Third and an arpent" would be an obscure reference to me, and I've never heard Dennis Miller make an obscure reference.

Lockwood: I was in high school when the metric system was just around the corner. I think it was the Chamber of Commerce who was behind the push to stick to the English system, because of how much it would cost businesses to switch.


ken said...

A useful coincidence, if you're into things astronomical, is that the number of inches in a mile is, as Abu Scooter mentioned, 63360, while the number of astronomical units (AU) in a light year is 63240. So you can paint a bit of a picture of the scale of the universe with something like "Imagine the sun is a grain of sand here, and the earth is a speck of dust an inch away. The nearest star is another grain of sand a bit more than four miles away."

Abu Scooter said...

It's actually Lockwood who cited the inches-to-miles conversion, not me. But thanks for the misplaced credit! :-)