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...
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?