Monday, 15 December 2014

A Numerate Nation


God Doesn't Bother with Closed-Form Calculus;
He Integrates Empirically.
It's been a quite busy autumn here in Paris; several business trips and other activities have more or less eaten up the calendar.  Work has a tendancy to become a real inconvenience

I just noticed that I'm seriously behind in my writing.  Perhaps even negligently derelict.  My last post was exactly two months ago, and about the baseball World Series (won by the San Francisco Giants, as it were).

Apologies for that.

Anyhow, on the way in to work, the local newspaper this week celebrated the official adoption in December, 1799 of the metric system by the revolutionary French regime.  Prior to the radical overthrow of the ancien régime, the French system of weights and measures was a mish-mash of units not unlike those of the United Kingdom, and familar today to Americans.  With the overthrow of the Bourban monarchy, of course, units like the livre du roi had to go.

The introduction was not a great success, and just 12 short years later, Napoleon Bonaparte instituted his own system which was something of a hybrid.

How Much Is that in Inches?

One of the great things I find of living in France is that education strongly focuses on mathematics, and there is a real appreciation.  Numbers have real significance, and history is rife with records, measurements, and figures.  

This is not surprising, given the huge role that the French have played over the centuries in mathematics.  Names familiar to anyone who has studied algebra, or calculus, or real analysis include Cauchy, La Place, La Grange, L'Hopital, and Galois.  No student of probability and statistics is unaware of Buffon's needle.  Fourier, Poincaré Pascal are giants.  And of course, Renee Descartes, also claimed by philosophy.

Back when I was a grad student, Stanford had only recently done away with the requirement that PhD students demonstrate a reading knowledge of French.  Many of the seminal texts, especially in set and number theory, are in French.

The metric system itself was, oddly enough, created by an Englishman.  

It was not entirely a success, as the Jacobins also hoped to extend the concept of decimilisation from length, weight, and temperature to time.  The concept of the metric day - 10 decimal hours, each comprising 100 decimal minutes of 100 decimal seconds - was introduced.  The effect was that a decimal 'hour' was equivalent to two customary hours, plus 24 customary minutes.  Moreover, the traditional 12 months were replaced (the Jacobins were none to happy with the Church, and thus the Gregorian calendar was out as well) with revolution-inspired names, and each had 30 days.


The problems of such a system are obvious, and it was abandoned rather quickly.  At one point, the Palais des Tuileries had clocks displaying time in both the traditional and metric systems.  It, too, has disappeared, destroyed by fire in the middle 19th century.

French Decimal Clock with Traditional Hours for "Conversion"

Napoleon came to power shortly after, and these experiments were largely abandoned.  But the metric system has lived on, and spread.  To virtually every country on earth, save for the US.


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