Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: Realm of Measure, Isaac Asimov (1960)

Removed from circulation from my school library and regulated to the trash pile before I spotted the circa-1960 photo of Isaac Asimov on the back cover (looking younger than I've ever seen him before, so I surprised myself by recognizing him), serendipity brought Realm of Measure: From the yardstick to the Theory of Relativity into my possession.

I'm happy that it did. Though billed as an exploration of mathematics, he veers off a bit into scientific measurements, but I'll still count this toward my goal of reading one interesting book on math each summer, and this one does it without spinning out of control with endless, overly-complicated and overly-ridiculous equations.

Asimov goes into the history of measurements and how certain units came about and how the different units relate to one another. Not only did lengths like palms and feet have to be standardized from person to person and town to town, but also in relation to each so that they could be divided more evenly among people without formal education but who could count and compute the basic operations.

Asimov pushes for the metric system often throughout the book, as it's used a lot in science (where he was quite at home), not to mention in most of the non-English-speaking world. (He doesn't actually mention the measure of the English-speaking world using British units.)

The biggest problem with his arguments is that he presented the beauty of American/British system in its origins. If you were a wordsmith, you might be interested in the etymology of words, where they came from and how they came to be. You wouldn't stand for simplified spellings that are attempted from time to time. (Benjamin Franklin had a serious plan to change the language and simplify spelling, for instance.) When you read the origin of who's foot we use and who's armlength, and why a furlong is 1/8 of a mile, there is a wonder to it that goes beyond, "You see, there's this stick, and it has these two marks in it...."

Further, the system of divisions make sense. Think of the times. Think of the people and how they lived. If they split things, they likely halved them. If they had to quarter something, they halved it again. How often did someone come along with nine of his friends and need things sorted out evenly among them. And for all those divisions, 10 isn't a great number to work with: you can only divide it by 2 and 5, but not 3 nor 4. Dividing 12 by 2, 3, 4 and 6 proved more convenient, if it you lose 5. Moreover, metric conversion is easy in that you can switch units simply by moving the decimal point, but first you had to invent the decimal point! And that didn't happen to, what, the sixteenth century?

Oddly enough, I can sit here and argue that the time for the metric system has passed. We're living in a computer age, ruled by binary and hexidecimal. The number 10 really doesn't fit well into that scheme. And once you get passed 11th year math, base 10 goes out the window in favor of natural logs and e.

Not that any of this took away from my enjoyment of his book, which I heartily recommend to all with the proviso, "Don't try to read it in bed when you're really tired."

And I'll close by considering how close NYC came to allowing 16-ounce soft drinks while banning 500 milliliters. Metric: not even once.


Bill Ricker said...

While I agree with your historic reasons for by Anglo-Babylonian measures were once practical -- they're still good for the six scratch cooks remaining -- and re the resurgence of binary in the computer age, yes e and 2 are the most useful log bases, increased metricization would still be good for commerce. Worse, one area we've metricized is still incompatible, 750ml vs 700ml !!

(x, why?) said...

I forgot to add -- mostly because I was interrupted while composing -- that the book did have one other interesting note to it:

It gave an explanation why the Babylonians had a system based on 60. I can understand 10 and 20, but 60?

According to Asimov, it was because of the 365 days in the year. But since that number is inconvenient (prime factorization = 5 * 73), they used 360 instead. Dividing that by 6 gave the 60 that they used for minutes and seconds.

I had already known (not that it was mentioned here) that minute came from the same root as the similarly spelled "minute", pronounced "My-newt", and meaning small. "Second" was the second order of smallness below a minute. I don't remember the source of this, but it was referring to degrees, not hours. However, since the Earth's rotation can be measured in both degrees and hours, it's a safe assumption that they're related without a scholarly source.