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Posts Tagged ‘measurement’

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a xenophobic rant. I had supper with a German friend at the weekend, who has lived in France for many years, and has just spent a few weeks in London improving her English.

We got onto the difference between the French and the English, and it was interesting having her fairly objective viewpoint as someone who has lived in both countries as an outsider.

She said that the French, in the way they think and argue, are more abstract. They start with first principles and work outwards to the nitty-gritty of reality. The English are more concrete, more empirical. They start with things, stuff, examples, case-studies, and only then try to draw some more general conclusions from the specific instances.

She also put the same point in another way: that the French work by deduction, and the English by induction.

It struck me that this, if it’s true, is exemplified by our measuring systems, metric and imperial. A metre length is just an idea. It’s not based on anything ordinary or everyday or natural. Yes, there is a bar of platinum-iridium in a vault in Paris that used to be the standard measure of a metre, for reference (although this system has been surpassed now). But the bar, the metre, was created by the French mind – a mind imposing order on the world.

The imperial system – take the foot as an example – is based on (wait for it…) the foot! The whole system of measurement is based on the length of a man’s foot (a man’s and not a woman’s…). You see the world, and measure it, and understand it, in terms of something concrete; you see and understand one aspect of reality in the perspective of another aspect of reality. In the imperial system, man is – literally – the measure of all things; not a metal bar in Paris.

It sounds like I am defending the English way. Not really. There are advantages to each way; and the abstraction certainly appeals to me. And anyway, the French won! The metre rules the world. I’m just noticing the philosophical differences in world-view that are embodied in something as benign as a unit of measure; and how that connects with a German’s perception of English-French differences.

[Update: I received some good criticism in the comments, which I wanted to copy here, about my failure to mention the origin of the metre. E.g. this from Roger: ‘Sorry, Fr Stephen, as a physicist I can’t let you get away with that one – the metre was originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth’s equator to the North Pole. If it’s “just an idea” it’s a very practical one!’ To which I replied: ‘Thanks Roger. OK – the metre, like the foot, starts in the concrete world. I’d still say the way it was arrived at reflects a different mentality, a more abstract kind of reasoning (taking a distance that can only be established by careful scientific investigation and then dividing it by ten million to establish a length that is more connected with everyday human life) – that reflects something about the difference between a more deductive mindset and a more empirical one.’ The metre, despite the geographical origin, is definitely ‘a product of the mind’; the foot is ‘a product of experience’ – I think.]

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Just a few weeks ago, on 31st October 2010, at 01:59 and 59 seconds in the morning, millions of us in Britain, and many millions more throughout Europe, travelled back in time by one hour, and found ourselves in the same position in the same bed, but now – instantaneously – at exactly the same time we were one hour before. I wanted to say this took place at exactly 2 o’clock in the morning, but that’s the point: this particular 2 o’clock in the morning never arrives, it doesn’t exist; it’s lost in an alternative universe, and we have to wait another hour for another 2 o’clock, when the new time pretends it has caught up with the old.

This isn’t science fiction, it’s the twilight zone of moving from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, when the clocks change each autumn. An event so ordinary and yet so mysterious that we hardly think about it. Or dream about it. I’ve never been awake when the clock actually changes – and I have one of those digital radio clocks by my bed, so in theory I would see it change before my eyes.

We can just change time. How staggering! Or is it just a great act of make-believe? Most of us are so disconnected from the natural rhythms of the world that we don’t notice whether this ‘conventional’ time fits in with ‘real’ time or not.

One of my obsessions when I was studying philosophy was the notion of ‘measure’, and how important it is that we have rival and non-standard units of measurement, to remind us that a unit is simply a convention, that there is no intrinsic truth to any one way of mapping the world, and that each form of measurement allows us to see the world in a particular way. Thank goodness that in Britain we still have both metres and yards, litres and pints, kilogrammes and pounds.

My only sadness, in the context of this post, is that we don’t have alternative ways of measuring time. Or do we? ‘Noon’, possibly, means ‘when the sun is at its height’, and not necessarily 12.00 – which no longer has any natural connection with the height of the sun. It’s a miracle that we haven’t got metric time – that we still stick to units of 24, 12, 60, etc. Although we have creeping metricisation (is that a word?) with the millisecond.

I started all these thoughts about the clocks because we are now one small step closer to tinkering with time even further, and keeping British Summer Time throughout the winter too. Which would mean darker mornings and brighter evenings in the winter.

What’s not to like? The Independent gives the arguments for:

Almost unheralded, the question of daylight saving is back on to the agenda – and a very good thing that is, too. A Private Member’s Bill, which passed its second reading [on 4 Dec], would require the Government to open an inquiry into the benefits of keeping British Summer Time throughout the year.

There is, of course, a nostalgia issue here. In some ways it would be a pity to lose Greenwich Mean Time, which has such resonance both in Britain and around the world. This, however, is a detail compared with the many advantages that would accrue from a switch to year-round BST. Road safety groups say that 100 road deaths could be prevented every year. There would be significant economies on energy consumption, as the daylight hours would match most people’s waking and working hours more closely than they do in winter at present. And organisations as diverse as the Football Association, green groups and tourist concerns are also in favour. An additional plus is psychological: it would eliminate the damper that early darkness puts on the national mood each autumn.

The Daily Mail gives the arguments against. And instead of calling it ‘Year Long British Summer Time’ it prefers ‘Berlin Time’.

Britain has been warned that switching to Berlin Time could have a damaging effect on health, education, energy consumption and commerce.

As MPs prepare to vote on the proposal this week, warning bells were sounded in Portugal, which went through a disastrous four-year experiment with Berlin Time in the Nineties.

The official line in Portugal was that moving the clocks forward by one hour would create jobs, reduce road deaths and encourage participation in sport. But the opposite proved to be the case and the government had to heed public opinion and return to GMT.

Opponents [to the British plan] point out that millions more people all over Britain would have to go to work and school in the dark.

London would be in semi-darkness at 9am on the shortest day of the year, December 21, and the sun would not appear in Carlisle on that day until 9.34am.

There is also concern that the longer summer evenings could lead to more outdoor drinking and anti-social behaviour. Sunset in Glasgow on the longest day of the year, June 21, would not take place until 11.06pm, while in Nottingham it would be at 10.34pm and in Dover it would be at 10.14pm.

The Portuguese found that changing to Berlin Time – officially known as Continental Time – led to poorer exam results as children could not get to sleep because of the lighter evenings and were therefore tired at school the following day.

There was also an increase in stress levels, insomnia and consumption of sleeping pills. More road accidents occurred during the darker winter mornings and energy bills rose because households used more electricity.

I’m for it. Longer evenings. That’s the clincher. What do you think?

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