Monday, November 08, 2010

Charles Babbage, Geek Of Geeks


So, he sits down to read the veriest Poet Laureate -- and something that promises to be a bit entertainingly risque and or instructive of the perils of immoral dissipation, too: The Vision of Sin.

You or even me, we'd read Alfred, Lord Tennyson and be emotionally moved. Mr. Babbage, perhaps he is, too; but he stumbles on a counterfactual line and gets his geek on:

"Mr. Babbage, the famous mathematician, is said to have addressed the following letter to Tennyson in reference to this couplet:-- 'Every minute dies a man,/Every minute one is born': I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world's population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that, in the next edition of your excellent poem, the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:-- 'Every moment dies a man,/And one and a sixteenth is born.'

I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre."

There's evidence geekery gets results, too. Though it does seem that "something must, of course, be conceded to the laws" of poetry, in subsequent editions of the poem, that couplet reads, "Every moment dies a man,/Every moment one is born." The precise term has been replaced by an approximate one...with at least 0.167 in leeway....


Mark Alger said...

I could be wrong, but I believe the result of the operation 1/16 is .0625, while .167 is approximately 1/6.

Not that that matters to the verity of the larger point.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is that Randall Monroe has channelled a little of his sense of humour.


John Peddie (Toronto) said...

Mr. Babbage needed to learn the techniques practiced by modern economists, global warming analysts and statisticians: all departures from expected results are to be disposed of as "rounding errors", or, better, with an arcane reference to standard deviations.

That'll get'em.

Joanna said...

Oh geez. Babbage was That Guy.

(Don't be That Guy.)

Davidwhitewolf said...

Hmm. I have heard the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of a "moment" (1909 edition?) was the medieval 1.5 minutes.

Am I That Guy?

Joanna said...

Being That Guy is like being insane -- if you wonder about being That Guy, chances are you're fine. It's the oblivious ones that are dangerous.

Roberta X said...

I believe Mark's head for math has led us to a much-promulgated typo in the original, as the version with "one-sixteenth" also fails to scan: it's got an extra syllable. "One sixth," however, works.

I'm reading a Dover reprint of the Philip and Emily Morrison collection of works by Babbage and others. Charles Babbage, whatever else his failings (or twisted sense of humor), had a very fine ear for language; I doubt he'd've missed the extra syllable.