Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Precisely how do you measure?

I am reading a book with an intriguing title. "How round is your circle?" which discusses measurement and engineering mathematics (among much else). The authors point out that experimental science progressed in step with the ability to make accurate measurements. This was especially the case in astronomy, which in turn led to Newton's laws and the law of gravity being demonstrated.

I have mentioned my concern about over-precision in measurement in other blogs. Recently, Exeter, where I live, has erected signposts for the benefit of pedestrians. Distances are measured in time. This is a method often used, but is prone to abuse and error. Jokes abound about the hotel that is "two minutes from the beach" (provided you are an Olympic runner and there is no traffic in the streets), or the house for sale that is "ten minutes drive from the city centre" (when there is no other traffic, you ignore speed limits and stop signs). The problem with some of Exeter's distances is that they are too precise. One reads 19 minutes to the university campus, which is so large that it takes over 20 to cross it. There is a case for defining a set of walking times that can be used, to allow for the variation in pace, and the problem of where do you measure to. What do you think the set should be: 1,2,3,4,5,8,10,15,20,25,30,40?

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