February 5, 2010

Measurements and Records Day This is a fine day to think about all sorts of measurements and records. Don't get hung up thinking measurement is all about how many cups in a quart, or how many kilometers equals 10 miles...As for records, it's not just “longest river” and “tallest man.” Here are a few of the measurement- and record-related events that occurred today:

1897 – Measurement of circles (almost) imperiled by lawmakers! The Indiana state house unanimously passed a law decreeing that the value of pi (the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter) is exactly 3.2. Since pi is actually an irrational number (a decimal that doesn't end or repeat) that starts with the digits 3.141592 but then goes on and on, the value mandated by this law wasn't even terribly close. And the fact that this law was passed in the 1800s isn't any kind of excuse; a much better estimate of the value of pi has been known since ancient times. The bill never became law, luckily, because a Purdue University professor happened to be in town and coached some Indiana senators about the math involved. The bill was postponed indefinitely in the senate. The entire idea of legislating scientific or mathematical truth is what is really out of whack here!

1901 – Patent for an ellipse-shaped looping roller coaster (called “centrifugal railway”) awarded to Edwin Prescott. Called “Loop the Loop,” this roller coaster was not the first with a vertical loop, but it was the first with the ellipse shape, and therefore it was more comfortable and safer to ride. (The first two coasters with vertical loops—of the circular variety—were shut down due to accidents and injuries.) We can count this as a great success in roller coaster history! Unfortunately, more people wanted to watch it than to ride it, so much so that a viewing area was built and people were charged admission just to watch. Even with the viewing fees, Loop the Loop didn't make enough money to keep running, and it went bankrupt around the time of World War I. This has to be a record for the most unsuccessful successful roller coaster!

1915 – Richard Hofstadter born in New York City. Hofstadter went on to become a physicist; he won a Nobel prize for his work, which included “measuring” the sizes of the neutron and proton in the nuclei of atoms. Of course, these particles are really, really small: imagine taking one and a half yardsticks or meter sticks. Then cut the sticks into 1,000,000,000,000,000 pieces. That's one quadrillion (also known as one thousand million million) pieces. That's...well, pretty darned small!

1934 – Hank Aaron born in Mobile, Alabama. Aaron grew up to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He played from 1954 to 1976, and he held the Major League Baseball (MLB) record for most career home runs, with 755 homers, for 33 years. Even now that his record has been broken by Barry Bonds, I can't help wondering if Bonds' alleged steroid use may invalidate the new record. Aaron holds other records because of his high-level consistency over the years: he had 24 or more home runs every single year from 1955 through 1973; he's the only player to hit 30 or more homers in a season at least 15 times; he made the All-Star team every year from 1955 to 1975; he has the most career runs batted in (2,297); he has the most career extra base hits (1,477); he has the most career total bases (6,856); he's in the top 4 of seasons with 150 or more hits; he's third in career hits (3,771); he's tied for fourth (with Babe Ruth) in with career runs (2,174); he's second in at-bats (12,364); he's third in games played (3,298). There are an awful lot of numbers in baseball—and these don't even involve averaging!

Measuring Everything in the Universe

New Grounds has an interesting “interactive diagram” about the size of things. When you first enter, you can see the size of things at a human scale, such as an adult human (1.7) meters, giant earthworm (an amazing 7 meters!), and a large beach ball (1 meter). Slide the little slider button to the right, and you can see huger and huger objects, including planets, starts, and galaxies. Slide the button to the left, and you can see tinier and tinier objects—going down to atoms, protons, and even to the as-yet undetected “strings” that may make up quarks.

It's Rational to Like Irrational Numbers
There are some pretty fun books about numbers. Have you read Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka? How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz and Steven Kellogg?

For older readers, how about A Gebra Named Al, by Wendy Isdell? I haven't read it, but Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, by Cindy Neuschwander, sounds really fun! (This author has a whole slew of math storybooks!)

Take a Virtual Roller Coaster Ride!
This one has several loops and realistic coaster sounds. This one has no loops and is set to music. It's pretty extreme and made me feel like I was really moving for a second or two.