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"Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born."
September 22, 2012 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Charles Babbage, Victorian mathematician and "father of the computer", suggested a small change for accuracy in Tennyson's poem "The Vision of Sin" in this letter.
posted by Isadorady (30 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Charles Babbage did not have the soul of a romantic poet. Witness.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:58 PM on September 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I imagine that giving birth to a sixteenth of a person would be kind of horrifying.
posted by hippybear at 8:06 PM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now if he only could have written Blake and fixed that whole "eye/symmetry" thing.
posted by sourwookie at 8:06 PM on September 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Tennyson was a poet (in)famous for detail, but let's just thank the Muses that he decided to ignore Babbage.

Now if he only could have written Blake and fixed that whole "eye/symmetry" thing.

*writes out, deletes Friday's class discussion about what is going on with eye/symmetry in "The Tyger"*
posted by thomas j wise at 8:15 PM on September 22, 2012


Shouldn't it be "Every moment, statistically, 1 1/16th is born"?
posted by bleep at 8:16 PM on September 22, 2012


Further evidence that Basketcase was a masterpiece of filmmaking poetry ahead of its time.
posted by mannequito at 8:23 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Surely Tennyson would have chosen the much more euphonious correction "every moment dies a man, every nineteen twentieths one is born".
posted by hattifattener at 8:25 PM on September 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


Tennyson is right.

In the long run, when humans are extinct, the average number of births per moment will be exactly the same as the average numbers of death per moment.

And will remain so forevermore, meaning that not only is Tennyson right on average for all moments, he is exactly, instantaneously right at all most every moment.
posted by jamjam at 8:26 PM on September 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


I am not surprised he would insist on statistical accuracy in all things regarding birth and death, even poetry. He was well known for creating the first actuarial tables. Pretty much single handedly inventing life insurance.

That article on Babbage's war on buskers is great.

There were boys with accordions and ha'penny whistles, fiddlers, trumpeters and troupes of men masquerading as Scottish pipers. There were even gangs of "Ethiopians" who drummed incessantly on their tom-toms. But worst of all, there were the Italian organ-grinders

I thought the college kids shrieking and blasting Call Me Maybe over and over at 2am was bad.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:27 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jamjam, in that case Tennyson will have been right that the ratio is equal, but the word "moment" will be staggeringly inaccurate.
posted by darksasami at 8:29 PM on September 22, 2012


Keep in mind that poetry is notorious for being able to make time and space stretch to fit its ends, darksasami:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. ...
posted by jamjam at 8:40 PM on September 22, 2012


fill the cup, and fill the can /

have a rouse before the morn /

let us define the word moment to be the length of time/

for which the value of the expectation for number of deaths/

over that interval of time and the population of known human beings/

is equal to 1 death /

using as large a sample size as is available to us /

where death is defined to be a "judicial death" /

of exactly 1 "person" fully alive under an arbitrary nation's well-behaved law /

that is, not a "death" that is eventually recovered from /

or anything like that /

during the interval of time which we call a moment /

under the assumptions of non-degenerate behavior /

on the part of the living and dead/

it has been determined/

the expectation for total births is well approximated by 1 + 1/16 /

we are men of ruined blood /

therefore comes it we are wise/

posted by Algebra at 9:59 PM on September 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


If your interest is piqued about the life of Babbage and his efforts to build the engine, I can recommend "The Cogwheel Brain", by Doron Swade" (apparently "Published in the United States as The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer."). It was an interesting read, and it doesn't flinch from the unflattering. (It's where I first read about his hatred of buskers).

The book also has a second part where the author talks about his work building a modern working copy.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:15 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was impossible in those days to construct machinery that complicated. Screws weren't even standardized until 1841, bySir Joseph Whitworth, after his experiences working with Babbage on the Difference Engine.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:30 PM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


(For those who require more Babbage-related silliness in their lives: I direct you to 2dgoggles (by mefi's own™)).
posted by hattifattener at 11:40 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do we know if Tennyson ever actually saw the letter?
posted by homunculus at 12:33 AM on September 23, 2012


It is indicative of his mindset that Babbage assumes 'a moment' is a precise and unchanging measurement of time. I sometimes think about how hard and frustrating he must have found life, and whether his endless pursuit of mathematical precision was a retreat into a more orderly and unchanging world.
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 1:23 AM on September 23, 2012


And will remain so forevermore, meaning that not only is Tennyson right on average for all moments, he is exactly, instantaneously right at all most every moment.

No, after humans are extinct zero will die/be born every minute, so he'll be exactly, instantaneously WRONG at almost every moment. But he will be right on average.
posted by DU at 2:12 AM on September 23, 2012


This letter gets trotted out from time to time, and we're always invited to laugh at the nerdy way it misses the point of what poetry's all about.

Personally, I think Babbage was deliberately making a rather dry joke when he wrote the letter, and knew perfectly well that he was making an intentionally absurd point. Instead of mocking the letter, we should be applauding its straight-faced wit.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:31 AM on September 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


Luckily he didn't have the Internet. If he did he probably would have devoted his like to combating wrongness on the Internet. As I was he was limited to his war against Italian organ-grinders and fact checking poetry.

I think he was just teasing Tennyson. Babbage wasn't completely without social skills. He founded several royal societies and was offered, but turned down, a barony.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:32 AM on September 23, 2012


Another neat Babbage fact: He was a cryptographer of no small skill, and was one of the first people in the world to crack the "unbreakable" Vigenère cipher that had been in use since the 16th century.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:52 AM on September 23, 2012


He also probably remembered to close his hyperlink tags. =P
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:53 AM on September 23, 2012


"Every 16 moments 17 are born"
posted by blue_beetle at 5:43 AM on September 23, 2012


Dear Sir,

In your recent poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade", the opening lines read "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward,...". This gives a total of 1 1/2 leagues, or 4 1/2 English miles, or 7,920 yards. Yet the actual distance of the charge was a little over 1 miles, or about 1,800 yards. Given that a furlong is 220 yards, might I suggest that you alter the distances in the opening lines to read "two and a half furlongs"? Thus rendering the actual distance within a tolerable (for poetry) 10%, and giving your readers a more accurate description of the battle.

Also, you say that the site of the battle was "the valley of Death". The valley itself does not have a name, but is situated at the foot of the Fedioukine Heights. It would be wrong to mislead your readers on the geographical facts, and better to give a general location rather than a false one.

Furthermore, you state that the Light Brigade consisted of six hundred men, when in truth that noble body was composed of six hundred and seventy three men. It is unconscionable that we forget the heroism of seventy three men, and so they must be included.

The amendments I have proposed thus render the opening stanza of your poem far more accurate:

Two and a half furlongs, two and a half furlongs,
  Two and a half furlongs onward,
All in the valley at the foot of the Fedioukine Heights
  Rode the six hundred and seventy three.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley at the foot of the Fedioukine Heights
  Rode the six hundred and seventy three.

I am sure that your readers will appreciate the superior exactness of the work and forgive any small diminution to the artistic quality.

Sincerely yours,
A SCIENTIST And ADMIRER
posted by Jehan at 6:45 AM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"sufficiently accurate for poetry" is going to be my new "close enough for government work".
posted by Grimgrin at 7:32 AM on September 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Tennyson was a poet (in)famous for detail, but let's just thank the Muses that he decided to ignore Babbage.

Not necessarily. The early printings of 'The Vision of Sin' read 'Every minute dies a man, / Every minute one is born', but in 1851 Tennyson changed 'minute' to 'moment'. It's sometimes been suggested that this alteration, from the precise 'minute' to the more indefinite 'moment', might have been made in response to Babbage's criticism.

Tennyson certainly took great trouble to make his poems scientifically accurate, as the physicist John Tyndall recalled:
In regard to metaphors drawn from science, [Tennyson] made sure of their truth. To secure accuracy, he spared no pains. I found in his room charts of isothermals and isobars intended to ensure the exactitude of certain allusions of his to physical science. The late Lord Houghton once told me that, having composed an exquisite poem upon a flower, Tennyson discarded it because of some botanical flaw.
One example can be found in 'The Palace of Art', where Tennyson referred to 'the snowy poles of moonless Mars'. In 1877 the American astronomer Asaph Hall discovered that Mars has two moons, and Tennyson therefore changed the line to 'the snowy poles and moons of Mars'. He would have been delighted by NASA's recent discovery of south polar snow on Mars, vindicating the scientific accuracy of the poem.
posted by verstegan at 12:11 PM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now if he only could have written Blake and fixed that whole "eye/symmetry" thing.

The standard rhyming dictionaries of the C18th all give an explicit nod to that rhyme as acceptable, so Blake wasn't doing anything particularly boundary-pushing there. It's worth noting that the long 'I' sound is a diphthong that ends in a long 'E' sound.

Tennyson was a poet (in)famous for detail

I guess that inevitably makes you famous for the details you get wrong. Best case in point: "the ringing grooves of change" from "Locksley Hall": the famously short-sighted Tennyson having mistaken the rails that trains ran on for "grooves."
posted by yoink at 1:41 PM on September 23, 2012




Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans – every thing
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

-Charles Babbage
posted by homunculus at 12:07 PM on September 24, 2012




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