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Occam’s razor suggests that when confronted with several competing solutions to a problem, the simplest solution is normally the best one (or, the correct one). This 14th-century principle suggested by William of Ockham has had seven centuries of positive reinforcement to demonstrate its wisdom.
Question: For a given problem, when is a complex solution preferred over a simple solution?
Answer: When the problem is government funded and you rely on government funding for your livelihood.
By the end of the 18th century the world had a vexing problem: The lack of a standardized system of weights and measures. Global mercantilism (trade) exacerbated the dilemma that already severely plagued commerce between states in the nascent United States. The trading countries (and individual states) were confronted with a measurement hodge-podge that rivaled today’s quantum theory in complexity.
Within the United States, each state had its own system. So the size of a bushel in Maryland was different than that in Georgia.
Surveying land in the new America was crucial since the sale of this land was an important source of revenue to help pay the revolutionary war debt. Again, confusion reigned as an acre of land on a forested plot was larger in size than an acre of land on a treeless lot.
The Gunter Chain, a tool adopted in the 17th century, helped by providing a standard length. It also tried to reconcile the English system based on increments of four (it was 66 feet long—a foot being 12 inches), and the new decimal system based on 10 (it was composed of 100 links). An acre was equal to 10 square chains.
The 18th century embodied the continuation of the scientific revolution, the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment. It begged for a scientific solution to the problem. Improved measurement instruments like a better theodolite were now available to lend precision and accuracy to measurements. If only standard, uniform units could be defined and accepted by the trading partners and the buyers and sellers of land.
The starting point was to create a measurable, repeatable basis as the datum for both weights and measures.
Since trading was international, any new standardized system had to be approved and adopted by the major trading countries: England, France and the United States. England and France were archenemies. The new kid on the block, the United States of America, with strong traditional ties to British custom, had largely evolved from that culture. American independence provided the opportunity to develop a standard weights and measures system that served U.S. interests.
There was a sense of urgency in the U.S. because of the building pressure to purchase and settle land, as well as to speculate in buying and selling massive amounts of land. It demanded a reliable way to measure and document a land buyer’s purchase.
In 1790, as the country's first Secretary of State under the new Federal constitution, Thomas Jefferson was tasked with the problem of resolving this mess. He had already essentially created a monetary decimal system for the new country with a new U.S. dollar equal to 100 cents as its basis—rejecting the English pound, shilling, pence system, where 12 pence equaled one shilling and 20 shillings equaled one pound.
As a scientist, he knew the weight and measure system solution needed to be built on a common, scientific foundation, and thought it essential that the resulting system should be simple enough so that the average citizen could understand it. Therefore, they would be able to compute for themselves whenever they had occasion to buy, to sell, or to measure, which the present complicated and difficult ratios place beyond their computation for the most part.
This would permit the average citizen to more easily improve his lot in life through trading the excess goods they produced, and acquire the necessary wealth to buy land. In addition, it would add sanity to the business practices of an emerging middle class of business owners.
Clearly, the decimal system provided the simplicity. So why in the U.S. are there still 12 inches in a foot, and not 10?
The answer is France who, although totally committed to a decimal system, wanted to establish the standard length by physically measuring the length of a meridian. Once the meridian’s length was known, one ten-millionth part of it would be defined as a meter. The U.S. preferred Jefferson’s proposal of using the length of a pendulum with a period of one second. Why was France’s National Assembly in favor of a standard length that was much more difficult to determine? The answer was they wanted to keep their scientists at work after their traditional government home, the Academie, was abolished.
Measuring a meridian on the earth was far more complex and time consuming than measuring the length of a pendulum with a period of one second in a laboratory (and, the more time, the more government money—the French legislative body, the National Assembly, voted to fund this project with an additional 300,000 livres).
Politics trumps Occam!
Remember, this was 1791. The Bastille in Paris had been stormed in 1789 (Jefferson was a firsthand witness). He lived in Paris as U.S. Minister to France from 1784–1789, soon to return to the U.S. after this early first rumbling of the French Revolution, arriving in New York in April 1790.
King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were soon to have their heads separated from their bodies during the terror in early 1793.
Here is the rest of the story.
As Secretary of State in 1791, Jefferson proposed to Congress a decimal system. The system had as its basis the length of a pendulum that had a period of one second of time (at a point on the earth at a latitude of 45 degrees (i.e., Paris, France—could King Louis refuse?). One second of time was relatively easy to measure and very repeatable since it was based on the elapsed time it took the earth to rotate once on its axis—one day (divided into 86,400 parts or seconds).
Ingenious, really—tying the standard for length to time, and time to the physical invariance of the earth’s rotation!
The Senate committee tasked with instituting a standard system accepted Jefferson’s proposal. They further suggested the pendulum length be divided into five equal parts, each one called a foot. The foot would be subdivided into 10 equal parts called an inch. What was needed for full congressional approval was the agreement for adoption by England or France, preferably both.
Two factors caused the project to get mired down:
1. France did not accept Jefferson’s method. They chose instead the labor-intensive, protracted method of physically measuring the meridian. For the needed accuracy they would measure the meridian from Dunkirk, France to Barcelona, Spain—about 9.5 degrees of the total meridian’s pole-to-equator 90.0 degrees.
2. U.S./Native American hostilities in the Northwest Territory.
The first was problematic. There was a sense of urgency in the U.S. It was considered critical by Jefferson and others that the U.S. had a standard system of measurement to lend credence to the settling of the Northwest Territory. The second factor actually bought the U.S. government time since it greatly slowed down settlement and surveying.
By the early 1793, the latest attempt by the French to measure the meridian was still not complete—it would take years. So, the French settled on the length of the meter based on prior meridian surveys. In addition, it defined a standard weight: the kilogram as the weight of one cubic decimeter of water.
In the meantime, in the U.S., wars with the Native Americans continued. This significantly slowed settlement in the Northwest and bought time for adoption of a standardized measurement system.
Time ran out in 1795. The Native American wars were winding down (for now) and the signing of Jay’s Treaty that once and for all ended England’s claim to the territory. There was a mad rush to settle the land and still no metric-based, standard measurement system in place.
The attempt to get the U.S. to agree to the French standards of the meter and the kilogram was scuttled when an attempt to provide the U.S. with a physical rod that was one meter long and a weight that was one kilogram had big problems making it across the ocean. By the time these physical samples finally made it to Philadelphia in 1794, Jefferson had retired to Monticello. Congress continued to kick around a standard system, never seeing the French physical samples, and would never come to adopting a metric-based system, much less the specific French standards of the meter and the kilogram. The Northwest Territory was surveyed using the standard length provided by the “Gunter chain” that was based on increments of 4, not 10. And, that’s why in the U.S. there are still 12 inches in a foot and not 10, and an American football field is 100 yards long (90.46 meters), not 100 meters long.
We see in this example that goes back to the country’s founding how politics can drive policy, and how the people’s will and interest can be thwarted by their elected representatives. How about educational policy, both public and private?
That brings us to this month's topic: The interaction between employers in the private sector world and recent graduates who have been educated in the academic world. Prior Jumping off the Bandwagon columns have addressed the issues that have plagued our industry as it had been forced to underwrite the cost of closing the ever-widening gap between academic preparation and industry need.
As civilization has developed, the role of education for the individual has changed in its objectives—from the elitist position that the education of the masses is dangerous to the civil order, to the need to create an environment of total academic freedom, to education being recognized as a key element necessary to safeguard the freedom of a republic’s citizenry. The current state of higher education has been morphed into a restrictive, politically correct environment where free speech is protected as long as it is the correct free speech—free of micro-aggressions and political incorrectness.
Education is life itself (John Dewey). As early as the 1920s and 30s the philosopher/educator John Dewey proposed rethinking what he saw as a restrictive education system. He suggested that learning should be a process based on students experiencing the challenges associated with the real world.
Challenge everything Jefferson said: Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. (Source: 1787 Letter from Thomas Jefferson to his Nephew Peter Carr.)
The Socratic method suggests that truth is arrived at by asking questions.
It is essential that in democratic-based governments individuals come to their own conclusions about what people they should permit to lead them. In addition, deciding what they will allow those leaders to do. This was a primary goal of education.
So at least in theory, an objective of academia consistent with the freedom of speech clause of the first amendment of the federal constitution, is the need to protect the academic freedom that comes with creating an educational environment that encourages questioning. Tenure for academic faculty members was established to guard against any action that could be taken against them if they said something that was not politically correct. Having an academic community that is protected from scrutiny and is separated from the industry for which they are preparing students has not worked.
To read this entire article, which appeared in the September 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.