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29 March 2005

e-mail from Switzerland!

I am in receipt of an e-mail from my Swiss pal Pat Z. asking me to blog more math stuff. This is like asking me to please eat more chocolates, drink more champagne, and spend more afternoons watching ecdysiasts at The Whately Ballet; as they say down at the substance-abuse clinic, Pat is enabling me.

Pat is a fellow member of the Glenn Gould Kult, whose Internet code name is f_minor (Glenn's favorite musical key).

The very first thing I want to do for Pat Z. is to apologize for all the recent posts ballyhooing the Scottish loony John Napier as the discoverer of those swell logarithms that gave all us Kinder a week of bad migraines when we studied algebra.

Napier is actually in a Tie for First Place with the Swiss guy Jost or Joost Bürgi (1552 - 1632). When not discovering logarithms, he was Europe's best clockmaker. He and Johannes Kepler were pen pals, Kepler was very impressed with Bürgi's logarithms, and pursuaded him to publish the nifty little things.

Kepler had been assistant to the Danish astronomer and loony nobleman Tycho Brahe. Brahe (whose very handsome tin nose was 2nd Prize in a youthful swordfight) spent decades in his little island kingdom of Uraniborg (dedicated to Urania, muse of astronomy) very precisely tracking the movements of the visible planets in the era before the invention of the telescope. (Okay, he used verrrrrrry long sighting tubes that rotated on verrrrry big circles.)

When Brahe died, Kepler inherited his planetary tables -- the best in the world. Brahe had never been able to make much sense out of the movements of the planets, but he and Kepler suspected that somehow, these volumes and volumes of numbers (called the Rudolphine Tables, after the prince who paid to have them published) concealed deep and important secrets about How the Solar System Worked, and why the planets careened and staggered around the night skies in such screwy ways. (From time to time they like to reverse direction and go backwards for a few weeks, then forward again -- retrograde motion.)

Kepler faced a monstrous task of number-crunching, but just at that moment, Bürgi came along with his logarithms. Logs turned every multiplication problem into a far quicker and simpler addition problem, and every division problem into a far easier subtraction problem. And logs were the first tool which could quickly take square roots, cube roots, any roots. Logs cut an hour of excruciating manual computation down to five minutes.

So Bürghi's logs allowed Kepler to discover his Three Laws of Planetary Motion -- the Instruction Manual for how the planets fly around the Sun. And that's a Good Thing.

And that's a Swiss Thing. So Swiss Things are Good Things. Other Good Swiss Things: Friederich Durrenmatt, and (the Swiss side of) C.E.R.N.


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