Every year or so, I re-read this book just to give myself those special headaches I get when I read something that’s right on the fringes of being too much for me. (I get the same feelings when I read William Safire’s pieces on language.) I think I “get” most of the concepts of chaos theory, Mandelbrot sets, and the like, but I can’t quite retain my comprehension. It still fascinates me, though.
One of the parts that always sticks with me is the concept that measuring irregular objects precisely is incredibly difficult, and largely depends on your yardstick. The specific example was measuring coastlines. The author describes measuring using an actual yardstick, then points out that when you use a yardstick, any irregularities smaller than a yard will be “rounded off.” Switch the yardstick for a one-foot ruler, and the coastline gets longer. Keep reducing the size of the measuring tool, and the coastline will keep getting longer and longer.
For ages, New Hampshire has had the distinction of having the shortest coastline of all the states that border on the ocean, at 13 miles. But that has changed.
The United States Geological Survey recently re-surveyed New Hampshire, and they changed their maps. Previously, they had used 1-100,000 scale aerial photographs, and come up with the 13-mile figure. They have re-done the photos, in 1-24,000 scale this time, and re-counted.
New Hampshire still holds it distinction of having the shortest coast, but we’ve extended it a bit. We now officially have 18.57 miles of coastline on the Atlantic.
But I’m afraid I can’t consider it all good news. I feel bad for the residents of the seacoast, as local government officials realize they now have another five miles of ocean view to add to property tax assessments.