Thursday, August 19, 2010

From Miroslav Holub -- a reflection on accuracy

In applications of mathematics, as in other scientific research, it is important to distinguish between the precision of measurements (how closely they agree with each other) and their accuracy (how closely measured values agree with the correct value).  One of my favorite poets, Miroslav Holub (1923-98), also a research scientist (immunologist), has captured this dilemma with irony in his "Brief Reflection on Accuracy," translated from Czech by Ewald Osers.

     Brief Reflection on Accuracy       by Miroslav Holub

          always accurately know where to move and when,
          and likewise
          birds have an accurate built-in time sense
          and orientation.
     Humanity, however,
          lacking such instincts resorts to scientific
          research. Its nature is illustrated by the following

     A certain soldier
          had to fire a cannon at six o'clock sharp every evening.
          Being a soldier he did so.  When his accuracy was
          investigated he explained:

     I go by
          the absolutely accurate chronometer in the window
          of the clockmaker down in the city.  Every day at five
          forty-five I set my watch by it and
          climb the hill where my cannon stands ready.
          At five fifty-nine precisely I step up to the cannon
          and at six o'clock sharp I fire.

     And it was clear
          that this method of firing was absolutely accurate.
          All that was left was to check that chronometer.  So
          the clockmaker down in the city was questioned
          about his intrument's accuracy.

     Oh, said the clockmaker,
          this is one of the most accurate instruments ever.  Just imagine,
          for many years now a cannon has been fired at six o'clock sharp.
          And every day I look at this chronometer
          and always it shows exactly six.

     So much for accuracy.
          And fish move in the water, and from the skies
          comes a rushing of wings while

     Chronometers tick and cannons boom.

Holub's poem (translated by Osers) is taken from Intensive Care:  Selected and New Poems (FIELD Translation Series 22, Oberlin College Press 1996).  For two more of Miroslav Holub's "mathematical" poems, see my March 30 posting.

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