Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Can you multiply with Roman numerals?

     Canadian writer Siobhan Roberts (whom I know from BIRS workshops) has a recent New Yorker article that celebrates the 100th birthday and achievements of Claude Shannon (1916 -2001) -- often referred to as "the father of the information age." Most of the important information in that article I leave for you to read for yourself, but I call to your attention to one of Shannon's accomplishments featured therein -- Claude Shannon built a machine for doing arithmetic with Roman numerals.  This connects to poetry via a poem by Ron Padgett, below.
The Roman numeral system has largely been abandoned 
because arithmetic is less cumbersome with a place-value system.
 Here is a link to a site that exhibits procedures for Roman numeral arithmetic.

 The Roman Numerals     by Ron Padgett

       It must have been hard
       for the Romans to multiply
       —I don’t mean reproduce,
       but to do that computation.

       Step inside a roman numeral
       for a moment, a long one
       such as MDCCLIX. Look
       at the columns and pediments
       and architraves: you cannot move them,
       but how beautiful they are
       and august! However, try to multiply
       MDCCCLXIV times MCCLVIII.  

       How did they do it?

       I asked this question some years ago
       and never found an answer
       because I never looked for one,
       but it is pleasant,
       living with this question.

       Perhaps the Romans weren’t good at math,
       unlike the Arabs, who arrived
       with baskets of numerals, plenty
       for everyone. We still have
       more than we need today.
       I have a 6 and a 7 that,
       when put side by side, form my age.

       Come to think of it,
       I’d rather be LXVII.

 “The Roman Numerals” is used by permission from Alone and Not Alone (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Ron Padgett.  

No comments:

Post a Comment