Math in France

Driving through the French countryside using smartphone GPS for navigation is a lot like driving through rural Pennsylvania with my redneck cousin riding shotgun — there is a significant lack of sophistication, an ample amount of mispronunciation, and myriad grammatical errors.

In Pennsylvania:

Take that there right onto See-Quo-Eye-Ay (Sequoia) Drive.

In France:

At the roundabout, take the second right toward Ow-Bag-Nee (Aubagne).

Take D51 to Mar-Sigh-Less (Marseilles).

And of course, the GPS pronounced the coastal town of Nice like the adjective you’d use to describe your grandmother’s sweater, though it should sound more like the term you’d use to describe your brother’s daughter.

I was half expecting the computer voice to exclaim,

Hey, cuz, watch this!

Otherwise, the rest of my recent week-long trip to the south of France was intellectually and often mathematically stimulating. The image below shows a -1 used to describe an underground floor (parking) in a hotel:

And though I didn’t get a picture, the retail floor of the parking garage at the Palais de Papes in Avignon was labeled 0, with the three floors below for parking labeled -1, -2, and -3.

This is a country that does not fear negative integers.

I also noticed that the nuts on fire hydrants in Aix-en-Provence were squares.

Hydrant with Square Nut

The nuts on American hydrants used to be squares, until hoodlums realized that two pieces of strong wood could be used to remove them, release water into the streets, and create an impromptu pool party for the neighborhood. As a result, pentagonal nuts are now used on most hydrants.

Alas, an adept hoodlum can even remove pentagonal nuts, so some localities have replaced them with Reuleaux triangle nuts, like the ones on hydrants outside the Philadelphia convention center, which can only be removed with a specially forged wrench.

with Reuleaux Triangle Nut

But perhaps the most mathematical fun that France has to offer is the Celsius scale. While there, our cousins taught my sons a poem for intuitively understanding the Celsius scale:

30 is hot,
20 is nice,
10 is cold,
and 0 is ice.

And I was able to teach them a formula for estimating Fahrenheit temperatures, which is easy to calculate and provides a reasonable approximation:

Double the (Celsius) temperature, then add 30.

Or algebraically,

F = 2C + 30

The actual rule for converting from Fahrenheit to Celsius is more familiar to most students:

F = 1.8C + 32

This rule, however, sucks. It’s not easy to mentally multiply by 1.8.

My sons were not convinced that the rule for estimating would give a close enough approximation. I showed them a table of values from Excel:

I also showed them a graph with the lines y = 1.8x + 32 and y = 2x + 30:

With both representations, it’s fairly clear that the estimate is reasonably close to the actual. For the normal range of values that humans experience, the estimate is typically within 5°. Even for the most extreme conditions — the coldest recorded temperature on Earth was -89°C in Antartica, and the hottest recorded temperature was 54°C in Death Valley, CA — the Fahrenheit estimates are only off by 9° and 20°, respectively. That’s good enough for government work.

And here’s a puzzle problem for an Algebra classroom, using this information.

The Fahrenheit and Celsius scales are related by the formula F = 1.8C + 32. But a reasonable estimate of the Fahrenheit temperature can be found by doubling the Celsius temperature and adding 30. For what Celsius temperature in degrees will the actual Fahrenheit temperature equal the estimated Fahrenheit temperature?

It’s not a terribly hard problem… especially if you look at the table of values above.

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• 1. puntomaupunto  |  June 25, 2014 at 9:53 am

actually, you Americans even fear 0th floor! In Europe, ground floor is floor 0, and (at least in Italy) there’s no problem in having negative floor for garages. My twins know perfectly the difference between floor 1 and floor -1 in our elevator.

• […] made a Father’s Day Book for me. Because the book didn’t make it on our trip to France, however, I didn’t receive it until this past weekend. It was worth the […]

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