Friday, January 18, 2013

Je pense donc je suis

What do you usually think about when someone in your circle mentions Rene Descartes?

That is, if someone in your circle does mention Rene Descartes. I haven't had any one in my circle mention Rene Descartes in a while. However, since I am an engineer by training, I do hear the people around me using the word "Cartesian" once in a while -- the last time I heard it, was probably a few months ago.

Most people have replaced the expression "Cartesian coordinates" with "x-y coordinates" in the last few decades.  Perhaps, they don't like to sound too formal. Perhaps, they don't know who Rene Descartes was. Or perhaps, as a friend who happens to be a mathematician, once told me, if you use the world "Cartesian", for one type of geometry, then, you are almost obligated to use the word, "Lobachevskian" for another. Who in the world knows how to pronounce Lobachevskian?!!!  So, perhaps.

Usually when I think of Rene Descartes, I also think of a famous phrase of his, which has become a "cornerstone" statement of modern philosophy.

Je pense donc je suis. (I think, therefore I am).

I was reminded of this statement recently, when I read a brilliantly written article in The Economist. Entitled "Is Paris worth a mass?", the article takes a rather humorous look at the way the international standards of weights and measures are maintained. The international standard for the "kilogram" resides in France, but apparently, due to the recent advances in science, the French kilogram risks losing the weight, it is so used to throwing around. While the French may have resigned themselves to the inevitable consequence of Camembert cheese being weighed with a watt-balance using the Planck constant, the author consoles them by reminding them that the predominant co-ordinate system in the world is still Cartesian. And for that, the author starts with a twist on Descartes's original statement, "Je pese donc je suis. (I weigh, therefore I am)".

While all this is indeed very funny, it reminded me of an equally funny incident which happened years ago in Des. In a small country market (haat) in Jharkhand, I was trying to buy some cabbages from an old lady. She looked very poor, and it was clear that she could only afford one balance and one weight, which happened to be a kilogram. So, she had a few cabbages kept aside that represented half a kilogram, and a quarter. For a hundred grams, she was using a few tomatoes, that her daughter was selling in the space next to her's. So, with a combination of properly weighed cabbages and tomatoes, she had figured out how to represent the "non-standard" weights. In case you doubted the veracity of her standards, which traced their lineage all the way to Monsieur kilogram in Pah-eee, she was willing to show you that her weights indeed measured up.

To me, this was quite brilliant. And so, I conveyed it to her that she was quite brilliant to figure this out, all by herself.  She gave me a toothless grin, and then, pointed at her head with her index finger. I have a feeling that she wanted to tell me, in very Cartesian terms, "I think, therefore, I am."


  1. Rene Descartes? Who is that. By the name Rene, I only recognise one geometrical figure; Rene Zelewager. Did I spell the surname right?
    The old lady was perhaps saying, I Think, therefore I can invent such 'Jugads'.

  2. Brilliant post, I say. What I liked was the brevity of the post. Shall come by more. You made me think of the local and the indigenous. There are treasures like this in every nook and corner so why follow French measurements.

    Joy always,

  3. Isnt necessity the mother of all inventions ?
    So nice to read you again. I used to frequent your blog few months ago, but life kept me busy with things and totally forgot about this blog.. Now when I wanted to read it.. all I remembered was the name 'desi babu' but couldnt find the link... After a lot of brainstorming had this Eureka moment.. peanut express.. yes.. and here I am !