The Emperor’s Nose

Good Eh?


The Emperor’s Nose is a story Richard Feynman tells in one of his books, as I remember it, as an illustration of how Governments work. I am paraphrasing from memory so may not get it quite right, but since the importance of stories (and the amount of repeat telling) is not dependant on whether they are true, but whether they ought to be true, this will do for now.

As I have it, at some time in the past in Imperial China a town wished to demonstrate its loyalty to the greater glory of China by erecting a statue of the Emperor. When it came to sculpting the face, however the sculptor was stumped. The Emperor lived in the Forbidden City and no-one from outside was allowed in to see him. Similarly no-one from inside the Forbidden City was allowed out. (The following generalisation was not considered problematically racist when Feynman told the story, but doubtless may be for some as I tell it today, sorry but it’s only a story). The sculptor believed he could make a fair job of the face as Chinese faces tend to similarity, except for the length of the nose. He therefore asked the townsfolk how this could be resolved. Now as we have established, no-one could speak to anyone who had actually seen the Emperor, so the townsfolk decided to ask everybody in the town what they thought was the length of the Emperor’s nose and average the result.

Feynman’s point was that if something isn’t known, just asking a large number of people who don’t know shares the responsibility about should a problem occur, but is unlikely to produce a correct answer except by pure dumb  luck.

This story remembered itself to me as I was trying to add a sidereal time page to an App I am working on. Sidereal time is time measured from Earth with reference to the stars rather than just with reference to our Sun (Normal time). To find out how to work out the sidereal time for the App’s user (Who has an iPod touch or iPhone so we know their latitude and longitude), I did a bit of Googling. It transpired that, as always, there were endless references to follow up, many with explanations of how to calculate it. This turned out to be rather like working on the synoptic gospels, in other words lots of people has just copied from someone else. Some of the base sources had Algorithms to crib, but these were invariably in a programming language I don’t know well enough to reliably transcribe. Having checked WikiPedia, which was good on background but I didn’t trust for the maths, I ended up with the US Navy website which has exemplary clarity and apparent authority. Here, I suspect, was someone who had met the Emperor and could describe his nose to me. The App now corresponds exactly with the two websites I have found which give you an immediate sidereal time for a given latitude. Lots more testing needed for verification in different timezones and with and without Daylight Saving Time.


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