Saturday, August 04, 2007

Coin of the Realm

I only asked my daughters to bring me back one souvenir from their trip to the U.K., if they were able to find it without too much effort. They were.

It's a 2-pound coin, worth about $4 U.S. I wanted this coin for two reasons: first, because the rings of gears and stylized circuit board make it an unusual tribute to technology, capturing progress from the early Industrial Age to the Electronic Era. I further learn online that the innermost circle's subtle pattern of whorls around a rudimentary wheel is meant to symbolize the Iron Age, while the outermost ring of criss-crossed lines is meant to symbolize the Internet. Neither is obvious to me but I appreciate the effort. An inscription on the edge of the coin quotes Isaac Newton: "Standing on the shoulders of giants." (The "heads" side is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth.) Not many governments acknowledge the importance of science and technology on their money like that.

Second, there is something about the coin I find irresistible. I'll say no more for now; I leave the reason for my fascination as a puzzle for the reader. All the necessary clues are in the image above. I'll update this post in a couple of days to explain.

UPDATE, August 7: Thanks for commenting and playing along. Your answers are better than mine, which I hope isn't too disappointing.

What I love about the two-pound coin--the quality that made me have to have it--are the 19 interlocked gears in that ring. Any odd number of gears arranged like that would be unable to turn (the size of the gears is irrelevant, assuming their teeth mesh up). Every gear turns adjacent gears in the opposite direction, alternating clockwise, counter-clockwise, etc.:

Turning the top gear clockwise (red) moves the gears next to it counter-clockwise (blue)....

Go all the way 'round the ring and, with an odd number of gears, you hit a point where two adjacent gears want to turn the same direction. Won't work. The whole thing is locked up.

Examples of true irony (as opposed to the Alanis Morissette kind) are hard to find in life and I treasure them when I do. I think the government of the United Kingdom commemorating the formidable triumph of the Industrial Age with a machine that can't possibly
work--can't even move--qualifies as ironic. At least, it's the most fun I've had for $4 lately.



Unknown said...

Uh, two pounds at the top and
two tons at the bottom?

Unknown said...

yeah, yeah, as soon as I sent it I tried to retrieve it. 2000 pounds equal 1 ton.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Having had a few days to think about it, I still have no idea what you find irresistible about the coin. I'd make some guess about British arrogance in being alone among all nations in not putting their country's name on their currency, but I don't think that falls exactly into the "irresistible" ballpark.

The Newton quote is one that always gets me going, though. Usually presented as evidence of some sort of modesty on Newton's part (who was actually slightly less modest than Reggie Jackson), there are many other interpretations. I generally point out to my students that, in context, he was actually saying that if he had seen further than Descartes it was because he had done his homework and Descartes hadn't.

But a more fascinating possibility -- and juicier in the context of 17th-century natural philosophy infighting -- is one advocated by astronomer John Faulkner that involves the peculiar and diminutive physical stature of Robert Hooke. (The link is to a 1993 John Gribbin article in New Scientist.)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, could it be the Hidden Mickey at the top of the gears ring?


Anonymous said...

Maybe gold and silver metal in the same coin?

Sherwood Harrington said...

I don't think it's silver, anonymous. Brian said it was "irony."

Brian Fies said...

I like the hidden Mickey; didn't notice that before.

Sherwood, your wit--if nothing else--rivals Newton's.

Anonymous said...

i have a two pound coin with me...

Unknown said...

Actually the 17 interlocking cogs are a real tribute to the techno-geeks because 17 cogs WILL turn, IF they are in a mobius-strip - how geeky is that!!