Originally, the metric system was intended to replace all existing units, including those of time and angle. Along with the renamed months of the year, the revolutionaries wanted to introduce a decimal division of the day, and of angles.
These traditional units proved too difficult to replace. Nevertheless, they were used in many works of great importance — notably, Laplace's Mécanique Céleste. And, as Nathaniel Bowditch chose to retain this usage in his heavily annotated English translation of it, we occasionally still need to cope with those revolutionary units.
This creates a treacherous difficulty for readers who are familiar with the ordinary sexagesimal system, because the degrees (in particular) are almost the same size as the usual ones. There is not enough difference for the change of units to be immediately obvious — a problem exacerbated by Laplace's use of the usual terms (degrees, minutes, and seconds) without the qualifier “centesimal”.
On the other hand, the discrepancy amounts to about a factor of two at the minutes, as centesimal minutes are (9/10)×(6/10) or 0.54 as large as minutes of arc. And it's about a factor of 3 in the seconds; so when Laplace remarks that the refraction at 50° zenith distance is 186″,728 (see p. 530 of Bowditch's version), or that (as on p. 477 of Bowditch's translation) the horizontal refraction is about 6500″, the modern reader immediately has a sense that something is wrong.
But it becomes still more of a nuisance if you want to convert some long mixture of degrees, minutes, and seconds from one system to the other.
Copyright © 2006, 2009 Andrew T. Young
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