Degrees of variation; in various degrees

How do you measure the absence of something? I agree that it’s not difficult to say whether something is there or not but to really differentiate between “well, it’s not there”, “it’s absolutely not there” and “you damn it, it’s NOT there” can be a little intriguing at times.

I am actually talking about air temperature, or rather the lack of it here. Till about a couple of months back, zero degree Centigrade or thirty-two degree Fahrenheit was the epitome, the benchmark for my Indian summer mind (how can something be colder than the freezing point ?). What goes on below the poverty level of heat never occurred to me. But now that I am subject to abject poverty of warmth and am seeing that frequent mercury movements and gauging the next day’s temperature is the talk of the town, I am finding this experience quite interesting. When I came to this city in US a couple of months back at the onset of winter, as I was jokingly telling some people, every subsequent day was turning out to be the coldest day of my life. Over the course of the full season, temperature has now reached a plateau (or is it rather a valley?) and I have also become more seasoned, literally! However, on a Fahrenheit scale, I am still really unable to distinguish between a ten, fifteen, twenty or a twenty-five – all are simply “very cold” and the numeric quantification just helps you to add some bias to your bodily feeling. It’s still good that it’s a fahrenheit world here, centigrade would have put an even heavier baggage of negative figures on your actual senses.

Speaking of the change from Centigrade to Fahrenheit from India to US, it’s like a Cartesian co-ordinate shift with the origin being moved but for all other things measurable; it is more like a spatial contraction and expansion of the unit of measurement. Think about distance, weight and currency; the density of measurement and the power of the unit will vary in almost everything and your brain will have to adapt to that. The currency front is particularly very interesting. When I had first visited America, every time I visited a store it was the multiplication table of forty. Sixteen years and eight Harry Potter movies later, it now turns out to be the table of sixty. This mental math is probably applicable for every person who visits a different country and has to use a different currency. The scale of the buying power is also remarkably different – you might have belittled a twenty or a fifty back home but it’s amazing how powerful the same amount is here when in dollars. And it’s more amazing how just after a little while your brain becomes automatically wired to assess what is cheap and what is expensive in this new currency even “without” doing any sort of currency conversion and thus ensuring a complete overhaul of the mental model.

However, air temperature still stands apart amongst all these physical quantities. Not only does it have a different scale like other quantities, but unlike others it also has a shift of zero and there is also a (perceived) need to measure negative values. So it is rather unique. Or is it really? What about measurement of warmth in a relationship? Will it be too different than measurement of warmth in the atmosphere? Don’t you ever need to distinguish between it’s not there, it may be there and it’s not there but there is still some hope left?


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