Thursday, 10 February 2011

King James Bible becomes a mathematical problem

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of its publication in 1611, I am organising, in association with the Millennium Library in the centre of Norwich, a public reading of the King James Bible – an astounding work of literature and scholarship that has shaped the language, culture and values of this nation.

Planning the schedule for reading this has proved to be an interesting experience of mathematical problem-solving. First there was a clear goal: to read the entire Bible in public, starting at 12 noon on Sunday 10 April and concluding at 4 pm on Sunday 17 April. And there are some givens: the number of words in the Bible and the fact that we could do this only during Library opening hours. The whole thing will have to fit into 72 hours. There are other constraints, such as making breaks from one day to the next at appropriate points.

A key variable is the number of words of 17th century English per minute that can be read on average by experienced readers nominated by local church leaders. After trials I decided on 170 words per minute. Lots of sampling involved in this! Multiply 170 by 60, that's 10,200 words per hour, which gives 734, 400 words in 72 hours. That's not allowing anything for time lost in changeovers between readers.

This raises a problem: there are actually 783,137 words in the KJB! (No, I didn't count them myself!) Solution: read it faster or change the goal? I decided to change the goal, so I have edited out the repeated text and some of the more baffling passages in the Old Testament, to get it down to around 700,000 words, which gives us a bit of flexibility.

The rate of 170 words per minute allowed me to estimate (more sampling) that on average we would read 17 pages of my copy in an hour – which is 3.53 minutes per page. This became the key number in solving the problem, which enabled me to determine how many pages should be read each day and to calculate an approximate time for the start of each section of the reading. To avoid awkward breaks between days, I used the 150 psalms fairly flexibly to fill in gaps!

The problem-solving involved a process of iteration, using 'trial and improvement': with changes being made gradually here and there, with the plan day by day getting closer and closer to a solution that satisfied all the constraints.

Well, the problem is solved, the schedule is done and it's now all safely saved on a spreadsheet! If you happen to be in Norwich that week (10–17 April), pop into the Library in the Forum and have a listen.

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