June 10, 2010 GMT
The Way To Zimbabwe

A couple of days ago was Les's funeral. I was in Bungoma, thoughts in Henley on Thames.
And my research for my way south to Lake Malawi and thence Zimbabwe reminded me of another anecdote from our regular meet-ups.

I was in Zimbabwe for a short visit in 2001, but didn't see the Great Zimbabwe Monument. I want to ride there this time because, I think, it gives the lie to what was taught in English schools (at least mine) in the 1950s about British colonialism in Africa.

Then early last year I found myself walking along Cecil Court in London, where numerous stamp and coin collecting shops are located. In the window of one was prominently displayed a 500 trillion Zimbabwean dollar banknote.
I think that's 500,000,000,000,000. (As near as makes no difference).
It caught my eye because I still have a Z$50 note from my 2001 visit and had already added Zimbabwe to my itinerary for this trip.
The marked selling price for the banknote in the shop window was six pounds 50 pence.

A hundred trillion. The picture on the note is of the Balancing Rocks of Epworth, a suburb S.E. of Harare.

Now I think it was Les's partner Alison who used to refer to our little (and big) reunions as "Last of the Summer Wine". We all agreed with that but would never admit it. The following conversation at our reunion later last year probably epitomises that.
Les, Pete, Colin and I were at a table in the pub when the conversation got round to changing money for overseas trips. I'm not too sure why, as Les always seemed to pay for his trips with airmiles. He and Alison became famous for once having enough airmiles between them to fly first class on BA to Sydney and back for Christmas and New Year. Truly a magnificent feat!

I threw in the comment that I had seen a Z$500,000,000,000,000 note going for 6 pounds 50 pence in a Cecil Court shop and wondered what my Z$50 note would buy when/if I reached Zimbabwe in 2010. Les looked a bit pensive at that, but our conversation moved on to figuring out exactly what sort of glass Pete's beer glass was made out of. He'd announced that '1664' beer was now sold in "nucleated" beer glasses, to keep the bubbles rising and stop the beer going flat.
"What on earth is nucleated glass?" we asked. And so our earnest discussion meandered off into the molecular thermodynamics of the bubbles in a pint of beer.
Interesting or what??

I think it was the "molecular" bit that triggered Les's thought process, groping for something he'd learned at University more years ago than he'd care to remember.
After much chit-chat around the table we agreed that, "no, we didn't know how a nucleated beer glass was made, we'd have to revisit that question at another time. In the meantime, had anyone heard from Orp Phillips lately?" (A well-respected "office philosopher" from our working days who would probably have known the answer).

At that, Les announced to those around the table, "Five molecules!"

"Five molecules! Five molecules of lager. That's what your fifty Zimbabwean dollar note would buy now, if 500 trillion dollars is worth six pounds fifty."

"It was 500 trillion, was it? Not 500 thousand trillion? How many zeros were on the banknote?" Les asked.

"It's easy," said Les. "I suddenly remembered Avogadro's constant, that I did in chemistry at University. I knew it would come in handy one day."
"You just need that," he continued, "today's price of a pint, and the price of that banknote in the coin-collecting shop. From that you can work out that fifty Zimbabwean dollars will buy five molecules of 1664 lager in this pub!"

"But you need to be sure there were fourteen zeros on that banknote, not seventeen. Were you wearing your reading glasses at the time?"

I'd never heard of Avogadro's constant, but now Pete looked pensive, wondering if he could use it to work out how nucleated glass is made.

And so our reunion conversations progressed ......... 'Last of the Summer Wine', or what?
Sadly Les will be missing and missed next time.

Just to continue with Last Of The Summer Wine, and for old time's sake, I'll add the following.
In looking for a picture of the Zimbabwean note, I learned that there were massive devaluations going on in addition to the rampant inflation that added all the zeros to the banknotes. The main one was 92% in 2007.
Les didn't know this of course, but maybe he would like the job completed for the benefit of the others around that table last year.
So I humbly suggest (without knowing how to use Avogadro's constant in the calculation) that allowing for the devaluations, my Z$50 note will now buy two Higgs Bosons of 1664 lager in a London pub.
I come to that conclusion because a couple of months ago Les sent me an email saying that London Underground had offered the use of the Circle Line (my favourite tube line after the Victoria Line) to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland as a replacement for their 'Large Hadron Collider' that keeps breaking down. They're using that to try to find a Higgs Boson nuclear particle.


I'll save them the trouble by posting off my Zimbabwean note to Switzerland, then they'll have two of them.

The music at Les's funeral was "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life"
Inspired choice!

Posted by Ken Thomas at June 10, 2010 05:31 PM GMT

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