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The Measure Of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey That Transformed the World [Paperback]

Ken Alder
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
Price: £12.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

3 Jun 2004

THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS tells the story of how science, revolutionary politics, and the dream of a new economy converged to produce both the metric system and the first struggle over globalization.

Amidst the scientific fervor of the Revolution two French scientists, Delambre and Mechain, were sent out on an expedition to measure the shape of the world and thereby establish the metre (which was to be one ten-millionth the distance from pole to equator). Their hope was that people would use the globe as the basis of measure rather than an arbitrary system meted out by the monarchs. As one scientist went north along the French meridian and the other south, their experiences diverged just as radically. After seven years, they received a hero's welcome upon their return to Paris. Mechain, however, was obsessed over a minute error in his calculations that he'd discovered and concealed, and which eventually drove him to his grave. His death forced his colleague Delambre to choose between loyalty to his friend and his science.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus; New Ed edition (3 Jun 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349115079
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349115078
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.7 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 192,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


all the pace and plot of a historical adventure novel, as though Longitude had been crossed with A Tale of Two Cities, with a measure of Don Quixote thrown in (The Sunday TIMES)

riveting account of the origins of the metric system... an eye-opener (The DAILY TELEGRAPH)

Book Description

The revolutionary adventures of two scientists who inaugurated the metric system.

Winner of the 2003 Dingle Prize for the best book on the history of science.

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The countryside was strangely silent, the roads deserted. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous non-fiction book 23 Aug 2003
By A Customer
This is my personal n° 1 book of the year 2003 and a real masterpiece. Not only does the author give us insight into the various historical and political backgrounds against which the various and innumerable local weights and measures of the Ancien Régime were replaced by "one measure and one weight" (and how long it took before most countries of the world, except the U.S.A. of course, adopted this new set of weights and measures). We also learn that the attempt of the French scientists Delambre and Méchain to determine the exact lenght of the metre gave the world one of the best examples of why "science is error" and the book therefor is also an introduction to modern scientific concepts such as "uncertainty" and "indeterminism".
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passion for precision 21 Mar 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Except for Australia, the metric system remains a mystique for the English-speaking world. It's "foreign" or "the screws don't fit" or some other phrase that distances it from what is still referred to as the "English" form of measurement. Yet, as every other nation knows, nearly every nation uses it, including the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Ken Alder, pandering to American prejudices has subtitled this book in a way designed to lure pro- and anti-metric readers alike. Both will find comfort here, depending on what is sought in its pages. That, alone, is testimony to the diligence he's used in relating the creation of the metre and the science surrounding it.
Alder's task was formidable. He presents the personalities of the two prime figures that performed the Herculean task of measurement. The two men were similar in some ways, wildly divergent in others. Using Paris as a base, Delambre and Mechain struck out to measure, in effect, the diameter of the Earth to establish a piece of it as the basis for the new standard of measurement - the metre. Alder places his figures and their mission firmly within their total environment. Setting out under a royal commission, they are overtaken by the French Revolution. Part of the background of that upheaval was the Enlightenment - the age in which traditions were questioned and new ideas about the world and the universe were proposed. From this distance of time, everything appears to have fallen into place. Alder, however, shows that not only were answers only being teased from Nature, it was becoming obvious that many necessary questions had yet to be asked.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lovely book 3 Mar 2003
By A Customer
The book is a lovely account of how two French savants from the late eighteenth century measured the meridian in order to establish the meter as the standard measure, for all people, for all time, and why it was so necessary from the economical, social and political points of view to fulfill this mission. It is wonderfully written, and has certainly made me a staunch supporter of the metric revolution, which has been and will continue to be unstopable, whatever the Americans say.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The sub-title of this book is 'The Seven Year Odyssey that Transformed The World'. This journey is both geographical and intellectual, with the very practical aim of creating a definitive unit of length based upon the physical world that would replace the myriad of local and regional measures that were in use in France towards the end of the eighteenth century. Theoretically, if ANY unit could be defined, then all other units could be based upon it. (The gram to be the weight of one cubic centimetre of water, money to be the value of a certain weight of silver, although time might be slightly more problematical).
Set against the upheaval in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-Francois-André Méchain journeyed to measure the meridian of Paris from Dunkerque to Barcelona in 1792, little realising the time it would take. If like me, you do not understand the science of geodesy, this is still a very good read, and although the technical details of, for example, Borda's circle are given, this revolutionary (pun intended) piece of equipment can be appreciated from afar. The journeying enabled the metre to be defined, this being one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, as extrapolated from the measurements of the meridian through France and into Spain. An unforeseen consequence was that the knowledge of the shape of the earth was changed forever by the measurements taken. Hitherto, it had been seen as a uniform, if oblate (fatter at the equator) sphere, if measured at the equator.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Measures up well! 30 Dec 2004
Of all dreary ideas for a book, the history of the meter might seem to be a sure no-go for any publisher. Instead, this book gives an in-depth portrait of the men measuring France and parts of Spain, in order to find a value for the meter that would stand the test of time. (It didn't, of course, but that's another story.)
Among other things we get to understand the arguments for a common measure of all things, why the meter was so important - and why it was rejected, again and again, even in France.
We also slowly get to understand the nature of error in scientific work, for a non-scientist like me this was very interesting.
Some parts of the book could, in my opinion, have been shortened down a little bit, hence the missing 5th star.
All in all, enjoyable and recommendable!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars T he measure of All Things
Bought this book for my son who found it a fascinating read, very well presented, well researched, a good buy.
Published 12 months ago by Charlotte
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Measure of All Things" by Ken Alder
Fascinating insight into a subject which first caught my interest in Professor Marcus de Sautoy's recent TV documentary series about measurement.
Published 15 months ago by BadLord
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
I very much enjoyed this book. The metre is a measurement that I completely take for granted. The story of how history shaped this measurement and how this measurement shapes our... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Freshman
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect combination of science and history
This is a great book and a perfect combination of science and history. It was difficult to put down and I learnt a lot of stuff too. Read more
Published on 28 Mar 2012 by Dr. John P. Yardley
4.0 out of 5 stars A scientific fraud which lives on
Scientific fraud ranges from acts which surely should be criminal to minor rule-bending which can be viewed with indulgence. Read more
Published on 3 Sep 2009 by Metropolitan Critic
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect scientific drama
Fate, war, envy, fraud, suffering and human drama - these are things that do not immediately spring to mind when discussing the history of geodesy. Read more
Published on 10 Jan 2008 by Christian Jongeneel
5.0 out of 5 stars Science is not just discovery - more of a journey
The sub-title of this book is ‘The Seven Year Odyssey that Transformed The World’. This journey is both geographical and intellectual, with the very practical aim of... Read more
Published on 25 Mar 2004 by Mr P R Morgan
5.0 out of 5 stars Science is not about discovery - more of a journey
The sub-title of this book is ‘The Seven Year Odyssey that Transformed The World’. This journey is both geographical and intellectual, with the very practical aim of... Read more
Published on 24 Mar 2004 by Mr P R Morgan
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