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World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement [Hardcover]

Robert P. Crease
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

28 Oct 2011
In this epic story of the invention of a global network of weights, scales and instruments for measurement, Robert P. Crease traces the evolution of the system, from the use of flutes to measure distance in the dynasties of ancient China and figurines to weigh gold in West Africa, to the creation of the French metric and British imperial systems. Into this captivating history Crease weaves stories of colourful individuals, including Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of the metric system and philosopher Charles S. Peirce, the first to tie the metre to the wavelength of light. Tracing the dynamic struggle for ultimate precision, World in the Balance demonstrates that measurement is both stranger and more integral to our lives than we ever suspected.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 318 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (28 Oct 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393072983
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393072983
  • Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 696,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"...fascinating book..." --Arthur I. Miller, New Scientist

"[Crease] shows that the story of metrology...can in the right hands make for a riveting read." The Economist "...a corker for anyone with an enthusiasm for the underside of history..." --Tim Radford, The Guardian

"By any measure, this book is a delight." ----Natural History --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

The chairman of the Philosophy Department at Stony Brook University, Robert P. Crease writes the "Critical Point" column for Physics World. He is the author of, among other books, The Great Equations.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine history, but... 9 April 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a good historical review of the field of metrology and mankind's search for a universal system of measurement standards. Most of the action takes place around the time of the French Revolution, and this is rightly so. However, the author concentrates much effort on China and West Africa (especially too much effort here), and almost ignores some of the amazing feats of the ancients, especially Egypt and the Middle East. As a scientist, I found the discussions on art and deep philosophy boring and over-emphasised. In fact, I skipped the arty parts. The build up from French Revolution to the latest meeting at the Royal Society is good and kept me reading, but much of the really interesting details about the new SI unit definitions are weak or missing (e.g. the Metrological Triangle). Also note the National Physical Laboratory (and INRIM) also took part in the development of COXI (not just PTB and NIST). So, a good history but a weak ending. The Epilogue was, in my humble opinion, totally unnecessary and ruined the end of the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Measurement understood by all 13 Feb 2012
By lwuzzo
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some helpful history here; and, if the author has been selective about the past, he doesn't pretend otherwise. Some criticism about his own country, the USA, features (though not matching his gratuitous insults about British colonialism). I find the title absurd, and there are some odd errors in the table on p.142. But the overall run of the book, and in particular the concluding chapters brought me new and welcome knowledge.
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This is a book by an American, written in American, for Americans, and, where the author finds possible, about Americans.

Despite the subject matter being the history of measurement, the book also manages to include some rabid anti-British sentiments and a nauseatingly politically-correct outlook on the world. He says Britain's "horrendous treatment of cultures in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the nineteenth century did much to destabilise indigenous cultures, disrupt habit and infrastructures, and wipe out local measuring systems", yet most of the book is an account of the elimination of flawed, local measurement systems, a process which the author seems to enthusiastically endorse, with the possible exception of the fate of a weird West African system of weights that was based on factors other than just the weight of an object. His view of the fate of that system exposes his politically correct perspective: he condemns the lack of understanding of the system by Western scholars because they approached the problem from the perspective "of the white man", perhaps Japanese scholars would have fared better? I wonder what his views are on the genocide perpetrated by Americans on the native Indians, which the British attempted to curtail, and on slavery which existed for so much of American history and the overt legal, practical and institutional racial discrimination that lasted for a further hundred years after slavery was abolished.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Measuring the Measurements 27 Nov 2011
By R. Hardy - Published on
Your friend catches a fish that gets him bragging rights; it was over eighteen inches long, and he has the picture to prove it, his fish right alongside a ruler. But how do you know he didn't use one of those fisherman's gag rulers that are shrunk, making the fish look bigger? Or if he used a regular ruler, how do you know it was in line with other regular twelve-inch rulers? What are the odds that he took that ruler from one that had been carefully calibrated to a standard foot? What is a standard foot? The enigmas involved in measuring are among the subjects in _World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement_ (W. W. Norton) by Robert P. Crease. Crease writes the "Critical Point" column for _Physics World_, and some of the chapters here are from those columns, which means that digressive chapters might not deal specifically with world measurement standards. It doesn't matter; this is a sweeping history of how humans measure things, and since Crease is also the chairman of a philosophy department, it is about the meaning of measurement and its place in human thinking. It is a fascinating story, and all the more so because it is full of optimism. The international community of metrologists (experts in measuring) have spent centuries working on the problem of universal measurement standards, and have cooperated pretty well, and further cooperation seems assured.

In the past, every country, and even particular regions within countries, had idiosyncratic systems of measurement. The search for absolutes forms the main part of Crease's book. It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that it became clear that it would be handy to have one standard measuring system. The best proposal was by French scientists at the end of the 18th century. They wanted it to be universal, but they hooked it to the meridian that came south from the North Pole, took in Paris, and went to the equator. One ten-millionth of this distance was to be a meter. There were problems with the system, beyond the considerable ones of other cultures being slow to convert to it. There had been errors in measuring that meridian through Paris, so that the meter rod reverentially stored in the Archives was short. As early as 1827, scientists were fretting over the inexactitude and ephemerality of such rods. If a comet struck the Earth, they said, the axis of rotation or the shape of the Earth might be changed, and so the meridian measurement could not go back to a universal standard. It made no practical difference, as long as everyone was using the same meter rod, but rods may not last forever. In 1834 in London, the House of Lords was set on fire, along with the rods that were the standards for imperial measure; there were then no official standard lengths to turn to. There was no reason this could not happen to the meter rod in the Archives. Much of Crease's book has to do with tying the meter to a natural standard (it is defined now as a particular number of wavelengths of a particular kind of light). The unit of mass, the kilogram, has yet to be given a natural standard, and this is troubling. Right now, there is the "real" kilogram weight stored with the utmost care in Sèvres, but for reasons no one really understands, it seems to be getting lighter compared to the weights that are its official copies. If metrologists can tie it to Planck's Constant, the kilogram, too, will no longer be vulnerable to the vicissitudes which can afflict any physical object.

The funniest chapter here is about American resistance to the metric system. That we still use feet and miles is no joking matter, but in the 1880s there was a wacky American anti-metric movement which was "born in Ohio and exhibited the classic signs of American antireform movements: xenophobia, rabid rhetoric, fabrication of `facts,' reimagining history, conspiracy theories, and appeals to preserve the purity of nature and nation." In this view, Noah was the architect who designed the pyramids for Egypt, imbuing them with the "sacred cubit", one twenty-fifth part of which was the "Pyramid Inch," exactly one five-hundred-millionth of the Earth's axis of rotation. Thus, inches came from the Bible and the Lord (and from Egypt). The proponents of this view cast themselves as downtrodden combatants against the atheists and their meters. Crease also has a funny chapter about the difficulties of measuring human bodies, especially measurements for brassieres. The whole book proves to be surprisingly entertaining. Cease in his role as philosopher knows that measuring is more than just applying precision, but is a human endeavor that must always be tied to human enthusiasms and activities.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Measure for Measure, a Great Book 6 Mar 2012
By Eric Mayforth - Published on
All of us in all walks of life use weights and measures every day. Industry, manufacturing, and commerce would grind to a halt without them. Scientists use them for everything from space travel to medicine, and ordinary citizens use them when watching sports, preparing recipes, taking trips, and in countless other areas.

For much of human history, scientific progress was hampered because cultures around the world had haphazard, non-integrated systems of measurement. In "World in the Balance," author Robert Crease plumbs the history of metrology, the study of weights and measures, and recalls the historical figures who moved humanity toward an absolute system of measurement that could be used around the world.

Crease looks back at how units of measurement came to be in human history and provides examples of long-forgotten systems once used in China and Africa. There have always been philosophic and cultural consequences whenever weights and measures are less than exact--mankind began to desire a universal system, leading to the development of the metric system in eighteenth-century France.

Much of the book discusses how the metric system took root in France and then was gradually adopted across the globe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Scientists are still working today to improve the system--one of the last tasks is to move all base units such as the meter and kilogram away from arbitrary, physical artifacts and instead tie them to natural phenomena so that they could be recreated if necessary, and the author describes how much progress has been made on that front.

Weights and measures are so ubiquitous in our daily lives that we generally use them without even thinking much about them. If you have ever taken an interest in this topic you would enjoy this book, and after reading it you will likely view weights and measures in a whole new light from now on.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too Long 6 Nov 2012
By Steven Dierks - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There are some interesting parts in this book, but it goes on and on about stuff the author could have covered more succinctly. If you are interested in the topic, it's worth reading, but check it out at the library and skim thorough it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A History of Measurement Standards 6 Jun 2014
By G. Poirier - Published on
In what could be a very boring topic to many, the author adds life and humanity to the history of the establishment of measurement standards around the world. He traces the origin of standards as resulting from an essential need to establish fairness in business and trade. He also illustrates how the SI system (International System of Units) was born, how it evolved and how it is gradually being adopted by more and more countries. Finally, he discusses current efforts to define the standards in terms of natural constants, e.g., the speed of light in vacuum, Planck’s constant, etc. – this to eliminate the need for actual physical objects kept in climate-controlled vaults and defined as the actual standards.

I did enjoy this book, although I found that, occasionally, the author would digress into areas that seemed less pertinent to the main theme. I particularly enjoyed the last chapter which touches more on the modern efforts mentioned above. I believe that his book can be enjoyed by any interested general readers, but science enthusiasts would likely better appreciate it due to the many scientific terms and discussions that are peppered throughout the book.
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice text, interesting subject 20 Feb 2014
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I first saw this book in my country (Brazil), in Portuguese, and it caught my attention at first sight. The history of man's attempts to find universal references always attracted me, and the way Crease exposes it in this book is very pleasant.

Highly recommended!
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