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7 of 7 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 (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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.
With a clever narrative style, he portrays the mentally tortured Mechain in agonies over what appears to be an insurmountable error - irreconcilable readings of latitude even after the most careful surveys. He keeps the true secret - a far more fundamental error than poor equipment or bad methodology - until late in the book. Through the story, however, Alder explains the views of the Enlightenment scientists - which he calls "savants", a term rarely used these days - and their struggles to establish and maintain what we now call "the scientific method". Do the research, then do it again. Confirm, repeat, verify, seek endorsement from others. Science, in a word, is an arduous task, not to be undertaken lightly nor performed inattentively. Alder does science a great service in his descriptions. While perfection, precision and accuracy are terms easily bandied about, Alder takes the time and trouble to explain their true meanings and why we must use them carefully. And accurately.
Many will grouse about Alder's pedantic style, but he demonstrates that this work goes far beyond the correctness of the platinum bar locked away in a Parisian vault. Science is important and more people need to recognize that fact. Alder points out that the success of the metre was not a scientific achievement, but a political one. As governments recovering from the Napoleonic Empire regained hegemony, they recognized the efficiency of centralised forms of administration. With the metre carefully established, the Low Countries, Italy, Spain and the colonies of them all adopted the metric system as a vast improvement over the chaos of the ancien regime.
Alder is far too clever to launch a promotion on why America should move to metric. He knows his countrymen, and cites some of the arguments used against the standard. He notes the Ohio legislator that condemned metric without mentioning that it was Ohio that once considered changing the value of pi to the whole number 3 and is now entertaining the irrational concept of "intelligent design" creationism. No matter how carefully he shields it, he presents the adoption of metric globally as a vivid message. Only America, among the world's leading nations, stands alone in a resistance without reason.
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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
5.0 out of 5 stars Science is not just discovery - more of a journey, 24 Mar. 2004
By 
Mr P R Morgan "Peter Morgan" (BATH, Bath and N E Somerset United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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.
A reading of this work may raise lots of questions, for example about theories of measurement and error compensation (after all, geodesaic triangulation has to compensate for the curvature of the earth; the sum of the angles of a triangle may not equal 180º). It also speaks about the nature of science, and whether it is better to 'published and be damned', or to work and rework calculations ad infinitum. Of the two measurers, Méchain was haunted by his seemingly inconsistent results, and he wasted much time, and only published his results under duress. However, the everlasting legacy of their journey is the metre as defined by results. The fact that the measurement is now seen as "incorrect" is almost an incidental fact. (The metre is not as accurate as the 'provisional metre', adopted as an interim measure whilst the astronomers triangulated their way through France). More recent definitions of the metre keep the established and erroneous distance, redefining this special distance with respect to other basic units (now the distance that light can travel through a vacuum in a very small, precisely defined unit of time). Science can be based upon 'wrong' results, but it can still be very useful.
Measuring everything against a basic unit derived from nature was a laudable aim, probably a child of the enlightenment times. This coverage of the historical journey is very well researched, and shows that neither the intellectual nor the geographical journey was a straight line. You can travel with the author to discover more than just a story. It is more of a journey of how we journey. For serious students, there are ample source references to explore the subject further. Sources are often in French, but located in scientific or university libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.
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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
By 
Jan Erik Frantsvåg "janeriks" (Tromsø, Norway) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Measure Of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey That Transformed the World (Paperback)
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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5.0 out of 5 stars Science is not just discovery - more of a journey, 25 Mar. 2004
By 
Mr P R Morgan "Peter Morgan" (BATH, Bath and N E Somerset United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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.
A reading of this work may raise lots of questions, for example about theories of measurement and error compensation (after all, geodesaic triangulation has to compensate for the curvature of the earth; the sum of the angles of a triangle may not equal 180º). It also speaks about the nature of science, and whether it is better to ‘published and be damned’, or to work and rework calculations ad infinitum. Of the two measurers, Méchain was haunted by his seemingly inconsistent results, and he wasted much time, and only published his results under duress. However, the everlasting legacy of their journey is the metre as defined by results. The fact that the measurement is now seen as “incorrect” is almost an incidental fact. (The metre is not as accurate as the ‘provisional metre’, adopted as an interim measure whilst the astronomers triangulated their way through France). More recent definitions of the metre keep the established and erroneous distance, redefining this special distance with respect to other basic units (now the distance that light can travel through a vacuum in a very small, precisely defined unit of time). Science can be based upon ‘wrong’ results, but it can still be very useful.
Measuring everything against a basic unit derived from nature was a laudable aim, probably a child of the enlightenment times. This coverage of the historical journey is very well researched, and shows that neither the intellectual nor the geographical journey was a straight line. You can travel with the author to discover more than just a story. It is more of a journey of how we journey. For serious students, there are ample source references to explore the subject further. Sources are often in French, but located in scientific or university libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Peter Morgan, Bath, UK
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5.0 out of 5 stars Science is not about discovery - more of a journey, 24 Mar. 2004
By 
Mr P R Morgan "Peter Morgan" (BATH, Bath and N E Somerset United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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.
A reading of this work may raise lots of questions, for example about theories of measurement and error compensation (after all, geodesaic triangulation has to compensate for the curvature of the earth; the sum of the angles of a triangle may not equal 180º). It also speaks about the nature of science, and whether it is better to ‘published and be damned’, or to work and rework calculations ad infinitum. Of the two measurers, Méchain was haunted by his seemingly inconsistent results, and he wasted much time, and only published his results under duress. However, the everlasting legacy of their journey is the metre as defined by results. The fact that the measurement is now seen as “incorrect” is almost an incidental fact. (The metre is not as accurate as the ‘provisional metre’, adopted as an interim measure whilst the astronomers triangulated their way through France). More recent definitions of the metre keep the established and erroneous distance, redefining this special distance with respect to other basic units (now the distance that light can travel through a vacuum in a very small, precisely defined unit of time). Science can be based upon ‘wrong’ results, but it can still be very useful.
Measuring everything against a basic unit derived from nature was a laudable aim, probably a child of the enlightenment times. This coverage of the historical journey is very well researched, and shows that neither the intellectual nor the geographical journey was a straight line. You can travel with the author to discover more than just a story. It is more of a journey of how we journey. For serious students, there are ample source references to explore the subject further. Sources are often in French, but located in scientific or university libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect scientific drama, 10 Jan. 2008
By 
Christian Jongeneel (Rotterdam, Netherlands) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Measure Of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey That Transformed the World (Paperback)
Fate, war, envy, fraud, suffering and human drama - these are things that do not immediately spring to mind when discussing the history of geodesy. This book has it all, masterly written by Ken Alder. It tells the history of the meter, sure enough, conceived as it was by two French scientists who set out to perform measurements as their country descended into revolution.

In reality, however, 'The measure of all things' is a Shakespearian drama with Pierre Méchain as a tormented Hamlet en Jean Delambre in the role of his sensible friend Horatio. With fine supporting acts for a host of scientific instruments and a choir of suspicious revolutionaries.
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5.0 out of 5 stars T he measure of All Things, 11 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: The Measure Of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey That Transformed the World (Paperback)
Bought this book for my son who found it a fascinating read, very well presented, well researched, a good buy.
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5.0 out of 5 stars "The Measure of All Things" by Ken Alder, 16 July 2013
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This review is from: The Measure Of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey That Transformed the World (Paperback)
Fascinating insight into a subject which first caught my interest in Professor Marcus de Sautoy's recent TV documentary series about measurement.
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