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The Measure Of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey That Transformed the World Hardcover – 12 Sep 2002
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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)
The revolutionary adventures of two scientists who inaugurated the metric system.See all Product description
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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.
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.