on 29 April 2013
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.
Being written in American he refers to different parts of Paris as being separated by so many "blocks", he doesn't have access to words like "orientate" and instead uses the word "orient", and he is "obligated" all the time, rather than "obliged", and we get quite a lot of self-indulgent personal tales, including a lengthy and content-free episode in which he gets himself and his wife scanned by a machine.
The book is apparently based on a series of articles he has written for Physics World magazine, and it shows. Some of the chapters are oddly discordant; large amounts of text is devoted to his favourite subject of the West African weights system and the associated culture, there are some odd chapters on artists and other characters such as Michelle Duchamp who had an interest in the metre. Several chunks of text are repeated, presumably because originally the articles were separate and no knowledge of the other articles was presumed, and the overall effect is that the analysis is lopsided. There are also errors: he thinks that there are 14 ounces in a stone according to his table on Imperial measurements.
The history of British units is barely mentioned at all, only where they replace local units in some primitive land, yet if an American declares an opinion on relevant issues, we are treated to a mini biography of the character and a deep analysis of the comment. We are treated to a succession of American legislative activity and documents that are connected to measurement, and a constant stream of history of the US coast survey and its employees. In the same vein we are kept fully abreast of all of the milestones in the US's engagement with the international scientific community culminating in the first attendance of an American at an international conference in the late nineteenth century.
Mention of people outside of the US is seemingly reluctant at best, James Maxwell gets a grudging mention because of his suggestion that the wavelength of light could be a means of providing a natural way of defining the metre, but this seems just an excuse for a chapter's worth of a biography of an American who spent years arguing with people, being ill, having marital problems and using diffraction gratings in an attempt to measure the wavelength accurately before ending his days isolated and penniless.
There is some interesting stuff in the book and it was worth reading, despite the often poor typesetting, the text changes size across the page as do the number of lines between pages, and the diagrams are often poorly printed, but there have to be better books on the subject than this, preferably less parochial, less partisan, less indulgent and less disjointed, and which don't reek of a political agenda and which are written in English.