The measure of all things

Alder, K. (2002). The measure of all things: the seven-year odyssey and hidden error that transformed the world. New York: Free Press.

Measurement is of critical importance to science, but as Ken Alder shows in this informative book, scientific activities cannot be separated from the personalities of those involved and the political events of the times. Alder is a historian of technology at Northwestern University who writes of important scientific events with an easy to read simplicity that makes the story fascinating as well as a deep examination of the issues.

This story tells of the quest to measure the circumference of the earth by a laborious effort of physical surveying by triangulation from visible site to visible site the from Northern France to Spain (and then basically multiplying by the appropriate factor). The goal was to determine the distance with great accuracy, allowing the meter to be defined as as one ten-millionth the distance from the equator to the North Pole. All these events took place just prior to, during, and after the French revolution which greatly interfered with the quest. Moreover, the task was quite a bit more difficult than had been initially thought, and not all the measurements ended up being consistent with one another. So some fudging of data resulted and supposedly open data collection sets were kept secret. Lots of people got into the act, even Napoleon.

If you ever wondered about the origins of the metric system this book helps provide some of the intrigue and background. You might also note that the metric calendar (10 months) and the metric clock (ten hours with 100 minutes to the hour and 10 seconds to the minute) did not survive.

Pointer to the book at The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World