[EAS] Exactitudes

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Nov 27 14:39:28 EST 2003

Subject:   Exactitudes

(from NewsScan Daily, 20 November 2003)

     Historian Ken Alder has published a paperback edition of his
popular work on measurement which contains this observation:
     "We often hear that science is a revolutionary force that
imposes radical new ideas on human history. But science also emerges
from within human history, reshaping ordinary actions, some so
habitual we hardly notice them. Measurement is one of our most
ordinary actions. We speak its language whenever we exchange precise
information or trade objects with exactitude. This very ubiquity,
however, makes measurement invisible. To do their job, standards
must operate as a set of shared assumptions, the unexamined
background against which we strike agreements and make distinctions.
So it is not surprising that we take measurement for granted and
consider it banal. Yet the use a society makes of its measures
expresses its sense of fair dealing. That is why the balance scale
is a widespread symbol of justice. The admonition is found in the
Old Testament: 'Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in
meteyard, in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a
just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have.' Our methods of
measurement define who we are and what we value."
for Ken Alder's "The Measure Of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey
and Hidden Error That Transformed the World" -- or look in your
favorite library. (We donate all revenue from our book suggestions
to adult literacy programs.)

Dear Colleagues -

I'm not sure this commentary reflects the full flavor of Alder's
work. The book descriptions at amazon.com (below) have a rather
different slant. It sounds like a fascinating chapter in the history
of technology, specifically of standards and their effect. 

If you're looking for other books for a Christmas list, there is
also the history of time and timekeeping, in Dava Sobel's well-known
"Longitude", and in Dohrn-van Rossum's less well-known scholarly
"History of the Hour." The former is the story of master clockmaker
John Harrison, of navigation and the determination of longitude at
sea. The latter is the history of time keeping and clocks, from
their reshaping of time-consciousness to their progressive reshaping
of virtually all aspects of society. According to Lewis Mumford, the
Benedictine's organization of their daily routines into a time
table, later mechanized by the ringing of church bells, and the
mechnical clocks in cities by the 13th century, laid the foundation
for the "regular beat" of society that enabled modern capitalism.


(From Publishers Weekly)
Alder delivers a triple whammy with this elegant history of
technology, acute cultural chronicle and riveting intellectual
adventure built around Delambre's and Mechain's famed meridian
expedition of 1792-1799 to calculate the length of the meter.
Disclosing for the first time details from the astronomers' personal
correspondences (and supplementing his research with a bicycle tour
of their route), Alder reveals how the exacting Mechain made a
mistake in his calculations, which he covered up, and which tortured
him until his death. Mechain, remarkably scrupulous even in his
doctoring of the data, was driven in part by his conviction that the
quest for precision and a universal measure would disclose the
ordered world of 18th-century natural philosophy, not the eccentric,
misshapen world the numbers suggested. Indeed, Alder has placed
Delambre and Mechain squarely in the larger context of the
Enlightenment's quest for perfection in nature and its startling
discovery of a world "too irregular to serve as its own measure."
Particularly fascinating is his treatment of the politics of
18th-century measurement, notably the challenge the savants of the
period faced in imposing a standard of weights and measures in the
complicated post-ancien regime climate. Alder convincingly argues
that science and self-knowledge are matters of inference, and by
extension prone to error. Delambre, a Skeptical Stoic, was the more
pragmatic and, perhaps, the more modern of the two astronomers,
settling as he did for honesty in error where precision was out of
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. 

(From Library Journal)
Most people don't think about how a mile became a mile or a foot a
foot, but Alder here presents a fascinating account of how the meter
the standard measure of distance for over 95 percent of the world's
population became the meter. We live in an era when standard
measures for objects and time have become so common that we would
have difficulty imagining a world without them. Alder takes us back
to revolutionary France, when it is estimated that 250,000 different
units of weights and measures were in use. Written in the vein of
Dava Sobel's Longitude and reading much like a historical thriller,
his book follows the seven-year effort of two accomplished
astronomers to measure the meridian and the curvature of the earth
from Dunkirk to Barcelona. Imbued with the spirit of the Age of
Enlightenment and the revolution's call for universal rights and
truth, these scientists strove to create a truly universal standard.
Alder's first book, Engineering the Revolution, won the 1998 Dexter
Prize; his second is a fascinating and well-written work recommended
for medium and large public libraries as well as academic libraries.
James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago 
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. 

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