978-0-7432-4431-2 / 9780743244312

Measure of All Things


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About the book:

Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things, about the search for a universal standard of measurement, doesn't immediately lend itself to summer movie adaptation. Yet the story of Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-Francois-Andre Mechain, the two astronomers assigned the task of arriving at a number equalling one-tenth-millionth of the quarter meridian, is actually quite gripping in its own way. From start to finish, Delambre and Mechain's scientific quest takes seven years of measuring angles with high-precision rulers. Fortunately, their mission takes place before, during, and after the French Revolution. This historical backdrop means that, at least in the early stages of the mission, Mechain and Delambre get themselves into some pretty sticky situations with bloodthirsty rural citizens skeptical of our peaceful protagonists' efforts to find the ideal spots for setting up their dubious-looking high-precision rulers. Then there's Mechain himself, a disciplined scientist who flubs some data and then drives himself insane over the doctored numbers. His descent into madness is a cautionary tale about the search for perfection. But the more interesting sections of The Measure of All Things don't come without a price, including the kind of technical prose that may have some readers wishing for a conversion table to plain English. Describing a breakthrough measurement device, Alder writes: "The ingenious principle behind the repeating circle allowed the geodeser to take multiple readings of the same angle without resetting the instrument. This repetition promised virtually to annihilate any errors due to the uncertain sense perceptions of the observer or deficiencies in the manufacture of the angular scale." Wow, sounds like a great socking stuffer. But, as the history professor-novelist notes, "Today, many of these ideas [about a universal system of measurement] are taken for granted and hence unexpressed. But like many things that appear ordinary on the surface, they mask a long history of bitter controversy." To that end, the author has poked and prodded something as ubiquitous as oxygen to reveal a surprisingly interesting story of political conflict, historical intrigue, and scientific hubris. --Shawn Conner

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