The Measure of All Things in the 526’s

June 14, 2012 History, non-fiction 0

Title: The Measure of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey and the Hidden Error that Transformed the World
Author: Ken Alder
Source: library
Fun Fact:  Prior to adoption of the metric system, over 250,000 different units of measurement were being used in France alone.
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Review Summary: The book started out really well, making a potentially boring topic feel exciting but by the end there was too much tangential information included and the plot started to drag.

In The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder describes the surprisingly difficult and adventurous process by which the length of the meter was determined.  Savants or learned men of France decided that the best way to develop a universal standard of measurement was to base that measurement on the natural world.  They selected one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole and tasked two savants with leading expeditions to measure part of that distance using triangulation (the rest of the distance would then be estimated based on their results).  Their journey started while the French revolution was taking place and over the seven years of their travels they faced challenges including civil war, wars with other countries, mountainous terrain, and malaria.

The author did a great job setting up an exciting story.  The selection of a basic unit of length sounds trivial but as the author points out the idea of a universal standard of measurement was connected to the ideas of justice, equality, free trade, and the free exchange of ideas.  For savants, the French Revolution with its’ public support for individual rights was the perfect time to pursue this goal.

With many individuals and events connected to the derivation of the meter, this book was a nice balanced mix of all aspects of the story.  There were little bits on historical customs, personal stories, details of the wars in which France was involved, and highlights of the scientific advancements being made.  In fact, at the beginning of the book, I was all ready to give it 4 stars, because it just started out so well.  Unfortunately, like the expedition, the story began to drag on.

A lot of the end of the book was tangential information and not much about the expedition.  And when the expedition ended, the book still didn’t.  Most disappointingly, the error mentioned in the title came down to worn out equipment and insufficient statistical knowledge and it didn’t really change the world – it just made the meter a little shorter than it should have been.  Despite the ending, the story of the meter was a very interesting and surprisingly adventurous story and the author did a great job connecting it to major world events of the time period.


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