Read The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World by Ken Alder Online


In June 1792, amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, two intrepid astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary journey. Starting in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre would make his way north to Dunkirk, while Pierre-François-André Méchain voyaged south to Barcelona. Their mission was to measure the world, and their findings would help define the meIn June 1792, amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, two intrepid astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary journey. Starting in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre would make his way north to Dunkirk, while Pierre-François-André Méchain voyaged south to Barcelona. Their mission was to measure the world, and their findings would help define the meter as one ten-millionth of the distance between the pole and the equator-- a standard that would be used for all people, for all time. "The Measure of All Things" is the astonishing tale of one of history's greatest scientific adventures. Yet behind the public triumph of the metric system lies a secret error, one that is perpetuated in every subsequent definition of the meter. As acclaimed historian and novelist Ken Alder discovered through his research, there were only two people on the planet who knew the full extent of this error: Delambre and Méchain themselves. By turns a science history, detective tale, and human drama, "The Measure of All Things" describes a quest that succeeded as it failed, and continues to enlighten and inspire to this day....

Title : The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World
Author :
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ISBN : 9780743216760
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 448 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World Reviews

  • Ben Babcock
    2018-12-14 22:04

    After a long spate of young adult novels, and in particular the very harrowing Asking for It, I needed a palate-cleanser. How much further can we get than a book about the expedition to define the metre?I take the metre for granted. It’s just there. I was aware, vaguely, of the various ways in which it has been defined, and I knew that the metric system came out of the French Revolution. What I didn’t realize, however, is how close we came to having a different metre—or to not having a metre at all. If any number of events did not happen precisely as they did, we might still have unit chaos, or we might be using a metre that looks much different from the one we have today.It’s this exploration of the politics around the definition of the metre that makes The Measure of All Things so fascinating. Although Ken Alder takes the time to explain some of the science and engineering that went into this expedition and its efforts, this story is ultimately about people, and how their egos and follies can shape entire generations of scientific thought.It’s attractive to think of science as neutral or objective. Indeed, when I was younger that is often how I thought of it. While this might be a goal towards which science strives, it is naive to believe we can achieve such neutrality. Science is a process of human endeavour, and so ultimately it is vulnerable to social biases. We must acknowledge these biases and remain watchful for when they show up in our efforts. Similarly, we can’t just pretend that science is free of the influence of politics. It’s tempting to assume that science transcends national and corporate loyalties, but that is a dangerous fiction to maintain.Probably few have been as aware of this as the scientists—or savants as Alder calls them—labouring during the French Revolution. With the political winds shifting every year, it was all too easy to find yourself out of favour—which, in this climate, typically meant losing your head. It’s also important to recognize that many of the innovations introduced at this time, including the metric system, were spurred on by revolutionary motives. Hence, politics drives and influences science far more than we might want to admit. The metric system was supposed to standardize weights and measures across France, giving the nation a renewed unity that would help solve some of the problems with taxation and commerce that had plagued the country under monarchy. Moreover, in the form of the meridian expedition, it would be a work of national pride: French savants on French soil would measure the Earth and use its glorious natural proportions to define a new unit of measurement!And then they screwed it up.Alder knows how to tell a tale: The Measure of All Things is a mixture of a couple of biographies and some intrigue set against the backdrop of Revolutionary France. I was fairly interested in a story of the development of the metre, but I absolutely cannot resist non-fiction that promises me scandal! intrigue! cover-ups! And this book has all of those things in spades. As Delambre makes his way through the rural villages of northern France, you hold your breath with each delay and detainment by the suspicious villagers. (The Enlightenment, of course, was a phenomenon exclusive more to the privileged and urban inhabitants of Europe. Superstition and mistrust of savants was still the order of the day, and given this context, it’s easier to understand why that still seems to be the case in parts of North America.) Likewise, the tension on the southern leg of the expedition as Méchain agonizes over his discrepancies and delays departures keeps you constantly guessing as to how everything will shake out. I mean, we know the broad strokes of how the expedition ends, but there was plenty I didn’t know.Alder excels at providing the historical context for the astronomers’ discoveries, as well as explaining how astronomers went about actually measuring the Earth. Geodesy is cool, and if you haven’t spent much time thinking about the shape of the Earth, this book will give you a crash course in some of the innovative methods people have created over the centuries. We in the era of GPS devices are so divorced from this type of technology that it’s easy to forget that the actual methods are very basic. Delambre and Méchain were using techniques similar to what geodesers use today—we just have more precise and accurate tools.Speaking of which, I loved Alder’s digression into the difference between precision and accuracy, and his description of Laplace’s development of error theory. Going to be honest: even as a mathematician, I don’t like statistics. But I always find it interesting how certain aspects of mathematics and science emerged (in their rigorous form at least) relatively late—Delambre and Méchain had access to a lot of good mathematical tools, but error analysis wasn’t one of them.I also appreciate how The Measure of All Things does not succumb to the Great Man Theory of history. Yes, it foregrounds the two leaders of the meridian expedition, and Alder ascribes much of what transpires to those leaders’ particular personalities—Delambre striving for integrity and transparency, Méchain obsessed with precision and completeness. I can definitely see how the expedition might have turned out differently if, say, Cassini IV had ended up leading it. Nevertheless, Alder never supposes that these two great men were Great Men who dual-handedly put France, and the world, on the path to metric. He points to the confluence of other factors that made this the right time, right place. He highlights the work of other savants, such as Borda, Lalande, Laplace, Legendre, et al, who developed theories or devices that made the expedition possible. He also points out the diplomats and public servants who at various times helped or hindered the expedition. Finally, Alder mentions the people who supported the expedition leaders: their assistants (often very capable savants or surveyors in their own right) and family (Thèrese Méchain was a pretty cool lady, given her ability to manage the Observatory on her own and the way she just up-and-joined her husband to try to talk him away from the abyss).At times Alder likes his digressions a little too much. Did I really need the entire backstory on Lalande? No, although I admit it was interesting. Did I really want those last couple of chapters on the metric system post-Revolution, including most of a chapter devoted to the United States? Not really. The Measure of Things is detailed and comprehensive in pursuing its topic, and as such it’s also overly long and occasionally to detailed for its own good.I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in history or the scientific method. Even if you’re not that interested in learning about the inception of the metric system, this is a different approach to looking at the French Revolution that you might appreciate. Other than my criticisms about the length and digressions, Alder’s writing is remarkably clear and unassuming; he is always honest about what we know or don’t know from the evidence and correspondence he could find. Too many popular history books inject the author’s view into the conversation—sometimes that is useful or necessary, depending on the topic, but it’s a welcome absence here.Regardless of your opinions of the metric system, it has shaped the modern world. That all started in the 1790s in France, ended in the early 1800s, and gradually came back into vogue over the next two centuries. The Measure All Things promises to trace the development of the metre as an aspirational unit based on the size of the Earth; it also promises to unmask and clarify the ways in which this aspiration went awry through human error and political machination. It delivers on both of these promises, and the result is a fascinating and enjoyable non-fiction book, the perfect palate-cleanser before I dive back into some hard-hitting YA.

  • Tarquin
    2018-12-12 19:45

    I found this to be a pretty fascinating account of Delambre and Merchain's rather epic journey to make the measurements that are the basis of the modern metric system. Alder finds a pretty good balance between narrative recount and obligatory historical facts and figures.An entertaining and interesting read.

  • Kate
    2018-12-03 21:55

    When my husband bought this book I was like "400 pages about the meter?? You have got to be kidding me" but then I picked it up and couldn't put it down. A great story of not only the origins of the metric system but also about revolutionary France and the evolution of science.

  • Andrew Skretvedt
    2018-11-22 19:43

    What a fascinating story! Science, economics, cartography, superstition, government, patronage, humility, wracking emotion, and the cradle of transformation from the enlightenment era to the modern world: these themes are present, and woven into an historical narrative that, for me, really brought home the old saw, "truth is stranger [and more interesting] than fiction."The book is filled with characters whose names should be recognizable to anyone with a science/history background. Around them, the author applies the historical record in a way which makes their lives pop right off the page. You'll identify with their humanity, and come to care about their struggles.Such a simple idea, the execution of which became an epic, life transforming odyssey.

  • David R.
    2018-11-16 23:51

    A very fine account of the attempts to authoritatively size the meter using a meridian survey in the 1790s. Alder breathes life into the effort to engineer a truly "objective" metric system and shows how that was doomed to failure. The most fascinating account concerns the savant Mechain whose life becomes a torment when he finds himself committing a critical measurement error, little realizing that it was not. This one is endlessly fascinating.

  • Paul
    2018-11-25 16:40

    Engaging read from a human angle about the effort to create a better standard and measure our earth. We are indebted to people who developed accurate measurement systems. Wish we could move to a logical system like metric in the USA.

  • Naeem
    2018-12-14 22:48

    Author made simple things complicated.

  • Tony Fitzpatrick
    2018-12-04 00:04

    This is a book about the design and establishment of the metric system for measurement in 18th century France. It spans the years of the French revolution, during which some of the protagonists lose their heads. The decision had been taken to rationalise the hundreds (maybe thousands) of conflicting measures of distance, weight and volume that existed in France into a set of "universal" constants, based on the dimensions of the earth. At the same time the French were revolutionising not just measurement but also the calendar and time - to much opposition amongst the ordinary people. The metre was to be a fixed proportion of the quarter meridian of the planet, so in June 1792 Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre would make his way north to Dunkirk, while Pierre-François-André Méchain voyaged south to Barcelona, they would measure very accurately the dimensions of the earth, and meet up to compare notes. Far too much of this book is taken up with the problems they had in fulfilling their mission - we seem to be told about every tree that Méchain was forced to fell, and every screw that worked loose in Delambre's instruments. No matter. The reference to a "hidden error" concerns the inaccuracy that Méchain introduced through his measurements, a private disgrace that plagued him to the grave (he died of malaria having failed to complete his measurements). The inaccurate metre was eventually cast in platinum, and over the next two hundred years was adopted by most of the world as a national standard. Today it is based on the distance light travels in a given time interval, so maybe it ended up linked to a natural constant after all! In learning of the debates amongst the scientist "savants" about how to approach the problem, and their rather extreme positions and prejudices, I am reminded of Churchill's dictum that in matters of advice, experts should be "on tap", rather than "on top". Napoleon had the right idea - faced with opposition he shelved adoption of the metric system, and it took until the early 19th century for it to be re-instituted. The revolutionary day and month names, the week of 10 days, and hour of 100 minutes, are however gone and forgotten. Interesting story, but over long.

  • Alan Earhart
    2018-12-07 17:01

    I asked for this book because I wanted to learn more about the development of the metric system and found so much more in it.Other than the herculean effort it took to try and "measure" a portion of a meridian, it was the story of Méchain's struggles that helped me get a better understanding of the origin of the scientific concept of "precision". He couldn't understand why repeat measurements would yield different results and died thinking he had committed a serious scientific error that he was ashamed to reveal.

  • Ben
    2018-12-08 17:57

    It's hard to say exactly why I enjoyed this so much, but I did. The book starts as a basic accounting of a geodetic survey to define the new meter length during the French Revolution. But, gradually, it morphs into a tragedy about error and professional paranoia, finally ending with a discussion on the limits of scientific certainty.You really wouldn't think so, but it's riveting.

  • Maureen
    2018-12-15 19:47

    An interesting read, a little slow at times, but it picked up steam near the end.

  • Diana
    2018-11-29 17:06

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I teach maths and science and this book brings so many elements of scientific progress together. I particularly enjoyed the sections on precision, accuracy and scientific error. The lives of the scientists are brought vividly to life, the era and the places they worked in. The research (evidenced by the extensive bibliography) is astounding.

  • Christine
    2018-11-30 00:10

    Well that was...Yep. It was a book. Definitely a book. I had a hard time getting involved in it at first. The author uses old terminology for weights and measures throughout the book (from France's Ancien Regime) but doesn't include an explanation of what they mean, or relative size comparisons. And the names are all in French, so when you flip to the notes at the back of the book you find the aune Alder has been discussing since page one is actually about a yard. I appreciated that he had notes at the back, but I didn't realize they were there until I got to the end. And personally I'd prefer a brief explanation the first time the word is used, at least for the common ones, so I don't have to go to the back of the book all the time.Other minor quibbles: he talks way more than necessary about the United States and how awesome it is that they are such a global economic power but haven't gone metric; he tends to go over the same ground a few times in a row as though he needed the book to be longer; and some of the quotes he starts chapters with (examples of weights and measures in popular literature) feel forced and contrived. Not illuminative. Like Alder was running out of quality examples. All the places were really well described though. I didn't feel like I was there, but I felt like he had been to each place Mechain and Delambre were while taking their measurements. Alder doesn't limit himself either. He describes what the places look like today, and also what they would have looked like while our heroes were on their epic quest for metrical harmony. Was Alder showing off? Maybe a smidge. Another thing he was good at? Excellent descriptions of the way the Ancien Regime functioned throughout France. I had no idea that it was such a staggeringly complex and disconnected system. What a psychological change the metric system would be from the status quo. Alder covers the basic measurements (more complicated than you would think), but also the reason why the Ancien Regime worked the way it did and why it was such a struggle to implement the metric system. I came away with a really solid understanding of pre-Revolution French measurements. Not such a solid understanding of triangulation and latitude measurements, though. Considering that measuring the latitude of the earth was one of the main themes of the book, I personally needed more explanation of what was involved in taking these measurements and how triangulating a location gave you a physical earthly latitude to be able to grasp what Mechain and Delambre had been doing for 7 years. But other people might have found Alder's descriptions sufficient. Overall? Not bad, not great. A book, like many others.

  • Diana
    2018-12-06 20:00

    Excellent, turned out to be a gripping read especially the development of error in scientific measurement.

  • Rajasekhar Rao
    2018-12-14 17:58

    I picked up this book based on a colleague's recommendation and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is quite likely that "The Measure of All Things" would make for slow and dull reading for a number of folks, but is a "must read" for those involved the physical sciences or science history.The story-line centers around the Munchausen-like adventures of two French savants, with the mission to measure the length of the meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona right in the middle of the French Revolution. The "hidden error" would seem trivial from a lay person's view. However the obsession of these savants to make "perfect" measurements, is characteristic of any current day scientist who takes pride in her work. It gives one a peek at the inner conflicts within every true scientist - and helps put in context the reaction from the scientific community to scientific fraud - like when they pounced on Pons and Fleischmann of the Cold Fusion fame. Thanks to Google Maps, I was able to spend endless hours looking up towns and places in France and the critical portion in Spain. For me personally, looking up "Mont-Juoy" (listed as Montjuic) went a long way towards understanding the "hidden error" and visualizing the difficulties of making the measurements under those circumstances.The discussion in the book regarding errors (random vs. systematic) and Legandre developing his method of least squares was thoroughly enjoyable. Beware. "You are such a nerd," is an epithet that might be hurled your way (as did my daughter) if you enjoy reading this book. I heartily recommend it!

  • Evanston PublicLibrary
    2018-11-25 20:41

    One quadrant of the earth's polar circumference (i.e. the surface distance from pole to equator) measures about 10,002 kilometers. It would be precisely 10,000, but in the 1790s two teams commissioned by the French Academy of Sciences undermeasured the distance from Dunkirk to Barcelona by about .02%. Thus the length calculated for the new "meter" came up a bit short.Evanstonian Ken Alder, who lives 1000.2 meters from the main library, explains why such a universal standard was sought in the 18th-century world of varied and confusing measures. And he describes clearly the tools and techniques that enabled team leaders Pierre-Francois-Andre Mechain and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre to nearly nail it. But the book is mostly about the challenges of topography, political unrest, and human fallibility that produced the marginal error.Alder also describes how the error haunted the unfortunate Mechain till the end of his life. Few readers in the metric-averse U.S. will care as much as he, but many may enjoy this "metriculously" detailed study of a moment in history and mathematics. (Jeff B., Reader's Services)

  • Jeremy
    2018-11-25 21:45

    the book is a little slow until the last was interesting to learn about the expedition that led to the definition of the meter that we know and love today. It was designed to be one-millionth of the distance of the earth along from the equator to to the north pole (at least that's what i remember it being). Anyway, the distance from barcelona to the north of france was measured, the latitudes at the endpoints were measured, and from that, they defined the meter. Two men did the measurements, and one of them fudged some of the data, due to what appeared to him to be a inconsistent latitude measurement he made. The author makes a good point that the savants of this age didn't have a framework for understanding sources of error, which really caused the discrepancy. The savant that made the error (Mechain) basically lost it when he couldn't figure out what was wrong..he blamed himself and tried to cover up his mistake. Only after his death was the real truth uncovered. It was an interesting discourse on the life of french savants during the french revolution.

  • Cynthia Hart
    2018-11-23 18:10

    This was an interesting biographical and historical accounting of the men who made/discovered the length of the meter and how the meter has impacted the world. I did like that it had facts, science, emotion, characters of interest. It was very thorough and chronological. Alder did a great job going back and forth between the 2 scientist involved (like a Tolstoy novel), so that you felt you were going in and out of their worlds. The only criticism was that is seemed repetitive in places in describing Mechain and his feelings, over and over. It's fair to say that that was because his feelings persisted and intensified, and ruled his life. He couldn't get away from them and neither could we. I loved to see how the story didn't end with the death of Mechain and Delambe, but continued up until the 20th century and talked about how the politics, social climates, and histories of France and Europe were involved with the metric system. I loved his in depth research and details.Even though it was a scientific topic, it wasn't overly technical. The story drew me in.

  • Katie/Doing Dewey
    2018-12-05 19:53

    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.Read more here...

  • Katie/Doing Dewey
    2018-12-05 20:52

    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.Read more here...

  • Nicholas Whyte
    2018-11-25 17:54[return][return]This book about the two French scholars who were charged with measuring the shape of the earth in order to determine the true length of the metre (defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from pole to equator) is just about the right length for a three hour plane flight. It could have done with a wee bit more trimming, but the first half, describing the earnest efforts of Mechain and Delambre to carry out their measurements with the Revolution snowballing underneath them is superb. I would have liked more on Gauss and Legendre and the method of least squares. I did like his conclusion - that eventually Americans will officially adopt the metric system, not because the rest of the world has, but because Americans increasingly are doing so.

  • Karen
    2018-12-07 20:45

    An interesting story that I had never heard about the extraordinary scientific work and human determination that went into the development of the meter/metric system with the French Revolution and subsequent political chaos in the background. Amazing that it got done. The authors writing style was sometimes annoying; he would digress into the modern day in the middle of a tale about the late 18th and early 19th century. Very comprehensive research. Too much detail for my taste; I skimmed large sections of the book. The most fascinating parts of the book were those devoted to the social and political history such a section about the large number of old measurements that were previously in use, how they were woven into the feudal system, why people were reluctant to change, and how the metric system enabled the rise of the market economy.

  • Dagezi
    2018-11-20 01:10

    Still reading this, but unless it goes all Beijing Time on me at the end, this is at least 4 and possibly five stars. Helps if you are a metric system nerd obsessed with the links between the FRev, metrological reform and modern money, but you don't need to be one to appreciate Alder's sterling prose and story-telling. In a side-note, until I read this, I had no idea that Saint-Just, one of the main architects of the FRev was 24 when he was beheaded. The French Revolution always seemed a little bit like a young man's madness--now that makes a bit more sense to me.... (Ignore the stupid looking cover, merely the latest in the we must imitate Longitude (both in cover form and in a having a neverending science-y subtitle).

  • Jessica
    2018-11-26 23:40

    I read this book for a class on the history of technology. While it was a bit difficult to really get into at first, I ultimately enjoyed it. Alder's writing style is quite engaging and pulls you in over the course of the book. By the last third or so, I didn't want to put it down. This isn't really a book you want to read piecemeal, however. The history of the meter is entwined with that of the French Revolution, and it's easy to get lost in the names, places, and events if you only read a few pages at a time. To give it a fair try, I'd give a few hours at a time, at least until you cover the first couple of chapters, if that makes any sense. I recommend this book to any who love reading about this history of science.

  • Sara
    2018-11-21 21:40

    I enjoyed this book, though I found the author a little over the top and melodramatic from time to time. The story of how the meter came into being, focusing on the two main astronomers. One of them was totally whiny and unsure of himself while also being obsessive and focused on the project. The other was equally obsessed but sounds much more pleasant to hang out with. I sort of wish the whole book had been about a minor player, Joseph-Jerome Lalande, however. Feminist womanizer atheist scientist who said what he thought even when it was likely to get him beheaded. Someone who reads French should write his biography.

  • Trenchologist
    2018-12-01 17:45

    A mix of science, history, scientific history and detective drama, all involved drawn as complicated, compelling and completely human. I was only abstractly aware of this subject, at a very surface level, and came away with so much more beyond thinking 'well now I know what a meter is.' Reads quickly and easily, because it's well-written and absorbing, and I came to know the two diametrically opposed personalities of the two foundling scientists involved in a way that enriched the tale. They reminded me--put me in the mind of--them being the unintended, fully unbeknownst, model for Lewis & Clark.

  • Valerie
    2018-11-16 17:02

    My copy of this is a prepublication edition, apparently intended for reviewers. I don't know if it'd be easier to read if (for example) the endnotes had been paginated.The discussions of the hazards of living in Revolutionary France for 'savants' help explain the obssession with 'perfect' accuracy, which actually hampered the development of the sciences, since the glaring awareness of inescapable uncertainty was prevented from coming to the forefront. A fascinating book, but tragic in many ways.

  • John Brugge
    2018-12-01 16:44

    The history of the creation of the meter sounds rather dry, but only because measurement standards are so commonplace today. Once you are immersed in the period when these two men worked, with the French Revolution raging, local measurements everywhere, and suspicion of their motives all around (not to mention the physical hardships of actually performing the "geodesy" work) it quickly becomes a very compelling drama.

  • Marks54
    2018-11-18 21:04

    I got this book as a follow-up to the Longitude book. It chronicles an expedition to exactly determine the length of the meter as a unit of measure by the French Revolutionary government and is a good example of how our weights and measures were established by the work of surveyors that we trying to be accurate and apolitical. This is another chapter of how science can be subverted to political interests, even though that was not the intent of the protagonists.

  • Denis
    2018-11-30 00:00

    The most beautiful history book I have ever read. This books masters in integrating many contexts in just one story: the personal life of the two main characters (Delambre and Mechain), the french revolution, Napolean, social, scientific and economical implications.Warmly recommended especially to those that enjoy putting together so many things that happened at the same time most of us have been read as isolated situations.