Summary and book reviews of The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder

The Measure of All Things

The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World

By Ken Alder

The Measure of All Things
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2002,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2003,
    448 pages.

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Book Summary

The truth belongs to everyone, but error is ours alone."

-- The Measure of All Things

Amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, two intrepid astronomers set out in opposite directions from Paris to measure the world, one voyaging north to Dunkirk, the other south to Barcelona. Their findings would help define the meter as one ten-millionth of the distance between the pole and the equator, a standard that has since swept the planet. The Measure of All Things is the astonishing story of one of history's greatest scientific quests, a mission to measure the Earth and define the meter for all nations and for all time.

Yet when Ken Alder located the long-lost correspondence between the two men, along with their mission logbooks, he stumbled upon a two-hundred-year-old secret, and a drama worthy of the great French playwrights. The meter, it turns out, is in error. One of the two astronomers, Pierre-François-André Méchain, made contradictory measurements from Barcelona and, in a panic, covered up the discrepancy. The guilty knowledge of his misdeed drove him to the brink of madness, and ultimately to his death. Only then -- after the meter had already been publicly announced -- did his partner, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, discover the truth and face a fateful choice: what matters more, the truth or the appearance of the truth?

To tell the story, Alder has not only worked in archives throughout Europe and America, but also bicycled the entire route traveled by Delambre and Méchain. Both a novelist and a prizewinning historian of science and the French Revolution, Alder summons all his skills to tell how the French Revolution mixed violent passion with the coldest sanity to produce our modern world. It was a time when scientists believed they could redefine the foundations of space and time, creating a thirty-day month, a ten-day week, and a ten-hour day. History, they declared, was to begin anew. But in the end, it was science that was forever changed. The measurements brought back by Delambre and Méchain not only made science into a global enterprise and made possible our global economy, but also revolutionized our understanding of error. Where Méchain conceived of error as a personal failure, his successors learned to tame it.

This, then, is a story of two men, a secret, and a timeless human dilemma: is it permissible to perpetuate a small lie in the service of a larger truth? "Precision is a quest on which travelers, as Zeno foretold, journey halfway to their destination, and then halfway again and again and again, never reaching finality." In The Measure of All Things Ken Alder describes a quest that succeeded even as it failed. It is a story for all people, for all time.

  • Dramatis Personae
  • Prologue
  • Chapter One: The North-Going Astronomer
  • Chapter Two: The South-Going Astronomer
  • Chapter Three: The Metric of Revolution
  • Chapter Four: The Castle of Mont-Jouy
  • Chapter Five: A Calculating People
  • Chapter Six: Fear of France
  • Chapter Seven: Convergence
  • Chapter Eight: Triangulation
  • Chapter Nine: The Empire of Science
  • Chapter Ten: The Broken Arc
  • Chapter Eleven: Méchain's Mistake, Delambre's Peace
  • Chapter Twelve: The Metered Globe
  • Epilogue: The Shape of Our World
  • Note on Measures
  • Note on Sources
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

Prologue

In June 1792 -- in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality -- two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
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.

Kirkus Reviews

A robust work of science history and literary travel, with a dose of the whodunit as will satisfy history-of-science buffs and intellectual historians alike.

Booklist - Gavin Quinn

Although Alder's account is somewhat academic, it is accessible to general audiences, who will be fascinated by the surprisingly colorful history of the seemingly mundane metric system.

Library Journal - James Olson

[A] fascinating account of how the meter the standard measure of distance for over 95 percent of the world's population became the meter. ...reading much like a historical thriller.... a fascinating and well-written work.

Reader Reviews
Jan Willem van den Beukel


Most people know that the circumference of the world is about 40.000 km. Approximately 40.000 km? No, exactly 40.000 km. At least that was the assumption about 200 years ago, when scientists started to measure the circumference of the world and to ...   Read More

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