Excerpt from The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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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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  • First Published:
    Oct 2002, 432 pages
    Oct 2003, 448 pages

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In place of this Babel of measurement, the savants imagined a universal language of measures that would bring order and reason to the exchange of both goods and information. It would be a rational and coherent system that would induce its users to think about the world in a rational and coherent way. But all the savants' grand plans would have remained fantasy had not the French Revolution -- history's great utopian rupture -- provided them with an unexpected chance to throw off the shackles of custom and build a new world upon principled foundations. Just as the French Revolution had proclaimed universal rights for all people, the savants argued, so too should it proclaim universal measures. And to ensure that their creation would not be seen as the handiwork of any single group or nation, they decided to derive its fundamental unit from the measure of the world itself.

For seven years Delambre and Méchain traveled the meridian to extract this single number from the curved surface of our planet. They began their journey in opposite directions, and then, when they had reached the extremities of their arc, measured their way back toward one another through a country quickened with revolution. Their mission took them to the tops of filigree cathedral spires, to the summits of domed volcanoes, and very nearly to the guillotine. It was an operation of exquisite precision for such violent times. At every turn they encountered suspicion and obstruction. How do you measure the earth while the world is turning beneath your feet? How do you establish a new order when the countryside is in chaos? How do you set standards at a time when everything is up for grabs? Or is there, in fact, no better time to do so?

At last, their seven years of travel done, the two astronomers converged on the southern fortress town of Carcassonne, and from there returned to Paris to present their data to an International Commission, the world's first international scientific conference. The results of their labors were then enshrined in a meter bar of pure platinum. It was a moment of triumph: proof that in the midst of social and political upheaval, science could produce something of permanence. Accepting the fruit of their labor, France's new supreme ruler made a prophesy. "Conquests will come and go," Napoleon Bonaparte declared, "but this work will endure."

In the last two hundred years, conquests have indeed come and gone, but the meter has become the measure of all things. The metric system serves today as the common language of high-tech communications, cutting-edge science, machine production, and international commerce. Older forms of measurement have receded as the metric system has made possible trade and economic coordination on a fully global scale. Paradoxically, the leading nation in the global economy remains the sole exception to this rule. Thomas Jefferson failed to convince Congress to make the United States the second nation to adopt the metric system, and every reformer since has met the same fate. John Quincy Adams, asked to consider whether the United States should adhere to the metric system, called it the greatest invention since the printing press and predicted it would save more human labor than the steam engine. Yet he recommended against its adoption. Only in recent years have American manufacturers begun retooling for metric units. Few Americans realize that a silent revolution is finally underway in their nation, transforming their measures under the pressures of the new global economy.

As things stand, of course, this conversion is embarrassingly incomplete. Americans became painfully aware of this fact in 1999 with the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter. A NASA investigation into the satellite's failure revealed that one team of engineers had used traditional American units, while another had used metric units. The result was a trajectory error of sixty miles, and a $125-million disappearing act.

Copyright © 2002 by Ken Alder.

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