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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 by Ken Alder
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2002, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2003, 448 pages

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Jan Willem van den Beukel (08/22/03)


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 derive the lenght of the universal meter from this (1/40.000.000).

This book not only describes the process of defining the meter, no is much more. E.g it provides the background of the need and desires to have a universal system for measures, weights, coins, etc. placed in the social and polical context of the French revolution and the era of enlightment. It describes the lifes of two top French scientists and demonstrates the almost completely opposite ways of dealing with uncertainties in their knowledge and abilities. One person (Delhambre) accurately records all measurements and circumstance of his work, leaving it more to (other) colleaques the possibility to criticise his work (and thus enabling them to help him) while his colleague (Mechain) keeps all his measurement records to himself until the very last moment (and thus loading all the weight of uncertaintains on his own mind). This is an excellent illustration of an almost universal theme among scientists and other people still today. I am thinking here of the Irak-Blaire-Kelly affaire currently (July 2003) running in the United Kingdom.

I have read the 400 pages almost in one go because it is very well written, sometimes like a detective. It was worth every minute of my holiday spending this year.
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