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Smoot's Ear: The Measure of Humanityby Robert Tavernor
Synopses & Reviews
Measures are the subject of this unusual book, in which Robert Tavernor offers a fascinating account of the various measuring systems human beings have devised over two millennia. Tavernor urges us to look beyond the notion that measuring is strictly a scientific activity, divorced from human concerns. Instead, he sets measures and measuring in cultural context and shows how deeply they are connected to human experience and history.
The book explores changing attitudes toward measure, focusing on key moments in art, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, and the development of scientific thought. It encompasses the journey of Western civilization from the construction of the Great Pyramid to the first manned flight to the moon. Beginning with a review of early measuring standards that referred to the feet and inches of ideal bodies, the book then tracks how Enlightenment interest in a truly scientific system of measure led to the creation of the metric system. This “rational” approach to measure in turn has inspired artists, architects, writers, and others to seek a balance that takes the human story into account. Tavernor concludes with a discussion of measure in our own time, when space travel presents to humankind a direct encounter with the unfathomable measure of the universe.
"An exciting preface gets this history of measurement underway, describing how a 1958 fraternity initiation ritual at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led the construction industry's adoption of the Smoot, a length equal to Oliver Smoot's 5'7' body, which was used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge (360 'Smoots' plus the length of his ear). Following this, London School of Economics professor Tavernor too often gets bogged down in a long-winded defense of his contention that measurement has been dehumanized, 'culturally removed from the mainstream experience of society,' losing focus and momentum as he does. To buttress this argument, Tavernor takes a broad swipe at history, beginning in the sixth century B.C., which picks up steam with France's invention, in the aftermath of the Revolution, of the metric system. A long chapter on defining the meter makes a compelling account-every locality had its own standards, wreaking havoc on commerce throughout France-and leads Tavernor into interesting discussions of the system's influence on culture (especially architecture), the 'Anglo-Saxon resistance' with which the system was met and the evolving philosophy of measurement. An interesting but diffuse look at the unexpected controversies of measurement, Tavernor's volume is best for patient students of history and architecture." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
Robert Tavernor is professor of architecture and urban design and director of the Cities Programme, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is also a practicing architect and leads an influential London-based consultancy that advises on buildings that will affect the future skyline of London. His previous books include On Alberti and the Art of Building, published by Yale University Press. He lives in London and Bath.
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