You might not imagine that a simple unit of measurement could qualify as
an explosive secret, driving scientific men to the limits of their sanity.
But the length of the meter conceived as one ten-millionth of the
distance from the pole to the equator involved just such subterfuge
and deceit. Ken Alder details the story of two astronomers who set out to
make science both flawless and accessible by standardizing the basic unit
of the metric system. But because of errors in measurement, the quest became
a disarming examination of the nature and relevance of objective
truth. Set firmly in the political and cultural context of France in the
Age of Reason, The Measure of All Things reveals Alder's skill as
a novelist and precision and depth as a historian. Adrienne Miller (Esquire)
remarks that the work is "as irresistible as a thriller"; it is
also an intriguing study of our fascination with perfection. Jill, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
"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.
"Alder has placed Delambre and Mechain squarely in the larger context of the Enlightenment's quest for perfection in nature and its startling discovery of a world 'too irregular to serve as its own measure.' Particularly fascinating is his treatment of the politics of 18th-century measurement, notably the challenge the savants of the period faced in imposing a standard of weights and measures in the complicated post-ancien regime climate. Alder convincingly argues that science and self-knowledge are matters of inference, and by extension prone to error." Publishers Weekly
"Written in the vein of Dava Sobel's Longitude and reading much like a historical thriller, his book follows the seven-year effort of two accomplished astronomers to measure the meridian and the curvature of the earth from Dunkirk to Barcelona....Alder's first book, Engineering the Revolution, won the 1998 Dexter Prize; his second is a fascinating and well-written work." Library Journal
About the Author
is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard. A novelist and an avid bicyclist, he has biked Delambre and Méchain's entire route. His first book, Engineering the Revolution,
won the 1998 Dexter Prize for the best book on the history of technology. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
Table of Contents
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