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
In June 1792, amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, two intrepid astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary journey. Starting in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre would make his way north to Dunkirk, while Pierre-François-André Méchain voyaged south to Barcelona. Their mission was to measure the world, and their findings would help define the meter as one ten-millionth of the distance between the pole and the equator a standard that would be used "for all people, for all time."
The Measure of All Things is the astonishing tale of one of history's greatest scientific adventures. Yet behind the public triumph of the metric system lies a secret error, one that is perpetuated in every subsequent definition of the meter. As acclaimed historian and novelist Ken Alder discovered through his research, there were only two people on the planet who knew the full extent of this error: Delambre and Méchain themselves.
By turns a science history, detective tale, and human drama, The Measure of All Things describes a quest that succeeded as it failed and continues to enlighten and inspire to this day.
"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
Ken Alder 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