History Ken Alder Measure of All Things

ISBN 13: 9780743244312

Measure of All Things

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9780743244312: Measure of All Things

"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.

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About the Author:

Ken Alder is a professor of history and Milton H. Wilson Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Measure of All Things, published to worldwide acclaim in fourteen languages. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

In June 1792 -- in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality -- two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made his way south. Each man left the capital in a customized carriage stocked with the most advanced scientific instruments of the day and accompanied by a skilled assistant. Their mission was to measure the world, or at least that piece of the meridian arc which ran from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona. Their hope was that all the world's peoples would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure. Their task was to establish this new measure -- "the meter" -- as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.

The meter would be eternal because it had been taken from the earth, which was itself eternal. And the meter would belong equally to all the people of the world, just as the earth belonged equally to them all. In the words of their Revolutionary colleague Condorcet -- the founder of mathematical social science and history's great optimist -- the metric system was to be "for all people, for all time."

We often hear that science is a revolutionary force that imposes radical new ideas on human history. But science also emerges from within human history, reshaping ordinary actions, some so habitual we hardly notice them. Measurement is one of our most ordinary actions. We speak its language whenever we exchange precise information or trade objects with exactitude. This very ubiquity, however, makes measurement invisible. To do their job, standards must operate as a set of shared assumptions, the unexamined background against which we strike agreements and make distinctions. So it is not surprising that we take measurement for granted and consider it banal. Yet the use a society makes of its measures expresses its sense of fair dealing. That is why the balance scale is a widespread symbol of justice. The admonition is found in the Old Testament: "Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have." Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value.

The men who created the metric system understood this. They were the preeminent scientific thinkers of the Enlightenment, an age which had elevated reason to the rank of "sole despot of the universe." These savants -- as the investigators who studied nature were known in those days -- had a modern face looking toward our own times, and an older face glancing back toward the past. In their own minds, of course, they were not two-faced; it was their world which was two-faced, with its burdensome past obstructing progress and a utopian future waiting to be born.

The savants were appalled by the diversity of weights and measures they saw all around them. Measures in the eighteenth century not only differed from nation to nation, but within nations as well. This diversity obstructed communication and commerce, and hindered the rational administration of the state. It also made it difficult for the savants to compare their results with those of their colleagues. One Englishman, traveling through France on the eve of the Revolution, found the diversity there a torment. "[I]n France," he complained, "the infinite perplexity of the measures exceeds all comprehension. They differ not only in every province, but in every district and almost every town...." Contemporaries estimated that under the cover of some eight hundred names, the Ancien Régime of France employed a staggering 250,000 different units of weights and measures.

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.

The Revolutionary scientists created the metric system two hundred years ago to avoid just this sort of fiasco. One of their aims was to facilitate communication among scientists, engineers, and administrators. Their grander ambition was to transform France -- and ultimately, the whole world -- into a free market for the open exchange of goods and information. Today, their goal seems within reach. Over 95 percent of the world's population now officially uses the metric system, and its success is touted as one of the benign triumphs of globalization.

But behind the public triumph of the metric system lies a long and bitter history. The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia. France, it turns out, was not only the first nation to invent the metric system; she was also the first to reject it. For decades after its introduction ordinary people spurned the new system, and clung to their local measures and the local economies they sustained. In the face of this revolt from below, Napoleon, on the eve of his disastrous invasion of Russia, returned France to the Paris measures of the Ancien Régime. Now he mocked the global aspirations of the men he had once admired. "It was not enough for them to make forty million people happy," he sneered, "they wanted to sign up the whole universe." Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did France revert to the metric system, and even then use of the old measures persisted into the twentieth. It would take enormous scientific effort and years of bitter conflict to make metric measurement banal, just as it had taken a Revolution to bring the metric system into being. Things might easily have turned out differently.

What neither advocates nor opponents of the metric system could have known is that a secret error lies at the heart of the metric system -- an error perpetuated in every subsequent definition of the meter. Indeed, as I discovered in the course of my research, the only people who could have known the full extent of this error were Delambre and Méchain themselves.

For those who wish to know the origins of the metric system, there is one place to turn: the official account composed by one of the leaders of the meridian expedition, the north-going astronomer, Jean-Bap...

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