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THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS tells the story of how science, revolutionary politics, and the dream of a new economy converged to produce both the metric system and the first struggle over globalization. Amidst the scientific fervor of the Revolution two French scientists, Delambre and Mechain, were sent out on an expedition to measure the shape of the world and thereby establish the metre (which was to be one ten-millionth the distance from pole to equator). Their hope was that people would use the globe as the basis of measure rather than an arbitrary system meted out by the monarchs. As one scientist went north along the French meridian and the other south, their experiences diverged just as radically. After seven years, they received a hero's welcome upon their return to Paris. Mechain, however, was obsessed over a minute error in his calculations that he'd discovered and concealed, and which eventually drove him to his grave. His death forced his colleague Delambre to choose between loyalty to his friend and his science.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780349115078
ISBN-10: 0349115079
Format: Paperback
(153mm x 201mm x 31mm)
Pages: 480
Imprint: Abacus
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 3-Jun-2004
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


UK Kirkus Review » In 1797, two Frenchmen - Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-Francois-Andre Mechain - set out from Paris to measure the precise size of the earth. When they had done that, they intended to divide the distance between the North Pole and the Equator by ten million, and the resulting figure would represent what they hoped would become an international measure of length. It has: it is known as the metre. Actually, they got it wrong - by 0.2 millimetres - but their attempt was remarkable, particularly since their actual measurements were restricted to an arc of the meridian running from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona, and the French revolution was raging around them. To add to the problem of actually making the measurements and devising the necessary calculations, they fell out rather badly - chiefly because Mechain made a rather serious error very early in the expedition and, worse, covered it up. In the end it made no difference to the success of the project, but the poor man literally drove himself mad by his self-recrimination and guilt. In the end, France rejected the idea of the metre, with the familiar cry of 'Why do we need change?' But they did, desperately - the country had over 20,000 different standards of measure, some devised just for one small town. The metre had to win, and it did - just as it has throughout the world, the USA being the one major country to reject the idea, despite the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter rocket, which crashed because one set of scientists were working in American units and the other in metric. This is a great story, told in detail - and moreover, a moral for our time: fighting change is a dangerous game. (Kirkus UK)

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Author Biography - Ken Alder

Ken Alder has a PhD from Harvard in History of Science as well as a Physics degree. In 1998 he won the Dexter Prize for the best book on the history of technology.

Books By Author Ken Alder

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Engineering the Revolution

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