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The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World Paperback – Oct 1 2003

4.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (Oct. 1 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743216768
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743216760
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.8 x 21.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 567 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #320,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


The Boston Globe These are enthralling, fascinating, even mind-altering pages. Alder imbues the narrative with a tremulous, fever-soaked climax and a lengthy and satisfying denouement.

The Philadelphia Inquirer One of those rare works that both rewrite history and capture the imagination.

The New York Times Book Review Passes a central test of any popular work of history: it bathes the past in the light, life, and humanity of the eternal present.

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.

Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
In this captivating book, the author recounts the adventures of two French astronomers who were commissioned to measure the length of the meridian that goes through Paris from Dunkirk to Barcelona. The purpose of this was to establish a standard unit of measure based of the size and shape of the earth. This unit of measure, the meter, was to be equal to one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole and the equator. Through this story, the reader learns of the absolute chaos that existed, not only throughout the world but within France itself, regarding the various weights and measures used. And to add to the astronomers’ challenge, their measurements were taking place during the turmoil of the French Revolution. As a bonus, we learn that it was through this work that the field of error analysis was born; in this regard, the difference between accuracy and precision is particularly well described.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found that the author has done an excellent job of recounting the birth and evolution of the metric system. I found his prose to be friendly, clear, lively and quite engaging. This book should appeal to anyone who enjoys true adventure stories mixed in with captivating history and cutting-edge early nineteenth century science.
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Format: Paperback
The central theme of this book is the quest to measure the quarter meridian upon which Paris was built, and derive the official meter as 1/10,000,000 of that measurement. Two French savants were sent to measure from the end points of the meridian, one in Dunkirk, the other in Barcelona, and measure their way back to meet in the middle. They were using a new device to measure angles, one whose precision was only limited by the number of measurements taken. Against this story is the backdrop of the French Revolutions, whose violence and capriciousness is startling. The savants were arrested and detained as spies for "the enemy", were often stranded as the currency they set out with became devalued or useless, or were hampered by locals who thought any attempts to standardize measurements were only some government plot to cheat them. And of course, the main plot point, the southern savant, Mechain, had an discrepancy creep into his measurements, one that caused an error of only the thickness of a few sheets of paper, but catastrophic to the mission and eventually to Mechain's sanity.
The author brings a day-to-day familiarity to the mission, filling in the historical details without the story becoming a dusty history lesson. Not being one particulary interested in European history, I was nonetheless pulled into the tale and thoroughly enjoyed it. The tale was entertaining, and it also introduces one to the concept of "precision" versus "accuracy".
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Format: Paperback
The sub-title of this book is 'The Seven Year Odyssey that Transformed The World'. This journey is both geographical and intellectual, with the very practical aim of creating a definitive unit of length based upon the physical world that would replace the myriad of local and regional measures that were in use in France towards the end of the eighteenth century. Theoretically, if ANY unit could be defined, then all other units could be based upon it. (The gram to be the weight of one cubic centimetre of water, money to be the value of a certain weight of silver, although time might be slightly more problematical).
Set against the upheaval in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-Francois-André Méchain journeyed to measure the meridian of Paris from Dunkerque to Barcelona in 1792, little realising the time it would take. If like me, you do not understand the science of geodesy, this is still a very good read, and although the technical details of, for example, Borda's circle are given, this revolutionary (pun intended) piece of equipment can be appreciated from afar. The journeying enabled the metre to be defined, this being one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, as extrapolated from the measurements of the meridian through France and into Spain. An unforeseen consequence was that the knowledge of the shape of the earth was changed forever by the measurements taken. Hitherto, it had been seen as a uniform, if oblate (fatter at the equator) sphere, if measured at the equator.
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Format: Paperback
Ken Alder's "The Measure of All Things" follows two French scientists as they traverse France over the course of years in the 1790's. Their goal was to accurately measure the distance from Dunkirk to Barcelona, triangulating from mountaintops and cathedrals, so that the size of the earth could be extrapolated from their calculations. Then they hoped to have a precise figure for the length of the meter, the new unit of measurement defined as being one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole.
My favorite aspect of the book was how the measurement expedition was tied to the French Revolution. The decision to switch to the meter, intended to be a gift to the world, was a consequence of the era of rationality in France that led to the Revolution. However it was the Revolution that almost derailed the men. The scientists, rather suspicious when setting up their arcane instruments on top of local high points, were repeatedly detained by locals who mistook them for spies. The extreme political chaos is contrasted nicely with the high-minded goals of the Scientific Academy, seeking to replace France's hodge-podge of measurement systems with a rationally defined and scientifically determined unit.
Unfortunately the senior of the two scientists, Méchain, suffers from a crisis of confidence throughout the narrative, and ended up fudging his results a bit to reduce the appearance of error in his numbers. (Their calculation was off a bit anyway because the curvature of the earth is less uniform than was thought at the time.) Méchain's dawdling and despair take up a rather unenjoyably large amount of the book.
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