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The Measure of All Things
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The Measure of All Things

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  418 ratings  ·  51 reviews
Amidst the fervour of the Revolution, two French scientists were sent on an expedition to measure the world and establish the metre, which was to be one ten-millionth the distance from pole to equator. As one went north and the other south, their experiences diverged just as radically.
Paperback, 480 pages
Published June 3rd 2004 by Little, Brown Young Readers (first published January 2001)
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Jun 20, 2008 Kate rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone, but especially sciency folk
When my husband bought this book I was like "400 pages about the meter?? You have got to be kidding me" but then I picked it up and couldn't put it down. A great story of not only the origins of the metric system but also about revolutionary France and the evolution of science.
I read this book for a class on the history of technology. While it was a bit difficult to really get into at first, I ultimately enjoyed it. Alder's writing style is quite engaging and pulls you in over the course of the book. By the last third or so, I didn't want to put it down.

This isn't really a book you want to read piecemeal, however. The history of the meter is entwined with that of the French Revolution, and it's easy to get lost in the names, places, and events if you only read a few
Evanston Public  Library
One quadrant of the earth's polar circumference (i.e. the surface distance from pole to equator) measures about 10,002 kilometers. It would be precisely 10,000, but in the 1790s two teams commissioned by the French Academy of Sciences undermeasured the distance from Dunkirk to Barcelona by about .02%. Thus the length calculated for the new "meter" came up a bit short.

Evanstonian Ken Alder, who lives 1000.2 meters from the main library, explains why such a universal standard was sought in the 18t
Well that was...
Yep. It was a book. Definitely a book.
I had a hard time getting involved in it at first. The author uses old terminology for weights and measures throughout the book (from France's Ancien Regime) but doesn't include an explanation of what they mean, or relative size comparisons. And the names are all in French, so when you flip to the notes at the back of the book you find the aune Alder has been discussing since page one is actually about a yard. I appreciated t
the book is a little slow until the last was interesting to learn about the expedition that led to the definition of the meter that we know and love today. It was designed to be one-millionth of the distance of the earth along from the equator to to the north pole (at least that's what i remember it being). Anyway, the distance from barcelona to the north of france was measured, the latitudes at the endpoints were measured, and from that, they defined the meter. Two men did the measure ...more
Cynthia Hart
This was an interesting biographical and historical accounting of the men who made/discovered the length of the meter and how the meter has impacted the world. I did like that it had facts, science, emotion, characters of interest. It was very thorough and chronological. Alder did a great job going back and forth between the 2 scientist involved (like a Tolstoy novel), so that you felt you were going in and out of their worlds.
The only criticism was that is seemed repetitive in places in descri
Katie/Doing Dewey
In The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder describes the surprisingly difficult and adventurous process by which the length of the meter was determined. Savants or learned men of France decided that the best way to develop a universal standard of measurement was to base that measurement on the natural world. They selected one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole and tasked two savants with leading expeditions to measure part of that distance using triangulation (the rest ...more
Katie/Doing Dewey
In The Measure of All Things, Ken Alder describes the surprisingly difficult and adventurous process by which the length of the meter was determined. Savants or learned men of France decided that the best way to develop a universal standard of measurement was to base that measurement on the natural world. They selected one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole and tasked two savants with leading expeditions to measure part of that distance using triangulation (the rest ...more
For the first 3/4 of the book there was a lot of detail regarding the two individuals involved in measuring the meridian in France, and I was feeling annoyed by so much attention. The last 1/4 of the book moved to after the length of the meter had been decided on, and included a fascinating chapter on the growth of understanding of scientific error and how it was dealt with, methods which are used today in evaluating answers in scientific experiments.
Nicholas Whyte[return][return]This book about the two French scholars who were charged with measuring the shape of the earth in order to determine the true length of the metre (defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from pole to equator) is just about the right length for a three hour plane flight. It could have done with a wee bit more trimming, but the first half, describing the earnest efforts of Mechain and Delambre to carry out their measurements with the Revol ...more
An interesting story that I had never heard about the extraordinary scientific work and human determination that went into the development of the meter/metric system with the French Revolution and subsequent political chaos in the background. Amazing that it got done. The authors writing style was sometimes annoying; he would digress into the modern day in the middle of a tale about the late 18th and early 19th century. Very comprehensive research. Too much detail for my taste; I skimmed large s ...more
Andrew Skretvedt
What a fascinating story! Science, economics, cartography, superstition, government, patronage, humility, wracking emotion, and the cradle of transformation from the enlightenment era to the modern world: these themes are present, and woven into an historical narrative that, for me, really brought home the old saw, "truth is stranger [and more interesting] than fiction."

The book is filled with characters whose names should be recognizable to anyone with a science/history background. Around them,
Still reading this, but unless it goes all Beijing Time on me at the end, this is at least 4 and possibly five stars. Helps if you are a metric system nerd obsessed with the links between the FRev, metrological reform and modern money, but you don't need to be one to appreciate Alder's sterling prose and story-telling. In a side-note, until I read this, I had no idea that Saint-Just, one of the main architects of the FRev was 24 when he was beheaded. The French Revolution always seemed a little ...more
I enjoyed this book, though I found the author a little over the top and melodramatic from time to time. The story of how the meter came into being, focusing on the two main astronomers. One of them was totally whiny and unsure of himself while also being obsessive and focused on the project. The other was equally obsessed but sounds much more pleasant to hang out with. I sort of wish the whole book had been about a minor player, Joseph-Jerome Lalande, however. Feminist womanizer atheist scienti ...more
I've got a thing for very specific history books. This one is about the people who were tasked with making measurements of the earth in order to define the length of the meter - an attempt to make a universally accepted standard. Unfortunately for them, they decided to do this during the French Revolution. The book chronicles the very interesting human reactions to the whole process. An interesting read, with more interesting consequences than you would expect.

Where to put the book after reading
My copy of this is a prepublication edition, apparently intended for reviewers. I don't know if it'd be easier to read if (for example) the endnotes had been paginated.

The discussions of the hazards of living in Revolutionary France for 'savants' help explain the obssession with 'perfect' accuracy, which actually hampered the development of the sciences, since the glaring awareness of inescapable uncertainty was prevented from coming to the forefront. A fascinating book, but tragic in many ways.
I got this book as a follow-up to the Longitude book. It chronicles an expedition to exactly determine the length of the meter as a unit of measure by the French Revolutionary government and is a good example of how our weights and measures were established by the work of surveyors that we trying to be accurate and apolitical. This is another chapter of how science can be subverted to political interests, even though that was not the intent of the protagonists.
David R.
A very fine account of the attempts to authoritatively size the meter using a meridian survey in the 1790s. Alder breathes life into the effort to engineer a truly "objective" metric system and shows how that was doomed to failure. The most fascinating account concerns the savant Mechain whose life becomes a torment when he finds himself committing a critical measurement error, little realizing that it was not. This one is endlessly fascinating.
The most beautiful history book I have ever read. This books masters in integrating many contexts in just one story: the personal life of the two main characters (Delambre and Mechain), the french revolution, Napolean, social, scientific and economical implications.

Warmly recommended especially to those that enjoy putting together so many things that happened at the same time most of us have been read as isolated situations.
John Brugge
The history of the creation of the meter sounds rather dry, but only because measurement standards are so commonplace today. Once you are immersed in the period when these two men worked, with the French Revolution raging, local measurements everywhere, and suspicion of their motives all around (not to mention the physical hardships of actually performing the "geodesy" work) it quickly becomes a very compelling drama.
More history and less character study would have suited me better, but although I personally didn't this book a tremendously enjoyable read, I would nevertheless definitely say I'm glad I read it. Besides improving my relatively sparse knowledge of the era it primarily deals with, it also left me better informed about the present day, and as a result the lens through which I see the world is that much clearer.
A wonderful yarn of two Frenchmen who set out to measure the earth and determine the length of the meter. Their timing couldn't have been worse. Both the French Revolution and war between France and Spain interrupted them and slowed their work. Less than precise instruments created a problem as well, creating an error that was kept secret. Recommended for both historians and science nerds.
Ian Kloester
An inspiring read that will stop you taking simple metric measurements for granted. It's about the courage and obessession of french savants who tried to measure the world to give us a fair way of trading without favouring one nation or monarch over another. Blood was spilt, ignorance thwarted, and errors agonised over. If you loved the story of Longtitude, you'll enjoy this too.
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This is an entertaining history of the developement of the metric system. This is actually more interesting than it sounds. If the metric system drives you crazy thats okay; it drove one of the original developers crazy too.

Bonus: it explains why the U.S doesn't use the metric system. The short answer is because we hate the french. I kid you not.
This is probably a 3.5 book. At times it's a great read, but there are some dry stretches. Alder does a great job integrating history, science, character studies, adventure stories, and more. He's at his best looking into the psychology of the two main figures, and the twist at the end when he discusses their relationship to error theory.
Chi Dubinski
During the European age of Enlightenment (1792), the French Academy of Science acted to standardize the system of weights and measures. This is the tale of the two French scientists who set out to calculate the length of a meter. Fans of Simon Winchester will appreciate this book.

What a joy - science being held above all things. I loved the anecdotes of wars being stopped so scientists could measure things, and people going missing in jungles just to get the correct triangulation. This book explains a huge amuont about why the world works as it does.
Tracey  Wilde
Fascinating book especially for someone who is metrically challenged like me ! It is interesting to find out how the metre came about set against the back drop of the French Revolution. Gives a good insight into how the Revolution effected Paris.
Worth reading.
Alder relates the events of Delambre and Mechain as they attempt to measure the length of the French meridian during the revolution in order to fix the meter for science. It is an interesting tale of one's man quest for accuracy and his failure that turns to obsession.
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