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The Measure of All Things

3.89  ·  Rating Details ·  653 Ratings  ·  64 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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(showing 1-30)
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Ben Babcock
After a long spate of young adult novels, and in particular the very harrowing Asking for It, I needed a palate-cleanser. How much further can we get than a book about the expedition to define the metre?

I take the metre for granted. It’s just there. I was aware, vaguely, of the various ways in which it has been defined, and I knew that the metric system came out of the French Revolution. What I didn’t realize, however, is how close we came to having a different metre—or to not having a metre at
Aug 27, 2015 Tarquin rated it really liked it
I found this to be a pretty fascinating account of Delambre and Merchain's rather epic journey to make the measurements that are the basis of the modern metric system. Alder finds a pretty good balance between narrative recount and obligatory historical facts and figures.
An entertaining and interesting read.
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,
David R.
Apr 16, 2012 David R. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 15, 2016 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Engaging read from a human angle about the effort to create a better standard and measure our earth. We are indebted to people who developed accurate measurement systems. Wish we could move to a logical system like metric in the USA.
Jun 20, 2008 Kate rated it really liked it  ·  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.
Mar 01, 2017 Diana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I teach maths and science and this book brings so many elements of scientific progress together. I particularly enjoyed the sections on precision, accuracy and scientific error. The lives of the scientists are brought vividly to life, the era and the places they worked in. The research (evidenced by the extensive bibliography) is astounding.
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
Feb 26, 2017 Diana rated it it was amazing
Excellent, turned out to be a gripping read especially the development of error in scientific measurement.
Rajasekhar Rao
Feb 13, 2016 Rajasekhar Rao rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science
I picked up this book based on a colleague's recommendation and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is quite likely that "The Measure of All Things" would make for slow and dull reading for a number of folks, but is a "must read" for those involved the physical sciences or science history.

The story-line centers around the Munchausen-like adventures of two French savants, with the mission to measure the length of the meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona right in the middle of the French Revolution. The "hidd
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
Jul 19, 2008 Jeremy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jan 17, 2013 Dagezi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 03, 2014 Jessica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 27, 2013 Sara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 16, 2016 Trenchologist rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A mix of science, history, scientific history and detective drama, all involved drawn as complicated, compelling and completely human. I was only abstractly aware of this subject, at a very surface level, and came away with so much more beyond thinking 'well now I know what a meter is.' Reads quickly and easily, because it's well-written and absorbing, and I came to know the two diametrically opposed personalities of the two foundling scientists involved in a way that enriched the tale. They rem ...more
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.
John Brugge
Sep 07, 2012 John Brugge rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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.
Sep 15, 2011 Denis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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.
Apr 13, 2014 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 24, 2012 Sue rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Amanda Witt
A great read about how two French 'savants' as they were called then, were appointed to set out across France and take the measurements that would define what became known as the metric measurements we have today.
It occurred post Revolution in the late 1790's and the next few decades were spent refining and writing up the work.
Oct 03, 2008 Jeromy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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