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Review of Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants by

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants

by James Vincent

Wow, has it really been eight years since I read The Measure of All Things, by Ken Adler? It doesn’t feel that long. Referenced in Beyond Measure, that book satisfied my curiosity regarding the origins of the metre. I love history of science. In this book, James Vincent takes the story wider and further, investigating the origins of measurement and metrology (the science of measurement). It’s nerdy as all get out, but if that is your jam, then you’re in for a good time.

As with most such books, this one follows a loosely chronological structure. Starting in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, Vincent traces some of the earliest evidence of consistent units of measurement. He links units to their uses. Some of these are obvious—like facilitating trade—but as the book progresses, he addresses less obvious, less comfortable historical facts, such as metrology’s connections to colonization and eugenics. The book concludes where it starts, with Vincent’s journey to Paris to attend the celebration of the official redefinition of the kilogram and retirement of Le Grand K. In this way, the book lives up to its subtle of The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants.

We take our existing measurements for granted. By “we” I mean everyone currently alive; however, I should especially carve out millennials like myself who grew up long after metricization (here in Canada), decimalization in places like the UK, etc. (Though, to be real for a moment, Canada’s commitment culturally to the metric system has always been suspect: I still bake in Fahrenheit, talk about my height in feet and inches, and quantify my weight in pounds, at least informally.) I’ve never in my lifetime gone through a serious upheaval or change in standards of measurement. So it can be a little tough to imagine, and for some even to conceive, that such shifts must have occurred in history. There was a time before the metre. There was a time before real measurement. Yeah. Wow.

The earliest parts of this book are also helpful in belying the stereotype that ancient cultures were unsophisticated. Vincent testifies to the impressive work Egyptians put into measuring the depth of the Nile, constructing entire stone structures for this purpose. The feats of engineering these civilizations went to just to measure things properly, even if these measurements were often linked to religion, are marvelous. In contrast, as soon as Vincent transitions into talking about the absolute free-for-all that was medieval England, all I can do is shake my head. Britain, what were you even doing with your life? Things get better with the Enlightenment, of course, though the chaotic birth of the metric system amid the French Revolution and Napoleonic era remains a wild tale.

For me, the last chapters were the most fulfilling and interesting. Vincent discusses how land survey was vital to the American colonization of Indigenous lands, and of course a land survey needs reliable, standard measurements. This part of the book reminded me a bit of How to Hide an Empire: I greatly appreciate books about colonialism that focus on the immense bureaucracies set up to support it. Often we discuss colonialism as a philosophy or force in the world, but it’s important too that we remember it’s a system, created by humans and executed not just by armies but by everyday employees (like myself, as a teacher) just doing what their policies and procedures lay out for them.

Similarly, I don’t know if I was aware that Galton, father of eugenics, also invented regression! I knew of the connections around eugenics, race science, and the obsession with measurement as a way of understanding human fitness at the end of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Vincent admirably illustrates why the statistical techniques Galton developed were so seductive and seemed to support the terrible idea of eugenics. It’s a compelling parable about the dangers of following science where one thinks it leads without stopping to interrogate the human biases that lead an investigator down that path.

Finally, Vincent ponders how the elevation of metrology to a science so exacting as to rely on quantum mechanics for its definitions might have also made it less knowable as a result. For the majority of history, he points out, the quest has been to make it easier for anyone to independently verify a measurement standard. The original intention of defining the metre relative to dimensions of the Earth was so that someone else could, theoretically, verify the metre’s length through their own measuring and calculating. Now one needs atomic clocks and other instruments, not to mention a firm grasp of subatomic particle theory, in order to do that. To be clear, Vincent isn’t trying to criticize or condemn the modern metre. If anything, this level of precision is beyond commendable. But I think it’s an interesting and useful observation nonetheless.

All in all, Beyond Measure’s thesis is that humanity’s quest for more precise, more consistent measurement has often been a boon to our societies, but it has also always been exploited as a tool for political wrangling and control. Measurement is not an objective activity. This is ironic given our tendency to view quantitative variables are more reliable than qualitative ones. However, this book firmly establishes that metrology has always altered its flow in response to the politics of the day. Like any broad survey of history, it cannot do any of these topics justice—that’s what more narrowly scoped books are for—but it presents its broad ideas clearly. I learned a lot.


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