Beyond Measure

Beyond Measure coverBeyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants
James Vincent
read by the author
HighBridge (November 01, 2022), 10 hours and 1 minute
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$13.31 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In Beyond Measure James Vincent offers a fascinating history of the development of measurement across the centuries.

Vincent begins with ancient Egypt, where priests used marks on a wall to measure the depth of the Nile River each year. This process goes back as far as 3000 BCE, and the process continued well into the first centuries of the Common Era when Muslim rulers controlled Egypt.

The author discusses how measurement was first taken from the human body. For example, a cubit was the length from the elbow to the figure tip. That, obviously, is imprecise but standards evolved over time. Vincent describes how debates over measurement included battles between parties with opposing interests. For example, a measure of tightly packed grain favors the merchant buying the grain while one more loosely packed favors the farmer who grew it.

Vincent goes into detail about the creation of the metric system. He describes how it grew out of the French Revolution. One of the primary complaints by those rebelling against the monarchy was the lack of a fair and equitable system of weights and measures. He also discusses the resistance to the system by those who preferred the English system. They insisted, for example, that while a decimal-based system is useful in some instances, sometimes you just want to divide things into halves or quarters or thirds. (As a dedicated home cook I am tied to the English system. When watching someone like Nigella Lawson on television (she’s British) it makes me crazy when she tells me to add “ten mils” of this or “twenty mils” of that.)

One of the most interesting parts of the book comes near the end where Vincent discusses how benchmarks for standards have changed. For a long time the definition of a meter was said to be the length between two marks on a metal bar stored under lock and key in France. (That’s what I learned in school.) And a kilogram was the weight of a platinum alloy cylinder, known as the “Le Grand K,” similarly stored under lock and key. However, scientists discovered that these physical objects changed in length and weight over time, if ever so slightly. The meter was eventually defined as the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 seconds. In 2018 the General Conference of Weights and Measures met in Versailles and voted to redefine the kilogram based on the Planck constant, a formula that comes out of quantum physics. The new definition can be expressed in a few different ways, but it has to do with measuring subatomic particles. We can say a kilogram is “the mass of 1.475521 4 × 1040 photons at the cesium hyperfine frequency trapped in a microwave cavity.” Vincent describes the celebration at the convention after the vote took place.

The author also writes about the science of surveying, which facilitated territorial expansion in the United States and elsewhere, about statistics, which in addition to its useful side led to the reprehensible pseudoscience of eugenics, and about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which measures and sets benchmarks for all sorts of things, from peanut butter to electronic communications. He explains how Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, brought statistics to the military, how Google and Facebook began measuring our behavior to facilitate targeted advertising, and how the myth of ten thousand steps a day being optimal grew out of a marketing gimmick created by a Japanese company, based on a pun in the Japanese alphabet.

Two words appear frequently in the book with which I was not previously familiar: metrology and metrologist. Yes, the science of measurement is both a discipline and a profession.

James Vincent does a capable job of reading his own book. Beyond Measure is highly listenable with a lot of interesting information.

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