Evaluation | By measuring the world, people modified it

Remark

Generally a guide occurs alongside whose central query is without delay so profound but so totally easy it takes your breath away. Such is the case with James Vincent’s deeply engrossing “Past Measure: The Hidden Historical past of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants.”

The query Vincent poses is that this: When, why and the way have been we as a species compelled to quantify, to take measure of objects, days and months, rivers and skies, thus remodeling a lot of the best way we work together with the world round us?

The reply is manifold, and it unfolds within the 345 pages that ensue, as Vincent throws open the door to a trove of historical past. He hooks the reader — no less than this one — together with his first evocative sentence: “The very first measurement, like the primary phrase or first melody, is misplaced to time: inconceivable to localize and tough even to think about.”

There was a time when quantification was nonexistent. People had not one of the instruments and measures we now use to convey order and sense to the world — weight, peak, quantity, mass, time.

That void is a tough idea to get your thoughts round, however Vincent explains with equal components readability, thoroughness and persistence (I’ll spare you the precise breakdown) not solely how measurement is one strand of the braid that constitutes our expertise of the world, but in addition the way it has formed and outlined the human quest for information.

From the forearm-length cubit to the lump of metallic that outlined the kilogram, measurement is a strong software that Vincent investigates with unalloyed delight. ​​Alongside the best way, he locations every technical development in measurement into the context of the period.

Early measurements have been key to survival. Timekeeping programs, for instance, emerged primarily based on the night time sky and the synchronization of celestial modifications to foretell occasions on Earth, reminiscent of seasons, and extra reliably plan a time to sow and a time to reap. Historical Egyptians took common measure of the Nile — expressed in “nilometers” — to gauge how far floodwaters had risen in a given spring as a approach of predicting crop well being later within the yr.

Many elderly programs of measurement relied on the human physique. There was the fingertip-to-elbow cubit and the thumb-width inch. And, after all, there may be the aptly named foot. These are useful instruments, to make certain. However they’re additionally as variable because the people on which they’re primarily based (although I’m certain I’m not alone in reporting that once I can’t discover a tape measure, I’ll put one foot in entrance of the opposite to measure the size of a room).

Measures that have been fuzzy and unusual, just like the pied du roi, or the “king’s foot,” have been progressively supplanted by extra rational programs primarily based on precision. Therefore the rise of liters and kilograms and, after all, the almighty meter.

The metric system was a product of the French Revolution, which overthrew absolute monarchy and took the pied du roi down with it. The meter was first standardized to one thing indiscriminately relevant: the gap from the equator to the North Pole. One meter was one ten-millionth of that distance. 200 years later, in 1983, the meter was standardized on one thing nonetheless extra exact and unchanging — the velocity of sunshine.

All through “Past Measure,” Vincent’s standpoint simmers beneath his clear writing. Most pointedly, he trains his lens on measurement as a software for brutality and oppression. In a critique of the metrics of contemporary life, Vincent explores the scientific administration motion and the precept that any human endeavor may be usefully decreased to a set of statistics. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “time and movement research” of the late nineteenth century, for instance, gave rise to the standardization of labor move. Overzealous measuring, Vincent writes, may end up in instruments “by which management is exercised not simply within the office, however in establishments like prisons, armies, and faculties.”

Vincent’s day job as a senior reporter for the Verge vegetation him firmly within the current, and he brings the reader as much as the present craze of the leisure class: the “quantified self” motion. We measure our nightly sleep, our each day steps, our carbs, our coronary heart charges, our BMI.

Vincent’s writing is deft and chic, and his expertise for explaining advanced concepts in prose that doesn’t bathroom or brag is, fairly frankly, past measure. With this, his first guide of nonfiction, he has earned his place alongside such masters of explanatory prose as John McPhee, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.

Katie Hafner is a journalist and writer of the novel “The Boys.” She is host and co-executive producer of the podcast “Misplaced Girls of Science.”

The Hidden Historical past of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants

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