The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder

The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the WorldThe Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World by Ken Alder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally published March 23rd, 2013
Well that was…well…it 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 that he had notes at the back, but I didn’t realize they were there until I got to the end. And personally I’d prefer a brief explanation the first time the word is used, at least for the common ones, so I don’t have to go to the back of the book all the time.
Other minor quibbles: he talks way more than necessary about the United States and how awesome it is that they are such a global economic power but haven’t gone metric; he tends to go over the same ground a few times in a row as though he needed the book to be longer; and some of the quotes he starts chapters with (examples of weights and measures in popular literature) feel forced and contrived. Not illuminative. Like Alder was running out of quality examples.
All the places were really well described though. I didn’t feel like I was there, but I felt like he had been to each place Mechain and Delambre were while taking their measurements. Alder doesn’t limit himself either. He describes what the places look like today, and also what they would have looked like while our heroes were on their epic quest for metrical harmony. Was Alder showing off? Maybe a smidge.
Another thing he was good at? Excellent descriptions of the way the Ancien Regime functioned throughout France. I had no idea that it was such a staggeringly complex and disconnected system. What a psychological change the metric system would be from the status quo. Alder covers the basic measurements (more complicated than you would think), but also the reason why the Ancien Regime worked the way it did and why it was such a struggle to implement the metric system. I came away with a really solid understanding of pre-Revolution French measurements. Not such a solid understanding of triangulation and latitude measurements, though. Considering that measuring the latitude of the earth was one of the main themes of the book, I personally needed more explanation of what was involved in taking these measurements and how triangulating a location gave you a physical earthly latitude to be able to grasp what Mechain and Delambre had been doing for 7 years. But other people might have found Alder’s descriptions sufficient.
Overall? Not bad, not great. A book, like many others.

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