Standardized Measurements Expedite Honest Exchange

(p. 20) Reading James Vincent’s quietly thrilling new book, “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants,” I began to think that one measure (so to speak) of the human experience might be the number of things we take for granted.

. . .

When people agree on a standard of measurement, they can coordinate their actions. You tell me that the sofa you’re selling is 72 inches wide, and from that bit of information I can see that it will fit in my living room.

. . .

Unlike, say, a simple act of thievery, which caused individual harm, metrological trickery could undermine the entire social order by sowing mistrust. “Measurement is a covenant that binds communities together,” Vincent writes. In addition to its obvious practical benefits — the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the Pyramids by eyeballing it — measurement has been embraced “for its ability to create a zone of shared expectations and rules.”

. . .

Metrology’s early history is marked by plurality — different units developing in different places, each one suited to a particular community’s needs. This variability allowed for flexibility, but it also allowed confusion and corruption to flourish. Vincent gives the example of France under the ancien régime, where the unit known as the pinte measured a measly 0.93 liters in Paris and a whopping 3.33 liters in Précy-sous-Thil. Elastic units were “exploited by the rich and powerful.” In exchanges with the peasantry, feudal lords used their authority over weights and measures to their own benefit.

Consequently, the metric system was a radical departure — the brainchild of the French Revolution’s savants, who promised to dispense with arbitrary units like the pied du Roi, or “the king’s foot,” in favor of weights and measures that were rational and impartial because they would be tethered to the Earth itself. A meter was standardized to one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. But even that definition turned out to be too “crass,” Vincent writes. Now the meter is defined in terms of something even more constant: the speed of light.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “Fathom That.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 4, 2022): 20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Nov. 21, 2022, and has the title “A History of Humanity in Cubits, Fathoms and Feet.”)

The book under review is:

Vincent, James. Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *