BEYOND MEASURE: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants, by James Vincent
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. Rulers and scales and clocks: These are mundane appliances of daily life, obvious and uncontroversial to the point of banality.
But wait! Vincent, a London-based science writer for The Verge, shows how wrong this assumption is. The story of humans measuring things is no less than the story of civilization — a claim that sounds like irritating hyperbole but in this case turns out to be true. Vincent conveys how measurement developed as a “scaffold for knowledge,” encouraging us to categorize and make comparisons. It is also extraordinarily powerful, “a tool of social cohesion and control.”
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. Scientists tell us that the world has gotten 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter, and from that bit of information governments can implement policies to address climate change (in theory, at least). The stakes in the first scenario are nonexistent by comparison, but the underlying principle of metrology — or the science of measurement — is the same. I assume that your measure of an inch is identical to mine. I also assume that you’re telling the truth — that by “72 inches” you do not mean 53 inches, or 107 inches.
Standardized measuring tapes ensure that these kinds of simple commercial transactions don’t (usually) cause much of a fuss. But as Vincent explains, cheating with false measures has historically been taken extremely seriously. In the Holy Roman Empire, punishments included whippings, amputated hands, deaths by hanging. 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.”
This social dimension, then, is what has made metrology a more potent source of controversy than I had ever imagined. As societies became bigger and more complex, measurements became more abstract, allowing disparate individuals to communicate and interact with one another. Not everyone was pleased by this development. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vincent says, the most common system of measurement — the metric system — has become fodder for the endless culture wars.
Early forms of measurement were connected to the body: A cubit, for instance, is the distance from elbow to fingertip; a fathom is the span of one’s outstretched arms. Bigger measurements stayed local, too, reflecting the labor of everyday life, like the Irish collop, which was the amount of land needed to graze a single cow. The Finnish peninkulma measured the distance at which a dog’s bark can be heard (apparently around six kilometers). The Saami of Northern Europe have a unit known as the poronkusema — the distance a reindeer can walk before it must stop to urinate (around six miles).
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.
Vincent is a companionable guide to these adventures in metrology. He travels to Cairo to descend into an ancient nilometer, an ingenious structure for measuring the Nile’s floodwaters; in Paris, he witnesses “the overthrow of a king” — the decommissioning of “Le Grand K,” a lump of platinum-iridium alloy that was the official kilogram until 2018, when the international science community voted to redefine it in terms of Planck’s constant, a foundational concept in quantum mechanics.
Of course, the constancy of Planck’s constant hasn’t quelled anti-metric sentiment — if anything, it has only fueled suspicions that the metric system amounts to a bunch of elitist nabobs bent on crushing the ordinary person’s (literal) rule of thumb. Such fury became part of the pro-Brexit platform, with Brexiteers seizing on instances of British shopkeepers getting prosecuted for selling their produce in pounds instead of kilos. Even in the non-metric United States, Tucker Carlson has railed against “this weird, utopian, inelegant, creepy system that we alone have resisted.” (Not so. We happen to keep company with two other officially non-metric countries: Liberia and Myanmar.)
Toward the end of “Beyond Measure,” Vincent explores how measurements have made their way into so many areas of modern life, from tallies of social media “likes” to trackers that count the number of steps we take. We cling to such numbers because we have been conditioned in “the era’s prevailing ideology.” Vincent eloquently describes his own experiences in online journalism with what the historian Jerry Z. Muller calls “metric fixation,” or the relentless production of clickable stories.
But just because we can count something doesn’t make it any good. As Vincent puts it, “An obsession with measurement above all else will distort, distract and destroy what we claim to value.”
BEYOND MEASURE: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants | By James Vincent | Illustrated | 423 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $32.50