Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Metrics And Revolutions


I found in this book a deep thought wrapped in small details: that revolution prepares the soil for change, but unless the seeds of change are planted in that revolutionary season, it will wither and die.

The revolutions - scientific and political - of the 17th and 18th centuries provided an impetus as well as an environment for changing the way the world was measured. New governments wanted a system that would be, given the nature of the American and French revolutions, equal for all men.

In Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet, Marciano has built the tale out of inches and grams of facts: the urge to standardize that grew in the infant republics of the U.S.A. and France, the desire of natural scientists to base measurements - time, volume and temperature, even justice, as much as distance - on a single standard that could be observed in nature, and the goal of setting up a system that would be "for all men and for all time".

Along the way, he shows us how the leading lights of these scientific and political radicals each made a contribution to (or battled with) the metrics that would become the SI/metric/European system, and details how the nature-based system was subverted by the partisan passions of the French revolutionaries, and then even more by Napoleon.

From there, Marciano shows why the metric measurement system failed to be adopted in the U.S., even while its currency was "decimalized" and its code of justice rationalized. That metrication failed not once, but four separate times between 1786 and now, Marciano shows to be due to a rational assessment of the cost of change and the inertia of public resistance once the revolution was complete.

My favorite quote from the book comes early: "I did think that Europeans do certain things better than Americans. In my heart of hearts, however, I never believed that one of them was the metric system."

By the way, if I could give fractional stars, this book would get 4 and 5/8ths stars instead of 5, only because the charts were not easily visible on the Kindle (even with Zoom). I needed to open the book on my laptop Kindle Reader to enjoy the charts.

This is a book to enjoy for the science history as well as for the history of metrics. I got kilometers of enjoyment out of it!