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Review | By measuring the world, humans changed it

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Sometimes a book happens along whose central question is at once so profound yet so utterly simple it takes your breath away. Such is the case with James Vincent’s deeply engrossing “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants.”

The question Vincent poses is this: When, why and how were we as a species compelled to quantify, to take measure of objects, days and months, rivers and skies, thus transforming much of the way we interact with the world around us?

The answer is manifold, and it unfolds in the 345 pages that ensue, as Vincent throws open the door to a trove of history. He hooks the reader — at least this one — with his first evocative sentence: “The very first measurement, like the first word or first melody, is lost to time: impossible to localize and difficult even to imagine.”

There was a time when quantification was nonexistent. Humans had none of the tools and measures we now use to bring order and sense to the world — weight, height, volume, mass, time.

That void is a difficult concept to get your mind around, but Vincent explains with equal parts clarity, thoroughness and patience (I’ll spare you the exact breakdown) not only how measurement is one strand of the braid that constitutes our experience of the world, but also how it has shaped and defined the human quest for knowledge.

From the forearm-length cubit to the lump of metal that defined the kilogram, measurement is a powerful tool that Vincent investigates with unalloyed delight. ​​Along the way, he places each technical advancement in measurement into the context of the era.

Early measurements were key to survival. Timekeeping systems, for example, emerged based on the night sky and the synchronization of celestial changes to predict events on Earth, such as seasons, and more reliably plan a time to sow and a time to reap. Ancient Egyptians took regular measure of the Nile — expressed in “nilometers” — to gauge how far floodwaters had risen in a given spring as a way of predicting crop health later in the year.

Many old systems of measurement relied on the human body. There was the fingertip-to-elbow cubit and the thumb-width inch. And, of course, there is the aptly named foot. These are handy tools, to be sure. But they’re also as variable as the humans on which they’re based (though I’m sure I’m not alone in reporting that when I can’t find a tape measure, I’ll put one foot in front of the other to measure the length of a room).

Measures that were fuzzy and strange, like the pied du roi, or the “king’s foot,” were gradually supplanted by more rational systems based on precision. Hence the rise of liters and kilograms and, of course, 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 something indiscriminately applicable: the distance from the equator to the North Pole. One meter was one ten-millionth of that distance. Two hundred years later, in 1983, the meter was standardized on something still more precise and unchanging — the speed of light.

Throughout “Beyond Measure,” Vincent’s point of view simmers beneath his clean writing. Most pointedly, he trains his lens on measurement as a tool for brutality and oppression. In a critique of the metrics of modern life, Vincent explores the scientific management movement and the principle that any human endeavor can be usefully reduced to a set of statistics. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “time and motion studies” of the late 19th century, for example, gave rise to the standardization of work flow. Overzealous measuring, Vincent writes, can result in tools “by which control is exercised not just in the workplace, but in institutions like prisons, armies, and schools.”

Vincent’s day job as a senior reporter for the Verge plants him firmly in the present, and he brings the reader up to the current craze of the leisure class: the “quantified self” movement. We measure our nightly sleep, our daily steps, our carbs, our heart rates, our BMI.

Vincent’s writing is deft and elegant, and his talent for explaining complex ideas in prose that doesn’t bog or brag is, quite frankly, beyond measure. With this, his first book 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 author of the novel “The Boys.” She is host and co-executive producer of the podcast “Lost Women of Science.”

The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants

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