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Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World

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In the early eighteenth century, at the peak of the Enlightenment, an unlikely team of European scientists and naval officers set out on the world’s first international, cooperative scientific expedition. Intent on making precise astronomical measurements at the Equator, they were poised to resolve one of mankind’s oldest mysteries: the true shape of the Earth.
In Measure of the Earth, award-winning science writer Larrie D. Ferreiro tells the full story of the Geodesic Mission to the Equator for the very first time. It was an age when Europe was torn between two competing conceptions of the world: the followers of René Descartes argued that the Earth was elongated at the poles, even as Isaac Newton contended that it was flattened. A nation that could accurately determine the planet’s shape could securely navigate its oceans, giving it great military and imperial advantages. Recognizing this, France and Spain organized a joint expedition to colonial Peru, Spain’s wealthiest kingdom. Armed with the most advanced surveying and astronomical equipment, they would measure a degree of latitude at the Equator, which when compared with other measurements would reveal the shape of the world. But what seemed to be a straightforward scientific exercise was almost immediately marred by a series of unforeseen catastrophes, as the voyagers found their mission threatened by treacherous terrain, a deeply suspicious populace, and their own hubris.

A thrilling tale of adventure, political history, and scientific discovery, Measure of the Earth recounts the greatest scientific expedition of the Enlightenment through the eyes of the men who completed it—pioneers who overcame tremendous adversity to traverse the towering Andes Mountains in order to discern the Earth’s shape.  In the process they also opened the eyes of Europe to the richness of South America and paved the way for scientific cooperation on a global scale.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Science writer Ferreiro (Ships and Science) recounts exhaustively a joint (at least in name if not in spirit) 1735 expedition of France and Spain designed to discover the size and shape of the Earth. Expected to take two years, the expedition to what is now Peru, where the expeditioners would calculate the measure of a degree of latitude at the equator, lasted almost a decade. It's impossible not to be impressed with the operation's technical achievement while reading the author's fascinating and clearly written account of the complex astronomical tools and methodology employed. Equally impressive are the myriad examples of interpersonal dysfunction, political intrigue, and wasted efforts that Ferreiro recounts with straightforward enthusiasm. For example, at one point the scientists are forced to discard two years of astronomical calculations that turned out to be inaccurate. But the mission was ultimately successful and made a scientific star of its de facto leader, Pierre Bouguer, and a celebrity of another, Charles Marie de La Condamine. Despite some dense but clearly explained scientific material, readers will be drawn in by the personalities and trials of the ambitious expedition. Maps. (June)
From the Publisher

Andrés Reséndez, author of A Land So Strange
“The greatest achievement of Larrie D. Ferreiro’s wonderful book is to walk us with perfect ease through remote locales and arcane subjects.  Mr. Ferreiro seems no less at home in Guayaquil than in Paris or London and no less lucid in explaining the debates over the shape of the earth between Newtonians and Cartesians than in describing the intrigues surrounding the French Academy or the excruciating logistics of a scientific mission unfolding in colonial South America.”

Kim MacQuarrie, author of The Last Days of the Incas
“The story of the race to determine the shape of the Earth is one of history’s most engaging yet least-known stories. In Measure of the Earth, Larrie Ferreiro takes us inside the scientific expedition that set off from France to South America in the 18th century to discover the answer. Ferreiro not only brings to life the band of characters that embarked on this journey, with all of their intrigues and rivalries, but he also details the huge stakes involved. Whichever county discovered the Earth’s correct shape would take a giant leap forwards in enhancing their military and economic power.  A fascinating account of scientific inquiry thoroughly enmeshed in the race for power and empire.”
Peter C. Mancall, author of Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson
“Doing science in the eighteenth century demanded almost unbearable sacrifices for distant rewards and only the most dedicated could handle the challenges.  Larrie Ferreiro's deep research has produced a highly readable account of one of the great scientific expeditions of the age of the Enlightenment, a venture all the more riveting since it unfolded amidst imperial contests and devastating tragedy and tested the psychological and physical limits of those keen to expand knowledge of the shape of the Earth.”
James Horn, author of A Kingdom Strange and A Land as God Made It
“In Measure of the Earth, Larrie Ferreiro tells the dramatic story of the first international scientific expedition to South America to establish the precise dimensions of the globe.  The French scientists who led the expedition to the Andes overcame incredible adversities traversing the jungles and highlands of equatorial Peru, surviving near mutiny, attacks by local inhabitants, war, siege, and the skepticism of fellow academicians in their homeland to complete their mission and achieve lasting fame.  Beautifully written, Ferreiro’s book provides an authoritative and gripping account of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the Enlightenment.”
Carla Rahn Phillips, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
“Ferreiro’s Measure of the Earth nicely captures the scientific complexity and physical difficulty of this extraordinary expedition. At the same time, the author provides richly textured portraits of all the principal protagonists, whose personal foibles and rivalries sometimes undercut their professional skills. This is a compelling tale of international politics, Enlightened science, and human drama, played out on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, William P. Reynolds Professor of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame, and author of Pathfinders
“Larrie D. Ferreiro tells us that Voltaire could make difficult subjects accessible to everyone. In Measure of the Earth Ferreiro shows that he can do the same, with his Voltairean gifts of mastery of material and fluency in prose.
“A sophisticated work tracing the arduous mid-18th-century international expedition to the Latin American equator to determine the “figure of the earth."

Publishers Weekly
“[A] fascinating and clearly written account”

Library Journal, starred review
“Ferreiro (whose Ships and Science won the 2007 John Lyman Award for Best Book in Science and Technology) here marvelously details an almost doomed 18th-century geodesic expedition to South America to determine Earth’s shape. Ferreiro’s skill as storyteller and scholar is displayed in full vigor. Easy to read and fast moving, the book is often dramatic.  … Rarely does a history of science volume discuss such events, and rarely does its author present them so well. Ferreiro also masterfully blends political and scientific history, going to lengths to place the expedition’s people and events in context.”

Wall Street Journal
“Deftly told….  Mr. Ferreiro's superb book makes every mosquito bite, pork dinner and sleepless night seem worth it.”

WashingtonPost “An astonishingly detailed account of the Geodesic Mission... [it is] gripping, authoritative, and fair.”

Measure of the Earth accomplishes its mission with skill and devotion…. Its intermixing of politics and science is particularly fasci­nating.”

“Bringing the first half of the 18th century to life is a tall order, but historian/naval architect Ferreiro has succeeded…compelling…. Highly recommended.”

Library Journal
Ferreiro (whose Ships and Science won the 2007 John Lyman Award for Best Book in Science and Technology) here marvelously details an almost doomed 18th-century geodesic expedition to South America to determine Earth's shape. Ferreiro's skill as storyteller and scholar is displayed in full vigor. Easy to read and fast moving, the book is often dramatic. Consider the quarrels, drunkenness, bullfights, unruly mobs, and stabbings of Chapter 7, "Death and the Surgeon." Rarely does a history of science volume discuss such events, and rarely does its author present them so well. Ferreiro also masterfully blends political and scientific history, going to lengths to place the expedition's people and events in context. VERDICT Although earlier books, such as Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen's South America Called Them, have touched on the expedition, Ferreiro's account is more balanced, less biased, and makes greater use of archival and secondary sources. Those interested in going further are advised to look to the sources cited in the text. Recommended for readers interested in the history of 18th-century science.—Jon Bodnar, Emory Univ. Lib., Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews

A sophisticated work tracing the arduous mid-18th-century international expedition to the Latin American equator to determine the "figure of the earth."

The reigning scientific debate of the Enlightenment concerned the shape of the earth—was it round or flat at the poles? France's Academy of Sciences, founded by Louis XIV's Minister of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1666, had relied on Descartes' theory of vortices and believed strongly that the earth was elongated at the poles. On the other hand, Isaac Newton postulated daringly that due to the force of gravity, the earth bulged out at the equator and was flattened at the poles. The two camps needed to prove decisively who was correct. French Minister of the Navy Maurepas was anxious to know if Newton was correct, as the shape of the earth could affect navigation, so he organized a geodesic mission to the equator in order to measure the length of latitude to determine it. The mission to equatorial Peru included French mathematician Pierre Bouguer, chemist Charles-Marie de la Condamine and astronomer Louis Godin. The Geodesic Mission to the Equator invited several Spanish scientists as well and set out in 1735 on what was deemed a three- or four-year mission. It actually lasted nearly 10, involving unbelievable delays, money squandered disgracefully by their leader Godin, long periods of separation, native hostility, war with Spain, a rival expedition to the Arctic Circle and innumerable hardships. In the end, the mission was remarkably accurate, proving the earth was oblate and that Newton was right, and influencing subsequent expeditions by Alexander von Humboldt, Darwin and others.

Ferreiro's fascinating, absorbingjourney involves some complicated explanations, and he lays them out patiently for general readers.

Michael Dirda
In Measure of the Earth, Ferreiro has produced an astonishingly detailed account of the Geodesic Mission and its importance. He has mined all the sources, visited the key sites, balanced conflicting historical documents and memoirs, and produced a book that is gripping, authoritative and fair.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465017232
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Larrie D. Ferreiro is the author and editor of several books on the history of science and technology, including Ships and Science, which received the North American Society for Oceanic History's John Lyman Award for Best Book in Science and Technology. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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Table of Contents

Principal Characters ix

Introduction: The Baseline at Yaruquí xiii

I The Problem of the Earth's Shape 1

II Preparations for the Mission 31

III Finding Quito 61

IV Degree of Difficulty 91

V City of Kings 117

VI The Triangles of Peru 129

VII Death and the Surgeon 163

VIII The War of Jenkins's Ear 179

IX The Dance of the Stars 197

X The Impossible Return 223

XI A World Revealed 247

Epilogue: The Children of the Equator 273

Afterword 289

A Note on Language 293

Units of Measure and Currency 295

Acknowledgments 297

Notes 299

Index 339

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2012

    A very readable, interesting account of the first great bi-national scientific expedition.

    This is a very readable account of the first great bi-national scientific expedition. There is a lot to learn about the hardships and difficulties the French-Spanish team overcame in a decade long effort to establish exactly the length of a degree of latitude at the equator. That said the author seems to claim more lasting significane for the impact of the expedition than the facts seem to warrant. The book have been better if the science and, particularly, the mathematics had been explained in greater detail. The book seems excellent in setting the expedition in the context of its times and in its descriptions of French, Spanish, and Peruvian culture.

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