World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement [NOOK Book]


The epic story of the invention of a global network of weights, scales, and instruments for measurement.

Millions of transactions each day depend on a reliable network of weights and measures. This network has been called a greater invention than the steam engine, comparable only to the development of the printing press.

Robert P. Crease...
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World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement

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The epic story of the invention of a global network of weights, scales, and instruments for measurement.

Millions of transactions each day depend on a reliable network of weights and measures. This network has been called a greater invention than the steam engine, comparable only to the development of the printing press.

Robert P. Crease traces the evolution of this international system from the use of flutes to measure distance in the dynasties of ancient China and figurines to weigh gold in West Africa to the creation of the French metric and British imperial systems. The former prevailed, with the United States one of three holdout nations. Into this captivating history Crease weaves stories of colorful individuals, including Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of the metric system, and American philosopher Charles S. Peirce, the first to tie the meter to the wavelength of light. Tracing the dynamic struggle for ultimate precision, World in the Balance demonstrates that measurement is both stranger and more integral to our lives than we ever suspected.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Anyone who doubts the romance and history to be found in a meter stick will find this book a revelation. As Crease notes, the human body is the first and oldest measuring device in the world; for example, nearly every civilization has the equivalent of a "foot.” In China, systems of measurement date back to the third millennium B.C.E., ., eventually becoming, as one scholar wrote, "a metaphor for the moral and spiritual order of the universe….” The first effort to create worldwide standards of distance and weight came from the French Revolution, with the meter (based on a fraction of the Earth's meridian), and the kilogram (the weight of a cubic deciliter of water). But for the terrible luck of a wayward French emissary, America might have adopted the metric system around 1800. More precise measures now define the meter in terms of atomic wavelengths, and atomic values will probably also be used to define the kilogram. Through entertaining anecdotes and history, Stony Brook philosophy chair and Physics World columnist Crease (The Great Equations) ably reveals our modern world as a "metroscape” shaped by the things we measure and the way we measure them. 35 illus. (Oct.)
Richard Panek
“Takes the seemingly mundane questions we unthinkingly ask dozens of times a day and reveals them to be thrillingly profound.”
Science News
“A colorful tale of global conquest driven by kings, revolutionaries, polyglots and privateers.”
New Scientist
“[A] fascinating book.”
Natural History
“By any measure, this book is a delight.”
Kirkus Reviews
A look at how weights and measures evolved over the ages, and their importance as a social bond. Physics World columnist Crease (Philosophy/Stony Brook Univ.; The Great Equations, 2009, etc.) starts with the beginning of commerce. From early times, merchants and their customers needed a set of standards that would assure both that they were getting a fair deal. Different societies arrived at different methods of attaining this goal. In China, each new dynasty needed to prove its legitimacy by "improving" its predecessors' standards for weight, length and music. In West Africa, the use of small figurines to measure gold became the keystone of society. But as trade became more international, the great trading nations began to impose their standards on their partners. Britain and France were in many ways the leaders, the former with the Imperial system, the latter, after the Revolution, with the metric system. This battle for dominance makes up much of the narrative. The meter was a philosophical construct, based in theory on the size of the Earth--specifically, on the meridian of longitude passing through Paris. The French government sent out expeditions to measure the meridian and arrived after some trouble at a standard meter. Advocates of the new system immediately began to proselytize for it, sending copies of the standard to other nations including the United States, where the "scientific" measure had a strong advocate in Thomas Jefferson. Crease also emphasizes how human nature played a part, both in the success of the new system and in the resistance to it. Especially in America, religious conservatives railed against its adoption as early as the 1860s. Meanwhile, American scientists were among those who strove to improve its accuracy. Crease provides a solid explanation of how something so arbitrary can be made truly "universal." Scientific history that looks beyond the facts and figures to their influence on everyday life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393082043
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/17/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 928,553
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Robert P. Crease writes the "Critical Point" column in Physics World and is a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University. His books include The Great Equations and World in the Balance.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Noonday Cannon 13

Chapter 1 Vitruvian Man 17

Chapter 2 Ancient China: Feet and Flutes 35

Chapter 3 West Africa: Gold Weights 53

Chapter 4 France: "Realities of Life and Labor" 69

Chapter 5 Halting Steps Toward Universality 99

Chapter 6 "One of the Greatest Triumphs of Modern Civilization" 126

Chapter 7 Metrophilia and Metrophobia 149

Chapter 8 Surely You're Joking, Mr. Duchamp! 167

Chapter 9 Dreams of a Final Standard 183

Chapter 10 Universal System: The SI 210

Chapter 11 The Modern Metroscape 227

Chapter 12 Au Revoir, Kilogram 249

Epilogue 269

Acknowledgments 277

Notes 279

Illustration Credits 295

Index 297

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