Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement by James Vincent

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Review by Liz Dexter

James Vincent, a journalist for The Verge magazine, among other writing, got interested in metrology when he was sent to cover the changeover in Paris from a physical, metal metre to a measure involving the speed of light. 

Why is a kilogram a kilogram, I asked; why an inch an inch. I understand these questions more fully now, for if measurement is the mode by which we interact with the world, then it makes sense to ask where these systems come from and if there is any logic to them.

So by the end of the book, he has an answer, of sorts, and one that he feels puts the humanity and changeability back into something that has become ever more technical. Along the way, he’s taken us through a basically chronological survey of measurement, from the nilometers along Egypt’s river which were used to predict crops or famine by showing how far the floods rose to the quantification of all human life through the use of wearable trackers. He has to digress into the history of science, of writing systems, even, to show us how and where measurements developed, paying particular attention to those huge shifts that often happen alongside other sociological phenomena: had you realised that the metric system was codified during the French Revolution? 

To add human interest and some needed warmth to the narrative, Vincent describes several meetings with people who can explain various measurements to him, starting off in Egypt going into a nilometer, and also visiting Sweden and Paris and having a video call with a figure from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology which keeps a huge range of samples for use in calibration or validation (from peanut butter that has a specific mix of ingredients to standard cigarettes to use in testing flame retardency). I noted that he makes the effort to consult female experts as well as male. Less expert is a chap from Active Resistance to Metrication, who go around altering signposts back to imperial distances (even though the EU actually allowed joint or alternative measures for fruit and veg and signposts in the UK, contrary to popular opinion). 

I learned a huge array of things from this book; I must first explain that it is very accessible, even when it’s going into atoms and quantum physics or the philosophy of measurement and what can even be measured. Vincent has a facility for making concepts clear, and while he generously thanks a whole range of writers and academics in his Acknowledgements, as well as people who helped him with his text, this is a feature vital in such a work of popular science, and successful here.

So I learned that mid-western (in particular) America looks like that when you’re flying over it because of the Public Land Survey System, which not only drew the borders of the states but quantified field size. ISO measurements on a camera are called that from the International Standards Organization, alongside a whole host of other fascinating facts.

Mentioning the quantification of America, while Vincent does have a gap in his coverage when it comes to Africa, the Near East and India, he is good on pointing out the negative uses of metrology, including for colonialism, eugenics and the justification of war. He also raises the issue of algorithms being based on corpuses that include racist and sexist content and therefore perpetuating such horrors. 

There are quite a few very nice illustrations through the book, a comprehensive set of footnotes with all the references you could wish (and all with footnote numbers in the text) and a detailed index.

A very interesting and worthwhile book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in measurement, the history of science, sociology, geography … the list goes on!

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Liz Dexter will admit she’s sitting at her desk writing this review with a wearable tracker on her wrist. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

James Vincent, Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement (Faber & Faber, 2022). ‎ 978-0571354214, 432 pp., ill., hardback.

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