KEN ALDER is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard. A novelist and an avid bicyclist, he has biked Delambre and Méchain’s entire route. His first book, Engineering the Revolution, won the 1998 Dexter Prize for the best book on the history of technology. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS
THE SEVEN-YEAR ODYSSEY AND HIDDEN ERROR THAT TRANSFORMED THE WORLD
Amidst the chaos of the French Revolution, two intrepid astronomers set out in opposite directions from Paris to measure the world, one voyaging north to Dunkirk, the other south to Barcelona. Their findings will help define the meter as one ten-millionth of the distance between the pole and the equator, a standard that has since swept the planet. The Measure of All Things is the astonishing story of one of history’s greatest scientific quests, a mission to measure the Earth and define the meter for all nations and for all time.
Yet when Ken Alder located the long-lost correspondence between the two men, along with their mission logbooks, he stumbled upon a two-hundred-year-old secret, and a drama worthy of the great French playwrights. The meter, it turns out, is in error. One of the two astronomers, Pierre-Franois-Andre Mechain, made contradictory measurements from Barcelona and, in a panic, covered up the discrepancy. The guilty knowledge of his misdeed drove him to the brink of madness, and ultimately to his death. Only then — after the meter had already been publicly announced — did his partner, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, discover the truth and face a fateful choice: what matters more, the truth or the appearance of the truth?
This, then, is a story of two men, a secret, and a timeless human dilemma: is it permissible to perpetuate a small lie in the service of a larger truth? Precision is a quest on which travelers, as Zeno foretold, journey halfway to their destination, and then halfway again and again and again, never reaching finality. In The Measure of All Things Ken Alder describes a quest that succeeded even as it failed. It is a story for all people, for all time.
Publisher: THE FREE PRESS
Subtitle: THE SEVEN-YEAR ODYSSEY AND HIDDEN ERROR THAT TRANSFORMED THE WORLD
Author: KEN ALDER