Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday Poem

Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

The creation of the meter/metre, now a worldwide unit of measure is told in Ken Adler's dazzling history of science book, The Measure of All Things.

Image from Wikipedia
The meter emerged from the French Revolution.  The idea to establish a standard meter seemed simple and straightforward. Two astronomers departed from Paris in opposite directions to measure a set distance of a meridian arc. The south-going astronomer, Pierre Mechain headed for Barcelona; the north-going astronomer, Jean Baptiste Delambre, headed for Dunkirk.  The aim was to work towards each other, reunite, make their calculations and reach agreement on its length. This project was to take a year. Instead, it took seven years.

Robert McFarlane reviews Adler's book in The Observer. For more about Ken Adler, a historian of science at Northwestern University, see this page.

The poet Kei Miller turns a graceful eye on this feat in his poem "Establishing the Metre."

Like tailors who must know their clients clients' girths
two men set out to find the sprawling measure of the earth.
They walked the curve from Rodez to Barcelona,
and Barcelona to Dunkirk. Such a pilgrimage!
They did not call it inches, miles or chains --
this distance which as yet had no clear name.
Between France and Spain they dared to stretch 
uncalibrated measuring tapes. And foot
by weary foot, they found a rhythm
the measure that exists in everything.

The poem is from Kei Miller's book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet Press Limited, Manchester Great Britain 2014). For this collection of poems, he was awarded the Forward Prize for 2014.   Mr. Miller teaches at Royal Holloway College, University of London.

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