History of Science
Environmental and Science Education
by Edward Hessler
You may remember meter sticks from school science but not thought much about how they came to be.
The creation of the meter/metre, now a worldwide unit of measure is told in Ken Adler's dazzling history of science, The Measure of All Things.
The meter emerged from the French Revolution. The idea to establish a standard meter seemed simple and straightforward. There is a rule of thumb here, isn't there? Whatever seems simple often isn't.
Two astronomers departed from Paris in opposite directions to measure a set distance of a meridian arc. One went south to Barcelona (Pierre Mechain); the other went North to Dunkirk (Jean-Baptiste Delambre). They were to work towards each other, reunite, and make their calculations. It was to take a year. It took seven.
Robert McFarlane reviews Adler's book in The Observer. And for more about Ken Adler see this page.
Kei Miller turns his graceful poetic 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, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet Press Limited, Manchester Great Britain 2014). For this collection of poems, he was awarded theForward Prize for 2014. Mr. Miller teaches at Royal Holloway College, University of London.