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Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World Hardcover – May 31, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Andrés Reséndez, author of A Land So Strange
“The greatest achievement of Larrie D. Ferreiro’s wonderful book is to walk us with perfect ease through remote locales and arcane subjects.  Mr. Ferreiro seems no less at home in Guayaquil than in Paris or London and no less lucid in explaining the debates over the shape of the earth between Newtonians and Cartesians than in describing the intrigues surrounding the French Academy or the excruciating logistics of a scientific mission unfolding in colonial South America.”

Kim MacQuarrie, author of The Last Days of the Incas
“The story of the race to determine the shape of the Earth is one of history’s most engaging yet least-known stories. In Measure of the Earth, Larrie Ferreiro takes us inside the scientific expedition that set off from France to South America in the 18th century to discover the answer. Ferreiro not only brings to life the band of characters that embarked on this journey, with all of their intrigues and rivalries, but he also details the huge stakes involved. Whichever county discovered the Earth’s correct shape would take a giant leap forwards in enhancing their military and economic power.  A fascinating account of scientific inquiry thoroughly enmeshed in the race for power and empire.”
Peter C. Mancall, author of Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson
“Doing science in the eighteenth century demanded almost unbearable sacrifices for distant rewards and only the most dedicated could handle the challenges.  Larrie Ferreiro's deep research has produced a highly readable account of one of the great scientific expeditions of the age of the Enlightenment, a venture all the more riveting since it unfolded amidst imperial contests and devastating tragedy and tested the psychological and physical limits of those keen to expand knowledge of the shape of the Earth.”
James Horn, author of A Kingdom Strange and A Land as God Made It
“In Measure of the Earth, Larrie Ferreiro tells the dramatic story of the first international scientific expedition to South America to establish the precise dimensions of the globe.  The French scientists who led the expedition to the Andes overcame incredible adversities traversing the jungles and highlands of equatorial Peru, surviving near mutiny, attacks by local inhabitants, war, siege, and the skepticism of fellow academicians in their homeland to complete their mission and achieve lasting fame.  Beautifully written, Ferreiro’s book provides an authoritative and gripping account of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the Enlightenment.”
Carla Rahn Phillips, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
“Ferreiro’s Measure of the Earth nicely captures the scientific complexity and physical difficulty of this extraordinary expedition. At the same time, the author provides richly textured portraits of all the principal protagonists, whose personal foibles and rivalries sometimes undercut their professional skills. This is a compelling tale of international politics, Enlightened science, and human drama, played out on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, William P. Reynolds Professor of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame, and author of Pathfinders
“Larrie D. Ferreiro tells us that Voltaire could make difficult subjects accessible to everyone. In Measure of the Earth Ferreiro shows that he can do the same, with his Voltairean gifts of mastery of material and fluency in prose.
“A sophisticated work tracing the arduous mid-18th-century international expedition to the Latin American equator to determine the “figure of the earth."

Publishers Weekly
“[A] fascinating and clearly written account”

Library Journal, starred review
“Ferreiro (whose Ships and Science won the 2007 John Lyman Award for Best Book in Science and Technology) here marvelously details an almost doomed 18th-century geodesic expedition to South America to determine Earth’s shape. Ferreiro’s skill as storyteller and scholar is displayed in full vigor. Easy to read and fast moving, the book is often dramatic.  … Rarely does a history of science volume discuss such events, and rarely does its author present them so well. Ferreiro also masterfully blends political and scientific history, going to lengths to place the expedition’s people and events in context.”

Wall Street Journal
“Deftly told….  Mr. Ferreiro's superb book makes every mosquito bite, pork dinner and sleepless night seem worth it.”
Washington Post
“An astonishingly detailed account of the Geodesic Mission... [it is] gripping, authoritative, and fair.”


Measure of the Earth accomplishes its mission with skill and devotion…. Its intermixing of politics and science is particularly fasci­nating.”

“Bringing the first half of the 18th century to life is a tall order, but historian/naval architect Ferreiro has succeeded…compelling…. Highly recommended.”


About the Author

Larrie D. Ferreiro is the author and editor of several books on the history of science and technology, including Ships and Science, which received the North American Society for Oceanic History's John Lyman Award for Best Book in Science and Technology. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465017231
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465017232
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,122,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Larrie D. Ferreiro is the author and editor of award-winning books on the history of science, technology and engineering. He has been a naval architect, scientist, engineer and professor in the United States, France and Britain. Born on Long Island, NY, he now lives in Fairfax, VA with his wife Mirna (from Lima, Peru) and their sons Marcel and Gabriel.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
What shape is the Earth? If you said round, of course you'd be right, and smart people have known this for a couple of thousand years, even if common sense tells you the Earth is flat (why, just look at it!). But the Earth is not perfectly round, not a perfect sphere; of course there are all those mountains and valleys, but in addition, it bulges out of the perfectly spherical. Before the eighteenth century, no one knew if it bulged north and south, or bulged outwards, although there were schools of thought that argued for both ways. They didn't have data to settle the issue. They needed good measurements, and how they first got the data is the exciting story of _Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World_ (Basic Books) by Larrie D. Ferreiro, a recounting of a French expedition to South America which answered the question of the Earth's shape. Ferreiro had encountered one of the explorers of the expedition in his research for a book on naval architecture, and was amazed to learn about the Geodesic Mission, and even more amazed that its story and accomplishments were not known even in France. It is, however, a great story of an important scientific achievement and the huge amount of effort it took for the simple purpose of satisfying scientific curiosity.

There were two schools of thought about the Earth's bulge - Newton said it bulged at the equator, and followers of Descartes said it bulged at the poles. No one had data. Ferreiro does an excellent job of giving a history of thought on the matter, and showing how scientists considered it important enough to set up a difficult and expensive expedition to get an answer by measuring a degree of latitude at the equator.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Didaskalex VINE VOICE on July 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
"Thus, ... this type of indirect measurement was really child's play to the Alexandrians. They were eventually able to measure by indirect means the radius of the earth, the diameter of the sun and moon and the distance to the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars. That we can measure such physically inaccessible lengths and do so, moreover, with an accuracy as great as we wish, seems, at first blush, incredible." -- Morris Kline

In the Principia, Newton first raised the question of the Earth's shape. Continental scholars influenced scientific efforts to solve the problem in Paris, while their French colleagues helped in advancing a theory on the Earth's shape. The evolution of French mechanics proved not to be the replacement of a Cartesian pattern by a Newtonian / Leibniz concept, failing Kuhn's paradigm of scientific revolutions. Instead, a complex process involving various tools of research and coordination from the entire scientific world contributed. Larrie Ferreiro both explores and reports the innumerable phases, and aspects of technical problems underlying the historical development of the post-Newtonian mechanics. He embeded his technical discussion in a biography framework that involves society, politics and institutional history.

During the eighteenth century, the spread of Newtonian physics in the French scientific community, Newton's writings contributed only a small part to the central thesis of the work done on the shape of the earth. Continental scholars, especially Leibniz, influenced the entire French proceedings, and many French scholars participated in defining the final earth's shape theory.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Thomas M. Sullivan on August 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I subscribe to the aspirational adage, `You can't know it all; but you can try.' So over the years I have attempted to maintain a catholic attitude while browsing the subjects of History books, focusing more on works that put the `story' in History as opposed to any of my preconceptions about particular subject matter. My principal reason for purchasing `Measure the Earth' was a fond recollection of having read Dava Sobel's wonderful `Longitude' many years ago. The relatively familiar narrative of Horologist John Harrison's almost life-long quest to develop a reliable chronometer to enable mariners to reliably plot their east-west locations at sea, it suggested to me that since I had already ventured in one global direction, I may as well learn more about the other...all the while hoping it was as good a story.

Well, how good is the tale told in `Measure'? Let me put it this way. If you submitted this manuscript to a publisher as a novel, they would toss back in your face and tell you to come back when you had a believable yarn. In other words, you can't make this stuff up! An unprecedented expedition to an utterly foreign shore with shaky financial support, dreadful, and eventually almost fatal, leadership, waxing and waning political tides, almost non-existent communications, the list of horribles goes on and on. But they did it. They set out to measure one degree of latitude, and using instruments that even in the day were considered obsolete, they came so close to the now-consensus figure that the difference makes no never mind.

Actually, Author Ferreiro answers the rhetorical question of this review's title.
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