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World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393343540
ISBN-10: 0393343545
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Editorial Reviews

Review

[A] fascinating book.

By any measure, this book is a delight.

A colorful tale of global conquest driven by kings, revolutionaries, polyglots and privateers. "

[A] fascinating book. "

By any measure, this book is a delight. "

Takes the seemingly mundane questions we unthinkingly ask dozens of times a day and reveals them to be thrillingly profound. --Richard Panek, author of The 4% Universe"

About the Author

Robert P. Crease writes the "Critical Point" column in Physics World and is a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University. His books include The Great Equations and World in the Balance.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (October 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393343545
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393343540
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,333,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Your friend catches a fish that gets him bragging rights; it was over eighteen inches long, and he has the picture to prove it, his fish right alongside a ruler. But how do you know he didn't use one of those fisherman's gag rulers that are shrunk, making the fish look bigger? Or if he used a regular ruler, how do you know it was in line with other regular twelve-inch rulers? What are the odds that he took that ruler from one that had been carefully calibrated to a standard foot? What is a standard foot? The enigmas involved in measuring are among the subjects in _World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement_ (W. W. Norton) by Robert P. Crease. Crease writes the "Critical Point" column for _Physics World_, and some of the chapters here are from those columns, which means that digressive chapters might not deal specifically with world measurement standards. It doesn't matter; this is a sweeping history of how humans measure things, and since Crease is also the chairman of a philosophy department, it is about the meaning of measurement and its place in human thinking. It is a fascinating story, and all the more so because it is full of optimism. The international community of metrologists (experts in measuring) have spent centuries working on the problem of universal measurement standards, and have cooperated pretty well, and further cooperation seems assured.

In the past, every country, and even particular regions within countries, had idiosyncratic systems of measurement. The search for absolutes forms the main part of Crease's book. It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that it became clear that it would be handy to have one standard measuring system. The best proposal was by French scientists at the end of the 18th century.
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Format: Hardcover
All of us in all walks of life use weights and measures every day. Industry, manufacturing, and commerce would grind to a halt without them. Scientists use them for everything from space travel to medicine, and ordinary citizens use them when watching sports, preparing recipes, taking trips, and in countless other areas.

For much of human history, scientific progress was hampered because cultures around the world had haphazard, non-integrated systems of measurement. In "World in the Balance," author Robert Crease plumbs the history of metrology, the study of weights and measures, and recalls the historical figures who moved humanity toward an absolute system of measurement that could be used around the world.

Crease looks back at how units of measurement came to be in human history and provides examples of long-forgotten systems once used in China and Africa. There have always been philosophic and cultural consequences whenever weights and measures are less than exact--mankind began to desire a universal system, leading to the development of the metric system in eighteenth-century France.

Much of the book discusses how the metric system took root in France and then was gradually adopted across the globe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Scientists are still working today to improve the system--one of the last tasks is to move all base units such as the meter and kilogram away from arbitrary, physical artifacts and instead tie them to natural phenomena so that they could be recreated if necessary, and the author describes how much progress has been made on that front.

Weights and measures are so ubiquitous in our daily lives that we generally use them without even thinking much about them. If you have ever taken an interest in this topic you would enjoy this book, and after reading it you will likely view weights and measures in a whole new light from now on.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
There are some interesting parts in this book, but it goes on and on about stuff the author could have covered more succinctly. If you are interested in the topic, it's worth reading, but check it out at the library and skim thorough it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
World in the Balance sheds a great deal of light on how various cultures (Chinese, African et cetera) underwent metrication. A must read for anyone interested in the International System. The eleventh CGPM (Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures = General Conference on Weights and Measures) in 1960 faced the question of what to call this new reorganization and extension of measures. The name Metric System had referred to the units for length and mass. What the CGPM had created was much more comprehensive, and after some discussion, this new system was called the International System of units or SI after its French initials. For the first time, the world had not merely universal units, but a universal system of units.
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Format: Hardcover
In what could be a very boring topic to many, the author adds life and humanity to the history of the establishment of measurement standards around the world. He traces the origin of standards as resulting from an essential need to establish fairness in business and trade. He also illustrates how the SI system (International System of Units) was born, how it evolved and how it is gradually being adopted by more and more countries. Finally, he discusses current efforts to define the standards in terms of natural constants, e.g., the speed of light in vacuum, Planck’s constant, etc. – this to eliminate the need for actual physical objects kept in climate-controlled vaults and defined as the actual standards.

I did enjoy this book, although I found that, occasionally, the author would digress into areas that seemed less pertinent to the main theme. I particularly enjoyed the last chapter which touches more on the modern efforts mentioned above. I believe that his book can be enjoyed by any interested general readers, but science enthusiasts would likely better appreciate it due to the many scientific terms and discussions that are peppered throughout the book.
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