I was kindly offered this book by the publisher’s PR person when we were discussing another Faber book I’d been selected to read. I’m very glad she let me know about it as it’s a cracking good read, accessible and fascinating. I got to this and have reviewed it a bit late, for which I apologise.

James Vincent – “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement”

(13 August 2022, NetGalley)

Why is a kilogram a kilogram, I asked; why an inch an inch. I understand these questions more fully now, for if measurement is the mode by which we interact with the world, then it makes sense to ask where these systems come from and if there is any logic to them.

James Vincent is a journalist for The Verge magazine who became interested in the science of measurement – or metrology – when he was covering the changeover in Paris from a physical, metal metre to a measure involving the speed of light, an event he also describes in detail in his book.

By the end of the book, he has an answer, of sorts, to his question, and one that he feels puts the humanity and changeability back into something that has become ever more technical. Along the way, he’s taken us through a basically chronological survey of measurement, from the nilometers along Egypt’s river which were used to predict crops or famine by showing how far the floods rose to the quantification of all human life through the use of wearable trackers.

He has to digress into the history of science, of writing systems, even, to show us how and where measurements developed, paying particular attention to those huge shifts that often happen alongside other sociological phenomena: had you realised that the metric system was codified during the French Revolution?

Vincent describes several meetings with people who can explain various measurements to him, starting off in Egypt going into a nilometer, and also visiting Sweden and Paris and having a video call with a figure from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology which keeps a huge range of samples for use in calibration or validation (from peanut butter that has a specific mix of ingredients to standard cigarettes to use in testing flame retardency). I noted that he makes the effort to consult female experts as well as male. Less expert is a chap from Active Resistance to Metrication, who go around altering signposts back to imperial distances (even though the EU actually allowed joint or alternative measures for fruit and veg and signposts in the UK, contrary to popular opinion). These forays into the real world (or the depths of archives) break up the theory and make the book even more lively and interesting.

I learned a huge array of things from this book; I must first explain that it is very accessible, even when it’s going into atoms and quantum physics or the philosophy of measurement and what can even be measured. Vincent has a facility for making concepts clear, and while he generously thanks a whole range of writers and academics in his Acknowledgements, as well as people who helped him with his text, this is a feature vital in such a work of popular science, and successful (I’m of reasonable intelligence and interested in the topic but my science studies apart from in geography and a big of post-grad statistics ended with my O-levels). So I learned that mid-western (in particular) America looks like that when you’re flying over it because of the Public Land Survey System, which not only drew the borders of the states but quantified field size. ISO measurements on a camera are called that from the International Standards Organization. The Centigrade scale for measuring temperature is called that because it divides temperatures into hundredths between the freezing and boiling points of water (you probably all knew that, but all the other temperature scales are named after people, so …).

Mentioning the quantification of America, while Vincent does have a gap in his coverage when it comes to Africa, the Near East and India, leaving African things at the Egyptians, covering Arab scholars briefly and mentioning only the use of mapping for the Scramble for Africa and the measurement and control of India, he is good on pointing out the negative uses of metrology, including for colonialism. He points out wherever it’s relevant that measurement was used to impose colonialism, as well as the use of measurement in eugenics, and he uses an Indigenous American source when writing about the stealing of land in that continent, and also talks at length about the use of measures in the Vietnam War and their use in the “dehumanisation of the Other”. He also raises the issue of algorithms being based on corpuses that include racist and sexist content and therefore perpetuating such horrors.

Thank you to Faber & Faber for giving me access to this book on NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Beyond Measure” was published on 2 June 2022.