Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants

Written by James Vincent

From W. W. Norton & Company:

A vibrant account of how measurement has invisibly shaped our world, from ancient civilizations to the modern day.

From the cubit to the kilogram, the humble inch to the speed of light, measurement is a powerful tool that humans invented to make sense of the world. In this revelatory work of science and social history, James Vincent dives into its hidden world, taking readers from ancient Egypt, where measuring the annual depth of the Nile was an essential task, to the intellectual origins of the metric system in the French Revolution, and from the surprisingly animated rivalry between metric and imperial, to our current age of the “quantified self.” At every turn, Vincent is keenly attuned to the political consequences of measurement, exploring how it has also been used as a tool for oppression and control.

Beyond Measure reveals how measurement is not only deeply entwined with our experience of the world, but also how its history encompasses and shapes the human quest for knowledge.

“Quietly thrilling…The story of humans measuring things is no less than the story of civilization―a claim that sounds like irritating hyperbole but in this case turns out to be true.”
― Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“Vincent’s writing is deft and elegant, and his talent for explaining complex ideas in prose that doesn’t bog or brag is, quite frankly, beyond measure…[H]e has earned his place alongside such masters of explanatory prose as John McPhee, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.”
― Katie Hafner, Washington Post

“Engaging…[A] lively tour of measurement history from the Egyptians and Babylonians through today’s disciples of the quantified self.”
― Timothy Farrington, Wall Street Journal

“This book uses a seemingly simple question―How did our units of measurement originate?―to deliver a profound reflection on how we experience and describe the world.”
― New Yorker

“Worth its weight in gold…[M]arries infectious enthusiasm for the science with healthy scepticism about the uses human beings put it to.”
― Madoc Cairns, The Guardian

“Fascinating…Beyond Measure offers engrossing accounts of the role that measurement has played in scientific progress…Vincent also presents a deep history of measurement’s role in society.”
― Christie Aschwanden, Undark