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The Measure of All Things

Ken Alder
Department of History
Northwestern University

In June 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution, two astronomers set out from Paris on a mission to measure the size of the world. Their goal was to establish a universal standard equal to one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator—a unit to be known as the meter. After 7 years they returned to a hero's welcome. "Conquests will come and go," Napoleon proclaimed, "but this work shall endure." In the past 200 years the meter has become the measure of the world. Yet all this time a secret "error" has been incorporated into the determination of the meter—an error known only to the two astronomers and hidden by them from public view. This history of their expedition will examine the origin of error analysis, the rise of modern geodesy, and history's first debate over globalization.

Copies of the award-winning book, The Measure of All Things, will be available for review and purchase at the talk.

Anyone outside NIST wishing to attend must be sponsored by a NIST employee and receive a visitor badge. For more information, call Kum J. Ham at 301-975-4203.

Colloquia are videotaped and available in the NIST Research Library.

Created October 26, 2009, Updated November 15, 2019