Review by Devin Powell
There’s more to the meter than a metal stick. Crease, a physicist and philosopher, traces the rise of the metric system, telling a colorful tale of global conquest driven by kings, revolutionaries, polyglots and privateers — and ultimately scientists looking for rulers that could outlast any physical object.
The French Revolution, argues Crease, set the stage for the first worldwide system of measurement. Spurred by calls for equality, France adopted standards for the meter and kilogram, which unlike previous systems were based not on royal body parts but on bits of metal.
Spread by wars and international commerce, these units would annihilate local ways of doing business. The Chinese ditched units of length based on the width of a knuckle, and brass figurines used to weigh gold dust in Africa became historic relics.
The story of standard units was shaped no