The Measure of All Things

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Times on 1 September 2002

Ken Alder, The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey that Transformed the World, Little, Brown, £15.99, pp. 466

If, as Seneca suggested, a suffering man is a sacred being, then a suffering savant must have a special claim on the realm of the divine. Take Pierre-François-André Méchain, for example, one of the pair of scientific protagonists who roam the rich landscapes of this fascinating book. There can be few who suffered more acutely for their science, and fewer still who chronicled their suffering so meticulously. Méchain’s twelve-year sequence of agonised letters to his friends and fellow astronomers makes painful reading even now, some two hundred years after they were written: “Hell and all the plagues it spews upon the earth — storms, wars, pestilence and dark intrigues — have been unleashed against me,” as he wrote in January 1804, “what demon still awaits?” That demon was error, or, more precisely, Méchain’s misunderstanding of the nature of error, a misunderstanding which tormented him into an early grave, but which Ken Alder has transformed into one of the most gripping stories that the history of science has to tell.

In June 1792 Méchain set out on a journey from Paris to Barcelona, from where he was to work his way back towards his colleague and shadow, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, who was meanwhile attempting to work his way south from Dunkerque. Their mission was to measure the arc of the Paris meridian with a precision never before achieved; the purpose of their mission was to determine the size of the earth in order to fix the precise length of the world’s new unit of measurement: the metre. The metre was to be set at exactly one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, and for that a new level of precision was required. Both astronomers were in possession of the latest and costliest piece of equipment, the Borda repeating circle (the complex operations of which Alder lovingly describes), but, more importantly, both were in possession of the spirit of utopian ambition which suffused the early days of the French Revolution.

Everything in their new republic was about to be remeasured and redrawn: currency, weight, volume, distance, even time itself, with 1792 declared Year One of the republic. All other ways of understanding the world and its processes were to be similarly recalibrated, with the metre, drawn as it was from a survey of the turning world itself, lying at the heart of the project. The pressures upon Méchain and Delambre to deliver their findings were considerable, but nothing like as considerable as the obstacles that lay in their path.

Rural France in the throes of Revolutionary fervour was no place for a pair of travelling geodesers to go about their task of measuring the earth. Within weeks Delambre had been arrested on suspicion of counter-revolutionary espionage, while Méchain was to find himself stranded in Spain following the execution of Louis XVI. Within a year of their departure from Paris their country was in the grip of Robespierre’s Jacobins and the Terror was about to be unleashed: “How do you measure the earth while the world is turning beneath your feet?”, asks Alder. His account of this extraordinary episode has all the pace and plot of an historical adventure novel, as though Longitude had been crossed with A Tale of Two Cities, with a measure of Don Quixote thrown in.

Yet his book is also a meditation on the limits of empiricism as well as on the particular perils of collaborative research. Of the two astronomers it was only the sophisticated and cheerful Delambre who understood the worldly nature of the mission, which was the creation of a standard metrical measure upon which everybody could agree. Anomalous or flawed results, the constant companions of scientists everywhere, could always be smoothed out and accommodated. Poor Méchain, however, seemed to labour under the impression that some higher moral truth was being served by his endeavours. The inevitable mistakes which he discovered among his reckonings were thus interpreted by him as a personal moral failing to which the only possible response was concealment. This, of course, only made things worse for the scrupulous Méchain, whose slow mental collapse under a burden of guilt and despair is described by Ken Alder with skill and genuine sympathy. “My only wish is to be annihilated”, claimed Méchain in one of his confessional despatches to Delambre, a wish that was to be realised all too soon.

If only Méchain had known how little any of it mattered, for the world is not the perfect sphere imagined by savants such as him. The Paris meridian compares only with itself, for all meridians are different on this bent and buckled globe. The one perfect, eternal measurement, the pursuit of which cost him his sanity and then his life, turned out to be nothing more than an elegantly crafted fiction, which was left to the surviving Delambre to publish on his own.

Richard Hamblyn

 

The Lunar Men

This review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on 27 October 2002

Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 596 pp., $30.00

“The book of Nature is open to all men,” wrote the eighteenth-century British geologist John Whitehurst, “and perhaps in no part of the world more so than in Derbyshire.” This striking claim, a coalition between the global democracy of knowledge—“Nature is open to all”—and a profound sense of local attachment and pride, expresses one of the more likeable features of the age of the Enlightenment; it gives a good indication, too, of the spirit in which Jenny Uglow’s latest book has been written. As a celebration of a local milieu as well as a world culture that emerged both within it and around it, “The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World” is a compelling exploration of the Enlightenment age, an age of ambition and change: and of crowds. Dozens of individuals roam the pages of this teeming campus of a book, and we watch as they meet, talk, ally themselves, argue, collaborate, drift apart, grow old and die, and at times it is as if we meet them, too, as if Uglow takes us gently by the arm and walks us through the streets of Birmingham and Derby to introduce us to her cast of characters, and to let us in on their conversations as they scheme and laugh and talk their way through the world that they helped to shape.

As all this suggests, “The Lunar Men” is a work of history that foregrounds personality, friendship and alliance in order to build up a wider picture of the period as a whole. In this case, the method is well suited to the material, for the Lunar Society of Birmingham, to which the title of the book alludes, was nothing if not a creative collision of temperaments and personalities. A group of like-minded British friends who began to meet up once a month during the 1760s, the Lunar Society gathered on the Monday nearest the full moon so that its members might have some light by which to make their way home along the unlit roads of pre-industrial England. The group was amorphous, depending for its shape upon whoever was around on the day, but at one time or another most of the greatest figures of eighteenth-century industry and science were to find themselves involved in the club: Erasmus Darwin, the poet and inventor (and grandfather of Charles), to whom Uglow refers as “the grit in the oyster” in an excellent invocation of his catalysing presence; Josiah Wedgewood, pioneering potter and industrialist extraordinaire; John Whitehurst, the geologist and clock-maker, whose words were quoted at the beginning of this review; Joseph Priestley, radical preacher and one of the earlier discoverers of oxygen; and Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the celebrated makers of engines and fortunes. Benjamin Franklin, too, kept up a correspondence with many of the regular members, and he may well have attended a Lunar meeting or two during the long years he spent in Britain as agent and ambassador.

As Uglow emphasises throughout the book, these were extraordinary people who lived in extraordinary times, and it is evident from their letters to one another that they were aware of it, too. “It may be my fate to be a kind of comet, or flaming meteor in science,” wrote Joseph Priestley in 1775, and some of the most revealing sections of “The Lunar Men” deal with the issues of self-image and self-promotion that began to emerge from the intensely entreprenurial cultures of Europe and North America. Many of Uglow’s Lunatics were publicists through and through, which is one of the reasons why they remain so accessible in the archives today. Take James Watt, for example, the great Scottish-born industrialist and manufacturer, whose greatest success lay in convincing the world that he had invented the steam engine. Anyone who has stubbed their toe on Watt’s larger-than-life marble statue that sprawls across the vestibule of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh (it’s far too big to be taken into the building) will have encountered something of the solid ambition of the man. Watt’s genius lay in recognising the possibilities of a century-old technology, and then in turning himself and his friends into its chief beneficiaries. He was, in some respects, the Bill Gates of the steam engine: not its inventor, but its leading patron and promoter.

But then this is how industry has always worked, and Uglow is at her best, both as a historian and a biographer, in tracing the complex networks of ideas and alliances that conspired to put inventions and, more specifically, patents, into one pair of hands and not another. Friendship and rivalry stalk these pages like the figures of virtues from a tapestry, while questions of priority—who was the first to discover or invent, whose name will go on to be remembered or forgotten?—fuelled the anxieties over money and reputation that smouldered away in the backgounds of these lives. “These men should not die,” as Erasmus Darwin once said about his friends, and his words are aptly quoted by Uglow, an author who does so much, and so well, to breathe new life into her subjects.

Admirers of Jenny Uglow’s previous book, “Hogarth,” will be familiar with her skill in illuminating ideas and artefacts from the past—in this case, eighteenth-century science and technology—by picturing them in their cultural, social and personal contexts. This approach is particularly well suited to the history of an activity as social as science, as is evident on every page of “The Lunar Men,” as well as in the work of what has now become a generation of like-minded historians. In fact “The Lunar Men” has a particularly illustrious predecessor in Robert E. Schofield’s “The Lunar Society of Birmingham,” a pioneering study that was first published in 1963 and hasn’t dated a bit. Schofield’s book, a milestone in the history of science, was one of the first major pieces of scholarship that explicitly attempted to account for the emergence of new ideas by framing them in their social and personal milieus. This approach has proved so influential that it is now hard to imagine how the history of ideas could be written in any other way. In fact, one of the many pleasures afforded by Uglow’s book is the realisation that it probably couldn’t.

Richard Hamblyn

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