Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants (Hardcover)
A New Yorker Best Book of 2022
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.
About the Author
James Vincent is a senior reporter for the Verge, the Vox Media site devoted to technology and society. He has also written for the London Review of Books, Financial Times, and Wired. He lives in London.
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
Phenomenal…[B]risk and constantly surprising as it makes clear that all measurements derive from human choices and are thus inherently fallible. This one shouldn't be missed.
— Publishers Weekly (starred)
An engaging book written with intelligence, self-awareness, and wit.
— Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating…[A]s an account of the lengths humanity has gone to in the name of measurement, this quirky history is inch-perfect.
— Chris Allnutt - Financial Times
A wildly ambitious book by a formidably talented young writer.
— Robert Macfarlane, bestselling author of Underland
Beyond Measure offers, with much intellectual flair and style, a bracing new history.
— Pankaj Mishra, bestselling author of From the Ruins of Empire
The exact value of this book is hard to quantify. Weighty, precise and satisfyingly obsessive, it’s also an absolute pleasure to read.
— Simon Garfield, bestselling author of The Timekeepers and Just My Type
Vivid, epic, and full of curiosities. This is a book to delight and fascinate.
— Tim Harford, author of How to Make the World Add Up
An epic story about humankind’s relationship with the physical world. James Vincent is an erudite and perceptive guide, who with energy and skill weaves history, science and reportage into an enthralling tale.
— Alex Bellos, author of Patterns of the Universe
Delightful…One of those books that makes us look afresh at the whole of modern civilization.
— Graham Farmelo, author of The Universe Speaks in Numbers