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Posts Tagged ‘measurement

“Nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement”*…

… and, as Christie Aschwanden explains in her consideration of James Vincent‘s new book, Beyond Measure, that progress has been hard won– and has had cultural consequence…

… [Swiss meteorologist Jean-André de Luc] set out to find the true boiling point of water, but instead of finding a single answer to the question, de Luc instead found “only a multitude of phenomena forced into homogeneity by this single, restrictive term,” Vincent writes. (Scientists eventually turned to the steam produced by boiling water as a more reliable measure of temperature.)

And so it has gone with many types of measurements, Vincent observes. “The quest for precision — the desire to burrow ever more closely into the weft of reality — unveils only irregularity on a far greater scale.” The same might be said of science writ large, and Vincent’s recounting of the development of some science’s most well-used measures are classic tales in the history of scientific discovery. The meter, for instance, was originally intended as a unit of distance based on the Earth’s meridian until careful surveys showed that these meridians weren’t as perfect and unchanging as previously believed.

“Beyond Measure”offers engrossing accounts of the role that measurement has played in scientific progress, including its roles in medicine, math, and quantum mechanics, but the book is about much more than science. Vincent also presents a deep history of measurement’s role in society. “Measurement is not an intrinsic feature of the world, but a practice invented and imposed by humanity,” he writes.

Throughout human history, measurement has often provided a means for exerting power. For instance, the Roman Empire created a method for measuring land called the centuriatio that divided territory into grids. The system “not only simplified property rights and tax collection,” but also provided a way to portion out farmland to veterans and make roads amenable for marching troops, Vincent writes: “The survey, in other words, helped fund, direct, and reward Rome’s imperial war machine.”…

How the quest to quantify has shaped scientific progress and human society: “The Surpisingly Imprecise History of Measurement“- @cragcrest on @jjvincent in @undarkmag.

[Image above: source]

* Lord Kelvin


As we contemplate quantification, we might send carefully-measured birthday greetings to Malcolm Purcell McLean; he was born on this date in 1914. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth”*…

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves…

The discipline of measurement developed for millennia… Around 6,000 years ago, the first standardised units were deployed in river valley civilisations such as ancient Egypt, where the cubit was defined by the length of the human arm, from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and used to measure out the dimensions of the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the task of regulating measurement to facilitate trade was both privilege and burden for rulers: a means of exercising power over their subjects, but a trigger for unrest if neglected. As the centuries passed, units multiplied, and in 18th-century France there were said to be some 250,000 variant units in use, leading to the revolutionary demand: “One king, one law, one weight and one measure.”

It was this abundance of measures that led to the creation of the metric system by French savants. A unit like the metre – defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole – was intended not only to simplify metrology, but also to embody political ideals. Its value and authority were derived not from royal bodies, but scientific calculation, and were thus, supposedly, equal and accessible to all. Then as today, units of measurement are designed to create uniformity across time, space and culture; to enable control at a distance and ensure trust between strangers. What has changed since the time of the pyramids is that now they often span the whole globe.

Despite their abundance, international standards like those mandated by NIST and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are mostly invisible in our lives. Where measurement does intrude is via bureaucracies of various stripes, particularly in education and the workplace. It’s in school that we are first exposed to the harsh lessons of quantification – where we are sorted by grade and rank and number, and told that these are the measures by which our future success will be gauged…

A fascinating survey of the history of measurement, and a consideration of its consequences: “Made to measure: why we can’t stop quantifying our lives,” from James Vincent (@jjvincent) in @guardian, an excerpt from his new book Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.

And for a look at what it takes to perfect one of the most fundamental of those measures, see Jeremy Bernstein‘s “The Kilogram.”

* “I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth. Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body lies here.” – Epitaph Johannes Kepler composed for himself a few months before he died


As we get out the gauge, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes– and was foundational in the acceleration of the scientific/rationalist commitment to measurement…


Happy Juneteenth!

“It may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve”*…

But sometimes it takes lots of ingenuity… and often, a great deal of time…

The United States National Security Agency—the country’s premier signals intelligence organization—recently declassified a Cold War-era document about code-breaking.

The 1977 book, written by cryptologist Lambros Callimahos, is the last in a trilogy called Military Cryptanalytics. It’s significant in the history of cryptography, as it explains how to break all types of codes, including military codes, or puzzles—which are created solely for the purpose of a challenge.

The first two parts of the trilogy were published publicly in the 1980s and covered solving well-known types of classical cipher. But in 1992, the US Justice Department claimed releasing the third book could harm national security by revealing the NSA’s “code-breaking prowess“. It was finally released in December last year. 

A key part of Callimahos’s book is a chapter titled Principles of Cryptodiagnosis, which describes a systematic three-step approach to solving a message encrypted using an unknown method… 

See how those three steps work at “Declassified Cold War code-breaking manual has lessons for solving ‘impossible’ puzzles.”

* Edgar Allan Poe


As we ponder puzzles, we might send intelligent birthday greetings to Alfred Binet; he was born on this date in 1857. A psychologist, he invented the first practical IQ test, the Binet–Simon test (in response to a request from the French Ministry of Education to devise a method to identify students needing remedial help).


“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”*…

… so, how we measure it matters…

In 2015, Greece, Thailand, Israel, and the UK were equally unequal. That is, all four countries had the same Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality.

The number suggests that the spread of incomes in the four nations was the same. However, a close look at the poorest and wealthiest in those societies reveals a very different picture. The ratio between income held by the richest 10% and the poorest 10% ranged significantly, from 13.8 in Greece to 4.2 in the UK. 

The fact is, just because the Gini coefficient is so well known doesn’t mean it’s a particularly useful measurement. Its appeal comes from its simplicity—a number between 0 and 1 that can encapsulate a complex distribution in a single figure—as well as its popularity. It is also regularly published and updated by powerful international organizations like the OECD, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund

However, it has a number of serious limitations. So many, in fact, that the World Inequality Database, one of the world’s leading sources of income inequality data, steers clear. And it’s not alone. While some economists defend the Gini coefficient’s continued use, most agree that as a way to understand income inequality, it’s insufficient on its own…

A primer on the dominant measure of economic inequality, and on some alternatives/supplements to it: “Gini coefficient: An introduction.”

* Plutarch


As we aim to understand, we might note that today is the Summer Solstice, the day on which the earth’s north pole is maximally tilted toward sun, and there are more hours of daylight than on any other day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, it is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day). The June solstice is the only day of the year when all locations inside the Arctic Circle experience a continuous period of daylight for 24 hours. And perhaps more immediately, it is the “official” start of Summer.

(The 21st is the traditional date; in the event, the solstice falls on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd– this year, on the 20th… still, the traditional date is the one folks tend to mark.)

Not coincidentally, today is also National Daylight Appreciation Day.


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