In the midst of the French revolution, two scientists were charged by the revolutionary government to measure a quadrant of a meridian arc of the Earth. This universal length would then be the basis for a new measurement system, used today by over 95% of the world: the metric system. This seven-year adventure shows that tenacity, self-confidence and errors were part of the building of early science.
Some years ago Ken Alder, professor of history of science at Northwestern University (Illinois, near Chicago), got hold of the written notebooks of the two men. He found one at the Observatory of Paris and the second in a library in Utah after a long and complex tracking of the archive long presumed lost. In his book «The Measure of All Things » published in 2004, he relates a historical journey and scientific discoveries through the men’s lives, showing what a human adventure science is. Alder also demonstrates that social context matters to science and that history can set a new way of understanding and questioning the present.
In 1792 Jean-Baptiste Delambre and Pierre Méchain, two renowned astronomers, were sent from Paris in opposite directions to measure the width of the Earth. Indeed, the freshly created revolutionary government of France had commissioned them to precisely measure that piece of meridian arc which ran from Dunkirk through Paris to Barcelona. Why? To reform the unit of length “for all people, for all time.” Its ambitions were to reform the world the French people were living in, with the goal of freeing them from the monarchy. Money, calendar, even the seven-day week and the 60-minute hour were modified. They also needed a unifying unit of length to harmonize the measurement systems, but also to free the trade market. “The people depended on the man that calculated how much they were buying and selling. Condorcet is believed to have said about the meter that: [quote] « the people will not be free as long as they cannot calculate. » Indeed as much as 250, 000 units of weight and length were used: the foot, the point, the inch, the lign, the perch… Some of them even differed between provinces, mostly to fit the lord of the land’s interests. Hence most of the “cahier de doléances” (lists of hopes and grievances drawn up by each village of France to the King) would ask for a global unit of length.
Thus, the mission of the two astronomers was important. Alder’s book describes the journey of the two men, their difficulties, their encounters… He describes this story with a human point of view. Indeed human obstacles were the harder to overcome. As the two men climbed domed volcanoes, churches and cathedral towers with bizarre instruments, they were imprisoned as spies, royalists and sorcerers. Méchain also got severely injured. But the most surprising (unexpected) fact occurred when the latter got trapped in Spain when it declared war on France (Mars 7th, 1793). During his imprisonment, he remeasured the latitude of Barcelona. But his second set of data didn’t fit the first. He was never able to make this measurement again. This man of integrity became completely distressed by this mismatch. A mistake that would torture him to the brink of madness so that he would neither finish the task he had been given nor would he hand in his results.
« Méchain possessed no conceptual tool to evaluate scientific errors. He did know that measurements were never perfect but at the time people could not even make a distinction between precision and accuracy. He thought that he’d made a mistake that was almost a moral failure, » explains Alder. In the end he handed in his first set of results but kept the second one secret. And the meter was calculated as a certain fraction (one ten millionth) of the distance between the North Pole and the equator*. This was done by the largest committee of world-leader scientists – Laplace, Legendre, Lagrange etc– and maybe the first international scientific congress. A platinum meter was then fabricated to be the basis for a universal length system. After the revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to have said about the meter that: “Conquests will come and go but this work will endure.”
The error Méchain might have made would never have been discovered but for a small note written by hand by Delambre in Méchain’s notebook after the latter’s death. “Delambre, Alder explains, wrote in the margin that he chose one of the versions of Méchain’s data and that we would not tell the public what it didn’t need to know.” “Because after all, does it matter if it is wrong? And can the meter be wrong? ”
Knowing this, one could conclude that the two men’s journey had been useless. But from the actual point of view that Alder’s book gives us, it appears that many scientific developments date back to this period and are related to this event. Scientists realized that the Earth was not a perfect sphere and that it was smaller than they thought.
When the notebook of the late Méchain arrived in Paris, Delambre faced a dilemma. But, in the meantime, mathematicians like Legendre and Gauss had developed new ways to treat data, like the “least square method of approximation” for example. The expedition to measure the Earth, therefore, emphasized the importance of the scientific method at a time when statistics did not even exist. It showed great scientific results and was an efficient political tool. It changed how the people thought and it opened an area of for a free-trade market.
Alder recalls: “In 1999 NASA’s Mars climate Orbiter crashed, apparently because two teams working on the project had used different length units and the error checking system failed to detect this.” Since 1983, the meter has been defined as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second ” but it is still 0.2 millimeter short of one ten millionth of the quadrant of a meridian arc. But a scientific discovery is never as simple as it sounds. It is built upon errors and approximations. And remembering this, one could consider that all we think is standard and reliable may not be so, nor has it always been.
Ken Alder’s book has been translated to many languages including French (see below). It has won several prizes and received highly positive evaluations from History of Science societies and from newspaper book reviews.
* In the end, the scientists chose to use 50-year-old measurements of a longer meridian. Because if the Earth is not spherical and all meridians are different, then the longer the measurement, the more precise and the better the approximation.
To know more: Un historique du mètre https://metrologie-francaise.lne.fr/fr/metrologie/histoire-des-unites#:~:text=Le%2026%20mars%201791%20naissait,aucun%20peuple%20sur%20le%20globe%20%22. Prologue of the book http://www.kenalder.com/measure/excerpts.htm