Beyond Measure (History of Measurement)

Beyond Measure (History of Measurement)

Author
James Vincent
Year
2022
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Review

A significant aspect of my job involves defining success, selecting metrics, and measures. I am always on the lookout for anything that can help improve my understanding of how to measure things. Although this book provides a good overview of the history of measurement, I was hoping for a more practical guide to measurement in the modern-era. While there were parts of the history lesson that I enjoyed, the density of insights was not enough to justify the investment for me.

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Key Takeaways

The 20% that gave me 80% of the value.

  • Measurement provides the mechanism for science, statistics and statecraft
  • To measure is to focus on a single attribute
  • Three crucial properties that units of measurement must posses:
    • Accessibility → you can’t measure something if you can’t find your measuring standard
    • Proportionality → no one wants to measure mountains with matchsticks
    • Consistency → unexpected variation ruins utility
  • To be trusted they need to be traced - to ensure they have not been altered (traceability is important too)
  • Elastic units are viewed as primitive - but they seem sophisticated to me. Rich in information, context dependent (shrinking and expanding).
  • Replacing units is so disruptive, that often it has to be done alongside other big changes in regime (e.g. the French revolution). Political stability can help unify measures (e.g. The Roman Empire).
  • People embrace measurement for it’s utility (in tasks like construction and trade) and to create shared expectations and rules (validation helps with trust)
  • Many early forms of measurement were based on body parts. Always available at always at human scale. E.g. feet, cubit (forearm), vepsen (cupped hands), pinch, mouthful
  • Bronze Age merchants regulated units without a state by using each meeting as an opportunity to compare and adjust their weights
  • The splitting of noun and number was the beginning of written language and data (what the things is + how much there is)
  • The metric system was a big moment. The goal to base measures on the impersonal and incorruptible, the earth itself.
    • The metre would be a fraction of the planet’s meridian, an imaginary line running from the North Pole to the South
    • The kilogram would be defined as the weight of 1,000 cubic centimetres of water.
    • They were meant to be the weights and measures for all times and for all people
  • The second, the metre and the kilogram are now based on the frequency of caesium, the speed of light and Plank’s Constant.
  • Official definitions have changed over time…
  • The history of the Metre
    1. 1793 Defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator
    2. As measured by a 7 year project to measure the planet based on a land survey between Paris and Barcelona.
      • Used the Euclidean principle that if you know the three angles of a triangle and the length of one side, you can calculate the length of the other two. They used readings from high vantage points, connected all of them to calculate the full distance between their baselines
      • Satellite surveys show the measurement of the meridian wasn’t right. The metre of the archives is actually 0.2 millimetres short. A mistake that has been perpetuated in every metre ever since
    3. 1799 replaced by the metre bar (at the council of the ancients)
    4. 1960 replaced by a number of wavelengths of krpyton-86
    5. 1983 replaced by the distance light travels in 1/299792458th of a second
    6. 2019 definition now includes a definition of the second as based on caesium frequency
    The history of the Kilogram
    1. 1795 the mass of one litre of water
    2. 1799 replaced by physical forged platinum object (Kilogramme des Archives)
    3. 1889 replaced by physical forged platinum and iridium (International prototype of the Kilogramme)
      • kept under lock and key at BIPM in Paris
      • BIPM = the international organisation established by the Metre Convention
        • home of the International System of Units (SI)
        • and the international reference time scale (UTC)
    4. 2019 replaced and defined by three fundamental physical constants…
      • Caesium frequency (time/second)
      • ‘Speed of Light’ & ‘Caesium Frequency’ (length)
      • ‘Speed of Light’ & ‘Caesium Frequency’ & ‘Planck’s constant’ (mass/energy)
    • Defines the kilogram by defining the Plank Constant to be exactly 6.62607015×10−34  kg⋅m2(squared)⋅s−1 → effectively defining the kilogram in terms of the second and the metre.
    • Plank Constant
      • A photon is the smallest discrete unit of energy (in the physical world)
      • It’s a kind of bottom, the smallest increment of energy / mass there is
  • The three qualities of the metric system
    1. Interconnection. Capacity unit → constructed of length unit → filled with water gives weight unit
    2. Decimal.
    3. Greek and Latin prefixes to denote multiples and fractions (e.g. Kilo = 1000, cent = 0.01)
  • The Kg needed it’s own constant. Planck’s constant: h.
    • The speed of light can’t be exceeded.
    • Planck’s constant can’t be ‘subceeded’. It describes the smallest action possible for elementary particles.
      • Photons occur in discrete units, their energy isn’t infinitely variable, it’s discrete and Planck’s constant defines the distance between those rung
      • Planck’s constant can be measured through using many different methods. One of these methods was used to redefine the kilogram, the Kibble balance.
      • A normal balance weighs one object against another. The Kibble balance weighs an object against an electromagnetic force (with extreme precision). Needs to be operated in a vacuum and you have to factor the Moon’s location.
    • E = mc2, shows that mass can be measured in terms of energy as long as we know the speed of light (universe scale)
    • E = hν, shows that energy can then be measured in terms of frequency, a feature of all electromagnetic waves, as long as we know h, Planck’s constant (quantum scale)
    • You can combine them to m = hf/c2 → defining mass from frequency, Planck’s constant and the speed of light. This equation is how the Kibble balance calculates a kilogram’s weight in terms of electrical forces
    • The Kibble balance is expensive and hard to operate. It’s not easy to recreate the Kg from first principles
  • Measurements don’t only benefit from authority, they can create it. Statecraft is about deploying tools of measurement and legibility to better understand and control your citizens. Think land boundaries and taxes.
    • A survey can shrink a huge amount of land - so it can fit in a single mind.
    • The Romans divided Europe into grids, simplifying property rights and taxation
    • England’s Gunter’s chain was used by Cromwell to survey Ireland and Thomas Jefferson to survey the US. The measurement of land is often a prerequisite to conquest.
  • Gunters Chain. Simple but powerful
    • 66 feet (100 links, the 10th of each was brass)
    • Durable and collapsible
    • Combined base 4 units with with decimal making it easy to measure a…
      • furlong (10 chains)
      • miles (8 furlongs, or 80 chains)
      • acres (1 chain by 1 furlong, or 10x10 chains square)
    • Used for 300 years
    • Two men. One would strike the end into the ground, the other would walk ahead while being directed to keep straighy
  • Measurement and quantification underpinned the scientific revolution. Better telescopes revealed discrepancies. Myths have been banished
  • Statistics unlocked the power of measurement in aggregate
  • A fundamental trap of measurement → the more precise you are, the more inconsistent your results often appear to be
  • Mayer argued that errors didn’t have to compound, instead they could cancel one another out. The approach was called… ‘the combination of observations’ an early label for statistics. Transmuting error into accuracy.
  • Peirce argued in the ‘Illustrations of the Logic of Science’ that the ‘method of science’ is the only secure path to knowledge in the world. All tastes go in and out of fashion. The only thing that produces reliable data, he thought, was experiment and observation. He believed in ‘fallibilism’. There are no facts in life that are beyond doubt. That we can be sure of nothing in science is an ancient truth
  • Booth’s work revealed that 33 per cent of the capital’s population lived in poverty. Statistics spurred social reform.
  • The discovery of regression and correlation have allowed scientists to draw conclusions from aggregate data that couldn’t have been found otherwise. They amplify the power of relatively shallow measurements, allowing us to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.
  • Blackboxing is when technical work is made invisible by its own success.
    • Only the input and output of the work remain. Everything else is hidden by the black box.
    • Enhances the authority of science, removes mess so results of research seem definitive and clean
    • It also obscures criticism of the scientific process and hides controversial or arbitrary decisions.
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Deep Summary

Longer form notes, typically condensed, reworded and de-duplicated.

Fundamentals of Measurement

  • Measurement provides the mechanism for
    • observation, experimentation and learning (science and the scientific method)
    • recording the past and predicting the future (statistics)
    • coordinating effort and enabling collaboration (industry and statecraft)
  • To measure is to choose; to focus your attention on a single attribute and exclude all others
  • Measurement is invented and imposed by humanity. The conditions of the natural world make consistency and inelasticity hard to achieve
  • Measurement is an abstraction (tally from object)
  • Measurement is unquestionably a tool of control and, as a result, has been used throughout history to manipulate, persecute, and oppress
    • Survey in the US, Ireland used to take land
    • Measuring IQ of migrants and eugenics
  • Measurement reinforces what we find important, what’s worth paying attention to.
  • Three crucial properties that units of measurement must posses:
    • Accessibility → you can’t measure something if you can’t find your measuring standard
    • Proportionality → no one wants to measure mountains with matchsticks
    • Consistency → unexpected variation ruins utility
  • Verifying the value of a standard this way is referred to by modern metrologists as ‘traceability’
    • Units of measure need to be trusted - to be trusted they need to be traced - to ensure they have not been altered
  • Communities find it hard to trade without shared units.
  • Variable or elastic measures create room for corruption and exploitation. Sometimes they can be helpful
    • Farmland has a history of being sized in labour units that adapt to the quality of terrain
    • E.g. An area that would take a day to plough or tend. An Ouvrée (vineyards) is smaller than a Journal (grains) - because vineyards take more work.
    • An English furlong used to the distance that could be covered by a team of oxen before they needed to rest.
      • Land-work units inflate in size overtime as agricultural efficiency marches on
    • Elastic units are viewed as primitive - but they seem sophisticated to me
      • Rich in information, context dependent (shrinking and expanding)
      • Understanding how much land could be ploughed in a day was useful

      Definitions of measurements were really important. If not precise, there’s room for exploitation

    • Tightly controlled. Pouring height, shaken or pressed down, heaped or striked.
      • A heap can add 50%
      • Each imprecision was a chance for exploitation
      • 18th century peasants wanted lords to be stripped of authority over weights and measures
  • Replacing units is so disruptive, that often it has to be done alongside other big changes in regime (e.g. the French revolution). Political stability can help unify measures (e.g. The Roman Empire).
  • People embrace measurement for
    • It’s utility (in tasks like construction and trade)
    • to create shared expectations and rules (validation helps with trust)

History of Measurement

  • Tally sticks (notches on animal bones) are one of the earliest signs of measurement, dated as early as 33,000 years ago
Mesopotamia (writing and currency)
  • Created independently thousands of years ago in a number of different cultures… Mesopotamia (Iraq) , Mesoamerica (Mexico), China, and Egypt.
  • Probably invented first in Iraq
    • The adoption of agriculture made cities possible for the first time
    • Used clay tokens as currency (from 7500 BC)
    • Tokens had different meanings (based on commodities)
    • There became too many of them
    • Clay containers (called Bullae) were made to house multiples 3500 BC
    • Then three massive leaps happened:
      • Markings were put on the outside to note what was inside
      • The 2d markings we put onto tablets (the balls now redundant)
      • Used different signs for signify the item being counted from the quantity itself
        • What the things is + How much of it there is
        • the splitting of noun and number (made states possible)
      • Mesopotamian → Babylonians → Assyrians
      • By 2500BC it was a full writing system
      • Huge libraries of receipts, contracts, shopping lists =, wage slips, land deeds and tax returns have been found
  • From this point many lexical lists were written
    • Tablets that list different classes of objects like the index of the encyclopedia
      • Aristotle → ‘Categories’
      • Onomasticon (Egypt 1000BC) → lists all 610 known things
Ancient Egypt (floods and cubits)
  • 3000 bc Egyptians used ‘Nilometers’ to gauge the depths of the Nile’s floodwaters each year.
    • Nilometers were giant rules carved into buildings within reach of the Nile’s waters
      • the scales were marked in cubits (length of forearm, invented by Egyptians)
      • hundreds across the country
    • The water level readings could forecast the year’s harvest (from famine to excess)
    • The readings would determine the release of food reserves and setting of taxes
  • The nilometers measured the favour of the gods
  • The cubit measuring rods were among the world’s first standardised units of measurement
    • Carved from stone and wood, with intervals for palms and fingers
    • Certified by a central authority
    • Found in tombs (foldable versions found too)
  • Egyptians had a dual-calendar system:
    • Civic calendar: Three 120 day seasons based on the flooding of the Nile. Five additional days added on and given as holidays to labourers
Ancient Rome (standards)
  • Units of length were carved as stone incisions into the walls of churches
  • Pompeii shows tables with inset basins representing different units
  • Officials could then check their standards by inserting them into these spaces
  • While an object can be manipulated, a void is incorruptible
Old Quirky Units
  • 1305 → King Edward II → ‘three grains of barley, dry and round make an inch’
    • The difference between shoe sizes is 1/3 of an inch or one barleycorn
  • 1150 → King David I of Scotland → an inch as the thumb-length, taken as the average of three men (large, average and little)
  • Weight of precious stones are measured in carats (derivation is seeds from the Middle Eastern carob tree)
  • Distances beyond body span
    • A stone’s throw
    • Distance you can hear someone shout
    • Coconuts consumed moving from one side of an atoll to another (also told you something about the supplies you’d need for the trip) - used in the Indian Ocean
  • Lack of consistency in measurements resulted in many disputes - people demanded more consistency
  • Bronze Age merchants regulated units without a state by using each meeting as an opportunity to compare and adjust their weights
  • Many early forms of measurement were based on body parts. Always available at always at human scale. E.g. feet, cubit (forearm), vepsen (cupped hands), pinch, mouthful
    • Farming and navigation though required units larger than body parts. Many of these were elastic in value. For example a collop was the amount of land needed to graze a cow (lush areas had smaller collops)
Calendars and date time
  • In the middle ages time (hours) used to be temporal vary with the seasons (from 38 minutes to 82 in London)
  • People didn’t think of the hour as a consistent measure (there were no seconds or minutes
  • It took the invention of the mechanical clock to change it
    • for the first time - the world didn’t run on human time
  • In the 1300s Mechanical clocks became popular in towns shortly after their invention
    • They were public utilities → huge, expensive → often used bells instead of hands and faces
    • time became quantified, divisible, discrete, and measurable
    • clocks allowed the synchronising of the actions of men
  • The second is now defined by the vibrational frequency of an atom of caesium-133 - 9,192,631,770 shudders measure the duration of a single second
  • The republic revolution tried to make time decimal in 1793
    • A new 12 months calendar was introduced with three 10 day weeks
    • Days had 10 hours → Hours had 100 minutes → Minutes had 100 seconds. 100l seconds a day
    • To get 100k seconds into a day the second had to shrink by 14%
    • The calendar didn’t take hold, the traditional calendars stayed in use and decimal time was was abandoned two years after its introduction
Temperature (and Caloric theory)
  • Anders Celsius created a temperature scale that anchored to the boiling and freezing point of water (stable thermometric markers). There were 30 competing scales at the time.
  • The paradox of thermometry: How do you test the reliability of a thermometer without already possessing a reliable thermometer?
  • Steam from boiling water was a more stable marker than the boiling point itself which relied on many factors
  • Caloric theory was still a thing in the 18th century.
    • It was thought to be an invisible substance of the same name that flowed through matter.
    • Elastic, subtle, weightless, fluid and self-repelling → which was why if flowed from hot to cold and metal expanded when heated.
  • Mayer and Joule independently worked on what would become the first law of thermodynamics. Conservation of energy (energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed) showed heat and motion are capable of being changed back and forth (something caloric theory did not allow).
  • The molecular motion of atoms that ultimately constituted heat.
  • In 1865, Clausius captured this new science with brutal economy, as the two laws of thermodynamics:
    1. The energy of the universe is constant
    2. The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum
  • Thomson identified the concept of absolute zero, if heat was the motion of atoms → the total absence of motion (energy) there would be an ‘absolute zero’.
    • Lord Kelvin created a scale with zero set as absolute zero which is about -273°C
Modern Society and Measurement
There are over 1200 standard reference materials created by NIST to meet the demands of industry and government (including peanut butter)
  • The SRM catalogue is at hand when something needs to be verified, certified or calibrated.
    • Concrete, iron, spinach, peanut butter.
    • SRM #1196: the standard cigarette. Used by laboratories to test the flammability of fabrics and upholstery
    • Offering sameness as a service (homogeneity and predictability of contents)
  • SRMs can also be used for calibration, a benchmark to verify other tests.
    • Creating uniformity across time, space, and culture
    • Standardising metal alloys led to a reduction in rail fatalities as quality of cast iron train wheels could be checked
Managerial oversight comes in the form of KPIs and OKRs. Work is judged primarily by a few statistics
  • Principle: any human endeavour can be usefully reduced to a set of statistics
  • Transparency and accountability of measured performance
  • Measurement isn’t a bad thing, an obsession with measurement above all else will distort, distract, and destroy what we claim to value. Excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement – not metrics, but metric fixation.
  • 10,000 steps a day originated from a Japanese pedometer company who named their device after 10,000 steps because the Japanese character looks like a figure walking. No science, just a visual pun.
  • Technology is becoming more about mining data and using it to make the world a better place. Surveillance capitalism = free services in exchange for data.
    • What’s the end game? China’s digital surveillance and social credit system is a little worrying. Records behaviour → classifies as good or bad → rewards or punishes. A single score can determine certain privileges and restrictions.
Too much measurement?
  • Taylorism (analysing working practices through ‘time and motion studies’) observe people working and break down the flow of their work so it could then be standardised.
    • Transfer of power from workers to managers
    • Industrial revolution
  • US forces shifted their focus to anything that could be counted. Dollars spent, firepower amassed and enemies killed.
    • A focus on efficiency in WWII lead to the firebombing of Tokyo, a single raid killed 100k civilians
    • A fixation on body counts in Vietnam led to competition and quotas. Terrible tactics emerged: free-fire zones, ‘enemy unless proven otherwise’, adding civilians to the count
      • ‘We shoot the sick, the young, the lame… We do our best to kill and maim… Because the kills count all the same… Napalm sticks to kids.’
  • Attributing everything to a ‘metric fixation’ is an over-simplification, savagery has far deeper roots.

The Metric System

  • The metric system was created alongside the French Revolution 1793. The most significant moment in the history of measurement. Using the metric system showed allegiance to the cause of the revolution.
  • It was an attempt to base units on something impersonal and incorruptible, the earth itself
    • The metre would be a fraction of the planet’s meridian, an imaginary line running from the North Pole to the South
    • The kilogram would be defined as the weight of 1,000 cubic centimetres of water.
    • They were meant to be the weights and measures for all times and for all people
  • Napoleonic conquests spread the metric system
    • ‘Conquests will come and go but this work will endure’ Napoleon Bonaparte
  • The second, the metre and the kilogram are now based on the frequency of caesium, the speed of light and Plank’s Constant.
  • Although the official definitions have changed over time…
  • The history of the Metre
    1. 1793 Defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator
    2. As measured by a 7 year project to measure the planet based on a land survey between Paris and Barcelona.
      • Used the Euclidean principle that if you know the three angles of a triangle and the length of one side, you can calculate the length of the other two. They used readings from high vantage points, connected all of them to calculate the full distance between their baselines
      • Satellite surveys show the measurement of the meridian wasn’t right. The metre of the archives is actually 0.2 millimetres short. A mistake that has been perpetuated in every metre ever since
    3. 1799 replaced by the metre bar (at the council of the ancients)
    4. 1960 replaced by a number of wavelengths of krpyton-86
    5. 1983 replaced by the distance light travels in 1/299792458th of a second
    6. 2019 definition now includes a definition of the second as based on caesium frequency
    The history of the Kilogram
    1. 1795 the mass of one litre of water
    2. 1799 replaced by physical forged platinum object (Kilogramme des Archives)
    3. 1889 replaced by physical forged platinum and iridium (International prototype of the Kilogramme)
      • kept under lock and key at BIPM in Paris
      • BIPM = the international organisation established by the Metre Convention
        • home of the International System of Units (SI)
        • and the international reference time scale (UTC)
    4. 2019 replaced and defined by three fundamental physical constants…
      • Caesium frequency (time/second)
      • ‘Speed of Light’ & ‘Caesium Frequency’ (length)
      • ‘Speed of Light’ & ‘Caesium Frequency’ & ‘Planck’s constant’ (mass/energy)
    • Defines the kilogram by defining the Plank Constant to be exactly 6.62607015×10−34  kg⋅m2(squared)⋅s−1 → effectively defining the kilogram in terms of the second and the metre.
    • Plank Constant
      • A photon is the smallest discrete unit of energy (in the physical world)
      • It’s a kind of bottom, the smallest increment of energy / mass there is
  • The three qualities of the metric system
    1. Interconnection. Capacity unit → constructed of length unit → filled with water gives weight unit
    2. Decimal.
    3. Greek and Latin prefixes to denote multiples and fractions.
      • Kilo = 1000, cent = 0.01, demi = 0.5, myra =10,000
The republic revolution unsuccessfully tried to make time decimal too in 1793
  • A new 12 months calendar was introduced with three 10 day weeks
  • Days had 10 hours → Hours had 100 minutes → Minutes had 100 seconds. 100l seconds a day
  • To get 100k seconds into a day the second had to shrink by 14%
  • The calendar didn’t take hold, the traditional calendars stayed in use and decimal time was was abandoned two years after its introduction
Metric and Brexit
  • In 2000 an Englishman was charged for selling fruit in pounds and ounces, setting a legal precedent that established the supremacy of EU law over UK legislation in certain areas.
    • Farage and others jumped on it, creating more support for Brexit project
    • In 2007 the EU told the UK it could use imperial measures wherever it liked
  • Thomas Jefferson called the metric system unworkable (as it was based on the French meridian)
  • Changing units is hard, it often happens in times of social upheaval, such as conquest or revolution
  • The UK and US were slow to adopt metric units largely because their economies were booming they had little incentive. Despite not fully adopting metric, both the US and UK passed laws protecting it’s use in industry and provided conversion tables (in1864-1866)
  • Imperial units were better for working class tradespeople (easily divisible). Metric units were better for intellectuals and statecraft (for statistics etc). But easily divisible units are now less relevant in a world of pre-packaged groceries
    • Base 12 or 16 make dividing things into thirds and quarters easy. Think of it as dividing a pizza into quarters or eighths, but ten slices?
  • Measurements based on the body aren’t precise but they were always at hand.
  • The metric system is made up, but so is everything else.
  • When the KG was defined as a piece of metal stored in Paris, if you chip a piece off every set of scales in the world would need to be recalibrated.
    • In 1988 it became known the mass of the IPK was diverging from that of the témoins and national standards. But by global agreement, whatever the object weighed is a kilogram. It can’t lose weight, everything else gets a tiny bit heavier instead. Which is why it had to go
  • The goal of the modern metrologist is to create measurements that are à tous les temps, à tous les peuples – for all times and for all people
    • The metre was first defined as a fraction of the Earth’s meridian and the kilogram as the weight of a cubic decimetre of water.
    • The metric system is now defined using fundamental constants of nature
      • The metre is equal to the distance travelled by light in 1/299,792,458th of a second.
      • The second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 radioactive cycles of an atom of caesium-133.5
  • In theory laboratories can re-define the units from scratch
  • Michelson set out to prove one of the era’s commonly accepted truths: the existence of the ‘luminiferous ether’, a theoretical medium through which light was supposed to travel, just as waves of water travel through the ocean.
    • He split a beam of light, before recombining it into a single beam. The wavelengths would line up perfectly if they travelled at the same speed. If ether existed, it would create a crosswise drag as the Earth orbited the sun (ether wind). The experiment proved ether wasn’t a thing.
  • 1960 a metre was defined as ‘the length equal to 1650763.73 times the wavelengths in a vacuum’ of the light emitted by a krypton lamp.
  • 1983 a metre was defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second’.
    • Made possible by Einstein establishing the speed of light as a constant throughout the universe
  • The metre is defined using the speed of light, which is itself defined by the metre.
  • The Kg needed it’s own constant. Planck’s constant: h.
    • The speed of light can’t be exceeded.
    • Planck’s constant can’t be ‘subceeded’. It describes the smallest action possible for elementary particles.
      • Photons occur in discrete units, their energy isn’t infinitely variable, it’s discrete and Planck’s constant defines the distance between those rung
      • Planck’s constant can be measured through using many different methods. One of these methods was used to redefine the kilogram, the Kibble balance.
      • A normal balance weighs one object against another. The Kibble balance weighs an object against an electromagnetic force (with extreme precision). Needs to be operated in a vacuum and you have to factor the Moon’s location.
    • E = mc2, shows that mass can be measured in terms of energy as long as we know the speed of light (universe scale)
    • E = hν, shows that energy can then be measured in terms of frequency, a feature of all electromagnetic waves, as long as we know h, Planck’s constant (quantum scale)
    • You can combine them to m = hf/c2 → defining mass from frequency, Planck’s constant and the speed of light. This equation is how the Kibble balance calculates a kilogram’s weight in terms of electrical forces
    • The Kibble balance is expensive and hard to operate. It’s not easy to recreate the Kg from first principles

Surveys and Statecraft.

  • Measurements don’t only benefit from authority, they can create it. Statecraft is about deploying tools of measurement and legibility to better understand and control your citizens. Think land boundaries and taxes.
    • The simplicity of a survey, the oversight and control of the government
    • Many developed ways of marking land boundaries
    • A survey can shrink a huge amount of land - so it can fit in a single mind. The immensity of the Earth can suddenly be easily seen and understood; that is the power of these systems.
  • Older surveys relied on monumentation (use of landmarks) to decide boundaries. An old British ceremony ‘beat the bounds’ helped pass on geographic knowledge of local boundaries before maps
  • The Romans divided Europe into grids with a tool known as a Groma (right angled cross with a string and weight on each corner)
    • The grid simplified property rights and tax collection
    • The grid helped straighten roads for marching legions
16th century → England → Gunter’s chain
  • 66 feet (100 links, the 10th of each was brass)
  • Durable and collapsible
  • Combined base 4 units with with decimal making it easy to measure a…
    • furlong (10 chains)
    • miles (8 furlongs, or 80 chains)
    • acres (1 chain by 1 furlong, or 10x10 chains square)
  • Used for 300 years
  • Two men. One would strike the end into the ground, the other would walk ahead while being directed to keep straight
  • 17th century Ireland - Oliver Cromwell used the Downs Survey to reduce catholic land ownership
18th century America → The Public Land Survey System (e.g. Thomas Jefferson’s grid)
  • Survey the territory, parcel it up into plots, and decide who could claim it and how.
    • A township a 6-mile by 6-mile square (36 square miles)
    • Base unit Gunter’s chain (66 feet long)
    • A square mile is 640 acres
    • 40-acre plots - were measured out in 20 chains’ length
    • An acre = 10 square chains
  • The federal government controlled the expansion of the nation, directing the flow of settlers to specific areas as necessity demanded (and soldiers)
  • For many indigenous people, the land was a living entity: a nexus of complex relationships between humans, animals, and spirits.
  • It was a deliberate effort to steal land and found a white nation at the expense of millions of lives
  • The measurement of land is often a prerequisite to conquest, as with the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, completed by the British Crown in 1871

Measurement, empiricism and scientific method

  • Measurement and quantification underpinned the scientific revolution.
  • As better instruments emerged, there was a shift in focus toward empirical results.
  • Better telescopes revealed discrepancies. Newton united the terrestrial and the celestial with his three laws of motion and gravity. Measurement and abstraction allowed our tools to work at an entirely new scale.
  • Quantification, measurement, and the scientific method have banished certain myths from nature, but they also teach us about the beautiful reality
  • Statistics was concerned not just with individual measures but with the power of measurement in aggregate. Grouping individual measures allows you to spot patterns and trends. Statistics can operate at a scale far beyond the grasp of the individual.
  • Graunt wrote one of the first statistics books in 1660 the documenting the population of London, infant mortality and the impact of the Plague
  • Astronomers began to re-evaluate their relationship with measurement through the concept of error. Initially irregular results were unwanted and even shameful. They indicated a lack of scale.
    • New tools in astronomy led to an increase in errors
  • A fundamental trap of measurement → the more precise you are, the more inconsistent your results often appear to be
    • Mayer argued that errors didn’t have to compound, instead they could cancel one another out.
    • Approach was called… ‘the combination of observations’ an early label for statistics.
    • Transmuting error into accuracy
  • The British Raj used the power of the telegraph, to exert control over a population of more than 250m with just (roughly 66,000 British soldiers and 130,000 Indians).
  • In 1834 parliament burned down and took with it the country’s standard yard and pound.
    • Ironically, the fire was caused by the disposal of tallies.
      • Short pieces of wood carved with notches that represented debt. They were then split in two, with one going to the debtor and the other the creditor.
  • Peirce argued in the ‘Illustrations of the Logic of Science’ that the ‘method of science’ is the only secure path to knowledge in the world.
    • In the past we had heliocentrism and caloric theory.
    • All tastes go in and out of fashion. The only thing that produces reliable data, he thought, was experiment and observation.
    • “One man’s experience is nothing if it stands alone”
    • He believed in ‘fallibilism’. There are no facts in life that are beyond doubt. That we can be sure of nothing in science is an ancient truth
  • Laplace and Gauss discovered the normal distribution. Together with the method of least squares and the central limit theorem the foundations for the discipline of statistics were formed.
  • Booth’s work revealed that 33 per cent of the capital’s population lived in poverty. Figures sparked public outcry and debate, and eventually led to legal changes, such as housing reform.Statistics was the only way to properly grasp the scale of poverty during the Industrial Revolution. Booth wanted to combat the ‘sense of helplessness’ felt by individuals
  • Statistics spurred social reform.

Quetelet: Eugenics & Statistics

  • Quetelet collated enough data on people to define l’homme moyen (the average man). To him to be average was to be perfect (lacking abnormalities or defects).
  • Quetelet was the founder of eugenics, pushing statistics to insidious ends. In ‘Hereditary Genius’ he demonstrated (to his own satisfaction) that intellectual ability was heritable. He coined the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’.
  • He categorised people into intellectual classes of his own design, using flimsy assumptions and underlying prejudice. ‘The negro races are two grades below whites’. Galton decides this simply because he can think of no eminent Black people.
  • Annoyingly, his future work was some of the most important in the field. In 1889 he published ‘Natural Inheritance’ … showing exceptionally tall or short parents don’t necessarily have offspring with similarly extreme characteristics.
    • Galton called this phenomenon ‘regression towards mediocrity’, though today it’s known as regression to the mean. He built the first regression models.
    • He could use his techniques to track the strength of connection between any two variables. He could connect anything. He named his method ‘co-relation’, though the spelling soon changed to the now familiar correlation.
    • The discovery of regression and correlation have allowed scientists to draw conclusions from aggregate data that couldn’t have been found otherwise. They amplify the power of relatively shallow measurements, allowing us to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.
    • It was now possible to think in terms of correlation, not just causation

Black Boxing

  • Blackboxing is when technical work is made invisible by its own success.
    • We ignore the human errors, alternative theories and strip away uncertainties
    • Only the input and output of the work remain. Everything else is hidden by the black box.
    • in enhances the authority of science, removes mess so results of research seem definitive and clean
    • It also obscures criticism of the scientific process and hides controversial or arbitrary decisions.
  • Increasing precision in measurement has also resulted in an increase of obscurity. Necessary in the modern world.