Philosophy of science has pegged this question as the beating heart of the Enlightenment’s leaps and bounds in fields of science: the search for the absolute truth of nature. Robert Crease argues in his recent book World in the Balance that nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of standard measures – units such as the meter and the kilogram.
Though the history and current state of international standard measures, such as the meter and kilogram, may not be ‘sexy’ reading for most people, it does touch on something fundamental to modern life: measurement pervades almost every aspect of what we do. Sports statistics, the stock market, clothing sizes, college rankings, temperatures, timers, polls, prices; these are all instances of measures that have become essential to the ways in which we live. Measures give us buckets (categories) into which things we encounter (not just physical objects, but also experiences or ideas) can be thrown to be categorized, or simply to be understood. But they also do more than this. Measures, these cognitive buckets, come to conditions the ways in which we think about those things that we measure.
Time is an example of this. What is a second? The official, standardized definition of a second is the length of time needed for a cesium-133 atom to complete 9,192,631,770 oscillations. This is the most precise rendering of this unit of time to-date. Seconds used to be measured according to calculations of astronomical movements; the relative motions of the earth and sun defined the length of a day, which was then used to define an hour, which was the used to define a minute and ultimately the length of a second. But is this all that a second means? What about how long a second feels? People speak of moments in their lives that, for all intents and purposes (read: according to universal standards) occurred over the course of a few seconds; and yet, these few seconds seemed to last far, far longer. Is such an experience of time any less real than scientifically calculated measures of time? Is one’s feeling of loosing track of time, of being absorbed for a spell in something wholly engaging, any less a measure of time than the vibrations of a cesium-133 atom?
What does the history of measurement tell us? Crease’s book is on its way, so I can’t say what his answer to this question is, or might be. But I will be reading with this question in mind. Preliminarily, my answer to this question would go something like this: Not only does it reveal a piece of the history of humankind’s relation to nature, but it also reveals in integral aspect of how we come to live certain ways in the world. The search for absolute certainty conditions the search for ever-more precise standard measures – to continue the administration of things which we have come to know as modern life. Most importantly, measurement conditions the possibilities of our experience of life. To a large extent, many measures have come to substitute our experiences of certain phenomenon – temperature, for instance – and so the history of measurement is also a history of humankind’s relation to making sense of its own experiences. It is a phenomenological endeavor, measurement.
Needless to say, I’m interested to see how Crease’s book alters, informs, or rebukes these thoughts.