World in the Balance

Millions of transactions each day depend on a reliable network of weights and measures. This network has been called a greater invention than the steam engine, comparable only to the development of the printing press.

Robert P. Crease traces the evolution of this international system from the use of flutes to measure distance in the dynasties of ancient China and figurines to weigh gold in West Africa to the creation of the French metric and British imperial systems. The former prevailed, with the United States one of three holdout nations. Into this captivating history Crease weaves stories of colorful individuals, including Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of the metric system, and American philosopher Charles S. Peirce, the first to tie the meter to the wavelength of light. Tracing the dynamic struggle for ultimate precision, World in the Balance demonstrates that measurement is both stranger and more integral to our lives than we ever suspected.

World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, W.W. Norton, 2011. Translations: Portuguese (Zahar, 2013)

Select Reviews:

Economist: “From yardsticks to metre rule: A history of greater and greater accuracy,” no byline, Oct 8th 2011

Wall Street Journal: “The Perfected Yardstick,” by Laura J. Snyder, Oct 28th 2011

Nature: “Scaling Up,” by Andrew Robinson. Nature 478, 32-33, Oct 5th 2011

London Review of Books: “Plus or Minus One Ear,” by Steven Shapin, LRB 34:16, Aug 2012

New Scientist: ‘Give them an inch,” by Arthur I. Miller, December 2011

The Architects’ Newspaper : “Measure by Minute,” James Way, Dec 31st, 2012

“…Robert P. Crease guides us on one of history’s greatest philosophical adventures—one that encompasses the French Revolution, surrealism, and the speed of light. World in the Balance takes the seemingly mundane questions we unthinkingly ask dozens of times a day and reveals them to be thrillingly profound.” - Richard Panek