Robinson: The Story of Measurement

From Scienticity

Jump to: navigation, search
Scienticity: image:Bookbug.gif
Readability: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Hermeneutics: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Charisma: image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif   image: Bookbug.gif
Recommendation: image:Bookbug.gif
Ratings are described on the Book-note ratings page.

Andrew Robinson, The Story of Measurement. London : Thames & Hudson, 2007. 224 pages, 334 illustrations, with "further reading" and index.

I like the idea of this book and I admire the author's enthusiasm for his subject. A book of short articles on everything to do with the idea of measurement: units, scales, how things are measured, what things are measured, how measurement has affected civilization through time—these are all interesting and informative topics. Making it a coffee-table sized book with copious color illustrations and short, digestible articles on its wide variety of topics would make it widely appealing.

However, none of these replace careful and precise writing when it comes to creating a successful book of popular science, and this author unfortunately was not up to the task. The book appears to have been prepared without help of adequate science-editorial assistance.

There are interesting anecdotes and social insights. For instance

'A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing'—Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic—expresses an important point about the modern world. We are so habituated to the idea of money as the measure of the value of goods that we tend to forget other ways of trading. If a product's value increases, the price must increase, we assume. But instead, the price could be kept constant and the amount of goods reduced. This was once standard practice with loaves of bread, as mentioned already: moreover it was how monasteries evaded Christian restrictions on profit-making—the monks bought wine in large barrels and sold it in smaller barrels at the same price. Variable standards in weights and measures in effect acted as a currency. [p. 57]

The author's tone is light and entertaining. I like the procession of the chapters and their organization: "Going Metric", "Number and Mathematics", "Customary Units", "Instruments and Techniques", "Atoms", "Earth", "Universe", "Mind", "Body", and "Society".

Where I fault the author is with his lack of scienticity and, in a number of instances, his lack of scientific hermeneutics. There are numerous places where an opportunity for an extra bit of science learning is available for just a few words and he fails to take the opportunity. In other places he uses faulty analogies, makes imprecise or misleading word choices, or tells humorous anecdotes without letting the reader know it's a joke and not a scientific explanation. Here are a few examples:

  • On page 88 he shows a standard periodic table of the elements with, as usual, a disjoint line for the lanthanide and actinide series of elements, without mentioning at all how those two series fit into the table, or where.
  • On page 89 there is a beautiful microphotograph of a salt crystal, but it is shown without any indication whatsoever of its size.
  • [p. 92] "For real gases, Boyle's law is followed exactly only at very low pressures, when the concentration of molecules is sufficiently low that the molecules themselves occupy a negligible volume compared to the volume of the gas." Fine so far, but he continues: "At higher pressures – like people at a crowded party in a small room – the molecules are compelled to deviate from their normal behavior". "Compelled" is not a word that gives the correct mental image, and non-ideal behavior at higher concentration is "normal behavior".
  • [p. 98—99] In a parenthetical explanation about the relationship between the wavelength and frequency of electromagnetic radiation, he says "The reason that frequency and wavelength are inversely related is that wavelength multiplied by frequency gives the speed of any wave; and since the speed of all electromagnetic radiation is a constant – the speed of light – if wavelength increases, then frequency must decrease, and vice versa." The speed of light is constant in vacuum; electromagnetic waves propagate at different velocities in different media.
  • On page 100 he begins the article on "Relativity" with an amusing anecdote: "The world knows that Einstein discovered relativity, even if few people understand it. Besieged with requests for an explanation, Einstein eventually told his secretary: "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour." In a book geared for the scientifically unsophisticated reader, it is vital to point out that this is a joke and not a serious explanation of any sort from Einstein's mouth, but there is not indication whatsoever.
  • [p. 103] "In 1820, Hans Christian Oersted crucially showed that an electric current in a wire could deflect a compass needle – that is, electricity could be converted into magnetism." Actually this experiment demonstrated that electricity and magnetism were related, a relationship to be made explicit by James Maxwell and his electromagnetic equations. In no sense, however, can one say that electricity is converted into magnetism. Such a statement is remarkably misleading.
  • On page. 139 the author presents an interesting table called "The Measurements of the Moon", giving statistics for things like "axial inclination", "orbital eccentricity", "mean albedo", "apparent diameter", etc., but not one of these terms is explained, leaving the table a collection of meaningless numbers to most general readers.
  • On page 177, in the article on "The Human Genome", the author presents research that he interprets to show that the idea of the "gene" is imprecise and—perhaps—not terribly useful to scientists, but then in the next section he describes how genes determine blood-type heredity. Discounting a concept and then using it for further explanation is, at best, confusing.

This book could so easily have been informative, entertaining, easy to read, and a great introduction to concepts in measurements, if only it had had the attention of a science editor to correct these many small but very significant omissions and inaccuracies.

As it is, though, I cannot recommend this book to the average reader since it could so easily lead to mistaken impressions about science and leave inaccurate understandings about many of the topics under discussion.

-- Notes by JNS

Personal tools
science time-capsules