How we know what we know about…quantity (part 1): About the size of it

A while ago I read a little book that attempted to tackle a big topic. ‘About the size of it’ is a history of the human approach to measuring our world, from early civilization to modern metric. It’s a lovely little book, the sort of reading where you come away with a big smile on your face because things in the world make a little more sense (I love the links between ‘human liquid receptacles’, i.e. the mouth and the bladder, and the size of cups and other kitchen items we use). Cairns divides up what could be an insurmountable topic into well-ordered chapters, covering distance from feet and inches to volume in pints and cups. He deals well with the uncertainty of history, treating more ‘out there’ ideas with caution, and his writing flows well and is easy to follow. The odd photo + caption format used to break up the text didn’t strike me as necessary, I’d rather see some easy-to-follow diagrams than a picture of George Bush’s thumb but I guess their aim is to stop the book appearing too wordy. Don’t expect the history of scientific measurements either – this is all about our everyday measurements, which in many senses are the most important of all. All in all it’s the perfect train journey book, small enough to fit in a bag and easy enough to follow that you can pick up where you left off after the man behind you has finished yelling “I’M ON THE TRAIN” down his mobile fo 5 different people.

Why review this now? Well it’s really pertinent to me work – I’ve been calibrating before carrying out an experiment and it’s really made me think about how we know how much we’re measuring. It’s something most people don’t think about when they see quantities quoted, but how do we know what “5 parts per billion of ozone” or “50pmol/L of bromoform” is? Perhaps that’s something for another day and another blog post…

About the Size of It by Warwick Cairns (2008) published by Pan Macmillan.  ISBN: 978-0-333-45030-0.  Amazon link

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3 thoughts on “How we know what we know about…quantity (part 1): About the size of it

  1. I have just read this book too … and I loved it for the same reasons you describe. My interest was to use it on my wordpress blog to form part of a discussion about how the ‘shape’ of a species of animal … or history or politics … or thought … gets locked into patterns and systems and structures that are completely indecipherable without a clear understanding of the legacy … the evolutionary path … and are less amenable to variation than we imagine for reasons that are usually not obvious. Which is a pretty highfalutin endeavour for a South African political analyst …. I might take a stab at in anyway. Thanks for your review btw

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