Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 2

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

“The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.”

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

In her memoir, the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel recounted frequently having to “measure the ground with poles” when she first began making astronomical observations in the 1780s. It seems odd that something as grand and lofty as studying the heavens would necessitate something this humble and earthbound, but this seemingly mundane task is important for two reasons — it reminds us that astronomers were the original measurers of everything we know, but it also raises the question of what the ground was measured in. For it wasn’t until a generation later that the measures of the world were standardized, thanks to the French astronomers Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, who set out to unite humanity by creating a single measure: the meter, arguably the most impactful mathematical concept since the invention of zero, central to everything from the speed of light and our basic understanding of the universe to the daily practicalities of shoe sizes, doorframe dimensions, and driving speed limits. Over and over during their seven-year quest for peace through mathematical perfection, they stumbled and fell and got back up, nearly losing their heads to the guillotine on multiple occasions as they toiled to create an equalizing measurement that would “encompass nothing that was arbitrary, nor to the particular advantage of any people on the planet.”

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain

Historian Ken Alder tells the story of Delambre and Méchain’s ambitious, improbable, and heroic feat in The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (public library). He casts the stakes:

In June 1792 — in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality — two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made his way south. Each man left the capital in a customized carriage stocked with the most advanced scientific instruments of the day and accompanied by a skilled assistant. Their mission was to measure the world, or at least that piece of the meridian arc which ran from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona. Their hope was that all the world’s peoples would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure. Their task was to establish this new measure — “the meter” — as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.

The meter would be eternal because it had been taken from the earth, which was itself eternal. And the meter would belong equally to all the people of the world, just as the earth belonged equally to them all. In the words of their Revolutionary colleague Condorcet — the founder of mathematical social science and history’s great optimist — the metric system was to be “for all people, for all time.”

Indeed, there was a larger kind of idealism beneath the quest for mathematically precise measurement:

To do their job, standards must operate as a set of shared assumptions, the unexamined background against which we strike agreements and make distinctions… Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value.

When Einstein spoke of “the common language of science,” he was animated by a similar humanistic vision of shared values. But in the eighteenth century, measures differed so widely from nation to nation that they produced practically the same stumbling block for cooperation, communication, and commerce as different languages. Worse yet, the discrepancies made it impossible for scientists — or “savants,” as scholars of nature were known in that era — to compare notes and build upon one another’s work.

Alder considers the monumental legacy of Delambre and Méchain’s troubled triumph:

For seven years Delambre and Méchain traveled the meridian to extract this single number from the curved surface of our planet. They began their journey in opposite directions, and then, when they had reached the extremities of their arc, measured their way back toward one another through a country quickened with revolution. Their mission took them to the tops of filigree cathedral spires, to the summits of domed volcanoes, and very nearly to the guillotine. It was an operation of exquisite precision for such violent times. At every turn they encountered suspicion and obstruction. How do you measure the earth while the world is turning beneath your feet? How do you establish a new order when the countryside is in chaos? How do you set standards at a time when everything is up for grabs? Or is there, in fact, no better time to do so?

[…]

The results of their labors were then enshrined in a meter bar of pure platinum. It was a moment of triumph: proof that in the midst of social and political upheaval, science could produce something of permanence. Accepting the fruit of their labor, France’s new supreme ruler made a prophesy. “Conquests will come and go,” Napoleon Bonaparte declared, “but this work will endure.”

And yet no idyll is ever complete — although, two centuries later, more than 95% of humanity uses the metric system, the world’s alleged greatest superpower does not. Thomas Jefferson was the first to attempt persuading Congress to adopt the meter, which would’ve made the United States the second country after France to pioneer the universal measurement. He failed, as did every reformer since. The costs of that failure are many, but none more tragicomically obvious than the 1999 loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter — the $125-million space probe that went missing, literally lost in translation, after one team of engineers used the metric system and another American units.

Perhaps the central paradox of all progress is that we are a species bedeviled by inescapable ambivalence. Science, after all, is “a truly human endeavor,” susceptible the same human folly of ambivalence even in its quest for objective truth. Alder reflects:

Behind the public triumph of the metric system lies a long and bitter history. The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Measure of All Things, Alder goes on to chronicle the inadvertent errors, deliberate deceit, and other fragments of fallible humanity that marked this monumental quest for scientific perfection. What emerges is less a story about pure science than one about a central foible of being human — about why we make mistakes, about our moral vacillation between covering them up and amending them, and about how we reconcile our idealism with our imperfection.

HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

BP

Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It

“No-one knows what your life or life itself should be because it is in the process of being created. Life moves according to a growing consciousness of life and is completely unpredictable.”

Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It

Perhaps the greatest paradox of human life is that although happiness is the most universal of our longings, it is unobtainable by striving. Every seeming end we seek — love, money, purpose, the perfect cappuccino — we seek as a means to happiness, and yet happiness defies the usual laws of effort and achievement: The more ferociously we try to attain it, the more it eludes us.

How to break out of this paradox and transcend our self-imposed limitations in the pursuit of happiness is what artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) examines in a set of notes prepared for a 1979 lecture at the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe, included in Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (public library) — the wonderful monograph that gave us Martin on inspiration, interruptions, and the ideal atmosphere for creative work.

Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)

Martin was deeply influenced by the Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki. Reminiscent of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei — roughly translated as “trying not to try” — Martin’s ideas are formulated in a Zen-like style of profound simplicity evocative the Tao Te Ching, and speak to the difficult art of holding life with unattached awareness. She writes under the heading “The Current of the River of Life Moves Us”:

What we really want to do is serve happiness.
We want everyone to be happy, never unhappy even for a moment.
We want the animals to be happy. The happiness of every living thing is what we want.
We want it very much but we cannot bring it about.
We cannot make even one individual happy.
It seems that this thing that we want most of all is out of our reach.
But we were born to serve happiness and we do serve it.
The confusion is due to our lack of awareness of real happiness. Happiness is pervasive.
It is everywhere… When we are unhappy it is because something is covering our minds and we are not able to be aware of happiness. When the difficulty is past we find happiness again.
It is not that happiness is all around us. That is not it at all. It is not this or that or in this or that.
It is an abstract thing.
Happiness is unattached. Always the same. It does not appear and disappear. It is not sometimes more and sometimes less. It is our awareness of happiness that goes up and down.
Happiness is our real condition.
It is reality.
It is life.
In this life, life is represented by beauty and happiness.
If you are completely unaware of them you are not alive.
The times when you are not aware of beauty and happiness you are not alive.

[…]

By awareness of life we are inspired to live.
Life is consciousness of life itself.
The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.

Agnes Martin, Summer 1964

Martin considers the artist’s task as a midwife of awareness:

The life of an artist is a very good opportunity for life.
When we realize that we can see life we gradually give up the things that stand in the way of our complete awareness.
As we paint we move along step by step. We realize that we are guided in our work by awareness of life.
We are guided to greater expression of awareness and devotion to life.
We recognize the great exultation with life of great artists like Beethoven and we realize that all great artists praise and exult life.

Surely, a cynic might dismiss such a perspective as a function of privilege. But Martin had a hard and unusual life, working an astonishing array of odd jobs before becoming an artist. Her ideas spring from a place of deep self-reflection and are heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy. Addressing her audience of young aspiring artists, 67-year-old Martin offers her most direct, life-tested advice:

You must say to yourself: “How can I best step into this state of mind and devote myself to the expression of life.”
You must not be led astray into the illustration of ideas because that is not art work. It is ineffective even though it is often accepted for a short time. it does not contribute to happiness and it is finally discarded.
The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.
Dependence on intellect means a consideration of observed facts and deductions from observation as a guide in life.
Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from awareness of beauty and happiness.
To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.
You have to hold your mind still in order to hear inspiration clearly.

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997

In a sentiment of discomfiting pertinence today, she points to one such major realm of conditioned ideas:

The political world is a structure conceived and agreed to by us but it is not a reality.
You have been conditioned to believe that this political world is in fact real.
With this conception it is believed that we have come into ownership of the world and that we are responsible for creating it. And with this concept we have placed ourselves in a condition of perpetual responsibility and reform.
But since we are not creating the world, since it was created before us and we are merely in it, and since we do not own it, our whole political concept is false.

Turning once again to how our forceful striving stands in the way of attaining the very things we strive for, Martin considers the life-expanding alternative:

The world evolves due to changes that take place in individuals. By individuals I mean all living things.
The world evolves due to a growing awareness in the lives of all things and is expressed in their actions.
The actions of all things are guided by a growing awareness of life. We call it inspiration.
Living by inspiration is living. Living by intellect — by comparisons, calculations, schemes, concepts, ideas — is all a structure of pride in which there is not beauty or happiness — no life.

[…]

Where pride walks nothing of life remains. It is the supreme destroyer of life. Pride leaves nothing in its path. It is death in life.

Echoing Maya Angelou’s unforgettable assertion that “life loves the liver of it,” Martin crystallizes her central point:

If you want life on your side or to be on the side of life against death you must surrender completely to life.

A century after Nietzsche proclaimed that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Martin counsels:

Hold fast to your life, to beauty and happiness and inspiration, and to obedience to inspiration. Do not imitate others or seek advice anywhere except from your own mind. No-one can help you. No-one knows what your life should be. No-one knows what your life or life itself should be because it is in the process of being created.
Life moves according to a growing consciousness of life and is completely unpredictable.
If you live according to human knowledge, according to precept, values and standards, you live in the past.
If you live entirely in the past you will not know beauty or happiness and you will not in fact live.
You must believe in life. Believe that you can know the truth about life.

[…]

The current of the river of life moves us. Awareness of life, beauty and happiness is the current of the river.
With great awareness we move rapidly. With no awareness we do not move.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fantastic Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances with Hermann Hesse on how to live with greater awareness, Søren Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, and Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, then revisit this rare vintage conversation with the reclusive Martin about art, life, and happiness.

BP

Six Dots: The Remarkable Life and Legacy of Child Inventor Louis Braille, Illustrated

How a tenacious boy created one of the most life-changing inventions in human history.

Six Dots: The Remarkable Life and Legacy of Child Inventor Louis Braille, Illustrated

“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the elemental human need for communication. Indeed, a life deprived of that essential sustenance of the soul, whatever form it may take, is a life of unthinkable tragedy.

No cultural hero has delivered more people of that tragedy than Louis Braille (January 4, 1809–January 6, 1852), who lost his eyesight at the age of three due to an infection following an accident at his father’s workshop, then went on to invent the braille reading and writing system, which forever changed the lives of the blind and the visually impaired. (After his groundbreaking invention, he continued to work tirelessly, developing implementations of braille in mathematics and music, co-creating a precursor of the dot-matrix printing machine, and mastering the cello and the organ, which he played professionally at Parisian churches even as tuberculosis slowly syphoned away his vitality and finally claimed his life at the age of forty-three.)

Helen Keller rightfully compared Braille to Gutenberg, for no other invention since the printing press had transformed the lives of more people who would’ve otherwise lived bereft of the joy and liberation of reading and learning, their basic human need for communication unmet. But although Braille belongs alongside inventors like Tesla and Edison in impact and legacy, one crucial element sets him apart from and perhaps even above them: He was only a child when he developed his revolutionary invention — which means he had no training, no funding, no public or institutional support, no commercial motive or business plan, and only the vision for something life-changing and redemptive born out of the necessity of a disability that had forever changed his own short life.

“In the past several centuries, no one so young has developed something that has had such a lasting and profound effect on so many people,” writes Jen Bryant in Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille (public library) — a wonderful addition to the greatest picture-books about cultural heroes.

Illustrated by the Brooklyn-based Russian artist Boris Kulikov, the empathy-inviting first-person narrative traces young Braille’s immensely inspiring story, beginning with his premature birth, which he survived to be healthy and curious little boy.

But the turning point in his life came when he was three. His father was a leatherer specializing in horse tack in a small town near Paris. One day, while playing at the leather workshop, little Louis disregarded his father’s admonition not to toy with the sharp tools.

Trying to imitate his father, he set out to puncture a piece of leather. But the awl slipped from his tiny hand and stabbed him in the eye.

This was the dawn of the nineteenth century, and medicine as we know it was yet to be born, so although a local healer bandaged the boy’s eye and a Parisian surgeon attempted to save it the next day, the damage was permanent. An infection took root and soon spread to his other eye, leaving little Louis in ongoing agony. By the age of five, he had lost his vision completely.

Because Louis was so young when he became blind, his development of theory of mind had not yet reached the point where children become aware that their internal experience is not the universal state of the world. At first, he thought that the world had sunk into a permanent night — he kept asking his parents where the sun had gone.

Eventually, he realized that it was his own sight that had disappeared and began learning to navigate the world with the senses he had left. His father made him a cane, his brother taught him echolocation, his two sisters made him a straw alphabet, the village priest taught him to recognize trees by their touch and birds by their song, and his mother taught him to play dominoes by counting the dots with his fingertips.

The adults in his life read books to him and he went to school with all the other children, where he excelled despite his blindness. But whenever little Louis asked whether there were any books for blind children, he was met with a lamenting “no.”

A local noblewoman was so touched by his story that she wrote a letter to the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris, beseeching them to accept him. One day, a letter arrived announcing his admission.

Although his family had reservations about letting the boy, not yet ten, go to the big city alone, his parents placed his happiness and his love of learning above all else and ultimately sent him to Paris.

But when young Louis arrived at the Royal School, he didn’t need to see to know that there was nothing royal about it — the building had been a prison during the French Revolution and the conditions for the young pupils were only marginally better.

My hard bed was in a damp, crowded room. My uniform itched. My meals were small and cold. The teachers were strict. The older boys teased and stole.

Despite his harrowing homesickness, Louis stayed — “because somewhere in this old, moldy building, there were books for the blind.” These books were few and precious, so only the best students were allowed to read them. Louis was determined, then, to become one of the best — and he did.

Finally, the day of his dreams arrived and a book for the blind was placed before him with a ceremonious thud. But to his astonishment, it was a gravely disenchanting experience — the text was written in enormous raised letters, so that the blind reader could trace them with their fingertips. Because each sentence took half a page, the books were short and disappointing.

I sighed. Even if I read a hundred books like this, how much could I learn?

But the dispirited young Louis soon saw a new frontier of hope — the headmaster delivered news that a French army captain had invented a military communication code using patterns of dots to represent sounds. Louis learned to read the patterns, then to write them — using a wooden frame and a metal ruler, and punching the dots with a sharp instrument akin to the awl with which he had blinded himself as a toddler.

But although he practiced tirelessly, he eventually grew frustrated that even a short message required a great many dots. Intuiting that the best way to complain is to improve, Louis set out to devise a better system that would allowed the blind to write like the sighted — one in which the dots represented letters rather than sounds.

In a testament to combinatorial creativity — that marvelous way in which our unconscious shakes the tree of memory for fragments of existing ideas, impressions, and inspirations, and combines them into something new — Louis drew on his childhood memories of his father working on his leather strips with his awl into the night.

Late at night, while the others slept, I bent over my slate and punched the pages. I tried hundreds of ways to simplify the captain’s code. I worked until my back was stiff and my fingers ached. Often, I fell asleep a few minutes before morning.

Time passed — a year, then two — as Louis continued to work on his code. He was frequently ill from the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life, but he labored through his illness, until his writing system was finally ready to be tested: The headmaster read from a library book and Louis took dictation in dots, then read the text back perfectly.

Word of his triumph spread through the school. His system would soon become a major global alphabet. He was fifteen.

Bryant chronicles the creatively restless remainder of Braille’s short yet illustrious life in her 1994 young adult biography, but Six Dots ends with the feat of young Louis’s invention.

Complement it with What Color Is the Wind? — a most unusual serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child — then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of cultural icons: Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Paul Erdős, and Nellie Bly.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated