Beyond measure: hidden history of measurement – James Vincent

Monday 10th October 2022 7:30PM – 7:30PM
Location/Venue: Norman Lockyer Observatory EX10 0NY

Why is an inch an inch? Why a kilogram, a kilogram?

Who decides the value of units of measurement and what effect does this control have on the world? In this talk, journalist and author James Vincent will explore the hidden history of measurement, a discipline that is as important to the foundation of human civilisation as writing or mathematics.

Measurement enables trade, construction, and scientific research, but it is also a tool of power: used by states to oversee the lives of citizens and a symbol of sovereignty that helps define nations.

From the cubits used by the ancient Egyptians to build the pyramids to the quantum constants that now underpin modern units of measure, the history of measurement spans millennia, but it is also still deeply relevant in today’s world. Not only do recent discussions about a return to Imperial units in the UK show the cultural potency of measurement, but it’s an often unacknowledged truth that we live in a deeply quantified world. Digital technology has made measurement ubiquitous, counting likes on social media, steps on our smartwatches, and much more besides. But is it always true to say that what gets measured, matters? Or should some aspects of our lives be beyond such reckonings?

James Vincent is a journalist and writer from London who has worked and written for numerous publications, including The Independent, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books, Wired, New Statesman and others. He is currently a senior reporter for The Verge. Beyond Measure is his first book. @jjvincent