Measure for Measure: Delambre, Méchain, and the Meter – The Things that Endure (Part 2 of 2)

More than everything else, however, the expedition undertaken by Delambre and Méchain in the waning years of the 18th century fundamentally changed what it meant to be a scientist. In fact, it encouraged the invention of the term itself and the very idea of a scientist. “In 1792, Jean-Paul Marat had been the first person to tag savants with the name of scientifiques (scientists), when he referred sneeringly to the…project to measure the earth…For better or worse, the savant’s were now on their way to becoming scientists” (Adler, 308). They were on their way and traveling with all the baggage that the new title would entail. To become a scientist meant that Delambre and Méchain could no longer believe in a perfect world but instead had to look skeptically at everything around them. “Approach the world through the veil of uncertainty and science would never be the same. And nor would savants…In the process, ‘savants’ become ‘scientists’” (Adler 308).

A typical scientists's laboratory from the 18th century (Photo by Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)
A typical scientist’s laboratory from the 18th century (Photo by Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

The world was truly and wholly recognized not to be the perfect embodiment of science – it too was cast into question, shadow, and doubt, as all the imperfect ridges and shifts came into full view. This new world demanded the eyes and minds of new kinds of observers. “They sought to rid themselves of value judgments about nature and to cordon off meaning from their measurements of the world” (Adler, 308). The men involved in the Meridian Expedition not only worked within a politically uncertain world, but a scientifically uncertain one. Just as the political structure of France, and some may even say, the world, shifted during the course of the expedition, so too did the world of ‘science’ shift and teeter. “Men like Delambre, Laplace, Legendre and their generation had a foot in each world. I have called them savants, but the term no longer fits. They were henceforth engaged in a struggle to quantify their uncertainty” (Adler, 308).

Image converted using ifftoany

The scientist that followed in the savant’s footsteps set themselves to the task of explaining the eccentricities of the natural world. The results, though, illuminated so much more, forever changing the way scientists set about doing science. “The years…saw the rise of a new scientific theory – not a theory of nature, but a theory of error. It was this theory that would…redeem Méchain’s honor by distinguishing between those errors that were random and those that were systematic” (Adler, 307). The savants of the 18th century “… did not make a principled distinction between precision (the internal consistency of results) and accuracy (the degree to which those results approached the ‘right answer’)” (Adler, 299). It was only through the Meridian expedition, “[i]n their search for illusory perfection, [that] the savants had learned not only how to distinguish between different kinds of error, but also that error could be approached with quantitative confidence” (Adler 307). In changing the way scientists view error behind closed doors, the entire scientific world felt obliged to open itself up to the eye of a discerning public. Their errors and the public became part of the scientific process, the two intertwining into the very fabric of this new world. “[I]n accepting [Delambre and Méchain’s] meter, we have made their error our own, which is to say public, singular and true” (Adler, 339).

Peer review and the acknowledgement of error is now an integral part of the scientific process
Peer review and the acknowledgement of error is now an integral part of the scientific process

In literature, the “classic” novels and pieces were more often than not written at least a hundred years ago. Why are children everywhere forced to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Or to examine the complexities of Jane Eyre? Even today there are whole classes taught at universities on the works of Chaucer alone. What makes these books so much more important and worthy of veneration than others? Time. They have outlasted their time and then some. They transcend time and place and become universal to all of us. Similarly in art, students are still encouraged to learn the style of the “Masters”: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. Their art is the best because it touches something in the human spirit, regardless of the era it was made in and the era it is appreciated in. Surely these great artists, masters of canvas and the written word, would be considered successes; why should it be any different in the realm of science?

Photo by Rdsmith4 via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Rdsmith4 via Wikimedia Commons

Time dictates what has been successful and what has not; what has survived to be relevant and what has faded away. The metric system has come to dominate all other forms of weights and measures, even becoming as popular as to wipe out the memory of the others that came before. Not only that, but it has produced significant changes in the scientific world that have become commonplace practice. Failures in history are all too often relegated to the realm of the forgotten. Clearly, by this measurement, the meridian expedition and the metric system created by it are monumental successes worthy of remembrance forever.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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