Pushcart 2013: Sue Allison, “Made to Measure” (non-ficton) from The Antioch Review

Measuring Tape Art from lofiles.org

Measuring Tape Art from lofiles.org

What do we measure? Everything. We measure IQ, we measure earthquakes, we measure wind chill, wrenches, wire gauge, tornadoes, comas, grit, type; we measure the brightness of lunar eclipses; the hardness of pencils, of gypsum, of talc. We measure the brain activity of meditating monks (very high). We measure brain size.… We measure shoelaces: a shoe with four pairs of holes takes a sixty-centimeter-long lace. We measure consumer satisfaction, carbon emissions, the rate at which the permafrost is melting. We measure justice. Themis carries a scale to make this point: justice is not some abstract value; it is something we measure. We measure what matters to us; once measured, it matters more.

This is my favorite kind of material: a combination of gentle science and story.

Allison sandwiches a great deal of entertaining and thought-provoking information in between the bookends of a related personal experience: during a period when her wristwatch was broken, she somehow always knew what time it was. “It was as if I had acquired a sixth sense.… The physics of being in time felt less like science and more like dancing.”

From there, she discusses many varieties and methods of measuring, and, most specifically, the language of measurement. I’m not sure I always agree with her; I’m not even sure she always agrees with herself. But it’s a delight to read.

The beauty of words is that they are unstable – they change, they stretch, they have various and multiple meanings – but the beauty of numbers is that they are not. The move to metric measurement has meant a move from words – jigger, apostle, nip – and their maddening refusal to remain fixed as if to remain constant is death itself, which, it turns out, it is – to numbers.

Having just completed a math course where the astonishing relationship between numbers was a core part, I’m not signing on to this notion that words are wonderful and numbers are boring and stagnant. Yes, the metric system is very, well, systematic. Isn’t that a form of beauty? Isn’t it quite remarkable that there is a form of measurement that makes it possible to go from the incredibly small to the unimaginably large by just moving a decimal point? That speed and mass and force can all be related simply by choosing the right measuring system?

Allison is a little easier on physicists:

Physicists, it seems, like to name their discoveries with their human, not their scientific, natures. Reflecting the need to ground themselves in the real words, rather than abstract numbers, they talk in barns (1.0 x 10 to the minus twenty-eight meters squared) and sheds (1.0 x 10 to the minus 24 barns) and outhouses (do you really want to know?), and shakes, the time it takes a lamb to shake its tail, which nuclear engineers have given as the name for ten nanoseconds. And it is how we got Clark for the most fundamental particles of the universe and the “flavors” they come in: up, down, charm, strange, up, and bottom. Someone’s going to have to straighten this out all over again someday.

It’s in the discussion of the nature of measurement itself that the essay becomes the most intriguing. Why do we have this compulsion to measure? We measure shoes and houses and amounts of grain for practical reasons, but why, in the fifth century BCE did the “first historian” Herodotus include the thickness and height of the walls of Babylon? Or, two hundred years later, did Aristarchus of Samos wonder how far away the moon might be, and set out to determine the measurement (and remarkably accurately)? “It starts with wonder.” And that might be the most human trait of all.

Her more modern associations interested me as well. I was already familiar with the infinite coastline, but she made an additional connection that now fascinates me:

The more precise our measuring becomes, the more the theories sound otherwise: the theories of Relativity, of Incompleteness, of Indeterminacy, of Uncertainty, and now, of Chaos are the great breakthroughs of the 20th century.

This is perhaps the natural offshoot of the infinite coastling: as we know and measure more and more, what we don’t know becomes more crucial, to the point where we need to measure what we can’t measure. Of course the vocabulary shifts.

I’m more interested than ever in the relationship between words and numbers, thanks to my recent mathematical experiences (the timing of this essay is pure coincidence; funny how I say that over and over again). Didn’t numbers exist before organisms capable of language existed? Sure they did. But is it possible to harness those numbers without language? Can a bacterium add? Of course not; but it can divide. And don’t forget: even a pine cone knows the Fibonacci series.

Whether one is crossing the tundra in caribou skins or pounding the pavement in four-inch heels, to measure is to make a personal connection to the perceived world.… To measure is to make a connection. To do it without a net is thrilling.

I haven’t worn a watch in years. I just never called it dancing before.