Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 60.djvu/97

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SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE.

SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE.

THE METRIC SYSTEM.

To one of scientific tastes, who at the same time welcomes the recent American renaissance of the historical novel, or to one whose faith in the common sense of his countrymen may waiver on considering their apathy towards the metric system, a recent work by M. Bigourdan[1] will have great fascination. Nor are these words carelessly chosen, for a more fascinating work on any phase of the history of science has not appeared in recent years. It is true that the topic seems trite enough. All the world knows the story, or thinks it does; the French revolution, the general upheaval, the different systems proposed, Méchain's mistake in the longitude of Barcelona, the consequent error in the meter, the final adoption of the system by a large majority of the civilized countries, all this is familiar. But one has only to read a dozen pages of M. Bigourdan's work to find himself in the midst of a wealth of interesting history of which he probably never even heard.

The fact is, it needed some one connected with the Paris Observatory to write such a work, and even he could not have done it until of late. For although the observatory has long had in its possession the original documents deposited there by virtue of a decree of the year 12, it is only recently that it received the valuable manuscripts relating to the early history of the system, which were given by Mme. Laugier, who had received them from her father, M. Mathieu, who in turn had them from a no less important actor in the drama than M. Delambre himself.

It is impossible to give in a few words any worthy résumé of the work, or adequately to speak of its style. It opens with a chapter on the precursors of the reform, going back even to the system under Charlemagne, to the effects of feudalism and to the efforts of such early leaders as Mouton, Huyghens and Wren. This is followed by a statement of the action of the Assembly on Talleyrand's proposition, the history of the provisional meter, the work of the temporary commission, the efforts at nomenclature and so on through the establishing of the system on a scientific foundation. Then come the long story of its adoption by France, ending with the law of July 4, 1837; the longer story of its struggles for recognition in other countries, and the later history of the International Bureau and its remarkable metrological labors at St. Cloud.

Still less is it possible to give, in the limited space at command, any idea of the thrilling historic action so unassumingly stated in the documents at M. Bigourdan's command. The difficulties of men like Delambre and Méchain, unable to make surveys without being suspected of signaling to the enemy, arrested as spies because they wished to visit their triangulation stations, imprisoned, insulted, limited in the bare necessities of life, the only wonder is that other errors than that of Méchain did not find frequent place in the work. 'I am an academician,' said Delambre to a sansculotte who

  1. 'Le systéme métrique des poids et mesures. Son éstablishment et sa propagation graduelle, avec l'histoire des operations qui ont servi a déterminer le métre et le kilogramme.' Paris, Gauthier-Villars, 1901; pp. vi+458; price 10 fr.