Measure This


August arrived last week. Its arrival brightened my outlook and mood, because it signals that the end of the packed Cape Cod summer tourist season is in sight. On the morning after Labor Day, my local roads and favorite restaurants will return to normal.

But August doesn’t exist. Nor do days, weeks, months, or seasons. Not even time itself. They all are products of our own fabrication.

Here’s Augustine of Hippo speaking to us about time from the fourth century: “How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity.”

As Christophe Galfard writes in The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond:

A clock that is moving through space at a very fast speed does not tick at the same rate as a slow-moving watch gently attached to your wrist as you stroll on a tropical beach. The idea of a universal time—a godlike clock that could somehow sit outside our universe and measure, in one go, the movement of everything in it, how its evolution unfolds, how old it is and all that—does not exist.

By assigning arbitrary quantities to abstractions like time, we avoid chaos and bring operational sanity to our existence as a species.

I don’t use the word "species" haphazardly. Humankind stands alone in its ambition to measure all things. The science of it is known as metrology.

Birds, for example, don’t measure the length and breadth of branches. They just build a nest.

But when we mimic birds and go flying back and forth in airplanes, we surely die if we do not measure the amount of fuel we load on. 

The metric systems of China and the ancient Western world were in place before cuneiform writing (in Mesopotamia about 2,900 B.C.).

Even earlier, as long ago as 6,000 B.C., a system of measures was mandated by the advent of agriculture—to calculate the distribution of crops and the volume of food consumed by families.

With humankind’s transition from a nomadic lifestyle to farming, metrology was applied to managing population growth and avoiding famine.

Measurement enables us to convert any thing into numbers, equations, algorithms, or geometries. And if we can reduce everything to quantities, we can model the universe and our place in it, gaining some semblance of understanding and control.

Business process guru H. James Harrington put it this way in CIO magazine: "Measurement is the first step. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it." 

Perhaps this is why men and women continue to struggle with the age-old question that Cole Porter so aptly put to music for the 1929 musical, Wake Up and Dream:

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

To hear Sinatra’s definitive version of the song, click here:

(Image: The Nile in approximately 3,000 B.C. was measured as six royal cubits and one palm)

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  • William J McKay
    commented 2017-08-12 09:05:34 -0400
    This is really interesting but a conundrum for me: “Even earlier, as long ago as 6,000 B.C., a system of measures was mandated by the advent of agriculture—” The Second in Command down there in DC says the world/ universe is only 5200 years old. So Two Pence or Yaremko need to do some math???? I think I’ll go with you on this one. Love the Cole Porter ref. We are heading to a wedding in CT today… so for you I shall leave my watch at home and go with the flow.