September 17, 2003
Weight of the World

There are fundamental philosophical differences between the imperial measurement system and the metric system. The imperial system is based on human measurements, whether it's the span of an arm or the length of a man's thumb (whence comes the inch). By contrast, the metric system starts with the known world as the unit, rather than the vicissitudes of human proportion. So the meter is intended as one ten-millionth of the quadrant of the earth, for example, and the metric thermometer is based on where H2O freezes and boils.

Many interesting stories branch and flow off this.

Of particular interest is that if you are not measuring off natural and immutable measures (like the earth) then you need to find or make some physical thing upon which to base the measurements, since the thumb's mileage may vary. Thus was born the British "yard bar," so that there was a kind of ur-yard that rulers and measurements could be derived from. A physical, metal bar. The problems with such a system are innumerable, but in the end, I think we'd agree that the greatest failure was when the Parliament fire of 1834 melted the fucking bar down and no one knew anymore exactly how long it was.

The artist Walter de Maria moves through these histories (whether he knows them or not) and emerges with poetry. In Soho since 1979, hs Broken Kilometer "is composed of 500 highly polished, round, solid brass rods, each measuring two meters in length and five centimeters (2") in diameter." When I stand there, part of the beauty for me is the deliberate rendering of an absolute and immense measurement (1/4,000,000 of the earth) into units that are somehow human in proportion and sensibility. It provides us with the grammar to imagine a kilometer (and thus the earth) in human terms.

Similarly, De Maria's companion piece, two years previous, was the 1977 Sunken Earth Kilometer in Kassel. It's that same brass rod, one kilometer long, unbroken, but sunken directly into the earth such that the tip is flush with the ground. I've seen it three times now, once every five years, and still don't quite know how to say it. It has something to do with a kind of compression, the experience of looking at something tiny and dreaming of something large. The kind of compression in which the weight (or width) of the world is made concrete and abstract, in a five centimeter circle on the ground. Somewhere there's a picture of Joseph Beuy's dog sniffing at that circle, it's one of my favorite photos in the world.

Meantimes, when that first British Yard Bar melted, they called in the Swiss mathematician Ferdinand Hassler (1770 - 1843) to implement a study on how to replace it. He was qualified to deal with topics of precise measurement; it was Hassler who engaged the first U.S. national coastal survey in 1832. Hassler's eccentric character and fascinating charge are all documented in a funny Harper's magazine article from 1879.

Which brings me to the thing that got me thinking about all this in the first place, which is Harper's magazine 2003. I only just now noticed that they publish online the Harper's "Weekly Review," and it's easily the most interesting thing I've read in the week they are reviewing.

From this week: Eight Israelis who were being investigated for terrorist attacks on Palestinians were released from custody, and six neo-Nazis were arrested in Germany for plotting to blow up a Jewish cultural center. Leni Riefenstahl died, as did Edward Teller. Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, claimed that Benito Mussolini's dictatorship was "much more benign" than Saddam Hussein's. "Mussolini did not murder anyone," he said. "Mussolini sent people on holiday to confine them."

It's something to do with those broken and sunken kilometers, I think, something to do with the kind of compression of the worldwideworld into a two inch circle. Something to do with noticing how even with all the many languages of the world, that if you just stack the events up, they rhyme with a logic all their own. Something to do with how a week is a completely arbitrary division of human lives, or even of the movement of the earth. But how like the broken kilometer, the week breaks something terrifyingly large into something human. And how yet when you stare deep enough into a week, how frighteningly large that is, as well.

Posted by kevin slavin at September 17, 2003 02:23 AM

"...and the metric thermometer is based on where H2O freezes and boils."

Kevin, you mean "where H2O freezes and boils in Paris." Your tired pose of objectivity bores me, metric system.

Posted by: dbrown on September 17, 2003 08:45 AM