The shape (and size) of things to come

Once a week I take my mother to an audio book library.

My car radio only picks up SAFM and because the dreary worthiness of our national broadcaster occasionally tempts me into driving my car off a cliff, I sometimes pick something out for myself.

I have recently finished listening to (over and over again – at least eight times in a row) “About the Size Of It – the Common Sense Approach to Measuring Things” by Warwick Cairns.

Aside from being a charming, old-school, discourse on how our bodies and what we do with them have determined the various measuring systems humans have adopted, the book hints, to my mind, at deeper philosophical insights into the nature of society and history … and, ultimately, our evolving humanity.

The flow of “About The Size Of It” traces the use of feet, hands and thumbs in determining the measures that humans have used throughout Europe and Asia – right back to the builders of Stonehenge who appear to have used a “megalithic foot” as the basic unit of construction – i.e. one about as long as a man’s foot wrapped in a leather slipper, as opposed to the later “foot” of European and US measurement which is about as long as a workman’s boot.

Warwick Cairns sounds like an amiable old duffer – which is not entirely due to the fact that my consumption of the text was via the reading by clearly ‘amiable old duffer’ Christian Rodska. But you will see below that if anything Cairns looks like a young and clever Hobbit.

The charm of the book lies in its gentle admonishment of endless attempts to impose measuring systems (especially the metric system) on humans who inevitably revert back to methods and units that suit them and that are practically based on hands, feet, thumbs, how far we – and our horse or ox –  can plough in one day, the amount of liquid we can comfortably drink (or hold in our bladders) and the weight of small rocks we can easily hold in each hand and compare.

The “deeper” implications of the book are revealed in a quaint cascading explanation that I had actually come across before in one of those awful “Isn’t this Amazing – PASS IT ON!!!” emails.

It goes something like this: the size of the rocket boosters on the space-shuttle are ultimately determined by the width of two horses’ backsides. The sweet – but I suspect not entirely accurate – explanation consists of describing the link between the rail system that carries the boosters, the carriage axle-makers who made the first axles for locomotives, the fact that their machinery was set up for horse carriages and that carriage tracks throughout Europe and the USA were precisely the width of two horses side-by-side … because that is the optimal configuration for drawing a carriage.

I am less interested in the accuracy of this illustrative example than I am in the idea that the structure and technology of our society – the momentum and trajectory of the complex system of human history – might be shaped by basic and natural limitations and potentials.

Jared Diamond’s 1997 “Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13000 years” explores this matter more directly, although in a more difficult and in-depth way.

Diamond’s book deserves a full review of it’s own – it is a complex and extremely wide ranging explanation of why societies throughout the world had differential success – particularly competitively. He explores how climate and geography – down to the detail of which plants and animals where available for domestication – and how, for example, advantages get locked in through early urbanisation leading to the spread, and therefore growing immunity, to certain diseases – which in turn has led to the domination of some societies over others.

Both these books explore how our society and history is rooted in our nature and the nature of the physical world – and also how the momentum of our society and history resists change.

For me what is interesting is how our technologies are pushing at the boundary of the limitations imposed by our physical and natural being and by the complex ordering of our societies’ development – holding out the promise and threat that these might no longer determine what we could become.

6 thoughts on “The shape (and size) of things to come

  1. “Over and above our love of odd facts, this tale about railroad gauges succeeds because of the imagery of its play on words: space shuttle technology was designed not by a horse’s ass (figuratively, some overpaid government know-it-all) but because of a horse’s ass (literally, the width of that particular portion of equine anatomy). People find this notion amusing, feeding the story’s popularity as charmed readers to pass it along to others in a cascade of forwards. Were it not for this internal play on words, this entire breathless “Did you know?. . .” would likely die a quiet and unnoticed death, because when you get right down to it, why rails are spaced the way they are isn’t all that interesting a topic to most people.

    “Very interesting, educational, historical, completely true, and hysterical”? One out of five, maybe. ”

    – Snopes –

    1. I saw the Snopes comment – but I was irritated by the fact that it failed to source the story accurately ie as lifted body and soul from The Size of It – which seriously downgraded Snopes in my estimation – although I still consult it with every new bit of PASS ON NOW rubbish that hits my inbox

  2. Well done on condensing down your thoughts on the book – I found it really interesting and it made me want to go and reread “About the Size of It”…and also get hold of a copy of “Guns, Germs and Steel”!

  3. Guns, Germs & Steel is one of the most interesting books I’ve read. Much preferred it to Collapse which I’ve only read bits of. I did read the Rwanda part and I am not sure I buy his story. After all, post the genocide, Rwanda has started thundering along developmentally. I haven’t been but by all accounts it’s becoming a bit of a model African country.

    1. I just finished Collapse … and I have to agree … he is TOO concerned with environmental factors and not enough with politics and economics. He was amazingly strong on the very early shapers in Guns, Germs + Steel (the issues that gave head starts to some) but because he doesn’t appear to “do” politics and culture himself, his explanation of why some societies collapse and some are able to change the patterns that might lead to their collapse is … too pat? Anyway, I will do a proper review … seeing as I went through the whole slog of reading … and it DID become a slog by the end. But thanks for engaging here Jannie .. I appreciate it … and look me up when you come to CT … get me on

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