Does a ruler set your heart racing? Would a new protractor make you feel a little giddy? Did you go into maths lessons with a hop, skip and jump when you were at school? No? Well me neither, but that doesn’t mean to say that measurement isn’t one of the most important aspects of the highly sophisticated lives we live.
Lord Kelvin pointed out that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. Those carefully chosen words seem self-evident to me, yet measurement is not something we accept naturally. Much human communication is though words, expression, tone or voice, touch and emotion – all of which are difficult to measure.
But all great advances in human endeavours have come about through our ability to measure things. The list is very long: healthcare, safety, architecture, transport, energy efficiency, food quality, and much more.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see what might be the world’s oldest clock, which could date from the 14th century. It currently stands in the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral which is well worth a visit even if you have no interest in early time pieces. Of course in the 14th century, and many years afterwards, accurate timekeeping was not possible. If you don’t know what time it is, you cannot co-ordinate people or events around you or across town. Nor do you know how long things take to do (like cook a soft-boiled egg or travel to Leeds).
Whilst it is interesting to look back at advances in measurement and understand the benefits they have brought, it’s also interesting to think about the things we can’t or don’t measure. Of course that list is a great deal longer than the many things we already measure. From my limited experiments with measuring time spent on different activities (focused work, day dreaming, wandering around) or the number of data-driven decisions we make in a day (not many), I concluded that it is possible to usefully measure more than we currently do, even though it is difficult and somewhat unnatural.
Benjamin Franklin famously tried to measure thirteen things that he considered important: silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, etc. He tracked his adherence to these virtues at least until he was 79 when he wrote about them, and resolved to follow them longer as they had brought him so much happiness. None of them are concepts that lend themselves easily to measurement. Yet if Franklin hadn’t measured his adherence to them, he would probably have forgotten them long before his 21st birthday.
Bernard Shaw once said that all progress depends on the unreasonable man. I suggest he was wrong; progress belongs to the man with a mind to measure.