One of the wonders of human psychology is how we deceive ourselves about the true nature of the world.
One of the triumphs of the human psyche is that – even while trapped within our own deception – we can break through and discover uncomfortable facts about the world. Facts that allow us to understand our limitations and learn how to overcome them. Experiments which allow us to experience our own blind spots are a classic example, but in fact we go much further than that.
We trust our measurements more than we trust ourselves. From basic measurements of length and time and mass, we have developed an infrastructure that allows us to make measurements – often simple in themselves – through which the nature of the Universe is revealed to us – despite our very human biases and blind spots. Sorry that sounds so pompous – but that’s how it is!
We make measurements and then we trust them more than our own eyes. If sensors tell us a light is flickering 100 times a second – we believe it – even though our eyes see nothing. If measurements indicate that continents are moving apart at 2 centimetres per year – we believe them – even though we experience nothing.
We have developed techniques of measurement that allow us to see ourselves and our world in richer detail than at any time in human history. Looking just through the open tabs on my browser I see have measurement ‘stories’ on all these themes:
- Body Mass Index by Country: A basic measurement but fascinating to see it plotted in this way
- The detection of the position of a football in a goal mouth – can that really work?.
- Scientists use air-dropped javelins to chart the motion of inaccessible Antarctic Glaciers and reveal the speed with which they are moving.
- The ISTI data bank with traceable measurements of the temperature of the air above the land surface of the Earth.
- The HadISDH database of humidity measurements above the land surface of the Earth, showing the moistening of the atmosphere
- Arctic Sea ice recorded daily showing the annual changes and revealing the recent excess melting.
- Measurements of the type and energy of particles in Cosmic rays may reveal details about nature of the Universe.
- Satellite measurements of the saltiness of seawater revealing fascinating patterns of circulation
In each case above, measuring things and comparing them with our expectations doesn’t simply provide a number – it allows us to view the world in new ways. And it allows us to extend our vision into the realms of the otherwise imperceptible, or the overwhelmingly vast. And that is why measurement matters!