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Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists – a review


Simon Winchester gets very precise in his latest book ‘The Perfectionists’. I like books that combine science, discovery and history. In his prologue, Winchester defines and differentiates the terms accuracy and precision. It becomes an underlying theme throughout the book.

In my Biology classes, I routinely guided students through a lab activity in which data was collected to graph a variation in a population. The lab book suggested using dried beans. I found that this was not very satisfying to me or the students as their rulers were just not precise enough. I worked in an old school originally built in 1910 and renovated in 1930. I was snooping around in an old storage closet and discovered, much to my delight, a set of old calipers and micrometers. I knew immediately that I would apply these old instruments to the measurement of beans, and just for added interest I also included measuring grasshopper femurs. With this newly available precision, the lab was a total hit, with many students collecting way beyond the minimum required data set for this lab activity. Bonus! Measuring skills learned were well in excess of any set curriculum. Perhaps a life-long appreciation for precision was developed.

I had not thought much about the invention of micrometers or Vernier Scales until I read ‘The Perfectionists’.

I was so intrigued with the narrative of the book that it took me about 3 or 4 chapters to notice the smaller print superheading for the chapters outlined a level of precision listed as tolerance starting with 0.1 leading through quantum leaps to 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01.

As I expected from reading some of his previous books, Simon Winchester made connections with a lot of apparently disparate facts. He begins with steam engines and cylinders and makes links to Harrison’s clocks and the precision necessary to determine longitude during the Age of Sail. We develop an understanding of precision as it applies to horology and the bore of the cannons. We learn about 19th century urbanization, the rise of the middle class and the precise pick-proof locks developed to protect their homes and possessions. Winchester takes us through a short history of guns and the importance of interchangeable parts. We can imagine Queen Victoria shooting a very accurate rifle, then Winchester shows us how the development of precise screw threads ultimately led to the invention of the micrometer as well as fine adjustments on microscopes and telescopes.

There is one chapter for car buffs where we learn of the similarities and divergent pathways of Henry Ford and Henry Royce. Six Miles High is a fascinating chapter about the invention and inner workings of jet engines. I wasn't sure if I was ever going to fly again after learning how precise these engines must be made to avoid a crash or disintegration in mid-air.

I was intrigued to learn how camera lenses are made and the issues regarding the Hubble telescope deployment. Winchester explains that the polishing of the Hubble mirror was an example of high precision but poor accuracy: “the mirror was perfect, and by its own standards, so it was. But its standards were disastrously imperfect, inaccurate, and wrong.” We are inspired by an engineer who saved the Hubble with an idea he got while taking a shower.

I knew that satellites were involved with using a GPS. When I start up my Garmin, it tells me how many satellites it is talking to. I knew that triangulation was somehow involved. Yet, I did not know the relationship to the speed of light. In ‘The Perfectionists’ I read a brief history from Sputnik and the space race and to Ronald Regan releasing GPS technology to the public for the greater good.

In the penultimate chapter Winchester explains precision at the molecular level and challenges us to think if it will ever be greater than that. In his final chapter, he talks about the necessity in our culture to have both handmade objects of beauty and precision machine-made objects of beauty.

Several times as I was reading ‘The Perfectionists’, I thought about times when I was teaching younger students about measurement. I recalled discussing the level of precision between measuring tiny specimens with a microscope versus measuring the distance between a house and the school or even the distance between Calgary and Edmonton. I should have anticipated Winchester in the afterword of this book would lead us through the history of measurement leading to the precise and standard measurements we use around the world (Système international d'unités - SI). That precision is now defined using atomic clocks.

I recommend Simon Winchester’s book ‘The Perfectionists’ for all science enthusiasts including science teachers and science students. Teachers will find many stories to tell so they can increase student interest and engagement.

Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists – a review

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