How Prussian Precision Became Political
Presented by Kathryn Olesko, Georgetown University
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Talk: 3:00 p.m. EST
When we think of geopolitics and science or technology, Cold War nuclear weapons most often come to mind. But in an earlier era measurement itself was a contentious geopolitical issue, one that extended far beyond the now well-known example of the competition to measure longitude in the 18th c. My lecture addresses how state measurement projects led by Prussian physicists and astronomers--including weights and measures, the calendar and time, infrastructure development, and mapping and meridian arcs--from the Seven Years War to just after WWI were transformed by geopolitical considerations further east, including with Silesia, the lands of the Polish Partitions, "Mitteleuropa," and Russia. Over this contentious space, measurement became a political weapon in the hands of nations and empires, one that could unite, meliorate, and modernize, or divide and destroy. The political nature of precision in measurement was not lost on defeated German generals who blamed the loss of the Great War on the imprecision of their maps. The lecture explores and exposes tensions still in evidence today: between on the one hand the centrifugal forces of nation-building, national identity and national secrets, and on the other, the globalization of standards of measurement as they evolved across the nineteenth century.
Kathryn Olesko is a historian of physics at Georgetown University. Her main research interests include measuring practices, science pedagogy, science and engineering in Germany (especially Prussia), and comparative nuclear cultures. She is the author of Physics as a Calling and over fifty articles. She edited twelve volumes of Osiris. Her current projects include a study of Gustav Kirchhoff as a student, a short biography of Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, and an examination of German nuclear culture during the Cold War.