I READ far more theological implication than the director presumably intended in Measuring Mass: The last artefact (BBC4, 15 September) — “presumably”, because the programme was so arch and mannered in its presentation that any number of profound readings were probably hidden in its depths. Or, again, perhaps it was so superficial that the surface was its sole plane of existence.
It chronicled a recent triumph in a little-celebrated branch of science, that of metrology — not, as I initially supposed, the study of misspelling, but the serious pursuit of accurate measurement.
As our technology grows ever more microscopic, it is essential that we know how exactly large or small things are. And it is equally essential for such measurements to be adopted all over the world, so that laboratories everywhere can be confident that, when they talk about an amount of anything, they mean the same thing.
We saw a breakneck history of measuring, how varied and locally variable it was until the French revolutionaries determined to sweep away everything and bring in an entirely objective universal system (I’ve always noticed, by the way, that French organ specifications still indicate the pitch of a pipe in pieds; so not quite universal, even in France).
More recently, our units of length, time, electronic force, etc. have all been redefined so that they now relate to something like sub-atomic oscillations: it is only the unit of mass which related, ultimately, to a thing — the kilogram, from which all others derive, is a perfect metal cylinder held in a vault in Paris.
That is no longer good enough: the reference point must be a fixed constant that any laboratory can replicate. Here was the theology: a man-made object must give way to the universal — or, as we might think, the Divine. In this case, God’s gift to his creation of the Planck constant. But how exactly should we define that?
The international chase was on: metrologists throughout the world rising to the challenge, the programme encouraging them to ham up to their national stereotypes, displaying universal good humour and competitive co-operation. The eventual unanimous acceptance of a new definition was a moving apotheosis, a new dawn of, simultaneously, human achievement and, in the face of the physical universe and its wonders, human modesty. God, of course, is a mathematician.
Turning from order to chaos, Alma’s Not Normal (BBC2, Mondays) presents the indignities and futilities of seeking to negotiate life in Britain today — if you are unmotivated, unqualified, and surrounded by alcoholism and addiction. Yet moral condemnation is undermined by unquenchable good humour. It’s genuine comedy, built on affection and refusal to go under.
In Taskmaster (Channel 4, Thursdays), Greg Davies sets celebrities utterly ridiculous competitive challenges. Its overwhelming self-indulgence somehow transcends our reasonable irritation, becoming the point of the show.