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FAITH IN FIGURES

THE MEASURE OF REALITY
Quantification and Western Society,
1250-1600
By Alfred W. Crosby
Cambridge 245pp $24.95

By now, you've surely read at least one scary story about the ''year 2000 problem''--the cataclysm that will unfold as computers, accustomed to expressing the year in only two digits, fail to recognize the new century and go haywire. Hospitals might confuse newborns with centenarians. Banks could have trouble reconciling accounts. Even elevators may stop dead in their tracks to await maintenance.

No one knows, of course, just how nettlesome this problem will be. But it raises an interesting question. How did we get to this pass? By what process did enumeration, quantification, classification, and calculation--all tasks that computers have made easy--come to infuse our daily lives? How the numerate urge developed and blossomed is the subject of this gracefully written book by Alfred W. Crosby, a professor of history, geography, and American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Drawing liberally on histories of artists, musicians, clockmakers, astronomers, and bookkeepers of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Crosby constructs a convincing account of how different forces came together to elevate quantification as a social and economic good in Western European society.

Crosby is mindful of Chinese abacus-counting, Hindu-Arabic numerals, and other non-Western contributions. He also acknowledges that ''finger reckoning,'' calendars, and other examples of numeration predate the period he illumines. But dates were usually approximations, and distances were typically marked off by the days it took to cover them on foot. There were no signs for plus or minus, divide or equal, much less for square root. It was the quality of things, rather than their quantity, that interested medieval Europeans.

Not until the late Middle Ages, Crosby contends, did they begin to think in terms of quanta, and to apply quanta to daily life. One important factor driving this revolution: the growth of an urban class of merchants and manufacturers. Thus by 1335, the French city of Amiens had begun alerting its citizens when they should go to work, when to eat, and when to quit work, using a bell rung at regular times of day. Navigators carrying goods short distances along the Mediterranean or the Bay of Biscay began consulting portolani, or early maps, to avoid treacherous coastlines and obtain approximate compass courses.

The urge to quantify acquired more sophisticated application in three critical areas, Crosby notes: written music, painting, and accounting. Composers experimented with mathematical proportions and meter, while painters focused on geometric perspective. And Fra Luca Pacioli, who popularized but did not invent double-entry bookkeeping, helped smooth the course of commerce.

''The thought of Luca Pacioli with his ledger elicits no sense of awe,'' concedes Crosby. Yet double-entry bookkeeping ''was and is a means of soaking up and holding in suspension and then arranging and making sense out of masses of data that previously had been spilled and lost.'' In like fashion, Crosby helps us fathom the arcane past--and understand our number-driven civilization.

BY KAREN PENNAR



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PHOTO: Cover, "The Measure of Reality"

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