Alder, Ken (Kenneth L. Alder)

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Alder, Ken (Kenneth L. Alder)

PERSONAL:

Married; children: one daughter. Education: Harvard University, A.B, 1981; Ph.D., 1991.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Evanston, IL. Office—Department of History, Northwestern University, 1881 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, IL 60208-2220. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]

CAREER:

Educator, novelist, and author of nonfiction. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, assistant professor, 1991, associate professor, 1997-2003, Anderson associate professor of history and director of Science in Human Culture program, 2003—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Senior fellow, Northwestern University Center for Humanities, 1994-95; Dexter Prize, Society for the History of Technology, 1998, for Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815; Scholar's Award for Science, National Science Foundation; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, Newberry Library; Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities fellow; Henry R. Phillips research grant in jurisprudence, American Philosophical Society; Dingle Prize, British Society for the History of Science, Davis Prize, History of Science Society, both 2003, and Kagan Prize, Historical Society, 2004, all for The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World.

WRITINGS:

The White Bus (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1987.

Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1997.

The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World, Free Press (New York, NY), 2002.

The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession, Free Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including the Journal of American History, Robotics and Automation, and Science.

SIDELIGHTS:

Historian Ken Alder is the author of both fiction and nonfiction. Stemming from his interest in the changing face of technology in the eighteenth century, he has written Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815, and he explores the creation of the metric system of measurement in The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World. He also wrote The White Bus, a 1987 novel about a teenager's attempts to deal with the issue of racism, and the 2007 nonfiction work, The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession.

The predominantly black student body of San Francisco's Martin Luther King High School calls Caucasian Ira Allen's mode of transportation "the white bus," thus explaining the title of Alder's 1987 novel. Ira defies his parents' plans to send him to an elite private school because he wants to attend the same school as his black friend Marc. At King High School, Ira tries to identify with the school's African American majority as he learns to talk jive and dates a black girl named Jessica. He eventually views Jessica and other African American students "as individuals, not representatives of the group," wrote Hazel Rochman in Booklist, who noted that the novel could be "too didactic" but praised its "sharp, often humorous candor." Betty Lukas, reviewing The White Bus in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noted that while Alder's characters are not fully realized, "some of Ira's internal musings are wry and touching." A Publishers Weekly contributor judged The White Bus to be "promising" and concluded that "the narrative displays a lively intensity that helps to compensate for its flaws."

In Engineering the Revolution, Alder argues that Marxist philosophy misinterprets the French Revolution. He contends that from the dismantling of the French monarchy through the violent and bloody revolutionary government to the militaristic empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, little actually changed in France, especially with regard to industry and technology. Alder maintains that, despite political change, French social structure and practice remained relatively stable. He illustrates this thesis largely by examining the country's production of arms and ammunition as well as the governmental bodies that controlled technology. According to R.W. Mackey, reviewing Engineering the Revolution for Choice, the author ably includes material from "extensive primary and secondary sources," and Mackey recommended the volume for "upper-division undergraduates and above."

The Measure of All Things tells the story of how the metric system of measurement was created in the 1790s by two French astronomers. Scientists of the time hoped to create a standard, accurate measurement system that could be used throughout the world. They determined that one meter was to be exactly one-ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-Andre Mechain were charged with finding out precisely what this distance was. Their seven-year effort to measure one meridian arc, and the mistake made and covered up by Mechain in his calculations, is the subject of Alder's book. The result, Douglas Johnson wrote in the Spectator, is "a straightforward and clear narrative of what happened. But an enormous amount of research has gone into this book." A critic for Science News found the book to be "an enchanting portrait" and "a marvelous tale." "Alder's writing sparkles with wit and life. The book melds historical documentary, riveting biography, scientific discourse (on error analysis and measurement), and personal essay," Andrew S. Fazekas wrote in Astronomy.

Alder's 2007 work, The Lie Detectors, uses, as Alder explains on his Web site, "the history of the American polygraph to examine the relationship between science and justice in the twentieth century." Alder's book follows the careers of the creators and early proponents of the lie detector, focusing particularly on John Larson, who attempted to destroy his invention later, and Leonarde Keeler, who worked with Larson and later developed the polygraph into a more user-friendly machine for extracting confessions. Also important in the book are August Volmer of the Berkeley Police Department, who began using it in interrogations as a substitute for brute force, and William Moulton Marston, who adapted the technology for non-police work. The polygraph, though many claim that it is unreliable, remains a cornerstone of law enforcement and national security. Adler argues that lie detectors give a false sense of certainty and thus actually pose a threat to the legal system. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, found this a "fascinating story," as well as an "engrossing portrait of two lives ruled by the lie detector." However, for Washington Monthly reviewer David Wallace-Wells, The Lie Detectors was a "shaggy dog, unruly with anecdotes and built loosely around the narratives of two outsize Jazz Age personalities." A Kirkus Reviews critic described the same work as "quaintly detailed, if frustrating, Americana, with glimpses of Big Brother ever lurking in the background."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Astronomy, January, 2003, Andrew S. Fazekas, review of The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World, p. 95.

Booklist, September 15, 1987, Hazel Rochman, review of The White Bus, p. 107; September 1, 2002, Gavin Quinn, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 32; December 15, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession, p. 7.

Canadian Journal of History, August, 1999, Howard G. Brown, review of Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815, p. 280.

Choice, October, 1997, R.W. Mackey, review of Engineering the Revolution, p. 362.

Historian, summer, 1999, Carol E. Harrison, review of Engineering the Revolution, p. 941.

History: Review of New Books, winter, 1998, Eric A. Arnold, Jr., review of Engineering the Revolution, p. 82.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1987, review of The White Bus, p. 1174; July 1, 2002, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 925; February 1, 2007, review of The Lie Detectors, p. 107.

Legal Intelligencer, April 20, 2007, Leonard H. Becker, review of The Lie Detectors.

Library Journal, August, 2002, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 135.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 27, 1987, Betty Lukas, review of The White Bus, p. 4.

New Statesman, September 23, 2002, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 53.

Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1987, Sybil S. Steinberg, review of The White Bus, p. 79; July 1, 2002, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 48.

Science News, November 9, 2002, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 303.

Spectator, October 19, 2002, Douglas Johnson, review of The Measure of All Things, p. 57.

Village Voice, November 24, 1987, review of The White Bus, p. 62.

Washington Monthly, April 1, 2007, David Wallace-Wells, review of The Lie Detectors, p. 54.

ONLINE

CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/ (December 12, 2002), Todd Leopold, "Why the Metric System Is Wrong: Author Takes ‘The Measure of All Things.’"

Ken Alder Home Page,http://www.kenalder.com (August 18, 2007).

Northwestern University Web site,http://www.history.northwestern.edu/ (August 18, 2007), "Ken Alder."