Metric, Schmetric…

p1040376I was happily slurping my bowl of instant pho the other day while idly perusing the nutritional data on the label when I spied an amazing thing. The net weight was specified in grams. This was metric soup! I looked at another item, a can of beans. Here again a metric value. Even the green guy on that can of corn was metric. What is going on here? Have some insidious agents from a clandestine EU bureaucracy infiltrated our sacred domain? Have we been hacked? Horrors!

Actually, this is nothing new. I clearly remember a display of similarly labeled products p1040377displayed in a classroom at Cal Poly more than fifty years ago. The fact is, we have been on the metric system for all practical purposes even longer than that. This is a fact that was overlooked by the erstwhile Jimmy Carter during his sweater clad years in the White House, by the legion of petulant haranguers  pining for the chance to buy a metric cup of coffee (8 oz. = 237 cc), and especially by all those for whom science is religion and should be the measure of all things -metrically determined, of course.

p1040378Alright, I kid. I also scoff. While the metric system has been widely accepted and used, its merits are generally misunderstood. The justifications for adopting it miss the real reason it came into existence; standardization. Up until the time of Columbus, world trade was relatively limited and local weights and measures prevailed no matter where you took your corn. But as communications improved and trade increased, the ability to order goods by weight or volume across national borders became critical. it was this motivation that lead to the creation of the metric system. Then it was adopted by France during the reign of Napoleon and has spread across the globe since then.

p1040379
We use the metric system often, especially in nutrition and medicine.

Here is where the system shines. The difference between that and the British Imperial system is that he metric system is coherent. It was developed over a period of time as an integral whole, whereas the Imperial (and American) systems grew out of a myriad of specialized systems.But even though units differ, these systems are all tied together such that local variations no longer exist.

So why object to the metric system? Why haven’t we made the switch? Let me be clear. I do not object to the metric system, but I do object to some of the arguments made in its favor. As to why it has not been adopted, a passage from the Wikipedia article on the history of the system is very revealing.

In 1790, a proposal floated by the French to Britain and the United States, to establish a uniform measure of length, a meter based on the period of a pendulum with a beat of one second, was defeated in the British Parliament and United States Congress. The underlying issue was failure to agree on the latitude for the definition, since gravitational acceleration and therefore the length of the pendulum, is proportional to latitude: each party wanted a definition according to a major latitude passing through their own country.

Alas, as is ever true, politics ultimately rules, and so we have the situation as it is today. Political consideration must always be accommodated, even though there are now universally accepted standards in place that require no earthly reference. Sadly, the whole issue has fallen into the red-blue conflagration and is not likely to resolved, or even taken up, anytime soon.

So why did Jimmy Carter fail? one must consider the character of the systems and remember that the impetus for the metric system was standardization. The reality was -and is- that adopting the metric system would give little or no benefit to the average American. In our day to day lives, we benefit from the standards that exist but, other than the numbers (as on those labels), nothing will change. How we fry our eggs, mow our lawns, drive to work, and all our other activities, will not be impacted at all. Moreover, if adopting the metric system in place of the current units included adopting European standards (which I think would be the inevitable follow-on) for such things as nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and a myriad more, an enormous expenditure would be required and in the end, we would have nothing new, nothing better, just nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and so forth.

Hidden in all the noise is the fact that most of the English and American units of measure were developed at a time when precise measurements were rarely needed. The peasant trying to cultivate his 40 acres with a wooden plow and maybe a horse, hardly needed to calculate anything to four decimal places. Nor would it matter to him if it were described as 16.19 hectares. He could pace off the size of his field knowing that his foot was, well, a foot. His outstretched arms were his height which would be somewhere between five and six feet. He would likely know that there were 640 acres to a square mile, or a section.  In effect, he carried his standards with him. It is this human element that the metric system eliminates. Our hardworking peasant would have no reference with which to estimate anything in metric units.

There is more. The metric system is decimal based and why not? We have ten fingers to count on so it seems natural. The irony is that the development of computers ultimately required some pretty fancy software to do decimal arithmetic. Computers, at least the ones we use most, are inherently binary. One exercise for software developers early on was to code division such that 4/2 was not reported as 1.999999… Ironically, the old systems of measure rely heavily on division by two, something which is easy for humans to do physically. In liquid measure, for example, the units were jack, pint, gill , quart, pottle, gallon, each a multiple of two. Thus two pottles make a gallon and so on.

Proponents of the metric system ought to pay more attention to their arguments. Case in point, the supposed difficulty of the English system. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, in response to a comment made by Sheldon as to why we don’t use the metric system, Amy says, “…because Americans can’t handle the metric system?” But consider, if the metric system is so much easier, it would be no problem. In other words she is saying that Americans are too stupid to understand the system. But the fact is that we have no problem with the English system when we use it. The admonition “use it or lose it” has real meaning here. In that it is coherent in design, the metric system is easier and we have no problem using it when the need arises.

As for ease of calculation, there really is no difference. it is quite simple to conjure up example problems that demonstrate this but they are very limited. The fact is, anyone who is reasonable adept at mental arithmetic will find it easy to multiply 3/4 by 5/8. (The answer is 30/8, or 3 – 3/4.) The decimal equivalent will send most everyone looking for the calculator or pencil and paper. Try it for your self.

So why haven’t we adopted the metric system? The answer is that we have in many ways but as I have stated, there is no pressing need. Do you wake up every morning dreading another day without it? Of course not. It would have no useful impact on our daily lives. I suspect, however, that it will take over gradually. From things I have heard, it may be that many teachers are simply neglecting to teach the English system of measurement. stressing the metric instead, even though they have an obligation to teach what is the accepted standard. The demand does not exist because it does not matter whether our speedometers indicate miles or kilometers per hour, or for that matter, furlongs per fortnight*. (A standard of measure peculiar to Cal Poly engineers. A furlong is 1/8 mile, another binary example. How long is a fortnight? Give me a couple of weeks…)

And there it is. Those trying to push us into the metric system are generally misguided and want it for all the wrong reasons. By adopting it, we have nothing to lose but our humanity.

  • A furlong per fortnight was the insiders gag at in the EL department at Poly in my day, far too long ago. One furlong/fortnight, or f/f, comes out to about 6mm per second. Calculating the speed of light in f/f was der riguer  for any self respecting engineering student.

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