Saturday, 13 January 2007

The Metric System in the USA

by Charles Pooter

I'm not a weights and measures nerd and I use the Metric system and SI units for my work and in everyday life, but I do find some (usually scientifically minded) people's obsession with getting rid of traditional units in everyday life quite fascinating.

thesolo on Slashdot ("News for nerds") asks "How Can We Convert the US to the Metric System?".

From his short article:

I personally deal with European scientists on a daily basis, and find our lack of common measurement to be extremely frustrating. Are we so entrenched with imperial units that we cannot get our fellow citizens to simply learn something new?
I find this question entirely wrong-headed. Why should people in the US give up their traditional units to suit the needs of science or big business? What stops him dealing in Metric if he wants to? Anyway, it is an interesting question and it garnered many insightful and amusing responses on the Slashdot board:
If you want to use the metric system in your research, then use the metric system. What's stopping you? Why do you need the government to change the speed limit signs if your problem is interoperating with scientists?
- porkchop_d_clown
The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that's the way I likes it!
- Curtman
What's really strange is working in Mexico, where they never officially use US units. Milk is sold in galones (gallons, yup, right on the label). Talking about small measurements is quite often done in pulgadas (inches). They don't use millas (miles) in normal conversation, but they all seem to have a general sense of what they are. Yardas may be well know because of American football, and Fahrenheit makes no sense to them, but they're fairly well versed in libras (pounds).
- Balthisar
The Celsius scale is calibrated to the freezing and boiling points of water. This is great for scientific use, but comes at the expense of sensitivity for day-to-day use. It is seldom that anyone wants to know the temperature outside as a fraction of the temperature required to make water boil (though the freezing point is of more use), and temperatures in habitable areas of the earth seldom exceed 50C. That means the upper half of the scale is not being used. Since a Fahrenheit degree is finer-grained than a Celsius degree and the endpoints of the scale more closely match the range of habitable temperatures, it makes more sense to use F outside of science and cooking, IMO.
- Metasquares
Some dirty secrets for you all who think the rest of the world has adopted: a lot of the Commonwealth nations have adopted the metric only in an official capacity. Go to the UK and see how often you see Imperial units.
- smack.addict
Well we don't often see them in commercial use here in England, but almost everyone I know uses them when talking of heights and distances.

My main objection to enforced Metrication (apart from it being a Government fiat) is that, in everyday life at least, it can lead to less accuracy not more. I remember reading an article on the web (which annoyingly I can't find) which talk about how cookery books on the continent often use improvised measurements such as "cups" and "handfuls" because Metric units are not conceptually very useful for this purpose and because a traditional, more human, alternative (e.g. pints and ounces) is not available to them. Also, if a standardised, yet traditional, set of units is outlawed then, in time, new, more diverse, sets of human-sized measurements will re-evolve. Unlike feet, inches, gallons and pounds, these new new units will be non-standard, inaccurate and will vary from region to region and industry to industry. It seems that in Britain we finally managed to codify and standardise our units only to then sweep them all away.


Thomas said...

If the Celsius degree is too coarse, it can (and usually is) divided decimally. As for Kelvin, rarely used outside the laboratory, would be useful in Antarctica, where temperatures are rarely above zero in either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

Charles Pooter said...

I've never seen decimals used in weather reports.