The Great American Measurement Conundrum

by metricpioneer

Americans would do well to deem these three questions worthy of thoughtful consideration:

1) Why are so many Americans reluctant to embrace measurement harmony with every other nation on Earth by adopting SI (the International System of Units) and getting rid of its obsolete Imperial units?

2) Is American metrication a worthy goal? And

3) Why is the Metric System (as it was formerly known) better?

Americans fought long and hard to gain independence from England. We proudly commemorate the event every summer on the Fourth of July, a national holiday, yet ironically, we still use Imperial measurements.

Measure Compare

Why? Because we are accustomed to using inches and pounds. It is that simple. We learned how to measure ever since we can remember. Our parents and teachers taught us how to measure. We believe what our loved ones tell us and we remember the school lessons of our teachers. This is the way we have always measured. Tradition is a powerful motivator. The older we get, the harder it is to learn something new, especially something so hard-wired into our brains.

Why else? Fear! We are afraid of loosing part of ourselves. We fear that our individual identities may suffer irreparable damage, but this fear is irrational, because other nations have given up their obsolete measures and yet, they have indeed retained their identities with no adverse effect.

Answering the second question is easy. Yes! Just do a little research and educate yourself about all the merits of adopting a National Metrication Policy. Importing, exporting and labeling would be WAY simpler.

Answering the third question deserves consideration of some objective facts: Before humans were sophisticated enough to know about the vast array of things in the microscopic realm or in the seemingly boundless expanse of the Universe, they had no need for any whole unit of measure longer than a about a mile and shorter than about an inch, so those units were quite sufficient back then.

How much wood is required to burn a witch? How long is the foot of the king? A pint of beer seems like a reasonable serving: quaint measures for quaint times.

But humanity has moved beyond its Dark Ages. Science brings new challenges to measure things like sub-atomic particles and orbital distances of planets. Hunter-gatherers, ancient warring tribes and even subjects of the Roman Empire had no frame of reference to even understand that the observable Universe is about 880 yottameters or that our galaxy is a little less than one zettameter in diameter or that the average orbital distance of Earth is about 150 gigameters or that Earth weighs almost six thousand yottagrams or that our moon weighs 74 Yg or that a tardigrade is about one millimeter long or that the largest bacteria is 750 micrometers or that a human egg is about 120 micrometers or that a transistor gate is 25 nanometers or that DNA is 3 nm or that a hydrogen atom is 31 picometers in diameter and weighs 1.674 yoctogram or that the total mass of the Terran cryosphere is about 26 zettagrams.

Sure! You could measure all those things using quaint miles, inches, pounds and ounces, but you would end up with so many gazillion miles or pounds and ridiculously small fractions of an inch or an ounce that mathematical calculations would become a terribly cumbersome nightmare. It is no wonder that the United States ranks way down at number 31 in mathematics; even kids in Poland rank better at math than Americans! Perhaps it would be more appropriate for people in Poland to tell American jokes than the other way around when it comes to measurement competency.

Ask any school kid around the world how many meters in a kilometer and you get an immediate response: a thousand, of course. What an easy question! Ask an American kid how many yards in a mile and all you get is a blank stare. Even most American adults have to stop and scratch their heads or run to fetch a calculator.

People used about 250,000 different units of weights and measures in France before the French Revolution. The need for a national standard was totally obvious to the French.

Imperial China successfully standardized units for volume, but by 1936, official investigations uncovered 53 dimensions for the chi, varying from 200 millimeters to 1250 millimeters; 32 dimensions of the cheng, between 500 milliliters and 8 liters; and 36 different tsin, ranging from 300 grams to 2500 grams. Standard weights and measures are crucial for any nation to pragmatically function. China, the largest nation on Earth (by human population) was able to adopt a measurement system having its origins in Europe, so we know that such a feat is possible.

Of the three common ways that nations convert from traditional measurement systems to SI, the first is the quick route (which India used in the 1960s and several other nations including Australia and New Zealand) which is to simultaneously outlaw the use of pre-SI measurement, metricate, reissue all government publications and laws, and change education systems to SI. The changeover in India lasted from 1 April 1960, when SI measurements became legal, to 1 April 1962, when all other systems were banned. The Indian model was extremely successful and was copied over much of the developing world.

Now many Americans cringe at the very thought of outlawing their dear inches and pounds, but consider the Arab / Israeli conflict and how it seems that the two sides cannot agree on anything, yet everyone in the Middle East uses the same International System of Units. The way those people there seem to cling to ancient traditions, you would think that measures from the Quran or Tanakh would have survived well into modern times. An historian should wonder why Israel decided not to resurrect the cubit since clinging to tradition is such an important aspect of Judaism. You might say, Sure! It is probably much easier for little nations to undergo metrication, but the United States of America is the third largest nation on Earth.

The bigger the nation, the more difficult the task, but if the Arabs and Israelis can adopt SI; if China and India can undergo metrication, then surely, so can America. It is a daunting task for America, but it is well worth continuing the effort we began in 1866 with the Metric Act and resurrected in the 1970s which gave us soda pop in two-liter bottles. Do you remember how banks used to display current temperature in C and F?

American prescription medication is measured in milligrams and milliliters because no other option is workable. America is partly metric already; we just need to finish the job. You do not have to wait for the government to do it for you. This is America where YOU are the government. Just self-metricate right now. Learn SI and teach it to others. Memorize your height and weight in centimeters and kilograms. Put a Celsius-only thermometer on your front porch and look at it every morning. Forget Fahrenheit. Water boils at one hundred. Normal human body temperature is 37. Just remember this rhyme for Celsius weather:

30 is warm

20 is nice

10 is cold

0 is ice

Watch Al Jazeera for news given using only SI units. Write letters to publications like National Geographic and urge them to use SI only. Living in a perpetual state of transition is really getting old.

Here is a sample snippet from a recent news article: The robotic sub, about the size and shape of a baseball bat, was dropped down a 2,625-foot (800 meters) borehole into subglacial Lake Whillans in January.

The snippet clearly reveals that the original writer estimated how deep the robotic sub was dropped down a borehole, rounded to about 800 meters. Some Bozo editor later decided that Americans were too dumb to know what a meter is, so he got out a calculator and made believe that the random figure in feet would clarify matters.

Let us put an end to news articles cluttered with dual measurements! Measuring everything twice just seems so irrational and desperate. How embarrassing that our articles have to give us obsolete measures then parenthetically remind us of their equivalent SI measures! Let us not pretend anymore that obsolete Imperial measures are somehow a global standard worthy of primary mention.

Let us stop using four-letter words like yard, mile, inch and foot. Let us rid ourselves of obsolete measures once and for all. No one really cares how many ounces are in a 1 Liter bottle. Let America embrace measurement harmony on Earth. Your focus determines your reality.