Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Metric matters

One of the most jarring things I had to deal with when I moved to New Zealand was abruptly switching to the metric system. While I’d been taught the metric system in school, it all fizzled out when the USA backed out of conversion. It still hasn’t fixed that failure, and it still causes problems, as the TEDed video above mentions.

As the US was beginning the process of conversion, I heard many people—including classmates—say, “why should we convert to the metric system when the rest of the world is converting to our system?!” The truth is, many of us really believed that, in the pre-Internet age when it wasn’t easy to debunk bovine excrement passed off as fact. As we all now know, the truth was the exact opposite.

Actually, I said, “we all know”, but that’s not entirely true: The truth is that even now there are Americans taking to the Internet to declare the myth yet again (I’ve seen it myself). Instead, of course, the United States, Liberia, and Burma are the only countries on earth that don’t primarily use the metric system.

Metric conversion took off in 1975 with the passage of the Metric Conversion Act. We saw road signs with speeds in MPH and KPH, highway distance signs giving dual distances, speedometers in both MPH and KPH, and millilitres and grams began appearing on consumer packages.

On July 25, 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed Executive Order 12770, which, among other things, ordered the US Federal Government to use the metric system in procurements. It was a major step in the right direction, but not one ordinary Americans followed.

Even so, we were taught a lot of equivalencies when I was growing up: A metre was roughly the distance from the floor to a doorknob. A paperclip weighed about a gram. And, a soft drink company—7Up, I think it was—ran commercials for their new litre bottle, declaring “it’s a litre bit more than a quart”. Obviously those all worked, because I remember them to this day. I learned another here in New Zealand: A pound is roughly 500 grams, and I first learned that because butter is sold in 500 gram blocks that are the same size as a pound of butter in the USA.

Because of all this background, I had an easier time than those born before or after me, as I wrote nearly ten years ago, in October 2006:
Adapting to the metric system was easy for weights and measures, a little more difficult for temperature. If someone told me it was 21 outside, I had no idea if that meant it was time to bundle up or strip off.

With both language and metrics, it soon dawned on me that the only way to learn them and make them second nature was to just completely switch and not be tempted to make any conversions…
Even so, I made a little business card-sized chart with common temperatures in both metric and the US system, and I carried around it around so I could double-check the temperature when I was in doubt—which, for quite awhile, was often. Now, after more than 20 years of total immersion in the metric system, I still don’t automatically know what a given temperature feels like, but I’m better than I ever used to be.

I was reminded of all this last week when I was making my pumpkin pies: I had to convert the baking temperatures to Celsius, and I had to pour the evaporated milk into a measuring cup with ounces because the metric can sold here holds more than the 12 ounces I needed. If the USA had adopted the metric system all those years ago, I wouldn’t have had to do any of that. Maybe someday I won’t have to.


As it happens, Veritasium has just released a new video, “What the Fahrenheit?!”, below:

And, earlier this year, he produced a video about the Celsius system called, “Celsius Didn’t Invent Celsius”, which is interesting as history and as science:

1 comment:

rogerogreen said...

I always have 61F-16C (16.111) and 82F-28C (actually 27.777) in my head because temperature is the most difficult conversion. 104F is 40C, but I don't want to know about THAT!