As I’ve gone forward with my research on the metric system, I’ve come across more twists and turns than I could have ever expected. I’d always thought of numbers as a dispassionate construct used to describe the world and relativistic amounts. I’ve never been very good where math was concerned and so I’ve always tried to internalize what a friend (who was a mathematician) told me back when I was in college: “Numbers just show the relationships between things.”
On one level, say as in the fact that 26 is a larger number than 18, and it’s larger by 8 units, that makes sense to me, but when I think about the sorts of formulas scientists use to express unseen relationships in thing like quantum mechanics (the formula for the uncertainty principle), I’m glad someone else can do that in their heads, because I sure can’t.
One concept that’s starting to bubble down into my consciousness is the idea of mixed measures as in 5’7” tall and 1.5 hours long. I’m no expert, but on the surface (to me at least) such mixing presents problems. Let’s set aside that I just expressed my height in U.S. Customary Units and delve into the real issues I see: 1) I just used a fraction of the foot measurement and a foot measurement together, and 2) if I wanted to further manipulate these numbers I’d need to perform a conversion. (Why introduce a step if you don’t have to?)
Note: I’ll continue to use U.S. measures to help my fellow Americans more easily follow my thoughts though the overall concepts apply elsewhere as well. I’m also using numerals throughout rather than follow Associated-Press style and spelling out numbers smaller than 10—for consistency’s sake.
Why not just say I’m 91” tall? Because that’s not our habit, but perhaps it should be.
It’s tough to express 7 inches in addition to the 5 feet because it doesn’t represent a nice decimal unit as in the metric system. The original height numbers mashes together units that somewhat relate to each other (after all, an inch is a subunit of a foot) but it doesn’t work readily since an inch represents 1/12 of the foot unit and not 1/10 of a unit as in the metric system (in that case you could use “.” followed by the remainder).
Now let me progress to the 1.5 hours. Why not just say 90 minutes? Some do.
So now let’s say (for some reason) that I knew of a movie that contained a swear word every 3 minutes and I wanted to figure out how many swear words there were in the 1.5 hour movie.
Of course, first I’d have to convert the 1.5 hour-long movie in only minutes to get my answer. (No, I won’t do the math. This is a hypothetical example.)
So, what I’m suggesting is that mixing units for the purpose of describing things might make them more complicated than necessary. Or, put another way, perhaps it would be best to use units that avoid fractions of any sort and rely solely on integers. (That was a word I hadn’t used since elementary school, but it just means whole numbers.)
As we move toward metric system adoption (my sincerest hope) it’s probably good to think about using grams as a measure and not fractions of kilograms or (God forbid) a mixed measure like 1 kg, 25g, as we currently use for things like height.
If we’re going to adopt new ways of doing things, let’s at least adopt them a way that makes the most sense and doesn’t introduce new problems.
But, even if one person decides on a measure in centimeters while avoiding fractions and another uses millimeters—and also avoids fractions—at least the conversions would be easier.
A case could be made (and has been) to avoid any measures that would result in fractions (as in measure everything in millimeters, milliliters and grams for us ordinary folks [while scientists work in different realms]) But if the above discussion has me swimming in deep philosophical water, I’m not well versed enough to argue that case and could possibly drown.
Discuss among yourselves……