If You Can’t Under”stand” the Heat, It’s Probably Celsius

Austalia's metric conversion stamp

Part of Australia’s conversation information

I really like the metric system except for one thing: Celsius. The rest of the day-to-day mental adjustments are pretty easy. A yard plus three inches is a meter, a pound is roughly a half a kilogram and I don’t go that many places that I don’t know how far away they are (plus I can read whatever dial in the car is called for). The one thing I’m having trouble wrapping my head around is the Celsius system. I haven’t talked about temperature measurements much in this blog, now is the time.

Celsius thermometer

Celsius thermometer

When I spoke to my daughter (who spent almost a year in Japan) I asked her how difficult it was to adopt the metric system since that is what’s used there (and 95 percent of the rest of the world, for that matter). She said it very easy with the exception of the temperature system. I’m starting to see what she means.

Try a phone app

A couple of weeks ago I converted my weather phone app over to Celsius and I’m still having a little trouble figuring out just how hot or cold it is outside but I’m getting better.

Under the Fahrenheit system, 32 degrees is freezing and 211 degrees is hot enough to boil water (unless you live at my altitude, in which case it boils at a lower temperature, really). Under the Celsius system (and yes, Celsius should be capitalized, since it’s named after Anders Celsius), 0 degrees is freezing and 100 degrees boils water. (It’s more complicated than that but that’s the easy version.) That’s quite a change for someone who’s grown up with the Fahrenheit system.

Anders Celsius

Anders Celsius

What that means to me that while I find the metric system usually more precise and easy to picture in my head, that all breaks down with temperatures for since one degree in Celsius is equal to approximately 1.8 degrees in Fahrenheit. To me that’s less precise.

Apparently, in some parts of the world (so I’ve been told) to make up somewhat for this lesser specificity, they report the temperature with decimals, as in 22.3 oC. “And where does Centigrade enter into this?,” I hear you ask. The important thing to know is that the word Celsius has pretty much supplanted the older term of Centigrade. If you’re new to all of this, learn the term Celsius and you’ll be golden.

A mnemonic device

Temperature comparisons

Temperature comparisons

A while ago I wrote a blog on the above transitional conversions and David Pearl (aka Metric Pioneer), a metric system advocate, commented with the following to help people (myself included) grasp some temperature context.

Thirty is warm;
twenty is nice;
ten is cold;
zero is ice.

Interestingly, I found the same rhyme (but in reverse order) on the Weather Channel’s site. (Of course, if you go there, it has some “cool” projects, like how to make your own thermometer. Check it out.)

Of course, I can already hear some people advocating that even if we convert our other measures over to metric, we should really hold on to our Fahrenheit units “because they’re easier.” Yeah, I’ll admit that it might be a little more work to make the adjustment but let’s just suck it up and do a full conversion so we’re no longer out of step with the rest of the world. I’m sure we’ll “warm” to it.

With all that said,  I’m willing to bet that most people with more than two I.Q. points to rub together and a little effort can learn the metric system easily—all of it.


Note: The title references the old saying “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It’s attributed to Harry S. Truman, former president of the United States. Seems appropriate to use it in this context.

7 thoughts on “If You Can’t Under”stand” the Heat, It’s Probably Celsius

  1. I have read that some British newspapers use both.They report high temperatures in Summer in Fahreneit because the figures are larger, and Winter freezes in Celsius degrees because a cold day sounds worse with a minus sign in front of it.

  2. I spent a year studying abroad in college, and after about a month I had no problem with Celsius temperatures. You pretty much just learn what that rhyme tells you naturally.

    I also don’t understand people’s obsession with Fahrenheit being more precise. Most people can’t even tell the difference between 1-3 degrees Fahrenheit. Even when talking they won’t use it, they’ll just say the temp was in the 80s or the high 80s.

    • Absolutely. The interesting thing I found when encountering people from all over the world is they rarely rely on thermometers to tell the temperature. They use their body as a natural thermometer as the body can not discern a temperature difference <1°C. That so-called precision that metric opposers claim Fahrenheit has is false.

      Most people assume that because Fahrenheit has more gradations it makes it more accurate. It doesn't. This is just greater resolution and resolution does not equal accuracy nor precision. As noted, the same degree of resolution can be achieved in degrees Celsius with decimal parts. So, the whole false advantage of Fahrenheit is it can do it without resorting to decimal parts.

      The question one needs to ask is how real is a temperature difference of one Fahrenheit degree? In a given environment the ambient temperature of that environment is not consistent at all points but varies and that temperature can vary as much as if not more than 1°C. To accurately measure a Fahrenheit difference is pure nonsense.

      There are two known areas I'm aware of where Fahrenheit does not work and is never used. One is the resistance of a conductor relative to temperature from a reference of either 20°C or 25°C. The formula exists in Celsius (or Kelvin) only. I was told years ago that is because the resistance changes quite linearly with a Celsius change in temperature but not Fahrenheit.

      Formula: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/electric/restmp.html

      The second is the calculation for the speed of sound in dry air. It can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_of_sound

      The pneumatic is clever but anyone can feel comfortable with Celsius when one realises that the sensory levels change every 10°C. That is freezing (0) to cool (10) to warm (20) to hot (30) to sweltering (40) to the limit of human endurance (50). Above 50°C, burning of the body results depending on the exposure time. Alcohol boil at about 80°C and of course 100°C is the boiling point at standard pressure (~100 kPa). Fahrenheit does not give you those clean references.

      The reason you can’t adjust to Celsius is the reasons you already give above. You compare metric values to obsolete USC or imperial instead of devising new references. There is no easy way to relate Celsius to Fahrenheit so you find it difficult. Forget pounds, forget yards forget miles and forget Fahrenheit and you will easily comprehend every metric unit based on its own references.

  3. My first encounter with Celsius temperatures was in New Zealand. They switched to Celsius before we did in Australia and when I first heard that the maximum temperature in midsummer Christchurch was going to be 18 degrees, I had no idea.

    Needless to say, I found out that it was mighty cool for summer!

    When we in Australia changed over to Celsius, it happened in September – our springtime – and it was total gobbledegook for me. Our sudden switch meant that there were no more Fahrenheit temperatures so I had to get used to the new measures, which happened gradually. First of all I would back convert with 10=50, 20=68, 25=77, 30=86, 35=95, 37= body temperature, 38=100 and 40=104. Before long I didn’t need to back convert and that was that.

    The only thing that gives me pause is the knowledge that there is only one degree of difference between normal body temperature, 37 degrees, and a fever (38 degrees). The only time you hear the old Fahrenheit temperatures in Australia is when the thermometer gets over 38, and then an announcer may say that it’s more than 100 in the old scale.

  4. I have also written about Celsius being the only metric measurement to give me pause. But in my most vivid of pipe dreams I came up with a solution, that while it satisfies me, will probably never be adopted. Instead of using centigrade, we should use milligrade. Like using millimeters for length measurement we could have three digit integer numbers and no decimal point. I wrote an essay about this issue called Making The Milligrade here: http://themetricmaven.com/?p=922 Three digits would also tend to keep people from trying to convert during a switchover, and be much more precise than the Fahrenheit scale.

    • We could also use Kelvin and drop Celsius. Milligrade is an angular measurement equal to 0.001 gradian. SI got rid of Centigrade for temperature due to the conflict in names. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gradian

      Degrees Celsius and kelvin are perfect as they are. They don’t need more resolution just to give a false sense of precision.

      If you really are having trouble adjusting to degrees Celsius, then it is because of limited exposure. The best thing for you to do is get a thermometer calibrated only in degrees Celsius and if you have a digital thermometer in your home set it to degrees Celsius.

      Visit only weather sites that are Celsius friendly and view the forecasts from them. Never speak Fahrenheit to anyone and insist no one speak to you that way and if they do ask for a translation. This is how you adjust.

      People who are ignorant will always try to convert no matter how difficult it is made for them not to. That is their problem. They have to make an effort to learn or suffer due to resistance.

  5. I think that transitioning from Fahrenheit to Celsius may actually be the easiest of the metric transitions. This is because we only need to provide people with the ambient temperature and/or a weather forecast — constant exposure to Celsius can be achieved in a way that constant exposure to metric mass and distance measures cannot (since people rely on their own tools to make those measurements).

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