Big news and the metric system

Kilogram replica

This replica of a kilogram is on  display at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is part of Department of Commerce. The domes are to protect it from environments that might alter it.

First, the kilogram vote passed on Friday! We now have a scientifically defined kilogram. Second, I was interviewed by Vox News for their daily podcast on Friday, November 16, 2018. I’m in the second half of the interview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The metric system (or SI as it is known around the world) was first implemented in France back in 1795. Since then, almost every country in the world has adopted this set of measures with the United States being one of the few holdouts from full adoption. (The others are Liberia and Burma/Myanmar.)

Back In 1799 the meter was defined by a prototype meter bar. Later, a scientific standard for the meter was defined in 1960, and was redefined in 1983. It is currently the length of the path that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.

If you have the precision equipment to make that measurement, all those “meters” around the world are exactly the same.

In contrast

To this day, the definition of the kilogram is a carefully protected platinum-iridium prototype that is the kilogram. It is held by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (or the Bureau International Poids et Mesures) outside of Paris. Should anything happen to that physical standard it could theoretically change what the kilogram is around the world.

Having a physical standard/prototype has inherent problems. There are additional physical standards or “artifacts” that are stored around the world which are periodically compared to the one in France to make sure they all have the same mass. However, over time, the duplicate kilograms have “drifted” away from that the one in France. (Several of these prototypes are held by our own National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.) That’s a problem when things like oils from people’s skin or even dust could impact its mass if it is not perfectly protected. And perfect, in this sense, is impossible.

As a result, a scientifically defined standard has been sought—until recently—without success. Much of this quandary was captured in Robert P. Crease’s book, World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, which was published in 2012.

Crease relates that two different technologies were being applied to solve the problem of creating the kilogram in the laboratory. One was the “Avogadro method” that “…realizes the mass unit using a certain number of atoms…”

(I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because I’ve yet to understand it myself.)

Crease also relates…

The “watt balance” approach, on the other hand, ties the mass unit to the Planck constant, via a special device that exploits the equality of SI units of mechanical and electrical power. p. 255

(Again, very complicated.)

You can read a Vox News story that explores more of the science here.

Today, on November 16, the International Bureau (of which the U.S. is a member) will vote to determine if the scientific standard for the kilogram will be based on the “watt balance” method.

Should that occur (and it is expected to pass) the new standard, will go into effect on May 20, 2019.

Why May 20 next year? Because May 20 is the 144th anniversary of the signing of the 1875 Treaty of the Meter. That document gave the General Conference on Weights and Measures “…the international authority that ensures wide dissemination of the SI and modifies the SI as necessary to reflect the latest advances in science and technology.”

This is a developing story so stay tuned to this page for further developments.

Linda

Measures and mistakes due to our lack of the metric system

triptick

The scene when the Spinal Tap’s manager discovers the prop is MUCH smaller than he expected.

In a scene in Rob Reiner’s mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, the rock group’s manager (played by Tony Hendra) goes to pick up a piece of scenery that is meant to evoke Stonehenge in connections with one of the group’s songs. He indicates that he’s quite pleased with the model with which he’s been presented with until he finds out that it is the finished piece and not a model. He expected something 18 feet high, not 18 inches high.

The designer (played by Anjelica Huston) seeks to defend herself and pulls out the napkin she’d been given to work from to show that the specifications indicated 18″ by 18″. She’d done exactly as instructed.

Closeup of napkin with specifications

A zoom in on the napkin held in the character’s hand reveals the specifications she was given was, in fact, not 18 feet but 18 inches.

Within our measurement system, the difference between (“) and (‘)* is huge. In fact, the difference is 279.4 mm or 11 inches!

“Well,” defenders of our current measures might say, “that was done for comic effect and bears no relationship to the real world.”

I beg to differ by way of an example supplied to me by a coworker.

Her husband needed a metal bar fabricated and specified on the order “3/4″ x 3/4” x 1/2′ Long.” However, instead of getting a bar that was three-quarters of an inch wide and three-quarters of an inch thick and six inches long, he instead received a small block since the (1/2’), or a half foot, direction was read instead as part of an inch rather than part of a foot.

Shows the instructions

The instructions as provided to the fabricators.

Photo of small aluminum block.

Instead of a six-inch-long bar, he ended up with a block slightly smaller than an inch in all dimensions.

As if that isn’t confusing enough, the (“) and (‘) symbols can denote both lengths and durations. Thus, 5’ 4” could mean either five feet and four inches or five minutes and four seconds if there were no context indicating which measure was intended.

So, along with the many stumbling blocks of education and medicine, and other errors related to commerce, this particular vendor had to record the original order as a loss and make and send an item that actually conformed to what the customer had originally specified.

Such errors would be greatly reduced if orders were written in “mm” for the measures rather than in the easily mistaken (“) and (‘) units.

Thus, the order could have been written: “19.05 mm x 19.05 mm x 152.4 mm.”

A lot less ambiguous.

I wasn’t able to find any information on how frequently such errors are made, but if I only had to look to the office next to mine to find an example, can they be very far away from any of us in this country?

Close up of ruler with metric and customary units.

U.S. rulers often contain a confusing mix of whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth units. Metric system rulers usually just mark on the whole (10) and half (5) counts.

In conducting research for this piece, I also came across information related to “how to read a ruler/tape measure.” One source went into detail about how to distinguish between the half- and quarter-inch marks on such tools. In contrast, metric system-based rules only have differing marks to help count the “fives” and “tens.”

As I continue to look, the more examples I find of how we’re making our lives more difficult since we don’t use the metric system exclusively in this country.

Have an example of confusion/problems you’ve encountered due to our lack of metric system adoption you’d like to share? Feel free to comment on this page or send an email to me at milebehind@gmail.com.

Stay tuned. Right now I’m researching our very early history with the metric system in this country. Luckily, prior to the last metric system push in the mid-1970s, our government put out a 200+ page document that goes into just such history. I’m now rereading it within the context of the book I’m writing.

Thanks for getting all the way down here.

Linda

* Note: Marks for feet and inches should always be indicated by straight lines, rather than by using quotation marks, which are usually curved. Did I have to look up how to make the straight lines to indicate feet and inches to write this article? Yes, yes I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiatus and the Metric System

Figures with numbers and lines

I’m now working on book with the title “America’s biggest miscalculation.”

It was almost five years ago that I began down this road of working to bring awareness of the harm we are doing to ourselves through our lack of metric system adoption. The plan has been to do it via a documentary on the subject. (I thought it was only four until I looked it up!)

During that time I put quite a few things in my life on hold while I devoted considerable time and resources (including my own money) toward making metric system awareness a reality. I recently took some time off as a greatly needed it for multiple reasons.

That said, I am far from giving up. This is the first time that I’m saying this publicly but I’ve had discussions with a couple of different producers over the years but the funding to make the documentary has yet to materialize. As a result, I’ve decided to take a different tack.

Part of the reason I started this blog in the first place was to give you some “behind the scenes” looks at the process as it evolves. So here’s what I’m thinking…I need money to produce the documentary and, ultimately, the onus to do that falls on my shoulders.

I had originally thought that I would reach more people through a documentary than through a book but now I’m thinking I need the book to raise the money to make the documentary. I had always thought about writing a book but expected it would be more of a companion piece than the catalyst.

The additional research it will take to write the book will be considerable. For instance, something that I could gloss over in a script like, “When early man began to settle down for agriculture, measurement tools became increasing important” now needs a whole chapter that I have to back up with references and notes. At least if I want it to be any good—and I do.

I have already begun work on the book. I even took some time off to do additional work on it a couple of months ago then came down with pneumonia, which put some kinks in that plan. Still, I think (with the help of my boss, Linda Deck), we came up with what I think is the perfect book title. I needed something that would catch people’s attention, be as unique as I could get it but also not mislead anyone.

Its main title will be America’s biggest miscalculation. Not only does it perfectly describe the situation but I was unable to find another item with that exact title. I did find things named America’s biggest mistake and other such titles but the use of “miscalculation” appears to be unique. I’ve already purchased the domain names.

I am writing the book to fit that title. At my daughter’s suggestion, I purchased Scrivener software and am at almost 20,000 words into the book’s contents. Given that the average non-fiction book is around 70,000 words, I still have a ways to go but there is much more subject material to cover.

Given that I’m writing and project managing full time AND writing a major book on the metric system AND still have to do things like laundry, food prep, cleaning and organizing (where I got really far behind—I hate cleaning), etc., I plan in future to only post once a month. But I do plan to continue posting.

Just the make sure I keep my promise, I plan to write a couple more posts today so I have them ready while I work on the book.

If you want to write to me at milebehind@gmail.com to suggest topics for columns, I can’t promise I can immediately address them, but I will consider all comers.

See you in June and thanks for your patience.

Linda