The Metric System as Predator

Very interesting. I recommend it.

Very interesting. I recommend it.

I have experience in change management and communications but I’m reading a book that helps explain why some people have such a strong, negative reaction when the subject of metric adoption comes up.

Tame the Primitive Brain

The author of Tame the Primitive Brain: 28 Ways in 28 Days to Manage the Most Impulsive Behaviors at Work, Mark Bowden, asserts that our brains developed in a modular way. First, we needed the ability to control things like heartbeat and breathing, but not in a conscious way, and that is our reptilian brain. As the oldest part of our thinking systems its primary objective is survival of the organism in which it resides. Next, the limbic part of our brains helps regulate our emotions and memory—a little higher functioning. And finally, there is the latest addition to our thought house: the neocortex. This part of our brain provides consciousness and allows higher-level thinking like the use language and planning for the future. (I’m really glossing this over so see the book for more information.)

Because they’ve been with us the longest, the primitive parts of our brain make very rapid decisions about whether something is a threat or not so we (and many other creatures) can respond accordingly (that whole fight or flight thing). In terms of evolution, this rapid decision making was ideal for hunting down our food—or not becoming something else’s food.

It’s these same parts of our brains that cause us to pull a hand away from a flame without thinking about it but they also apparently make quite a few other decisions for us without involving that much slower moving (though much more sophisticated) neocortex.

How this processing effects adoption of new ideas—including metric adoption

Thus, our brains have evolved to respond to threats of all kinds automatically without much processing and that’s where we get into trouble when it comes to new ideas and the suggestion of change.

As long as we’re relatively comfortable, we tend to prefer everything stay the same. A change represents a potential threat and should be avoided. Change means risk and, to our primitive brain at least, risk is risky and should be avoided. Change is a predator that could mean something bad.

Should a change look like it’s coming (all else being equal) our default position is to be negative about it since it always appears to be the safest choice.

But what does our reptilian brain do if it does not detect anything either inside or outside of an environment that it can quickly identify as safe or unsafe? What if there is insufficient data, too much data, doubt or confusion? What happens then? (page 33, Kindle location 846)

The author goes on to says that when there is confusion, we assume the worst because, historically, that was the scenario that would most likely keep us alive. He gives the example of a cave dweller who hears a noise outside at night. Which person is more likely to survive, the person who automatically translates that sound as menacing and picks up a weapon just in case or the person who blithely rolls over and goes back to sleep? The former, of course, and our minds tend perceive the unknown as threats since it’s “better to be safe than sorry.”

Uncertainty and the metric system

To close my loop, metric adoption is something that most people have never given much (if any) thought to so their first instinct is to reject it instantly—the metric system conversion is processed just as we would respond to a predator —a threat. Believe me, I’ve seen it firsthand: the panic or concern on people’s faces is unmistakable. And people will come up with the pretty lame reasons to justify their instincts to reject but it’s not their fault, remember the fallback position is to view change as threatening.

Suggested response to immediate metric system adoption rejection

According to the author, we might want to follow the course of action:

So when you get what feels like a snappy, impulsive or ill-judged negative response from a colleague, customer, or client—anyone from whom you are really seeking a “yes”—try this approach: Just say okay, and upon leaving or finishing the call, ask the person to think about it. Then come back later with more information and see if you can change his or her mind. (Page 39, Kindle location 942)

The hope is that over time, and with more information, the neocortex will kick in and people will process the new information using the more developed part of their brains. Once that happens there is a greater possibility that a change might actually be viewed as beneficial—and in this case, deciding that perhaps metric system adoption might be the best course of action after all.

I do recommend you get more of the background on this topic and read the whole book. It really is quite interesting. And if it could improve your life, isn’t it worth the small investment?

The MidSchool Math Conference

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

My presentation on Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy at the MidSchool Math conference went very well. The session had 50 people registered and while not everyone showed up, most folks did. Since the attendees were mostly math teachers I felt I had an opportunity to get them thinking about the metric system in new ways that they could take back their classrooms and hopefully their lives. The group was receptive and had lots of questions for me. They were also able to interact and ask each other questions about their metric classroom experiences.

Hands-on opportunities

I had scheduled some hands-on exercises using length and mass to help them get used to applying metric units. While length didn’t present much of a problem, only a couple of people used scales in the kitchen. This gave them a chance to play with some of the equipment I brought. (Let’s face it, pretty much every ruler and tape measure today has both U.S. customary and metric units on them but most people are so familiar with measuring cups that it doesn’t occur to them to use a scale in the kitchen though it’s far easier.)

I also brought some metric-only rulers supplied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (centimeters on one side, millimeters on the other) and they cleaned me out of those—which I consider a good sign.

Avoid conversions!!!

A couple of folks on the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) listserve who communicated with me prior to my talk wanted to make sure that I didn’t encourage conversions during my presentation. Not only was that explicit in my presentation—twice no less—but I also pointed out that I’d gotten that feedback from USMA to try to drive the point home. I think it worked.

After all, the metric system was introduced at a time of widespread illiteracy and even unschooled french farmers and tradesmen learned it easily enough. It should be a cinch for today’s high-tech Americans.

One attendee told me she thought it was the best presentation she’d seen so far (I was in the afternoon on the second day) but I have to say that the keynote speaker on the first day, Dan Meyer, was extremely good. He stressed the need to engage kids studying math in the classroom in three acts and bring them along for a story where they really want to figure out what happens. Let’s face it, everyone gets more interested if there’s a good story involved. I think the audience heard him.

Testing my story structure

For my part, I got a chance to try out part of my story structure for the documentary on an audience, hear questions and find out what parts of the narration were of the most interest by their level of attention. There’s just nothing better than trying out your material on a real audience. I’m very pleased with the results but I will continue to refine and expand.

Since I did attend a couple of sessions other than my own, I also had a chance to engage with additional teachers and all seemed very interested in what I’m trying to do. It was only one of the other presenters who gave me pause when he suggested that the next generation would take care of metric conversion in the United States. (Only other time I’ve heard that before [good idea but not now] was in John Quincy Adams’ report to Congress back in 1821—haunts us every time we get serious about metric adoption by the way…) I quickly realized that there was no point in arguing the issue with him but would have loved to point out that in the 30 years since the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded no “next  generation” has come along so far and perhaps he’s part of the “next generation” that should do something. Ah well, I tried to be as persuasive as possible under the circumstances.

As should always be the case, the teacher and learner roles got reversed during my session and I walked away with some additional things to think about and research.

For instance:

  • I’ve been told the military uniformly uses the metric system but others have told me that’s not true. True status will take some digging.
  • When converting from miles to kilometers, what happens to the mile markers since they’re currently used to help drivers know how many miles to their next exit?
  • What’s the best way to convert existing recipes into metric?

The cost of conversion

Of course, the biggest unanswerable question I get asked is how much would it cost to convert to the metric system in this country. I don’t think anyone has a good grasp on that since it’s been so long since the question was seriously considered.

Aside from the cost of conversion errors, and time savings in schools and elsewhere on an individual basis, imagine how much time it takes to design things for multiple countries with dual labeling—including the use of more ink to print both sets.

Converting to the metric system will have a mostly one-time cost while failure to convert to the metric system continues to cost us, and cost us and cost us…

Linda

2014 Will Be the Metric System Turnaround Year in the United States

Welcome to the statistical Annual Report via WordPress

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 34,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

This week’s post

While I feel I’ve made some real progress toward the background for the documentary, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. While I already have quite a few people and organizations lined up for interviews, there’s still fundraising (and everything that goes along with that), putting together promos with no budget other than what I can currently take away from my living expenses, technical considerations of equipment and software and a whole host of challenges including keeping up my full-time job as a writer/project managers for a national science laboratory. (There are no problems, only challenges, mind you.)

Progress is being made

In January of 2013 there were 431 visitors to this blog and last month (December) there were 2,952. That’s quite an increase, and for that, dear reader, I’m deeply appreciative of your scarce time and attention on what I consider an important and mostly overlooked topic.

However, singing to the converted is only going to get us so far. 2014 is going to need to be the year we both start to break through and media noise and get some real traction attached to this issue along with its implications for our future generations with regard to math, science and medicine. It’s not too late despite our very checkered past. It dates back to Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and, in part, helps make the whole story so dang interesting.

Let this become your mantra: We only have to solve the metric system problem once.

And it is solvable. How many other things can you say that about? Not education. Not healthcare. Not any variety of social reforms. But metric system adoption in this country, yes. And we really do need to treat it as a project and ensure that the structure put in place to carry it out is dismantled when it is time…but not before.

While others around the country are beginning to catch on through major media (Discovery News, Scientific American and the Smithsonian this past year) there’s still work I need to do, which will be quite laborious on my end, along with the need to engage with relevant people and organizations.

The folks on reddit.com (and the reddit metric subpages) are already on board and they’ve driven a considerable amount of traffic to my site, including almost 2,000 hits in two days because someone posited the question “What’s something from another country you would like to see happen in your country?” It generated quite a bit of conversation on the the topic.

These bursts of interest give me hope that I’m on the right path and I’m happy to say I have a number of people who are helping me along. I’ll continue to rely on their support moving forward. I’m grateful to them everyday.

And remember that each and every one of you is making a difference as well. Allow me to press into service an old adage:

Many hands make light work.

I sure hope so. In fact, I’m counting on it.

My very best wishes during the coming year,

Linda

Why measurement systems (including the metric system) are important

Let’s, for a moment, set aside how important it is to get medication doses correct and ask the more basic question “Why does it really matter what measurement system we use?”

My answer to that question might shock you: Fundamentally, it doesn’t.

What really matters is that people working together use the same one. What the metric system has going for it is that it was designed for all of the units logically interrelate to each other. That last point is a big deal.

Metric measuring tape

Metric measuring tape

Back before the world was so integrated it was less of a problem if each little hamlet developed and used its own measures.

The way I like to put it is: “So how tall is it?” one peasant asks another.

“Why, it’s as tall as Larry’s door,” answers the friend. They’ve both been to Larry’s house and can use that as a point of reference.

To say that’s Larry’s door could now become the standard of length/height for that community really isn’t that far off.

Under this scenario, the only people for whom that would really cause a problem would be for the traders who’d have to learn multiple units to deal with multiple localities as they sold their wares. It was also a way of keeping outsiders out since their lack of familiarity with the regional units would immediately make them stand out.

For reasons that I’ll explore in my documentary, we continue to isolate ourselves, and handicap our children, through our lack of metric adoption.

The units we currently use in this country are not only a mishmash of almost totally unrelated units that were cobbled together but we’ve put ourselves totally out of step with the rest of the industrial world.

Metric units are streamlined and basic. Easy to learn and apply. That’s why almost everyone else in the world has adopted them.

While I have enlisted an American culture expert to interview to help address why we’ve been so resistant to such a change, I suspect that there are multiple reasons for our behavior on this issue in the past. The poll that ran on this topic previously to helped identify them.

Recycling our past

As we move toward metric adoption, we’ll find ourselves with items we no longer need. Mostly what comes to my mind are the measuring cups we use for dry ingredients in the kitchen (in a metric world, grams are the necessary and superior way to go). It’s also possible that people might still have liquid measuring cups without milliliters but they’d probably have to be pretty old or rulers (or tape measures) that don’t have metric measures on them. (Not sure what the cutoff date for such items might have been…the 1970s when we had our last metric push? Might need to investigate this some more.) Items like wrenches in U.S. customary units also come to mind.

Great idea to recycle tape measures--hopefully nonmetric ones.

Great idea to recycle tape measures–hopefully nonmetric ones.

Earlier this week I came across the above image of a clutch made from measuring tapes and got to thinking about what we could do with non-metric items we’d longer need. (I know I currently have a tape measure with inches on one side. It looks like the item above uses both metric and nonmetric.)

In the meantime, feel free to share your ideas of what other items we’ll need to try to recycle into something useful or interesting (maybe even beautiful) once we’ve adopted the metric system in this country and even your ideas of how to do it.

I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself and I have an idea for something to do with my dry measuring cups that just came to me so I’ll try to get that put together up for my next post.

Want to share your ideas of what other things we’ll not need in a fully metric world? Feel free to add them to the comments section.

Want to share an image of possible way to use old, nonmetric items using one of many reputable filesharing sites? (I’d recommend  Imgur http://imgur.com/ or Photobucket http://photobucket.com/ feel free.* Or even post to my twitter account: https://twitter.com/milebehind. Who knows, maybe I’ll add your ideas to my “Hall of Fame.”

I look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks,

Linda (milebehind@gmailcom)

Notes:
* Just please don’t send me image files. I won’t open them for security reasons.

The clutch image from http://www.perpetualkid.com/tape-measure-zippered-bag.aspx

Metric tape measure photo: Simon A. Eugster

Kid in a U.S. Metric System History Candy Store

[Continued from column last week on researching at the Library of Congress]

Some of my Library of Congress resources

Some of my Library of Congress resources

Since my plane didn’t leave until 6 p.m. on Monday I ended up asking for some materials on our U.S. metric system history be collected from their storage location and delivered to the Adams building so I could take a look at them.

• The library gets two deliveries a day, one in the late morning and another in the afternoon (that was going to be too late for me). My great appreciation to those folks who helped me get the materials in the morning delivery.

• When you submit the electronic request (the only way you can get materials from off-site) you get an email notifying you the request for the publication has been received, another when it has left the storage facility and another when it arrives at your specified delivery location.

When I arrived, I was thrilled to see so much material and set about going through it and noting in which of three “bins” the items should reside: not useful for my purposes, ask my library to acquire so I could spend more time with them and, finally, seek to acquire for my collection.

Metric excitement and legislative aftermath
As I went through the books, some of which were self-published in an attempt to jump on the metric adoption bandwagon back in the 1970s, one thing that struck me was the excitement the authors had over the notion that the U.S. was finally adopting the metric system.

For instance, the introduction to the book Let’s Cook it Metric by Elizabeth Read, 1975, begins with:

For the past thirty years I have worked as a dietitian or nutritionist and have been amazed and appalled at the lack of knowledge of measurements of most people. Then I realized that our standard system of measurement is really a mish-mash of archaic terms based on parts of the human body. This year, 1975, will undoubtedly be the year that Congress will pass metric legislation.

Well, she was right about the legislation passing. Too bad it was too weak to really have propelled us forward and another 30 years later we’re still buying things in pounds, yards and gallons.

Expanding my research collection
Upon arriving home, I began looking for the publications I wanted to buy and since I had done most of my primary research almost a year ago, I did a cursory search on the term “metric system” on Amazon.

Slated for publication May 27, 2014

Slated for publication May 27, 2014

To my shock, I came across a yet-to-be-published book titled: Whatever Happened to the Metric System: How America Became the Last County on Earth to Keep Its Feet. The publication date is listed as May 27, 2014 and the author is John Bemelmans Marciano.

While Amazon lists him as the author and illustrator of quite of few the children’s books in the Madeline series, he has also written Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words  and Toponymity: An Atlas of Words.

I have a call in to his publisher since I couldn’t find any other straightforward way to contact him. I’m very interested in what prompted him to work on this subject as well as what it might contain.

How much research is too much?
While I could research on this topic endlessly, what I’m most interested in is enough and correct information to inform the script for my documentary.

Due to my communications/research background, I even have an information gathering philosophy: I don’t need to see everything that was ever produced on my subject but enough so, as new information on the subject might come to light, nothing contradicts what I’ve asserted and hopefully only supports or expands upon it.

At least that’s what I’m aiming for. You never know…

Honored and archived
I also must say that I was extremely honored on Monday when I received word that this blog will be archived by the Library of Congress. The notification read in part:

To Whom It May Concern:

The United States Library of Congress has selected your website for inclusion in the Library’s historic collection of Science Blogs. We consider your website to be an important part of this collection and the historical record.

The Library of Congress preserves the Nation’s cultural artifacts and provides enduring access to them. The Library’s traditional functions, acquiring, cataloging, preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and the American people to foster education and scholarship, extend to digital materials, including websites.

My many thanks to Jennifer Harbster with the Library of Congress for taking the time to submit my blog for consideration. I truly appreciated her helping me with these efforts in multiple ways.

I will continue to do everything I can to make this blog interesting and useful.

Thank you for your kind attention,

Linda

Researching U.S. Metric History at the Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building

Having worked on this metric system project for over a year in addition to my full-time job as a communications and marketing specialist, I needed to get away for a while. Am visiting friends in D.C. but still decided to get in some work and it occurred to me to visit the Library of Congress to see what it might have available on our national metric system history.

Granted, I’ve already done extensive research in this area and have thousands and thousands of pages of material via books, newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, etc. but that information only includes items entered into widely available online databases. Decided it might be worth my time to see what the Library of Congress had specifically. I had hoped the National Institute of Standards and Technology (our current keepers of the metric system) might have archived information on our metric past but was told that was not the case.

Researching at the Library of Congress

[Note: Items with “•” would apply to anyone who wants to research at the Library of Congress. FYI]

• First thing I found out is you have to register to even look at most of the materials. They take a photo and assign you a “Reader” number on a card that you have to use to get into various reading rooms and request information not on the shelves…and that’s the vast majority of it.

Underground passages

Navigating the underground passages between the Library’s main buildings

• For my purposes, I learned to navigate the underground passageways that link the three main buildings: the Jefferson (where most people go) as well as the Adams and the Madison buildings. The biggest advantage of learning how to use the tunnels: you don’t have to keep exiting one building and go through security again in another one. During the course of the day I ended up moving from building to building about five times so it made things much easier.

After an initial consultation, I was directed to the science department on the 5th floor of the Adams building.

I indicated to the research librarian that I was looking for information on the consumer side of metric adoption that would have begun around 1975 (when our last metrication bill was signed) to about 1982 (when the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded after President Reagan eliminated its funding).

I have lots of U.S. metric system information but I don’t have very much information in this area. Frankly, I’ve been curious about it since the few things I’d come across looked more like they were aimed at children rather than adults. Sure, it makes sense to have information for readers of all skill sets but writing everything as if the audiences are adults who barely understand the English language seemed like the wrong approach to me.

She very helpfully ended up giving me 46 pages of references that covered the time period under consideration and were more about metric adoption in general. That was okay by me. I set about going through the list to decide which things I wanted to see most.

• You can’t remove anything from the facility and printing costs 20 cents a page. Didn’t know it at the time but you can scan things from the printers onto a thumb drive but I didn’t happen to have one on me.

Under my current situation I thought I could take a look at some of the items and either try to buy them for my collection if they were critical and available (Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and Powells are among some of my favorite sites for such things) or trot back to my local library and try to obtain them through interlibrary loan and spend some more time with them there, possibly even photographing them for later use as visuals within the documentary (keeping copyright in mind of course).

I dutifully filled out some of the “call slips” then looked for new items and submitted those in an effort to be efficient and not have everything hit me at once.

LC desk

Working at the Library of Congress

• When you request your materials you indicate your seat/table number that’s located on a small brass plate associated with each chair for delivery purposes.

• Got the strong impression that they prefer the requests be made online (through this page) but since I only had a paper listing that would be difficult so I dutifully filled out the paper requests.

Ultimately I discovered that about a year ago large amounts of material was moved offsite and most of the items I wanted were no longer in the building. A different and very helpful librarian helped me request the records be delivered on Monday, and with the early drop off time, since my plane leaves at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

Have more to report from this trip. Please stay tuned. Thanks.

Linda

Top 10 Reasons to Switch to the Metric System Revisited

As I mentioned last week, some recent media coverage on our lack of metric system use by Discovery News and Scientific American has resulted in a lot of traffic to this site. Of particular interest is my post from last September on the Top 10 Reasons the United States Should Use the Metric System (or SI).

I’ve included some of my statistics for illustration.

All the traffic to this blog

All the traffic to this blog

Thought it might be a good idea to dust this off and post it up front. I made a couple of tweaks (I’m a writer, I can’t help myself) and have added a pdf to make it easier to pass around if people so choose. I only ask that the information’s source not be removed since down the road I’ll need to fundraise and I’d like to be tied to this work in people’s minds.

My page stats for the past week

My page stats for the past week

I’ll be back next week with fresh content and, since I’m beginning a new phase of this project, with more “behind the scenes” information that I’m hoping you’ll find interesting.

Top 10 Reasons the United States Should Use the Metric System (or SI)

1) It’s the system 95 percent of the world uses
(It’s not standard in the U.S.,  Burma and Liberia)
2) It’s easier to make conversions
(You just move the decimal point right and left)
3) Teaching two measurement systems to children is confusing
4 ) It’s the language of science
5) It’s the language of medicine
6) Conversion errors by the humans using them are inevitable
(We lost a Mars orbiter that way and pharmacy mistakes are common)
7) It’s the language of international commerce
8) Many hobbies and sports use the metric system
9) Its use is necessary for travel outside of the United States
10) So we look less foolish and ignorant to the rest of the world

And a few more for good “measure..”

11) Less clutter since you don’t need liquid and dry measuring cups and teaspoons and
tablespoons (Just a scale and liquid measuring cups)
12)  It’s much easier to conceptualize 1 gram versus 1/28th of an ounce or 1 milliliter
verses 1/29 of a liquid ounce (rounded measures)
13) There are fewer measures to learn. Most people will use meters, liters, and grams
verses more than 10 for liquid and dry U.S. customary measures alone
14) It was designed to be easy to learn and use
(In 1790s Europe the literacy rate was around 60 percent)
15) It makes us a friendlier international tourist destination.

To_10_Reasons_Metric (pdf)

Linda’s Series of Fortunate Events*

From the moment I decided to take on the task of telling the story of the history of the metric system in the United States, I began to encounter a strange series of positive coincidences.

What does that mean?

I have my theories but first, let’s define coincidence from my favorite source for word definitions and their histories: the Oxford English Dictionary:

A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.

Referrers to this blog

Referrers to this blog

Keeping that in mind, here’s a streamlined list of things that have happened thus far:

  • I had a conversation in December of 2011 with someone about metric conversion and what had happened since we were kids. I’m a writer. I’m naturally curious. I was also told that the metric system was coming as a child (Metric Conversion Act was signed in 1975)—but it didn’t. The conversation in December led me to look up information on what had happened. Once I saw the history on the U.S. Metric Association’s page, it made me very sad and (this is me) embarrassed as an American about where we find ourselves today.
  • I started shooting video again at work after a long hiatus where I’d only been using my writing skills. That combined with a viewing of a documentary and things just clicked in my head. I started “seeing” what a documentary on our metric system history might look like in my head. That really got me going.
  • Having decided to take this project on, I was already going to Washington, D.C. to meet up with my daughter and visit with friends who live there. So…I made an appointment to meet with a representative of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, who are the keepers of the metric system in the United States, so I could really start on my research. Very helpful. I spent two and a half hours there building my basic knowledge of the subject.
  • On my longest leg of the flight to D.C., I sat next to a middle school math teacher and we talked about her experience trying to teach the metric system to students who didn’t feel the metric system was applicable to them. (See recent   blog for slightly more on this topic.)
  • On my flight back to Albuquerque, I was called up to the airline counter fully expecting to be told there was a problem with my reservation. Instead, I was told I was being upgraded to first class. (Still no idea why.) Drank my first official toast to the project with champagne supplied by American Airlines. Cool.
  • Then there’s been a whole slew of people who—immediately upon me mentioning this project—told me that they had just had a conversation with someone (usually within the previous 24 hours) about the metric system and the situation here (rock climbers, nurses, you name it) and why it should change.
  • Early on, I ended up with meeting people (Scott Laidlaw and Jennifer Lightwood) who are working to improve math education in our country and have been very supportive of this project (To learn more about their work on this issue, visit their site to learn about their documentary The Biggest Story Problem.)
  • I very soon after that met another individual who has been unbelievably helpful in moving this project forward but who has chosen to stay in the background. (You know who you are. Thank you. ;-D)
  • More recently, I got word of a legislative effort in Hawaii to convert the state to the metric system (in part due to the international nature of its visitors) and wrote a blog about that. During the interview to get more background, I found out that the state representative who introduced the bill is also the brother-in-law of the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory—where I just happen to have my day job.
  • Within the past several months, two major American institutions: the Smithsonian and, more recently, Scientific American have both have blogs on our lack of metric adoption.
  • And then, a couple of days ago, I received an email from my contact at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (current keepers of the metric system in this county—Part of the Department of Commerce) letting me know that Discovery News had posted a video about our lack of metric adoption. I believe that is probably why the next day this blog got 330+ pageviews.

I think that’s fairly remarkable and I could go on but you catch my drift. I’m also sure this is just the tip of the iceberg.  As I move forward, I expect to encounter more unusual intersections between the project and things around me.

Hopefully, the movement currently taking place (including this project) will help get this situation on more peoples’ radar. In this country, metric adoption became a non-issue 30 years ago when we disbanded the U.S. Metric Board. That’s a terrible shame as far as I’m concerned—and I’m not even a numbers person.

As if that wasn’t enough, take a look at my statistics (see above)…the vast majority of people who come to this site do so because they’re actively looking for information on why the United States is still not using the metric system.

Perhaps that is a coincidence. Perhaps not. Only time will tell.

Thanks,

Linda

* The title of this week’s blog is a takeoff of the title of the children’s book (and movie) Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Please Help Support a New Documentary on the Kilogram

Meter built into a building for public use (Photo by Amy Young)

Meter built into a building for public use (Photo by Amy Young)

All but one unit of the metric system can be scientifically derived. For instance, anyone anywhere can currently define a meter with the right equipment. This is important because any measurement standard that relies on a physical tool (think yardstick in this country and a meterstick elsewhere) means it is vulnerable to variability based on the material it’s made from—and every material is subject to change. Such differences can come from use (some of it gets worn off, making it shorter or lighter or accumulates dirt, making it longer or heavier) or even temperature. Optimally, you want a measurement standard that never changes under any circumstances.

The international standard for the length of the meter (for instance) is 1/299,792,458 of the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in one second.

If you can measure that (and laboratories around the world can), you can define the meter without any other external reference.

The outlier within the metric system is the kilogram. By definition, a kilogram is the weight of a piece of special metal kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures located outside of Paris called the International Prototype of the Kilogram. (It is equal to 2.20462 lbs for those still using U.S. customary units.) Periodically kilogram standards held by metrology centers from around the world are brought together to ensure their consistency against this single cylinder of metal kept carefully preserved for that purpose.

Kilogram standard (Photo by Amy Young)

Kilogram standard (Photo by Amy Young)

Work is currently underway for the development of a scientifically derived kilogram and while it’s not quite there, it’s getting close. When that happens, the kilogram will no longer require a physical standard or be subject to environmental fluctuations. This is a good thing.

It is this history and ongoing scientific work that is the subject of a documentary called State of the Unit: The Kilogram. Amy Young, who has been working on this project for two years, needs help raising completion funds for her project and I’m asking you to help.

To learn more about the documentary, its background, the people involved and for your chance to contribute, go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/52746223/the-state-of-the-unit-the-kilogram-documentary-fil.

This is the sort of project that will help raise awareness of the metric system in this country (though not the direct purpose of Amy’s efforts) and for that reason, I’m putting my support behind it.

How much support? While my own project has certainly taken its fair share of my resources, I’m contributing to the project. I ask you to consider doing the same.

The Kickstarter campaign for State of the Unit ends on Friday, May 17 at 5:33pm EDT. Amy’s goal is to raise a modest $26,800 to help her complete the project that she already has spent so much of time and money on. Unless she raises the full amount, she’ll get none of it. She’s close but the deadline is looming fast.

Please consider helping her further this important work.

I thank you in advance for contributing to metric system understanding and education in whatever ways you can.

Linda

(Note: Revised on 5/12 at 8:20 p.m. to correct a typographical error.)

Hunting for Wild Experts

Since my metric history documentary will be interview based, it’s important that I have the right people to interview. I have some sectors already represented but I still have others I need to find. Right now, I’m looking for experts in the areas of American culture (to help explain why Americans have been so resistant to the adoption of the metric system in general during the last 200+ years) and another who understands the culture in America during the 1970s (which I believe could have played a contributory role in our failure to adopt during our last big push in the mid 1970s).

One of my thoughts was to locate authors who had published books on the subjects I need covered, thinking that not only would they be documented experts in their respective areas, but it also might also be worth their while to appear in my documentary so that they can “plug” their books. (Cross marketing is a good thing.)

I did locate one author who has a book out on American culture and emailed him a couple of weeks ago. He did respond to me pretty quickly but said he didn’t know much about the metric system and indicated “I suppose there is some vague hand-waving that can be done about American insistence that we know best, but nothing specific.” Oh well, at least he got back to me.

At that point, I continued to search for current books on Amazon that covered the topics I needed covered, but in multiple cases where I thought I had found possible authorities (based on their published books) I was unable to locate any contact information for them after multiple search attempts on the Internet. I did locate contact information for one woman, but unfortunately she’s now publishing children’s books, so I didn’t think she was the best person to approach for my project.

One I realized I was going down a blind alley, I decided to take another approach. I did an Internet search for colleges and universities with strong American Studies programs. I will now start to look through the faculty lists etc., beginning at the most prestigious ones like Harvard and Yale, in an attempt to locate someone who has the background that I need and is willing to talk on camera about why as Americans we tend to push back so hard on something like the metric system. (Granted, frequently during past Congressional hearings on the topic many, many people have gone on the record taking the pro-metric position but others have dug in their heels and done everything in their power to resist, often even while admitting that the metric system real advantages. This perplexes me.)

The U.K. Metric Association was nice enough to retweet my request for experts but I never heard anything. Cheers to the U.K. Metric Association for trying to help me with this.

So, if you are (or hope to be) a published nonfiction author, you won’t be interviewed and have an opportunity to plug your book if no one can find you once it’s out. Have someone try to track you down through your Amazon listing (though I certainly used many more attempts than that) and if you can’t be found, you probably won’t be. Just a thought.

Linda