Odds and Ends…and the Metric System

A thermometer in Celsius and Kelvin (By Martinvl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

A thermometer in Celsius and Kelvin (By Martinvl (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons)

Sorry for the delay in posting. The truth of the matter is I started this project in addition to a demanding full-time job and have been juggling the two for almost three years now. My body and mind told me I needed some downtime and I’ve taken a few weekends off.

The good news: I’m back on track and making progress toward some goals. As some of you know, I recently held a new logo design contest that will tie into work I have planned for the future. The whole project took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated so I had to retool a bit. More on that in a later post.

New, recent presentation

Okay, not brand-spanking new but I recently made a presentation on the 140th anniversary (May 20) of the United States as one of the original signatory countries on the Treaty of the Meter. It gave the International Bureau of Weights and Measures the authority to set metric standards (or SI as it is known elsewhere) for the rest of the world. It’s still active on various fronts including efforts to define the kilogram scientifically (currently the kilogram is defined by a piece of metal that resides in its care with several other mass “standards” residing around the world).

The presentation wasn’t completely new as I gave it to a smattering (okay, smatterin’ is being generous…) of people last spring.

My audience this time was a group of doctors and health-care workers at our county hospital. It has a lecture series every Tuesday and I offered myself up. As our lack of metric adoption has health implications every single day (see this previous blog), I could really see a future where health-care professionals could help propel the issue forward. I was paid the compliment afterward of being told “It was like watching something on the history channel.” I took that as a compliment.

Metric system in the news

Many days I get an alert from Google if “metric system” pops up on the web somewhere. Granted, sometimes it references “bio-metric systems” or goes a little off track in some ways, but it does capture most everything I want to see (except for lines in comic strips, since it can’t read those words).

Here are a few recent media pieces regarding the metric system:

[Note: The Chaffee presidential campaign news just broke last night. Expect more from me on his metric system adoption position shortly. In the meantime…]

Child Medications Should Be Dosed In Metric Units–Not Spoonfuls (Forbes, March 30)

Pediatricians prescribe metric measures for doling out meds (Newsworks, April 7)

Parents Warned To Use Metric System When Giving Medicine To Kids (CBS Boston, March 30)

This is the tip of a growing iceberg.

The second question in the quiz referenced the metric system

The second question in the quiz referenced the metric system

Interestingly, it also found a trivia quiz from Macleans.ca, that included a second question based on metric system knowledge.

Capturing the kids’ attention

I recently received some cards aimed at helping children here in the U.S. learn basic metric units. The bottom line as far as I’m concerned, is the more children are familiar with the concepts of metric measures, the more likely they’ll be to accept and use them.

SuperheroesInterestingly, the temperature unit used on the cards is Kelvin rather than Celsius. This hit me as odd since I’ve taught myself Celsius as my primary temperature reference. Meanwhile, Kelvin is an absolute measure where 0 is the temperature at which atomic motion stops (I’m glossing over the details here) or  −273.15 °C. According to my research both temperature Kelvin (or K) and Celsius are often reported together for scientific purposes.

In fact, according the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pages state:

The unit of Celsius temperature is the degree Celsius, symbol °C, which is by definition equal in magnitude to the kelvin. A difference or interval of temperature may be expressed in kelvins or in degrees Celsius (13th CGPM*, 1967).

To be honest, some of the associated information is way over my head such as its reference to the “triple point of water.” I’m sure I can look it up if it turns out that I need to know that particular tidbit of information.

If you’d like more information on the superhero cards pictured above, go to the NIST kid’s pages that also include videos with the associated superheroes.


* General Conference on Weights and Measures

An Anti-Metric Case Study: The Huffington Post

When I started this project I sensed there was a pro-metric undercurrent that’s been building for some time. I also surmised that the anti-metric folks would start to feel it and respond. While I can’t currently prove more media attention is building on either side, there was an piece that appeared earlier this week to which I would like to respond. It includes several of the more common anti-metric arguments I’ve come across.

The Huffington Post, in its Science section ran a piece by Lila Nordstrom on Thursday called “Diverging Bases: The Case Against the Metric System.”

Nordstrom says:

More irritatingly, there is something deeply patronizing and dismissive about the way in which the same people criticize our measurement system in America, which is based on British imperial units (which do, to be fair, have a vaguely sinister name).

The “They’re part of our British history” argument

Ms. Nordstrom is not the first person I’ve encountered who has connected a fondness for our current units in the United States to our ancestral roots in merry old England. There are a couple of problems with this:

1) We don’t use imperial units in this country. Sure, we initially brought inches, yards and ounces over but they were so flawed that we tried to “fix” them. However, that resulted in a system that does not completely align itself to any other country in the world. Thus, we don’t use imperial units in this country, we use U.S. customary units. We’re the only ones in the world who do.

2) As a subset of this incorrect attribution, the ounce used within this system is the avoirdupois ounce. It’s the one we use for units smaller than a pound and less than a cup. It also sounds kind of French doesn’t it? So, in an effort to embrace our British heritage one needs to embrace what the British adopted from the French. Sound a bit convoluted to me.

3) The U.K. formally adopted the metric system in 1965. So, if we really want to embrace our links to the British brothers and sisters, we should use the metric system as well. The fact that it is not fully entrenched there owes much to our own lack of adoption.

The nostalgia argument

This argument goes something along the lines of “It’s part of our heritage in this country, something we should embrace and try to preserve.”

Nordstrom says:

Though it may seem uncivilized (though I’d argue that a nation whose government lacks a belief in basic science could perhaps lay blame for its uncivilized reputation elsewhere), our loyalty to imperial units is, in fact, emblematic of some of America’s more endearing qualities; our belief in the common man, our pioneer past, and our history of rebellion.

Well sure, I’m all for embracing our history but I’m also pretty sure than many of these same folks who might find it quaint to have our monarch’s portrait back on our money would not want to revert to English currency and give up our metric measures within the dollar (as in 10 dimes and 100 pennies) for the pence and shilling. Do we want to go back to using the hogshead as a volume measure as well? That’s also part of our country’s early history.

The “they’re organic” argument

Nordstrom says:

Imperial measurements, by contrast, can easily be described in relation to the human body and the physical world because they were originally designed to be based on body parts.

I’d posit that some of these same folks arguing for our history would probably not want to go back to having their yard of fabric measured from the tip of nose to the outstretched tip of the finger (surely store owners would hire those with the smallest possible arms to do the work). Yeah, body parts are a convenient use of measures for a population that cannot read or write (looking back a couple of hundred years) but that is hardy the case today.

I could go on and pick apart what she says (for instance, she also uses the “having a system with more divisors” [2, 3, 4, 6] argument) but that really isn’t my intent.

What does please me about this particular article is that quite a few pro-metric comments  appear in her piece.

For instance:

It is easy for me to remember how many meters in a kilometer, or how many milliliters in a liter, but so hard to remember how many feet in a mile or how many pints in a gallon. That Imperial system just is not logical.


I still don’t know for example how many pints there are in a gallon, or how many feet in a mile. Not that I want to go back to the country of my birth, but still, I want to improve the country I became a citizen of.


…as a younger nation we prided ourselves on self sufficiency, competition and innovation as the imports increased tool companies and manufacturers used multiple measurement systems as opportunities to increase revenue. now that labor costs in the U.S. have become restrictive, outsourcing and imports have created an environment of government subsidies just for survival. much like the postal system, imperial units are dead weight that are dragging our economy down.

The pushback reinforces that moving toward the metric system are efforts in the right direction.

To view the original article and the comments I’m sure will accrue, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lila-nordstrom/metric-system_b_2923997.html.