Update, Book Reviews, and the Metric System

I realize I have yet to post this year, but worry not, as I’ve been working on things “behind the scenes.” Let’s chalk much of this year up to “technical difficulties” on multiple levels + COVID log jams—almost everywhere—from medical care to retailer printer availability. Rest assured, I just keep working to refine my approaches to this material. I’m feeling pretty good about my plans. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to several, recent books on how we humans approach numbers and a little problem called “math anxiety,” which many of us have. (Without numbers, and their concepts, who needs the metric system? And since we need numbers, let’s make them as easy to use as possible.)

Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, Chip Heath & Karla Starr, (2022)

Chip Heath is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This work (along with other books written with his brother, Dan) highlights basic information about how numbers tend to trip us up. (Or why we have difficulty conceptualizing numbers once there are more than a few of them.)

From the book’s introduction:

We’ve come to believe, after working with these principles for years, that almost every gnarly number has something—an analogy, a comparison, another dimension—that will allow us to translate it into something we can remember, use, and discuss with others.

Page XVI

Bravo. And then, the book backs these words up with example after example to illustrate how we can improve upon communicating “numbers.”

It takes real work/research/creativity to avoid just throwing out numbers that—to most people—are profoundly alienating.

Plus, don’t miss the appendix of this less-than-200-page book. It lays out the simple rules such as:

Rule #1: Round with Enthusiasm

…When we heave a nonuser-friendly number across the room to our audience, we are dumping extra work on them. (Page 138).

And that’s why YOU have to do the work for your audience. Of course you don’t have to, but then don’t be surprised when all eyes glaze over.

Rule #2: Concrete is Better
Use whole numbers
, not too many. Preferably small. (Page 140)

And while I’ve espoused the mostly unnecessary evil of fractions (algebra and scientific notation acknowledged), we need to remember we scare small children with this stuff.

Fractions are generally awful because the complexity takes you out of the flow of things. Quick, how would you like 6/19 of that pie…Converting a fraction to a decimal eliminates some of the math—no more weird denominators—but still isn’t intuitive. “Would you like .316 pies?”

Page 140

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters, Deborah Stone (2020)

The index lists only six sections:

1) There’s No Such Thing as a Raw Number
2) How a Number Comes to Be
3) How We Know What a Number Means
4) How Numbers Get Their Clout
5) How Counting Changes Hearts and Minds
6) The Ethics of Counting

Under “How We Know What a Number Means,” it states:

If you want to decipher accurate meanings of numbers, channel your inner sociologist…
Ready for a quiz? Don’t be fooled. It looks like arithmetic, but it’s really about social anatomy

Does 3 X 20 equal 2 X 30? (Page 65)

The short, somewhat confusing answer is: “Sixty minutes aren’t always 60 minutes if you understand how people use time.” (You’ll need to borrow [support your local libraries] or buy the book to learn the rest of the answer.)

The Art of More: How Mathematics Created Civilization, Michael Brooks, (2021)

Again, I refer to the book’s introduction that relates to just how much trouble we tend to have with numbers as human beings:

In school, we are assured that maths is an essential skill; a passport for success; something that we have to pick up. And so we obediently, though often reluctantly, gather the tools of maths and do our best to learn how to use them. Some enjoy it; most don’t. And then, at some point, almost every one of us gives up.

Page 3

Brooks comes at this material in a way I found interesting by talking about the passions and interests that drove various individuals and countries to push mathematical frontiers.

It is part of my assertion that the Enlightenment helped foster the development of the metric system (or SI as it’s known in the rest of the world) and Brooks makes a great connection that resonates with me:

When transferred onto a set of wooden sticks known as the slide rule, logarithms powered centuries of science and engineering. The slide rule facilitated the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear age and the space race.

Page 153

As you might guess, I have many more books on math (or “maths” as they say across the pond) that I’ve collected during the past decade of work on this project.

If nothing else, I hope I’ve pointed out that we humans and numbers don’t always get along well. However, there are those exceptional folks who find math easy. Me, I flunked algebra in high school, but found statistics in college interesting. So many of us are better at some kinds of numbers than others.

Thanks for reading this far.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? That’s what the comment section is for and I approve all comments that are “on subject” and respectful of others.

Note: I posted my first blog almost exactly 10 years ago on July 24th. I currently have almost 420,000 pageviews. Thanks everyone!

Keep in mind that the 1866 Law on the metric system was adopted on July 28, 1866. Happy anniversaries!

Is It Time to Embrace the Enlightenment of the Metric System in the U.S?

As I studied the history of the metric system in the United States, I found I had to understand and put into context the history of measurement itself.

Try building something like this without standard measures. (Photo by Nina Aldin Thune)

Try building something like this without standard measures. (Photo by Nina Aldin Thune)

While the metric system we know today began around 1790, no one knows the true age of measurement systems since they began prior to written history. Based on archeological evidence, some think measurement standards advanced to allow the construction of special buildings to the “powers that be” but surely, travel and trade had a hand as well though evidence is less readily available. However, thousands of years later, it’s the buildings (such as the pyramids) that still stand, testaments to the precision and consistency it took to build them.

And while measurement systems have developed throughout human history, I think one of the important things to recognize is that the metric system grew out of a global social movement called “The Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason.” It was truly a historic advance that has led us (for better or worse) to our modern world.

While I’m sure there are many who could write more gracefully on this topic,­ the Enlightenment represented a move away from superstition (as in it is important to be indoors at dusk to avoid the evil vapors) and toward skepticism and the development of the scientific method. (Just imagine a world in which cell phones and demons that make milk go sour sit next to each other on the philosophical shelf.)

And while the United Kingdom, France and the United States all considered moving toward a metric system at this same 1790 juncture, only France was able to make real progress while the U.S. and U.K. continue to struggle with the metric system to this day.

The reason France was able to advance was probably three-fold:

  1. It had a tradition of proudly of leading the way (much as we think of the United States today);
  2. It had a huge proliferation of French measurements (an estimated 250,000 of them) that made it, perhaps, the most unwieldy system in the world; and
  3. It had an opportunity to throw away the past in the wake of the French revolution.

Of course, we took some advantage of our own revolution to introduce metric money or the 10 dimes and 100 pennies we have in our current dollar (for which Thomas Jefferson was responsible). Still, it was apparently our rapid expansion and efforts to “get the job done” in our early history and involvement of those who were less about enlightened thinking and more about speed and greed that laid the foundation for our current metric-hampered society. [see note]


I still marvel that a country as advanced as our own, that bases its progress on scientific advancements (which uses the metric system), and on international trade (which needs the metric system), and seeks the best education for our children (yeah, we haven’t done the best job here but I’m pretty sure no one is sitting around saying, “Gee I hope our children grow up stupid.”) still can’t pull together the political will to move metric system adoption forward.

There are positive rumblings, however, with a recent White House petition and Hawaii (last to become a state and therefore less entrenched in our reluctant past?) pointing toward metric reform (http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2013/bills/HB36_.HTM).

The latter states, in part:

The purpose of this Act is to establish the metric system as the official system of measurement in the State and to require its use in public documents, public records, and public school instructional materials beginning in 2018.

It also highlights one of the issues we’ll have to confront in a move to the metric system: state’s rights. When we drew together to defend against the British, we became the United STATES of America rather than the UNITED States of America. It forms the some of our basic political ideology and haunts us at the same time.

Still, Hawaii is breaking out ahead and sets a shining example for the rest of us. The state deserves our support and, hopefully, sheds light on a future where the rest of us can follow both at a state level as well as nationally.



Note: Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. Andro Linklater. 2002. Walker Publishing Company, Inc, New York.