How to live a better life by using the metric system

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Image credit: Oxford University Press

Most countries on Earth have adopted the Metric System.

The USA, however, and some other English-speaking countries, cling on to Neolithic approaches to weights and measures. “If it was good enough for pre-Bronze-age people, it’s good enough for us” seems to be the general notion.

But let’s pause and consider the stresses and confusions that arise from having weights and measures that have no meaningful relationship to one another and which even in themselves are frankly irritating.

Here’s a typical US recipe: take a stick of butter, a cup of flour, 3 ounces of coco powder and a teaspoon of sugar.

A stick? How many twigs to a stick? How many sticks to a branch? Do they sell branches of butter, and if not then why not? What size of cup? And how many ounces to a pound? Or is that fluid ounces? How big a teaspoon should I use? Heaped or level?

The fact is, no one knows, and this is why US citizens habitually buy things from supermarkets. They know that any attempt to make something at home will always lead to tears of frustration.

The British are worse, clinging not only to antiquated measurements but introducing even more silliness. When you ask a Brit how much they weigh, chances are they’ll say something like “I weight ten stone five.”

But how big a stone? When does a stone become large enough to be a boulder, or small enough to be a rock? And five what? Pebbles?

Furthermore you can’t convert anything. How many pints to a pound? How many sticks to a cup? How many boulders to a twig?

Even temperature is all messed up in the USA, with people using Fahrenheit. This is a very silly system indeed, in which at sea level water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. Frankly I’m disappointed, because if we’re going to have a very silly system it should be maximally silly. Water should freeze at 31 2/17ths of a degree and boil at 211 4/31sts of a degree. But no, it’s just irritating and boring at the same time, which is the worst of all possible worlds.

So step forward the Metric System.

In the Metric System everything converts to everything else. Everything is base-10. Everything makes sense.

Water freezes at 0C and boils at 100C. One kilogram of water is also a liter so conversion is super easy.

Science is based around the Metric System, so that for example units of energy (joules) can be defined as the energy transferred to an object when a force of one newton acts on that object in the direction of the force’s motion through a distance of one meter. We can use joules to talk about temperature, because it takes 4.2 joules (formerly known as one calorie) to raise 1 gram of water (one milliliter) by 1 degree Celsius under conditions of one standard atmosphere (sea level).

See how easy that was? Now try working out how much energy (In what measurement? Campfire logs? Boar’s tusks?) you’d need to raise a fluid ounce (however much volume that is….) by one degree Fahrenheit.

Or just shoot yourself in order to save time and inevitable frustration. The choice is yours.

Returning to the rational world of the Metric System, we find distance is measured in kilometers. There are 1,000 meters to a kilometer, and 100 centimeters to a meter and 10 millimeters to a centimeter. No messing around with inches and feet and elbows and leagues and furlongs and fathoms and toenails and whatever other nonsense is involved.

So when we say “the house is 2.3 kilometers away” we know precisely how far that is: 2,300 meters. Compare this with “the house is a mile and a third from here.” Let’s see… a mile is 5,280 feet. There are 12 inches to a foot. So… the total distance is approximately 84,478 inches or approximately 7,040 feet. Not exactly user-friendly unless you love doing pointless mental arithmetic.

Even better, when we come to large values we can keep hold of some sense of scale. When we come to very big or very small measurements we have a super-easy way to handle them. US citizens invariably talk about “gazillions” because once people get past about one hundred they have very little or no sense of scale at all. The difference between a billion and a trillion is fuzzy at best. But with the metric system we can be very precise. For example, we can say that the average distance between the Earth and our Sun is 1.4712 x 10⁸ kilometers. We can say, going down in size quite a bit, that the average diameter of a human hair is 2.54 x 10^-3 centimeters (according to Rossbachs’ data, which frankly I’m skeptical about).

Because it makes sense, the Metric System is used universally by engineers and scientists. What’s the very coldest temperature achievable in the universe, the temperature at which atoms would cease to vibrate? That’s 0 Kelvin, which is -273 Celsius. All units of measurement are defined in metric terms, from the Planck constant upward. Because scientists and engineers have far better things to do with their time than mess about with antiquated systems of measurement that were never designed to be compatible with each other and therefore make life unnecessarily difficult.

If you don’t believe this, perhaps you should learn about the 1999 NASA mission Mars Climate Orbiter. This very expensive mission failed catastrophically because US software engineers hard-coded key variables in old-fashioned Imperial units while the rest of the software logic was using Metric units. Result: the lander slammed into Mars instead of performing a gentle controlled touchdown.

When the rest of the world is using a rational and easy system, there are precisely zero brownie points for clinging on to something even Agamemnon would likely have been embarrassed by.

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