Friday, June 4, 2010

Why America hasn't shifted to the metric system

Ever since early middle school (for me at least) our teachers have been trying to teach us the standard measurement system AND the metric system. Most kids are clever enough to manage having both, but it does still get confusing at times.

I've been reading a book called the Ranger's Apprentice series, and it's really really good. I like it a lot. But the only trouble I have is that, since it was written by an Australian guy, all the measurements are in metric. So he's all the time telling people that they had to travel 50 kilometers that day, or something like that. All I know about kilometers is that 5k is the same as 3.1 miles. And since uneven mental math really isn't my thing, most of the time I have no idea how many kilometers they were supposed to have ridden that day. I just pretend they're miles and go from there. Sometimes he does meters, which is a little easier. I ran the 60, 200, 300, and 600 meter dashes in track in years past. Granted, the 300 and 600 I pretty much utterly failed at, but I have a decent idea of how much of a distance that is. But everything else... clueless.

That got me to wondering something. If the metric system is supposed to be so much better, why haven't the world's most powerful countries, England and the USA switched totally over to it? Especially when other countries who used to be powers switched over centuries ago. France has done it since 1795. Not that anyone really cares about France anymore, but it used to be pretty important.

Then, last night as I was reading Ranger's Apprentice it came to me. Well, my theory on it anyway.

I think that the more people learn about both systems at the same time, the more they begin to realize (subconsciously of course) that the metric system is actually less convenient. And in some parts, it's rather vague. This puzzles me, because scientists use it almost exclusively, and scientists are supposed to be all factual and exact.

Here's the thing: Yes, the metric system is easier to count with, since it's base 10. It's a lot easier to do mental math when everything divides by 10, and it's also easier to remember how many of everything is in everything else. It's all 10's. 10 milimeters per centimeter. 100 centimeters per meter. 1,000 meters per kilometer. Easy. But that's where the convenience ends.

Example #1: Meters v feet.

When people in metric countries talk about height (like in the books I was reading) they either go with meters or centimeters. Meters are horribly vague. Basically everyone in the books (and there are 8 books) is either 2 meters tall, or has a reputation for being 2 meters tall and doesn't quite reach it. Except for one guy who was a "2 1/2 meter giant". So basically everyone is the same exact height. They're not, but they sound like it because it's either that, or get even more confusing by trying to be all like "a meter and 3/4" or something. And even that's almost always used very generally.

On the other hand, though, there are centimeters. And while they are very much more exact, it's almost like OCD more. Good for science. Bad for everything else. Because there are 100 centimeters in each meter, and so if you want to be a meter and a half tall, you have to get up into triple digits for your centimeter count. Like 157 centimeters or whatever. Now, I do realize that there is a measurement in between that's rather more similar to a foot. But it's a decimeter, and seriously no one uses them. If you go tell someone that they're 15 1/2 decimeters tall, they're gonna look at you funny.

Thus it seems to me that, while the base 10 makes some things easier, it is just inconvenient for every day use. Which is what normal people care about anyway. Feet and inches are exact enough to allow someone to be descriptive and give a good idea of something, but not as OCD as 157 centimeters. They're also not as much of a mouthful to say. It is also a lot easier to round off in feet and inches than in meters. The difference between 5 feet and 6 feet is a whole lot smaller than the difference between 1 meter and 2 meters. You just can't round down to one meter unless you're talking about hobbits. And 3 meters is just ridiculous. "Hey, that dude's like 7 feet tall!" is just plain easier, more convenient, and gives a better, more impacting impression than "Hey, that dude's almost 2 and a half meters tall!"

Example #2: I've known about this one for a long time, but I never connected it with the other example before. Farenheit v. Celsius.

Celsius is easier in one regard only. That it starts with freezing at 0, and boiling at 100. Those are easy numbers to remember and use in math problems. But once again, that's the only convenience.

Fahrenheit starts with freezing at 32, and goes to boiling at 212. This seems a little weird. But there is logic behind it. According to my understanding, this guy made water as cold as possible (by adding salt and whatever to it, to get it below freezing). That's where 0 is on the F scale. Then the actual freezing point happened to hit at 32. And human body temps were also a marker, at almost 100.
This article is a pretty good description of why Celsius is basically useless. I happen to agree, and in fact always have.
Definitely read this.

I liked this paragraph from it a lot. "Easily the most common, everyday use of temperature is the measure of how cold or warm it is outside. In 90% of the world, we see temperatures that rarely stray above 100 or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Its interval from 0 to 100 is almost fine tuned to measure the outdoor temperature. What’s more is that I would argue that 1 degree Fahrenheit (that is .56 degrees Celsius) is right at the average limit in human perception to a change in the air temperature around him/her. That puts both the size of units and the placement of the scale of Fahrenheit at just perfect conditions for outdoor temperature measurement. "

So true. And here's another thing. There are only 100 degrees in between freezing and boiling in Celsius. There are 180 degrees between freezing and boiling in Fahrenheit. Which means that the Fahrenheit scale is almost twice as exact. A reading in Fahrenheit is a more specific description of the temperature than it would be in Celsius. While, as I said, this doesn't matter AS much in every day life, it matters very much in science. Which is why it confuses me that everyone says Celsius is better.

Also, and this is just personal and literary, when you have a really hot day, like in St. George, or AZ, or somewhere, it sounds alot more normal to me to say it's 122 degrees, than to say it's 50 degrees. The number 50 (even if you're used to that meaning a hot day) will never be as accurate feeling as 122. Severe heat is so horrible and gross that it deserves to have triple digits.

This is the Vostok station in Antarctica, where the coldest ever temperature was recorded.

By the way, I just discovered that the two temperature methods cross at -40 degrees. -41 F is the same as -40 1/2 C. and -39 F is the same as -39.44444 etc C. After that they go off on their own again.
Which, I just realized, also makes my same point about extreme cold. The official coldest temperature recorded on Earth (in Antarctica, of course) was -128.6 F and -89.2 C. Come on!! The coldest temp ever recorded on this whole planet! That deserves a negative triple digit if anything does.

This is Al-Aziziyah, Libya where the hottest ever temp was recorded.

PS. If you're curious, there's an unofficial record from 1997 (same station in Antarctica) that claims -132 F, which is -91 C. And apparently the hottest temp ever was in Libya, at 136 F and 57.8 C.

And I just learned this: Most consecutive days above 100 °F (37.8 °C): 160 days; Marble Bar, Western Australia from 31 October 1923 to 7 April 1924.

Can you imagine? That's almost a whole school year of time without dropping below 100 for a single day. Ugh. Remind me never to live there.

Ok, once again we've reached my rambling point. The purpose of all this was to basically say that I think there's a subconscious logical reason why lots of people like the old system better than metric.

If you want to look at some random weather records, go here:

Ah Wikipedia. It's like the internet version of Duct Tape. What would we ever do without it?

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