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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bitching About People Not Using Metrics Doesn’t Make You Sound Smart

posted by on May 15 at 16:46 PM


I know that as a scientist, I am expected to loathe all imperial measurements—inches, cups, quarts, gallons and Fahrenheit. Whining about the United States’ failure to embrace the metric system? Default behavior for dim bulbs seeking to seem sophisticated.

You know what? I don’t like metric measurements for many daily tasks. Why? Factors!

The metric system is based around base 10 numbers. Why? We have ten fingers, so our counting system is based around base 10. This makes jumping between large differences in magnitude—say between the size of my desk and the size of the State—relatively easy. But, ten is a terrible, ugly, number. With only two factors, two and five, it’s a bitch to subdivide measures.

Why couldn’t we have twelve fingers? Twelve is a beautiful number—breaking down into factors of two, three, four and six. Ahhh! Grab a ruler and try to measure a third of foot. Easy! Try to measure a third of a meter. A total pain in the ass! Nothing like an infinite repeat (33.3333333333333333333333333333333333… cm) to ruin a perfectly pleasant day.

Imperial measures for volume are even more pleasant, residing in the world of base 2. Thirty-two fluid ounces to a quart—factors of two, four, eight and sixteen. I’m practically drooling. Ever try to adjust a recipe using measuring cups in milliliters? Ack!

For the lab where I’m routinely bouncing between microliters, milliliters and plain old liters, metric measures are great. Nifty even. For daily activities like cooking? Not so much so.

(Tip of the hat to WiS.)


If I could kill off two non-metric measures right now… hmmm.

So long Fahrenheit! What an inane way to measure temperature! We cannot even figure out how zero Fahrenheit was defined.

And goodbye to Letter, Legal and all the other hideous US paper sizes! Metric paper sizes are totally rad! The height-to-width ratio is 1: square root (2). So what? That means if you take two pieces of paper of the smaller size and put them next to one another? You get the next size up. Yay!

RSS icon Comments


You can get a lot of great metric cookbooks in Italy, France, Spain, and Canada.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 15, 2008 4:54 PM

12 is a better number than 10.

But we need to use the metric system. We're like, one of three countries in the world that don't use it - the others being Liberia and Burma. Not using the metric system almost fucked up one of our Mars missions becuase the other people providing the technology were.

It's kind of embarrassing.

Posted by JC | May 15, 2008 4:57 PM

So, for 12 servings I need to use 1 liter, but I only need 4 servings. Can I get a measuring cup marked 1/3 liter? Or do I need to figure out where 333.3 ml is between 250 and 500 ml?

Posted by Smade | May 15, 2008 4:58 PM

That's a very nice essay. I had never thought about the practical problems of the metric system, though I knew I never much liked it. Thanks for posting.

Posted by Brendan | May 15, 2008 5:02 PM

arent the practical problems simply something that is ingrained into us by not using the metric system?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 15, 2008 5:05 PM

I don't know, I have no problem switching from metric to US measurements between my medical job and my home life.

I do agree that not getting with the program makes us look like Luddites, but it's not a huge stumbling block. There are far more serious misunderstandings to fix first.

Posted by Wolf | May 15, 2008 5:06 PM

This is why even metric countries often have vernacular measures for various functions where "rule of thumb" measures are useful. Speaking of which, as a for-instance, there's a plumber's measure in Sweden that's based on and named after a thumb. You wouldn't order your groceries with it, but it does exist.

Two, four, eight, sixteen -- hell yeah. You can double and halve in your head. Base two rules.

Is your hot tipper WiS the same as the bogus sophisticate @1? Heh heh.

Posted by Fnarf | May 15, 2008 5:07 PM

Ten having less factors than twelve or a 2^n number isn't ingrained into us. It's just math.

Still, there are some really really stupid imperial measures. Like Fahrenheit. What an insane way to measure temperature. Celsius is totally superior for almost all tasks. The only good thing I can say about F over C is there are 180 degrees between the boiling and freezing points of water and 180 has more factors than 100. Not all that useful, though.

Likewise, US paper sizes are stupid. Letter? Legal? Metric paper is totally rad! The ratio of width to height is based on the square root of two.... if you put two pieces of the smaller size next to one another, you make the next size up. Swoon!

Posted by Jonathan Golob | May 15, 2008 5:10 PM

OK, well what about being in line with the rest of the developed (and undeveloped) world, so that, you know, internationally developed space probes will, you know, land?

Posted by K | May 15, 2008 5:14 PM

Oh, I think everyone should learn and be comfortable with metric measures. And NASA? Metrics please.

I just don't think metrics are superior in all situations, particularly the sort of length and volume measurements one does in household life. Very few of us are rocket scientists. ;p

Posted by Jonathan Golob | May 15, 2008 5:19 PM

Imagine the hell that would break lose if someone proposed basing our currency on powers of 10.

Posted by umvue | May 15, 2008 5:21 PM

Appropo of nothing, except the fact that this is a science post I feel the need to brag that my 6 year old son is in his first science fair tonight. I love that he loves science!

Thanks for letting me brag.

Posted by PopTart | May 15, 2008 5:25 PM

Also, as far as human scale goes, inches are way better than centimeters.

Posted by Slim | May 15, 2008 5:35 PM

Try measuring 1/10th of a foot.

Posted by Steve | May 15, 2008 5:41 PM

I like it when I put a 14 mm socket on a bolt and it's a little too small so I grab a 15 mm. I don't like it when I put a 5/8 inch socket on a bolt and it's a little too small, so I have to add 1/16 to twice 5/8 and get an 11/16. Annoying. Watts are better than horsepower and Newton-meters are better the pound-feet. Bleh.

Posted by elenchos | May 15, 2008 5:44 PM

I dunno, #13, doesn't 18 cm sound more impressive than 6 inches?

Posted by Wolf | May 15, 2008 5:45 PM

"Ahhh! Grab a ruler and try to measure a third of foot. Easy! Try to measure a third of a meter. A total pain in the ass!"

You're right, it is easier to factor 12, but you still have similar problems using inches. Try to measure 1/10 of a foot. Or 1/5 of a foot. You might say these are "weird" measurements, but if that is true isn't 1/3 of a meter also weird?

That said, the cool part about the metric system isn't that it's base 10, it's that it's been extended to the International System of Units. If 32 fl. oz. to a quart makes you drool, this should make you downright catatonic:

1cc = 1mL = 1g of water

Hence the density of water is 1.0 kg/L.

It gets better.

Newton = kg * m / s^2

Joule = N * m

Watt = J / s

...and so on. So your point about metric being strange for everyday measures is true, but for anything remotely scientific the system of SI base units and SI derived units is far superior.

At this page it's easy to see how fractured the non-metric non-SI measurements are.

Posted by w7ngman | May 15, 2008 5:46 PM

I'll be impressed with your base 12 argument if and only if you suggest we switch our numbers to be base 12 as well. As long as we count in base 10, our measurement systems should match. Do you get bent out of shape at the idea of 1/3 of a dollar?

Posted by gfish | May 15, 2008 5:52 PM

Why can't we use both? There are lots of different units out there, and all of them are good for particular tasks. For water runoff, for example, the units are acre-feet. For surveying, decimal feet (XXX.XX'). For architecture and carpentry, feet and inches. For concrete and soil volumes, cubic yards. Conversions between all these systems (and to and from metric) are not hard - you just need a table of factors.

Posted by Greg | May 15, 2008 6:00 PM

I thought most branches of the government were on the metric system. The last Navy job I did (a while ok, like 1996 or so) had a "hard" metric requirement, meaning that all of our dimensions had to be in metrics with no reference to inches or feet anywhere. The irony of this is that they also have "buy America" requirement, so that the only folks allowed to build off of these metric drawings were in the US, so I can only imagine the pain in the ass conversions they had to constantly do just to bid the damned job, much less build it!

Posted by scharrera | May 15, 2008 6:00 PM

I HATE US paper sizes! I do graphic design, they are not my friend. "Hey, can we make that the next size up instead?" If I lived anywhere else, I could just size it up, but not here. The ratios are completely disproportionate.

Posted by Dougsf | May 15, 2008 6:37 PM

Ok, I have to defend Fahrenheit, as I often have with European and Canadian friends of mine. Fahrenheit places the range of temperatures most of us humans experience in our daily lives roughly between 0 and 100. 0 degrees is very cold, 100 degrees is very hot. 50 degrees is right in the middle of the temperatures we are familiar with. We are so used to quantifying things on a scale from 0 to 100. What could be more logical?

Ok, great, so in Celsius 0 is freezing and boiling is 100. Is that really particularly useful for the way most of us talk/think about temperatures? Sure, freezing temperature is an important thing, but no one has trouble remembering that it's about 30 degrees, a pretty intuitive place for it to lie on the 0-100 scale.

Posted by Jeffrey | May 15, 2008 6:40 PM

10 has the same number of prime factors as 12, so I don't find your argument very persuasive. The only mildly compelling argument I can think of is that 2 and 3 are the first two prime numbers, and are therefore more useful than 2 and 5.

This seems much less important than the fact that we use a base 10 numbering system, which makes metric conversions a simple matter of moving the decimal point.

How many ounces are in a quart? How many teaspoons? I'm not a big fan of memorization, and the metric system minimizes this. I can tell you how many nanometers there are in a kilometer without a pause, but to get how many inches in a mile I have to do the math.

Posted by booji boy | May 15, 2008 7:04 PM

The meter was developed during the French Revolution based on the distance between the earth's equator and the North Pole. Maybe that's why it didn't work on Mars.

The French in their zeal to do away with all things antiquated also developed a new calendar dividing the year into 12 months of 30 days each (plus five or six days assigned to no month), each month divided into 3 ten day "weeks", and each day divided into two units of ten "hours" each. These new units were further divided into "minutes" and "seconds" based on multiples of ten. Needless to say, this new calendar never caught on and we went back to the familiar ancient system including days of the week named after celestial objects. Some attempts at progress can go too far...

Posted by RainMan | May 15, 2008 7:09 PM

I've always thought it would have been great if the metric system had been based on octal (base-8) instead of base-10. I know, it's a whole new numbering system to learn, but people managed to deal with non-base-10 money in pounds, shillings, and pence (and eighths of a dollar on the stock market). With that, you'd have a nice progression like with fluid measurement: 0100ml*2 = 0200ml*2 = 0400ml*2 = 01000ml or a liter.

Posted by Andy | May 15, 2008 7:10 PM

why not base 30? or base 210?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 15, 2008 7:17 PM

Zero Fahrenheit is the freezing point of a salt or sugar (can't remember which) with the same density of human blood. So the interval from the freezing point of blood to body temperature was divided into 100 segments.

Posted by Mikeblanco | May 15, 2008 7:29 PM

The good thing about metric paper isn't that you can put two sheets together and get the next size up. The best thing is that you can put two sheets together on a photocopier and copy (and reduce) them to the SAME size paper WITHOUT leaving blank space around the edges! Try that with your stupid letter or legal sizes.

Posted by David | May 15, 2008 8:15 PM

Thank you so much for this post, Jonathan Golob! Nothing more to say, except that I liked it.

Posted by rtw | May 15, 2008 8:26 PM

I only right on paper with at least one dimension evenly divisible by i. That way it's easier to tell the rate at which my writing is developing over time.

Posted by kinaidos | May 15, 2008 9:27 PM

Celcius sucks. The human body can detect a 1 degree f change. Celcius is too course, it drives people adjusting thermostats crazy.

Talking to friends in Europe, they use Celcius when its cold, and Farenheit when its hot. Why? Because each sound more impressive at the extremes.

I caught one measuring cable in feet the other day, and they told me they only use Meters for very long distances.

consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

Get over it.

Posted by Me | May 15, 2008 9:37 PM

But how do you measure a baleful sky, pregnant with doom, about to release the captured water sprites, in the misty cycle of life?

Actually, I think metrics appeal to dudes with, how shall we say, subaverage size kickstands.

Me, I'm all about the inches.

Posted by Bob | May 15, 2008 9:49 PM

You know I was having an argument with a friend the other day about this very subject. I was saying the US needed to get with the program and go to metric, he was defending inches, etc. He didn't explain it as well and I came away unconvinced of the greatness of non-metric. Now I do. Thanks Golob.

Posted by Enigma | May 15, 2008 10:46 PM

Somehow saying it might get up to 29 tomorrow leaves me cold.

Posted by tiptoe tommy | May 15, 2008 10:53 PM

@27: 0 degrees F is the lowest temperature you can get with an ice-salt (NaCl) mixture. 100 degrees F was nominally body-temperature, but presumably Mr. F. had a fever that day (BTW note that hot-blooded Americans are 98.6 F while us cold Limeys are traditionally 98.4).

If you really want the virtues of multiple bases, consider my British pre-decimal youth (in the 50's) when one might need to use currency units of 12 pennies to the shilling & 20 shillings to the pound. Combine that with 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone, 8 stones to the hundredweight and 20 hundredweights to the ton. Lengths were the familiar inches, feet, yards, furlongs & miles. But don't forget the rod, pole or perch ( 5 1/2 yards). 4 rods to the chain, 8 chains to the furlong, 8 furlongs to the mile.

So, in elementary school the nuns could indeed require you to calculate the cost of 3 and a quarter yards of material costing two and ninepence farthing a foot (forget to tell you that there were four farthings to the penny).

ALL decimal now: should make comparison shopping much easier!

Posted by Andrew Taylor | May 15, 2008 11:17 PM

@21: Yep, glad that we're metric here in Australia, never really had to get to grips with picas and points and fractions of inches and gross troy pinhead-angel-widths or whatever you lot use :)

One gripe I have though is how some software (yes you, Microsoft. Adobe, stop smirking, you're not perfect either) is very keen to revert to US defaults. Mm, yes, I really want to measure my A4 sheet in inches with decimal places. I really want my printer to flash an error message cos it's being instructed to ask for Letter paper...

Posted by banjoboy | May 15, 2008 11:44 PM

God, what a bunch of whiners.

Look, when the day comes and we go metric, you'll be able to buy measuring cups and all that which have both measures.

Eventually, you'll adapt.

Just like you did to 450 ml bottles and all the other products you "think" are not metric - but which are.

You'll also be able to buy food with both methods and pricings for a few years as well.

It's just not that hard. 8 will get you 5, you'll take to it like a fish.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 15, 2008 11:59 PM

And as they say,

Imagine the hell that would break lose if someone proposed basing our currency on powers of 10.

Everyone knows it ain't worth tuppence if the nob takes your pound and gives you six shillings and a farthing for yer troubles, guv'n'r.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 16, 2008 12:04 AM

I have twelve fingers.

Posted by Andy | May 16, 2008 1:48 AM

The obvious solution is to keep the metric system but move to base 12. Then the society for metric time will be happy.

Gradians (gon) are metric (in base 10) but almost nobody uses them.

A4 etc aren't metric but they are cool. If you use 80 gsm paper then an A4 sheet weighs 5 grams, so you can calculate postage rates just by counting sheets rather than weighing the document.

Posted by Matthew | May 16, 2008 3:30 AM

Booji Boy: Uh, 10 and 12 do not have the same number of prime factors. 10 = 2 X 5 has two; 12 = 2 X 2 X 3 has three.

Jonathan Golob: I've gotta agree with Jeffrey on Fahrenheit vs. Celsius. Fahrenheit covers the range of human temperatres with more reasonable numbers and better granularity than Celsius. Fahrenheit is just as much approximately based on natural temperatures as Celsius (0 is the lowest temperature that saltwater can reach without freezing; 100 is human body temperature). And Celsius isn't the SI unit of temperature, anyway -- Kelvin is.

I do agree about the practical advantage of DIN paper sizing, though.

Many others: All posters trying to play up their liberal internationalism by advocating going metric need to get over themselves. Having spent many years living in metric countries, I can assure you that people in all of them use non-metric measures all the time in everyday life: in the British isles distances are still measured in miles and in Germany engine power is still measured in horsepower and I've never been anywhere where weathermen give the air pressure in Pascals.

Posted by David Wright | May 16, 2008 3:43 AM

Andy! Stop it! I can't figure out base 10 half of the time.Your base 8 stuff f#cks me upp!(Quick, what is 32 divided by 24?)See what I mean?

Posted by lawrence clark | May 16, 2008 4:21 AM

we still use paper sizes of letter and legal and all that in canada. despite being metric we still use antiquated imperical measurements all the time.

metric is far better in terms of construction, engineering, planning, math, science - basically everything that makes the world go round.

imperical is like slang - efficient to get the point across but no one takes you seriously if you use it exclusively.

Posted by darek | May 16, 2008 5:20 AM

I've never been anywhere where weathermen give the air pressure in Pascals.

In Canada they give air pressure in kPa (kilopascals) in all weather forecasts.

See: Environment Canada Forecast for Ottawa

I am a Canadian who spends lots of time in NY and has to convert all the time.

In Canada we generally use both Imperial and Metric. Measurements like a person's height and weight are still done the old way but temperatures, other heights, weights and volume are metric. You'll find cookbooks that use both. In Canadian weather forecasts, they often give temperatures to the tenth of a degree.

How many Americans know how many bushels are in a peck anyway?

Posted by toujoursdan | May 16, 2008 7:51 AM
Posted by kiwidan | May 16, 2008 8:02 AM

you said "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" but the quote is "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Gosh I hate it when they leave out those qualifying words. IT means your womment is 100% invalid.

A foolish consistency, not any old consistency.

Get it right, stop misquoting it, everyone. Everytime.

Posted by PC | May 16, 2008 8:31 AM


Go away, PC/unPC.

Posted by Fnarf | May 16, 2008 9:11 AM

@23: "Okay, nano, that comes after micro, but before femto, right? Or is it atto? Hang on, let me check Google."

Still memorizing. And the easy-conversions argument never really swayed me, anyway. I did metal assembly work in a factory for a few years and everything was measured in decimal inches. No conversions, just inches. How often will I need to figure out how many nickels I would have to stack up to reach Proxima Centauri? Outside of baking, I almost never need to convert units of measurement, and even while baking it rarely comes up.

And as for Celcius, man, fuck Celcius. It's based on the characteristics of an essentially arbitrary compound (water—sure it's important to us, but how important is it to, say, silicon-based life?) at an arbitrary pressure (sea-level—an arbitrary altitude—on Earth—an arbitrary planet), making it, in the end, just as arbitrary as Fahrenheit. But Fahrenheit doesn't have any pretensions about it. It's unreservedly arbitrary, as any system of temperature measurement must be.

Also, what the fuck is up with metric tonnes? No, fuck you, that's a megagram. That's the whole fucking point of your stupid fucking prefix system, asshole.

Posted by Ben | May 16, 2008 9:24 AM

Hey, looks like it's going to be a nice day tomorrow, 299°

There is something to be said for consistency, we have all heard "1.79 x 10^12 furlongs per fortnight -- it's not just a good idea, it's
the law!" but the constant built into my calculator is 299792458 WTF!

@35 brings up comparison shopping, ever notice how some stores will have the unit price for one of two items you might want to compare, in ¢/oz. and the other in ¢/lb, thats assuming you can even read the tiny text. Not so much the problem of the measuring system as the people who use it, I suppose if they were using SI units they would price one per gram and the other per liter, not a big problem for bottled water, but not so useful for corn flakes

Posted by Epimetheus | May 16, 2008 10:52 AM

@49: It's 299K. Kelvin. Not degrees, or degrees Kelvin, just Kelvin.

Posted by Ben | May 16, 2008 11:11 AM

Calling it "metrics" doesn't make you sound smart either.

You're totally right that the English system is so much more convenient. Who can forget that totally convenient 5280 feet per mile conversion? If 12 is great because it can divide 2,3,4, and 6, then 5280 kicks ass.

Posted by F | May 16, 2008 11:39 AM

let's hear it for picas

woo hoo

Posted by LeslieC | May 16, 2008 11:45 AM

Jonathan, the Imperial units of measure are substantially different from the US Standard measures. Which are you actually celebrating?

Posted by inkweary | May 16, 2008 12:45 PM

"Why couldn't we have twelve fingers?"

Why? That's another science question. Ten fingers was the best deal and evolution weeded out twelve- or eight-fingered individuals.

I disagree with the author. Metric is the system of uniformity and consistency - absolutely necessary traits whether you're pHing a solution or baking a peach pie!

P.S. I work in a lab and love baking.

Posted by Sean | May 16, 2008 2:22 PM

Señor Golob: Clearly you have touched a nerve.. or at least a nerve that most people have familiarity with.

Once I thought that not going metric was a bit dim-witted of a certain President Reagan (who allegedly killed that bill), but your post has changed my opinion. Factoring 12 rules (har har). Metric for wrenches, however, also rules.

I do slightly disagree with you on F vs. C. However you do mention that 180 degrees between freezing and boiling is a better measure than merely 100 (which would force us to describe important temperature differences in tenths of a degree (36 ne 36.5)

I propose Neo-Celcius. 0 = freezing, and 200 = boiling. Clear, obvious, scales well, kinda sexy, and far, far better than Kelvin for us mortals.

Posted by treacle | May 16, 2008 3:09 PM

Why couldn't we have twelve fingers?

We're not Amish?

Posted by CP | May 16, 2008 6:16 PM

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