Before you laugh or smirk, let me assure you that I’m not suggesting we abandon the highly successful Metric System of measurement and units. It has succeeded in becoming a nearly universal system. Even in the United States, where customary units are still in wide use, we are officially a Metric nation.
But an interesting thing has happened in recent years that’s not widely known, and goes against all predictions. You see, arguments over problems with the use of the Metric System persist even now. It turns out that NASA, one of America’s most technologically savvy and internationally dialed-in government agencies, has mandated the strict use of Metric units in all its work, but they have quietly given up on that mandate just recently. It turns out that in the space sciences, there are still too many problems with enforcing metric-only analysis. For one thing, the central equation used in rocket propulsion, called simply the Rocket Equation, works out very elegantly in customary units, but not so much in Metric. The difference isn’t insurmountable, but it’s proven to be impossible to convince engineers to use a non-elegant solution. This is no small thing. Confusion over propulsion system units did cause the failure of a Mars Mission.
But that’s only one example. Re-tooling costs aside, shifting from customary units that make division more natural to a Metric system designed for easy multiplication has had many practical impacts. For that reason, M.K. Freeberg from the blog House of Eratosthenes recently called the Metric System “yet another costly mistake brought to us by the problematic thinking of modern liberalism.” He also ranted thusly:
A thought adjoining to the final lines of the post previous: I hate the metric system.
Not that it doesn’t have its uses. If I’m calculating the accumulation of kinetic energy in an accelerating mass, and the capacity of that kinetic energy when it’s converted into something else, the metric system would be my first choice.
It is the advocacy for the metric system that cheeses me off. The idiotic arguments. “Ten is sensible”; that right there, that’s it. No, ding-dong, ten is not sensible. What is two-thirds of ten? You want to build a house that way?
See, for guys who have hammer-loops in their jeans that they use to actually hold hammers, and carry a tape measure clipped to their belts, twelve is better. It’s better for actually building things. Twelve is a composite that is the product of a low prime times the square of an even lower prime. Ten is just two primes, great for multiplying but lousy for dividing.
And why do you want a number great-for-multiplying anyway? That’s just for doing math in your head, or on a sheet of paper. There’s computers everywhere, you goth vegan Canuck black-turtleneck-wearing atheist who probably thinks the European Union is the greatest thing since the printing press. We don’t need number systems that are great for multiplying. Great-for-multiplying is for lazy students who are still in class and want an easy A without bothering to switch their iPhones out of Angry Birds. Great-for-dividing is what people need when they’re designing or building something that is actually supposed to work. And the problem you run into with that, when you’re trying to divide ten by three, is not something that will trip you up until you have invested some actual time. Real time, out in the real world, building real things.
The ten-is-easier argument is just stupid. Worse than stupid, it is a successful inversion; it is the winning of an argument based on the aesthetics of the argument, without respect to the actual substance, or its ramifications for the rest of us out here where objects actually move around and have an effect on one another. The impression left is that the English system is based on yesteryear, specifically the distance between Henry I of England’s nose and his thumb, and the tens-system is the world of tomorrow. The truth is the opposite of this. Most people don’t have much call to do math with newtons and km/sec^2. And they haven’t got a frequent need to do math in their heads merely by moving a decimal point around. We’re spending our lives in front of computers. Imposing a whole new system on oldsters who just want to buy medicine and margarine, just so kids can get their math homework done a little quicker when they’re too lazy to enter numbers into a calculator, has turned out to be a relic of the 1970′s.
I don’t know whether I completely agree with Freeberg’s sentiments, but I do know that something was lost when the World became Metric, and I know that it never really delivered on what its promoters advertised. Sure, it made multiplication easy in the base-ten numbers. That’s a fact. But it was pushed as the only universal system, and that was never really true. What it really represented was a non-Biblical, non-historical system based on a new and quasi-scientific-feeling notion that was still every bit as arbitrary as the systems it replaced. The Meter was initially defined based on the dimension of the Earth, but it became invalid the moment it was defined, and had to be redefined using artifacts kept in safes in France or later on radiometric definitions. It truly might as well have been based on a king’s arm length or the size of his foot.
As for what I feel was really lost? The World already had some truly universal measuring and computing conventions, and these were discarded forever. Some of these were ancient, such as the Biblical use of the number 12 (and used in the foot measurement) or infinite binary divisibility: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and so on, which have permanent utility. I have a feeling that this was done on purpose in a display of some secular, humanistic hubris as much as any real need. In any case, the gains still seem something of an illusion more than anything. Is it important that a liter be easily converted to cubic centimeters? Would it be better if the units of measure were more natural? In the UK, they still speak of each other’s weight in “stones.” Here, we seem hooked on “pounds-mass,” and I’ll wager that rocket propellant’s specific impulse will always be measured in “seconds” rather than “Newton-seconds-per-kilogram.” So, is this a total victory for the visionaries of the Metric World? Not quite.