Eponymous Measurement Units and Planet George


By The Metric Maven

The first planet discovered using a telescope was Uranus. There have been many sophomoric jokes made at the expense of this planet’s name—but I would never argue that its name be changed.  The name Uranus was not in fact, the original name proposed for this celestial body. Its discoverer, William Herschel (1738-1822), named it George. The official Latin euphemism for this title was Georgium Sidus, or George’s Star for King George III. This might strike a contemporary person as the scientific equivalent of A Boy Named Sue.  A planet named after a person?—that’s all messed up. The names had been chosen, up to that point, in a manner which eschewed modern, or even real persons, by using the names of classical gods. George is immediately seen as not comporting with this nomenclature.

What strikes me is that the metric system also began this way by using names which were as decanted from humans as possible. The meter, the liter, the gram, and such were all words designed to be as neutral as possible. This began to fork when derived units appeared. Both the cgs and mks systems began to use the names of famous scientists for the names of derived units, but not always. The cgs system used erg (which derives from a Greek word meaning “work”). I like the name erg, it is derived from a word descriptive of what it is trying to represent, while SI adopted the name joule after the English physicist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) who did pioneering work on energy.

In my view, naming a measurement unit after a person opened a Pandora’s box, much like allowing a newly discovered planet to be named George would have been in astronomy. Eponymous measurement units interjected a potential political, nationalistic and geocentric aspect to the metric system which in my view has not served it well. Clearly, the choices could easily become (and in my view have been) scientific popularity contests, where the idea of measurement unit names, which compactly describe units, was abandoned. In its place was the idea of further “honoring” persons, who are already immortalized in the history of engineering and science, by using the names of measurement units. This choice would immediately lead to political pressure, which could indirectly lead to unit proliferation. After all, we would want to include everyone—right? It becomes Celsius vs Fahrenheit vs Kelvin and the question of who “objectively” did more to further that unit’s development (or should it be the first who did work on it?).  Is it Gauss (cgs) or Tesla (SI)? that contributed the most to (electro)magnetism—I will keep to myself which of these two clearly did more in my view. I will however comment that people who appear of paramount importance to their contemporary history, when judged years later are sometimes no longer seen as towering, or even very important, when closely examined in hindsight. It would be best not to create eponymous measurement units in the first place.

One person I have in mind which exemplifies this is William Henry Preece (1834-1913). Preece rose through the ranks of industry with very little education, and had almost no theoretical insight into the nature of electricity. He saw electricity as similar to water flowing through a pipe. He would never master AC circuit theory, let alone have any understanding of Maxwell’s equations. Even when it was clear that his view of electricity was wrong, he steadfastly refused to budge. He dismissed theory with disdain. He also had all the political connections to make him a formidable adversary—independent of his meager knowledge.[1]

Preece reviled Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) who was an amazing autodidact. Heaviside would recast Maxwell’s equations into the vector form which is used by engineers and scientists to this day. Heaviside coined the terms inductance, and impedance, admittance and conductance, permeability and reluctance. These are all used in modern electrical engineering. He invented transmission line theory. Despite Heaviside’s towering contributions to electrical engineering, it was Preece who had a unit named for him. A preece is 1013 ohm-meters. I’ve never actually seen this unit used, but he managed to get one named for him non-the-less. It is a perfect example of why measurement units should not be named after people.

Another issue is that a choice of words with the least number of syllables would probably be of utility. Why is it ok to take the name Volta and reduce it to volt, but not take Ampere and change it to amp?  (A professor once chastised a student in a class for this by asking if he worked at a garage?—the unit is an ampere!). Why doesn’t George Westinghouse get his own electrical unit?—too many syllables?

Recently I viewed a clip from a British game show which asked a panel “what is the metric unit for weight.” There was much fumbling, and the presenter had to finally tell them it was a newton. Get it?—Isaac Newton is English—and the British contestants didn’t know the measurement unit for weight was named after the great English scientist. That a measurement unit is coupled with a nationality is almost anthropomorphizing it. Until 1948 temperature could be centigrade, after that it became the eponymous Celsius. In another essay I point out I would have it reintroduced as milligrade. Taking the name of a measurement unit, which has some manner of neutrality, and then re-naming it after Celsius is a disservice to metrology, engineering and science.

One metric measurement unit name that appears to suffer from its lack of a descriptive name is the pascal. When a person in the US hears PSI its immediately translated to pounds per square inch. Every American thinks they know what that means. The very name seems to explain itself. 1000 PSI—wow!—that’s a lot! One PSI—not so much. Because we have not embraced the metric system, and better educated ourselves, most Americans think a kilogram is a force, and a pound could be a mass.  So if you tell them something has a pressure of 6895 Pascals—wow!—that sounds big!—but it’s 1 PSI or 6.895 kilopascals. A US citizen would be confused as as to where the kilograms had gone and how they had become kilopascals. When I recently explained to a technician working on pressure lines, which he was connecting to a “foreign” machine, that a pascal is a newton per square meter—there was an immediate recognition on his face. Should the pascal ever have been defined? Perhaps it could have been left as newtons/square meter?—NSM?  In the cgs system there is the gal for a unit of acceleration, but in SI it’s meters/second squared. The gal is said to be short for galileo, but should it ever have been named and defined? People can envision what a meter per second per second might be, and hiding it inside of an eponym disperses clarity. In the case of a unit like a volt, its base units are: m2·kg·s-3·A-1 which I believe very, very few people can visualize, and a name of some type makes sense. It’s too bad it’s an eponym.

There are frivolous units like the barn, which should long ago have been abandoned, but like the continued use of cgs in the US, people who are used to our polytheistic units see no problem just adding more ways to redundantly describe the world. (FYI cgs and SI are incompatible systems)

In 19th century attacks on the metric system, one will often see the complaint that the units have too many syllables. Most of the examples are cherry-picked, but I believe it should have been a consideration in naming metric units. In cgs the force unit is a dyne (single syllable) and in SI it is a newton (two-syllables). The descriptions should be as simple as possible and no simpler. The names of measurement units should not be based on “honoring” already celebrated scientists, nor uncelebrated ones. The angstrom is a good example of an eponymous unit which only kludges up the metric system and makes it less straightforward. Thankfully nanometers are commonly used these days to describe wavelengths of light. But will those who are from Sweden feel slighted?—and continue to use it in a patriotic protest?  Nanometer tells you directly in words what the value of the unit magnitude is in relation to its base, the Angstrom does not. It should have never been coined for a scientific unit.

I expect the probability is small that the metric unit naming issues I’ve related will ever be addressed by international standards committees. In fact it is likely far, far more remote than that of the US becoming a metric nation like Australia. But that does not mean I will not write about it, and implore that this not be done in the future. Spacecraft will continue to be launched. Continue to use spacecraft names to honor scientists—not measurement units. The first rule of getting out of holes is that when you’re stuck in one, you should first stop digging. Add no more eponymous units.

[1] Oliver Heaviside: Sage in Solitude Paul J. Nahin, IEEE Press 1988

Terminating Metric With Extreme Prejudice

By The Metric Maven

“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In the US there are people who take a perverse pride in making a decision knowingly based on ignorance. “I’m not a scientist, but it’s obvious that heavier things fall faster than lighter ones.” John Q. Strawman is right, I would never confuse him with a scientist, and definitely not with an engineer.

The history of the non-adoption of the metric system in the United States is littered with people who are definitely not numerate or scientifically literate. Despite this deficiency they are generally the people who are in control of the political system, and decide the technical policy, or the lack of a technical policy, for the nation. This is true of Charles Davies who quashed the metric system during the time of John Kasson. The stacking of the congressional metric committee with anti-metric members during the tenure of metrication promoter John Shafroth revolved around men ignorant of the interplay of design and measurement, let alone science. In 1921 the chairman of the metric hearings argued for the judgement of the blind “science of the market” over the opinions of the scientifically minded who did not rely on the blind actions of perceived market Darwinism to provide knowledge. They argued that actual knowledge would be better.

In general these historical derailments took place with the full knowledge of the participants. Ronald Reagan decided to request that the US Metric Board be disbanded in 1980. Then in 2006 Lyn Nofziger died and a curious footnote to this decision surfaced.

Lyn Nofziger (1924-2006)

Who was Lyn Nofziger? He was Born in Bakersfield, California in 1924 and earned a degree in journalism from San Jose State College.   He worked as a reporter for a number of years. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and Nofzinger began to work in various capacities for the Nixon administration. According to John Dean, who was Nixon’s White House council, Nofziger helped to compile Nixon’s infamous enemies list. Lyn Nofziger worked to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. Following Reagan’s election, he held positions in the Reagan White House.

When Nofziger died in 2006 he was eulogized by Frank Mankiewicz (1924-2014) in the Washington Post.

Frank Fabian Mankiewicz II (1924-2014)

So who was Frank Mankiewicz? He was born in Beverly Hills, California in 1924. His father co-wrote Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz is credited with coining the term retronym. This is a name that has been modified because it’s original meaning has ceased to be relevant because of technical innovation. Generally a leading adjective is used. Examples are: mechanical typewriter, analog watch or film camera. While these are observations of technical change, there is no evidence that Nofziger ever educated himself about technical issues of any kind. Like Nofziger, Frank Mankiewicz earned a degree in Journalism. He worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign as press secretary. Mankiewicz would announce Robert Kennedy’s death to the world in June of 1968. He would work as a campaign director for George McGovern in 1972. Mankiewicz would be on the “Master List” of Nixon’s political opponents. One wonders if Lyn Nofziger helped to place him there? Mankiewicz would return to political campaigning briefly by serving with the Presidential Campaign of Gary Hart. During this period he claimed that politics had changed. It was all about personalities, and not “does he [the candidate] have the right ideas?” In my view this observation is more ironic than if Lyn Nofziger had helped put him on Nixon’s enemies list.

What Mankiewicz wrote about in his remembrance of Nofziger is perhaps the strangest, enraptured, orgasmic-laced expression of schadenfreude toward the metric system ever put on paper:

So, during that first year of Reagan’s presidency, I sent Lyn another copy of a column I had written a few years before, attacking and satirizing the attempt by some organized do-gooders to inflict the metric system on Americans, a view of mine Lyn had enthusiastically endorsed. So, in 1981, when I reminded him that a commission actually existed to further the adoption of the metric system and the damage we both felt this could wreak on our country, Lyn went to work with material provided by each of us. He was able, he told me, to prevail on the president to dissolve the commission and make sure that, at least in the Reagan presidency, there would be no further effort to sell metric. It was a signal victory, but one which we recognized would have to be shared only between the two of us, lest public opinion once again began to head toward metrification.”

Mankiewicz appears eager to claim credit for destroying metrication in the US. In fact he is so eager, one might not immediately notice his choice of words: “He was able, he told me, to prevail on the president.” Well, the he refers to Nofziger. When Mankiewicz makes this assertion it is essentially hearsay. Neither Nofziger or Ronald Reagan is alive to corroborate this assertion. It shows an amazing amount of contempt toward the metric system by Mankiewicz, and indicates he was a black hole of ignorance when it concerns technology, numeracy, and the general welfare of the US. Mankiewicz did not ask if one has the most up-to-date scientifically accepted weights and measures, he was only interested in if a person has “the right ideas” not the best ideas. His eagerness to take credit for crushing the metric system in the US makes me wonder if “the ignorant journalist doth protest too much that he did it.” He seems to be confessing to a murder he wished he had committed. It is amazing that Mankiewicz’s zeal to destroy the metric system was so strong that as a person who worked on Robert Kennedy’s campaign he would be so proud as to have lobbied a person who worked for both Nixon and Reagan  to “nix” the metric system.

Wikimedia Commons

Neither Lyn Nofziger, nor Frank Mankiewicz had any scientific, technical, or manufacturing qualifications or experience. They were “journalists.” In Mankiewicz’s mind they determined that the two of them could judge and collude in secret to kill the metric system in the US. They terminated “…the adoption of the metric system and the damage we both felt this could wreak on our country…” Why?—because they felt it could wreak havoc on the United States. It is an admission that instinct was more important than investigation when it came to the metric system. That was all it took for this callow duo (at least a duo in Mankiewicz’s mind) to decide the fate of the metric system in the United States. In a faux bi-partisan manner, they did this dirty work out of the sight of the public, from whom their destructive secret should be kept, “lest public opinion once again… head toward metrification.” The democratic sentiments of this duo underwhelms me, but in light of the political climate of 2014, and what has been revealed about the way Washington historically fails to act in the public interest, their contempt for the  public does not surprise me. It does however nauseate me. What retronym we might apply to a pair of journalists who might have existed before Mr. Mankiewicz and Mr. Nofziger? How about investigative journalist?

Pat Naughtin in his Metrication matters newsletter (2009-11-10) stated: “The sad part is that Frank Mankiewicz did not make his silly decision to inform Lyn Nofziger with facts based on research; he simply acted on the basis of personal whimsy.”

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Frank Mankiewicz. After all he was over 90 years old when he died recently, and perhaps with age and retrospect, he might have realized that his opposition to the metric system was a mistake. He clearly must have known that the entire world other than the US now uses the metric system. Surely this would give him pause to contemplate his position.

On November 12, 2013 Frank Mankiewicz appeared on Reddit to answer questions.

Someone with the handle Thereminz asked about the metric system:

Thereminz: “why the anti-metrication? metric is easy,.. personally i know and use both but i would like to see imperial phased out”

FrankMankiewicz: “….Metric–I just think it’s too disruptive, requiring too much sudden change, not only in numbers but in language—especially in sports—and mostly for the benefit of the manufacturers of equipment, tools and kitchen appliances.”

Thereminz: Ok, but it’s been like over 30 years since they wanted to convert

I’m almost thirty and i still find myself having to refer to a conversion chart when dealing with liquid measurements for imperials, ex: you can’t quickly tell me how many tablespoons are in a gallon without thinking about how many tbs in a cup howmany cups in a quart howmany quarts in a gallon

Going from one thing to the other is always different and you have to think about it, uh 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5280 feet in a mile, ok, how many yards in a mile? Bet you can’t tell me that without having to divide by 3

With metric it’s all some power of ten and you can simply tell by the name

Maybe they should have tried a little harder on changing to metric because now we have the internet, and all science uses metric and if you don’t know metric today you seem kind of dim… It puts americans at a disadvantage. It’s kind of funny to me when you see someone try to convert measurements from imperial to metric and they don’t know the conversion or someone from a different country asks their height and they can’t even tell them

Sorry if I’m rambling, i just think it would be better for us if we knew both imperial and metric

FrankMankiewicz: Let them convert. Seriously, both may be the answer, as we all become more global.

That was the end of Frank Mankiewicz entertaining any questions about metric conversion during his Reddit interaction. He has no second thoughts, or as we have seen, first thoughts about metric. Apparently in 2014 there is no need to worry about manufacturing in the US—only the importance of sports. Mankiewicz remained willfully ignorant of the subject which he vociferously opposed until his death on 2014-10-23. Frank Mankiewicz is gone, but anti-metric stalwart Senator Charles Grassley remains as deeply committed to ignorance as he and Mankiewicz did in 1975, 1978 and 1981. As Charles Darwin noted: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”