The Shrinking World

By The Metric Maven

In the 1960s and 1970s it was common to hear people talk about “our shrinking world.” What they meant by that was the speed of transportation had increased
by such a large amount that traveling from one part of the globe to another took mere hours. A journey that might have taken years in the past, could now be traversed in days. It is my understanding that humans had reached more-or-less every region of the globe by the medieval period in Europe. From that point on, theirĀ  isolation from one another decreased such that today people travel to Easter Island on a regular basis as tourists.

What appears to exist for many people is a sort of cognitive dissonance about our planet. People will drive through Wyoming and think the world is so large that humans have no ability to affect it. There is plenty of room, you can see it with your own eyes. The problem is that often we cannot see changes with our eyes, we require instruments to augment our feeble senses, and what they can reveal is sobering.

Thomas Midgley (Wikimedia Commons)

In the early years of the twentieth century, gasoline engines suffered from knocking. The spark plug in an internal combustion engine is meant to ignite the gas/air mixture arriving from the carburetor in a homogeneous fashion, but can combust in a localized manner. This causes knocking. In 1921 Thomas Midgley (1889-1944) discovered that adding Tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline eliminated knocking. Early on he also discovered that the addition of alcohol could also solve the problem. Adding alcohol would have very little profit potential, whereas adding lead was patentable and would maximize it. Midgley argued publicly that there was no substitute for TEL, when he knew otherwise. There was a willful disregard by Midgley and his partners for the health hazards that lead could cause, which is borne out by the fact they named the additive “Ethyl” so that any mention of lead could be avoided.

The Latin word for lead is plumbum. This is why the symbol for lead in the periodic table of elements is Pb. Lead is a very heavy material, and that is the origin of the phrase “to plummet to the Earth.” It became clear long ago that lead was also poisonous, and could make a person “plumb crazy.” Medical researchers warned that lead in gasoline could poison the nation. Workers exposed to TEL during manufacture suffered from paranoia and had to be institutionalized, others simply died. By 1945, everyone on Earth was fueling their vehicles with leaded gasoline.

In the 1968 movie, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good, a virus outbreak that makes everyone nice to one another, is finally cured by adding an anti-virus vaccine to gasoline and petroleum products. The movie plot shows it was a proverbial idea in the 1960s that putting the cure into petroleum products would make certain that every one on Earth would be exposed. In that era, I recall seeing the sides of gasoline pumps with a large sign warning us that the gasoline we were purchasing contained lead. The idea that lead was poisoning us all seemed proverbial. Yet, with capital to burn, petroleum public relations groups implemented a campaign of denialism, their research “showed” that TEL was harmless. I’m sure that if people didn’t want to purchase gasoline, that was their “choice” and so all was well and no intervention was needed.

An article in New Scientist[1] claims that by the time lead was removed from gasoline

“… with some 75 trillion litres of leaded gasoline burned, science woke up from its amnesia about the dangers of lead.”

New Scientist decided to go non metric with an Olde English prefix modifier, trillion, which helps to obfuscate what the number means. The volume of gasoline in metric is 75 Teraliters. It is estimated that two grams of lead per gallon (yes that’s how it was expressed–in pigfish) was in gasoline at the time. This works out to about 0.5284 grams/liter (forgive the excessive decimal places in the conversion, it actually helps in the end). When one multiplies 75 TL by this value, we end up with a total of about 40 Teragrams of lead belched into the atmosphere. But how bad is this for each of us? Well the population of the planet is 7.5 Giga-people. This works out to about 5 grams of lead for each person on the planet.

So, how bad is this? Well the upper limit for blood is 10 micrograms of lead per 100 grams of blood. There are around 5 liters of blood per person, so we can approximate this as about 5 Kg of blood or 5000 grams. This works out to about 50 micrograms of lead in the bloodstream for an adult human before he is considered poisoned. Assuming we go with double this value, 100 micrograms, we each could have been poisoned at least 50 000 times by the amount of lead released as a result of Midgley’s desire for fame and fortune. For Midgley, our entire planet became an externality. The good news is that since lead was banned in gasoline, the levels of lead in the blood of children has dropped to 1/3 what it was at its peak.

I have been criticized in the past for insisting that the large metric prefixes (Kilo through Yotta) should be taught in school from the youngest age possible, and memorized,
like multiplication tables were before the advent of calculators. 75 trillion liters is not metric, it’s Olde English Pigfish. 75 Teraliters tells me a quantity in a compact way, as does a Terabyte drive (that is a massively big number). Tera immediately tells me the magnitude is 1012 (I remember the value of this prefix as tera sounds like twelve). Using the large prefix, with some basic assumptions about the mass of water and its volume, because of the clever design of the metric system, I quickly estimated the amount of lead each of us had the potential to ingest, and how badly this could poison us all. When metric is not used, it simply allows for the obfuscation of meaning, like “Ethyl.” As I’ve said in the past, we may not be able to directly understand large numbers, but we can express them within a metric world where their values can be understood in terms of what they mean to our planet, or the size of our universe. With the metric system We can realize that our planet is finite, and that it is possible for a single human
being to poison the entire Earth, and everyone who resides there, independent of whether they have ever used a gasoline engine, or not.

The use of ammonia for refrigeration was a dangerous practice in the early twentieth century. Thomas Midgley was celebrated for also creating Freon, the first of the CFCs, that solved the danger that ammonia presented to humans. Unfortunately it would later be discovered that CFCs were destroying our ozone layer, and an ozone hole began forming over Antarctica. But that is another story, which also involves large metric prefixes used to shrink our world, and make it understandable.

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[1] The One-Man Environmental Disaster New Scientist 2017-06-10 pp 42-43

Old Days

Wikimedia Commons

By The Metric Maven

I read a “fun fact” recently, that stated because metal expands when heated, the Eiffel Tower is actually 150-170 mm taller in the Summer than in the Winter. This fact reminded me of an old physics textbook, New Practical Physics by Black and Davis (1929 edition) that I’ve had for sometime but never really inspected. The section at the front on the metric system has an interesting graphic:

The authors of the book show a comparison of English and metric, with inches divided into tenths. This is interesting, because the general usage in the US (even in
High School or College physics classes) employs a common yardstick where inches are divided into fractions. It is very interesting that the textbook authors note both centimeters and millimeters are on the metric rule in their illustration. They seem to be falsely equate inches and tenths with centimeters and millimeters to provide a non-existent continuity between metric and Ye Olde English. Centimeters are the only labeled graduations, and it seems they do not contemplate using millimeters alone as an option. As I’ve said in the past, centimeters are so identified with inches in the US they are the default small metric unit, and a poor choice.

Black and Davis note that US currency is decimalized, but:

Our system of weights and measures, on the other hand, is not a decimal system, and is very inconvenient. Nevertheless, since the pound, foot, quart, gallon,
and bushel are still in general use in the United States and Great Britain, we must be familiar with them.

The basics of the metric system are touched upon and the definition of the:

Meter and yard. The meter is the distance between two lines on a metal bar (Fig. 2)

which is preserved in the vaults of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris.

Since the length of this metal bar changes a little with temperature, the distance is measured at the temperature of melting ice. A very accurate copy of the bar is deposited in the United States Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., and this copy is the legal meter of the United States.

In the United States the yard is legally defined as 3600/3937 of a meter.

My Father’s friend Mark was looking through a surveying kit, owned by his father, that appears to be from the 1930s, and found this interesting ruler:

Click to enlarge

One side has temperature correction for Lufkin steel measuring tapes. The difference for the 50 foot length is given on the left side and expanded for a 100 foot length on the right hand side. The wooden ruler itself is graduated in tenths of inches. I have no idea how prevalent rulers with 1/10th inch graduations were, but I suspect they were about as rare as they are now.

The back side:

Click to enlarge

Has hundredths of a foot, and is marked in tenths of a foot with integers. Below it is a scale with 1/16ths of an inch (of course millimeters would be 1/25). The value of a chain is a foot, divided into tenths and hundredths.

A footnote at the beginning of the textbook reminds us:

It was originally intended that the meter should be equal to one ten-millionth part of the distance from the equator to either pole of the earth, but it is impossible to reproduce an accurate copy of the meter on the basis of this definition. Later measurements have shown that the “mean polar quadrant” of the earth is about 10,002.100 meters.

First the Earth was used, and it had considerable difficulties as a standard, then metal bars, that needed to be measured at a precise temperature. Now the current definition is in terms of the speed of light in a vacuum, and is very, very accurate and reproducible. We still have some issues with better usage and simplification, but before that, we have to adopt the metric system exclusively in the US.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page

Related essay:

The Chain Gang

The Americans Who Defined The Meter

The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.