US Scientists Not Using The Metric System

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

A Vox article, American energy use, in one diagram, shows that US Scientists using the metric system are Mormons Making Coffee,  without adding any coffee. A diagram is presented for 2016 energy use in the United States:

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The units used are in quadrillion BTUs. BTUs are not even a well defined unit. It is stated that a BTU is about 1055 joules. So, a quadrillion BTUs is about 1055 Petajoules. The chart has this run-down for energy consumed in the US:

Because the energy values are BTUs nested inside of a name called a Quad, this is even worse than using Olde English prefixes. The actual energy unit is hidden in a nickname. Clearly it could be worse, the different energy sources could be a mixture of KWh, “metric tons” of coal, and so on. The Quad is simply an Argot, used by insiders to make what they do less transparent. See my essay, John and the Argot-nauts. The author of the article tries to put a Quad in perspective by offering this list of Quad equivalents.

A “quad” is one quadrillion (a thousand trillion) BTUs. Here, according to Wikipedia, are a few things equivalent to a quad:

8,007,000,000 gallons (US) of gasoline
293,071,000,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh)
36,000,000 metric tons of coal
970,434,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas
25,200,000 metric tons of oil

So a quad is a lot of energy. The US consumed 97.3 quads in 2016, an amount that has stayed roughly steady (within a quad or so) since 2000.

This list of units seems to ask a reader to add apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, blueberries and then compare the sum to bananas. In the metric system we choose but one fruit for comparison. In this case the choice of Petajoules will produce integer comparison values for the smallest and the largest values.

If we use Naughtin’s Laws to rewrite this list in metric we obtain:

Total Energy  102 652 Petajoules (without rounding)

The data is presented in all integers and the numbers are easily comparable.  Solar and Geothermal do not contribute much of the total, but Natural Gas, Coal, and Petroleum do. Even in the US, a joule is almost certainly a more recognizable energy unit than a Quad, as is the metric prefix modifier Peta- (Petabytes of data storage). The units are suppressed in the original diagram, so we could indicate all values are in Petajoules (PJ) and simplify the table further:

The article notes that most people immediately notice the amount of wasted energy, which is about two thirds according to the article, or about  68 435 Petajoules.
The same diagram from 1970 is presented, also in Quads:

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It shows that in 1970 we generated about 71 213 Petajoules of energy and wasted 32 178 Petajoules. Wow, we now  officially waste about as much energy as we generated in 1970!

In 1950 the total generated energy was 32 810 Petajoules, of which about half was
wasted:

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The larger point is that scientists at LLNL continue to express energy values the same way they did in 1950. There is also a strange implicit assumption that if the values are presented in pre-metric units, that somehow they will be understood better by the public. This is probably just a rationalization for using internal argot to express these values. One can only speculate why there has never been a change. One thing that is certain, is there has been a significant change in the complexity of our energy generation in the US since the 1950s. The 1950 diagram has four energy inputs, today we have nine. To best understand this information, one should examine how it has been presented in the past and consider a simpler, more intuitive way of expressing this data. The metric system would be a good start, and perhaps reading Edward Tufte might be the next step for government scientists to investigate better ways to express this data, assuming they actually want to, not just for public understanding, but for scientists, engineers and others.

Thanks to Peter Goodyear for bringing this article to my attention.

Related Articles:

Joule in The Crown

John and The Argot-Nauts


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.

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The Metric Caboose

By The Metric Maven

Mini-Bulldog Edition

As a boy, I lived less than a block from a set of railroad tracks. The report of train whistles, and the low pitched sound of each train as it passed by during the night assured me commerce was underway, and all was fine. During the day, myself and others would often watch as a train passed to see what the oldest car was. The oldest was 1909 as I recall, and those cars looked very fragile. Of course the caboose was a punctuating symbol that defined the end of the train. I don’t ever recall a caboose at the front of the train. A caboose at the front of a train, before the engines, would be seen as something out of order, that is not being used as designed. Could one hook a caboose to the front of a train and have it operate? Sure—does it make sense–perhaps—but not as expected usage.

When I first became interested in electronics, resistors were the first component I encountered. Their resistance is measured in ohms. One might have 50 ohm resistor, or 68 ohm resistor, but when the value progresses into the thousands, the metric prefix Kilo is used. A 10 000 ohm resistor is a 10 Kiloohm resistor which is generally written as 10 KΩ, when the resistance becomes large enough we use Megaohms or MΩ. As people like to speak in shorthand, and everyone knows, that on an electrical schematic, resistors are in ohms, electrical engineers generally say “that’s a 4 K resistor,” implying that the value is 4 KΩ. When people say they are going to participate in a 5K run, it’s understood that it is a 5 Km distance.

The metric prefix Kilo- is supposed to modify the unit value that follows it, but in common usage, people often appear to use it as shorthand for a set of zeros. When the prefix symbol is moved next to a numeral, 5K becomes 5000; the prefix modifier becomes a suffix modifier. When it is thought of in this way, it can be used as a sort of stealth prefix for Ye Olde English, or whatever comes along.

For instance here is an example from the web where the metric modifier is separated from Olde English as if this is a good idea:

So it reads “Spruce beetles pick up where their pine cousins left off, eating through 136 000 acres in past year” rather than “Spruce beetles pick up where their pine cousins left off, eating through 136 Kiloacres in past year.” The prefix modifier becomes a suffix modifier and metric is “compatible” with anything. Just by removing a space we modify the leading number rather than the trailing unit. By invoking this idea, we create 5K dollars, or 75K crickets, or 210K albatrosses. This space removal causes a literary switcharoo that turns a prefix into a suffix. This appears to be a practice that has happened somewhat recently and has become an accepted part of the language. If there is no space between it and a leading number, the single metric “prefix”  becomes a suffix number, and if there is a space then a metric unit must follow the prefix.

Is this usage a good idea? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is a usage that could make sense. Without a space 326K, or 326M, or 326G could be thought of as numbers. The value 326G certainly is more compact than 326 000 000 000. This distinction would have to be identified, formalized, and taught in schools, so that students would know how to use it properly. If one writes 25K they mean a number, if they write 25 K then one should expect a unit symbol to follow such as 25 Km, and 25 K would not be considered a finished statement. I can see how this usage could be useful, but currently it strikes me as the engine switched for the caboose.

Related essay:

The Elements of Bile


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.

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