Recently I watched Elizabeth Kolbert give a lecture on Book TV about her book The Sixth Extinction. It was quite engaging. I put off purchasing the book as a lot of its contents were familiar. During a protracted period of free time I purchased a paperback copy. I sat down and began to work my way into the book. There were three pages of quotations which praised the writing and content. Then the title page, followed by the edition page. A page with quotations was next and then a table of contents. It was all very normal and snooze-worthy.
Then I hit a page entitled Author’s Note. I have reproduced it below:
The first clause of the first sentence just hit me like a slap. Here is a book, which is essentially about science, and asserts that “scientific discourse” uses the metric system, but we will not be using it in this book. The word discourse is about written and spoken communication, which 95% of the worlds population, scientific or not, uses the metric system to accomplish. There is 5% who do not, and they make their entrance after the comma.
The next assertion is that Americans “think in terms of miles, acres, and degrees Fahrenheit.” When I read this to Sven, he said exactly what was in my mind: “think?” Miles often act as a proxy for time, but seldom would anyone be able to walk along a stretch of the Bonneville Salt Flats and mark off a mile by estimation. I’ve asked farmers several times “how many football fields are there to an acre?” I’ve not met one that knew the answer. An American football field is about 6400 square yards. An acre is 4840 square yards and so an acre is smaller than a football field. Not even the average US farmer has any idea of the size of an acre.
I decided that as I read the book, I would keep track (as best as I can) of all the uses of measurements in the book. I was curious as to how many units would need to be changed for a readership which is outside of the US, that also speaks English, and uses metric.
I did my best to mark pages with units and tally them:
feet: 33 inches: 13 miles: 13 square miles: 9 acres: 6 pounds: 5
tons: 4 (?) metric tons: 3 yards: 2 meters: 2 micron: 2 Fahrenheit: 2
pH:2 ounce: 1 quart: 1 megatons TNT: 1 hectare: 1 square foot: 1
parts per million: 1 square meter: 1
We see that Ms. Kolbert appears to have a preference for feet, followed by a tie between inches and miles.
Despite her best effort, the metric system sneaks its way into the prose. On page 85 and 154 they are embedded inside of quotations from scientists. There the author decided not to convert and put values in brackets.
Strangely the word micron appears twice in the book in prose generated by Ms. Kolbert:
Several groups of marine organisms came within a micron or two of annihilation. (88)
Riebsell has found that the groups that tend to fare best in acidified water are plankton that are so tiny—less than two microns across—that they form their own microscopic food web (119-120)
The first quotation is a metaphor, but it used a value from the metric system. In the second, a numerical estimate of magnitude is given, and so the unit is supposed to represent a range of metric values. The micron is an out-of-date term for the micrometer. What I’ve come to suspect is that Americans will use this unit, and incorrectly believe it’s part of our Ye Olde English arbitrary grouping of units.
Ms. Kolbert also uses “metric tons”:
Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned though enough fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons. Each year we throw up another nine billion tons or so, an amount that’s been increasing by as much as six percent annually.
It goes almost without saying, that using the term “metric ton,” instead of the proper term, Megagram, helps to start the confusion. The next two units cited are only called tons, not tonnes (which I also would do away with). Did she suddenly switch from metric to long or short tons in Ye Olde English?—or did she assume we would assume “metric tons.”
On page 200 a small bat is described:
They’re little—only about five inches long and two-tenths of an ounce in weight.
When we write the fraction symbolically, it’s 2/10, which my extensive Ye Olde English training tells me should be written as 1/5, so that Americans can “think in terms of ounces.” Is it possible she uses tenths because she can’t keep away from decimals—like those often found with the metric system?
Hectare is also found within a quotation on page 189, and square meters exists exactly once that I count, and was used by the author, but still refers to a number which was probably used by the researchers:
More recently, American researchers cracked open chunks of corals to look for crustaceans; in a square meter’s worth collected near Heron Island,…..
If Americans think in Ye Olde English, why didn’t she use 10.76391 square feet?—or 1.19599 square yards?—or perhaps 0.000 247 104 acres?
It seems almost juvenile to attempt to eschew metric. “Don’t use the m word around Americans little Johnny, it’s not polite—and they won’t understand it.” Instead we are served up a smorgasbord of fossilized units in place of a more succinct and expressive number of metric ones. Nothing demonstrates how provincial America is, when it comes to science, more than the idea that publishers need “special” books for our “special” country. Indeed with our need for medieval units, why should it be surprising that we have a medieval view of science? Other countries purposefully drove the extinction of non-metric units long ago. It’s one extinction I wish would occur in the U.S., so that we might better understand the Anthropocene extinction that’s underway, and better determine any course of action we might take. What we find instead are fossilized minds, using fossilized units, to describe fossilized creatures. Why would we expect anything other than a fossilized outcome?
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page