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:

click to enlarge

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:

click to enlarge

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:

click to enlarge

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 Cart Before The Horse

By The Metric Maven

Many times I’ve heard the phrase “you put the cart before the horse.” It generally metaphorically implies that you have attempted to implement something in an order that will not work. Generally, it is easiest to have a horse pull a cart. It is said that the notion that the horse comes first, and then the cart, is psychologically responsible for the assumption that a car engine should be in the front of a car. Even when no horse is present, one will automatically make an assumption about the position of the device that provides locomotion, and how many horses it has.

When we see a Hindu number, we assume the leading digit on the left is the largest multiple value of ten, and the trailing value on the right is the smallest.  If I write 123, clearly the 1 stands for 100, 2 is for 20 and so on. This is the basis for the interpretation of Hindu numbers around the planet. If I claimed that in my view 123 should be written 213 with the twenty, and then the 100 and then 3, most people would be aghast. It took over 1000 years for the world to settle on rightward descending digits in terms of 10, changing this logical order would be considered just plain bonkers. It would be like a stairway with a bulge in its middle.

A while back I was looking at how my Tivo was listing programs and noticed a considerable change. Some programs in the guide are  listed by date like this:

I was appalled. What on Earth? Someone decided to adopt the dashes of the international date standard, but reject the order of the date? Perhaps one could argue that the order for a date could be jumbled if the entire planet used the same sequence, but they do not. In the case of say 03-04-2017, most Americans would see this as March 4th of 2017, but a person in the UK would look at it and see April 3, 2017. This April date would also be true for Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia and others, but with dots 03.04.2017.

Brazil likes forward slashes 03/04/2017, again going with the day first, month second and year third. The Germans used this format, but since 1996-05-01, they have officially adopted ISO 8601.

Greenland uses both forward slashes and dots 03/04/2017 and 03.04.2017 for April 3rd 2017.

Canada, “our metric neighbor to the North,”  use three different versions to express a date.

Wikipedia has a nice list of date formats by country, and it really appears the US is yet again in the minority when it comes to how we write our dates. Some countries include leading zeros, and some do not. A great majority do not put the date in descending order, and have the current year last. This is rather fortunate in a way. If one sees a date with the year first, then it is almost a dead certainty that the date is ISO 8601 format. The one numerical standard that exists throughout the world, is that for Hindu numerals, where the largest value comes first, the next largest second, and so if one sees 2017-03-04 this value will only be rationally interpreted in terms of ISO 8601. While the world, with the exception of the US and two others, have all adopted the metric system, International dating has not been universally adopted. It seems long overdue that the world should finally put the horse before the cart when it comes to dates.

Related Essay:

International Dating