It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”

This phrase is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and has been taken to indicate that people will immediately recognize the utility of a new invention, and especially in the US, adopt its use and abandon the inefficient. It’s contrapositive is also used as a rationalization that if an idea has not been adopted, then it clearly is deficient, and deserves oblivion. It is an assertion that people are not creatures of habit, who will cling to familiar methods and viscerally reject new ones.

This assertion seems to immediately breakdown by not matching the observed actions of humans. The desire to continue with the familiar over the unfamiliar is overwhelming for most people. The familiar is then taught to the next generation and mantled with words like “heritage” and “traditional” to justify continued usage in the face of a possibly better method.

Recently my friend Pierre, who has a considerable knowledge of cooking, brought me a recipe for Steak and Kidney pie. This quite surprised me as I would probably not eat that dish, even after a bet gone bad. Why on earth would he bring a recipe that he knows I would never make, and if told what the dish was, would not eat. It soon became clear the importance of the recipe was not about food, but about methods. The recipe is British, which immediately raises my culinary suspicion. It is described as “British Pub Grub.” If the recipe is not by Robert Irvine, I would almost certainly pass. Here is the recipe:

- Click to enlarge

It starts out well, calling for ingredients in grams, and milliliters, then begins to become less rigorous when it asks for a “few thyme sprigs” then degenerates into tablespoons and a “bunch of flat-leaf parsley,…” The Chef then moves on to instruct us that we should “Cut the beef into 2.5cm pieces.” Centimeters!? No wonder the British lost their empire. After coating the beef with flour we are next instructed to “Heat a wide, heavy based pan, then add a few knobs of butter…” What?! Suddenly grams are no longer of use? The Metric Maven then found himself so light-headed that procuring a paper bag to put over his head became a priority. Couldn’t the recipe be a little less precise?—I still almost have a vague idea what the quantity might be.

The beef based ingredients are then to be enclosed in “500g good-quality ready-made puff pastry.”  But we must first “Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.” Gas 6?! what on earth is Gas 6? Well, Gas 6 is a “Gas Mark” which was originally called Gas Regulo Mark 6. Why? According to Wikipedia:

“Regulo” was a type of gas regulator used by a manufacturer of cookers; however, the scale has now become universal, and the word Regulo is rarely used.

Universal? Universal? I’d never heard of it until Pierre brought me this measurement train wreck of a recipe. Then I’m informed that similar “scales” exist in France and Germany? Here are the conversions (according to Wikipedia):

Conversion table
Gas mark Fahrenheit Celsius Descriptive
14 225° 107° Very Slow/Very Low
12 250° 121° Very Slow/Very Low
1 275° 135° Slow/Low
2 300° 149° Slow/Low
3 325° 163° Moderately Slow/Warm
4 350° 177° Moderate/Medium
5 375° 191° Moderate/Moderately Hot
6 400° 204° Moderately Hot
7 425° 218° Hot
8 450° 232° Hot/Very Hot
9 475° 246° Very Hot

Different manufacturers and oven types do vary, so this table cannot be relied upon; instead, cooks should refer to the cooker instruction book for the oven type used, or calibrate the scale using an oven thermometer.

What is this? A next step up from the Easy-Bake Oven? The pastry is to be rolled out to the thickness of a ₤1 coin! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!–doesn’t he know what a millimeter is!  In my view Gas Marks and Knobs resonate with an actual quotation of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

We in the US and apparently some in the UK desire “a foolish consistency” over “a rational simplicity.”

You might have noted that I said “actual quotation.” Well, the mousetrap quotation of Emerson, presented at the beginning, appeared seven years after his death. The original quotation upon which the fictional one is based is (again according to Wikipedia):

The phrase is actually a misquotation of the statement:

If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

In my viewpoint, this actual quotation appears to praise good craftsmanship, and quality work, and is not an aphorism about technical innovation and the populace. We in the US have embraced “a foolish consistency” of weights and measures for over 150 years by not embracing the metric system, and eschewing the imperial measurement chaff.

The only way we will start to modernize the US, is to first embrace the metric system and other modern international standards. We have been waiting for the fraudulent appeal to our vanity, embodied in the false mousetrap quotation, to bring us the best for over 150 years. It’s time for America to stop playing hooky and pass metric conversion laws, with funding, and a plan to bring metric to the US, and embrace a better future for out nation.

Post Script

Assistant Professor Hong Qin of Spelman College has asked that I make my readers aware of a survey he and his students are conducting on metric, scientific literacy and attitude.  The survey is here should you be interested in taking it to provide them with more data.



8 thoughts on “It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

  1. Then there are tbsp listed on the left ingredient side-bar….

    If I count the total number of metric units used – and then the non-metric units used – ( I won’t count things like “two large onions”, “a little more”, large, or the time units ) I come up with 59% metric.

    This is in a supposed metric country. If we subtract out the cm, it drops to 53%.

    I would say they are about half-way to being a metric country. That is better than the USA, but not a metric utopia.

    I have changed all my thermometers to centigrade, but I wonder if that is what we should use? The Kelvin scale should probably be preferred – calling room temperature 293K is better in that we are aware that a single unit change is 1/393 or about 0.25% of temperature.

    It might be better that our unit of temperature should be based on the Boltzmann constant (not to be confused with Stefan–Boltzmann constant).

    • Centigrade is a unit of angular measurement. A circle consists of 400 grades, a quarter circle of 100 grades ( a hectograde). 0.01 grades is a centigrade.

      I’m sure you means Celsius. That has been the name of the scale since 1948.

  2. There is a reason that very few will admit to for the US not changing. One has to realise that Americans feel they are superior to all and inferior to none. This arrogance leads them to believe that anything not invented in the US or by Americans is something to avoid and resist. It is known as the “not invented here” syndrome.

    Of course it is correct to say that USC was not invented in the US or by an American. But it was an exception that Americans accepted. To change now would imply that Americans made the wrong choice, thus deflating their superiority balloon. This can’t happen, so no matter how much the world goes against the US on this issue, no matter how much USC damages the US economy, it is thought better to be poor, hungry and starving than to admit error.

    • Well stated! (Furthermore, if you consider certain sections of the country, such is even worse as the typical person sort of believes the world is stratified into two regions only, namely there and everywhere else! In a nutshell, there’s a common word for all of this: ignorance.)

  3. Love at 220 C. (Papa Murphy’s Pizza) When I tell them I bake my cowboy at 220 for 17 minutes, they always look at me like I’m nuts. But, my oven is calibrated in Celsius, so that’s how I roll.

  4. I had always thought that the Gas Mark setting was an English thing, but I found an American book with a recipe for chocolate chip cookies appended to the narrative, using USC and metric measurements for the ingredients and the oven setting in ºF, ºC and the Gas Mark. Written by an astronomer!

    “The Cuckoo’s Egg” by Clifford Stoll. An unbelievable but true story about the Internet, hackers, spies and Berkely in the 1980s. Great stuff! (Cookie recipe in Chapter 25.)

  5. A “knob” of butter, I like it!!!…Led Zeppelin once toured in Europe as
    “The Knobs”.

    I cannot disagree with the point that Americans have an arrogant ignorance in general, then the environment here is filled with propaganda, half truths, and is controlled by greedy corporations.

    Though I may not agree with everything in this tirade, I believe Jeff Daniels says it well….check it out.

    BTW- I took the survey, I think I flunked…Americans are so dumb!!!! :-)