Metric Esperanto

By The Metric Maven

When I first began work as an Engineer, much measured data was still read from instruments, and then written by hand onto paper. What I noticed when presenting numbers to other engineers was that there would be a constant questioning. Had the number after the decimal point been switched, or  was the number written down wrong? Did my technician or myself actually write down 5 whereas the number was 2. A very talented older engineer with whom I worked, told me he had figured out how to deal with that problem. It was the early days of computers, so he would take the handwritten numbers, type them into his computer, and make a lovely table. This poetic license has no effect on the accuracy of the numbers. It only changed the technical reviewer’s perception of them. Only within the mind of those evaluating the numbers would it produce a modification.

Hand Taken Laboratory Data (circa 1982)

When the numbers were put into computer typefaces, even with dot matrix output, there was an immediate assumption by others that the numbers had to be right. Every time my friend did this, he was able to sit down and talk about the data without the constant questioning about the accuracy of the numbers–yet nothing material about them had changed.

Reflecting on this made me wonder about the seeming desire to use excessive decimal points. Pat Naughtin pointed out that the use of integers, or simple numbers, as he often called them in his lectures, increased the ease with which a person’s mind could compare numbers. Why is simplicity often unnecessarily sacrificed for complexity when creating tables of numbers? This is often done by persons who are in vocations that are heavily number based. Chemistry Professor Jeffrey H. Williams has written a monograph called Defining and Measuring, subtitled The Make Of All Things. It was published in 2014.

For instance, if you look at a table he presents of ancient Mesopotamian measurement units, the comparisons are in my view rather muddled:

For instance the Grain seed is 2.7 mm, but the next size is 1.65 cm?–rather than 16.5 mm? Why switch to centimeters in this case (or in my view ever)? I believe this table is for comparison purposes, and a more meaningful presentation could have been accomplished by attempting to invoke Naughtin’s Laws. Do we really know these ancient units to micrometer precision? The value 2.7 mm looks authoritative, and 16.5 mm also looks very authoritative. It says Modern Metric Equivalent, but wouldn’t these numbers, in their contemporary times, that is ancient Mesopotamia, have had uncertainties that were larger than 700 to 500 micrometers? One could actually use millimeters and meters up to the kilometer equivalent and separate them by prefixes:

Do we believe numbers are more accurate if we see decimal points? When comparisons are made, simple numbers are the easiest for the mind to readily compare, but sometimes large dynamic ranges can make it difficult to use pure integers, and maintain a single unit.

Williams makes this assertion in his text:

The Ancient Chinese used (and modern Chinese still use) a foot as their fundamental measure of length.

Then he goes on to state:

“…that the length of the ancient Chinese unit of measurement, the foot, increased from 0.195 m to 0.308 m over the last three millennia.”

Beyond my surprise at Williams’ assertion that the foot is still used as a fundamental length in China (I would like to see some documentation) I could not see why he didn’t say: “the foot, increased from 195 mm to 308 mm over the last three millennia” rather than introducing a decimal point with a leading zero. Does 0.195 meters seem more precise and accurate than 195 mm? Why did he introduce the decimal version? Was there a psychological reason more than a measurement presentation reason? I have no idea, but I’ve noticed this manner of numerical change in many other contexts.

Williams appears to gush at the succinct nature of the metric system, but does cause me a moment of concern when he uses the phrase “language of science”:

In fact, today we have seven base units which may be combined to explain every known scientific phenomenon, and which would be used to comprehend scientific discoveries that have yet to be made. That is, it is through these seven base units that the true universal language, the language of science is formed.

Later Williams discusses the oft-cited Mars Climate Orbiter metric/Ye Olde English disaster under the heading: The consequences of mixing units.

In Chapter 8 Williams finally sets off some real alarm bells of concern in my mind:

Systems of units and the ability to convert between different systems of units; for example, to convert from units in the British Imperial System of units to SI units is something that is no longer taught to science students. This is a great shame, as the different systems of units are only dialects of the single universal language of science, and an inability to communicate with people speaking these different dialects can limit
a scientist’s world view.

The lack of a proliferation of measurement units could limit a scientist’s world view??? What a strangely “new age” type of statement for a scientist to make.

Williams goes on to argue that the cgs system of units is still: “…needed so as to facilitate reading of the vast and important literature published in this area of science since the early-19th century.”

I will not go into technical details, but the lack of uniformity in electromagnetism, has caused nothing but headaches, and I would far rather see the “vast and important literature” from the nineteenth century either rewritten with modern notation and units, or left for historians to puzzle upon the gaping incompatibility between cgs and SI electromagnetic units.

The final chapter of the monograph, Chapter 13, is entitled: Dialects of the Single Language of Science. This is where the professor seriously jumps the shark in my view. He states that the metric unit of pressure, the pascal, is just too small, which precipitates large numbers:

For example, the pressure in your car tire would be about 340 000 Pa…

Well, how about 340 kilopascals? Is this really a problem? Just use an appropriate metric prefix. This number seems large.  In the U.S., most people set the pressure in their tires, to about 220 kilopascals (32 PSI). Perhaps there is a difference between a tire and a tyre?

Williams then details scientific and engineering “rules of thumb” that have been developed which are not SI and how their loss would be undesirable.

These are all expressions of the same piece of information, but expressed in the various dialects of the single language of science. In dialects which are useful for particular groups of technicians and scientists.

This is pure and simply an apologist’s rationalization for a proliferation of archaic units, without any good reason. It is an untenable argument for unit proliferation. Unit proliferation and poor definition were some of the reasons the metric system was developed in the first place. Then a flood of rationalization is offered by the author:

Such varieties of units exist for sound technical reasons: convenience in specialist branches of science, or convenience or facility of use in certain ranges of pressure, or because one profession refuses to change to another system of units, or because there is such an investment in technology that any change would be too expensive. The medical profession will, for example, not move away from using mmHg for blood pressure measurement, which is convenient for them and a sufficiently precise measurement for their patients, but this is not the case for the vast majority of physicists who gave up using mmHg as a unit for pressure early in the last century.

However, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether there is anything to be gained by attempting to force a large body of professionals to give up a system of units with which they have become familiar over many generations? There is certainly the possibility of serious adverse consequences arising from such a move. It would be far better to encourage the ability to use and convert between many of these systems of units—to celebrate the diversity of the dialects of the single language of science. A scientist or a technician who can convert between these units will be someone who will truly understand the science underlying the phenomenon, and will be less likely to make foolish errors; one dreads to imagine the consequences of the medical profession or drilling engineers getting their mmHg, their pascals and psis [sic] muddled up.

Comprehending these various means of expressing pressure, and being able to convert or translate between them is a great way of learning some basic science. Indeed, this was the reason that the Emperor Napoléon I mocked the decimal Metric System and re-introduced the old familiar, non-decimal units. The Emperor correctly thought that thinking only in factors of ten limits one’s perception of nature. There is more to science than being able to divide or multiply by ten.

Celebrate the diversity of the dialects of the single language of science‽‽‽ Where have I heard such tortured prose before?  Oh yes, the absolutely indefensible reply offered by the head of NIST, when he rejected the We The People metrication petition. Dr. Gallagher argued that if measurement units are a language, we are bi-lingual and we should celebrate this measurement diversity.

Then Williams appeals to technical Darwinism, and some strange idea of heirloom units to further his rationalization:

The present SI is based on a beautifully coherent model of fundamental physics, but that does not mean that every measurement made everywhere on Earth should be made using only this system of units. There is merit to be found in the various nonmetric systems of units—otherwise they would not have evolved and would not have lasted as long as they have.

So, in Dr. Williams chosen field of Chemistry, would it make sense to also make certain that students know all the alchemical names for chemical compounds?—and if they don’t exist—create some? After all, the names must have utility, they’ve been around along time and also evolved. Flower of Antimony, Liver of Silver, Sugar of Lead, Lunar Caustic, how can one truly understand chemistry without knowing how to convert these names to and from the modern ones?

By now you may be asking yourself, why on earth is the Metric Maven getting so worked up about some small monograph written by a Chemistry Professor. Well, this is a fairly special Chemistry Professor. In the author’s bio of Jeffrey Huw Williams, which accompanies the monograph, it states:

Most recently, 2003–2008, he was the head of publications at the Bureau international des poids et mesures (BIPM), Sèvres. The BIPM is charged by the Metre Convention of 1875 with ensuring world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units (SI). It was during these years at the BIPM that he became interested in, and familiar with the origin of the Metric System, its subsequent evolution into the SI, and the coming transformation into the Quantum-SI.

Yes, he was in a more influential position than the head of NIST, Dr. Gallagher. Williams was with BIPM, and is now seemingly arguing against the complete and unique adoption of SI. He was also the head of publications at BIPM, and almost certainly had input on style. In his monograph Williams is making the same poetic, as opposed to scientific arguments for “units as a language” which the head of NIST did. Here is Dr. Gallagher of NIST’s words:

if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.

We measure distance in miles, but fiber optic cable diameter in millimeters. We weigh deli products in pounds, but medicine in milligrams. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda comes in liter-size bottles. We parcel property in acres, but remote sensing satellites map the Earth in square meters.

Metrology as language is the most inappropriate simile I can imagine. The length of a meter is not a poetic interpretation—no other base unit of length is needed. If SI is not flexible enough, then it should be augmented, but I’ve never encountered a situation where the seven base units which Williams celebrated earlier in his monograph have not been sufficient, when paired with the metric prefixes.  The metric system is already beautiful, expressive and mostly succinct. The introduction of barleycorn lengths and poetry will only undermine the reason SI was developed originally. Please, leave the poetry and the endless interpretation of same to poets, and leave measurement as a unique set of seven singular and immutable base units, appropriately scaled with metric prefixes, to be used by all of engineering and science, along with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, as their one and only description of the world.

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

15 thoughts on “Metric Esperanto

  1. This fear of decimals is inconsistent with the argument that the decimal structure of the SI is one of its great advantages. The latter claim is true and we should embrace decimals where appropriate. Although I certainly respected Pat’s contribution to metric education, this is one place we were not on the same page.

    I don’t know what the precision of the data is, but if I assume 495 mm is a meaningful estimate for the kush, then from the relationship column, it is also 180 she, and the estimate for the she should be precise enough to preserve that relationship. If 2.7 mm is meaningful, I certainly wouldn’t round it to 3 mm for the sake of an integer. I do agree that the centimeters are horribly misplaced in that table. Comparison within a table is one of the specific exceptions to the “rule” (more of a suggestion) of 1000.

    To minimize unit changes within the table, I might consider expressing all figures in meters, or all but the last in millimeters, which is common in engineering, at least for lengths <100 m. The proposed millimeters, meters, and kilometers is also reasonable.

    Base units (no prefix) should always be considered appropriate as the SI is only coherent when numbers are so expressed, no prefixes. Of course, prefixes are only shorthand for scientific notation. There is no difference between 340 000 Pa, 340 x 10³ Pa, 340 kPa, and it is easy to key in the kilo as EEX 3 on the calculator while keying in data (provided one correctly understands). A pressure of 340 kPa absolute as opposed to gauge is in the ballpark for tires and tyres. The use of gauge pressure can be VERY misleading in engineering calculations.

  2. I returned yesterday from a visit to Washington, DC. While on a couple of tours I had the good fortune to meet a couple from Switzerland and a family from Sweden. These meetings were a couple of days apart. As I like to meet people from other counties I initiated the conversations. The Swiss gentleman was an engineer and comes to the U.S. several times a year to meet with his American counterparts, in the design of medical imaging equipment. Their Swiss-German-English and my Alabama-English made communication somewhat difficult but we did the best we could. I explained that I believed the U.S. should convert to SI. The gentleman told me of his difficulties in dealing with using a dual system to accomplish his work. The family from Sweden spoke more fluent English, and consisted of a married couple and their daughter who appeared to be in her mid-twenties. I asked about any difficulties they had in non-metric units in the U.S. The daughter told me that she lives and works in the UK and that she has not adjusted to the UK not being totally SI. All five of the visitors did agree with me that they could not understand why the U.S. is so adamant about not adopting the SI.

    There was one glimmer of hope I encountered during my visit. The newspaper ran a large article about how marijuana growers were converting to heroin and poppy production and the article had only metric units used when telling of both production and seizure quantities. I do NOT in any way advocate the use of any illegal drug, and as I worked in the medical field many years, I also believe that people would be better off if they took as few legal medications as possible. I offered this tidbit of info strictly to show that perhaps all is not hopeless in the stalled need for the U.S. to convert to SI.

  3. I have been to China and have never encountered a measurement that was about a foot. Measures that I have come across, mostly when living in Japan and South Korea, were bigger.

    It is important to keep in mind that China is a collection of countries that all have their own languages and customs. To the extent that I know about measurement within China, the lengths of units differ a lot from one province to another.

    Also, there is a tendency for Americans to see more similarities in the outside world than there actually are.

    • China actually uses only the metric system. You may encounter old measuring words, but they have all been redefined to be a rounded metric value and can easily be measured out with standard metric measuring devices.

      The li is 500m. The jin is 500 g.

      The Europeans did the same thing with the “pound”. They made it 500 g. There are no pound scales in Europe, only gram. If you ask for a pound, you get 500 g weighed out on a gram scale.

      The UK is heading in that direction. With all of the scales in the markets in grams, a request for a pound gets you 500 g.

      Can you imagine this in the US?

  4. Much of this article is preaching to the choir.

    However, the computerized vs. handwritten data, I think was a cool point, although not directly relevant to the main theme of this blog.
    I don’t like it when people mail me letters that were printed on a computer. It makes them look like junk mail.
    The handwriting, in the Maven’s case, is a reminder that it was an actual human being that took the measurements.
    I am a bit old-fashioned: I still write letters by hand. (I suspect that the reply rate is higher this way, as e-mails are too easily eaten.) I use a bold, black pen. Information such as numbers and addresses (where every character matters a great deal) are written in block letters.
    I often use decimal commas rather than decimal points. This makes them much harder to miss.
    The paper in a traditional accountant’s ledger (a kind of notebook for keeping records of monetary transactions) has columns for cents, dollars, tens of dollars, hundreds of dollars, and thousands of dollars. If you have to add a long column of handwritten numbers, you will understand why.
    Perhaps if the Maven had used the lines on his graph paper in a similar manner (i.e. one digit per box, with all decimal points lined up), his handwritten figures would have not been questioned so much.

    • The handwritten document shows a high degree of innumeracy. The values <1 show no leading zero before the decimal place. One would think a technical person would know better.

      • Although I almost always agree with Ametrica’s postings, here he/she(?) has taken it a bit too far by saying that not having a leading zero before the decimal point in numbers less than one is a “high degree of innumeracy”. (As a matter of fact, John Allen Paulos, in his best-selling book Innumeracy, didn’t use a zero in such cases throughout the book.)

        Nevertheless, I have noticed anecdotally that those who are innumerate tend not to use the leading zero, instead trying to impress others by making a big dot. One reason such persons are probably not using the lead zero is because to them “zero means nothing”, which is true but not conversely.

        What it boils down to is a “substandard style”, which perhaps is the term Ametrica should have used. As one who deals with numbers between zero and one daily, namely probabilities, I still almost always put a leading zero in, but have noticed some publishers still shun such.

        One place where I think it’s a must would be in a sentence. Otherwise, the only situation where it may not be warranted would be in an article dealing with probabilities, since each probability is less than one. (I would still go with the leading zero because in such an article the probabilities appear in sentences.)

  5. Jeffrey Huw Williams has to be either British or American. I can’t think of anyone from another country that is fully metric that would propose what he is proposing.

    This has to be just another attempt by someone either British or American to show disregard for the metric system because the whole world chose the metric system over British and American units.

    The notice Williams is giving to the issue has a lot to do with the economic harm both the US and UK are experiencing by their resistance to complete metrication. They are feeling the pain and are throwing a tantrum like any spoiled child.

  6. Does anyone know of any member of congress who is in favor of the U.S. converting to SI? If so, please post their names so that I can contact them.

    • I don’t think anyone in Congress is in favour of metrication.

  7. Re the phrase “the language of science”: Not sure why the Maven has “a moment of concern” when such is used, unless he’s thinking of the person using it for using it as the person seems to be against SI and only SI (with the convenient prefixes, of course). My point is that it’s not a bad idea to refer to SI as the language of science, although not uniquely.

    For example, I have a background in an area I refer to as “the science of data and the language of science”, a field that a well-known contributor to it, John Tukey, said something like it “allows me to play in everyone’s backyard”.

    Thus, although I will maintain one discipline can be described concisely as quoted above, referring to SI as the language of science is rather accurate, as well as is referring to it as the “only truly common language in use throughout the world”, despite two persons referred to in the Maven’s essay (W and G) probably saying otherwise, two persons who apparently are not respected much in this blog and in metric circles.

  8. “For example, the pressure in your car tire would be about 340 000 Pa…

    Well, how about 340 kilopascals? Is this really a problem? Just use an appropriate metric prefix.”

    This is one of the biggest problems when metric is adapted even in longstanding metric countries. Nobody is taught to treat SI as an improved way of measuring. Unlike former unit collections that have each unit as a standalone with a fixed relation to other units, SI incorporates a single unit to describe a measurable effect and prefixes to scale the value to a usable form.

    People treat units like kilometre and millimetre as units in their own right when in fact they are not. The unit is the metre. The prefix only adds a scaling factor to the metre.

    Because SI is not used correctly and bad habits are brought in from former “systems”, is it any wonder that some feel that other units have value and worth and never come over completely to SI? Using SI as one did former units makes SI no different or better than using other units.

    Metricating is more than just switching to other measuring words.

  9. I enjoyed reading this book review, partially because I have also read the book. I have a few thoughts:

    From this post: “Later Williams discusses the oft-cited Mars Climate Orbiter metric/Ye Olde English disaster under the heading: The consequences of mixing units.” I would phrase instead as “The consequences of assuming a unit when given a number.” Or perhaps “The consequences of mixing units without knowing it.”

    From the Williams’ book: “Systems of units and the ability to convert between different systems of units; for example, to convert from units in the British Imperial System of units to SI units is something that is no longer taught to science students.” This was surprising to me, because a friend’s wife is a science teacher who teaches her middle-school students these operations. I also asked a physics professor (also on the Physics Review Top Ten Cited list) who said that students are indeed taught these operations, not just from English Imperial to SI, but also back and forth from cgs to SI. So, I also would like to see a citation for this and many of Williams’ claims.

    From Gallagher’s statement “…if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.” Incorrect, by his own analogy. Bilingual means that you can convert from one to another, with fluency. Someone may know how many two-liters bottles of soda to buy for a party, but very likely couldn’t say how many grams of salt and pepper will be consumed. Put another way, calling a coffeshop a “café” doesn’t mean a person can speak French.

  10. Thank you Metric Maven” for another interesting article.

    We each see the same thing differently. We each have our own perspective of how we interrupt something. It’s like looking at something from different angles.
    The metric system and it’s measures are not immune to different views and perspectives. The engineer, the healthcare worker, the scientist, the teacher, and many others each places different emphasis on different parts of the metric system structure and it’s measures.

    And let’s not forget “Joe Public” who often gets overlooked, but without his/her support the metric system and it’s measures would not have advanced around the world.

    Decimal fractions, or simple numbers (integers).
    I don’t think this is one or the other. I think it’s both, depending on the situation.
    For the scientist converting from one metric base unit to another decimal fractions are important.
    But for most people, and for “Joe Public” who generally measures within one base unit, and doesn’t need to convert between base units, simple numbers (integers) are the best.
    Professional and academics will often put their point of view, or emphasis on different parts of the metric system, and sometimes complicate things which are in fact simple. But the metric system and it’s measures are for everyone.
    I think the late Pat Naughtin could see the metric system, and it’s measures from a “Joe Public” perspective, and the importance of “keeping it simple” (KIS).
    And to keep in simple is to use simple numbers (integers).

  11. Professor Williams is a chemist and sees the metric system and it’s measures through the eyes of a chemist. He states “that the metric system is the language of science”. But the metric system is much more. It’s the system of all measures for all people.
    A language is needed for communication.
    The metric system and it’s measures, are needed for international communication of measures.

    This is why the metric system and it’s measures, are “the international language of measures”. In that perspective, and only in that perspective, it can be considered a language. (of measures).

Comments are closed.