Jackalope Tales

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

There are stories we tell ourselves to bring order to our world, and to define a culture within it. It is generally assumed that when scientific histories are written, they, unlike others, are thoroughly researched and checked against primary sources. Engineering and scientific discoveries have origin stories and the people involved become an important part of the narrative.

One interesting person and eponymous group is Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans. It is stated that Pythagoras was the first to prove the Pythagorean theorem. His group of ancient nerds were vegetarians, and also eschewed beans from their diet. Pythagoras had a strange birthmark on his thigh. I once read that Pythagoreans would not use metal to poke fires and after rising in the morning would smooth out the imprint they left in their bedclothes. Alberto A. Martinez in his book The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths offers up a multitude of stories about the man and his followers.

According to Martinez, there is just one problem with the tale that Pythagoras proved the Pythagorean theorem: “… the story that Pythagoras found, proved, or celebrated the hypotenuse theorem dissolves into nothing.” There is no direct evidence of any kind that he had any interest in mathematics. Martinez studies contagious stories that have been passed down from century to century and embellished along the way. The author presents a table that summarizes the “game of telephone” that historians engage in:

The-Illusion-of-KnowlegePythagoreansIf Pythagoras wrote anything, his works were lost to antiquity. Gradually, like a tiny snowball rolling down a hill, layer after layer of detail began to accumulate on the tiny nugget of Cicero’s unsubstantiated assertion. According to Martinez, author Eric Temple Bell in his excellent and entertaining book Men of Mathematics is a prominent voice that added to this snowball of myth (and others).

Eric Temple Bell claimed: “Pythagoras then imported proof into mathematics. This is his greatest achievement. Before him geometry had been largely a collection of rules of thumb empirically arrived at without any clear indication of the rules, and without the slightest suspicion that all were deducible from a comparatively small number of postulates.” Bell wrote in an engaging way, but he echoed false anecdotes, adding imagined details and exaggerations.

The author offers another assertion about Pythagoras which has no primary source:

Diogenes Laertius said that Aristoxenus the musician claimed that Pythagoras was “the first person who introduced weights and measures among the Greeks.” (pg 205)

Martinez goes on to describe the slow creation of the tale of Archimedes’ death, and how it blossomed from an absence of information into a full-blown tale of his death at the hands of a Roman solder as he was drawing a mathematical proof in sand. This story of Archimedes’ death has been passed down and enhanced from Cicero, to Plutarch, to E.T. Bell in 1937, to Peter Beckmann in 1971, and Steven Hawking in 2005.

When I was in grade school, my class was asked to add the integer numbers from 1 to 100 and give the answer. I began thinking about how much paper it would take to do this, and wondered what we had done to deserve this type of punishment. Why was this assignment offered? Because it is erroneously believed that the mathematical genius Karl Friedrich Gauss, when he was a boy, had shown his mathematical promise by realizing that he could add 1 + 100 = 101, 99+2 =101, 98+3=101 and so on 50 times to make 101 x 50 or 5050 and quickly obtain the answer. It is said the boy offered up a general formula for the sum of integers from 1 to any end number. There is just one problem with this historical tale, it has no historical text or evidence to back it. It is a sort of scientific urban legend.

Recently The Atlantic, on June 6th, 2016 (2016-06-06), for reasons only they know, offered up two articles about the metric system. The first article is titled: Why the Metric System Hasn’t Failed in the U.S. And has an important place in education. Its author is Victoria Clayton. She interviews High School teacher Sally Mitchell who has been involved in metric promotion for some time. When Clayton queried her about why the US has not become metric:

Mitchell said. “And here’s the answer: We have, many years ago.” Well, yes and no. While many U.S. enterprises—from soft drinks and distilled spirits to cars, photographic equipment, pharmaceuticals, and even the U.S. military—are essentially metric, everyday use—Americans’ body-weight scales, recipes, and road signs, for example—hasn’t converted. And neither has the country’s educational system.

Clayton introduced a bit of healthy skepticism into Mitchell’s claim: “we have, many years ago” converted to the metric system, when it is clear to the most casual observer, we have not.

Next we read:

“I would say that the United States of America is at least 40 percent metric, perhaps even a little over 50 percent metric in practical terms,” said David Pearl, an Oregon government worker who, in his free time, is a self-appointed U.S. metric historian….”

This chestnut of 50% metric has been waved around probably for decades now, and there is not a single academic study, reference, or anything else, other than desired truthiness to back this claim up. I would like to know just how much metric is used in the US. I would like to see scholarly studies about metric usage that can be cited, and that offer up actual numbers. At this point I have no information that is substantial. I have my personal experience, and that can almost always be counted upon to be flawed.

A new tale with an old excuse is offered to explain the absence of metric in the US:

In the early days, the metric proponents lost elections and the customary—that is, pounds and inches—guys won. The issue continued to get tossed around, however. Then around the late 1870s, U.S. manufacturers of high-end machine tools effectively blocked the country’s metric conversion. By that time they were using a measurement system based on the inch and argued that retooling would be prohibitive.

This is new information to me. It was the outcome of 19th century elections and losses by pro-metric candidates that decided the fate of the metric system? I would very much like to see the source of this information or some primary sources upon which it is based. I don’t recall this information appearing in NIST historian Charles F. Treat’s A History of The Metric System Controversy in the US. This assertion would be an interesting new piece to the US non-metric puzzle, but probably not the smoking gun it seems to be offered as. Nineteenth-century pro-metric politician John Shafroth was re-elected and served as a US Representative, Senator, and was Governor of Colorado. In the twentieth century Clayborn Pell served six terms and opened the 1975 metric hearings.

John Bemelmans Marciano is brought in by the Atlantic to testify to the futility of any country adopting metric:

“I can’t overstate how much resistance there’s always been to metric in any country that adopted it,” Marciano said. “In Brazil, it caused a riot that went on for months. In France, it took decades and decades.” Yet, in the U.S., resistance seemed to prevail.

The article does address some actual problems that the US has experienced from its rejection of metric, such as medical dosage errors caused by teaspoon-tablespoon confusion. But the Atlantic once again calls on JBM’s “expertise” and his “extensive research”:

And Mitchell, the science teacher, says she’s witnessed firsthand that measurement bilingualism simply doesn’t work well in the classroom. “I think it’s just very confusing for kids.” She fears measurement confusion contributes to U.S. math and science woes. U.S. students have slid on their global ranking in science and math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the most recent ranking, the U.S. was slotted between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania—just behind Russia. Still, there’s no evidence that Americans’ shaky embrace of metric accounts for math and science troubles. And Marciano, who spent three years researching his book, finds Mitchell’s argument preposterous—akin to saying humans can’t master two languages.

The comparison of measurement systems with human languages was the same red herring used by former NIST director Patrick Gallagher. It is the same narrative, the same story, the same myth repeated over and over in the press and by their celebrated persons. Why?—because it offers Americans a comforting truthiness. Clayton continues with another meme:

Why, then—if junior scientists applaud the effort, NIST supports it, and my kids and I had so much fun going metric in the kitchen—has a total switch to metric been such an epic battle with the public?

I have pointed out many times that the history of the metric system in the US seems to have very little to do with the public. The tale of the Metric Populist Uprising of the 1970s is but a comforting mythology. The 1975 Metric Hearings demonstrated that mandatory metrication of the US was never contemplated or enacted—period. Metric reform in the US never dies, it makes an evanescent appearance and then fades away.

The second essay offered up by The Atlantic is called Who’s Afraid of the Metric System? Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia is interviewed about the metric system. Mihm indicates that it was makers of machine tools who thwarted the implementation of metric in the US. Mihm is said to be working on a book titled Mastering Modernity: Weights, Measures, and the Standardization of American Life. Early into the interview this exchange takes place:

Appelbaum: We’ve arrived at a hybrid system. Most American rulers show inches along one edge, centimeters along the other. Is it possible that the metric system will slowly displace English measurements, not by government fiat, but one inch at a time?

Mihm: Yes, that’s right. If history is any guide, government fiats don’t work when it comes to weights and measures. The undertow of history and custom is too strong (proponents of the metric system, for example, are often unaware that it took many decades for France to get its citizens to adopt it—there were many, many setbacks and a staggering amount of resistance).

The article has a quotation “pull out” of the phrase: “Government fiats don’t work when it comes to weights and measures.” in large type for readers just glancing at the essay to propagate the implied, accepted and sanctified cultural message and excuse. It is an embrace of inaction, and is used to justify its continuation. If history is any guide, the metric system is perhaps the most successful scientific idea in the history of technology. Currently, depending on how you count them, there are about 190 countries. Of them 187 have become metric. It is curious that only France is generally discussed and never Australia or New Zealand or dozens and dozens of countries without turmoil. The US introduced metric into the Philippines and it took but seven months.

I would challenge the professor to offer a single example of a nation that became metric using passive government inaction and relying instead on “technical Darwinism.” Australia became metric through legislation and government mandate requiring metric be used. Each industry could choose how they became metric, but metric was mandated. The statement that government fiats don’t work is a meme that is finely tuned for a resonance with a certain American mythology. As I point out in The 1000 Year Wait, it took Hindu-Arabic numerals about 1000 years to be adopted around the world without any government influence. The metric system swept the world in about 150 years with it.

The final exchange in the minute missive confirms another entrenched story about the metric system:

Appelbaum: Chafee’s call for the United States to adopt the metric system generated an immediate backlash. Why does a seemingly dry subject like metrology ignite such intense passions?

Mihm: National pride is at stake. The adoption of another country’s weights and measures—or in the case of the metric system, the rest of the world’s weights and measures—seems an infringement on national sovereignty. That the system in question has a long and distinguished history as a pet project of Francophile, cosmopolitan liberals probably doesn’t help make it appealing to American conservatives.

The implementation of the metric system may have been a “pet project” of France, but the system part of it originated in England. The articles presented in The Atlantic appear to act only to confirm inaccurate metric mythology that comforts status-quo Americans with embellished and fictional tales about the metric system. The metric research done for the Atlantic articles is a Megameter wide and a millimeter deep.

While stories of Archimedes Death, and the strange rites of the Pythagoreans have generated compelling historical myths, they are but the kind of Jackalope tales offered up inside of winter cabins, not for education, but simply for entertainment. The difference is that interlocutors inside of a Montana cabin in the 19th century knew they were spinning tall tales for entertainment and to test audience credulity. Many “historians” of the metric system, and the journalists who interview them, seem unable to realize they have engaged in the same activity, but without the realization they are simply playing telephone.


The Metric Maven has published a new 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.


3 thoughts on “Jackalope Tales

  1. This situation reminds of a math professor’s retelling (ahem) of Stephen Jay Gould’s experience — one student asked Gould, “Exactly how big was [that animal]?” And Gould realized that he didn’t know, so he looked it up and couldn’t find a number in his sources, then went back, etc., and eventually traced it all back to one source. Gould remarked that he and others weren’t transmitting knowledge in that case.

    I love jackalopes. We had one when I was a kid.

  2. The tendency to ‘parrot and preach’ without looking is all around us – and I’m thinking that the Internet is not making it better. There is a move afoot to provide ‘correct knowledge’ – Google published a paper supposedly showing that a computer can find the truth .. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1502.03519v1.pdf Of course when you realize that Google is a quasi-government agency ( private on paper – but not really ) and they are already pushing chosen ‘facts’ for political ends – one has to pause.

    The problem is most people will not question their precepts and swallow anything their teachers or Google tells them.

    If someone makes a claim that some country is x% metric – how do we define this measure?

    Is it the amount of sales of items that list metric – or only metric? I fail to see a good way to measure this and have found the claims that country X is metric (100%? 80%?) lacking.

    Legality is another possible measure – but I would define it when the majority of the country no longer knows of the obsolete measures – and most of the world HAS to know things about the inch to deal with day-to-day life.

    I’ve been to – spent time in – even did small projects in so-called metric countries only to find that in practice, the enormous inertia of the USA’s once great manufacturing base has left much of daily life practicing in these quaint impractical measures of the past.

    In a perfect world the government would be leading us – only purchasing in metric – only specifying in metric only legislating in metric – leading the way to change. But the world is not perfect and past attempts to form utopias by the force of government have resulted in dystopia instead.

    The reality is pretty much all government regulations are written by the same industries they regulate – in hope of preventing competition by new players and overseas competitors. There are still industries here that hope that preventing metric measures will act as a trade barrier. Under the ‘cartel socialism’ that we now live, this is unlikely to change. ( The cartels buy influence to make sure the government picks the winners and losers – nothing to do with free-enterprise or capitalism).

  3. Maven and Others:
    This related link should be of interest:

    Let me add a couple of entries to Mr. Martinez’s Table:

    1876 James A. Garfield proves Pythagorean Theorem
    1881 James A. Garfield becomes President of the United States

    Well, at least both these statements are true, per se. (BTW, nothing misleading here; future-President Garfield did give a proof of the PT while he was a member of Congress in 1876.)

    PS: Now, Maven, give us/U.S. more on this:

Comments are closed.