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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6 thoughts on “US Scientists Not Using The Metric System

  1. I might argue the BTU is over-defined as it comes in at least 5 flavors. However the Energy Information Administration, which officially publishes this report, uses the BTU-IT.

    It has an official, exact, and decimal-dusty definition, 1055.055 852 62 J, calculated from the calorie-IT, definition of pound and Fahrenheit degree.
    https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec13_16.pdf

    For “rough work,” 1 quad ≈ 1 EJ, or more exactly 1 quad = 1.055 056 EJ

    On efficiency, I would note efficiencies within electrical generation and transportation segments have improved since 1950, but are the least efficient sectors, and have grown to be much larger pieces of the pie, causing overall efficiency to deteriorate.

    It would be nice if EIA thought compliance to EO 12770 meant a metric report, not a completely Customary report with a table of metric conversions, thrown as an afterthought, in an appendix at the end.

  2. I wonder how the non-US-educated scientists view the units used in varied labs and areas of science. I’m talking about graduate students and postdocs who lived and did their undergraduate studies in a more-metric environment.

  3. Yes, it would make more sense to just stick with watts and joules for all energy. Furthermore, it gets really interesting if you could find a way to start using to at least some extent the “forbidden dark sector” of the SI that doesn’t often see much deep discussion (google “kilosecond” to see how much really comes up, it’s not much), the SI _time scale_ with positive power multiples of seconds: e.g. a 1 GW powerplant running for an operating lifetime of 1 Gs (or, perhaps, 1 000 Ms) is easily seen to produce a total of 1 EJ (or 1 000 PJ) assuming continuous operation.

  4. Unfortunately, when it comes the agriculture and conservation programs, many US government scientists are stuck with US historic units. Even though the soil survey side of the USDA measures soil depths in metric units (cm), when dealing with wetland delineation, the soil scientists have to use inches. As a botanist, I key plants in metric, but I have to report tree diameter and heights in inches and feet. I would be happy to provide conversions to non-metric units in parenthesis for our endusers if only we were afforded the right to conduct all the underlying science in exclusively metric units.

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