Metric Sabbatical

In March 14 of 2012, I began The Metric Maven website. A We The People petition was launched on the website on December 31, 2012 by a US citizen. The request was simple: “Make the metric system the standard in the United States, instead of the Imperial System.” While the author made a measurement peccadillo by indicating we use the Imperial System,—we use medieval English measures—the request was obvious. Convert the US over to the metric system. The petition gathered twice the number of signatures for a mandatory response.

On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, a perfect time to bury news, Patrick D. Gallagher, head of NIST issued a response.It was titled: “Supporting American Choices on Measurement.” Gallagher argued:

“Ultimately, the use of the metric system in this country is a choice and we would encourage Americans to continue to make the best choice for themselves …. And continue to learn how to move seamlessly between both systems.”

“In our voluntary system, it is the consumers who have the choice to make this choice. … So choose to live your life in metric if you want, …”

This was a feckless, uniformed, political deflection of the most cynical kind. I wrote a rebuttal. The very fact this metric petition had been forwarded to the White House went down the memory hole.

Over the years, I contacted dozens of science communicators by email and USPS offering and sending books: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Second Cosmos Series), Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Alton Brown (Good Eats), Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy), Cory Doctorow (The Internet Con), Derek Muller (Veritasium), Andy Weir (The Martian), Bill Hammack (The Engineer Guy), Grady Hillhouse (Practical Engineering), Henry Petroski (The Essential Engineer), Keith Cowing (NASA Watch), Steven Novella (Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe) I was called “some metric fanatic” on air by these “skeptics.” Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (Mythbusters). Randall Munroe (xkcd), and also Adam Conover (Factually and Adam Ruins Everything)

Nothing but Crickets.

Australian Mike Joy had been helping me understand how the metric system was used in Australia. He recommended I get a copy of Metrication in Australia to read. I could not find one, and Mike had health problems that soon incapacitated him. The only people from around the globe who have spent their time and effort to help me promote metric in the US have been Australians. Pat Naughtin had opened my eyes about the best use of the metric system, but he passed away in 2011. His website is being preserved by metric advocates. Another Australian stepped-in to help. Peter Goodyear found a copy of Metrication in Australia, and sent copies to myself and Sven. I contacted the Australian government and requested it be released to public domain. Sven took the copy we had and OCRed it so we would have a very compact electronic version. He formatted the text and made it much more readable. The Australian government gave permission, and we released it on this website. It is still the most downloaded PDF ever posted on The Metric Maven.

After approaching around 1000 (no kidding) literary agents over a 3-4 year period, and none showing interest, I wrote and self-published The Dimensions of the Cosmos in its first edition. It creates “metric worlds” from each of the metric prefixes from yocto to Yotta. I then began to research and write a history of the metric system in the United States. Again no literary agents were interested. After some criticism, I decided I should expand The Dimensions of the Cosmos for a second edition.

The Dimensions of the Cosmos may be purchased here.

I researched and wrote a history of attempts to introduce and implement the metric system in the United States. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts. No literary agents were interested so I self-published it on Amazon.

Death By A Thousand Cuts may be purchased here.

I also put together a collection of all the most important essays written over the first ten years of The Metric Maven website. It is titled Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure.

The book is available in print form here.

After I published these three works in print form, I did what I could to market and promote them. I emailed every non-fiction book review podcast (10-20) I could locate. None were interested. I sent physical copies of Death by a Thousand Cuts, and a month later The Dimensions of the Cosmos to National Public Radio’s two book shows. I approached NPR’s Science Friday. None were interested. I emailed all the science museums in the US and suggested The Dimensions of the Cosmos for their gift shop. I emailed science teachers associations in each state, 55 total. One showed a minor interest, but in the end there was none.

In July of 2023, I individually emailed 3000 science teachers in Colorado, Washington, and Minnesota. I received a single response: UNSUBSCRIBE. Thinking the month of July might have been a bad choice, I emailed 2300 science teachers in Iowa, Montana, and Wisconsin in September of 2023. One replied: “take me off your list.”

The Center for Inquiry recently hosted a talk by Carl Wieman, who has, after winning the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, now been feted as an expert science teacher. I emailed him, and received a terse reply. It felt like he was saying how dumb are you? The metric system in the US is never going to happen. Get a life. Wieman argues that the way we teach High School science is stuck in medieval times. Well, apparently he’s ok with the country using medieval units?—and is ok with his students having no “feeling” for metric when they enter High School science classes?

It was at that moment it struck me, that for about 10 years, The Metric Maven website has averaged about 300 web hits per day. The number of hits has never increased or decreased over the years. The web is full of bots, could it be the majority of hits are just web-bots? Have I been writing essays for a decade, and but a handful of people were reading them?—at most. There have been fewer and fewer comments about my essays in recent years. I realized that it was very possible I have no constituency. No interest group of US citizens, that is willing to get behind the metric system for a mandatory government-led conversion exists. That seemed to be the conclusion using Occam’s Razor.

I then had a worse realization. I am now fighting a Big Lie perpetrated by “science communicators.” The Big Lie is that The United States is already metric. Neil de Grasse Tyson and others assert this in online videos. These truthiness experts trot out metric changes that took place in the 1970s as “contemporary evidence” that we are becoming more and more metric every day. The two liter bottle, metric liquor bottles (beer is still pre-metric) are trotted out as “evidence.” But milk is still in gallons and quarts. The entire grocery store is not metric. We cannot purchase millimeter only metric tape measures, or rulers. The idea we are “already metric” is a fantasy. We’ve barely moved a millimeter since minor metric changes were introduced in the 1970s.

These “science celebrities” insist that continuing to do nothing will magically produce the metric system in the US. This is the same vacuous strategy that has been pursued in the US since just after the US Civil War.

It appeared that the Nobel Prize winner who dislikes our medieval methods of teaching high school science, but is fine with using medieval units of measure, was right: “…it is politically impossible to get the US to adopt it.” The Sun will expand into a red giant and swallow the Earth, and still there will be no metric system in the US.

It was at that point I stopped writing essays, even though I had a couple more ideas. It was clear that I should just put this website into cold storage. The amount of money contributed by Patreon Patrons does not quite pay to keep the website up. I plan on making up the balance and keeping The Metric Maven website up as indefinitely into the future as possible. Should a completely unexpected miracle occur, and the US suddenly decides to go metric or even shows interest, I can see ending my sabbatical, and writing more essays about the metric system. Also, if there is an important contemporary topical metric issue that arises unexpectedly, I will comment on it. But it appears that the truth is: For now, The Metric Maven is now SK.

Most of what I consider to be the most important metric topics, has been put into a talk I gave recently (2024-01-13). It is my Metric Swan Song:

A Brief History of the Metric System

I was quite surprised at the substantial cost of A Brief History of the Metric System, and when it arrived, that it was only about 6 mm thick. I was unprepared for its fealty to contemporary research on the origins of the metric system. I can say, without equivocation that the discussion of the metric system—though brief (as the title states) is the most complete I have seen. Carmen J. Giunta states early in Chapter 1:

The metric system did not “evolve” from the customary weights and measures in use in late eighteenth-century France, but neither did it spring fully formed from the enlightened minds of that nation’s savants.

He hints that the history as it has been portrayed in the past has been incorrectly stated. He immediately begins to discuss John Wilkins and Christopher Wren’s musing on what the basis of a universal measurement system might consist. He mentions details of Wilkins investigation of which I was previously unaware. Wilkins discussed using the Earth as a basis for measurement, but dismissed it as impractical. Giunta traces the idea of using a seconds pendulum as a basis for length back far earlier than Wilkins, and how Jean Picard (1620-1682) suggested in 1671 that the period of the seconds pendulum might vary with latitude. He goes on to describe how there was an anemic attempt in Britain to address weights and measures with a seconds pendulum, around the time the metric system was under discussion in France, by John Riggs Miller (c. 1744-1798) which fizzled out.

Giunta’s discussion of measurement contemplation and (non adoption) in the United States contains a number of interesting historical nuggets I had not previously encountered.

For such a short monograph, Giunta has a more nuanced discussion of the creation of the metric system in France than I have encountered with other authors. He states:

Other committees constituted in 1791 included Borda and Cassini to measure the seconds pendulum;……”

Other authors generally do not discuss the elaborate seconds pendulum designed and measured by the French scientists who developed the metric system.

His discussion of the development of modern SI states:

When the SI was launched, the kilogram was the base unit of mass, defined by the international prototype kilogram of 1889. A proposal was made to change the name of kilogram since it was undesirable for one of the base units to have a prefix, but the name survived.

Long-time readers know that the use of a lower case k for kg, km, kN, etc., has always been a pet peeve of mine. Other magnifying prefixes are capitalized, Mg, Tg, GHz, why not Kg or Km?

There have been a number of proposals for base units, but this was new to me:

In Germany, the preferred set of mechanical base units was the millimeter, milligram, and second; call it mms.

In Chapter 6, his final chapter, he discusses The Metric System and the United States. He gives a good summary, but then, in my reading of history, and of John Quincy Adams’ report on measures Giunta has an incorrect interpretation of the concluding paragraph of that report. He states:

Adams was effusive in his praise of the metric system and of the basic science that came out of its invention.

Adams’ concluding statement was actually veiled snark, and certainly not a pro-metric statement given the context of his report. Adams was an Anglophile with an English wife. It becomes clear in his report that Adams is NOT pro-metric, and definitely against the new system. Others in history who read the report in the late 19th and early 20th century commented that it was anti-metric, and held back metrication in the US. They even point out that his “perfect” English system, only 3 years after his report, was reformed and replaced in the UK by the British Imperial System. We in the US still use earlier British medieval units of measure. My discussion of JQA’s report may be found here.

Giunta offers a graphic from NIST showing a metaphor of an iceberg that almost all of industry uses metric. I’ve never seen a study that can even demonstrate we are even 50% metric in the US, let alone 90%. My experience as a consulting engineer is that I have not encountered a single medium sized corporation that uses metric in the US. Certainly not aerospace, which is definitely a large corporation. If the book Flying Blind is any guide, aerospace will remain non-metric indefinitely.

Giunta finally concludes by offering his view of Why is the US Still not Predominantly Metric? He concludes, like many others, that the US government has never mandated
metric for use in our economy. He is correct that it is very unlikely the US will become metric anytime soon. Perhaps in 1000 years?

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.