Neil deGrasse Tyson & The Metric System

by The Metric Maven

The public looks to Neil deGrasse Tyson as a scientific advisor. They expect that before he lectures the public on a scientific subject, he either has the background, or takes the time to thoroughly research it. Recently, Mr Tyson decided to lecture about the metric system in the US. His May 10th, 2021 episode of Star Talk (SE12 EP06) is linked below:

Neil deGrasse Tyson has a privileged place in the American media landscape. He hosted the latest incarnation of Cosmos, and also acted in that capacity for Nova. He is the face of science for many people, and his opinion has gravitas. Let’s examine his assertions about the metric system as presented in his video. Apparently Tyson believes that science needs a comedian, Chuck Nice, to keep people’s interest. Nice is there to provide—comic relief?—from science? Tyson’s format is known as Star Talk, and in this episode, the metric system is the issue at hand.

Tyson asks Chuck Nice “Are you old enough to remember when the United States attempted to convert to the metric system?”

Nice: "Thank god no! I'm so glad it worked out."

Nice clearly sees that our metric non-conversion has been a disaster.

One might expect Tyson to have investigated what happened in the 1970s, and realize there was no attempt to make the US metric. The metric hearings of 1975 make clear that not even an evanescent attempt would be made. Government and industry had no interest in changing. As they desired no change, nothing happened. What did happen, was the rest of the world converted, and the public was allowed to believe we were going to convert. Years later, this left those that recall the era wondering what happened. The answer is nothing. That was the government plan. It was carried out with panache. Tyson could have looked back at earlier non-attempts at metrication in 1921, and the early 1900s, but instead invoked one of the weirder tropes that have invaded US mythology concerning the metric system.

Tyson: "I joke about this because back then, and today drug dealers have always been metric---just think about that."

So what am I to think of this?—-that the only way one gets to use the metric system in the United States is if you are a criminal? That law abiding people would never stoop to such a corrupt choice of measurement?

Tyson: "They don't sell cocaine in pounds, they sell it in kilos."

This is followed by some banter with Chuck Nice then:

Tyson: "So I've heard people joke that if we had put drug lords as head of the metric commission in the United States we would have been metric within months."
Nice: "That afternoon!"
Tyson: [laughing] "That afternoon!"

….

Tyson: "What I'm trying to communicate is that we are not as bad as it may seem. We are MUCH farther along than we even admit to ourselves in this conversion---I just want to sort of put-it-out-there. And I want to tell you why---because I don't want you to feel bad about this. I as a scientist---we're metric from the beginning---its not even a thing. Engineers are a little later in the listing---but scientists we speak internationally and that's the international system that gets used. So in fact it's called System International. … the meter, the Kilogram, the in there second, but everyone uses the second."

Ok, let’s pause for a second here, and discuss the pristine way in which astrophysicists use SI. Not long ago, a friend who is a professor of physics told me about “death by neutrinos.” If I was say 150 Gm from a star that suddenly went supernova, neutrinos would kill me before the explosion arrived. It was like arguing a ghost could strangle you. The professor sent me a paper on the subject. It was fascinating, and the energy created by the star was expressed in—ergs? I was astonished.

Really? cgs units of energy! Not exactly mks, or SI. Wow, I was just amazed. I guess Neil deGrasse Tyson is right, they are metric units, like our Olde English Units are still British. It’s possible that Neil deGrasse Tyson did not spent 30 seconds researching the metric system before lecturing, with authority, about it—-“I just want to sort of put-it-out-there.”

As for the baseless assertion we are making significant progress converting to metric, that is just not true. The last minor metric policy changes all took place in the 1970s, and metric adoption has been dormant ever since. I could recommend a book to Mr Tyson, that he could read at no expense, which explains this.

Tyson: "You know the French came-up with the metric system. Did you know this?"
Nice: "No wonder we don't use it." [laughter from Tyson]

Tyson: "So it got implemented in 1789---and what was happening then?---in France."

Tyson: "The French Revolution. So part of that overthrowing of the previous order, that was the occasion, if you were going to do it, that's a good time to do it, in addition to the rolling heads, you throw in the metric system."

Wow, I’m just gobsmacked as the British say. First, if Mr Tyson had actually investigated the metric system, he would have discovered the system was invented by an Englishman, John Wilkins (1614-1672), and decimalization was introduced by another. Later the French adopted and implemented these ideas. Tyson makes it appear that only the rolling of heads, and violence, could bring about the metric system. Neil deGrasse Tyson echos the anti-metric rhetoric of James Bemalmens Marciano, who saw metric as just another component of horror produced by the French revolution. We have so far seen the metric system associated with drug dealers, and bloody revolutionaries, by Tyson. There is nothing about the interesting scientific history of its creation. Amazingly about 195 other countries managed to adopt metric without resorting to bloody revolutions.

Tyson then informs us that the definition of the meter was “one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator, on a path that went through the Paris observatory.” He discusses the creation of the first meter artifact used for reference.

Tyson: "So here we are in the United States and we kind of have metric envy and imperial pride. [derisively] We're usin' Fahrenheit and inches and meters and cups and tablespoons and we're damn proud of it. At the end of the day it's like maybe we want a little bit of metric in our lives."

Now that’s ringing endorsement. “A little bit of metric” in the US? At best it’s a lukewarm endorsement of metric from this astrophysicist.

Tyson: "I want to impress upon you that we already do. Are you ready?"
Nice: "I am ready"
Tyson: "We've been inching toward the metric system for decades."
Nice: "I see what you did there."

Tyson asserts that we have metric money, and had it from the beginning of the republic. Technically, our currency and coinage have been decimal, not metric, and there have been exceptions. This has had exactly zero effect on metric adoption in the US. (Aside: you don’t measure money, you count it. Yes, there is a difference. Scientists know this.)

Tyson: "So first we had metric money, put that in the bank. What else do we have? Our photography has largely been metric from the beginning. There's 35 millimeter film. You had a 50 millimeter lens."

He continues along this line, but admits there were some 4 x 5 inch formats. I used a Crown Graphic view camera, and developed a lot of 4 x 5 film. My father used a camera with film that was 2 1/4″ square. What is left out, is that prints are universally in inches in the United States, and continue to be in the age of digital photography. No mention of A-series sizes is offered. Is Tyson even aware of these sizes?

Tyson: "So photography was in."

What?—No, the hell it was!, nor is. It has been pigfish since its inception. This is just bald-face specu-bullshitting.

Tyson: "What else was in? Oh … our medicine has been metric---like practically forever."

Well, that is just not historically accurate. We continue to use teaspoons and tablespoons. The dosage mistakes precipitated by tsp and tbl continue to endanger the public. Pharmacists may use metric, but little change has been seen by the public.

Tyson: "It's one cc of some drug---what is a cc? It's a cubic centimeter. That's what a cc is.
Nice: "No doctor gives you a shot of an ounce of penicillin. I need an ounce of penicillin stat."

Tyson: "So medical dosing has been metric like forever."

Once again, Tyson shows that he has a depth of knowledge about the metric system, which is comparable to a host of an afternoon talk show, or perhaps a used car dealer. He is apparently unaware of the mistakes made with MG vs MCG for milligram and microgram in medicine. This choice has created considerable opportunities for error. We have badly implemented the metric quantities we do use in medicine. Recognizing this, would have shown that Neil deGrasse Tyson had done more than just get up that morning, and without preparation, decide he is a metric system authority. I have not researched this, but it appears that medicine in the US has slowly realized the folly of cubic centimeters, and converted to using milliliters for injections, and in other places where cc volumes were used.

Tyson: "Our nutrition labels. Those were metric from the beginning. How many grams of fat? … Just look on any nutritional label---all metric---and its been that way---and nobody's freaking out by looking at this."

Again, Tyson is not familiar with complaints about these labels. Metric nutritional labels for US foods are essentially equivalent to printing them in Portuguese. Industry created in-plain-sight obfuscation, relying on the fact that the US is non-metric, to create a document that very few in the US can interpret. Because of this, there have been calls to change the nutrition labels to Olde English. I, of course would like to see a mandated conversion to metric, rather than a retrograde move back to Olde English.

Tyson: "What do we have in the bank now. Metric money, metric medicine, metric photography, metric nutrition labels. What else? We've got metric bottles of soft drink. You've never in your life purchased a quart of Pepsi. It's a liter. You haven't it's a liter--ok. A liter's slightly more than a quart. Close enough for most purposes, but, so 1 liter, 2 liter, 3 liter bottles of Pepsi. So our larger volume 'non-dairy' larger bottles have been metric for a long time--for decades."

While liters of soft drinks are widely available in bottles, so are 7.5 ounce cans, 12 ounce cans, and 16 ounce cans (half a quart), and dozens of novelty sizes. The sizes of soda bottles were discussed in the 1978 GAO report about metric, and nothing has changed since. Try using a fast food drive-thru, and asking for 500 mL of soda, or a half-liter. That’s an experiment that will show how metric this country is. Wine and hard liquor are metric (despite attempts at backsliding), but beer is still in non-metric sizes. Again this history is discussed in the 1978 GAO report. In the monograph Metrication in Australia, it is explained that supermarket labels were found to be impotent in promoting metric thinking.

Tyson: "One of the last things I thought would have changed was the volume displacement of the pistons in an engine. I drove a car that was a 400 cubic inch V8 engine. Nobody measures it in cubic inches anymore. It's in liters."

Tyson seems completely unaware that in the 1970s US car companies began using metric exclusively in their designs. Speedometers are still in miles per hour, even though they are calibrated in metric. The change to liters for engine displacement is interesting, but Kustom Kar Kulture in the US faded away long ago. Apparently, the change to metric, is only admitting how they are designed. No one “drags main” as was done in the movie American Graffiti anymore. The power out of an engine is of more interest, and in some cases, in metric countries, it has been expressed in Kilowatts. This is a good choice for metric measure, as one can apply it to electric cars, steam powered cars, and so on. I write about this in my essay Kilowatt My Ride.

Tyson: "Those are important things I think. Now we still have Fahrenheit, yes, and we still have sort of miles and our cooking is not really metric. So there's like three holdouts. Cooking, distance, temperature, and baking. So when people say America you've got to join us with the rest of the world and the metric system we kind of already have---A. B, I don't feel, even as a scientist speaking, I don't feel some great urge to give up Fahrenheit and feet and inches. I'll tell you why. When you visit another country um, part of what it is to sort of blend in and to fit in is to learn what their customs are. In America Jack we use Fahrenheit and just deal with it ok. I mean"
Nice: "I'm not going over to my neighbor's and trying to borrow 236 milliliters of sugar. 'Hi I'm new to the neighborhood, do you have 236 milliliters of sugar?' "
Tyson: "Slam the door back in their faces." [laughing] So I think we've come a long way. So we're inching, and maybe dairy comes next---I don't know. I kind of like the fact that eggs come in a dozen. A dozen is a nice historical baker's quantity, and so I'm cool with that."

What the hell?—what does the integer number of eggs in a carton have to do with the metric system? I have the option of purchasing 18 eggs at my market—so what?

Wow, there are only 3 holdouts against metric in the US?—well that’s news to me. We don’t use metric in construction, we don’t use it at home, we don’t use it when discussing the weather, we don’t use it at all. Tyson talked about engine displacement, but we all still buy gasoline in US gallons, and our oil in quarts, not liters. We use pounds at the post office. Our waist sizes are in inches, our shoes sizes are in barleycorns. We don’t use it for fasteners, we don’t use it for the mass of steak ordered in a restaurant. Our tools in hardware stores are non-metric. Our roads and bridges are constructed with pre-metric measures. Has Neil deGrasse Tyson been living in the US, and also been outside of his office in the last 30 years?! He exists inside a delusion that “we’re already metric.” I have the choice of believing him, or my lying eyes.

He’s a scientist, and he sees no urgency to switching to metric from feet and inches? Well, he may have a couple of degrees with scientific training, but he, in my humble opinion, does not have a scientific outlook. He does not appear curious to learn, and rather than investigate if there is any debate and discussion about the use of metric, resorts to truthiness.

Neil deGrasse Tyson comes off as a scientific pozer, who resorts to invoking a culture wars argument to preserve and justify non-metric use in the US. To him, our measurement system is our custom, and you should respect our cultural choices, you should “fit in.” Does he feel that way about flat earthers?—just get over it—it’s their culture. This is why I NEVER use the term US Customary when discussing Ye Olde English. Tyson has not even made a minimal effort to investigate contemporary metric use and debate. Instead, he makes fun of people who would have the temerity to use metric in our culture. Slam the door in their face! He and Chuck Nice laugh at this rejection of metric. How droll.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a media creation, the Milli Vanilli of science. he invokes the authority of being a scientist. Rather than explaining, he explains away.

In the past, I grew up reading books by actual men of science, who have a scientific outlook. The current media landscape has but one person who appears worthy of being included in the pantheon of people who have presented science to the public. Before I get to him, let’s talk about people who have kept the torch of science for the public burning in the past. Here is a short list:

1) Isaac Asimov — He produced more inspiring science essays, that were not “dumbed down,” than any other writer in history. He wrote pro-metric essays. He was unabashedly willing to contact people involved, and research the metric system. Asimov recognized the centimeter / millimeter problem, and did not shy away from it.

2) L Sprauge de Camp — His books explored science, and also other subjects. He wrote The Heroic Age of American Invention, The Ancient Engineers, and The Great Monkey Trial.

3) William C. Vegara — He wrote Science in Everyday Things, Mathematics in Everyday Things, Electronics in Everyday Things, Science, the Never-Ending Quest, Science in the World Around Us, and other works.

4) Arthur C. Clarke — He wrote The Promise of Space and is proverbially known for his iconic science fiction.

5) George Gamov — He wrote One, Two, Three, …. Infinity. This was a very influential book, and inspired many young men of science.

6) Richard Feynman — The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and his memoirs Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think reveal the excitement of a scientific view of the world.

There are many other books that have been singular works, that are of great importance, but in contemporary times, it’s hard to name a contemporary author who specializes in researching and explaining science to the public.

These are all writers, but we live in an age of video and YouTube. There is one person, in the past, who wrote interesting books on science for the public, and also translated science into video. That person was Carl Sagan. His books The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and perhaps his most important, The Demon-Haunted World, are superb. When I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, I was surprised that I actually learned some new aspects of scientific history, that had been well examined in the past. It was easy to believe that Sagan read many scientific books outside of his specialty, and embraced a scientific outlook. I’m not convinced Neil deGrasse Tyson has ever read any of these classics, or if he has, they made no impact. He has become, at best, the Ed Sullivan of science programs.

Who do I see as the Isaac Asimov of contemporary video? That would be Derek Muller at Veritasium. His videos about how the speed of light has not been measured, how Newton changed the way we compute PI, the slinky paradox, and other amazing—and not dumbed down scientific videos are incredible. He has never written any book that I’m aware of, but his video contributions are equal to the essays of Isaac Asimov. Derek has done a great service to science popularization, and in my view is the best.

I have contacted Neil deGrass Tyson many times about supporting the metric system over the last 10 years. I never heard back; but he might have used “The Google” to find Pat Naughtin’s website or videos, or my essays, my video, or my historical monograph, before he decided to talk about the subject of the metric system on Star Talk. Instead, he just relied on his celebrity.

Multiple Rulers That Do Not Rule Them All

A ruler is a strip of wood, metal or other material marked off in inches or millimeters, used for drawing lines, measuring etc. This is a slight paraphrase of a dictionary definition of a ruler. It seems straightforward, but my experience is that many more alternatives exist than I ever expected could exist.

My father sent me an image of an old ruler, probably from the 1970s, that he ran across. The email subject was “no value” as he saw it as not particularly interesting. When I took a look at it, I was surprised, as it is the first common ruler I’ve seen that clearly and explicitly labels millimeters and centimeters. You may recall my essay The American “Metric” Ruler where I show how four commonly available US rulers are marked. They are reproduced below:

Essentially the labels for cm, mm, or mm and cm, are placed without any clue as to how they should be interpreted.

The new ruler shows how subtle design can be, and how often it is ignored. The first five millimeters have a label that indicates millimeters, but with capital letters, which are commonly used for some reason. The first numerical label, 1, has CM with the cm rule marks which are the longest in vertical length. One has to note the next longest are 5 mm or 5/10 cm markings, and the shortest are millimeter increments. Next the 10 centimeter graduation is marked. I’ve never seen this explicit an attempt to delineate centimeters and millimeters on a common swag ruler. Here is a full graphic of the ruler:

The ruler also shows a default choice by the designer. Two measurements units are used to describe a single distance. The notion of using two measurement units is ubiquitous in the US. 5′ 10″ for a person’s height is the most obvious example. The parsimony of millimeters only was not even contemplated, I imagine, probably from the inertia of the US measurement mindset. It seems to suggest one should write measured lengths as a mixture of centimeters and millimeters. In other words, 25 millimeters would be written as 20 cm and 5 mm.

My friend Pierre has his “rule of flat surfaces.” When I took machine shop class with Pierre, he pointed out that any open flat surface will immediately be interpreted as a table, and begin accumulating objects. Many times a new flat surface of a machine tool would appear, and soon it would accumulate cans, pens, and sundry objects. The surface would be obscured in no time, and saturated with items. I thought about this when I encountered another swag ruler from a large electronics supplier. Rulers generally have a set of markings, and plenty of open area for the inclusion of advertising, or other information. The new ruler packed every square millimeter with design information in an attempt to have as much utility as possible. I see it as a tour through many of the topics addressed here over the years. If we had become strictly metric in the US, much of what is on this ruler could be eliminated and simplified.

The ruler has two “sides” one side is labeled “MIL RULE” which means it is mil friendly. Here is a full image of the MIL side:

Mil Side – click to enlarge

For those of you who live in refined metric countries such as Australia, or less  refined metric countries, such as the EU, a mil is “defined’ as one-thousandth of an inch. The Olde English units used in the US do not have a unit which is smaller than a barleycorn, which is one- third of an inch. There are 333 mils to a barleycorn. The New English units of the Imperial System use a thou, which is another name for a mil. The graduations along the top of this 12 inch ruler are marked in fractions, that are essentially quarters of an inch. At six inches the rule changes to decimal inches in tenths. The tenths would be 100 mils each, but despite the labeling as a “MIL RULE” the scale is not in mils.

The upper left corner has a quick table for printed circuit board copper thickness. It relates the weight in ounces of a one-square foot patch of copper to thicknesses in MILs, and more appropriately, in micrometers. I addressed this strange manner of expressing copper thickness in my essay The Cuprous Proxy. The defining gauge for copper is given as a mass that is then related to a thickness. I don’t recall a single electrical engineer that has ever expressed a need to determine the mass of copper on a PCB. Gauge, is a vacuous and meaningless identification as I discuss in Don’t Get Engaged With Gage.

Just below the copper thickness table are Metric fastener diameters. They are easy, M6 means 6 mm, and M5 is 5 mm, and so on. The equivalent diameter in MILs are presented as 252, 209 and so on. At best MILS are argot, and if we had embraced metric, they would not be clogging the arteries of our commerce. Below the metric fastener sizes, are US “standard” machine screw holes. They range from #2 to #10 gauge sizes, to 1/4″ for the largest. The designation discontinuity assaults a rational mind, but seems logical to denizens of US manufacturing. Below each US machine screw hole are values in MILs. The uncorrelated values we call “standard” are explored in my essay Without Metric Threads We’re Screwed.

A number of font heights are offered to show how large different values in MILs are. Test points (used to measure electronic devices during manufacture) with diameters that are 30, 40, 60 and 80 MIL are presented.

Then stranded wire hole references are given. They are in a gauge value which is AWG or American Wire Gauge, which is not a dimension, only a nationalistic proxy. As the gauge number goes up, the physical dimension of the wires go down. I’ve discussed this mess in The Metric Mess is Hard Wired in the US.

MM side – click to enlarge

Well, with that horror show over, we can now look at the metric side, which despite its designation as MM RULE, has centimeter markings. There are millimeters and centimeters, or centimeters and tenths of centimeters, but only centimeters are marked explicitly. Clearly the designers of this reference rule don’t have a good command of what a millimeter rule is, or it would go from 10 to 300.

I’m not expert enough to go into the intricacies of integrated circuit pads on the left, but I have discussed the embarrassment that is Olde English designations of surface mount devices in my essay US Electronics: a Metric Peg in an Imperial Hole. They offer a conversion table that shows an 0603 “English” and 0603 metric (which is the world standard) are not the same size. This is true for 0402, whose metric designation is not on the list. The accepted international standard sizes are in parentheses, whereas the feral designations that have no standards backing are placed first. 

This ruler is an embodiment of the contemporary ossified measurement set in the US. Americans have the false sense they are great innovators, but when one looks at their measurement system, it is completely unjustified in any utilitarian or rational sense, the evidence is against it. The only positive thought I have is the ruler is a PCB with red soldermask and white component legends. Red soldermask usually designates a work in progress, it is changed to green when the work is ready for production. I’ll hope I see a green ruler someday.

Postscript


The well-known guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, was a science fiction enthusiast. His song Purple Haze was inspired by the Philip Jose Farmer book Night of Light. I read Farmer’s book Time’s Last Gift in high school, which I though was rather good. I decided with my life on pandemic time, that I would read Night of Light. Here is the quotation that establishes the provenance:

Above it, the moon shown golden-purple in the center and silver-purple around the edges. So huge was it, it seemed to be falling, and this apparent down-hurtling was strengthened by the sight shifting hue in the purple haze.

The book was written in 1957, and while the beginning was compelling, for me, the second half was not. So why this postscript? Because Philip Jose Farmer used nothing but metric units in his book, and that was quite a surprise. He used metric without exception. Here are a couple of examples:

A stone statue reared toward the ceiling. It was fully sixty meters high, a titanic woman…..

But the work of sawing through flesh and bone left him panting as if he’d run several kilometers.

What did strike me was the anomalous use of metric as it was imagined in 1957:

The gray half-moon of the upper half of the 5.08 centimeter disk became luminous.

Wow, that’s a rather precise number, in contemporary terms it would be 50.8 mm. My only charitable interpretation was that it could be a proverbial size that future inhabitants would recognize, like 5280 feet is now.

He goes on:

Carmondy rotated the movable upper part of the disc, and the face seemed to spring out of the screen, and to hang, much enlarged, 16 centimeters in front of the disc.

Again, that seems rather precise, probably a bit more than an average person might intuit. Of course if that’s the case let’s just go with 160 mm, which is about 1.6 hand-widths.

Later it’s a bit more natural when he states: “…and stopped only a few centimeters from Carmondy’s.” Sadly, in the science fiction future of 1957, millimeters are apparently not a thing. They appear nowhere in the book. For me, that’s a sad and apocalyptic future.

An example that struck me as the author trying to imagine the future use of the metric system, and stuffing it into contemporary Olde English usage, is:

His room was nearly two hectometers down the broad stone-walled corridor.

Wow, I had to read that twice as I thought it said hectares at first. No, in the future, instead of saying 200 meters, it will be easier to say 2 hectometers.

But lest the reader think I’m making light of this, I’m not. I’m pleased he tried. Predicting the future is what science fiction writers are supposed to do. This usage is but a peccadillo. The real scandal, is that in the US of the future, it is hard to imaging metric usage at all. It is there his efforts as a science fiction prognosticator fail. He was too optimistic.

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