Child’s Play

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Recently I was visiting Albuquerque New Mexico. While there, I went to the National Museum of Nuclear Science. It was an interesting enough experience, but it was the gift store that made the largest impact. On the back wall was a number of educational laminated exercise sheets. They are about 440 mm x 305 mm in size. The first to catch my attention was a sheet intended to “educate” young people about U.S. weights and measures. The U.S. weights and measures sheet seemed very simplified, and is reproduced below:

The typeface is large and legible, about 10 mm or so in height. There is plenty of space between the lines of text and the graphic design is very open and accessible.

When I found the metric version of this “educational resource” I was aghast. The typeface is reduced to about 5 millimeters in height, and the graphic design is cluttered. Clearly when one looks at this metric presentation, and compares it with the U.S. version, the metric version is just so complicated that only a Nobel Prize winner could understand it. The message is clear, U.S. Ye Olde English is simple, the metric system is complicated. The metric version is reproduced below for comparison:

The U.S. version has no metric equivalents on it. The metric version has Ye Old English equivalents on it. This is the first source of clutter. The second source of clutter is the prefix cluster around unity. The length section has millimeters, centimeters, decimeters, dekameters, hectometers and Kilometers. The same set of prefixes is used for the liter and the gram, with Ye Olde English equivalents added.

In my essay Naughtin and 1929, I wrote about a newspaper that was introducing the metric system that year and made it appear much more complex than needed. What was done there seems like a peccadillo compared with this group of Mormons making coffee. We are treated to a history lesson  that explains: “The Metric System was first proposed in France in 1670 by Gabriel Mouton. It is a system based on mathematics and not the size of a king’s body part.” No, the system part of the metric system was proposed by John Wilkins in 1668. It relies on scientific phenomena as a basis, and simplicity in expression. It is pointed out that the U.S. is “the only major country in the world not to adopt it.”

This product is called a Painless Learning Placemat, and has a 2014 copyright, so it is not a relic from the 1970s, it is contemporary obfuscation. At the bottom of each placemat is “Made in U.S.A.” The Ye Olde English measures placemat does not have the center section taken up with a history of measurement, and the SI prefixes with the prefix cluster around unity added. It does have SI Punctuation Rules. Rule #2 is not to use plurals on the unit symbols, so it’s: “hg not hgs.” One would not want to get their hectograms in a bunch. Rule #3 is there are no periods after units, it’s: “cg not cg.”, so make sure you have your centigrams without periods, as you will also be using lots of centigrams in your new fantasy metric world.

I will give the author(s) some credit for the other rules—mostly. Rule #1 is to leave a space between a numerical value and its metric symbol. They have 5 g not 5g. Rule #4 is to use a space instead of a comma for large numbers. However, the space they use in their example is so small that a young person (or the instructor) might be confused that a space exists. The kerning is awful:

Perhaps 10 000 and 10,000 might have been a better example?

Rule #5 advocates a leading zero on decimals. Their example is 0.6 mm not .6 mm. This is good, but when possible in a list of presented values, whole numbers are most expressive. 600 μm is succinct and this possible choice should be explained.

The reverse side of this placemat has “metric exercises” for the young person. They mostly involve the prefix cluster around unity, and therefore are for “practical” everyday use:

There are many more exercises in futility on the back side of the placemat. One is to “Draw a line from the prefix  to its correct numerical value.” These include mm, cm, dm, dk, hm, km with 10, 0.01, 0.1, 100, 0.001, 1000. One is then to take the prefix symbols and match them with the full prefix cluster. This includes mg, kg, dg, dkg, cg, hg, with dekagram, hectogram, milligram, kilogram, decigram and centigram. Those of you that are metric pedants will immediately notice that rather than using da for deca, this placemat has dk instead. It seems apparent to me, that when confronted with dkg, it’s possible for a young person to see it as a decikilogram. Well over 75-80% of the area of the backside of the metric placemat is taken up with the important task of understanding hecto, deca (sorry….deka), deci and centi. Metric is not better by 1000 on this placemat, it’s ten times worse. This “educational tool” is an unintentional argument for eliminating the prefix cluster around unity.

What young person would choose metric over Ye Olde English when they see nothing but complexity staring at them? The idea that more prefixes exist, such as Mega, Giga, micro, nano and so on, would certainly produce loathing for this complicated system, and budding American exceptionalism could possibly follow. The back side of the Ye Olde English placemat is far less dense, and tells you what you don’t have to remember:

The placemat does not mention Troy versus Avoirdupois pounds, even though silver and gold are weighed with Troy, and that seems fairly important. If a child understood the actual simplicity of the metric system, without the prefix cluster around unity, and was not conditioned with this misleading pre-metric placemat to see the U.S. weights and measures as simpler, they would revolt when they came across this set of exercises on the back side of the Ye Olde English placemat:

The metric placemat is so padded with worthless and pointless exercises, that it would probably convince the poor child that the Ye Olde English reverse side is easier than the back of the metric placemat. Considering the convoluted and misleading metric backside, it might actually be just about as bad—but of course it’s only typical of ignorance in action.

The U.S. placemat does not bother to relate any of the U.S. measurement units to metric units, but the metric placemat does—when it should not. In an actual adoption of the metric system, one changes to metric exclusively, and never looks back. The U.S. placemat has a small box explaining how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius. On the U.S. back side, one is to parrot back this simple algorithm. The metric place mat has extensive exercises to convert a list of Celsius values to Fahrenheit and vice-versa.

What young person would not be repelled by the metric system when it’s presented in such an overly and artificially complicated manner? I’m glad I was never exposed to a “learning accessory” like this one when I was a child. It would have brought out my inner Chucky if I was faced with the choice. Whether I approach “science communicators” on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, High School teachers, scientists, engineers, or other educators, there is a virtual eye roll, and a sanctimonious dismissal tinged with “I already know all about the metric system” or worse, the assertion that “it doesn’t matter what system of measure one uses.” I would like to think that most educators are interested in teaching and not simply parroting, but at this point it looks like “Polly want’s a hectometer.”

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The “Best Possible Unit Bar None”


By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My friend Kat does her best to make certain I have a contemporary cultural education, but often it does not adhere. Other than the first film, that is actually Episode IV—I had never seen any of the other Star Wars films. She sought to remedy my ignorance and showed me the entire cannon canon. During Episode IV came this infamous statement from Hans Solo:

“You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?… It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

I noticed this confusion of time and distance when I first saw the movie. I had read Isaac Asimov’s The Universe: From Flat Earth to Quasar, and knew that  a parsec is a single word formed from the two words parallax and second. I also knew what stellar parallax is, and the history of the search to find it. I cringed in the original Star Wars showing. The statement reminded me of 1950s “science fiction” movies filled with hilarious scientific eye-rollers. I love watching those old movies for their campy nature and appearance. Star Wars had Peter Cushing, and so I saw it as more in line of the old Hammer Films. Unlike the 1958 Hammer film Dracula, Star Wars made an impact on culture which is still hard for me to fathom.

Definition of Parsec (Wikimedia Commons)

A parsec is defined using a right triangle that has a side, which is one astronomical unit, and whose opposite angle is one arc-second. The astronomical unit (AU) is a unit that astronomers have created which is roughly the distance from the Sun to the Earth. I say roughly because the distance between the two bodies varies as the Earth orbits the Sun. The parsec is accepted for use with SI and is defined as exactly 149 597 870 700 meters or 149.6 Gigameters. Why not just make it 150 Gigameters? The angle opposite the triangle side of AU length is 4.848 136 8 microradians or one arcsecond. For those who prefer degrees this is 277.778 microdegrees.

When the second leg of the triangle (not the hypotenuse) is computed it has a length of 30.857 Petameters. In summary the Astronomical Unit is 150 Gigameters, and the Parsec is 31 Petameters. Astronomers however don’t use Gigameters and Petameters for distance, they use light years. We have all been told this is the distance that light travels in one year. This distance is 9.4607 Petameters. When we compute the length of a parsec in terms of a light year it is 3.2 light years.

In an earlier essay, I took astronomers to task for not using the large metric prefixes. They encompass the entire observable universe—why not use them? The large metric prefixes even allow for astronomical classifications in terms of metric prefixes, which might be useful for visualization.

I wrote a contributor to an astronomy periodical, and also to their editorial board, inquiring about why there has been no effort to change to metric units. The editorial board did not respond, but the contributor wrote back and said that he was trying to convey:

“….astronomy and sometimes other sciences to the general nontechnical public in a way that makes sense to them. As things now stand in the US, that’s not metric. If we say that rain falls at a speed of 9 meters per second, that’s not as meaningful as 22 miles per hour.

As for planetary distances, I’m not sure if a few hundred million miles can be “felt” by the average person but gigameters would be worse.

As for the light year, it’s the best possible unit bar none. The notion that light, the fastest thing there is, requires 4.3 years to get here from alpha Centauri makes that distance meaningful. Nothing else can do that. Remember, astronomy articles have [a] job to do….and it’s not to force feed an alien seeming system of units, but to help people grasp vast distances. Light years accomplishes that.”

The chicken and egg-little argument is always the first drawn upon. We must become metric as a country to use metric, and no metric will be used popularly until we do, which in turn makes certain the public never sees metric usage, which in turn makes them ignorant and unwilling to change to an “alien seeming system of units.” Doing otherwise, that is using metric, could bring the sky falling down on those who chose to violate this precept. The astronomy periodical would fail, and science “communicators” would all be unemployed.

I see the light year as exploiting a common unconscious substitution, that of time and distance—just like Hans Solo. Often when I ask how far a nearby town might be I hear: “oh….about 45 minutes.” The question was how far, but the answer was time. This time value almost certainly assumes a speed of about 60 miles per hour which is one mile per minute. So the distance is actually 45 car minutes or 2700 car seconds, not just 45 minutes. Traffic jams can radically alter the time, but not the distance.

In my view the light-year is not a unit, it is a culturally accepted mathematical product without a singular definition. A light-year is the speed of light (in a vacuum) multiplied by the length of a year. No units are specified. I could argue that a light year is 1.95 trillion leagues, or 1.117 quintillion barleycorns. What a light year does is allow us to substitute a time metaphor for a defined distance. I heard a person in a recent podcast discuss the idea of intentionally sending out radio signals for aliens to receive. It was pointed out that I Love Lucy broadcasts are about 70 light years out at this point. This could be estimated quickly by assuming that I Love Lucy went on the air about seventy years ago. No distance was computed, it does not tell us how far those VHF electromagnetic waves have traveled, it only is an expression of time as a metaphor for distance.

The light year is the kilowatt hour of astronomy. One could ask their meter reader how much electricity was used, and believe that 20 kilowatt hours is an answer in energy, when it is a time metaphor for energy. I direct you to my essay Joule in the Crown where I argue an actual unit of energy, the joule, should be used to meter electricity and gas rather than kilowatt hours and therms. Therms are a familiar unit?—right?

When we use word descriptions in place of units, we continue to encourage innumeracy. The astronomy contributors insistence on time rather than distance to describe distance is a public disservice in my view, but in his view he is giving the readers “what they want” without ever actually investigating or debating the issue. Hans Solo didn’t make a mistake confusing time and distance, he gave the audience “what they expected—what they wanted” a metaphor in place of a measurement.

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A video of my short lecture at Nerd Nite Denver on 2014-09-25 has been posted here.