It is quite possible, that the best living author of popular science is Sam Keen. His book The Disappearing Spoon is on par, or perhaps, in my weaker moments, slightly better than Isaac Asimov’s Building Blocks of The Universe. I never thought that would happen. His book The Violinist’s Thumb was very engaging, after a somewhat slow beginning. I did not have high expectations for his new book, Caesar’s Last Breath, as I have read extensively about gasses and the atmosphere; I expected much to be a repeat. While some was, the majority of the book was unfamiliar, offered rich details concerning what I did know, and is quite interesting. His asides are as engaging as his intended narrative. When Keen arrived at James Watt (1736-1819), he offered a perspective that had passed me by:
The expansion into new markets got Watt thinking about steam engines in more grandiose terms as well. To most people, the engines were just tools built to accomplish a specific task—pump water, drive a lathe, whatever. Watt envisioned the engines more as universal sources of energy—machines capable of powering any mechanical process. As an (anachronistic) analogy, most people saw steam engines as something like calculators: proficient at one task but useless beyond that. Watt dreamed of building the steam equivalent of computers, machines versatile enough to work in any industry.
Rather than calculate every factory’s case separately, Watt invented a universal standard of comparison, the horse power. He defined this rather literally by watching several horses push a mill wheel around and then calculating how far they moved the weight in a certain amount of time (550 foot-pounds per second, he found). This unit was shrewd in several ways. By invoking horses, Watt slyly reminded factory owners what they could give up—all the oats and broken legs and vet bills. Customers also understood the unit intuitively. If ten horses had run their mill wheel before, well, they needed a ten-horsepower engine.
Scientifically, the idea proved prescient as well. Over the next century chemistry and physics would be dominated by thermodynamics, the study of heat and energy. Energy is a vast topic in science, popping up in all sorts of different contexts, and scientists needed a standard unit of comparison to understand how quickly different processes absorbed and released energy. The horsepower fit the bill perfectly. Little did those scientists know that the whole idea started as a marketing scheme by James Watt.
(As thermodynamics branched out into new phenomena, however, like light and magnetic fields, the absurdity of the name “horsepower” became obvious—as if you could still hitch old Bessie to the apparatus. In 1882 physicists finally voted to establish a new universal unit of power, which applies just as readily to light bulbs and refrigerators as to engines for raising water by fire. They called it the watt.) pp 173-174
The phrase horsepower is such a powerful meme that if you look up the specifications for a 2017 Dodge Charger, its power output is given only in horsepower as:
SAE Net Horsepower @ RPM : 485 @ 6100
The marketing power of horsepower caused misguided people to define a metric horsepower. A mechanical horsepower is about 745.7 watts, whereas a metric horsepower is approximately 735.5 watts. Electric motors in Europe have both metric and mechanical horsepower ratings. There is also a boiler horsepower, used to rate steam boilers, which is equal to 9809.5 watts.
The output of a horse is not constant, there is a peak and sustained value. Data gathered at the 1926 Iowa State Fair indicates that over a few seconds a horse can achieve a power output of 14.9 horsepower (11.1 Kilowatts). The data indicated that indeed, the horses measured achieved about a 1 horsepower sustained output.
The continued use of horsepower throughout the world demonstrates the power of romantic metaphor over a carefully designed quantity, even when the resulting unit is named after the horse-trading marketer who came up with horsepower.
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One evening I found myself at a table discussing the metric system. I explained all the advantages for the average person, and I could see the wheels turning as the participants realized how useful a change to metric would be. A person to my left, trying to be helpful, said: “you know, Steward Brand would be a good person to contact, he could be a great help.”
He could see the pained look on my face as I replied: “Stewart Brand is vociferously anti-metric.” The person was incredulous and asked why. All I could say to him was “I have no idea, but it’s not based on an informed rational viewpoint.”
Stewart Brand studied Biology at Stanford, but, as I’ve pointed out previously, was untouched by an understanding of the metric system. Universities are notorious for their lack of metric instruction. The acquisition of scientific knowledge does not in and of itself produce a scientific person. Brand was famously involved with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and participated in early sanctioned LSD research. It is hard to say if this had any effect on his metric views, as LSD apparently affects people in a spectrum of ways. This is discussed in the excellent book Storming Heaven LSD and The American Dream.
Brand is best known historically for The Whole Earth Catalog, which was subtitled “access to tools.” It pushed DIY (“do it yourself”), self-sufficiency, ecology, and “alternative education.”
Brand appears to be one of a number of 1960s era gurus like Timothy Leary (1920-1996), and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), who had a new vision of the world to offer. Interestingly when it comes to the metric system, Brand does not bother to educate himself; he retreats to a reactionary position. Pat Naughtin points out that metric construction, using millimeters, saves about 10-15% of construction costs, when compared with imperial. This would definitely save a lot of trees and resources. The simplicity of using grams and milliliters were never incorporated into his expanded consciousness it would appear. How many resources could have been conserved if we had but implemented an efficient version of the metric system in the US in the 1960s? Considering we have historically been the most wasteful country on Earth, it would have been substantial. This apparently willful ignorance of metric, does not reflect well on Brand as a person who seeks out new ideas.
Brand, and others at the time, seemed to have a utopian vision for America, and set out to live communally and embrace a new world order. It was popular at the time to create Buckminster Fuller style geodesic houses. I was a young boy when a person from my small town began to construct one just North of town. I was fascinated by it, and especially interested the crows nest type of construction at the top, for use as a telescope platform. Years later I would have a more critical assessment. I realized that in general, most furniture is constructed with straight lines, and clearly would not fit into a circular space efficiently. Brand was big on tools in his catalog, but apparently had a dogmatic view of acceptable measurement units.
The Fuller style home of my youth was very competently constructed and designed, but clearly those constructed by commune members, could have used the advice of persons more technically versed in design and measurement than themselves:
By the mid to late 1970s this movement had all but vanished, and Brand became involved in computer utopianism. In the future, we would be “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.” This change in intellectual focus did not mean he would re-examine his views about the metric system. In October of 1980 (1980-10-30) Brand would pen a short missive disparaging the metric system, publishing it in the pages of New Scientist. It was titled: “Stopping metric madness!” Brand traded on his position as “special advisor” from 1977-1979 to Governor Jerry Brown of California to say:
“As a member of the California Metric Conversion Council I get to watch the very forefront (foreback? backfront?) of the process.”
He points to the voluntary nature of metric in the US as the reason why metric implementation died and then chortles:
Tricky word, “voluntary.” It was stuck in the bill at the last minute by legislators who realized it would not otherwise pass, and it has unhinged all the efforts of metricators since, because it forced metric to grow on its merits rather than by decree.
This makes sense to a computer utopian who believes that a world without politics can spring forth from the computer networking of the planet, and that pure and divine technological darwinism will bring about a utopian society, based on merit—sans the metric system of course. Considering how well the commune movement of the late 1960s into the 1970s went, it should give any reader pause as to Brand’s prognostication ability as a professional “futurist.”
Brand then uses the “metric apartheid” argument to place the metric system into a scientific getto where he believes it belongs:
There is no doubt that metric—SI to aficionados—has its uses for science. It handles grand abstractions niftily, it micro-measures with subtlety, and it is planetary in usage. (Curious that scientific research is reported in English and measured in French.) And it is somewhat adaptive to scientific advances, always ready to declare a new unit gratefully named after somebody or other.
First Brand impresses the credulous with his knowledge that the proper term for the modern metric system is SI, implying his intellectual bone fides. Then Mr. Brand takes the side of the Practical Man, who is against Longhairs that use the metric system for their abstract, esoteric and impractical work. Real persons of the land use inches (any version they want I guess). For a person who is a Guru that promotes the idea of an entirely new society (communes in the 1960-70s, and computer utopianism in the 1980s) he sure is traditional about measurement. He also has no idea that the system part of the metric system originated with Englishman John Wilkins (1614-1672) and so his sentence which tries to make the metric system foreign to the English world should say: (Curious that scientific research is reported in English and measured in English.) Apparently, one can be on a metric board in California, and have no actual knowledge about the metric system, as long as you have a societal and political brand. I find myself in complete agreement with Brand that units in the metric system should never have been named after individuals; but that is but a red herring when it comes to the utility of the metric system.
Stewart Brand then goes on to indict science for its shallowness of thought:
But Why, Oh new scientists, was science never applied to the business of conversion itself, or to the possible merits of customary measure?
I guess I could ask why science has not looked into the merits of Roman numerals?—or the business of conversion from Hindu numerals to Roman ones?–or perhaps the merits of not learning to count at all?
Brand goes on:
Our Defense Department has been trying to push metric (“100 percent by 1990”) as well as the misbegotten MX Missle System. When congress baulked at the cost of the MX, the Defense Department took metric out of the project and saved $25 million. The most recent announcement from the Pentagon says that it will henceforth follow rather than try to lead in matters metric.
One must question Brand’s credulity when he uses a military budget estimate to argue that a number as specific as $25 million was “saved” on a military contract that is almost always cost-plus, or treated as such. In my personal experience I’ve seen nothing but hostility toward the metric system by the DoD, and its contractors.
Then Brand states:
Either Brand is spectacularly ignorant of the metric system, or he simply is acting as willful propagandist against what is obviously a better system of measure. He reveals this when he argues that metric as taught in schools is “basically counting” and only works on paper. Again, he is arguing against Longhairs and their abstract view of the world for “The Practical Man” who does not need no book learnin’. If Brand ever used metric in cooking, he would realize that all his measures would be “counting” or simple whole numbers. The man with a degree in Biology, should certainly realize that grams produce whole number measures for “practical cooking,” as do milliliters (mL), and millimeters. Yes, the world of metric allows one to use all integers in the everyday world, which reduces errors, and in turn is more efficient, and reduces the resources used by humans, and is better for the ecosystem. This understanding of metric as counting, and then denying it is much easier and efficient, smacks of wilful ignorance promoted by an anti-intellectual guru, who enjoys gathering a human following that adheres to his group-think creation.
Stewart Brand sees “genius” in our customary measure. He points out the similar length of “our foot” to that of the Japanese skaku. Somehow this similarity is supposed to have some deep and profound meaning, as if some manner of “harmonic convergence” of measurement has occurred. Data always works out well when a person can choose what data to keep, and what to throw away, when “confirming” a hypothesis. So how close are foot units from around the world? Here’s a list:
Babylonian Foot 353.9 mm
Canadian Foot 325.0 mm
Egyptian Foot 360.0 mm
French Foot 324.8 mm
Greek Olympic Foot 320.5 mm
Greek Foot 308.9 mm
International Foot 304.8 mm
Iraq Foot 316.0 mm
Netherlands Foot 283.1 mm
Phonencia 495.0 mm
Roman Foot 296.0 mm
Russian Foot 304.8 mm
South African Foot 304.8 mm
US Survey Foot 304.8 mm
Japanese Foot 303.0 mm
So Brand likes to point out that “our foot” is almost identical to the “Japanese Foot.” That is indeed quite a coincidence when one looks at foot values from around the world given above and their large divergence from “our foot.” The assertion also seems rather meaningless, unless you are a Futurist Guru producing a polemic, and cherry picking numbers.
According to Brand, “metric fights your hand,” which probably would come as a surprise to construction workers in Australia, UK, and South Africa. A “hand” is about 100 mm, and 100 mm is a great metric module. Indeed metric counting works very nicely for construction workers in Australia, and a 600 mm spacing allows for an amazing number of factors that make calculations easy. Brand is either ignorant of metric usage or so culturally captured that he cannot admit the obvious.
Brand goes on to assert that every time a company in the US has gone metric, the jobs then move overseas. No need for a study or a citation, just a statement. The Guru is above it all stating:
Among the embarrassed were the good liberals who had first pushed metric and didn’t like finding themselves in bed with multinational corporate heavies.
He can see they are both wrong! It’s the metric system that is the common problem! Murderers and thieves both drank milk when they were young! It should have been water! See the correlation! The Guru is here to enlighten you.
Brand finishes with this paragraph:
The question that remains is, why are governments and educational systems such suckers for ideas like metric conversion and nuclear energy that sound terrific so long as you don’t think about them for more than thirty seconds.
Wow, the mind boggles at the grade-school level conflation of metric and nuclear energy for visceral reaction. He now (as of 2005) indicates that environmentalists should embrace Nuclear Energy. The real question that might be asked is “if Stewart Brand can change his mind about Nuclear Energy, what is it about the metric system that keeps him from changing his mind about the metric system?” Is it that he would need to spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it?—and a futurist certainly can’t spare that much time in the present.
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