The Shrinking World

By The Metric Maven

In the 1960s and 1970s it was common to hear people talk about “our shrinking world.” What they meant by that was the speed of transportation had increased
by such a large amount that traveling from one part of the globe to another took mere hours. A journey that might have taken years in the past, could now be traversed in days. It is my understanding that humans had reached more-or-less every region of the globe by the medieval period in Europe. From that point on, their  isolation from one another decreased such that today people travel to Easter Island on a regular basis as tourists.

What appears to exist for many people is a sort of cognitive dissonance about our planet. People will drive through Wyoming and think the world is so large that humans have no ability to affect it. There is plenty of room, you can see it with your own eyes. The problem is that often we cannot see changes with our eyes, we require instruments to augment our feeble senses, and what they can reveal is sobering.

Thomas Midgley (Wikimedia Commons)

In the early years of the twentieth century, gasoline engines suffered from knocking. The spark plug in an internal combustion engine is meant to ignite the gas/air mixture arriving from the carburetor in a homogeneous fashion, but can combust in a localized manner. This causes knocking. In 1921 Thomas Midgley (1889-1944) discovered that adding Tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline eliminated knocking. Early on he also discovered that the addition of alcohol could also solve the problem. Adding alcohol would have very little profit potential, whereas adding lead was patentable and would maximize it. Midgley argued publicly that there was no substitute for TEL, when he knew otherwise. There was a willful disregard by Midgley and his partners for the health hazards that lead could cause, which is borne out by the fact they named the additive “Ethyl” so that any mention of lead could be avoided.

The Latin word for lead is plumbum. This is why the symbol for lead in the periodic table of elements is Pb. Lead is a very heavy material, and that is the origin of the phrase “to plummet to the Earth.” It became clear long ago that lead was also poisonous, and could make a person “plumb crazy.” Medical researchers warned that lead in gasoline could poison the nation. Workers exposed to TEL during manufacture suffered from paranoia and had to be institutionalized, others simply died. By 1945, everyone on Earth was fueling their vehicles with leaded gasoline.

In the 1968 movie, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good, a virus outbreak that makes everyone nice to one another, is finally cured by adding an anti-virus vaccine to gasoline and petroleum products. The movie plot shows it was a proverbial idea in the 1960s that putting the cure into petroleum products would make certain that every one on Earth would be exposed. In that era, I recall seeing the sides of gasoline pumps with a large sign warning us that the gasoline we were purchasing contained lead. The idea that lead was poisoning us all seemed proverbial. Yet, with capital to burn, petroleum public relations groups implemented a campaign of denialism, their research “showed” that TEL was harmless. I’m sure that if people didn’t want to purchase gasoline, that was their “choice” and so all was well and no intervention was needed.

An article in New Scientist[1] claims that by the time lead was removed from gasoline

“… with some 75 trillion litres of leaded gasoline burned, science woke up from its amnesia about the dangers of lead.”

New Scientist decided to go non metric with an Olde English prefix modifier, trillion, which helps to obfuscate what the number means. The volume of gasoline in metric is 75 Teraliters. It is estimated that two grams of lead per gallon (yes that’s how it was expressed–in pigfish) was in gasoline at the time. This works out to about 0.5284 grams/liter (forgive the excessive decimal places in the conversion, it actually helps in the end). When one multiplies 75 TL by this value, we end up with a total of about 40 Teragrams of lead belched into the atmosphere. But how bad is this for each of us? Well the population of the planet is 7.5 Giga-people. This works out to about 5 grams of lead for each person on the planet.

So, how bad is this? Well the upper limit for blood is 10 micrograms of lead per 100 grams of blood. There are around 5 liters of blood per person, so we can approximate this as about 5 Kg of blood or 5000 grams. This works out to about 50 micrograms of lead in the bloodstream for an adult human before he is considered poisoned. Assuming we go with double this value, 100 micrograms, we each could have been poisoned at least 50 000 times by the amount of lead released as a result of Midgley’s desire for fame and fortune. For Midgley, our entire planet became an externality. The good news is that since lead was banned in gasoline, the levels of lead in the blood of children has dropped to 1/3 what it was at its peak.

I have been criticized in the past for insisting that the large metric prefixes (Kilo through Yotta) should be taught in school from the youngest age possible, and memorized,
like multiplication tables were before the advent of calculators. 75 trillion liters is not metric, it’s Olde English Pigfish. 75 Teraliters tells me a quantity in a compact way, as does a Terabyte drive (that is a massively big number). Tera immediately tells me the magnitude is 1012 (I remember the value of this prefix as tera sounds like twelve). Using the large prefix, with some basic assumptions about the mass of water and its volume, because of the clever design of the metric system, I quickly estimated the amount of lead each of us had the potential to ingest, and how badly this could poison us all. When metric is not used, it simply allows for the obfuscation of meaning, like “Ethyl.” As I’ve said in the past, we may not be able to directly understand large numbers, but we can express them within a metric world where their values can be understood in terms of what they mean to our planet, or the size of our universe. With the metric system We can realize that our planet is finite, and that it is possible for a single human
being to poison the entire Earth, and everyone who resides there, independent of whether they have ever used a gasoline engine, or not.

The use of ammonia for refrigeration was a dangerous practice in the early twentieth century. Thomas Midgley was celebrated for also creating Freon, the first of the CFCs, that solved the danger that ammonia presented to humans. Unfortunately it would later be discovered that CFCs were destroying our ozone layer, and an ozone hole began forming over Antarctica. But that is another story, which also involves large metric prefixes used to shrink our world, and make it understandable.

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[1] The One-Man Environmental Disaster New Scientist 2017-06-10 pp 42-43