Mythbusters Jr. & Metric Blindness

By The Metric Maven

Split Bulldog Edition

Adam Savage has returned with a new version of Mythbusters, titled Mythbusters Jr. Adam hosts a number of wunderkind who address a number of myths—-for science! In 2012, when asked about why the Mythbusters did not use the metric system in their show, the answer was:

“We try, we do both sometimes. But we’re both fully inculcated with the English system, sad to say. That’s how we think.”

Adam has now taken on the responsibility to educate a new generation in the adventures of myth-busting. During his sabbatical did he muse on measurements?—-and try to inform himself about them?—well, I’m sure this won’t be much of a spoiler—but no…. not at all it appears. Worse, it’s clear he is passing on American measurement prejudice and hubris that decreases our scientific literacy.

In a segment titled Space Scream, the team examines, if in space: “no one can hear you scream.” To investigate this assertion, they build a vacuum chamber, and then use a pump to pull a vacuum. A gauge is shown which has KPa, and also inches Hg. One of the impressionable students reads out “five inches of mercury.” Adam Savage then states: “Now the numbers you’re hearing are inches of mercury. Ten inches of mercury! They’re a standard unit of measurement for atmospheric pressure—and it goes back to one of the earliest tests on vacuum which is how far up a tube can you draw liquid mercury. Eighteen inches of mercury—and it turns out 29.92 inches is as far as you’ll ever get. That is as close to a perfect vacuum as you can get here on Earth.”

What might have been useful is explaining the other scale, the Kilopascal scale. That a pascal is a newton of force per square meter, or a force that exists over an area, like pounds per square inch, but metric. But this is a quibble compared to their metric blindness in a segment called Spider Silk vs Steel. The segment starts out astonishingly metric, but with introduced confusion about micron versus micrometer. Dr Todd Blackledge, a professor at the University of Akron, when asked how thick the spider silk is, stated it is about 3 microns. Once again, academic metric ossification in the US concerning the metric system is still on display.

The myth they examine is whether spider silk is stronger than steel. The spider thread used is estimated at 3 microns in thickness. I cringed, and thought the word micrometer clearly and unambiguously expresses the value of length. Then Mythbuster Jr. Allie makes me proud: “We got our hands on some pretty thin steal thread. It’s about 30 micrometers thick. We looked at our spider silk underneath a microscope, and it was about 3 micrometers thick.” The voice over narrator then quashes my metric hope, by re-introducing microns, and equating them with micrometers. Overall, still not bad for a US television program. They even show the computations! This is not kid stuff! It might have been useful for Mythbusters Jr. to have pointed out that a human hair is about 100 micrometers thick for comparison. The steel thread is about three times smaller than a human hair and the spider silk is about 30 times smaller than a human hair. Measurement expression and clarity, is clearly not Adam’s thing. He’s too inculcated in the “English System” to change.

First, a steel thread is connected between a pair of posts on upright columns. A wire hook is placed at the center. One-by-one, washers and paperclips are added to the bottom hook of the double hook, which slowly stretches the steel thread. The added mass in grams is called out. Adam spoils the metric mood by pointing out the stretch of the filament is about four inches. The total mass added when the steel fiber fails is 39.305 grams. One might question the youthful readout to 5 micrograms. That’s quite a scale. The voice-over narrator continues to use microns.

Next, 500 threads of spider silk is connected between the two connection points, and the process repeated. The amount of paper clips and washers was 83 grams when the spider silk failed. The spider silk clearly was stronger than the steel thread.

Coarsely labeled container used to stress the steel wire and spider silk

To check this result, 25 000 strands of spider silk will be placed across the two posts. Adam tells us it’s 9.5 miles of silk, or 15.2 Kilometers for refined people. The test fixture is modified by connecting a graduated container at the bottom of the test hook. This container will be filled with water until the thread under test fails. They will then have the weight in water which caused thread failure. The container is coarsely graduated in both liters and quarts.

They use a 28 gauge steel wire for the initial test, but never indicate what its diameter is, as if 28 gauge means something. They use 40 pounds of water in the reservoir and allow gravity to slowly convey it to the rectangular container stressing the steel wire. The group then weighs the water to find out what mass of water precipitated the failure. It’s 12.5 pounds. They switched to pounds?—of course they did.

The 25 000 strands of spider silk is then prepared, and water allowed to flow. They helpfully show that the spider silk has passed the steel wire snap value, which occurred when a volume of 5.9 quarts, with a “mass” of 12.5 pounds, was in the container. The camera shows the water approaching the 8 quart mark. We next see it approach 10 liters, which is between 8 and 12 quart marks. Then failure occurs. Adam weights the water and measures 26 pounds.

Well, from a metric standpoint this is a serious cold mess. The first test with 500 spider silk threads was essentially metric, even if the long retired and meaningless micron was used. The second test used water. Adam looked at the value in quarts, and then weighted it, to determine the value in pounds. This is true metric blindness. If one has 500 mL of water it will weigh 500 grams. Each liter of water (i.e. 1000 mL) has a mass of 1 Kilogram (i.e 1000 grams). They could have used a container with mL, and read-off the value also as an estimated mass in grams. This would have been very, very educational for the youth participating in this experiment, but American metric blindness kept them from seeing this simplification. There is no instant equivalence between quarts and pounds of water like there is with liters and Kilograms. There is an expectation of complication and de-correlation of units for the “English System,” with which Adam is inculcated.

We could only see the 10 liter mark during the segment, which indicates 10 Kilograms or about 22 pounds at that point. The final value measured was 26 pounds which works back to 11.81 Kg, or 11.81 liters of water, or 11 810 mL, or 11 810 grams. Had some thought been put into the measurement involved, both experiments could have been expressed with the same metric units. In the first case, they had 39 grams for the steel and 83 grams for the spider silk. In the second experiment we have 5682 grams and 11 810 grams. It could have been all the same units.

An American audience could have learned the simplicity of using water to measure mass, and how its volume could be used as a check when weighed. 1000 mL is 1000 grams. The two values should ideally be equal, but Mythbusters Jr. has metric blindness. I have written this blog for over six years now, and written to the original Mythbusters program. What Mythbusters and Mythbusters Jr. seem to have proven to me is, that in Cyberspace, no one can hear your metric scream.

Multiple Metric Systems & Metrology

By Randy Bancroft

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Here is all of Death By A Thousand Cuts-Chapter5 2018-09-11

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Some Thoughts on: “The Metric System is Anti-Human Central Planning”

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

A few days ago, a website called The Federalist published a polemic titled The Metric System is Anti-Human Central Planning. The essay is quite derivative, containing truthiness assertions about the metric system, and an understanding of it at a hearsay level. Examining some of its claims can be instructive.

The first claim is: “All of metric’s shortcomings come back to the same point: it is great for science, but does not fit with the way people live their everyday lives.” This is simply not the case. A casual observation of how I propose to use the metric system in the US, and the actual practice in Australia, makes this claim laughable. When using grams, millimeters and milliliters, no decimal point is required to interact with everyday measurements. One would purchase coffee in quantities of 500 grams, measure the distance across a desk as 750 mm, or drink a 350 milliliter soda. For everyday people, it is much simpler than the current non-system. It would be a world of integers.

Lincoln Chafee suffered from the same lack of understanding of the metric system as does the author of the anti-metric essay under discussion. Chafee just said the metric system was good, without any detail or explanation.

The second claim is “It would be easier if all seven billion of us spoke the same language, wore the same clothes,…….” Indeed, government after government over the last two centuries realized that trade would be more efficient using the same measurement system worldwide. The metric system was adopted because it is easy to use, not because it is hard. This is why out of around 195 countries in the world, we in the US are the single irrational standout.

The French were the first to adopt the metric system, and were also the first to abandon it. The utility of the metric system is what kept it alive throughout the political upheaval that surrounded its adoption. Dutch traders realized its benefits, and were some of the first to embrace it. The metric system itself has an English origin, John Wilkins (1614-1672) proposed it in 1668 in a publication to the Royal Society in London. The idea was utilitarian enough to survive until the French Revolution afforded an opportunity for a country to adopt it. From that time onward, the metric system was an idea so appealing that it has displaced a multitude of other “natural” measurements.

The third claim is: “That is the difference between the English system we use (also known as the Imperial System) and the metric system: one developed gradually from the ground up and was later codified, the other was imposed from above based on the ideas of a few radicals.” We do not use the imperial system in the US. We use a far earlier version that is medieval in origin. The English realized how bad their non-system was in the 19th century and implemented half-measures to reform it. Finally, they embraced the metric system starting in 1965. England is metric.

This third claim also implies that some manner of “technical Darwinism” brought the current non-system about. This is simply not the case. The measures throughout the world were muddled, and only the metric system brought technical order, as it was created by rational thought, and not through an imaginary, mysterious, mythological process. I recommend the author look at the book Measure for Measure by Richard Young and Thomas Glover to see the thousands of versions of measurements in use before the metric system. There was never a natural decrease in the number of units until the metric system. Why? because fraud loves diversity. Thomas Jefferson was clear on this point.

The third claim, claims that people were “forced” to accept the metric system. This old hackneyed assertion was leveled at John Shafroth (1854-1922), when his metrication bill was called the metric force bill. The imposition of the metric system was an imposition of honesty on trade.

Claim four is that the dimensions of the English system, are more natural. Does he mean the British Imperial System?—-or our medieval English units? First, the width of a hand is about 100 mm, That seems rather natural to me. A foot is about 300 mm or so, the length of your leg to the waist is about 1000 mm. Natural is what people grow up with, not the system itself. Did your grade school teacher, instruct you on measures?—or impose them on you? The rationalization that the measures we use in the US are natural comes afterward, when you’ve already incorporated the information.

The fifth claim is “Defenders of the metric system stress its decimal nature frequently. Because everything works in multiples of ten, they claim…..” No I don’t claim this, period. I’m pro metric by increments of 1000, so that decimals and errors can be minimized by the use of whole numbers. The author has clearly done little research on metric system usage, or the metric system in general.

The sixth claim: “Ten is divisible evenly by two numbers: 2 and 5. That means it can be cut in half evenly, and about that’s it. Smaller fractions (other than fifths) require decimals, which is the opposite of the ease metric promises. Meanwhile the foot, being made of 12 inches, is divisible evenly by 2, 3, 4, and 6. The pound with its 16 ounces is divisible evenly by 2, 4, and 8.” First, in situations such as metric construction, 400 mm is the module dimension. A 400 mm module is divisible by 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 16, 20, 25, 40, 50, 80, 100, 200. Yes, the metric system was created for simplicity. Also we use more than one pound. Gold is measured in Troy pounds and feathers are in Avoirdupois. Troy has 12 ounces in a pound and Avoirdupois 16 ounces in a pound. This is a muddle.  There is only one gram or Kilogram.

The seventh claim: “For scientific calculations, none of this matters, but if you’re building a house or cooking a meal, quick calculations of fractions is essential.” The false division between science and everyday measurement is conjured up out of thin air. The metric system does not require any fractions for cooking, or for the construction of a house.

His summary is no less at odds with the world at large:

“The metric system is a classic example of central planning gone wrong. While it is useful in a few ways, it has no place in the life of the average American. Traditional measurements require no coercion, because they make sense to us already. They measure our lives as they always have: on a human scale.”

The metric system, which has been of such utility in decreasing fraud, and simplifying measurement for the average person around the globe, has no place in the life of the average American? The author is right, we are exceptional.

Postscript: Peter Goodyear has brought to my attention an online petition to forbid the use of Ye Olde English units by science teachers. If you are interested in signing it, the petition is here.