Stream of Metric Consciousness

By The Metric Maven

A coffee klatch denizen, NY Joe, kindly brought me a book titled The Macmillan Dictionary of Measurement. It has over 4250 entries and Joe was sure I’d find it interesting reading. He was right, there are many interesting aspects of the book that caught my attention, and some not in a good way. One entry took me by surprise and would have been a nice addition to my DBTC chapter Multiple Metric Systems and Metrology. There I point out the existence of the MKS (meter-kilogram-second), CGS (centimeter-gram-second) and MTS (meter-tonne-second) systems. I encountered an entry about the crinal in this dictionary, which I reproduce below:

Yes, the DKS decimeter-kilogram-second system!? I’ve encountered this system no where else in my research over the years. One might almost think it a joke, but then I’ve seen the seemingly unending historical pre-metric units, and many of them also appear to be jokes. My favorite reference has a crinal in it, and the first definition is 1 decinewton. Indeed, let’s just rid ourselves of the prefix cluster around unity. This is unit proliferation, pure and simple.

I also learned that base ten logarithms, like that used to define the decibel, are called Briggs logarithms after the early British mathematician Henry Briggs (1561-1631). In 1616 he drew up the first base ten logarithm tables. Who knew? For those who find British Thermal Units too straightforward, there is also the CHU or centigrade heat unit, equal to the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree celsius. That is a serious pigfish definition. It is also known as the pound-calorie. The international angstrom is a unit of length, but it is defined with a red line in the cadmium spectrum, at a temperature of 15 C and a pressure of 760 mm of mercury which is 6438.4696 international angstroms. “It is very nearly the same as an ANGSTROM UNIT (10-10 m).” What? very nearly the same? Why not call it “the horseshoe?” We also encounter a prefixed angstrom called a milliangstrom. We need a unit that is 10-13 m in length? There is also the kip, which is a: “Little-used unit of mass for measuring the load on a structure equal to 1,000 pounds avdp. (half a short ton). It was named after the first letters of kilo imperial pound.” This is serious pigfish on parade. Shoe sizes are defined, but mondopoint does not have an entry, or a single mention in the dictionary. I have written about mondopoint here and here.

The dictionary even relates a unit called the eric:

Eric [comparative values] In medieval Ireland, the blood money paid by a murderer or accidental killer (to his family) to the victim’s family in full and complete satisfaction for the death, so that no further punishment or obligation would be imposed or sought.

There is also “the finger.” As we know a hand is about 100 mm in width. Four fingers of width implies a finger would be about 20 mm (25 if the world made sense). Of course in old timey movies we see western characters order two or three fingers of alcohol, which is not exactly independent of the size of the glass.

This dictionary has very little use for milli. Millimeters and milliliters appear depreciated for centimeters and centiliters. When millimeters do appear it is often with mixed fractions.

The dictionary has the Kilotonne, which is a metric prefix applied to a Megagram which is actually a Gigagram as I point out in my essay A Kilotonne is how much in metric? The dictionary lists (with lower case of course) a megabar, megabit, megacurie, megadyne, megahertz, megajoule, megaparsec, megarad, megaton, megavar, megavolt, megawatt, and megaohm, but no Megagram! Clearly the authors of this reference, need to become a bit more acquainted with the metric system in my view. They proudly have listed tonne and kilotonne, but no megatonne, or gigatonne. Both of these nested concatenated prefix “units,” which are megamegagrams or gigamegagrams are seen constantly in reporting about global warming and elsewhere, rather than using Teragrams or Petagrams, which are properly expressed, and devoid of the archaic pre-metric “ton”, which only serves as a thumb to suck, or a skirt to hold are absent. Of course the dictionary also has metric ton and tonne

One day while using public transit to meet with me over brunch, Sven noted a fellow wearing a tee shirt like the one below:

Over the years, there has been a meme of sorts that indicates that spelling is somehow a measure of something that is intellectually indicative about a person. As I’ve pointed out, we have a number of Shakespeare’s signatures, and no two are spelled the same. The two people who wrote this book identify themselves on the dust jacket: “[one]….is a packager who produces popular dictionary and reference books in the fields of science, semantics and medicine” and “[the other]…is an editorial consultant who specializes in religion, foreign languages, place-names, and music.” They both spend an inordinate amount of time defining collective nouns, such as a murder of crows, murmuration of starlings, or a muster of peafowl. These are not exactly precisely defined units or values. The reference is indeed written like what one would expect from specialists in language, who I’m sure can spell, but have no metrology background.

Often people ask me to talk about old archaic pre-metric units, but I have no interest in doing so. There are so many “metric” and “pigfish” sub-optimal units to discuss, and then plead for people stop using; I want to concentrate on them. I encourage people to switch-over to pure efficient metric, without the tonne, micron, angstrom, or other “exceptions.” If you want to know about archaic or obsolete units that no one has ever heard of, consult John Quincy Adams. Relating numbers in the most meaningful manner possible begins with good streamlined metric usage.

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Asimov’s Metric Fossil

The mid-1970s were a period of metric delusion in the US. The entire world was changing over to the metric system, and because of that, people were told we were also doing so. Industry and government had no intention of changing anything, just as they had since the latter part of the 19th century.

It appears that Isaac Asimov was hopeful about metrication in 1975 when he wrote the book The Ends of The Earth about the polar regions of our world. On page 2 he writes:

The Sun, to be sure, is 150,000,000 kilometers* from the Earth …..

The footnote reads:

* Almost the entire world, except for the United States, now uses the “metric system” of measurement. Scientists everywhere, even including American scientists, use it exclusively. To use anything else in dealing with matters involving the whole Earth would be provincial. I will therefore use the metric system and give equivalents in footnotes now and then ….

The metric training wheels come off almost immediately, and the book is essentially all metric after the first dozen pages or so. What struck me was how seamlessly Asimov was able to write with metric. On page 114 he wrote this:

Magellan had no choice but to move farther southward, and on October 21, 1520, he finally came to an inlet that seemed promising. He made his way through it under horribly stormy conditions—550 kilometers of torture—and then came out into the open ocean at last, under conditions of such calm that, with tears running down his cheeks, Magellan called it the “Pacific Ocean” (“peaceful”), the name it bears to this day.

Throughout the book Asimov uses only metric units: grams, meters, Kilograms and so on. It is quite a surprise as contemporary popular science books continue to insist on Ye Olde English units, rationalizing it as Americans don’t use metric.

The book uses cubic centimeters:

Pg 226 Most solid substances that dissolve in water can do so in amounts that vary with the temperature of the water. In almost every case, the warmer the water, the greater the extent to which it can dissolve a particular substance. Consider for instance, a compound known as magnesium chloride. A hundred cubic centimeters of water at a temperature of 20 C. will dissolve 54 grams of magnesium chloride. Bring that same quantity of water to the boiling point, 100 C., and it will dissolve 73 grams.

Which readers know I would eschew, as the medical profession appears to have done in the US. On the next page Asimov shows the redundancy of cubic centimeters:

Pg 227 As it happens, the two gasses that make up the bulk (99 percent) of the dry atmosphere, oxygen and nitrogen, both dissolve only slightly. for instance at 0 C., 100 milliliters of water will dissolve only 0.007 grams of oxygen and only 0.006 grams of nitrogen.

He seamlessly, and it appears unconsciously, substitutes milliliters for cubic centimeters, demonstrating milliliters is fine for volume.

Despite his exceptional effort to use metric only, Isaac succumbs to using Ye Olde English Prefix Modifiers:

Page 275 The Sun is …. surrounded by a “corona,” a very thin atmosphere extending outward from the Sun in all directions in sufficient density to be detectable for millions of kilometers.

Skipping the pigfish prefixing, it could have been: “…. in sufficient density to be detectable for Gigameters.”

The book is a window into what might have been if the US were not so ignorantly sanctimonious about its measures and its inability to reform.


Paul Trusten, Vice President of the US Metric Association contracted COVID-19 in November and passed away on the 5th of December 2020. He often left comments about the essays presented here, and had been active in metric issues since the 1970s. His contribution will be missed.

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