By Randy Bancroft
10 years ago on Pi Day, the Metric Maven website posted its first essay, The Invisible Infrastructure. My advisor and long-time friend Sven predicted I might have a 6 month run before running out of subjects to discuss. I thought he might be right, but decided to do my best to research the metric system. Now it has been 10 years and over 250 essays. I wrote a history of the metric system in the United States, Death by 1000 Cuts. I also wrote a book exploring the use of the metric system that includes all the current metric prefixes, titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. I approached literary agents for years without any ability to engage their interest. I self-published Dimensions of the Cosmos, which proved to be a disaster. Despite this, I wrote a second edition of The Dimensions of The Cosmos. I finally decided that it would be best to offer both books online for anyone who is interested. I’m planning on continuing to offer chapters from The Dimensions of the Cosmos on this website until the entire monograph has been published, and then post the book as a single complete file.
What has become painfully clear over the last ten years is that the political system in the United States has no ability to reform itself, and I will not see another discussion of metric conversion in my lifetime. It has become painfully obvious, that at best, I’ve been writing for posterity. At this point, I feel I’m an American stranded on a small non-metric island, with one bottle into which I can put a note, and throw it into the sea, hoping that posterity takes an interest.
In the US, there is an overwhelming belief in the efficacy of technical Darwinism. That a better mouse trap will lead the world to your door. This statement is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he never used the word mousetrap. The need for a government metric mandate to implement the metric system in the US proves to the followers of this mythology, that the metric system is clearly inferior to the farrago of units produced by “market Darwinism.”
Years before the pandemic, I read Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it, by Gina Kolata and The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. I was quite concerned about a possible new pandemic, but furtively hoped it would never happen in my lifetime. In 1918, no one knew what a virus was, and only its size could be determined using filters. These became known as filterable viruses. There was nothing medical science could offer, other than masks, and there was uncertainty as to their efficacy in those days.
When the Covid19 pandemic arrived, viruses were scientifically understood, but developing a vaccine would be difficult, and take time. To my astonishment, researchers were able to fast-track a new method of vaccination, with 10 years of groundwork, using messenger RNA. I was gobsmacked, it was a scientific miracle. The researchers had set a goal of 50% effectiveness, and instead, it was north of 90%. The vaccine did not need to be grown in eggs, it could be quickly manufactured using PCR. Talk about a better mouse-trap!
Despite this amazing development, a large number of people simply refused to be vaccinated. Considering the death rate of SARS Cov-2 is as bad or worse than that of the 1918 flu, one would think the rational reaction would be for everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Even after numerous anti-vax proponents perished, their followers continued to endanger themselves and the community by remaining susceptible. For them, seeking the vaccine remained anathema. In 2020, Alabama had more deaths than births. This has never happened before. Finally, there was government action to mandate vaccinations. A visceral and violent reaction followed. I recall the first assumption made in my university class on economics was that people are rational. I’ve seen little evidence of this. My essay Zombie Metric Reform illustrates the fallacy of the rational consumer. The most fictional part of the pre-pandemic movie Contagion, was that after a vaccine was found, everyone would get it.
It struck me, that the reaction against vaccine mandates, is the same general type of excuse trotted out over and over in the US. Any call for a metric system mandate is met with red-faced invective. The Metric Maven post that generated the most comments ever, 94, was The Metric Philosophers, which called for a metric mandate, and questioned those who have waited 150 years for technical Darwinism to bring the metric system to us. It appears this view upset some readers so much, they never returned. I don’t believe the US political system has the ability to govern in a way that promotes the general welfare, only specific welfare, and so I don’t expect the metric system to ever be adopted in the US.
Offering my books and essays online for free, was offering free vaccine to those who would not take it no matter what. One day on LinkedIn I replied to a person arguing against the metric system for use with printed circuit boards. An engineer I had known for ten years, replied to my rebuttal, by insinuating I was a commie, or maybe just a pinko?–for the temerity to promote the metric system in the US. Wow. I offered some metric essays for him to ponder, but as Thomas Paine said:
To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead ….
When I think of the use of medieval measurement units in the US, I cannot help but think of this quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
The metric note in a bottle I offer to throw into the cyber-sea, is a collection of what I believe are the most important essays I’ve written for the general public, and posted over the years. I have given this collection of essays the title: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It has the subtitle Essential Essays by the Metric Maven. You may download it below, or in the metric resources section of this website.
After 10 years, I plan on stepping back from posting essays on the metric system in the future. I may still post every month, if a subject appears, or I may not post again if there is nothing of interest to discuss in the future.
I want to thank all those that made this effort possible: Pat Naughtin, Peter Goodyear, Mike Joy, Amy Young, Sven, and to others I’ve probably overlooked, I apologize.