Fool’s Gold

Pierre has yet again pointed me to a television program that has prompted a metric essay. This one is called Gold Rush: Freddy Dodge’s Mine Rescue. Freddy and his work partner Juan, show up for a week at gold mines, assess the design of their sluice boxes, and improve them, so that the owners have a fighting chance to make a profit, and carve out a livelihood. Some of these mines are “hobby mines.” The very concept of a hobby mine seemed a bit questionable, as much as “hobby farm.” I grew-up in the Midwest and West. There was nothing but labor involved in farming and ranching, I could not see how that would be a fun “hobby.”

When I watched the first episode, I saw Freddy and Juan show up at a mining site, run the current sluice box design, weigh the amount of gold, and then institute their re-design.
The new design would be run for the same amount of time, and then the extracted gold was weighted, and compared with the original design output, in ounces. When I saw them measuring in ounces, my mind went back to my Nerd Nite talk many solar orbits back. I had a question for the crowd, “which weights more?—-a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?” Screams came from the audience saying they were the same. No, they are not. If you took a pound of feathers and put it on one side of a balance, and a pound of gold was placed on the other side of the balance, it would become clear, the feathers have more mass. So a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold.

The next question for the audience was “which weights more? An ounce of feathers—or an ounce of gold?” The audience again screamed they were the same, but no, I had to tell them that in this case an ounce of gold weights more than an ounce of feathers.

How could this be? Well, because our Ye Olde English measures for weight, which are often both thought to be from France, one of these is the avoirdupois pound, which is commonly used in the US. There is an argument that it may have originated in Italy, but either way, not English. The other unit is the Troy pound, which is named after a location in France, but is argued to have originated in England. Both pounds are based on the grain, there are 7000 grains in an avoirdupois pound and 5760 grains in a troy pound, so an avoirdupois pound is heavier than a troy pound. Traditionally, gold is measured in troy pounds and common materials are measured with avoirdupois. So a pound of feathers would weigh more than a pound of gold. But, what about the ounces? Well, there are 12 ounces in a troy pound, and 16 in a avoirdupois pound, so the troy ounce weighs more than an avoirdupois ounce. Therefore an ounce of gold weighs more than an ounce of feathers. I first ran across this as a boy when reading a paperback book of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

As I watched Freddy and Juan measure the gold before and after their upgrades, they kept calling it simply ounces. I was sure the ounces had to be troy, but never was this mentioned. Finally, I saw a close-up of the scale and it said Ozt for ounces troy. I would love to purchase gold in troy ounces and sell it in avoirdupois ounces for the same price. That would be a simple money making scheme. The two would sometimes talk in fractions of an ounce, and other times in a decimal manner. What was clear to me was it would all be a lot simpler if they used grams.

In the episode “The Gold Thief,” Freddy and Juan are at a mine near Helena Montana, where I lived at one time. The state motto of Montana is “Oro Y Plata” which is Gold and Silver in Spanish. They measure 0.1 Ozt before their remake of the mine operation. Afterward, it was 0.47 Ozt, or over four times the amount of gold the previous method had produced. At a mine in Colorado they measured 0.65 Ozt before their fixes, and 1.05 Ozt after their fix. In Alaska they measure 0.27 Ozt over a 12 hour shift. Afterward it was 0.61 ounces troy. I never hear anyone say: “how much is that? I don’t have a feel for that.” As long as it says ounces everyone is comfortable. I recall a story in a foreign country where a driver was asked how far a drive around 200 Km was. They asked, is that about 200 miles? The driver would always say yes, and the the Americans would be perfectly happy after that point. At a bush location in Alaska, where they had to fly-in what was needed for the mine improvements, Freddy and Juan measured 2.25 Ozt, and afterward, 4.13 Ozt. Of course it makes perfect sense to me, and also to Pierre that this should all be massed in grams.

So lets see how the data looks using grams (Gold is about $60 per gram):

Before After Before After
1) 0.1 Ozt 0.47 Ozt 3.11 grams 14.61 grams
2) 0.65 Ozt 1.05 Ozt 20.21 grams 32.65 grams
3) 0.27 Ozt 0.61 Ozt 8.40 grams 18.97 grams
4) 2.25 Ozt 4.13 Ozt 69.98 grams 228.46 grams
I’ve been unable to get this table to correctly space. My apologies.

There is no confusion about which ounce is used, as grams are a universal unit. In the case of 4) above, I could not see an indication they were measuring in troy.

The shows were all rather straightforward, showing Freddy and Juan using inches, and Freddy trying to recall how to give fractions in Spanish, which was painful to watch. Then Freddy and Juan went to the Yukon Territory, which is of course, Canada. They measured 1.40 Ozt initially, and using a very interesting slotted plate design, afterward measured more. But before the end of the show, there is always a short interlude bump between commercials. In this one we have:

Freddy: “25.4 millimeters in an inch.”

Derek: “Hey, that’s right, right on the money. That’s right, that’s good.”

Narrator: “Working in Canada, Freddy has to constantly switch measurements.”

Father: “Derek just goes like this.”

Derek is shown measuring with his thumb and forefinger, about 100 mm or so at a time.

Derek: “six fingers” (which is about 600 mm)

Freddy: “So if you ever need a — if you’ve got US currency.” (Freddy pulls out a US one-dollar bill)

Derek: “What the hell?”

Freddy: “It’s exactly 6 inches. So if you don’t have a tape measure, the US dollar is exactly six. So six to twelve (going end for end) you can divide it and get 3. You can keep on dividing your money down and get an inch or whatever you want.

Derek: “Is that real?”

Freddy: “Yep”

Father: “They thought about everything eh.”

Ammonite fossil which has been fossilized with iron pyrite.

I measured a random one dollar bill an it’s 6 1/8 inch, which is pretty close—not exact. It’s not a bad estimate. References online claim it’s: “6.14 inches, and the width is 2.61 inches.” What really hurts is that a Canadian bill, according to Wikipedia, is 6.00 inches by 2.75 inches, so it could be said that it’s more “American” than Freddy’s American dollar bill. E tu Canada?—that hurts. It’s clear that Freddy had not thought about everything. He does not mention using millimeters for construction, he only pops out a US dollar to show an ad hoc measurement estimate like a low budget magic trick. Derek was almost certainly showing the wonders of 100 mm modules to Freddy, and in the case of 600 mm, that can be divided easily and exactly by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, 24, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 120, 150, 200, 300 and 600. Freddy essentially gets the last word, without the Canadians getting the first on the program. It’s sad to see a “practical guy” like Freddy so ignorant of the advantage of millimeters in construction. But then “practical people” have been using familiar but inefficient methods of measurement, for well over 100 years after they should have known better.

After the interlude, and some commercials, they get to weighing the gold with the new design:

Freddy: “Well, that’s the gold from the new bottom sluice. 0.17”

Father: “Whoa”

Freddy: “So 5 1/2 grams”

Derek: “5 1/2 grams?”

Freddy: “That’s troy ounces.”

Freddy and Juan know a lot about sluice box design, but like so many academics, they are so specialized they can’t see they are using the fool’s gold of measurements, rather than the gold nugget that is metric.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.