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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2 thoughts on “Asimov’s Metric Fossil

  1. I’ve been reading books on metrology – some as far back as the ’60s –

    I am fairly certain that the key reason they avoided metric was as a trade barrier. The long term cost of this foolishness has hurt not only the USA, but the world. We are now paying a very heavy price – why would any manufacturing return to a country that is metric ignorant?

    Of course today, the state of the art in metrology does not mention u-inch – everything is nm – pm – fm – even atto-meters.

    I find it sad and ironic that the public ignorance is such that they don’t know that 10um pores won’t block 100nm particles.. the result is pandemic hysteria of public masking. (Those that would tell me that the droplets are bigger – please realize that the surface area to volume ratio of these droplets is such that the water evaporates in seconds – things change at the very tiny.)

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