Project Hail Mary

I worked in aerospace for about 8 years, and in commercial engineering for about 15 years. The last company I worked for was packed-up and divided between China and India. I found myself accidentally becoming an engineering consultant. I expected to do this for perhaps 2 or 3 years at most, and then take a full-time position. It has been 14 years. When I found myself setting up my lab, it was a bit like how Thomas Paine described the potential of the young United States: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

I decided there must be a person or persons somewhere that had studied and investigated the best way to use the metric system. The person I found by internet search was Pat Naughtin. He had wisdom and experience, but I had provincial American certainty in my unexamined views. Fortunately, I had Sven, and also the ability to change my view when the information I have changes. I very soon understood the utility of millimeters, and the Olde English distraction of centimeters. Cultural inertia in the US provides a ready barrier to adopting intellectual change—even when it is clearly superior after dispassionate examination.

It has been decades since I last worked in aerospace. I know a couple of engineers who worked in commercial, and moved to aerospace after our commercial company off-shored. I had lunch with them, and when I mentioned a dimension in millimeters, one of the pair jokingly said “what’s a millimeter?” Thirty years after I had worked in aerospace, and had metric drawings rejected, aerospace still uses inches, foot-pounds, and other non-SI measures, when the non-US world uses metric.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the use of Ye Olde English (Imperial is New English) measures has colored our view of how to most efficiently implement a measurement system. The compulsion to translate the new system into the same familiar measures seems irresistible. Inches are a familiar size of pre-metric measure, so we’ll have a centimeter. This does two things psychologically, it first validates the current measurement prejudice, and second it diminishes the importance of adopting the metric system at all. A number of European countries adopted the metric system in the 19th century, and adopted an “Imperialized” view of metric usage, embracing the centimeter, deciliters, and such. When I question the use of centimeters there is often a visceral reaction: “lots of people use centimeters, they’re perfectly fine.” This is very strange, as it is the same non-argument Americans use about inches, feet, and so on. It was only the later adoption of metric in places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and others that allowed for more introspection, and a more rational adoption of efficient metric practices.

The instinctive reaction is to look for the commonality in measures, and equate the Anglo-Saxon compromise inch with centimeters. This was certainly the case in aerospace. It was seldom that metric was used in a discussion, but when it was you can be sure it was with Olde English interpretation in mind. Thirty years have passed, and for the last 14 I’ve tried to implement as much simplified metric as possible. Has any measurement change occurred in aerospace since my absence?

This year, 2021, Andy Weir published his new novel Project Hail Mary. I almost never read fiction anymore, but the gushing over this novel caused me to purchase a copy. Before I say anymore, this novel is the best piece of science fiction I’ve seen in decades. This is hard science fiction. Science is constantly used to move the plot along. There are no large dog-fights between space ships. No buxom space women. If you like SCIENCE in your science fiction, this is the book for you. I highly recommend it. It is like a combination of Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, The Currents of Space, Micheal Creighton’s The Andromeda Strain, and well, many other classic works of science fiction. This book is truly unique in today’s science fiction zeitgeist. I’m going to do my best not to introduce any spoilers, so forgive some of the vague discussion that follows.

It appears Andy Weir worked in government labs, and commercial companies for much of his career as a computer programmer. The use of metric throughout Project Hail Mary is consistent with the same pidgin metric I recall from my days in aerospace, and much of my commercial experience. Amazingly, early in the novel, metric usage is important to the plot, which is refreshing, but it also would could have been more nuanced if the author had a more expanded view of metric usage. His usage is consistent with the same metric usage I experienced in aerospace 30 years ago—nothing appears to have changed. I find no fault with Andy Weir, he is offering me a touchstone of the metric ossification that exists in 2021.
Most readers will never notice.

Andy Weir uses the term imperial for pre-metric measures and does not make distinction between Ye Olde English, and New English measures. I don’t fault him for this, as it is part of the word-of-mouth tradition in the US, rather than education based on investigatory work. I suffered from it myself. Microns are constantly in use, but I don’t recall a single micrometer within the text. There is a constant back-and-forth of pre-metric and metric units. The book is a centimeter smorgasbord with millimeters seldom encountered. The irresistible cultural force to phase-lock onto a unit that preserves pre-metric usages is a powerful one. The separation of what could be all millimeters into centimeters and millimeters is seen as normal:

“The solar disc is 27 centimeters on-screen and the sunspots are 3 millimeters. And they moved half their width (1.5 millimeters) in ten minutes…..”

Andy Weir has an understanding of how non-metric use is detrimental for American engineers and scientists:

“The tunnel is about 20 feet long. Or 7 meters. Man, being an American scientist sucks sometimes. You think in random, unpredictable units based on what situation you’re in.”

There is a point in Project Hail Mary where the definition of units becomes of importance, and centimeters are chosen. There is a place where a measurement error is of great importance to the plot, but as I said—no spoilers. Finally there is this:

“Yes, inches. When I’m stressed out, I revert to imperial units. It’s hard to be an American, okay?”

It is a sort of echo of Naughtin’s 1st Law: Dual-Scale Instruments are Evil. One reverts back to what one has used since grade-school. The educational system decides what “comfortable” measurement units are when you are young, and it makes it more difficult to “get a feel” for new units in an ocean of “imperial.”

Project Hail Mary gave me a touchstone into how metric is used in industry. Andy Weir has a very, very, promising future as a science fiction writer. I’m very hopeful that with all the use of measurement found in his novel, that he takes some time to look into modern metric usage, and perhaps integrate it into future work.


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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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