Recently I watched Elizabeth Kolbert give a lecture on Book TV about her book The Sixth Extinction. It was quite engaging. I put off purchasing the book as a lot of its contents were familiar. During a protracted period of free time I purchased a paperback copy. I sat down and began to work my way into the book. There were three pages of quotations which praised the writing and content. Then the title page, followed by the edition page. A page with quotations was next and then a table of contents. It was all very normal and snooze-worthy.
Then I hit a page entitled Author’s Note. I have reproduced it below:
The first clause of the first sentence just hit me like a slap. Here is a book, which is essentially about science, and asserts that “scientific discourse” uses the metric system, but we will not be using it in this book. The word discourse is about written and spoken communication, which 95% of the worlds population, scientific or not, uses the metric system to accomplish. There is 5% who do not, and they make their entrance after the comma.
The next assertion is that Americans “think in terms of miles, acres, and degrees Fahrenheit.” When I read this to Sven, he said exactly what was in my mind: “think?” Miles often act as a proxy for time, but seldom would anyone be able to walk along a stretch of the Bonneville Salt Flats and mark off a mile by estimation. I’ve asked farmers several times “how many football fields are there to an acre?” I’ve not met one that knew the answer. An American football field is about 6400 square yards. An acre is 4840 square yards and so an acre is smaller than a football field. Not even the average US farmer has any idea of the size of an acre.
I decided that as I read the book, I would keep track (as best as I can) of all the uses of measurements in the book. I was curious as to how many units would need to be changed for a readership which is outside of the US, that also speaks English, and uses metric.
I did my best to mark pages with units and tally them:
We see that Ms. Kolbert appears to have a preference for feet, followed by a tie between inches and miles.
Despite her best effort, the metric system sneaks its way into the prose. On page 85 and 154 they are embedded inside of quotations from scientists. There the author decided not to convert and put values in brackets.
Strangely the word micron appears twice in the book in prose generated by Ms. Kolbert:
Several groups of marine organisms came within a micron or two of annihilation. (88)
Riebsell has found that the groups that tend to fare best in acidified water are plankton that are so tiny—less than two microns across—that they form their own microscopic food web (119-120)
The first quotation is a metaphor, but it used a value from the metric system. In the second, a numerical estimate of magnitude is given, and so the unit is supposed to represent a range of metric values. The micron is an out-of-date term for the micrometer. What I’ve come to suspect is that Americans will use this unit, and incorrectly believe it’s part of our Ye Olde English arbitrary grouping of units.
Ms. Kolbert also uses “metric tons”:
Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned though enough fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons. Each year we throw up another nine billion tons or so, an amount that’s been increasing by as much as six percent annually.
It goes almost without saying, that using the term “metric ton,” instead of the proper term, Megagram, helps to start the confusion. The next two units cited are only called tons, not tonnes (which I also would do away with). Did she suddenly switch from metric to long or short tons in Ye Olde English?—or did she assume we would assume “metric tons.”
On page 200 a small bat is described:
They’re little—only about five inches long and two-tenths of an ounce in weight.
When we write the fraction symbolically, it’s 2/10, which my extensive Ye Olde English training tells me should be written as 1/5, so that Americans can “think in terms of ounces.” Is it possible she uses tenths because she can’t keep away from decimals—like those often found with the metric system?
Hectare is also found within a quotation on page 189, and square meters exists exactly once that I count, and was used by the author, but still refers to a number which was probably used by the researchers:
More recently, American researchers cracked open chunks of corals to look for crustaceans; in a square meter’s worth collected near Heron Island,…..
If Americans think in Ye Olde English, why didn’t she use 10.76391 square feet?—or 1.19599 square yards?—or perhaps 0.000 247 104 acres?
It seems almost juvenile to attempt to eschew metric. “Don’t use the m word around Americans little Johnny, it’s not polite—and they won’t understand it.” Instead we are served up a smorgasbord of fossilized units in place of a more succinct and expressive number of metric ones. Nothing demonstrates how provincial America is, when it comes to science, more than the idea that publishers need “special” books for our “special” country. Indeed with our need for medieval units, why should it be surprising that we have a medieval view of science? Other countries purposefully drove the extinction of non-metric units long ago. It’s one extinction I wish would occur in the U.S., so that we might better understand the Anthropocene extinction that’s underway, and better determine any course of action we might take. What we find instead are fossilized minds, using fossilized units, to describe fossilized creatures. Why would we expect anything other than a fossilized outcome?
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When I was a boy I had a friend who shared my interest in electronics. A new wonder device had been created around that time, it was called an operational amplifier or Op Amp. It was all new to me at the time. My friend stated with rapt excitement: “they have infinite gain!” I looked back at him in astonishment, and then thought “That can’t be possible.” A number of years later I was in a class on electrical circuit theory when the instructor began discussing Op Amps. He drew a diagram on the board and called it the “infinite gain mode” which suddenly caught my attention again. The Professor had a slight grin and said “actually the gain’s not infinite, it’s around 1000 to 100,000.” This is very, very large, but not infinite. In many cases one can assume it’s infinite and that’s a good enough mathematical approximation.
Last year I was watching a news report about Colorado flooding, and the large number of oil and gas structures which were flooded because of it. Some of the containers and rigs were toppled and releasing petrol-chemicals into the flood water. This alarmed a number of citizens who were quite concerned—but not the intrepid reporter. She offered a Cochranism to vanquish people’s fears: “the solution to pollution is dilution” the Very Serious Woman asserted. I cringed when I heard this. Like the Op Amp, I knew that the underlying assumption was that the amount of water on earth is infinite. To most people, this seems like a quite reasonable assumption, but it is a fantasy.
The amount of water in the oceans is given in Wikipedia as “1.3 billion cubic Kilometres … This can be thought of as a cube of water with an edge length of 1,111 Kilometres.” I’m sure these values are accurate within known evaluations, but they are expressed in a less than concise manner. When I rework the figure to obtain a metric volume, I end up with 1.372 x 1021 liters. This may be compactly expressed as 1.372 Zettaliters (1.372 ZL) or 1372 Exaliters (1372 EL). I also wrote it as Exaliters, because by now most people have heard of Exabytes, which makes this prefix one which is now in general use. It will also be useful to write it this way for the explanations to come.
The unfortunate fact is that from a human standpoint the oceans are already “polluted,” and there is no more pure water to dilute the oceans to the point where they are safe for humans. What I mean by this is that the oceans contain about 35 grams per liter of dissolved salt. This salt makes seawater unfit for human consumption. This, in the view of humans at least, is a form of “pollution.” To the life which lives in the sea, it is not pollution, salt for them is an essential compound. In our anthropocentric view, all but 3% of the water on the earth has not been polluted with salt. The assumption that the amount of water on earth is infinite breaks down, there is not enough “salt-less” water to dilute the oceans down to the point where they are safe to drink.
Of course “fresh water” is not salt-less. Wikipedia states:
Fresh water can be defined as water with less than 500 parts per million (ppm) of dissolved salts.
What they have given is a number which appears numerically descriptive, but is next to impossible to use for any direct numerical comparison. The parts-per notation actually promotes innumeracy in my viewpoint. As Wikipedia states about the parts-per notation: “they are pure numbers with no associated units of measurement.” They are not SI. Wikipedia even calls them “pseudo-units” which I believe is appropriate. We have been told there are 35 grams of salt per liter in sea water—but how many grams of salt are there in a liter of “fresh water” If we knew that, we could easily make a direct comparison of the amount of salt in seawater and freshwater. The Wikipedia article does not express it in a useful numerical manner.
After considerable searching I came up with an unsubstantiated claim that seawater is 220 times saltier than fresh water. This would mean the amount of salt in fresh water would be about 159 milligrams per liter (159 mg/L). Now we can make a direct comparison:
Salt Water: 35 000 mg/L Fresh Water: 159 mg/L
These values would, if scientifically stated, also have the temperature at which this data is accurate. The volume of water and the amount of dissolved salt depend on temperature.
But at least we can now compare values—if only approximately. When numerical values are presented as they are in the media, or as often occurs in Wikipedia, these offerings obscure actual numerical understanding, by presenting an artificial, but seemingly intuitive number, which is accepted as information by the public. It is a literary metaphor masquerading as information.
The Great Lakes are massive, and contain a large amount of the world’s fresh water. Wikipedia claims they have 22 671 cubic kilometers of water. Provided I have converted correctly this is 22 671 x 1015 liters or 22.671 Exaliters. The Great Lakes contain about 21% of the world’s surface fresh water so, the total fresh water would be about 110 Exaliters. So the amount of water in the oceans compared with that of the great lakes in terms of Exaliters (EL) is:
Ocean: 1372 EL Great Lakes: 23 EL Total Fresh Water: 110 EL
The total amount of salt in the ocean would be about 48 000 Exagrams (Eg) according to these estimates. The fresh water salt total would be 17.49 Exagrams which we will round to 18 Exagrams. So the total amount of water on Earth would be approximately 1482 Exaliters, and the total amount of salt found in the world’s oceans and fresh water would be 48 018 Exagrams.
If we divide 48 018 Exagrams/1482 Exaliters the Exas drop-out and we have 32.4 grams per liter if we used all the fresh water in the world to dilute the ocean’s water. The use of appropriate metric units and prefixes, with Naughtin’s Laws, show very easily that in the case of salt as a water pollutant, there is not enough fresh water on the planet to dilute all the water below about 32.4 grams per liter. All the water on the planet would then be undrinkable by humans.
Oceans Contain: 35 grams of salt/liter Oceans + Fresh Water Contain: 32.4 grams/liter
Dilution only provides more pollution.
Alan Weisman in his book Countdown, which is about resource limitations and population, has this to say on page 29:
Yet techno-fixes for what limits Israel and Palestine’s existence crash into certain realities. Eilat’s desalination plants are now surrounded by by giant mounds of salt. Some gets sold as Red Sea salt for aquariums, some as kosher table salt, but markets can absorb only so much, and dumping the excess back into the Gulf is a hypersaline hazard to marine life.
It is my understanding that Australia has resorted to desalination plants to provide fresh water for their population. When information is reported by the media and others using non-SI methods to express it, these values are simply made opaque and unusable for the common citizen, but provides them with the illusion of information. The woman reporter offered an aphoristic rhyme in place of an analysis. Perhaps the Rime of the Ancient Mariner might be a good reading assignment for her if she insists on literature in place of information. Go forth Ms Anchorwoman and wander the earth. Tell all the people you see about SI, Naughtin’s laws and The Elements of Bile.
An important point of this calculation is that polluting fresh water with anything that makes it undrinkable, such as petrochemicals, reduces the small reserve of drinkable water that exists on the earth which does not have salt in it.
It was a complicated and tortuous route for me to collect all the information available and convert it to a metric form which was easily compared and useful for computational comparison. The sad fact is that our teachers and educators appear ignorant about the metric system and its effective use. To my knowledge there is no public school instruction about the use of metric prefixes and units as proper ways to express quantities. Much time is wasted on unit conversions which utilize time which would be better spent on the proper expression of quantities for comparison. The lack of attention to this need is one of the basic reasons why “Johnny is innumerate” and cannot see through a false colloquialism such as “The solution to pollution is dilution.” This is an illusion. Proper use of the metric system promotes numeracy. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but innumeracy will quite probably kill the humans.
Postscript/Double Bulldog Dare Edition:
John Bemelmans Marciano has written a supplementary article to his book Whatever Happened to the Metric System? Marciano’s book is a cherry picked collection of odd ideas and personalities which he conflates with the metric system, and makes no real effort to answer the question posed in its own title. Sven’s review addresses a few of these deficiencies, but is not exhaustive. Marciano’s current article (2014-12-15) rephrases the question: Why Won’t America Go Metric? It is given space on Time magazine’s blog, and is also cross-posted to a blog which has as its masthead: “What It Means To Be American.” It will probably not surprise readers that an essential part of what it means to be American is to cling to medieval units. Marciano opens with “We Americans measure things our own way” and chortles that they are “…measures that are all unfathomable to foreigners….”
When it comes to citing the economic and societal advantages of the metric system, Marciano’s displays a seemingly willful lack of interest. Pat Naughtin’s metric information is available with a simple search, both in video and written form. My blog contains considerable information about the practices and advantages of metric, but it seems that Marciano is impervious to this readily available information. His book never touches upon the non-decimal use of the metric system in Australian and UK construction, which saves them about 10-15% compared with our medieval measures. This does not fit into his dyadic view that: “……foreigners, nearly all of whom have been brought up in a decimals-only [i.e. no fractions] environment.” have no other options. Marciano cannot contemplate the use of integers in place of fractions and their numerical benefit. He only sees usable numbers as decimals or fractions.
Marciano states that “The United States is metric, or at least more metric than most of us realize.” and goes on to claim: “The metric system is, quietly and behind the scenes, now the standard in most industries, with a few notable exceptions like construction.” (and transportation, and agriculture, and electronics manufacturing…..) This engineer has visited a number of U.S. commercial engineering design and manufacturing plants over the last five years, and found they still use Ye Olde English measures—as does all of Aerospace—and NASA—with the notable exception of JPL, which is allowed to use it, but only internally. We have Marciano’s perception and my anecdotes, and both are unreliable. Marciano offers no actual studies or data to substantiate the amount of metric which is used in the US, because as far as I know, there has been no funding or systematic attempt to study this. Nobody knows, and we are likely to remain ignorant indefinitely as metric seldom penetrates the national consciousness. When it does, it is ephemeral, and what general information is available hardly supports Marciano’s bald assertions.
So what is Marciano’s final answer to his own question?
Why is it that America hasn’t gone full-on metric? The simple answer is that the overwhelming majority of Americans have never wanted to. The gains have always seemed too little, and the goal too purist.
Yes, indeed, it’s obvious! That’s why we abandoned the idea of going to the moon in the 1960s—the goal was just too purist—and what of practical value would be gained? There is also an unstated assumption, that whatever the majority of Americans desire, our government quickly implements. But I do agree that the the answer he offers is simple. I might have said simplistic.
Marciano pulls out a favorite polemical chestnut used by anti-metric people when discussing metric change in other countries: “In all these cases, however, conversion was dictated by democratically deficient governments bucking the will of the people.” I want Australia to take note that you have a “democratically deficient government” according to John Bemelmans Marciano. He does not appear to have read Metrication In Australia, or if he did, found its information of insufficient importance to include in his book or note in his article. I guess the absence of any metric riots in Australia was just not worthy of note, as was his statement: “The 1880s imposition of the metric system in Brazil led to a full-scale uprising that lasted months.” And shame on you too New Zealand!—how can you live with yourselves!—no riots! Clearly you lack democratic values!
Marciano then delivers a bombshell: “The world’s most anti-metric nation–Great Britain–grudgingly began to ditch its Imperial system in the 1970s.” Marciano can say this with a straight face? I guess he couldn’t be bothered to read my blog where I publish UK junk mail with all housing and grocery store fliers given in metric ONLY. Marciano can claim Great Britain is the most anti-metric country on the planet, but in practice this champion of anti-metricism appears to be metric everywhere except when implementing highway distance signs. Logically, this also puts Great Britain on Marciano’s list of “democratically deficient” countries. Marciano is an American. Did he forget that America is always number one?—in everything—including anti-metrication!
There is no question that a uniform global system of measurement helps cross-border trade and investment. For this reason, labor unions were among the strongest opponents of 1970s-era metrication, fearing that the switch would make it easier to ship jobs off-shore. (Which it did.)
If you would like to see an abbreviated version of what was actually said by the AFL-CIO about metric in the 1970s metric hearings, it is here. I really, really, really, would like to see a single study cited by Marciano supporting the notion that our embracing the metric system (which, as near as I can tell, we didn’t) made it easier to offshore jobs. (I would also caution Mr Marciano that one cannot just place what you believe to be a proverbial truth, without substantiation, in parenthesis, to make it true.) This throwaway assertion that metrication was a significant contribution to the offshoring of US jobs, combined with the lack of information of how metric the US actually is, causes his article, in my view, to degenerate into farce. His “measurements as culture” trope is becoming the last refuge for those without a reasoned argument.
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