I’ve seen many criticisms about my questioning of the use of deciliters for cooking, or centimeters for measurement. My viewpoint has been represented in ways I don’t deem accurate. Where I believe we should eliminate some metric usage, I would like to be called a metric minimalist. Ronald Zupko, in his book Revolution in Measurement: Western European Weights and Measures Since the Age of Science, lists a considerable number of pre-metric units: the digit, the palm, foot, span, cubit, step, shaftment, nail, hand, finger, fathom, … ad nausium.
Tens of thousands of new units were introduced and hundreds of thousands of local variations emerged from the Atlantic seaboard to central and eastern Europe. There were more than a dozen principal methods by which unit variations arose prior to the creation of the metric system in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It should be noted that there were other causes for metrological proliferation as well, but the items presented here were responsible for the greatest number, and range of new units over time, especially in the British Isles, France, Italy, and the German States.
The final source of unit proliferation came from many urban and rural craftsmen….
Every type of craftsman would create their own units. The important term used by Zupko is “unit proliferation.” This is the human compulsion to create their own units, and in many cases change their dimension over time. When the metric system was introduced, human nature rather than critical thinking determined the number of prefixes to use with the units. In the case of the metric system, it had minimized the number of base units, but allowed for an introduction of “prefix proliferation” which acted as a proxy for the human compulsion for unit proliferation. I have remarked on the introduction of factor of two prefixes, demi, and double when the metric system was originally introduced. How could one ever get by without a prefix that doubles and halves units? This manner of equal dividing measure has existed since antiquity, how could it possibly be eliminated? Well, clearly we’ve managed to muddle through without these two “essential” prefixes.
The original set of metric prefixes included provisions for a number that had been deemed essential since antiquity, that is a myriad. (see chapter 1 of The Dimensions of the Cosmos) A myriad is 10 000, and was the largest number employed until the word billion was later introduced. The myria prefix was deemed “essential,” it was “obvious” it should be included, so we could produce a linear distance of 1 myriameter, or 10 000 meters. It was “clear” this number would be of great utility, but all it really provided was a psychological salve to alleviate the loss of a familiar part of the pre-metric world. The reasons that demi, double and myria were included were not for utility, but psychological resistance to giving up what one had already been incorporated and learned from pre-metric tradition. I discuss this in my essay Isaac Asimov — Technophobe. It was finally realized that myria was not particularly useful, and the prefix was eliminated. Despite all the people who argue the metric system is based on ten, it is base ten, not based on ten.
The metric system was based more on ten when the original metric prefixes were first presented in 1795 and sans milli. There was no millimeter mentioned, only a centimeter and decimeter. When the millimeter arrived, the populace was still inculcated, from antiquity, in the use of inches with fractional subdivisions. An everyday unit would “clearly” need to be around the size of an inch, so centimeters were embraced. This acceptance was probably because no critical thought was given to their actual utility and the inertia of “we’ve always done it that way.” I write about intellectual inertia in my essay Metamorphosis and Millimeters. Millimeters are “just too small” was the “obvious” objection. Secondly, the idea of decimals was so revolutionary that one could see they were much easier than fractions. The intellectual leap to using millimeters without decimals for everyday use, came about a century later.
People often confuse common prejudice for common sense; this appears to be the case with centimeters. In my essays I spend a considerable amount of time explaining that any common everyday use of centimeters generally requires a decimal point. Centimeters are too large of a unit. The inclusion of a decimal point causes one to linger, providing a larger cognitive load than integer values of millimeters. I write about this in my essay Who Says!? Critical thought about this usage is very rare. People do not see the need for millimeters, only the want of centimeters. To this day the centimeter meme propagates strongly through the metric population. My Nerd Nite lecture continues to provoke a tsunami of vitriolic comments on YouTube, to be precise, 1393 comments as I write this. The majority of these appear to be from outraged Europeans, indicating I’m stupid, “can’t he see there are 10 mm in a centimeter?”, or simply ignorant, “this guy doesn’t know anything about the metric system.” It is the shriek of authoritarianism that is so popular in the current zeitgeist. These are not people who want authority, but people who want to be under authority. They offer simple bumper sticker refutations devoid of content. I’ve written two monographs, and have about 250 essays about the metric system, but I never see any scholarly introspection on these. I just see “I live in a metric country, that makes me an expert.” They don’t have to read any of the tens of thousands of words I’ve written, or look at the large number of references I provide, because this is the internet, and that’s how it works now.
This brings us to the group that is very upset at my unwillingness to be a supplicant to the proclamations of the BIPM. Their argument appears to be:
The BIPM said it. I believe it. That settles it.
I addressed this dogmatic fealty in my essay The Metric Bishops. Again there was the typical carping after the essay was posted, but one person left a comment of his surprise that the rest of the commenters simply ignored some of my reasoned points, and went more for ad hominem instead. There are those in the US that like to claim they came from the school of hard knocks, learning from experience, but what I see is that it has produced chronic tramatic encephalopathy, and they should engage in actual study.
How can the BIPM allow the word tonne as a legitimate name for a Megagram, and after indicating one should not concatenate metric prefixes the BIPM allows kilotonne, which is a kilomegagram—as legitimate metric usage! What am I looking for?—metric minimalism. The use of tonne is inconsistent with BIPM proclamations, but when I point out contradictions in the sacred text, I’m viewed as some sort of metric apostate, rather than a person who is trying to examine metric usage, and argue that we should make it as minimal and cognitively efficient as possible. Instead, I’m just “some jerk who doesn’t know anything.”
I see most of the histrionics about my metric system usage critique arise from Europeans, or Brazilians, or citizens of other countries; but they are not my audience. My audience is intended to be people in the US. From the lack of comments, I can see that my discussion of the metric system in the US evokes about as much interest in US citizens as catnip at a dog show. If the metric system were ever to be implemented in the US, I would like to see it implemented in a much better manner than much of the rest of the world has done. The problem is that this is not just unlikely, but in all likelihood, the word if, means never. To all the people of the rest of the world who are totally satisfied with their metric usage, I can only offer the quotation that is found everyday on the masthead of the Denver Post:
“There is no hope for the satisfied man.” Post founder Frederick G. Bonfils, 1861-1933
The public looks to Neil deGrasse Tyson as a scientific advisor. They expect that before he lectures the public on a scientific subject, he either has the background, or takes the time to thoroughly research it. Recently, Mr Tyson decided to lecture about the metric system in the US. His May 10th, 2021 episode of Star Talk (SE12 EP06) is linked below:
Neil deGrasse Tyson has a privileged place in the American media landscape. He hosted the latest incarnation of Cosmos, and also acted in that capacity for Nova. He is the face of science for many people, and his opinion has gravitas. Let’s examine his assertions about the metric system as presented in his video. Apparently Tyson believes that science needs a comedian, Chuck Nice, to keep people’s interest. Nice is there to provide—comic relief?—from science? Tyson’s format is known as Star Talk, and in this episode, the metric system is the issue at hand.
Tyson asks Chuck Nice “Are you old enough to remember when the United States attempted to convert to the metric system?”
Nice: "Thank god no! I'm so glad it worked out."
Nice clearly sees that our metric non-conversion has been a disaster.
One might expect Tyson to have investigated what happened in the 1970s, and realize there was no attempt to make the US metric. The metric hearings of 1975 make clear that not even an evanescent attempt would be made. Government and industry had no interest in changing. As they desired no change, nothing happened. What did happen, was the rest of the world converted, and the public was allowed to believe we were going to convert. Years later, this left those that recall the era wondering what happened. The answer is nothing. That was the government plan. It was carried out with panache. Tyson could have looked back at earlier non-attempts at metrication in 1921, and the early 1900s, but instead invoked one of the weirder tropes that have invaded US mythology concerning the metric system.
Tyson: "I joke about this because back then, and today drug dealers have always been metric---just think about that."
So what am I to think of this?—-that the only way one gets to use the metric system in the United States is if you are a criminal? That law abiding people would never stoop to such a corrupt choice of measurement?
Tyson: "They don't sell cocaine in pounds, they sell it in kilos."
This is followed by some banter with Chuck Nice then:
Tyson: "So I've heard people joke that if we had put drug lords as head of the metric commission in the United States we would have been metric within months."
Nice: "That afternoon!"
Tyson: [laughing] "That afternoon!"
Tyson: "What I'm trying to communicate is that we are not as bad as it may seem. We are MUCH farther along than we even admit to ourselves in this conversion---I just want to sort of put-it-out-there. And I want to tell you why---because I don't want you to feel bad about this. I as a scientist---we're metric from the beginning---its not even a thing. Engineers are a little later in the listing---but scientists we speak internationally and that's the international system that gets used. So in fact it's called System International. … the meter, the Kilogram, the in there second, but everyone uses the second."
Ok, let’s pause for a second here, and discuss the pristine way in which astrophysicists use SI. Not long ago, a friend who is a professor of physics told me about “death by neutrinos.” If I was say 150 Gm from a star that suddenly went supernova, neutrinos would kill me before the explosion arrived. It was like arguing a ghost could strangle you. The professor sent me a paper on the subject. It was fascinating, and the energy created by the star was expressed in—ergs? I was astonished.
Really? cgs units of energy! Not exactly mks, or SI. Wow, I was just amazed. I guess Neil deGrasse Tyson is right, they are metric units, like our Olde English Units are still British. It’s possible that Neil deGrasse Tyson did not spent 30 seconds researching the metric system before lecturing, with authority, about it—-“I just want to sort of put-it-out-there.”
Tyson: "You know the French came-up with the metric system. Did you know this?"
Nice: "No wonder we don't use it." [laughter from Tyson]
Tyson: "So it got implemented in 1789---and what was happening then?---in France."
Tyson: "The French Revolution. So part of that overthrowing of the previous order, that was the occasion, if you were going to do it, that's a good time to do it, in addition to the rolling heads, you throw in the metric system."
Tyson then informs us that the definition of the meter was “one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator, on a path that went through the Paris observatory.” He discusses the creation of the first meter artifact used for reference.
Tyson: "So here we are in the United States and we kind of have metric envy and imperial pride. [derisively] We're usin' Fahrenheit and inches and meters and cups and tablespoons and we're damn proud of it. At the end of the day it's like maybe we want a little bit of metric in our lives."
Now that’s ringing endorsement. “A little bit of metric” in the US? At best it’s a lukewarm endorsement of metric from this astrophysicist.
Tyson: "I want to impress upon you that we already do. Are you ready?"
Nice: "I am ready"
Tyson: "We've been inching toward the metric system for decades."
Nice: "I see what you did there."
Tyson asserts that we have metric money, and had it from the beginning of the republic. Technically, our currency and coinage have been decimal, not metric, and there have been exceptions. This has had exactly zero effect on metric adoption in the US. (Aside: you don’t measure money, you count it. Yes, there is a difference. Scientists know this.)
Tyson: "So first we had metric money, put that in the bank. What else do we have? Our photography has largely been metric from the beginning. There's 35 millimeter film. You had a 50 millimeter lens."
He continues along this line, but admits there were some 4 x 5 inch formats. I used a Crown Graphic view camera, and developed a lot of 4 x 5 film. My father used a camera with film that was 2 1/4″ square. What is left out, is that prints are universally in inches in the United States, and continue to be in the age of digital photography. No mention of A-series sizes is offered. Is Tyson even aware of these sizes?
Tyson: "So photography was in."
What?—No, the hell it was!, nor is. It has been pigfish since its inception. This is just bald-face specu-bullshitting.
Tyson: "What else was in? Oh … our medicine has been metric---like practically forever."
Tyson: "It's one cc of some drug---what is a cc? It's a cubic centimeter. That's what a cc is.
Nice: "No doctor gives you a shot of an ounce of penicillin. I need an ounce of penicillin stat."
Tyson: "So medical dosing has been metric like forever."
Once again, Tyson shows that he has a depth of knowledge about the metric system, which is comparable to a host of an afternoon talk show, or perhaps a used car dealer. He is apparently unaware of the mistakes made with MG vs MCG for milligram and microgram in medicine. This choice has created considerable opportunities for error. We have badly implemented the metric quantities we do use in medicine. Recognizing this, would have shown that Neil deGrasse Tyson had done more than just get up that morning, and without preparation, decide he is a metric system authority. I have not researched this, but it appears that medicine in the US has slowly realized the folly of cubic centimeters, and converted to using milliliters for injections, and in other places where cc volumes were used.
Tyson: "Our nutrition labels. Those were metric from the beginning. How many grams of fat? … Just look on any nutritional label---all metric---and its been that way---and nobody's freaking out by looking at this."
Again, Tyson is not familiar with complaints about these labels. Metric nutritional labels for US foods are essentially equivalent to printing them in Portuguese. Industry created in-plain-sight obfuscation, relying on the fact that the US is non-metric, to create a document that very few in the US can interpret. Because of this, there have been calls to change the nutrition labels to Olde English. I, of course would like to see a mandated conversion to metric, rather than a retrograde move back to Olde English.
Tyson: "What do we have in the bank now. Metric money, metric medicine, metric photography, metric nutrition labels. What else? We've got metric bottles of soft drink. You've never in your life purchased a quart of Pepsi. It's a liter. You haven't it's a liter--ok. A liter's slightly more than a quart. Close enough for most purposes, but, so 1 liter, 2 liter, 3 liter bottles of Pepsi. So our larger volume 'non-dairy' larger bottles have been metric for a long time--for decades."
While liters of soft drinks are widely available in bottles, so are 7.5 ounce cans, 12 ounce cans, and 16 ounce cans (half a quart), and dozens of novelty sizes. The sizes of soda bottles were discussed in the 1978 GAO report about metric, and nothing has changed since. Try using a fast food drive-thru, and asking for 500 mL of soda, or a half-liter. That’s an experiment that will show how metric this country is. Wine and hard liquor are metric (despite attempts at backsliding), but beer is still in non-metric sizes. Again this history is discussed in the 1978 GAO report. In the monograph Metrication in Australia, it is explained that supermarket labels were found to be impotent in promoting metric thinking.
Tyson: "One of the last things I thought would have changed was the volume displacement of the pistons in an engine. I drove a car that was a 400 cubic inch V8 engine. Nobody measures it in cubic inches anymore. It's in liters."
Tyson seems completely unaware that in the 1970s US car companies began using metric exclusively in their designs. Speedometers are still in miles per hour, even though they are calibrated in metric. The change to liters for engine displacement is interesting, but Kustom Kar Kulture in the US faded away long ago. Apparently, the change to metric, is only admitting how they are designed. No one “drags main” as was done in the movie American Graffiti anymore. The power out of an engine is of more interest, and in some cases, in metric countries, it has been expressed in Kilowatts. This is a good choice for metric measure, as one can apply it to electric cars, steam powered cars, and so on. I write about this in my essay Kilowatt My Ride.
Tyson: "Those are important things I think. Now we still have Fahrenheit, yes, and we still have sort of miles and our cooking is not really metric. So there's like three holdouts. Cooking, distance, temperature, and baking. So when people say America you've got to join us with the rest of the world and the metric system we kind of already have---A. B, I don't feel, even as a scientist speaking, I don't feel some great urge to give up Fahrenheit and feet and inches. I'll tell you why. When you visit another country um, part of what it is to sort of blend in and to fit in is to learn what their customs are. In America Jack we use Fahrenheit and just deal with it ok. I mean"
Nice: "I'm not going over to my neighbor's and trying to borrow 236 milliliters of sugar. 'Hi I'm new to the neighborhood, do you have 236 milliliters of sugar?' "
Tyson: "Slam the door back in their faces." [laughing] So I think we've come a long way. So we're inching, and maybe dairy comes next---I don't know. I kind of like the fact that eggs come in a dozen. A dozen is a nice historical baker's quantity, and so I'm cool with that."
What the hell?—what does the integer number of eggs in a carton have to do with the metric system? I have the option of purchasing 18 eggs at my market—so what?
Wow, there are only 3 holdouts against metric in the US?—well that’s news to me. We don’t use metric in construction, we don’t use it at home, we don’t use it when discussing the weather, we don’t use it at all. Tyson talked about engine displacement, but we all still buy gasoline in US gallons, and our oil in quarts, not liters. We use pounds at the post office. Our waist sizes are in inches, our shoes sizes are in barleycorns. We don’t use it for fasteners, we don’t use it for the mass of steak ordered in a restaurant. Our tools in hardware stores are non-metric. Our roads and bridges are constructed with pre-metric measures. Has Neil deGrasse Tyson been living in the US, and also been outside of his office in the last 30 years?! He exists inside a delusion that “we’re already metric.” I have the choice of believing him, or my lying eyes.
Neil deGrasse Tyson comes off as a scientific pozer, who resorts to invoking a culture wars argument to preserve and justify non-metric use in the US. To him, our measurement system is our custom, and you should respect our cultural choices, you should “fit in.” Does he feel that way about flat earthers?—just get over it—it’s their culture. This is why I NEVER use the term US Customary when discussing Ye Olde English. Tyson has not even made a minimal effort to investigate contemporary metric use and debate. Instead, he makes fun of people who would have the temerity to use metric in our culture. Slam the door in their face! He and Chuck Nice laugh at this rejection of metric. How droll.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a media creation, the Milli Vanilli of science. he invokes the authority of being a scientist. Rather than explaining, he explains away.
In the past, I grew up reading books by actual men of science, who have a scientific outlook. The current media landscape has but one person who appears worthy of being included in the pantheon of people who have presented science to the public. Before I get to him, let’s talk about people who have kept the torch of science for the public burning in the past. Here is a short list:
1) Isaac Asimov — He produced more inspiring science essays, that were not “dumbed down,” than any other writer in history. He wrote pro-metric essays. He was unabashedly willing to contact people involved, and research the metric system. Asimov recognized the centimeter / millimeter problem, and did not shy away from it.
2) L Sprauge de Camp — His books explored science, and also other subjects. He wrote The Heroic Age of American Invention, The Ancient Engineers, and The Great Monkey Trial.
3) William C. Vegara — He wrote Science in Everyday Things, Mathematics in Everyday Things, Electronics in Everyday Things, Science, the Never-Ending Quest, Science in the World Around Us, and other works.
4) Arthur C. Clarke — He wrote The Promise of Space and is proverbially known for his iconic science fiction.
5) George Gamov — He wrote One, Two, Three, …. Infinity. This was a very influential book, and inspired many young men of science.
6) Richard Feynman — The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and his memoirs Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think reveal the excitement of a scientific view of the world.
There are many other books that have been singular works, that are of great importance, but in contemporary times, it’s hard to name a contemporary author who specializes in researching and explaining science to the public.
These are all writers, but we live in an age of video and YouTube. There is one person, in the past, who wrote interesting books on science for the public, and also translated science into video. That person was Carl Sagan. His books The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, Billions & Billions, and perhaps his most important, The Demon-Haunted World, are superb. When I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, I was surprised that I actually learned some new aspects of scientific history, that had been well examined in the past. It was easy to believe that Sagan read many scientific books outside of his specialty, and embraced a scientific outlook. I’m not convinced Neil deGrasse Tyson has ever read any of these classics, or if he has, they made no impact. He has become, at best, the Ed Sullivan of science programs.
Who do I see as the Isaac Asimov of contemporary video? That would be Derek Muller at Veritasium. His videos about how the speed of light has not been measured, how Newton changed the way we compute PI, the slinky paradox, and other amazing—and not dumbed down scientific videos are incredible. He has never written any book that I’m aware of, but his video contributions are equal to the essays of Isaac Asimov. Derek has done a great service to science popularization, and in my view is the best.
I have contacted Neil deGrass Tyson many times about supporting the metric system over the last 10 years. I never heard back; but he might have used “The Google” to find Pat Naughtin’s website or videos, or my essays, my video, or my historical monograph, before he decided to talk about the subject of the metric system on Star Talk. Instead, he just relied on his celebrity.