Gauss & The Metric System

When I was in High School, I had the momentary thought that I might have some talent for mathematics. This delusion passed immediately, but I’ve done my best to understand as much about the subject as possible. I did have my mathematical heroes to whom I looked up in admiration. In the pantheon of great mathematicians, Carl Friedrich Gauss was Zeus. He was the man who loved numbers from his youth onward. Isaac Asimov stated: “He was virtually mad over numbers.” He created the method of least squares, which enabled Gauss, still in his early twenties, to compute Ceres orbit from a few extant observations. He developed mathematics that allowed for the discovery of Neptune. Isaac Asimov points out in his Isaac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology:

While still in the University he also demonstrated a method for constructing an equilateral polygon of 17 sides (a 17-gon) using only a straight edge and compass. Here was a construction all the Ancient Greeks had missed.

Gauss proved the fundamental theorem of algebra, and the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. He invented the Heliotrope which used the sun to produce accurate land surveys. The device was used into the late 1980s when it was replaced by GPS. He created the first observatory to measure terrestrial magnetism, and calculated the location of the magnetic poles from geomagnetic observations. In 1833 he constructed an electric telegraph as Joseph Henry was doing the same in the US. At age 62 he taught himself Russian.

Gauss is responsible for the development of the normal distribution or “Gaussian Curve” (bell curve) that describes many natural processes. This was celebrated on a German 10 Mark note, an example of which I proudly own:

My 10 Mark Bank Note

When I arrived at my Midwestern university to study engineering, I enjoyed looking at the paper clad doors of the professors and graduate students. I saw one with a theorem that I’ve completely forgotten the professor was quite proud of creating. There are Mean Nerds, and one wrote anonymously on the paper, “if this was really important Gauss or Euler would have already discovered it.” Ouch! Early on in College, I was told that centimeter-gram-seconds (cgs) units were “Gaussian.” This was not very important as we were using MKS or essentially what is now SI in engineering school.

I never gave it a second thought until years later my metric studies brought me to read and listen to Pat Naughtin, who implored people to use millimeters and not centimeters. His arguments all seemed very sound, but in the back of my mind I remembered cgs and sweat began to form at my temples. Gauss? How could he not see the obvious advantage of millimeters over centimeters? This was of much more concern to me than any nonexistent “error” Mechain or Delambre might have introduced. It was a debate point I did not want to disclose. It provided a gloomy low-level angst in my psyche. How on Earth could Gauss have been pro-centimeter?

Over the years I became more and more convinced the British under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAS) were behind the c in cgs. I was certain they were using centimeters as a virtual inch to maintain a vestigial version of their precious imperial measures somehow. A unit with a magnitude near the size of an inch must be preserved for Queen and Country. But in my view, it’s just not cricket. I didn’t have any documentation to reinforce this suspicion, and my evidence was circumstantial. But how could it be that Gauss would go along with this terrible choice? After all they are called “Gaussian units.”

With the recent re-definition of the Kilogram, I found my answer: “he didn’t.” While reading through the new SI Brochure, I found these two nuggets of information on the history of the metric system:

So Gauss, used millimeters!—-and as I suspected the notion of centimeters was apparently introduced by the BAS. Gauss had been dead since 1855! My relief was existential as I no longer had to furtively worry about a question I might be asked, but never was. Gauss used millimeters, and the apparent intellectual blemish simply did not exist. He used a millimeter-gram-second system–mmgs!. In the future, when I’m asked, “who other than you thinks we should use millimeters?”, I can reply without hesitation: Isaac Asimov, Herbert Arthur Klein, Pat Naughtin, and Carl Friedrich Gauss.

Related essays:

Familiarity Versus Simplicity

Building a Metric Shed

Who Says!?

Metamorphosis and Millimeters

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.

2 thoughts on “Gauss & The Metric System

  1. Amazing. Thank you for taking that load off of my mind. In astronomy, we often use CGS and call the Gaussian units, and like you, I too had assumed that Gauss must have had some reason to favor them even though mm and m make more sense. What a relief to know that Gaussian units were never seriously advocated by the man himself.

  2. Unfortunately, the unit gauß for the measure of magnetic flux density is part of the cgs system and the SI equivalent is the tesla (T). The unit of magnetic flux in cgs is the maxwell and in SI its the weber (Wb). The irony is that the gauß is a maxwell per square centimetre. Gauß is used still and even more extensively than tesla despite it being a deprecated unit.

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