By The Metric Maven
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
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.