By The Metric Maven
I have often made a point that a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold, and that an ounce of feathers weighs less than an ounce of gold. This is because A troy pound is equal to 0.822 857 1 avoirdupois pounds. Feathers are weighed in avoirdupois pounds and gold is measured with troy when using medieval units. The Troy pound is divided into 12 ounces and the avoirdupois pound is divided into 16 ounces.
At one time I made the incorrect assumption that because the troy pound is defined as 5760 grains and the avoirdupois pound is 7000 that the value of a troy grain and avoirdupois grain were different. To my surprise, the common weight definition for pounds in Ye Olde English is the grain. The same grain is used to define the 5760 grains of a troy pound and the 7000 grains of an avoirdupois pound.
Recently I was watching an episode of the 1960’s mini-series The Prisoner. A discussion took place concerning how much of a drug had been given to the main character and what should be done when the effects were not as predicted:
Number 86: “I gave him eight grains of mitol. Suspicion, doubt, these are factors of aggression. The drug should preclude all such reactions.”
Number 2: “….go to him now repeat the dose.”
Number 86: “Now? But sixteen grains of mitol is quite impossible.”
The values are all in grains. What struck me as I thought about this exchange is the concern that some literary Lilliputians have that our clichés will suffer at the hands of a metric switch-over. The one phrase I don’t recall being discussed in this context is: “you better take that with a grain of salt.” It means that one should view a statement with some skepticism. The origin of the phrase is a bit apocryphal and is possibly from a Latin phrase. I realized that I had never interpreted the phrase “properly” until I saw that old episode of The Prisoner. The invention of the microscope around 1610 or so soon allowed humans to look at individual “grains” of salt. These grains vary, but a reasonable estimate is about 60 micrograms per salt crystal “grain.” I always took the meaning of taking something with a grain of salt as adding in an infinitesimal amount of salt to make it more palatable. When I thought of the phrase I thought of the microscopic salt crystals of NaCl and not the approximately 1000 of them that make up the Ye Olde English unit called the grain. when I think of a grain of sand I don’t think of 64.798 91 milligrams of sand, I think of a single particle of sand, which is on the order of 15 milligrams.
The grain as a unit is so unfamiliar to Americans as to be intellectually invisible. One has to remind people that some aspirin in the US are also labeled in grains, and if one asked how many grains are in an ounce they would not realize that it is 473.5 grains for an avoirdupois ounce and 480 in a troy ounce. The grain is as devoid of meaning for the average person as is a coomb.
The grain was defined in 1572 long before our modern notion of mass was developed. The pound was not uniquely defined as a mass or a force, and because of its pre-scientific heritage it continues to act as a barrier to a scientific understanding of our world by the average person, and often educated engineers and scientists. When we stand on a bathroom scale and read off the value in pounds, it is often assumed to be a mass. But the word pound is used interchangeably for weight or the force gravity exerted on the mass of the object. We in the US still say pounds per square inch when discussing pressure, which in terms of mass does not seem to make any sense. An object with mass is a three dimensional object and not a two dimensional area. Using the identical name pound for pound-mass and pound-force traps citizens in the US into a medieval view of the world. It also traps engineers and scientists.
Recently I was watching an episode of the highly enjoyable program Impossible Engineering. It dealt with the design of the World’s Biggest Cruise Ship. In the program Physicist Dr. Andrew Steele sets out to demonstrate the amount of drag or opposing force that different hull shapes of boats produce, as first mathematically expressed by engineer William Froude (1810-1879) in the 19th century. Dr. Steele attached a spring scale using rope to each example and then described the amount of force (hydrodynamic drag) they each exert. The value is read from the scale in Kilograms (mass) and not in newtons (force). Dr. Steele is British, which produces a sort of double irony. When a person is conditioned to see pounds as both mass and force, it is a short step for an average person, or a PhD, to substitute Kilograms for newtons and blur the modern distinction. The retention of medieval units brings along their pre-scientific baggage in a world where the public understanding of science is of existential importance.
When you see scientific explanations on popular television programs, remember to take them with a grain of salt.
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The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.