Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

 

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