# Outside the Beltway

## Some Genuine American Exceptionalism

Via Mental Floss:  Countries That Haven’t Adopted the Metric System.

FILED UNDER: Open Forum
##### About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

### Comments

1. I’ll see you, and raise you

2. Jenos Idanian says:

@Doug Mataconis: Collect your winnings, sir.

3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

@Doug Mataconis: @Jenos Idanian: And yet in all the science classes that I took, I never measured anything in inched, ounces, or fluid ounces. Ever.

4. @Doug Mataconis: đ

But, of course, a la Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker, I am guessing that NASA uses metric đ

5. ptfe says:

@Steven L. Taylor: I’m always surprised to get mechanical engineering reports — even at NASA they list mils, inches, inch-pounds, and the entertaining “pounds mass”, which as far as I can tell is an imperial-lite unit that means “we know ‘slugs’ is a terrible unit, so we’re just going to call pounds a mass anyway.”

Everyone else in the engineering world then gets to convert to sensible decimal units for analysis. I don’t think any of us re-converts them to imperial. Indeed, I have a startling amount of code that lets you pass in imperial but doesn’t let you output imperial. You want that garbage, you’re on your own, buddy!

6. Ron Beasley says:

I have spent my life as a scientist and engineer and as a result fluent in metric. Metric has been sneaking up on us. A fifth of hard liquor used to be 4/5ths of a quart now it is 3/4s of a liter. A bottle of your favorite wine is 750ml. Nearly everything you buy has both metric and imperial measurements.

7. Jenos Idanian says:

Real scientists aren’t slaves to any particular measuring standard. They use whichever works best for their needs, or invent one if none fit. For temperatures, Fahrenheit is good when you need precision — you have 180 degrees between freezing and boiling, while metric only gives you 100. Medically, I would prefer Fahrenheit. For other purposes, Celsius and Kelvin are preferable.

8. OzarkHillbilly says:

@Steven L. Taylor: Uhhhhh….. Hold on there hoss:

Metric mishap caused loss of NASA orbiter

NASA lost a \$125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency’s team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation, according to a review finding released Thursday.

Can’t quite believe I’m the only one who remembered this.

9. OzarkHillbilly says:

@Jenos Idanian: Real scientists aren’t slaves to stupidity, which is what English units of measurement are. If you are going to talk to others (not just scientists) it helps to speak in the same language. All scientists are well aware of this fact as illustrated by the story I linked above.

Which I need to point out that was in 1999, and I hope NASA has gotten their fecal matter gathered together in a single pot by now.

10. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

@OzarkHillbilly: I remember that one also, now that you mention it. I just thought it was an outlier at the time. (And I’m old enough so that when I was learning metric in my science [and some math] classes that there were those in my circle who believed that teaching students metric was “preparing the nation for the socialist takeover.” Some things never change.)

11. @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Ah yes–I do remember that nw that you mention it.

12. Really the part that I find interesting is not the contest between Imperial and Metric, but the fact that for whatever reason we truly are almost unique globally on this.

13. PJ says:

For temperatures, Fahrenheit is good when you need precision â you have 180 degrees between freezing and boiling, while metric only gives you 100.

Have you heard about the decimal point?

14. Jenos Idanian says:

@OzarkHillbilly: How positively Procrustean of you.

A human being’s healthy body temperature is between 36.1 and 37.8 Celsius.

I feel chilly around 15.6 degrees, put on a coat at 10. I consider wearing shorts at 21.1

My stove is normally set at 218.3, but the last time I set it at 176..667.

I am just a little under 182.88 centimeters tall.

Yeah, that’s a hell of a lot more convenient than saying 97 to 100, 60, 50, 70, 450, 350, and 6.

And let’s not even go into standard paper sizes. “Letter” is 8.5 x 11 inches; European A4 is 210mm x 297mm. That’s SO much more logical, isn’t it?

As I said, scientists will use whatever metric works the easiest, or make up their own — the important thing isn’t the metric, it’s the data.

Now would you care to make an argument for the superiority of the metric system over such units of measure as light-years or parsecs?

15. PJ says:

And letâs not even go into standard paper sizes. âLetterâ is 8.5 x 11 inches; European A4 is 210mm x 297mm. Thatâs SO much more logical, isnât it?

The size of the A4 is a LOT more logical.

…any sheet of A-series paper is as long as the next-larger sheet is wide and half as wide as the next-larger sheet is long.

You probably should avoid visiting the link, you may actually learn something…

16. Jenos Idanian says:

@PJ: Fascinating. I’d read that before, but forgotten it. Thank you.

The key element, however, isn’t the size or the metric, but the proportions. And the person who devised the scheme deserves some serious recognition.

It’s probably just personal prejudice on my part, but having used both American and European papers, the proportions of the European pages seem “wrong” to me.

And lets not even go into this paper format…

17. PJ says:

The key element, however, isnât the size or the metric, but the proportions. And the person who devised the scheme deserves some serious recognition.

Again, there is a reason for the proportions.
From the link:

A ratio of 1:â2 is more than a mathematical oddity. It doesnât have a nifty name, like the famous Golden Ratio or Golden Mean. It does, however, have a nifty property. Divide a rectangle with sides 1:â2 along the longest side and the smaller rectangle you create has the same aspect ratio. (Markus Kuhn suggested in correspondence we call the ratio the Lichtenberg Ratio, after Professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German enlightenment figure who first proposed the ratio as a basis for paper formats in 1786.)

And since the A0 size has these proportions and is almost a square metre (0.999949 square metres), it’s quite easy to calcualate the weight of a smaller sized paper knowing the density of the paper.

The weight of each sheet is also easy to calculate given the basis weight in grams per square metre (g/m2 or “gsm”). Since an A0 sheet has an area of 1 m2, its weight in grams is the same as its basis weight in g/m2. A standard A4 sheet made from 80 g/m2 paper weighs 5 g, as it is 1â16 (four halvings) of an A0 page. Thus the weight, and the associated postage rate, can be easily calculated by counting the number of sheets used.

SI units FTW.

18. Andre Kenji says:

The main advantage of Metric is that itÂ´s a completely proportional. One kilometer is one thousand meters, and one meter is one thousand centimeters. One feet is 12 inches, and one mile is 63360 inches.

And I confess that I have to use conversion tables to understand whether if 60 Fahrenheit temperature is warm or cold, or whether if 152 miles is a long or a short. I guess that even foreigners that have a better knowledge both of English and of American Culture than I have will face the same difficulty.

19. MarkedMan says:

The failure of the US to convert to the metric system in the 70’s was the first time I realized a sizable portion of the population were self righteous jackasses, belligerent and smug in showing they weren’t gonna let no furiners learn us nothin’, no matter how much sense it made.

20. RGARDNER says:

And then there is the kPA, Kilo Pascal for tire pressure. Most of the world uses psi. Also forgotten is 400 degrees in a circle (100/quadrant), metric.Or 25 hours per day, or 100 segments per day.

21. rodney dill says:

…but how else would I be able to calculate hogsheads per fortnight?

22. sam says:

@PJ:

A ratio of 1:â2 is more than a mathematical oddity. It doesnât have a nifty name, like the famous Golden Ratio or Golden Mean.

You could get thrown out of the Pythagorean Brotherhood (if not worse) for even mentioning it.

FWIW, the US military has been using metric since Vietnam, if not earlier.

23. rodney dill says:

@PJ:
Grams are mass, not weight.
đ

24. rodney dill says:

It’s not the scientific community that is the problem, it’s the general populace. They have no “feel” for the metric system. Just as Andre Kenji sort of indicated, he has no “feel” for the English system. My first year in college, I was a Physics major and did as much work in the metric system as in the English. When someone says “centimeter” I can see what it means. My daughters in Elementary school (they’re all through college now) struggled with questions like: A dollar bill is most closely in length to 10mm, 1 decimeter, or 1 dekameter?

25. DrDaveT says:

The failure of the US to convert to the metric system in the 70âs was the first time I realized a sizable portion of the population were self righteous jackasses, belligerent and smug in showing they werenât gonna let no furiners learn us nothinâ, no matter how much sense it made.

Yep.

Refusing to convert to SI units is pretty much the economic equivalent of fighting with one arm tied behind your back. The US used to be so dominant that we could do that and still win…

26. Kari Q says:

Itâs not the scientific community that is the problem, itâs the general populace. They have no âfeelâ for the metric system. Just as Andre Kenji sort of indicated, he has no âfeelâ for the English system.

I completely agree. My mother would see some distance in km and complain that she had no idea how far that was. Telling her it was around 0.6 miles cleared up the confusion, but she still didn’t want to have to bother with that. Why not just use miles when everyone knows what that is?

27. DrDaveT says:

Real scientists arenât slaves to any particular measuring standard.

So, in addition to all the other things we know you’ve never done, we now also know that you’ve never worked in a lab…

28. JKB says:

So other than being like the also-ran countries, why would we, the US, go to the expense of converting to metric?

It would cost millions, if not a billon or so dollars to covert all the highway signage.

And, while this is eroding in the last 20 years, metric paper sizes don’t fit in the thousands of file cabinets made for 8 1/2×11 or legal paper sizes. Same with pre-1990 paper trays and such.

Then we have the unneeded imposition of expense on carpenters, and others who use measuring instruments. Plus the ensuing errors during the transition that will possibly drive many contractors out of business (yes, the margins are that close).

And of course, the football field would have to be redefined either as 91 meters or add another 9 meters.

And then we have all the regulations that would have to be updates. No less than the federal courts and SCOTUS itself would have to take the time, away from more important issues, to update the filing rules to require or at least permit metric paper sizes. And would that be something the legal printers can handle or is their equipment still providing value although it is decades old.

And think of the carbon footprint to make the conversion. All that equipment thrown out before the end of its useful life. All those emissions to drive the sign trucks down the roads and freeways.

And lets not forget the groundings, sinkings and oil spills during the transition as mariners mistake meters for fathoms on nautical charts. Perhaps only for a short time, but all that loss for what?

And, for what benefit? We are a large, relatively isolated country with few driving in from the two bordering countries. Metric is creeping in due to free trade and is likely to one day become predominant, but we hardly need to waste wealth on the transition when Social Security is likely to be cut and education spending is decreasing.

29. Jeremy says:

I for one fully support adopting metric.

And Celsius.

And just two timezones.

And make every weekend a three day weekend.

30. MarkedMan says:

@Jeremy: speaking of two time zones – I would rather go for one. A single time zone for the whole world and a 24 hour clock. Noon is only midday along the prime meridian, but who cares? In this multinational world of business we live in there is a lot to be said for scheduling a meeting at 10am and every single person knows exactly what that means. And if 10am is the middle of the night for someone they can speak up without worrying they calculated in the wrong direction.

31. Tyrell says:

I remember in the ’70’s there was big talk of a switch to metric
There were some objections, the main one was that it would cost industry and manufacturing a lot of money to switch over.
That was in a time when things had slowed down.
The school systems still teach both systems, but not as much time is spent on measurement instruction now.
There are still these odd measures that throw us: troy ounce, bushel, peck, hectare, teaspoon, tablespoon, hand.

32. gVOR08 says:

@Jenos Idanian: Dr. Carl Reinhold Wunderlich was the person who first published a standard for body temp. He found the average underarm temp in his sample to be 37 deg C. This was converted to an unrealistically precise 98.6F instead of a more sensible 98-1/2 or 99. (98 if you use the modern, more accurate average of 36.8C.)

33. gVOR08 says:

I owned a 1st generation Ford Fiesta (good car). English Ford motor with a German transmission in a German body. If you wanted to work on the engine you took your inch sockets. Body and suspension metric. If you were dealing with something like a motor mount you had to take both. Any modern car, it’s all metric.

When the US rejected converting to metric, what they really decided was to allow a long drawn out informal conversion. See liquor and military above. In my field, mechanical engineering, there’s a lot of inertia because of inch based fasteners and stock sizes, but we work with both systems and eventually metric will dominate. In construction things like 8 ft 2x4s and 4×8 drywall are also problems. I don’t know how Britain dealt with building materials when they converted.