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Measuring Science

Students and community members who contribute to Nature Up North's citizen science projects are asked to collect measurements in inches, as most people aren't familiar with the metric system. Photo: Jake Malcomb.

Measuring Science

By Paul J. Hetzler
February 7, 2018

The good news is that Imperial Forces are losing the battle for planetary dominance. The bad news is that we still play for their team. The British Imperial System of measurement, born in 1824 to help streamline a host of odd units inherited from various cultures, was at the time an improvement. But in 1965, the UK adopted the decimal-based metric system, despite the fact it was invented by the French. Today, metric is universal in science and medicine, and of the 195 nations on Planet Earth, only 2 have yet to abandon the former British system for general commerce: Myanmar and the U.S.

Being obsessed with the levy and collection of taxes, the British monarchy was never a slouch at taking stock of things. Other people’s, mostly. Tenth-century Saxon King Edgar the Peaceable supposedly had a royal bushel made for the kingdom. Who knows how it was established, but I guess being a ruler entitles you to measure anything. Even the Magna Carta mandated a “...standard width of russet and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges.” (Please don’t ask me what that means.) In the Middle Ages, a rod, equal to 5.5 yards, was calibrated to “the length of the left feet of 16 men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church.” I assume feet fresh from church ensured an honest measure.

Along the way, someone must have noticed feet came in different sizes, and that having four different-size gallons which varied by what they were intended to hold, was confusing. Enter the British Imperial System. It designated a single gallon measure, but spared the 12-ounce or Troy pound to remain beside the 16-ounce (avoirdupoid) pound we use in the U.S. for everything not a precious metal.

Although the U.S. Customary system of weights and measures is based on old British units, it was not revised when the Brits enacted the Imperial System in 1824. Consequently we wound up with a “Queen Anne wine gallon” (231 cubic inches), 17% smaller than the British gallon. Our bushel (2,150.42 cubic inches) is 3% smaller than theirs, and our ton came up short as well. I chalk it up to unresolved motherland-issues from when we were a colony.

For those of us not endowed with a math mind, the U.S. Customary system is an imperial pain in the brain. If 16 ounces or oz. (of anything but gold or silver) make a lb. or pound, how many oz. in say, 3.71 lbs? I get stuck on how “oz.” and “lb.” should sound in my head, and why we don’t get better abbreviations, never mind how to do the math without a calculator.

Then there’s the metric system. Adopted into French law in 1795, it uses decimals with 10 as the base, rather than 12, 16, 5,280, or whatever else a given Imperial unit is based upon. I get it that 31,000 meters make 31 kilometers, but ask me to multiply 31 miles by 5,280 feet, and I’ll get back to you in a day or so. The main problem is that while I understand 16 inches—a piece of firewood—it is hard to picture 40 centimeters, the same length. Admittedly, switching would take some getting used to.

The metric system is governed by an international conference which maintains standards for the meter, kilogram, ampere, degree Kelvin, and other base units in the Système international d’unités or SI. According to the heart surgeon who sliced me open ten years ago, there is a round piece of plastic inside my heart, marked “Edwards Life Sciences 32mm. USA” It sounds a lot more professional than “15/16 of a barleycorn,” three of which once equaled an inch.

I would really like to see a push toward modernity and away from a feudal measurement system rejected by every other culture, including the one that created it. NASA, which has used metric units since 1990, lost a $125 million Mars Orbiter in 1999 because one of its contractors used English units to set engine firing parameters. As it stands, some U.S. products are measured in drams, minims, grains, furlongs, short tons and long tons. Americans make up only 4.4% of the world’s population. It would seem prudent, not to mention economically advantageous, to measure our goods in a way the rest of the world can more easily understand.

However, if I ever score a Troy ounce of gold or silver, I will not complain about units.

By Paul J. Hetzler
Canton, NY

Paul Hetzler is the Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.