The metric system has no romance

I am a metric kind of person.

I say this, knowing that 95% of the world agrees with me and that there are only a few holdout Americans who don’t acknowledge the truth: that using anything other than the metric system is ridiculous, and that you are ridiculous.

I mean, I know how these things came about. Measurement systems based on 12s and 20s make it much easier to do simple arithmetic, but only when you’re counting heads of sheep or barrels of beer. Transporting it into a timeframe where you need to do things like build space shuttles (ahem), they’re destined to fail. We live in a world where powers of ten are what we are calculating with, and for that we need metric.

The real beauty of the the metric system is that it is internally consistent and linked to real-world constants – i.e. 1000 cubic centimetres of water weighs one kilogram and constitutes one litre of volume. Simple and reliable.

Having said all that, I have a real wistful fondness for measurements which are based on real-world situations. The obvious example is the foot – we all know roughly how long a foot is, and thus it’s perfect as an ituitive measure. 30 centimetres as the closest analogue doesn’t quite fit the bill. Despite having been born twenty years after the decimalisation of Australia, I still use feet and inches to measure people’s height, and as a rough estimations of linear length. I was never taught this, I’ve just picked it up and retained it because it works.

The world is full of such measures of convenience. The Japanese talk about a ri, which is the distance that one can walk in an hour without rushing (3.9km). An English stone is 6.3 kg, about the weight of a stone. A Russian pood is about 16 kg, the weight of a heavy stone. Before those Roman Emperors got involved, a month was 28 days, the ;ength of a lunar cycle. All of these are real-world measurements that we can use intuitively.

Despite the metric system being undeniably better for all serious applications, there is something romantic about these real-world measurements. I expect that I will keep using them out of convenience, and a kind of intellectual antiquarianism. And even if these ones die out, I’m sure others will emerge, due to the contrariness of people if nothing else.

Just don’t get me started on the insanity of the Fahrenheit system.


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