What I think of the metric system
by Joan Pontius
In Belgium, you can buy jam in returnable jars, and once I finished my jar, and was cleaning it, and in the glass at the bottom was "3/8 L". And this sort of threw me, because I was a big metric fan, and the great advantage of the metric system was that it got rid of all those silly fractions. So why were they using them here in metric-land? Then I figured the jar was only so big, so it took up less space to print 3/8 L rather than 0.375 L.
But there was another possibility. That being that although the metric system looks good on paper, people/society finds fractions useful. So ok, we have the metric system for important stuff, but for certain situations, fractions will be used.
So then, I'm slowly picking up some Dutch, and we go out for beers, and Filip is always asking for "A Pincha", and I find out that actually he's saying "a pintje", meaning "a small pint". So here we are in metric land, and people are ordering their beers with English terms!
This is really throwing me, and I say, yeah but Filip, it's not a pint, it's 250 milliliters! Why do you call it a pint? You've got the metric system, why don't you use it? Why don't you order in metric? You don't need those silly English measurements, you have New and Improved Metric units. When you go into a cafe, instead of shouting "Een Pintje Alstublieft" you should say, two-hundred-and-fifty-milliliters alstublieft."
He just gave me a strange look, and mumbled something about it being too hard to say. And ok, maybe giving the precise amount of milliliters is a bit extreme, but he could at least say, "A quarter liter alstublieft." But then maybe even that would be too difficult after lots of beer, so maybe just giving that one unit a name makes sense.
But then that means that something screwy is going on. Not only are the Europeans turning the metric system back into fractions, but they're giving names to them! We change everything into metric, then people find it more useful to use fractions, and then they give names to these fractions, and before you know it, we're back where we started from!
Then I got fired from my job in Brussels, or was asked to resign, or whatever you want to call it, I had LOTS of free time and not much to do. I read what I could find, but since my French and Dutch were so bad, this consisted of reading cookbooks.
So I was reading these cooking books, and it was weird, because these recipes would have "half a cup" of one thing, and an "eet-lapel" or "koffie-lapel" of something else.
I said, "Hey Filip, what's an eet-lapel?" And he told me it's an eating spoon (which is really a soup spoon), and a koffie lapel is a coffee spoon, like the English teaspoons. And I say, "But hey, we're in metric-land! Dat gaat niet!" And he says, "Of course we use the metric system, but in that one case, they're just writing it that way for the easiness of the people." (i.e., to make it easy on everyone).
So then I go to my mother-in-law-to-be, and I say, "Hey, these recipes call for cup of something, how much is that exactly?" And she pulls out her cup that she drinks coffee from to show me, and I say,"Yeah, but aren't different cups sometimes different sizes?"
And then she said, "Ja zeker!" And she took me to her china cabinet and showed me all the different cups she has and all the different sizes there are. And then I said, "Yeah but Francine, doesn't this like, ever become a problem in knowing exactly how much to use?" and she shrugged her shoulders and nodded!
So that means the European kitchens are less precise than American and English. They just take any old cup, any old spoon! So where is the advantage of being metric? Then Filip says, yeah, but MOST recipes don't call for volumes, they call for weights, and this is true. BUT, how do you WEIGH a teaspoon of basil?!? How about a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg?!? And now he's going to baking school, and you should see him trying to weigh out his salt on our scale that I only use for weighing mail. It's so sad!
Then I get out my Joy of Cooking, and all these crazy units sort of start to make sense, to fit together. There are even conversions between weight/volume and length like in the metric system. A pint weighs a pound, and is 3 inches cubed. Half a pint is a cup, half of that is half a cup, half of that is a quarter cup, half of that is 2 tablespoons, and half of that is one tablespoon, and all these units in an ENGLISH kitchen can be measured out.
Then I start to realize that for length there is a similar problem in the metric system, in that you can't divide a meter continuously by 2 without getting fractions. In the English system, the rulers are divided by quarters and eighths and 16ths, but the metric ruler is divided into units of ten, so any fraction of that you just have to guess. It is IMPOSSIBLE to divide a meter by three, because you get 0.333333333 etc meters; using the metric ruler, a third on a metric meter doesn't exist! So then I start to think, hey, THAT'S why there are 12 inches in a foot, you can divide all sorts of ways, by 2, by 3, by 4, by 6, no problem! Cool!
We have this friend who is a carpenter, and I see him, and I say, "Hey, Freddie, when you have a board a meter long, how do you divide it into 3?" And he sort of gives me a funny look, and says why would he want to do that. And I say, well, "How does that work? Because in the metric system, a third of a meter isn't marked on your ruler so what do you do? Don't you ever have a board of one meter that you have to divide by three?" And he says, "No." And I'm sort of crestfallen, and then he adds, we don't buy boards by the meter, the standard lengths they sell are in 120 centimeters.
SO now there is a NEW unit of measurement, call it the-standard-length- that-carpenters-buy-their-wood-in, and it is 120 centimeters! The THICKNESS of the wood is even in a number that is easily divisible, that is, 2.4 centimeters, and they call that a thumb! How long before the length of 120 centimeters has a name all to itself, and how long before some lunatic is going to come along, and say, "Hey, this-here is darn CONFUSING having that-there unit being 120 centimeters, and this-here unit being 2.4, we need a NEW measurement system, one where everything is in units of ten!"
So this is getting really interesting, and I head to the library, and look up measurement, and ALL THROUGH HISTORY, societies have used units of measurements that are evenly divisible at least 3 ways. Now we have this great metric system, and we can only divide by 2 and 5 without getting a fraction.
Ok, and then there is the temperature thing.
I always liked science because it was the one field of study that would be consistent throughout the world. I always found it a waste of time to study French or botany, because if, for example, you were on a desert island, these French words or plant names wouldn't do you any good. Science on the other hand was (WAS, past tense) a kind of ultimate truth for me, and this desert island thing used to be a kind of test as to whether something was valuable.
And it appears I'm not alone, because last time I was in America, I was voicing my opinion on the metric system, and someone said, "If I were on a desert island, I'd use a system that was divisible by ten." And I said, "But would your number system be based on ten?" The ONLY advantage of the metric system is that it can easily be written because we write our numbers in base ten. But that doesn't mean that if you were on a desert island YOUR number system would be in base ten. In fact, if you were on a desert island, and you needed a ruler, you wouldn't be ABLE to generate a precise system on base ten, because you'd have to estimate where to put the markings on the ruler! What you'd have to do is take your ruler, and divide it in half, and that in half, and put the markings THERE, and you'd end up with a ruler divided into 16 or 32 or 64 or something, but not ten!
And for thermometers, it seems that is precisely what Fahrenheit was up to. Fahrenheit was playing around and playing around and finally set ice water at 32, and body temperature at 96, so that there were 64 divisions between the two. That way, no matter where you are in the world, you can re-generate his thermometer. You stick the thermometer in ice water, and mark it there. Then you stick it under your tongue, and mark it there. Then you get a string, and fold it in half 6 times, and you have the 64 divisions between 32 and 96!
It was only after Fahrenheit died that body temperature was changed to 98.6. And this being because the boiling point of water was later deemed more reliable than body temperature. So boiling water was set at 212, and that made 180 "degrees" between it and the freezing point of water. But whoever made that change was probably completely ignorant of the problems Fahrenheit had gone through calibrating his thermometers.
Then the French Revolution came around, and a bunch of intellectuals were sitting around. And these intellectual types, they aren't sitting in labs, or making things, DOING measurements, they just looking at the measurements on paper. So to them, all these fractions were a pain in the ass, and they decided that everything should be changed.
So they spent SIX YEARS deciding how long a meter should be, and then passed all sorts of laws REQUIRING everyone to use the measurements; people were FINED for not using them!
So then we had a new thermometer, in degrees Celsius. Then hot air balloons were getting popular and Boyle and Charles were playing around and trying to figure out how temperature affects volume and pressure of gases. But there was one hitch, that is, they wanted to be able to divide by the temperature of the gas. This was a problem whenever the temperature was zero. So eventually a number was found that could be added to the measured temperature so that all their equations would work out nicely, and this new temperature was called Kelvin.
Then a bunch of intellectuals came around once more, and decide that these gas laws, instead of being a TOOL, used to DESCRIBE the properties of gas, that these laws were some kind of ultimate truth. And then they decided that since the equations won't work at zero Kelvin, that nothing can possible exist at that temperature!
And now that's what they teach us in physics class! I HATE that! If the fields of science and history even overlapped a little bit, we MIGHT be able to move in a direction we refer to as "progress", but the way it is now is completely ridiculous.
Any praise for the metric system hits a raw nerve with me. The metric system is a symbol to me of the division of the ruling class and the people doing all the work. The ruling class (no pun intended) makes all these rules that are completely impractical, and everyone else has to sort of make due, find their way around it. The metric system also symbolizes to me this blind faith we have in science, that science is some kind of ultimate truth, instead of a tool we use to make life easier for ourselves. And because of this blind faith we have, "science" ends up making life harder, less practical for ourselves.
7 Oct 1999