BITS OF MEASUREMENT
Thomas Russell Wingate
May 2010, November 2013
The British call it “metrics.” Americans call it “the metric system.”
Officially, it is SI—Système International d’Unités. It is the most excellent thing France has ever given to the world.
SI is based on multiplication and division by ten.
Ashleigh Brilliant has a Pot-Shot: “If God had intended us to use the metric system, He would have given us ten fingers.”
In the Anglosphere we have inherited a jumble that goes so far back (in a formal expression of English law) that “the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”
English measures—they are not a system–spread worldwide because the English spread themselves worldwide.
By the nineteenth century the British were speaking of “imperial measures” and Americans were speaking of “customary measures.” These bore the same names but were of different sizes.
This discrepancy caused confusion.
Whatever causes confusion costs money.
Metrology is the science of measurement. It involves mathematics and cultures across centuries.
Writers, if they are to be effective, must furnish their minds with it. We must prize accuracy and economy—just what measurements are for.
English measures are irreplaceable in poetry and its translations.
The metric system may seem foreign to you, but that is not the point.
A writer who employs metrics will always be understood.
In our competitive cyberspatial world, the English language is tops but English measures are cumbersome, awkward, and—yes—insulting.
Electronic publishing is here to stay. It will grow.
This means an author must pay enhanced attention to readers in faraway places with strange-sounding names.
They know the metric system. It makes sense to them. They can be jolted by terms of which they are ignorant.
Well over forty years ago I was reading Crime and Punishment. Someone refers to a distance of a verst. I was irritated. About ten years after that, I found out in my random reading that a Russian verst was about one kilometer. The translator should have provided a footnote. Can you expect millions for whom English is their second (or third) language to know, care, or remember whether an acre is heavier than a gallon?
The screenwriters of the Star Trek manifold waver between depicting our future in a day-to-day present tense and using American measurements that would be archaic and simply repellant in that future.
Star Wars: A New Hope is everlastingly blemished by the great pilot Solo’s use of parsec as a unit of time.
In Dune stored water is measured in dekaliters and temperatures are in Kelvin. Frank Herbert respected his readers.
A novelist may write: “His uncle owned twelve hundred acres in Georgia before Sherman burned him out.” But the novelist would be well advised to metricate that in a footnote (or by some other device) for the sake of foreign readers—and posterity.
Writers, be careful what shoes, boots, slippers, or sandals you put on. You don’t have to walk a verst for a Camel.
American cultural resistance to SI is abysmally unintelligent and wholly self-defeating.
In 1866 an Act of Congress made the metric system legal for all purposes.
In 1896 the constitution of the new State of Utah required the teaching of the metric system in the public schools.
Customary measures did not budge.
The National Geographic Society, side-stepping its mission to educate the American people, has discontinued a trumpeted innovation on their famous maps: printing mountain heights and ocean depths in meters as well as feet. The American people have rejected metrication.
Nearly all maps have scales of miles. These also show kilometers. That is as far as Americans are presently willing to go.
Metric road signs disappeared.
Outside the United States temperatures are given in Celsius (°C) or in Kelvin (°K), a variant of Celsius used by scientists.
The interval between the freezing and boiling points of water is 100 degrees; hence, centigrade (“hundred steps”).
Fahrenheit (°F) defines itself by 180 (smaller, incompatible) “degrees.” Using two systems can only impair comity, commerce, education, and science. High time such a nuisance were dumped.
Measuring cups, cookbooks, and ovens are going into SI. You don’t need to know the equations for converting °C to °F and back. Equip yourself with thermometers or refrigerator magnets telling both.
Fahrenheit has fame but no future. Sixty years ago Ray Bradbury should have called his warning Kelvin Five-Zero-Six.
Writers should beware of using linear units to describe area.
The grasshoppers covered every inch of this meadow.
No: they covered every square inch of the meadow.
Square meter (m²) = centare (ca) (in English, senn tair)
X 100 = are (a)
X 100 = hectare (ha)
X 100 = square kilometer (km²) = myriare (mya).
An hundred hundreds make a myriad. An hundred myriads make a million.
Myriare and centare did not deserve to disappear from either language. I urge their revival.
Medications acquaint us with the SI prefix micro (one millionth).
Computers are making us familiar with its mate, mega (one million).
So do recent words such as “micromanage” and “megacity.”
metric ton = 1,000 kilograms = tonne (British, French)
short ton: 2,000 pounds / about 908 kilograms
long ton: 2,240 pounds / about 1,017 kilograms
register ton: 100 cubic feet / 2.832 cubic meters (kiloliters)
displacement ton: 35 cubic feet / about 1.0 cubic meter (kiloliter)
water: one cubic centimeter (milliliter) masses one gram; one liter masses one kilogram; one cubic meter (kiloliter) masses one tonne
If tonne were replaced by megagram, confusion and its costs would be reduced.
A mile on land or fresh water is not the same as a mile at sea.
From San Francisco, the distance to Denver is in statute miles (1,609 meters). The distance to Honolulu is in nautical miles (1,852 meters), which are 15% longer.
Speeds on the ground differ from speeds of wind and aircraft, which are given in knots (1,852 meters per hour).
Noon (meridiem) = 12:00 m.
Midnight = 12:00 p.m. (post meridiem)
Hours following midnight are a.m. (ante meridiem). There is no <12:00 a.m.>
Military and Internet reckonings:
Noon = 1200 hours = 12:00
Midnight Thursday = 2400 hours = 24:00 = 0000 hours Friday = 00:00 Friday followed by 0001 hours Friday = 00:01 Friday.
For anything p.m., add twelve hours. Do not use hours and time in the same sentence.
Between midnight and 10:00, everything starts with a zero to keep columnar alignment. A concluding double zero is called hundred.
Latin reckoning—along with o’clock—is increasingly being discarded.
Numerical (digital) dating has pitfalls.
European style: The Berlin Wall fell on 9/11/89 (or 89.9.11 or 11.IX.89 )
American style: The Berlin Wall fell on 11/9/89.
Which comes first, the date or the month? Notice commas and absences of commas.
The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. (American military, European)
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. (American civilian)
The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th November, 1989. (British)
The best numerical dating goes from the largest unit to the smallest, with a space followed by time in Internet style.
The twentieth century ended 2000-12-31 24:00:00. The twenty-first began 2001-01-01 00:00:01.
Astrology lingers. We are all familiar with it.
(Hindus, Chinese, etc., have their own versions.)
In astrology, the sun passes through twelve¹ equal houses of the zodiac. These are named for, but do not match, constellations defined by astronomers.²
Do not believe what you read about your sun sign. Astrologers call me a Piscean. Astronomers assure me that the sun is in Aquarius on my birthday.³
Astrologers speak of Capricorn—notice the southern tropic—and Scorpio. Astronomers speak of Capricornus and Scorpius.
To astrologers, Earth is not a planet. The seven planets are Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
To astronomers, the sun is a star (named Sol), the moon is a satellite (named Luna), and the eight planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Only Mercury and Venus have no satellites.
Pluto and other bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit are coming to be called plutoids.
Distances from a star to its planets are in astronomical units or light-seconds; from one star to another, in parsecs or light-years. If we used kilometers the digits would numb us.
Planets of stars other than Sol are extrasolar planets or exoplanets. The first was discovered in 1995. By April 2010 their number had reached 453.
We live in the Golden Age of Astronomy—perhaps its Platinum Age.
1 The sun passes through Ophiucus and grazes Cetus.
2 Astronomers have assigned every square arc second of
the celestial sphere to eighty-eight constellations. Some
contain asterisms such as the Big Dipper, the Sword
and Belt, and the Hyades.
3 This is due to the precession of the equinoxes. See Wikipedia.
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