The metric system is a thing of beauty, and I say that as a diehard user of inches, ounces, fahrenheit, and miles per hour. No matter how I try, I cannot think in kilograms or centimeters or Celsius. I always have to do a quick estimated mental conversion.
After nearly 40 years of practice, I have no trouble remembering that there are 12 inches in a foot, 5,280 feet in a mile, 16 ounces in a pound, 4 cups in a quart, 4 quarts in a gallon, that water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212. I even know that an acre is something just over 200 feet long and wide, and there are 640 acres in a square mile. I know my system. I like my system.
But as a math person, I am awed by the beauty, symmetry and perfect neatness of the metric system. It all ties together in a way that boggles the brain.
Everything is in neat increments of 10′s and 100′s and 1,000′s, with sensible Latin prefixes to tell you what you’re dealing with. No guessing or memorizing if you know a few simple Latin terms: milli-, centi-, kilo-.
Did you know that a cubic centimeter of water weighs exactly a gram?
And did you further know that 1,000 grams of water make both a liter and a kilogram of water?
And the Celsius scale for measuring temperatures neatly divides the difference between the boiling point and freezing point into 100 perfect increments. 0 is freezing. 100 is boiling.
It all makes sense, unlike our delightfully quirky system. It’s all 1′s and 0′s. It’s practically a binary system.
And did you know that calories even tie into the scheme? A calorie is actually a measure of energy, which we commonly and conveniently apply to food. It’s not a food term; we just like to think about food a lot. Maybe it’s an American thing.
It takes exactly 1 calorie to heat 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius at sea level. A kilo-calorie (or a Calorie, with a capital c) is a thousand calories, as indicated by the kilo- prefix. It’s the amount of energy needed to heat a kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. Or to raise 100 grams of water 10 degrees Celsius.
I wonder which one is commonly used for measuring the energy in food? Maybe that confusion is the reason Americans are so prone to obesity. Maybe we’re measuring our intake in Calories when we should use calories. Do we need 2,000 Calories per day, or 2,000 calories? Big c or little? Maybe we should switch to the metric system.
Am I wrong about something in this post? Feel free to correct me. These facts have been bouncing around in my head since high school, many long years ago, and we all know what that can do.