The Metric System: a thing of beauty, and maybe a key to weight loss in America

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.

Comments

  1. Were you sitting in on my physical science class this week, cause I didn’t see you. Say hi next time! LOL

    Because it’s ironic…the SI system is what we were learning about, and I came home thinking how all that boggled my mind, then you blogged about it. WEIRD!

  2. Mama Olive – I cannot argue your personal preference, but it is simply not true that the metric system has no basis in reality, quite the opposite. The exact definitions of metres, seconds and grams may seem weird and contrived – because they’re based on “traditional” units – but they are precise in a way that no other units could be, which is their purpose.
    What is a foot? I am sure that my foot is a different size from yours – in fact, I am sure you would have a hard time finding a person whose foot was exactly a foot big – but the speed of light, or the wavelengths of light emitted by a certain atom because of a certain cause are the same and will always be the same, now and in a million years, here and million miles from here – they are constants of nature, God-given, if you will, a building block of the universe so exact, so rooted in the absolute reality, that no human-based unit could ever be.

    Kim, you are right because this exactly is the second main purpose of the metric system – made for and by mathematicians and physicists, it was meant from the very beginning to correspond with the way we count. I could never understand how can you guys on the other side of the pond continue to use imperial system in school, in physics, in math – it seems so baffling to me – so much more work, so prone to mistakes hard to spot.

    If you’d like, I can recommend some wonderful works on the subject – although most of them are written from an atheist perspective, it is very, very easy to take out the facts contained in the words and apply a christian interpretation to them :)

  3. I’m Australian and have always used the metric system. It seems sooo much easier than imperial! When I do any quilting it takes ages for me to get my head around inches!

  4. I’m in the UK, and as a school child was taught both systems, because apparently we were about to “go metric”. I’m now 51 and we still haven’t gone fully metric, and schoolchildren are not only taught both systems but are expected to learn how to convert from one to the other, which just seems to me like a massive waste of time!
    I happily cook in either system, both for weighing and measuring temperature. When I measure length I tend to use whichever system will give me a nice round number. As for distance, as a non-driver I use my own personal measure – how long will it take me to walk there? (My husband insists on quoting temperature in Fahrenheit for part of the year and Celsius for the other for some reason that makes sense to him, but which I can’t remember!)

  5. As an American living in England, I can say that over here, food calories are given in both kCal and calories. Took some getting used to, but we decided to go with the lower number whenever calculating our daily intake. :-)
    Beauty or no, I prefer the standard system because it relates to real things. A foot is as long as a foot. A yard is a stride; an inch is the width of a thumb (or the length of a fingertip). I think an acre had something to do with plowing with oxen (don’t quote me on that). Have you looked up the definition of a metre? It’s so many wavelengths of a color in a vacuum, or something – completely ridiculous. It has no basis in ‘reality.’

  6. In the EU (besides the UK, I think) food is labelled saying both the calories and the kilojoules. The english system is such a mess! :-)

  7. Now that we have moved to a global way of communicating with the internet, I think its interesting to see what we pick up, what we change, and what we keep the same.

    Being that nearly every country on the globe but the US uses the metric system, I think we may be giving on this issue in a way that our people wouldn’t have before we all started communicating globally in a casual manner.

    I have friends in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, who talk about temperature and weight in metrics, and it throws me a little. Ten years ago it would have thrown me a lot, and irritated me, because I wouldn’t have seen the point. But when I try to tell my friends about how cold it is this winter, or how much weight I lost when I cut out cokes, or what have you, there’s a whole lot of them who would not understand much. (And conversely, I don’t completely understand when they talk about similar things.)

    Ten years ago, it would have been pointless, but in our current society of sharing, it has a point.

    I think I may be making a different point than what I’m trying to make. I hope not!

  8. Metric is definitely a thing of beauty, but it will be a long time before we see it in wide use in the United States. Even though it would be relatively easy to make the switch from Fahrenheit to Celsius, it is much harder to switch our public land survey system – which is what defines property ownership in most of the country – to a different system.

    Like you noticed, our PLSS system divides land into units of 640 acres, or a square mile. The corners of every 40 acre parcel in this section is (theoretically) marked with a post, rockpile, or permanent monument. And to convent this all to metric, well, surveyors would be moving monuments for a very, very, very long time.

  9. Gatxan,
    I thought briefly of converting our bunkbeds to meters or centimeters for you but this seems easier:
    The bunkbeds will be roughly the length of 2 men. The girls will sleep lengthwise, 2 on each bed. It will be just a bit shorter than 2 standard beds placed end-to-end, but should be plenty for young ladies. And we’ll be sure not to pair the 2 tallest children in the same bed, of course.

  10. Although if Americans start thinking about their weight in kilos (2.1 pounds = 1 kilo) they may gain weight as the numbers will seem so small.
    I am an American who has lived in Europe for the last 7 years and I am finally starting to think in metric. Love the temperatures and kilometers best.

  11. As a continental European you can’t imagine how happy I was when I first read your post…lol! Here we use the metric system and it’s the only one that makes sense to me. Actually, I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to get to know exactly how long your future bunkbeds will be… Serioulsly, every time you talk about measures I get all messed up… You don’t know how grateful your European faithful reader would be if you decided to move to the metric system… Ok, joking here. Great post, Kim!

  12. I am from Brazil and we use the metric system. Yes, it is so much easier and makes so much more sense then the system you use here in America. At our house, we keep temperatures in Celsius… it’s easier to know when it’s getting really cold because it goes negative.

    I will be teaching my children both systems and hopefully they will be proficient in both. :)

  13. Funny, I was just talking about this. As a Canadian, we should use the metric system, but for things like height, weight, and construction it is often not metric. Temperature and speed however, I can’t think of any other way.

  14. I have lived in Canada, Germany, and the US, so I have a fair amount of experience with both systems, and I will say this in defense of the imperial system. It has a convenient, intuitive, medium-sized length–the foot. The foot is a nice length, not too long, not too short. A centimeter is way too small, a meter is way too long. Especially when you’re measuring people. Talking about people who are 154 cm tall sounds dumb. But 1.5 meters isn’t any better. This is why I don’t think the US will ever get rid of the imperial system.

    I find the centimeter much nicer than the inch, though. I tend to describe small distances in cm. “It was about 2.5 cm long.” *cue blank stares from friends* “Um, I mean an inch.”

  15. This is a timely post as my daughter has just finished the first chapter of “Exploring Creation with Physical Science” and it explains the metric system in detail. It was an eye-opener for her as we are Australian and have been metric for a very long time. She couldn’t believe how complicated the American system is and she felt very sorry for school children learning it! I’m sure it’s second nature in no time but I am glad that Australia went metric before I was born.

    We say “kilojoules” when measuring energy in food.

    Rachael

  16. 1 cubic centimetre of water weighs 1 gram and measures at 1millilitre. ;-) At 7degrees C anyway ;-)

  17. Calorie – The amount of heat necessary to warm one gram of water one degree Celsius

    1 calorie = 4.184 Joules
    1 food calorie = 1,000 chemistry calories

    Exploring Creation With Chemistry by Dr. Jay E. Wile (2nd Edition, Pg. 48)

    I work with a variety of CAD drawings and custom plastic projects; the Metric is much more practical than the English system.

  18. As a Physics graduate student, I can’t tell you how happy your post makes me! I would also like to add that the metric system has been around since the 1700’s, so it’s not some newfangled concept. It makes doing scientific calculations SO, SO, SO much simpler. The only way you will start THINKING in terms of metric units is if you consistently USE them. I suggest getting a meter stick and a metric ruler and just doing it for fun, it would be an excellent educational tool for your kids. I only have one problem with the metric system and that is that we often have to use the Kelvin scale instead of the Celsius scale to measure temperature in science.

  19. I know this does not have to do with this post….but I was wondering if there were any updates on your bunkbed idea! Just curious if the kids were still sleeping on shelves?

  20. Thanks for the input. It looks like the answer is yes and no. According to wikipedia, the joule has replaced the calorie in most modern uses outside of food and certain fields of chemistry.
    But I still think it’s a thing of beauty and ties too neatly into the metric system to be allowed to pass into the oblivion of the intestinal tract.

  21. I am embarrassed to admit that I have no idea if you’ve made a error in your post. Not being a “mathy” person, I sort of checked out during math classes in high school. (I do know the stuff I need to know for cooking, though…). I’m impressed that you know this stuff!
    For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m feeling a bit dizzy from all those numbers swirling around my brain!

  22. Hate to mess you over, but I could swear that other countries do not list Calories or calories, but “kilojoules.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilojoules

    Good luck with that conversion…

  23. Of all these numbers, there is one I can’T believe….. almost 40 years of practice, you say? If that’s the case, let me tell you, you don’t look one day over 30!!!

Don't just think it: say it!

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