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Metrication matters - Number 34 - 2006-03-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters. Previous issues can be viewed at Metrication matters newsletters by scrolling to the bottom of the page.


1 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 2 Editorial 3 Oddities - measurements from around the world 4 Tips - pointers and methods to make your measurements easier. 5 Signs of the times 6 Quotations 7 Q&A - readers' questions and answers 8 Rule of thumb 9 History 10 Hidden metric

1 Feedback

Barbara Hall, from Melbourne, Australia, wrote to say:
'Wow Pat. A great swag of fascinating information in this issue. Thanks.'
Now that's the sort of feedback that I can cope with!

Phil Hall, from the UK, wrote:
Thanks for your newsletter - very interesting, especially the piece on energy units. I think your long list makes the point very effectively as to why it's important to phase out obsolete and unnecessary units of measurement. Global warming is an important issue and one that suffers a great deal from poor understanding by those with the power to change things.
If you missed this, go to /newsletter and scroll to the bottom for back issues.

I've just noticed that Barbara Hall and Phil Hall share their surname it's a small world!

2 Editorial

Sometimes, people ask me why we didn't have a referendum about metrication in Australia. I usually reply that it wasn't necessary as the Australian Constitution provided for fair and honest measures, so there was no need for any further legislation.

This question is also asked, probably more often, in the UK and the USA where the same answer is appropriate. In the UK, provision was made for uniform measurement laws in the Magna Carta of 1215, and in the USA, provision was made for measurement laws within the Constitution that was written in 1787, and became effective in 1789. There is no need for further laws in either nation.

On a broader issue, I don't know of any nation, anywhere, or at any time, that has had a referendum about measurement. I suppose that politicians have always been aware of the public's resistance to change. Remember that resistance to metrication is rarely because people don't like the metric system, it's much more common that they avoid change of any kind.

Consider these questions:

Imagine that Britain had decided to put the issue of decimalising the currency to a direct vote by asking: Should the UK adopt a decimal currency, Yes or No?

Would the majority of the UK population have been in favour or against?

Similarly, if the population were asked today if they should switch back to the old methods where 1 pound = 20 shillings and 1 shilling = 12 pence.

What do you think the results would be now?

3 Oddities

The prefixes used to provide smaller sub-multiples of metric units are gradually becoming better known. Most of us are aware of milli as in millimetre and micro as in micrometre, now many more are becoming acquainted with nano as in nanometre to mean one thousand millionth of a metre.

The science magazine, New Scientist, has played with this idea and suggested that although our present metric system can go down to tiny yoctometres (10^-24 metres) there is a developing need, as science probes ever smaller scales, for even smaller units.

But what names will we use?

New Scientist reports that, in the Free Online Dictionary of Computing, Morgan Burke proposes the idea that smaller prefixes could be named for the Marx Brothers. He suggests that 10^-27 be called a harpo, 10^-30 be called a groucho, and that the zeppo, gummo, and chico could be reserved for future prefixes. New Scientist described this idea as 'eminently sensible', and suggested that these prefixes could be ratified in 2029 the centenary of the Marx Brothers' first movie.

4 Tips

When I am comparing items in a supermarket, I often divide the price by the mass in kilograms to calculate the price per kilogram. Suppose that your favourite cereal is sold in three different sizes:

  • the 300 gram box for $3.39 ($3.39 divided by 0.3 kg equals $11.30 per kg)

  • the 600 gram box for $5.25 ($5.25 divided by 0.6 kg equals $8.75 per kg)

  • the 750 gram box for $7.40 ($7.40 divided by 0.8 kg equals $9.87 per kg)

Now, you can simply compare the price per kilogram of each box.

My wife, Wendy, achieves a similar result but she does it a different way. I quote:

'There seems to be an assumption by many buyers that bigger is always cheaper this is not always the case. I take a calculator (because producers use odd sizes and pricing that discourages mental arithmetic), divide the price by the number of grams, and multiply by 100. Here is an example of a particular brand of tuna:

  • 95 grams at $0.87 (Calculate: 0.87 95 x 100 = 92 c/100 g)

  • 185 grams at $2.48 (Calculate: 2.48 185 x 100 = 134 c/100 g)

  • 425 grams at $4.67 (Calculate: 4.67 425 x 100 = 110 c/100 g)

I can now compare the prices for the different sizes '.

5 Signs of the times

Although there have never been official government referendums on metrication, this has not stopped others from conducting their own unofficial polls. For example, the UK newspaper 'The Independent' recently published the results of a poll that asked: 'Should Britain go metric?' The response was:

Yes - 62%

No - 38%

James J. Wentworth, a ham radio enthusiast from Alaska, sent this item about the 'SuitSat' project that involved fitting a disused space suit with ham radio equipment. He wrote: 'In these photographs of the SuitSat ham radio satellite (an old Russian space suit fitted with amateur radio equipment), two velocity signs are clearly visible on the wall: http://www.suitsat.org/index.html '.

Set in rural Kansas, the television series Smallville (Superman, the Early Years) had an associate say to Lex Luthor that his new underwater weapon had a range of three kilometres. He responded by saying how pleased he was that the range had been increased by half a kilometre. David King from the UK, who reported this, then said that he found it: 'Quite surprising to hear kilometres being used in an American TV series other than Star Trek, especially as this is set in rural Kansas and I have not heard kilometres used before in this program'.

6 Quotation

Often people who promote metrication do so as an act of kindness to help others. Here are some relevant quotations about the effectiveness of doing this.

I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.
Thomas Jefferson

Remember there's no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.
Scott Adams

7 Q&A


In the last metrication matters, you said that the distance to the nearest star is 4.2 light years. Surely you are wrong on one of two grounds:

1 It's a trick question the nearest star to us is the Sun and it is only 150 gigametres away.

2 My references tell me that Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away.


I accept your first point. The old student's trick question caught me I knew about it, but I forgot!

Your second point is more interesting. Alpha Centauri is part of a group of stars that revolve around each other. The closest to Alpha Centauri is called Beta Centauri and these are both about 4.3 light years from the Earth. However, the nearest star in this group is a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri and this is 4.22 light years from us here in Geelong, so I'll stick with rounding this to 4.2 light years or even better to 40 petametres.

8 Rule of thumb

The usual size of a single serve of fish is between 100 grams and 120 grams or about the size of the palm of your hand. The world's smallest known fish is the dwarf goby; it is 6 millimetres long and typically has a mass of 50 milligrams the world's largest fish is the whale shark; it has a mass of 20 tonnes and it can be up to 12.5 metres long. For a meal you would need about 2000 of the small fish or a very small slice of the larger one if you could catch it.

9 History

From time to time, USA business leaders and government officials claim that the USA is not alone as the only nation in the world that has not 'gone metric'; they adopt various linguistic gymnastics to suggest that the US is not alone.

For example, when a software company president said, 'The metric system is used in nearly every country in the world, with the exception of the USA', we have to ask: 'What is the purpose of the word 'nearly' 'nearly' implies more than one country but he only mentions one nation the USA as an exception. By inserting the word 'nearly' the speaker is trying to suggest that the US is not alone in its stance against the metric system.

In 2002, Dr. Lester Crawford of the Food and Drug Administration in the USA said, 'There are only two countries in the world that are not metric: the US and Yemen'. This is an odd statement because support for the idea that the USA is not alone usually includes two almost always two of the following: Burma, Liberia, Libya, and Myanmar. The selection of Yemen to support the USA position is quite rare.

The facts however are quite at odds with the public statements of USA business leaders and government officials. American companies that trade internationally are already metric. Examples of fully metric products from the USA include: bulldozers, buses, cameras, cars, computers, films, lenses, make-up, pharmaceuticals, television, toothpaste, tractors, trucks, and video. As you can see from this list, the agricultural machinery, automotive, computers, electronics, pharmaceutical, photographic, and optical industries are already using the metric system.

The reason that most of the citizens of the USA do not realise this, is because many manufacturers do not see any sales advantage in telling the public that they are committed to using the metric system. Manufacturers seem to believe that they will only see resistance and argument from the general public if they mention the metric system publicly. A common example is the computer industry where the computer chips are made with separations between components measured in nanometres; the computer board and the case is then designed and made using millimetres; and finally the public is told the size of the screen (very approximately) in inches.

By the way, travellers to Burma (also called Myanmar), Liberia, Libya, and Yemen report that metric measures are commonly used in all of these countries.

10 Hidden metric

For many years Coca Cola has been available in 500 millilitre bottles labelled as 16.9 fl.oz. Recently, Coca Cola has relabelled these so that they have 500 mL on the outside packaging of their six-packs. However, on the bottles inside the packs, they have .5 L (16.9 fl.oz.). When John Woelflein reported this change, he added, 'Oh well. One step at a time'.

Don't forget to go to the 'Why metrication matters' web page. Here you will find many arguments in favour of metrication that you will be able to use with your work group during the year. It is at: /why_metrication.html

By the way . . .

If you enjoy reading the metrication information in this newsletter, please pass it on to your friends, family members, work associates and anyone else who you feel would benefit from knowing more about metrication.

Your action could prevent your family and friends from falling victim to one of the many metrication errors that might cost them years of measurement frustration. At Metrication matters, our goal is to educate everyone we can about the simplicity and ease of use of the metric system. In this way your family and friends will gain the positive benefits of using the metric system earlier than others.

By passing this newsletter on to your friends you'll help to prevent them being cheated by measurement fraud, drive measurement fraudsters out of business and make the world a safer place for everyone! Not bad for sending out a few emails! On the other hand, if you decide not to pass a reference to this web page along, and your best friend gets cheated because of a measurement scam, how hard will you kick yourself?

The internet is a fantastic distribution medium. As an example, if you pass a reference to the 'Why metrication matters' web page


to just ten people, and they do the same, very soon everyone will be better educated and that's hundreds of millions of people. Think about it this way you are just six people away from distributing one million copies.

I could never reach millions of people on my own, so please help by forwarding something like this in an email to your friends, associates and relatives. The email can't do any harm, as it cannot contain viruses, plus it's a very short email, so your friends won't mind.

Dear Friend,

I have been enjoying reading a free monthly newsletter called 'Metrication matters', and I thought that you might enjoy it too. Just log in at:


There are links on the sign-up page to the back issues of 'Metrication matters' down near the bottom so you can check if they are right for you before you sign up.

If you need to find arguments to support your use of the metric system going to:


will get you well and truly started.


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Cheers and best wishes for your metric future,

Pat Naughtin

Geelong Australia

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher.

Pat wrote and edited the original Australian apprenticeship modules for the bricklaying, carpentry, electrical, fitting and machining, furniture making, plumbing, and welding trades. He was also the lead writer for the 'Wool' chapter in the Kirk-Othmer Chemical Engineering Encyclopaedia. He speaks regularly to small business owners, professional and business groups. He is a metrication consultant to several businesses.

Pat edited the measurement section for the Australian Government 'Style manual: for writers, editors and printers' and he is a regular contributor to 'Australian Style' magazine. He has been recognised by the United States Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist, and he contributes to the USMA newsletter, 'Metric Today'.

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