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Metrication matters - Number 52 - 2007-09-10

Metrication matters Number 52 2007-09-10

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters.

Help a friend if you know somebody else who can benefit from this newsletter, please forward it to them and suggest that they subscribe. If a friend passed on this newsletter to you, please check the details of the free subscription at the end.

Dear Subscriber,


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

A few months ago, Helen Bushnell, from Daejeon in South Korea, wrote:

Thank you for writing Metrication Matters. I enjoy reading them, and find them very educational.

I mention this because I also had the delightful opportunity of meeting Helen's father, Robert Bushnell, together with Don Hillger when I was in Colorado recently.

2 Editorial

What a pleasure it is to travel and meet with other members of the worldwide metrication community. When I travelled recently to my nephew's wedding in Oxford, I was able to take the opportunity to travel around the world as the distance from Geelong to London (16 900 km) is roughly the same as the distance from Washington DC to Geelong (16400km). This gave me the chance to meet with many metrication people in many places and to speak with some of the groups they represent.

Along the way I had the opportunity to give metrication presentations and to meet with various people including:

  • United Kingdom Metric Association Annual General Meeting
  • Canadian Metric Association
  • NIST (National Institute for Standards and Testing USA)
  • United States Metric Association Executive Committee members
  • Google (at Mountain View CA)
  • NASA (National Aeronautic and Space Administration Jet Propulsion Laboratory USA)

By the time I got to the west coast of the USA I was full of wonderful metrication ideas and thoughts from all that I had met. Unfortunately I also had a cold in the head, a dose of influenza, and I had practically lost the use of my voice (probably through overuse).

However, given that I had the opportunity to speak at Google headquarters in Mountain View CA there was 'no way' that I would give up that opportunity. You can see my presentation at Google at: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3850801238563505476 complete with croaky voice.

I hope you like it and I would appreciate any feedback you would like to post either at Google video or directly to me.

3 Oddities

Cooking terms

My wife, Wendy Pomroy, is a very serious cook who realises that old pre-metric measures can cause serious problems in any kitchen. When I asked her about old cooking measures she checked in her cooking library until she stopped by saying, '... and there are lots more'. Here is Wendy's list (173 of them so far!)

atom, barrel, bead, beam, bit, blob, breath, bushel, butt, cantlet, chip, chunk, coffee cup, corn, crumb, cup, dab, dash, demitasse, dessertspoon, dewdrop, division, dollop, dose, dot, dram, dribble, driblet, drop, droplet, flake, flare, flash, flicker, fraction, fragment, fragment, gallon, gill, glass, gleam, glint, globule, good pinch, grain, grain, granule, grist, hair, hint, hogshead, hundredweight, imperial gallon, iota, iota, item, itsy-bitsy piece, jack, jigger, jot, kernel, least, lick, lowest, lump, meagre amount, minimum, miniscule amount, minute allowance, mite, modicum, morsel, mote, narrowest, nib, niggle, noggin, nuance, nut, ounce, pail, parcel, part, particle, peanut, peck, pellet, pennyweight, piece, pinch, pint, pittance, point, portion, pottle, pound, quarter, quart, remain, remnant, ribbon, sack, salt-spoon, sample, scintilla, scrap, scruple, scruple, section, seed, segment, shade, shadow, shard, share, shaving, shred, slice, slightest, sliver, smallest, small piece, smidgen, snatch, snip, snippet, soupcon, spark, speck, spit, splinter, splodge, spoonful, spoor, spot, sprinkling, squirt, stitch, strike, stone, streak, stub, stump, suggestion, suspicion, tablespoon, taste, tatter, teacup, teaspoon, tincture, tinge, tin, tittle, token, touch, trace, track, trail, tread, trickle, trifle, tun, U.S. ounce, U.S. pint, U.S. quart, UK ounce, UK pint, UK quart, vestige, whiff, whisper, and a whit.

4 Tips

Each year, the week containing 10 October (the tenth day of the tenth month) is called 'National Metric Week' by the United States Metric Association (See http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/metric-week.html for details).

As a gift for your friends and to remind them of 'National Metric Week' you might like to pass along this one minute YouTube reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeyGEwjLPGw

5 Signs of the times

Remek Kocz reports

It's no secret that Listerine has been metric for a while. But what's new is the fact that they're starting to advertise the product in metric. And Listerine throws in a little teaching device, telling the consumer that the coupon is valid on sizes 500 mL or larger. I don't know if the average consumer knows a) what mL is, and b) how many mL in a liter. But, seeing the 500 mL & 1 L Listerine bottles side by side on a shelf will provide an instant lesson. Listerine also has occasional 250 mL bottle free with the purchase of 1 L, which is clearly indicated on the packaging, in metric only.

James R. Frysinger also reports:

My wife has five cats. Some of them are fond of having a few pieces of Whiskas Temptations thrown out periodically during an evening. We go through a lot of those!

The bags we have been getting are marked as containing "85 g (3.0 oz)"; the indication is near the bottom of the front panel. A bag she purchased recently contains more --- "180 g (6.3 oz.)"; this indication is also near the bottom of the front panel. Significantly, a gaudy banner-style marking near the top and in large type size (12 mm height) advertises "MEGA 180 g" with no mention of ounces.

Jim then concluded with the comment:


6 Quotation

This is from 'The Age', a daily newspaper in Melbourne, Australia:

By the time you finish reading this sentence, your hair would have grown by 10 nanometres.

7 Q&A


How far can a locust travel in a single day?


Locusts can travel over large distances during the night by being carried on strong warm winds associated with low-pressure weather systems. Locusts can take-off at sunset if the temperature is above 20 C flying to several hundred metres altitude and then be carried by upper level winds. The locusts may move up to 500 kilometres or more in a single night, depending on wind speed and the number of hours they stay aloft. Shorter distances (rarely exceeding more than 20 kilometres per day) can also be covered by day-time flights.

8 Rule of thumb

A human hair is about 80 micrometres thick, a piece of office paper is about 0.1 millimetres thick, and your hair can grow 10 nanometres in 5 seconds (see above).

So how can you compare these small sizes with each other.

One way is to convert them all to millimetres:

hair 0.080 mm, paper 0.1 mm, and your hair grows 0.000 01 mm in 5 seconds.

However, a better way is to use what I call the 'whole numbers rule' where you choose the smallest unit (using a list of SI prefixes in this case the nanometre) and use this for each measurement:

hair 80 000 nm, paper 100 000 nm, and your hair grows 10 nm in 5 seconds.

Sure, you get some big numbers but it is easier to see the relative sizes and you can avoid decimals altogether so you don't have to deal with any fractions at all!

By the way, nanotechnology usually refers to materials or structures that are less than 100 nanometres.

9 History

The metric system was invented in England.

My recent travels also gave me the chance to confirm some suspicions that I had about the origins of the metric system. I had read that linguists had found references to a fully developed system of measurement from 1668 by John Wilkins in England before the French development of the metric system in France in the 1790s. In 1668 the Royal Society published a 600 page book by Wilkins on language called:


Although this book was mostly about languages and the ways that they are written, it also included a scant four and a half pages of reference to measurement that described almost all of the features that we now regard as normal characteristics of the International System of Units (SI), the modern metric system.

John Wilkins suggested a decimal system, with a universal standard of length, preferably based on time, and that this standard length (or 'universal measure') could be used to define area, volume, and 'weight' (using distilled rain water). Some of Wilkins' ideas were repeated by Gabriel Mouton two years later, in 1670, and the word, metre, probably derived from a translation of Wilkins, 'universal measure', into the Italian, 'metro catholico', seven years later by Tito Livio Burattini in 1675.

Naturally this story intrigued me, as I knew the implications of this idea for the metrication process around the world, especially in the UK. I arranged to thoroughly investigate this while I was in the UK.

Happily, I was able to conduct my metrication research at Wadham College Oxford, Trinity College Cambridge, at the British Library, and at the Royal Society in London. I was able to confirm without doubt that the fundamental ideas that became the basis for the metric system were developed in England around 120 years before the French improvements that included the name of the metre and the decimal prefixes.

My report on this research was well received at the United Kingdom Metric Association Annual General Meeting (see: http://www.metric.org.uk/press/releases/pr070712.htm ) and the results were given some time on the media in London where I appeared on the 'BBC News at 6:00', the International BBC 4, and the BBC Five Live Drive program. I was also interviewed for another BBC science documentary and for a London Times special report.

You can see the full text of John Wilkins measurement system in full (with my translation from 17th Century English) at: /articles.html where you can choose either the:

John Wilkins translation full version or John Wilkins translation shorter version

Be aware that the full version is a large document that will take some time to download and that the shorter version only includes my translation. I suggest that you use the shorter version if a large download is a problem for you.

10 Hidden metric

Sometimes people will avoid measurements to avoid the discussions that necessarily ensue for those who have adopted a dual metric conversion metrication path where they maintain two separate measuring methods.

For example, to avoid questions such as: 'Is that Fahrenheit or Celsius?' or 'What's that in old temperatures?' many people, including the BBC in London say things like: 'Tomorrow will be mild' or 'The weather on Thursday will be cold' (or 'very cold', 'above freezing', 'freezing', 'below freezing', or 'well below freezing', etc). That way the hearer can choose their own definition for 'freezing' as 0 C or 32F.


Pat Naughtin

Geelong Australia

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and has edited and published many others. For example, Pat has written a chapter of a chemical engineering Encyclopedia, and recently he edited the measurement section for the Australian Government 'Style manual: for writers, editors and printers'. Pat has been recognised by the United States Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist.

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