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Metrication matters - Number 61 - 2008-06-10

Dear Subscriber,

Welcome to all of our new subscribers.

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

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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

Martin Vlietstra, from London UK, wrote:

Hi Pat,

It took me less than a minute to calculate how many times 6s 4d divided into £123 9s 9d (389 times, remainder 6s 1d). I cheated, I used EXCEL, ... but is it necessary to have to do a large number of superfluous calculations merely to get the numbers into the correct form? That is why I prefer the metric system – I get more real work done for the same amount of brainpower.



Jim Palfreyman, from Tasmania in Australia, wrote:


I live in Hobart, Tasmania. I've been doing my fair share on the metric system.

Jim writes to Australian government officials about metric issues and he has been correcting Wikipedia articles to ensure that scientific articles use metric units. He also removes imperial units from major astronomy articles (e.g. planets). Jim says:

They sneak back occasionally but we keep removing them because it is now (Wikipedia) policy.

Jim Palfreyman also wrote the story, Mean Mr. Metric. You can find it at the bottom of the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrication_in_the_United_States or you can download the story directly from: http://www.ofb.net/~jlm/oracle/oracle.365.10

Jim says he wrote the Mean Mr Metric story 17 years ago, in 1991, as part of the Oracle program where you could ask any question, but your payment was that you had to answer another (someone else's) question. Jim was inspired to write the Mean Mr. Metric in response to the question: Will the USA ever go metric? The Mean Mr. Metric story was one of the highest vote scoring Oracularities (as they were called) ever.

Jim Palfreyman concluded:

It's spread across the net and I discovered my writing on the "metrication in the united states" article on Wikipedia (I didn't put the link there).

Feel free to use it in your newsletter if you think it's good for a laugh.

Keep up the good work,


Jim Palfreyman

2 Editorial

The more I look at metrication programs around the world the clearer it becomes why some metrication projects work and why others seem to fail. There seem to be four main reasons for the appearance of failure (don't forget that metrication is inevitable so the appearance of failure is an illusion!)

1 Trying to use metric conversions. These do not work quickly — and they never have. See: /metric_conversion.html

2 Fiddling with fractions. For example, builders in Australia chose to use millimetres and they completed their metrication upgrade within a year. This was mostly because millimetres allowed them to always work with whole numbers. They no longer have to use fractions. Builders in the UK and in Canada chose to use centimetres (with half and quarter centimetres, half and quarter metres, and decimal points all over their drawings) and they are still struggling with their metric conversions after more than 40 years. The success in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India is due to the advocacy of a clear and definite policy by these building industries. See: /docs/centimetresORmillimetres.pdf

3 Dithering with dual measures. Wherever dual measures are tried there are extensive delays, giving the illusion of little or no progress (However this is only an illusion because metrication is inevitable remember!) . Common examples are human height, where dithering between centimetres, and metres has effectively kept feet and inches alive in the UK since 1965, selling 500 millilitres of beer in the UK with enough froth to fill 568 millilitre containers (called pints), and the birth mass of babies, where the choice between kilograms and grams has kept the old pre-metric pounds and ounces as part of the vernacular. Many babies (and adults) die from medical errors caused by conversion mistakes. Don't duel with dual!

4 Hidden metric, where a metric change is made — then hidden. Two examples: firstly, cars, trucks, and bikes in the USA have been designed and built in metric units since the mid 1970s. This metrication is then hidden, and drivers see 'ml' (miles) and 'mph' (miles per hour) on the dial in front of them. Secondly, the computer industry designs and builds in nanometres, micrometres, and millimetres, then markets the all metric computer as something like the '17 inch screen' model.

3 Oddities

A discussion on the USMA mail list began by talking about 'dry pints of tomatoes'. After noting the differences between dry pints and fluid pints in the USA, the theme drifted onto the size of barrels. Jim Frysinger researched this and reported:

So, how big is a barrel of apples? Well, you ask and Congress answers: 15 U.S.C. 231. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode15/usc_sec_15_00000231----000-.html

"The standard barrel for apples shall be of the following dimensions when measured without distension of its parts: Length of stave, twenty-eight and one-half inches; diameter of head, seventeen and one-eighth inches; distance between heads, twenty-six inches; circumference of bulge, sixty-four inches outside measurement, representing as nearly as possible seven thousand and fifty-six cubic inches: Provided, That steel barrels containing the interior dimensions provided for in this section shall be construed as a compliance therewith."

And 7056 in3 is roughly 115.63 L. That's a bit over 3 bushels, for old fogies.

Now you know.

Later Jim added:

There is a parallel section that gives the size of barrels for all other fruits, vegetables, and other dry commodities. All except cranberries are the same size as that for apples; separate dimensions are given for cranberry barrels. See: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode15/usc_sec_15_00000234----000-.html>

I have no idea why cranberries receive special individual consideration — and I doubt that anyone else does either.

4 Tips

Now is a good time to start planning for 'Metric Week' in schools. Each year, the week containing October 10 — the tenth day of the tenth month — is called 'Metric Week'.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in the USA started 'Metric Week' in 1976, the year after the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was enacted. You can find details and suggestions for activities you can plan for that week at the United States Metric Association web page: http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/metric-week.html

As a gift for your friends in the USA and to remind them of 'Metric Week' you might like to pass along this historical one minute YouTube reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeyGEwjLPGw and just for fun I repeat this YouTube reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omh8Ito-05M

5 Signs of the times

Jim Frysinger (see above) reported to the United States Metric Association that:

On BBC America a product called Restylane is advertized. It's a dermal filler that can be used to plump out flesh to remove wrinkles. A woman's face is shown before and after and a subtitle says that she received three 1 mL injections. They got the symbol correct and they even had the appropriate space in front of it.

Jim then concluded:

That doesn't make me want any of it, though.

6 Quotations

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito — Dalai Lama

And speaking of famous people:

Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresea, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.Life's Little Instruction Book, H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

7 Q&A


Has the kilogram been redefined as a sphere of pure silicon?

Answer: (from Eugene Mechtly in Illinois)

At http://www.metrication.us the assertion is made that 'the International Prototype of the kilogram "... is set to be replaced by a perfect silicon crystal sphere developed by scientists at Australia's CSIRO.'

Although the article on the sphere of silicon 28 is impressive, the assertion, on adoption of the sphere as the redefinition of the kilogram, is premature.

Gene then quoted from a letter from Elizabeth J. Gentry from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).


The redefinition of the kilogram will be considered at the next meeting of the CGPM in 2011. It is my understanding that the Avogadro Experiment has not been chosen above the Watt Balance Experiment (or visa versa) to redefine the kilogram. I understand that a redefinition will not move forward until a project achieves uncertainties similar to the current realization method. Agreement among the multiple Watt Balance experiment uncertainties must also occur.

The BIPM website gives a nice synopsis on the topic (http://www.bipm.org/en/scientific/elec/watt_balance/ ). The BIPM website states:

"Taking into account the required uncertainty mentioned above and the levels of performance reached up to now by the different techniques we believe that the watt balance is a very promising candidate for a future redefinition of the kilogram."

Best regards,

Elizabeth J. Gentry
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Weights and Measures Division

8 Rule of thumb

If you want to know how much alcohol you take in when you drink can of beer, you look at the percentage (say 4.6 % alc/vol) and the size of the can (say 375 mL). Multiply these together and divide the answer by 100:

4.6 x 375 ÷ 100 = 17.25 millilitres

Multiply that answer by 0.8 to find the approximate mass of that alcohol in grams. In this case, it is 13.8 say 14 grams of alcohol in one can of beer.

In the UK, some government departments use 'units of alcohol' to measure the amount of alcohol consumed. Their so-called unit is 8 grams or approximately 10 mL of pure ethanol. They recommend no more than 14 units for women and 21 units for men each day. Note that this is equivalent to one can of beer per week for women and one and a half cans of beer for men. I suspect that some men would not let the other half-can of beer go flat!

9 History

Pierre (François André) Méchain (1744/1804) was a mathematical child prodigy who became an astronomer and hydrographer at the naval map archives in Paris. Through his astronomical observations, Méchain discovered 11 comets and calculated the orbits of the two comets he found in 1781. He also provided 26 additions to Messier's catalogue of clouds and clusters of stars and galaxies.

In 1790, Méchain was chosen by the National Assembly, with Jean-Baptiste Delambre, to help establish a legal decimal system of measurement based on the metre, defined as one ten-millionth of the distance between the Earth's pole and the equator. Méchain and Delambre conducted a survey of the meridian arc from Dunkirk in France to Barcelona in Spain. Méchain later died of yellow fever while making further surveys for the meridian measurement. France, in the 1790s, was the first nation to legally adopt the metric system, and all nations of the world now use the metric system that Méchain and Delambre established.

10 Hidden metric

The dollar coin in the USA has a mass of exactly 8.1 grams, a diameter of exactly 26.5 mm, and a thickness of exactly 2 mm. It has been minted since 2007 but few people in the USA know about its metric dimensions.


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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