The Metric System isn’t that special

Alright. Time to rustle some jimmies. I’m supposed to be studying Japanese but fuck it. This as to be done

I studied physics in undergrad and graduate school. I know many engineers and engineering students. And of course in today’s connected world, I talk to many Europeans and… let’s just say I talk to non-Americans. I see this all the time. “The metric system is superior to all other systems of measurement”. As someone who studied sciences and who knows the equations and constants mostly in their metric units and knows the nice conversions between these units I can understand why someone might believe this. However, I personally disagree with the statement. While I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the metric system, I also don’t think there’s anything particularly bad about it.

In this blog post I am going to run counter to the common arguments and demonstrate why they don’t really hold up and they certainly don’t hold up in today’s society.

“It has very accurate definitions”

The common example I see with this is with the meter. Today, the meter is defined as the length light travels in (and I am not joking) 1/299,792,458 of a second. In other words, we know light travels at a constant speed. Take that speed, take a specific time, we can easily calculate how far light has traveled in that time.

“Oho, Artemis. See how nice that is? We can define the meter very accurately no matter what using this definition”. Well, yes. But I do take issues with it.

  1. This definition kind of reeks of being “hacked together” because there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about the number 299,792,458 other than if you divide 1 by it you get how long of a second passes before light travels one meter. The reason for this of course is because the meter was defined before this standard was used so to keep everything the same conversions had to be made.
  2. We can also define literally any distance using this definition. It’s why units like light-second and light-year exist and are used despite not really being metric definitions.

Being able to reproduce a measurement is very important especially when you want to build structures that don’t collapse on people so I can see why these standards have been adopted and updated throughout history. But since we can define any distance quite easily by modifying the time, there’s nothing particularly special about the meter. In fact, using similar methods for other measurements, we can pretty much ape the definition method for everything else and just fiddle with the values. And before you get upset with, just remember that the kilogram was defined to be how much 1/1000 of a cubic meter of the stuff weighed. So the “nice Base-10” factor is just one of construction, and theoretically we can use any atom or molecule we like. and produce any ratio we like.

And now that I’ve mentioned it, let’s get to that. Let’s get to divisibility.

“It’s all in Base-10”

This is very likely the most popular argument in favor of the metric system and again I’m not trying to say that the metric system is bad, rather than it’s not particularly special.

Big controversial opinion incoming: There’s nothing special about Base-10. Yes. By nature, humans have 10 fingers and 10 toes. But those are really the extent when it comes to “10” on the human body. If I were to ask a kid to tell me about parts of the human body, their answer would probably be something like this:

  • 1 head
  • 2 eyes
  • 2 ears
  • 1 nose
  • 1 mouth
  • 2 arms
  • 2 hands
  • 5 fingers on each hand
  • 10 fingers
  • 2 legs
  • 2 feet
  • 5 toes on each foot
  • 10 toes

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a lot of 2 there, not a whole lot of 10. But let’s examine things a little closer. The metric users like to focus a lot on the 10 fingers. While we do have 10 fingers, if you discount the thumb we have 12 joints. A little kid could learn to count to twelve quite easily on their fingers if they counted the little ‘boxes’ on your fingers leading to the fingertip. Some societies may have not believed that the thumb was worth counting, leading to using Base-8 rather than Base-10 for fingers. Today we use Base-2 (binary) and Base-16 (hexadecimal) when working with computers.

Between you and me, I actually like Base-12 more than Base-10. I’ll tell you why too. Base-12 (in my view) is a lot more flexible than Base-10 because it has better factors within it. 10 is divisible into only 1, 2, 5, and 10. 12 is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12. You get 2 extra factors which can be convenient when you’re creating your ruler.

That said, the thing I find most astounding is while people are so quick to tout the superiority of Base-10 yet they seem hesitant to change the way we do time. I do think that if we mucked around with the way we think of time it would be disastrous but let’s go ahead and take a look at time.

There are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute. I don’t see a whole lot of 10. Sure, it goes into 60 six times but… that’s kind of weird. And it doesn’t go into 24 evenly at all. What’s up with that?

The reason of course comes down to how people kept track of time in the past. They used sundials which split were divided into twelve. Why twelve? Well it just so happens that the Base-10 users got beat to the punch when it came to setting up time measurement in the west. Rather than using the ten fingers, it seems that the people of old favored the twelve joints of the hand (excluding the thumb). Probably because the number 12 has more factors.

“The numbers, Mason. What do they mean?”

Bear with me here because it might seem incredible but when you go from a meter to a kilometer you’re not changing the unit. You’re just stretching one unit out. This contrasts with the darned Imperial System with feet and inches and yards and yadda yadda. So what’s the deal with it. Why is it so wonky?

The problem is you guys are looking at the system like a ruler, and not as a series of proportions. Stop thinking of that silly stick you call a ruler and start thinking of this:

“To use the ruler, you must first become the ruler”

“OK but the numbers Mason. What do the numbers mean?” The numbers are the proportions of a human body part to another human body part. But you can probably guess how it goes. “4 fingers to a palm, 4 palms to a foot, 6 feet to a man.” Lots of fours. “But what if a man grows? If you build a house over a year while you’re still a teenager, your foot will grow and the proportions will be all wrong all over the house”. Luckily that’s not as big of a problem because the foot we’re using is actually previously defined by the Romans. They took the length of the foot of their Emperor, called it a foot, and based everything off of that. All they needed to do was cast the foot, make a statue, you now have your standard. And before you say that seems pretty silly, remember that the French used to use a platinum rod to define the meter which would also be subject to change. That’s why new standards are created. That’s why we use the distance light travels today and not a platinum or titanium rod from the past.

Everyday Use

I think food will be the simplest way to convey this one. When you go to the store, I want you to ask yourself: am I buying a can of soda or am I buying 356 mL of soda? Do you buy a bottle of beer or do you buy 650 mL of beer? Broadly speaking, most people aren’t concerned too much with the volume of something because they’re not thinking of it in divided volumes, rather the unit itself. When I buy cereal, I’m not buying 576g of cereal. I’m buying a box of cereal. Even in your day-to-day life you’re probably not consuming things thinking “I drank 300 mL of water, I need to drink 900 mL more before bedtime”. You’re probably thinking, “I drank a glass of water earlier today, I should drink 2 more glasses before bedtime”. You don’t eat “150g of cereal” you eat a bowl of cereal. If you’re having a dinner party and you’re trying to decide how much meat to give your guest, you’re giving them some arbitrary slice of meat, not 242g of meat.

In short, most people are using a “container” rather than the mass or volume measurements themselves.

Conclusion

I think the important thing to remember is that the measurement system you use itself isn’t terribly important. You can come up with whatever justifications you want to define units and convert units. What’s important is that everyone agrees to these definitions and knows how to communicate these units. Your measurement system is just as arbitrary as mine. We can compare standards and go back and forth between the two.

People think the metric system is so special but it wasn’t invented until the 18th century. Imagine the most famous monuments of the world. Pyramids? Metric system not necessary. Roman civilization? No metric system necessary. The Parthenon? No metric system necessary. Notre Dame? No metric system necessary. We’ve been building stuff for millennia so no matter how “difficult” you want to say other measurement systems are, it certainly didn’t stop humanity from building some of the most recognizable structures in the world.

Anyway, that’ll be it from me. Hopefully this will help people chill and stop giving the Americans and the Imperial System so much shit. Thanks for reading.

Artemis Hunt

The Metric System isn’t that special

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