Monday, November 06, 2006

Curious About the Metric System

When I was in elementary school, President Reagan told us we should all convert to the metric system. So I was taught the metric system growing up. We always used metric measurements in science classes. When I think units of measure, except in the sewing room and cooking and body weight, I think in metric. Temperature I can go back and forth on. Since I majored in materials science and engineering in college, I used SI units all the time. (And 1600K, 16ooF and 1600C are very different temperatures. Just ask a ceramic engineer.) My kids do not do only metric in school. They go back and forth, although science is mostly metric. In fact, the first project my son did this year was to convert the standard chocolate chip cookie recipe from metric to American units. (Are they American units? I don't even know what they are called.)

So I am curious about what units everyone else uses. Do you think in metric? Can you convert in your head? What units were you taught in school? Is your local pool measured in yards or meters? I think the only thing that every really switched to the metric system was the plastic Coke bottle.


Anonymous said...

I'm fairly numbers challenged to begin with (whew, that's an understatement!) but I wanted to weigh in here because just this weekend we were doing room and furniture measurments and it was a nightmare! The rooms are measured in feet, and my paper was 1/4" grid, so now I'm using inches (1/2" = 1'), and everything had to be divided by this or that and then multiplied by something else to keep it to scale.

The one that perplexes me the most is meat. The package says 1.14 pounds. But a recipe (or Jim's diet) calls for, say 6 ounces. I guesstimate most of the time, and I'm okay with that, but Jim lives in a world of numbers and likes precision. I must be as exasperating to him as he is to me.

I'm pretty good at yards and meters (they're nearly the same), and kilometers/miles, because I've driven in foreign countries. Farenheit/celsius I don't fret over, because I know that 18-20 is comfortable. 24 is hot. So I don't find it necessary to figure out what the Farenheit equivalent is, because it's too much math when I already know what I need to know: If it's 17 I need to take a sweater.

I wish we did live in a metric world, it would make so much more sense. I think our system is archaic.

Hedgehog said...

I think about this a lot as an American living in Europe. I remember learning in school (in the 1980s) that it was just a matter of time until the US went to metric. I'm good with outdoor Celsius temperatures, but still double check oven temperatures. I'm good with kilometers, but can't think in centimeters. I can think about fruits and veggies in kilos better than pounds, but have no idea how many kilos I weigh and think of that in pounds. How 'bout that for confusing?! I quilt in inches and yards - doubt that will change.

I find converting recipes difficult, especially if people weigh the ingredients b/c a cup of sugar weighs a lot more than a cup of flour. Going from cups to deciliters is so much easier.

Interesting question - curious about other people's answers.

joyce said...

I grew up on Imperial (as I believe inches, yards etc are called) and then in about 1970 Canada changed to Metric. Since I had to teach it, I learned metric too. Just about the only thing I do in non-metric now is quilting. The only problem here in Canada is that the land is already divided into mile roads so kilometers don't work that well but since odomoters in cars are in km we usually say both.

Scrapmaker said...

Your post about the homemade noodles made me remember my Aunt Kathy's noodle making days. She would have lines of drying noodles hung up all around her kitchen. She would usually serve them with roast beef, and they were to die for.
I am too old to have learned "metric" in school, other than in passing. I still work at converting, it's not second nature. Jen

My Brain on Quilts said...

Yards, meters, ounces, millileters, thank goodness for on-line metric converters. I use them all the time. I too was taught we were going to convert to the metric system and we never did. I have a rough idea of the conversions, but don't trust myself enough to use them until I check them.

And speaking of COKE bottles, check this out!

What time is dinner?

Granny Fran said...

When I lived in Boulder all the government and university brains got Boulder to do signage in both miles/kilometers, and farenheit/celsius so I can kind of understand those metric figures, but recipes lose me. Not many cups, or pounds on local road signs to teach me. I'm math illiterate anyway.

Glad you're out and about again and in skinny jeans. How did that baby get in there? Ho Ho!

katelnorth said...

As another American who has lived in Europe for some time, I am fairly fluent in both systems - metric and Imperial. There are small differences in the English imperial and American imperial systems, too, just to make us all crazy (English pints are 20 fl oz, American ones are 16). However, we have pretty much switched over entirely to metric here now with a few notable exceptions - most people can't think of their body weight in kilos but have to think in "stones" (i.e. units of 14 lbs) and driving distance is still measured in miles, though petrol is sold in litres. The kids all learn metric in school, and one of my little ones actually asked me how big an inch was the other day, so obviously, they are trying to avoid using imperial at all, perhaps to keep from confusing them.

Anonymous said...

Ya know, I thought that the "American" system was actually called "empiric" - (After the British Empire) & I am not sure why...

When I was in Austrialia I could do the temperatures pretty good - I'd have to learn all over if I went back. Math wise I am o.k. with metric (The base 10 makes sense), but I can't really "see" it, so I am not comprehending...

diva of quilts said...

When I'm out of the country, I think in metric mostly, kind of like speaking another language I guess. When in the U.S. it's American units mostly. I don't mind converting things approximately when I need to. I prefer not to do exact conversions.

Thomas said...

When I was 8 years old in 1975, the year of the Metric Conversion Act, I heard that the USA will be converting. The first sign was gasoline being sold by the liter. It caused great confusion. This was soon followed by metric rulers, which I enjoyed using, and metric conversion tables, which scared many people with conversions between customary and metric. When I had science in high school, we were instructed to use metric, which I made the switch immediately and continue to this day.

KateGladstone said...

"I think the only thing that every really switched to the metric system was the plastic Coke bottle."

And film (35 millimeters).

And bullets (9 millimeters).

And your blood pressure (measured in mmHg -- how many millimeters of mercury your heartbeat could push up)

And blood donations. (They still call it a "pint," but the actual blood donation unit (everywhere, including the USA) measures 500 milliters -- and only the USA still calls it a "pint" of blood

If you do some shopping after your blood donation, you'll see "500 milliters" (or "0.5 liters") again, over and over -- right under "16.9 ounces" on bottle after bottle of water, energy drink, fruit juice, protein beverage, etc.

Yup -- NOW you know why so many things that used to come in pints now have 16.9 ounces: so the manufacturers can supply the same product worldwide, instead of having one production line for the United States and another one for the rest of the planet.

Don't ask me why they don't call the half-liter bottle its real name instead of this "16.9 ounces" jazz. The public has no problem, after all, with calling a two-liter bottle its real name. (Does somebody out there think that we become stupider or stubborner about metric on only half a liter of soft drink?)

More metric:

Every prescription medication you've ever taken, for the past 50 years at least, and 99% of the non-prescription

The design specifications for every part in every desktop computer, every laptop computer, every cell-phone, every iPod, and every iPhone.

Yes, even the "13-inch" or "15-inch" or "17-inch" screens (on your computer or TV), and the "3-1/2" floppy disks (remember them?) never saw an inch-ruler or a yardstick before they left the factory. Computer companies and television companies write the specifications to the factories in metric, and then write the ads in U.S. customary units -- something they started doing back when Americans built and bought most computers.

I mentioned blood pressure before. Doctors and nurses (in the USA and everywhere else) also use metric to enter every patient's height and weight into their computer or other recordkeeping system -- which means that USA doctors then have to waste their time converting your height and weight into inches and pounds (or having the computer do it) so that they will not then have to waste further time when patients don't know metric and keep asking "What's that in REAL measurements?")

The doctor takes your height and weight in metric (rather than inch-pound) so that he or she can correctly calculate medication doses (the calculations rely on body mass in metric units), can correctly order and evaluate all other medical testing (which also relies on metric units), and to calculate your Body Mass Index: your weight in kilograms over the square of your height in meters. (Doing it in metric gets you the correct index. NOT doing it in metric -- going with your weight in pounds over the square of your height in feet -- requires adding an extra work-around step of multiplying the final result by 703 to correct the equation. Now you know where that 703 comes from in the "standard" [non-metric version] BMI calculation formula that a diet clinic will give you)

The USA has already gone more than half metric, Jules ... we just tend not to notice, because of the inch-pound masquerade still draped over actually metric measurements. I assume that Somebody Out There supposes that if the American public ever notices (GASP! HORRORS!) metric actually in use outside of a science class, Bart Simpson's Grandpa Abe will instantly lead the anti-metric revolt onk the White House in his 40-rods-per-hogshead Model T.