Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous! It’s 5.88 trillion miles! Or try to tell a biology story in everyday terms: The grana stacks, where photo-synthesis happens in a plant cell, are only 0.0002 inches wide, about a third of the width of a human hair! And dozens of letters from outraged readers would promptly arrive, denouncing the writer for daring, daring, to relate a scientific fact in any units other than those of the metric system.
What those readers understood, of course, is that only Le Système International d’Unités stands as genuinely scientific. Only the decimalized measurement created by the French revolutionaries in 1799 has truly escaped the medieval mess of premodern times. Diderot may have wanted the last king to be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, but his more precise successors in the revolution would have specified 1.5 meters of the lower intestine. For that matter, only the metric system is enlightened. It’s practically a religious obligation, and those who dared fail to use it were to be pilloried, shunned, and shamed.
Alas, America’s butchers sell meat by the pound. Milk is still offered in quarts, yarn still skeined in yards, nuts and bolts still packaged in grosses, nails still measured by penny-weight, and paper still cut in inches and sold in reams. The weather is still reported in Fahrenheit degrees, and the cooks on television still measure out their spices in teaspoons.
All the way back in 1971, the National Bureau of Standards issued its perfectly titled report A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come. All the way back in 1988, Congress passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act. And still we lumber along with feet and miles, acres and sections, pints and gallons. We Americans have failed, as we so often do. We have let the rest of the world down. We are a bitter, backward people, clinging to our Bibles, guns, and yardsticks.
Which, I have to say, is okay with me. They can have my bathroom scale when they pry it out from beneath my cold, dead feet. When rulers are outlawed, only outlaws will have rulers. Or something like that. I don’t hate the metric system. I hate the French. Or rather, I hate the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger officials—why do I picture Jimmy Carter here?—who insist on fundamental changes in the way Americans live their lives, because, after all, the French do things differently.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Years ago, I constructed a case against the metric system that I called the Argument from Poetry. In 1959, C.P. Snow denounced the divide between the two cultures of the humanities and the sciences—but nowhere was the divide greater, he failed to note, than in systems of measurement. Can scientists not hear the joy of measuring horses by hands? Racetracks by furlongs? Pirate gold by troy ounces? Valleys of death by leagues? Anything that keeps old words in circulation is to be treasured, the French Revolution be damned.
Nowadays, however, the religious fervor behind the metric system seems to have faded. Angry letters to the editor don’t come in reams anymore, and presidents in sweaters don’t typically harangue the hangdog nation. And the reason is not the triumph of poetry, unfortunately, but the triumph of computers.
I could make a deep case here that the base-2 of machine language, the base-16 of programming, taught the nation that decimal bases are just as arbitrary as any other numeral system—and thus that carpentry is welcome to its feet and inches, useful since 12 is the lowest number divisible evenly into halves, thirds, and quarters. But that’s probably not the real reason. In truth, what computers did was make conversion easy.
A Google search for convert inches to centimeters brings up 663,000 results, headed by Google’s own handy conversion calculator. My father kept a card with conversion formulas in his wallet. My mother had a refrigerator magnet with similar ratios (so she could use French recipes, naturally). But even when they encountered metric measurements, they still had to grab scraps of paper to scribble out the math—and computers now do it all in a single step. The speed of light is around 300 million meters per second, or 671 million miles per hour, and who cares anymore about the difference in measuring systems?
Not I, Mr. Carter. Not I.
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.
A church father gets an ideological makeover. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St.
The evolution of forbidden language. Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?
Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Early in 1659, a strong-willed woman named Sarah Chevers and an even stronger-willed woman named Katharine Evans arrived in Malta. By chance—or, as they insisted, Providence—they had been diverted, their Dutch ship chased into the port of Valletta by rumor of pirates and bad weather. And since Malta is where they found themselves, Malta is where they would stay, preaching God’s true Protestant faith—the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the Catholic island be damned.
The right man, at the right time, for Christendom. Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Most of the time, intellectual history is a tangle, the threads so snarled that the result looks like a skein of yarn after a dozen kittens have been set loose on it. That lump over there? The muddle that the Venerable Bede made of things. That twisted set of knots? The playful chaos that Thomas Carlyle constructed for us. That indecipherable web? It’s what was left of Western philosophy after Martin Heidegger got his paws on it.
Joseph Bottum, in mourning for peaceJul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I woke this morning to the gentle coo of a mourning dove on my windowsill. The gentle coo, the mellifluous murmur. You know that sound—mourning doves are everywhere in this country, over three hundred million of them across North America, calling out their woo-OO-oo-oo-oo in wistful sorrow at . . . well, actually, I don’t know at what. Their lost loves? Their absent parents? The sad condition of this fallen world?
The new pope’s first encyclicalJul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
There’s something in the new papal encyclical Lumen Fidei to disappoint everyone who longs for direct political action from the Vatican.
An Argentinian Jesuit in the Vatican. Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
There was much talk during the recent conclave in Rome, as there usually is at such times, about the Catholic church as a medieval institution. Occasionally that took the mild form of newspaper Sunday supplement pieces brightly describing the voting process in the Sistine Chapel. More often it combined a sneer at the past with an attack on the present.