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.