Commentary: Metric Mayhem

Practically the entire world uses the metric system. Is it time for the United States to follow suit?

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NASA and Lockheed Martin aren’t the only ones suffering. About 20 years ago a Canadian airliner nearly ran out of fuel when U.S. ground crews filled its tanks with 22,300 pounds of gas rather than 22,300 kilograms. Corporate pilot Michael Payne says that when flying in Russia or China, air traffic controllers give altitude instructions in meters, leaving U.S. pilots to convert them into feet.

Among the first advocates for metrication in the United States was Thomas Jefferson, who as secretary of state asked Congress in 1790 to adopt a decimal system of weights and measures “and thus bring the calculations of the principal affairs of life within the arithmetic of every man who can multiply and divide plain numbers.”  Congress waited 76 years before responding with the Metric Act of 1866, which legalized but did not require metrication. A century later, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 followed by a 1988 bill making metric the “preferred system of weights and measures” and beginning a voluntary conversion to metric, a forthright step everyone promptly forgot.

We’re now left with a strange metric-Imperial amalgam that actually includes more metric measurements than you might guess: We buy soda in liters, we measure film in millimeters, and our track stars run 100 or 1,000 meters. Curiously, illicit drug dealers have gone mostly metric, and it clearly hasn’t caused them any financial hardship.

But imagine cheering at the Indy 804.7 or reading 96561 Kilometers Under the Sea, says Matt Bartmann, who with his brother Dan created the website metricsucks.com as a joke to bring attention to their surplus-magnet business but then decided the metric system really does suck. There’s no reason to upend our culture simply to conform to the rest of the world, they concluded. It’s enough that liquor buyers already get ripped off by the metric system: For example, a “fifth” is actually 750 milliliters, slightly less than a true fifth of a gallon. “We never really liked it,” Bartmann says. “Now we have good reason not to like it.”

If it mixes up the nation’s top space engineers, though, how can we expect schoolchildren to grasp the outdated Imperial system? That’s the question raised by Lorelle Young, president of the U.S. Metric Association, who cites studies showing that our students could save a semester’s worth of school if they learned metric, where everything is based on multiples of 10. “I always like to compare it to when computers came in,” she says. “People said, ‘It’s too hard to learn.’ Now you couldn’t imagine life without computers.”

NASA, which was supposed to go all metric in 1996, adopted a new policy after the Mars Climate Orbiter “mishap” that requires “consideration of the metric system” for all new programs “unless such use can be demonstrated to be impractical or likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to U.S. firms.”

Backbone, anyone?

A few years back, the late Brian Welch, head of NASA’s news operations, issued a directive saying the agency would use inches and pounds in news releases because that’s what the public and the press understand. He was deluged with critical e-mail from metricationists. “I did not think it was our job to unilaterally drag the American public into the metric system,” he recalled.

That may be, but doing nothing is almost always the easiest way to go. And as long as we can do nothing, we probably will. We’re so used to everyone else adapting to our ways, we may simply have forgotten how to adapt ourselves. Oh, that spacecraft orbiting the asteroid? Listen up, editors: It circled 62.1 miles from the rock and then descended to a 31.05-mile orbit.

At least I think that’s right…