The White House today issued a response to a petition on its We the People site which had called for the adoption of the metric system. The petition had garnered almost fifty thousand "signatures". While many proponents of the meters and liters were disappointed with the response, I found it to be reasonable.
Patrick D. Gallagher, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and Director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, wrote:
“Right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson signed legislation that made it ‘lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.’ In 1875, the United States was one of the original 17 nations to sign the Treaty of the Metre. Since the 1890s, U.S. customary units (the mile, pound, teaspoon, etc.) have all been defined in terms of their metric equivalents.
“So contrary to what many people may think, the U.S. uses the metric system now to define all basic units used in commerce and trade. At the same time, if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.
“We measure distance in miles, but fiber optic cable diameter in millimeters. We weigh deli products in pounds, but medicine in milligrams. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda comes in liter-size bottles. We parcel property in acres, but remote sensing satellites map the Earth in square meters.”
The “bilingual” nature of the way we measure things around us hadn’t really dawned on me until I read this.
As a bio/chem major in college, I have known for a long time that the metric system with its ease of convertibility is a superior way to measure the world’s phenomena. A calorie for instance is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. One kilogram of water is equivalent to the mass of one liter of water, which is also equal to the volume of a cube with sides ten centimeters in length. Try to make these calculations in the U.S. customary system and you’re bound to come up with the wrong answer.
Gallagher concluded, “In our voluntary system, it is the consumers who have the power to make this choice. So if you like, “speak” metric at home by setting your digital scales to kilograms and your thermometers to Celsius. Cook in metric with liters and grams and set your GPS to kilometers.
“We were thrilled to see this petition from ‘We the People’ succeed. Feedback like this from consumers shows everyone from policymakers to businesses how important having this choice is to Americans.
“So choose to live your life in metric if you want, and thank you for signing on.”
After reading this, I realized that while I had been living the metric system for over two decades, I wasn’t completely committed to it. My speech was still being corrupted by pounds and inches and gallons.
So, from today on I will “speak” pure metric. On a clear day, I will I exclaim “You can see for multiples of 1.609 kilometers!” When a colleague puts in extra effort, I will thank him for “going the extra 1,609 meters.” I may even buy him 0.57 liters of beer to show my appreciation.
When I’m under intense pressure to perform, I may perspire what feels like increments of 3.785 liters and may even still end up missing a target by 1.6 kilometers. Shylock will now demand 0.453 kilograms of Antonio’s flesh in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”. And, when adamant, I shall not budge, not even 2.54 centimeters. And when I die, they may lay me 1.829 meters under.