U.S. must weigh in on metric soon

In every era, one country stands head and shoulders above everyone else. We are fortunate that in the latter half of the 20th century, the United States is on top of the heap. We are the modern Athens, Rome, Holy Roman Empire, France and England — successor to them all. But the fun thing about being the big kid on the block isn’t just having the muscle to beat up on everyone else. The real pleasure comes from knowing that everyone else listens to what we say.
I’m not talking about politics. Our attempts at verbal influence in the political sphere have been spotty at best. A quick look at our inept attempts to resolve problems in the Middle East or Northern Ireland are evidence of that. Our triumph is not forcing our will on other nations. The triumph is getting them to want to be like us, to be envious of our culture and to want to experience our lifestyles.
McDonald’s is in China and Russia. Microsoft and Apple provide the software that powers nearly all computers in the world. “Jurassic Park” made as much money in Europe as it made in the United States. English is the lingua franca, not French. The world wears our clothes, listens to our music, and eats up everything American. All is good with the world except for a large, nagging itch, an area in which we have not just failed to take a dominant lead, but have fallen behind. Finally, though, the time for change may have arrived.
The French still hold a monopoly that we have been unable to crack since 1889. Sure, their xenophobic tendencies make them downright annoying to most civilized countries, but they have the rest of the world in their grasp. Everyone wants to be free of this stranglehold, and maybe soon we will be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The day is coming when the French dominance of weights and measures will end.
In the old days mankind looked to religion for the absolutes. God, Jehovah and Vishnu were all invariant. Today, science has replaced religion, finding new universal constants and providing the standards with which we quantify the world. Physicists tell us that the only constant is the speed of light, cruising along at 300,000 kilometers per second. But what is a kilometer or a second? Metrologists, the finicky scientists who study weights and measures, have defined these terms in relation to immutable physical fact.
Everything in the universe, from the diameter of the smallest atom to the temperature at the heart of a star, can be quantified in terms of seven fundamental measurements. Every physical property can be accommodated within the seven. (Scientists rightfully are not so concerned with measuring spiritual properties.) The Systäme International d’UnitÇs, the international standards of measure, also known as the metric system, allows anyone to figure out the right quantities anywhere in the world.
The thing about measurement, though, is that we can never be perfectly accurate. When I step on a scale and it tells me I weigh 150 pounds, that’s 150 pounds give or take a few ounces. I might even weigh myself to within those few ounces, but there will still be fractions of ounces. No matter to how many decimal places I weigh myself, there will always be another place to which I could in principle go but our measuring devices limit me. Just because science has defined the measures doesn’t mean we can, with infinite precision, apply them.
As our chart indicates, the metric system provides perfectly accurate definitions for all measures except the kilogram. And that brings us back to the French.
There is only one object in the universe which we can measure with infinite precision. Locked away in a basement in Sevres, near Paris, is a polished cylinder of iridium and platinum that weighs, by definition, one kilogram. That’s one with as many zeroes after the decimal place as you want. Put it on a scale and it can’t help but weigh one kilogram.
Not much better than defining a foot in terms of the reigning monarch’s shoe size, the kilogram’s arbitrary definition forces anyone wanting to standardize their weights to show up on hands and knees in France to beg for permission to make a comparison against the international prototype kilogram. Even in the United States, where we obstinately refuse to go metric along with the mighty nations of Myanmar (Burma) and Liberia, our system of measures has been covertly usurped by the government, which legislated definitions of all of our measurements in terms of the metric system as early as 1893. An inch became 2.54 centimeter; one pound, 0.45359237 kilograms; etc.
The good news is that metrologists are close to cracking the kilogram problem. The difficulty of physically defining mass has been isolating a precise number of atoms that we could call one kilogram. But today an Australian-Italian-Japanese research group, another in Germany and a third in the United Kingdom are all approaching the nearly magical feat of counting atoms. When one of them finally succeeds, everything in the universe will be measurable in terms of unchanging physical fact and the French stranglehold will be broken.
But where are the mighty muscles of the United States in all this? Are U.S. scientists so confined by the American system of weights and measures that they cannot show the world once again how tough our science is? Granted, the public doesn’t want to go metric. The last time we tried, during the oil crisis of the 1970s when some oil companies began charging by the liter instead of the gallon, people were outraged, afraid that they were being ripped off. Yet we had better change our attitudes soon if we want to remain competitors in the global marketplace.
On Dec. 31, 1999, every product sold in the European Union, with a few exceptions, will have to be labeled only in SI terms, no dual labels. Moreover, since everyone else is on the metric page, it’s about time we fell in line. Sure it means that we will be conceding that we were wrong and in this one area we don’t dictate the world’s policy. It may be a bit embarrassing in the short term, but at least we won’t be submitting to the French. With universal definitions come universal applicability that we should embrace as citizens of the world.
The only danger of capitulation is in standardizing the beverage can with the rest of the world. When you travel to Europe, a can of Coke is 330 milliliters, not the 355 milliliters it is here. This slight decrease in volume, and hence mass, may lead to a shrinking of the biceps of many college students who will not quite be doing 12 ounce curls anymore. But this is a small price to pay.
The Systäme International d’UnitÇs is rolling at us like such a juggernaut that we will not be able to hold off for much longer. If you are one of those incredibly stubborn individuals who just refuses to grow up and get with the times, the sort that is still afraid of computers and the Internet, you had better start learning your shorthand conversions. When you hear a metric measure, just double it and add 30 to get back to the old system. Five degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Fahrenheit will be close. Otherwise you will look like a buffoon when you go out with three sweaters and a jacket on that 5 degree morning.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments at [email protected]