Monday, November 23, 2009

Metric Musings

G’day from Down Under! I’m in Australia for a week’s worth of school visits starting tomorrow, and some extra time devoted exploring and research. I just saw my first kangaroo in the wild!

Aside from marsupials, the Sydney Opera House, meat pies, didgeridoos and other pleasures of Oz, I’m thinking about the metric system, or Système Internationale (SI), as it is properly known. In my presentations at schools, I refer to measurements many times. Last week while presenting at the wonderful Springfield Ball Charter School in Springfield, IL, I asked my host to make a note every time I said something like, “Light travels 186,000 miles per second” or “I’m about 6 feet tall” or “If you ate ice cream at a rate of one ounce per minute…” I wanted to know all the times I use measuring units in the American way.

Armed with his notes, I can now use conversion factors and change those archaic American measurements to sensible metric ones for my Aussie audiences. But do I want to? Does it make sense to convert a measurement to its equivalent in another system? As far as I can tell, the answer is, “Sometimes.”

I believe it makes perfect sense to say that the speed of light is 300,000 km per second and that the earth is 150,000 million kilometers from the Sun. (It’s pronounce KILO-meters, by the way — not kill-O-meters.) But should I convert when I am talking about my book on proportion, If You Hopped Like a Frog, and I say that I’m about six feet tall, and if I my tongue were as long proportionally as a chameleon’s (half as long as its body), my tongue would be three feet long? In other words, should I tell the Australian children that I am 183 cm tall, so my chameleon tongue would be about 91.5 cm? Or… to use the title example, in the States I tell my audience that a 4’6” child able to hop like a frog (meaning 20 times his or her length/height) would be able to jump 90 feet. Here in Australia, should I say that a 137 cm child able to perform a frog’s feat would thus hop 27.4 meters?

Of course not. Exact conversion often makes for complicated, daunting mathematics.

Yet I see this sort of thing in books all the time. “He walked about 25 miles (32.18 km) a day”. . . “Add two cups (473 ml) of flour” . . . “A St. Bernard can tip the scales at 200 lbs (91 kg).” If you didn’t know better, you’d think all American measurements are nice round numbers while metric measurements are ugly and unwieldy. But the fact is that whoever provided the original numbers approximated to nice, round ones. Calculate a conversion and it gets ugly. (Of course if we wrote it in the reciprocal it would be just as ugly. For instance, we could say, “A St. Bernard can tip the scales at 90 kg (198.42 lbs.)” and readers would blanche at the thought of weighing the dog in pounds!)

The best thing, I think, is not to convert, but to think metric from the start. Tomorrow, I won’t say I’m 183 cm tall. I’ll say I’m about 180 cm tall so my tongue (if I had one that was as long, proportionally, as a chameleon’s) would be 90 cm long. And so on.

The practice of converting units has kept the U.S. from switching to the metric system and joining the world. There is no question that it is the better system because, like our number system, it is based on 10. Once you get a basic familiarity with the units, which would take about three hours if you actually used them instead of converting them into more familiar units, you’d see how much easier they are to use. (Need proof? Quick: What’s 5’8” plus 7’ 9”? What’s the weight of 8 books if each weighs 3 lbs. 9 ounces? How much water should you use if you triple a recipe calling for 1¾ cups? In the metric system these would be simple problems. What’s 173 cm plus 236 centimeters? 409 centimeters. What’s 8 times 1.7 kg? 13.6 kg. What’s 3 X 0.4 liters? 1.2 liters. Easy.)

So the problem is not the metric system itself. The problem is how it’s taught — or, more precisely, how we are taught to convert units instead of thinking metric. I view it as language acquisition. Does anyone learn a foreign language by translating every word and sentence? No, foreign languages are learned by immersion. Measuring systems are way easier to learn than languages. Just dive in. On your trip to Paris or Tokyo or Nairobi or Guadalajara or just anywhere else outside the USA, don’t convert. In Millions to Measure, my book on measuring, I wrote, “Find out how tall you are in centimeters, how much you weigh (your mass, actually) in kilograms, how much milk your family drinks in liters, the distance to your school in kilometers, the temperature every day in degrees Celsius, and so on. Once you start measuring and thinking this way, you’ll soon learn the metric system. You’ll be measuring like a word citizen.”


School for Us said...

My daughter (& I) love your books and I'm so glad I came across this blog. We homeschool & are studying the metric system right now. What a great way to re-think this subject!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting you bring this up... I'm a nonfiction editor and we always include conversions because while most of our audience is American, our books are also sold in Canada and they won't sell books without metric. This makes for some interesting conversions--you cannot just convert the number of hairs in a square cm on a tiger to the equal number of square inches--you have to convert the whole example, with a number of hairs per square inch and the number per square cm. I think the real reason the U.S. has not switched over is all the tools that are done in standard measure, 1/2-inch sockets and such.

Gretchen said...

David: Back before England converted to decimal currency (1971,) I worked in a London pub where we had to add the prices in our heads and ring up the total in the till. "Old" English money was based on 12 pence to a shilling. It was a LOT easier (for me at least) to add 3s 6d + 15s.9d in my head, than to add 42 + 194, all the while drawing more pints of bitter (beer.) Pounds and ounces, inches and feet made sense in the pre-calculator days.