I’m sure those of us who are buying our Thanksgiving turkey at the local supermarket are weighing it by the pound rather than kilogram. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that continues to use the awkward and difficult to remember English system of measure. Liberia and Myanmar, poor, undeveloped countries, are the other two.
How many feet in a mile? Did you know an acre is four rods by one furlong? A barrel of oil is 43 gallons, a barrel of beer 36 gallons and a barrel of wine 56. If you tap and level a cup of flour, you get five oz; if you don’t you get four. Why are there 12 inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, 660 feet in a furlong, and 5280 feet in a mile? The history is complicated but the fact is the English system has outlived its usefulness. Look at the metric system, starting with millimeters (mm.) There are 10 mm in a centimeter, 10 centimeters in a decimeter, 100 cm in a meter and 1000 meters in a kilometer. This system makes far more sense as it lends itself to conversions and calculations much more easily.
Scientists throughout the world for many years now have used the metric system exclusively because it allows them to speak the same language of measurement. We measure bird populations on hectares or square kilometers of land, flight altitudes in meters, weights in grams and kilograms, lengths in cm and mm, and so forth. It would make no sense to do otherwise, especially because birds cross international borders regularly and ornithologists across the world exchange information. Every scientific journal in the world, including those published in the U.S., requires the metric system in its papers.
Years ago I did research on the forces that flycatchers’ jaws could exert while catching an insect in mid-air and measured the forces in pounds per square inch because that’s what the instrument I used was calibrated in. After I published that paper I was invited to speak at the XVIII Congressus Internationalis Ornithologicus in Moscow, Russia on this topic. I had an interpreter during my talk and I had to convert all my measurements to metric – the forces in this case being Newtons.
In the 1970s when scientists discovered that bird eggshells were thinning (and breaking) because of DDT use, they compared recently laid eggs to those collected thirty or more years before. Measurements differed by tenths to hundredths of millimeters (.1 to .01 mm). This would be .0039 to .00039 inches in the English system and hard to compare across international borders. Hart Merriam, naturalist, founder of the American Ornithologist’s Union and one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, published a plea in 1884 for ornithologists to use the metric system.
Not only in science but everyday life, measurements are confusing. We buy liters of Coke and quarts of milk. We use both metric and Imperial sockets to repair our cars. We have three and five K (kilometer) races and 26 mile marathons. Who needs all this confusion?
We tried in the 1970’s to implement the metric system but the luddites in Congress and state legislatures came up with silly slogans like “it smacks of one-worldism.” If we are going to compete in the world marketplace and continue to be world leaders in science technology, we need to break from Liberia and Myanmar and join the rest of the world in a measurement system that makes logical sense.