Thinking metrically


I was one of those kids who did really well on standardized tests in school.

I tested in the 99th percentile in almost every subject we were tested on back when I was in school. Almost. There was one subject I consistently did badly on. Not just bad, but worse than average. In fact, I very nearly couldn’t pass it.

That was the section on measurements.

It tested us on how well we understood the English (or customary) system of measurements, from inches to miles, pounds to tons and my own personal nightmare: liquid measurement. Pints, gallons, quarts, cups, tablespoons... it makes my head spin.

In high school I had a science teacher who taught us the metric system. Now, there’s a system I can understand! It’s incredibly simple, based on universal standards and if you memorize one set of prefixes you understand every type of measurement.

To my surprise, I kept hearing adults say how hard the metric system is to learn. I couldn’t believe it. If you want hard, just look at the English system. How many feet in a mile? Three feet in a yard? Ounces, pints, teaspoons... what?

I eventually figured out that the problem was that most people, instead of learning the metric system from scratch, were learning how to convert from the English system into the metric system. And that, in a world where calculators weren’t yet ubiquitous and nobody had yet heard of Google, was indeed difficult.

My science teacher had taught us conversions, but only as an afterthought. He basically said not to worry about it, and if we must convert, use a calculator and a conversion chart. He didn’t expect us to memorize the formulas. Instead, he tried to get us to think in metric.

I suspect that if every child were taught metric in school first, within a generation we would move to it as a country. Because the English system is completely loony. Only three countries in the world, the United States, Burma and Liberia, still use it.

The reason I’m thinking about it this week is because of Sunnyside’s AWOS system, which can be accessed by calling 836-2384.

It gives the temperature in Celsius, which is a much more sensible way to measure temperature than the Fahrenheit system we are used to. In Celsius, zero is freezing, 10 is not, 20 is warm and 30 is hot.

Celsius is based on the freezing and boiling points of water, with 0 degrees instead of the nonsensical 32 degrees being the freezing point and the boiling point at 100 degrees Celsius (instead of 212 degrees).

I have preferred the metric system since I first learned it. I’ve long wished that we could move to it as a country. And now I have a little motivation, thanks to the AWOS, to start thinking in metric in at least one area of my life.


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