The Sciences

Give him 2.54 centimeters and he'll take 1.609344 kilometers

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMay 10, 2011 3:09 PM


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I like the metric system. I really do. It's so much easier than trying to remember how many inches there are to a mile, or roods per square furlong*. I prefer metric over the imperial system, and use it all the time. I really wish the U.S. would just knuckle under and convert to it, and join the rest of the entire world in the 21st century. Well, the rest of the entire world except for Burma and Liberia. Yay? Still. The thing is, I do have a problem with the metric system. Not as a way of measuring things, but because it's really awful for aphorisms. Seriously. This has bugged me for a long time, but it came up again while writing a blog post where I wanted to use the phrase "That asteroid will miss us by a cosmic mile," a play on the phrase "country mile", a colloquialism for a long distance. I used the phrase because I liked it, but had to wonder how many of my non-American readers had no clue what I was talking about. As I pondered more on this, it got worse. Who can really refer to a diminutive friend as "0.2366 liter"? Will we bury people 5.5 1.83 meters under? Will contemplative people have a 914.4 meter stare? Will a liter be a kilogram the world around? And it's not just phrases that will suffer. Will bars sell a 0.914 meters of ale? Will biologists have to start writing papers on 2.54 centimeter worms? Who would listen to an album by the rock group 22.86 Centimeter Nails? And I can guarantee there is not a Texan in the Lone Star State who would wear a 37.854 liter hat. Take this to the extreme. I dare you. Read the title of this post and tremble at the future of metrication. And of course, we'll see the rise of metric pronunciation Nazis. Here's proof:

[embed width="610"][/embed]

Is this the future we want? Of course, I suppose, since they are aphorisms after all, we need not convert exactly. But they lose their charm. "Pinch a centimeter", "drop by the pub to grab a half-liter", "I wouldn't touch that with a three meter pole"... well, those fall a little flat. It's hard to fathom those phrases catching on. But this day is coming. Heed my warning. After all, 28.35 grams of prevention is worth 0.454 kilograms of cure.


^† I found out there's a British unit called the "fluid scruple", used by apothecaries. That's perfect, given the fluid scruples of selling homeopathic remedies.

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