In today' unipolar world, the status of Unites States as a world power is a given fact, but one that is being increasingly challenged. USA came to this position by sheer dint of continuous innovations, especially in the fields of science and technology. This country has the largest number of innovations and new technologies that had the power to transform whole societies, not only in the US but around the world. Two of the greatest inventions of the previous century - air travel and Internet, originated here. And yet, what is the knowledge level of an average American? Pathetic, to be most polite.
The average person on the street, including many who are supposedly college educated, can not do basic arithmetic. While that is a different topic by itself, one of the reasons for this state of things is our blind adherence to an old and obsolete system of measurements.
The system of measurements we use today came mostly from Britain, and Europe. Their measuring systems were based on everyday objects. For instance, fluid volumes were measured in barrels and drams, things that were used to store liquids. However, by the very nature of these things, there was no benchmark that was agreed upon by nations, and even among scientists. As a result, the scientific community across nations felt the need for standardization, and thus originated the metric system of measurements. The metric system was adopted as a standard in late 1780s in France and in no time became popular across Europe. (And we still stick to the old system in the 21st Century).
Among the basic physical entities that every one uses around the world are: length (or distance), mass (or weight), time and temperature. There are some more, like electric current, absolute amount of substance and luminous intensity, which are less used by ordinary people. Most other entities are combinations of these basic entities and can be derived by mathematical combinations of the basic entities. For example, area can be calculated by multiplying length of an object along two different directions. Speed is a division of length over unit time. Around the world, every one has adopted the by far superior Metric system of measurements for these entities. The converts to metric system include even Britain and rest of Europe, whose old (and now discarded by them) system of measurements we continue to use today. Here are some examples of the units we use in our old system. For distance we use inches, feet and miles. for mass, we use ounces and pounds. For temperature, we use Fahrenheit. In the metric system, length is measured in meters and kilometers. Mass is measured in grams and kilograms, while temperature is measured in Celsius. Time is the only entity that is measured in seconds, minutes and hours in both the systems. At least in one area, there is agreement!
The measure of distance as Meter was derived in a most scientific way. In the 1780s, a reasonable measure of distance from the North Pole to the Equator was available, This distance was simply divided by 10 million and thus originated the Meter. Today, a rod made from platinum-iridium alloy measuring exactly one meter has been kept at 0 degree Celsius temperature in Paris to serve as a benchmark. Oh, there is an irony here, too. As our technology became more refined, the measurement of distance from the North pole to Equator were modified as the earth's flattening was taken into account. But by that time, the Meter as a unit was fixed. So, instead of changing the length of the Meter, now the distance of the North Pole from Equator in measure as slightly over 10,000,200 meters!
A kilogram was more simply defined as the weight of water having 1000 cubic centimeters volume. And Celsius scale is the best of all - water's freezing temperature is considered as 0 degrees Celsius and the boiling temperature is considered as 100 degrees Celsius. The scale is then evenly divided into 100 parts and each part is then called one degree Celsius.
On the whole, the metric system (or SI units of measurement) is preferable for its own inherent strength in terms of ease of use and conversion. Since every unit is related to its bigger or smaller versions by a power of 10, the conversion from smaller to bigger units and vice versa works beautifully. If one wishes to convert 13,000 meters to kilometers, one simply has to divide by 1,000 and one quickly gets 13 kilometers. Try converting 68,640 feet into miles. At best, it is difficult to do this conversion without calculator and for that, one needs to know the exact conversion factor. Most people can not even do this with a calculator. (By the way, that is 13 miles). And try converting 3 barrels into equivalent gallons. (I give up!).
The fact that almost every country in the world now uses metric system is an added incentive to Americans to adopt this system as fast as possible. In 1974, Unites States government mooted the idea of implementing the metric system across the country. However, entrenched interests in industry strongly opposed the idea, for fear of retooling and losing their investment made in the old imperial system of measurements. As for consumers, the protest came on the grounds that they were too old to now learn new systems of measurements. What happened to those who were children and young adults in 1974? Well, they have grown old now and will use the same arguments that their previous generation did in 1974. To the credit of the government, a law was finally passed in 1988 (Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988) that required a gradual transition to the metric system. But in true deference to the supposedly gerontocratic populace of the nation, the government left the transition to the metric system voluntary. Well, if there is no compulsion, who will take the pains to convert? It is no surprise that even today, distances are measured in miles and items in stores are weighed in pounds and ounces. Most Americans cannot convert ounces to pounds and back. Given an item weight in, say 24 ounces, not many can convert it to pounds. Comparison between various things are beyond the means of most people. Mostly, the manufacturers provide any conversions, if needed. Do you see why they have vested interest in continuing with the old system?
Of course, the scientists in United States have already adopted the metric system for their professional work. But I wonder how a scientist feels when, after using the metric system throughout the day in his/her professional work, he/she leaves for home and measures distances in miles and checks the weather using Fahrenheit scale.
It is time for the ordinary citizens of this country to fall in line with the rest of the world. At this stage, transition initiatives should not be difficult. By law, manufacturers are required to mention the metric measurements alongside the old traditional measurements. For instance, in an old 1996 car, i have seen the odometer showing miles as well as kilometers. If one browses through any grocery store, one finds that on most packages, besides mentioning the content in ounces, the grams measure is also mentioned. The agenda for a transition to metric system can be worked out in phases. Changing the temperature measurements to Celsius should be the easiest of all. After all, temperature measures are rarely fixed on something permanent. All that needs to be done is to start talking about temperatures in Celsius. TV channels can take a lead in this. (And if they do not take a lead, they must be made to follow by law). Most roadside signs already display Celsius measures besides Fahrenheit measures. By requirement of law, signs should simply stop mentioning the Fahrenheit measures. All modern cars should be required to display the temperatures in digital displays to be on Centigrade scale (Celsius). Next, weights can be taken up for transitioning. It will take a while but everyone will fall in line. It appears to me that the hardest of all would be the distance measurements. All road signs are today organized on miles basis, and so far no effort has been made to display kilometer readings. Most freeways have exit numbering system based on miles. We can leave that unchanged, but the display signs should certainly change to kilometers.
Many nations have gone through the pains of this transition and have emerged the better for it. Why should United States not follow suit? The best place to start the transition is schools. In all educational materials, the old system of measurements should simply be discarded and replaced with the metric system. It pains me to see even today young children struggling to understand conversions in old system like inches to feet to yards and miles, ounces to pounds, cups and fluid ounces to quarters and gallons. Why not simply teach them metric system alone? When these children grow up and come into work force, they will never complain that they are too old to now make a transition to a new system of measurements.
(1) Isaac Asimov: Numbers. (2) Internet; www.physics.nist.gov