Tag Archives: metric system

Half of Americans see natural disaster as sign of end times

According to more than half of all Americans, God is in complete control of everything that happens on our planet. Slightly fewer people, 44 percent, believe natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunamis in Japan are caused by an omnipotent power; but hey, it gets a little better – only 29 percent of Americans believe that God punishes a whole nation for the sins of a few individuals.

America never ceases to amaze me when it comes to things like this. Instead of wanting a rational but less desirable answer, people tend to go to the easier ‘God’s will’ approach.

“There’s just something about the randomness of the universe that is too unsettling,” says Scott Schieman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto. “We like explanations for why things happen … many times people weave in these divine narratives.”

The poll surveyed 1,008 adults in the continental United States a few days after the tragic events in Japan, and weighed results by age, sex, geographic region, education and race to reflect more accurately the beliefs of the American people. Another interesting result they got was that evangelical Christians are more likely to see disasters as a sign from God than other religious faiths.

All in all, this is pretty disturbing if you ask me. If half of the population in the most developed country in the world believes that natural disasters are some form of divine wrath, then either I’m missing something, or something is very wrong with the world we live in.

Map of countries officially not using the metric system

Prepare to be amazed:

Countries without metric system.

Image via Wiki Commons.

That’s right — the three countries which are not using the metric system are Liberia, Myanmar and of course… the United States of America. Why is the United States so keen on preserving the imperial system? In short, it’s not because Americans hate the metric system — it’s because they hate change, just like the rest of world. But in an ever-connected world, can the US afford not to line up to a standard that everybody else seems to adhere to? As we’ll learn, this resistance to change comes at a cost but at the same time, change also has a cost.

Why the US uses the imperial system

Because of the British, of course. When the British Empire colonized North America hundreds of years ago, it brought with it the British Imperial System, which was itself a tangled mess of sub-standardized medieval weights and measurements. By the time America proclaimed its independence in 1776, the former colonies still had trouble measuring uniformly across the continent. In fact, the forefathers knew this well and sought to address the problem. The first step was granting Congress the power “to coin Money … and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures,” as stated in Article I, Section 8 of the newly formed Constitution. In 1790, secretary of state Thomas Jefferson made an analysis of the matter and felt reluctant to stir his country towards the decimal-based metric system — at the time still a fledgling standard born in France.

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America’s icy relationship with France didn’t help too much, either. The proclamation of the metric system was made on June 22nd, 1799 in Paris with the storage in the Archives of the Republic as the physical embodiments of the standard. The prototype meter and the prototype kilogram, both made of a platinum alloy, were witnessed by representatives of the French and several foreign governments, as well as some of the important natural philosophers of the time. However, France snubbed the U.S. when it invited dignitaries from foreign countries to travel to Paris to learn about the metric system.

It’s important to note, however, that even if US representatives had traveled to Paris, they most likely wouldn’t have returned with favorable news. In 1821, after studying the various units of measurement used by the 22 states, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams determined that the U.S. Customary System was sufficiently uniform and required no changes. Most people actually believed that the metric system wouldn’t survive Napoleon’s rule. They were wrong, however, and by the time the American Civil War ended, most of Europe had turned metric — other than the proud British of course.

In 1866, an act of Congress signed into law by President Andrew Johnson made it “lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.” The act, however, was merely an act of recognition, which didn’t necessarily translate into practical use.

Following WWII, the world started a cycle that’s still continuing today: globalization. As America was importing and exporting more and more goods, it found itself in a predicament when trading with other countries, as most of them were using the metric system. American companies had to make twin labels, train workers and students on both systems and re-purpose thousands of machines across various industries. The costs were, and still are, enormous. With this in mind, some Congressmen proposed the US finally switched to metric. In 1971, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards issued a report titled “A Metric America” recommending that the U.S. transition to the metric system over the course of 10 years. In response, Congress enacted the Metric Conversion Act in 1975 to commence the conversion process. However, the implementation was extremely lacking — someone had the bright idea to strip out the 10-year deadline and make the conversion voluntary — and, of course, no one wanted to willingly change to metric.

Why the US doesn’t use the metric system

metric vs standard

“The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets fifteen rams to the hogs head and that’s the way I like it!” – Abe Simpson.

So, America really tried to switch, but it failed miserably. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. Switching to metric is, in a sense, like switching to another language. If you’re not American, picture this: how would you feel if your government enacted a new rule that forced you to switch to the imperial system? Yes, the metric is simpler and uses fewer units, but rational reasons aside, you’d be furious simply because you’d have to change the frame of reference you’ve been using to all your life. The UK switched to metric in 1965, and this happened only because the industry forced it. UK companies were simply having too much a hard time trading with European countries. Even 50 years later, many Britons still refuse to move entirely to metric. Distances are still measured in miles, yards and inches, weight in pounds and stones; liquids in pints and gallons.

However, the US isn’t pressured by the same trading problems as the UK. You don’t need the metric system to measure one car made in Japan, or one iPad from China, or to license an SQL Server to Germany. Most of the food and drinks are made and used within the US. As far as science and industry go, nowadays most work in SI units. So, at least for now, Americans are still fine without the metric system though sometimes problems and confusions surrounding the conversion can cause disasters. For instance, one conversion error between US and metric measurements sent a $125 million NASA probe to its fiery death.

“The use of two different unit systems was the cause of the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998. NASA specified metric units in the contract. NASA and other organizations applied metric units in their work, but one subcontractor, Lockheed Martin,  provided thruster performance data to the team in pound force seconds ainstead of newton seconds. The spacecraft was intended to orbit Mars at about 150 kilometers (93 mi) altitude, but incorrect data probably  caused it to descend instead to about 57 kilometers (35 mi), burning up  in the Martian atmosphere.” – Wikipedia

In the U.S. Customary System, a.k.a. the inch-pound system, more than 300 different units exist to measure various physical quantities. Many of those units use the same name but have very different meanings. On the U.S. Metric Association Web site, contributor Dennis Brownridge identifies at least nine different meanings for the unit we know as a “ton”: short ton, displacement ton, refrigeration ton, nuclear ton, freight ton, register ton, metric ton, assay ton and ton of coal equivalent. This is downright confusing even for Americans!

It seems that the conversion of the US to the metric system is more of a “when” than an “if”. After all, Myanmar (formerly Burma) recently announced it plans to switch to the metric system soon, leaving the US in the fine company of Liberia as the only two countries in the world who haven’t switched to metric.

Metric or Imperial, it’s still science and we love it. Do you? — join our community!