I Believe in Isaac

On Opposition to the Metric System

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on February 15, 2012

or, on the virtue of difficulty

I don’t believe it would serve much purpose to claim that there is anything particularly rational about U.S. System of units; nor would it be honest to insist that there is anything particularly irrational about the metric system. In fact, it doesn’t seem difficult to conclude that in terms of sheer rationalism, the metric system has all others soundly beaten. Few could argue that, given our adoption of a base-10 numerical system, there is profound logic behind also adopting a base-10 system of weights and measures.


I will never be heard arguing that a gallon is somehow a more efficient or useful tool than a liter. I will never be seen cursing the speed limit signs in Canada for being difficult to understand. I will never say that there is anything fundamentally comprehensible about the U.S. System (which, it should be noted, was called the “Imperial System” when still in regular use in England—I, as something of an imperialist myself, much prefer the old to the new). The truth is—and it would take an especially wonderful sort of stubbornness to deny this—that the metric system benefits from an almost unbelievable ease-of-use factor. Conversions can be carried out with ease, often without so much as picking up a pen or hitting a button on a calculator. In the realm of science, especially, where one must keep their units straight at all costs, there is great value in the metric system.


This is well-trod ground. America’s stubbornness in terms of unit adoption is a thing of legend, made only the more dramatic when it is recalled that the U.S. has actually been on the cutting edge in popularizing the metric system since the early 19th century; what’s more, the U.S. Congress officially adopted the system with the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, at which point America smugly shrugged its shoulders and simply went on measuring in pounds, miles and inches (the legislative history of the United States is a treasure trove of such tidbits; and I an avid treasure hunter).

We were thus saved by our own obstinacy from a slow, agonizing death.

Like the very nation I inhabit, I now (after having admittedly wavered) stand firmly in my opposition to the metric system for reasons that have very little (almost nothing, really) to do with measurement. My own opposition stems, instead, from my insistence on asking: Must ease-of-use be our only guiding light in this matter? Must we be constantly tilting at the windmills of simplicity?

“The task must be made difficult,” said Kierkegaard, “for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” Likewise, I ascribe my opposition to the metric system to what I would call the “virtue of difficulty.” When minor tasks are made simple, they remain insignificant; when a hint—even a whisper—of difficulty or complication is added, the mind is suddenly opened up to wonderful things. The simple is transformed into the profound; hidden mysteries are opened and our imaginations are rendered free.

There is, of course an even deeper social aspect to this all—and this particular rabbit hole can be followed absolutely as far as one would care to take it, which is a beautiful thing for those who care to think, but for the moment I choose to keep things (relatively) superficial.

Simplicity is poison to the soul.

As young children, we did not attend school simply that our minds might be filled with information; while the particular facts and ideas might have served more beneficial purpose in later years of education, in the first (and most formative) years of school, it really seems that much of we are taught serves only the purpose of teaching us to think. It does not truly matter, really, that we may have misplaced some of the particulars of what we were taught; what we studiously memorized and promptly forgot the moment it ceased to be a requirement. It matters only that in doing so we exercised something far more valuable than our capacity for trivia; we arrayed our minds toward the very fundamentals of thought, even though most of us had very little worth thinking about just yet. We were given challenges simply because they were challenging, not because it was thought that we might face identical challenges in our adulthood (I have not once since the fifth grade been asked to describe the difficulties faced by pioneers on the Oregon Trail, though I am certainly grateful that at one point I knew). We are made what we are by challenges; by character building.

The moment we begin to idolize simplicity (for the sake of being simple) may very well be the same moment we cease our growth as individuals and begin to succumb to to decay. This is certainly true physically—we all reach a point in our lives when we no longer actively seek out physical challenge and instead choose to run from it. It is true spiritually—stagnation of spiritual growth is far too often a symptom of no longer seeking; no longer asking questions; no longer challenging ourselves. And it is certainly true mentally.

What is the metric system (to at last return to the point of this all) if not a methodology born out of a languid desire for simplicity? Modernization has brought nothing if not the means for greater simplification, such that there remain few avenues by which we may truly be challenged. Our imaginations are threatened by an endless loop of images, some worthlessly inane and some disastrously sensual. Our souls are threatened by a growing devotion to what these same images are telling us. Our bodies are threatened by both misuse and lack of use. Every commercial, every catalogue, every billboard preaches the gospel of self-improvement by some outside means. And in the midst of it all, we grumble persistently in the electronic media of our age (the same grumbling that might once have been heard, in person, around a water cooler), that we still somehow lack this one necessity: We remain in some terrible dark age of measurement. We cry out to the heavens for justice, for there is still this one luxury that we as Americans are denied. And we cower in shame as the rest of the world laughs at our stubbornness.

Let them laugh.


Now, as an added bonus for making it this far, a bit of trivia:

Most of us find it difficult to remember how many feet are in a mile (5280). Perhaps this is because we’ve somehow forgotten that, classically, one needn’t make such a long jump. The Imperial units actually provide us with some intermediaries: We know that there are three feet to a yard, but very few know that there are 22 yards to a chain (which was precisely the length of a chain used by Edmund Gunter in the 17th century to perform surveys in England—and even this was no arbitrary measurement, for he chose to use a chain consisting of exactly 100 links to keep things consistent. On yet another note, this measurement remains in use worldwide as the wicket-to-wicket distance of a standard cricket pitch). Ten chains make up a furlong (ten square chains make up an acre), eight furlongs to a mile, three miles to a league. And, finally, 93 million miles make up one Astronomical Unit (the average distance between the Earth and the Sun).  Interesting, yes? There’s more where that came from. The fun of measurement is practically boundless.


One Response

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  1. logan said, on February 15, 2012 at 6:44 am

    This is certainly true physically—we all reach a point in our lives when we no longer actively seek out physical challenge and instead choose to run from it.

    If we run from physical challenge we are still running!
    Enjoyed reading this.

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