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CONVERSATIONS IN SCIENCE

Can the U.S. give up its old yardstick?

Meteorologist Donald Hillger makes the case for switching to the decimal-based metric system, saying it will promote a better understanding and learning of science.

December 24, 2010|By Lori Kozlowski, Los Angeles Times
  • Donald Hillger, a meteorologist at Colorado State University, is a member of the U.S. Metric Assn, which urges a switch to the international standard.
Donald Hillger, a meteorologist at Colorado State University, is a member… (Colorado State University )

In the supermarket, on the street and in bars, Europeans have long thought in units of 10 — fruit is weighed by the kilo, beverages dispensed by fractions of a liter and distances marked off in meters. Most Americans, meanwhile, still think in pounds, pints, feet and miles.

The metric system, or SI (short for the International System of Units, or Systeme International d'Unites in French), has roots that stretch to 1670, when French scientist and abbot Gabriel Mouton proposed a decimal system based on the circumference of the Earth. In the late 18th century, France became the first country to widely adopt this system.

The United States remains one of the few nations that has not implemented the metric system. President Ford organized the U.S. Metric Board in 1975 to get the nation to make the switch voluntarily. But the committee disbanded in 1982 with the status quo mostly intact. (These days, sodas are commonly sold in 2-liter bottles.)

Donald Hillger, a meteorologist at Colorado State University and member of the U.S. Metric Assn., explained to The Times why a nationwide metric conversion could help scientific understanding.

Why are you so taken with the metric system?

When I was taking physics back in my undergraduate days, [I learned that] equations are much more simple in metric, as metric units are designed to work with pure physics. That simplicity amazed me, and I wondered why our country didn't use that system.

Every January, I give a talk to other faculty here on the metric system. Unfortunately, I don't get a lot of people out to listen to me. With all the issues in the world, I don't blame people if they don't immediately want to take off with it.

Why do you believe the metric system would be a more efficient means of measuring and communicating?

Scientists are doing work in metric all the time. If we have to communicate with the public — some scientists believe they have to convert the figures for the public, and sometimes there are errors with those conversions. It would be great if we could communicate directly.

Has your field changed because of the metric system?

We used to talk about miles, and now we talk in kilometers. Almost everything we do with satellites is done in metric now. The old system was fairly dumb. If we asked people to convert from metric back to the old system, with all these 3's and 12's and 5,280's, they would tell you that you're out of your mind.

Do you think the metric system would make it easier for American kids to learn science and math? Do you think our not converting is holding the U.S. back in those fields?

Yes. We talk about energy in kilowatt hours and joules. We talk about BTUs and barrels. We talk about feet — there are actually two different "foot" measurements, the survey foot versus the international foot. There's the dry ounce versus the liquid ounce. It's complicated.

It would be a lot easier if kids knew metric. If it was an everyday thing, they'd catch on to science a lot faster. You can work the same physics problems in non-metric units, but you'd tear your hair out.

Overall, we'd have a better handle on where energy comes from and how to measure with the metric system. It's amazing that there's not a mood to simplify things. But people are resistant and there's an inertia.

Why do you think people have held onto the old system for so long?

They grew up learning one way. Everything has a bit of a steep learning curve at first. And though the metric system is fairly straightforward, it might take some time to get used to it. There is a bit of Americanism there, too — some people think metric is foreign or French.

By holding back, though, they don't realize it's only to our own detriment. We are the only major country still on our old system. England has a couple measurements that are old — the pint and the mile. But other than that, most other countries have already converted.

It's sad in one sense, because all of these things are done behind the scenes — for instance, car companies use kilograms, grams and kilometers, but then before anything goes public, they have to convert it for everyone.

How long do you think it will take for the metric system to be widely adopted here?

It's inevitable. It'll happen. I couldn't put a year on it because it's going to take a long time. But global standards are emerging. On food labels — for instance, grams — right there, we're using metric.

This interview was edited for space and clarity from a longer discussion.

lori.kozlowski@latimes.com

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