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08/18/2001

Take me to your Liter

This thought keeps popping into my brain every once in a while. What the hell ever happened to the metric system? I mean, the United States is often characterized as an arrogant nation, but in this case I think the opinon is justified.

I went to elementary school in the early '70s. We had the metric system drilled into us as if it was going to be signed into law the at any moment. We knew our meters, our liters, and our grams. We knew the meaning behind deca-, milli-, centi- and kilo-. Get ready, you little 4th graders, the metric system is coming. The United States was joining with the rest of the world to unify under one system of measurement. I remember when they started putting kilometers on the speedometer on cars. I remember seeing a news story on the installation of the first highway sign giving distance in both miles and kilometrs. And up until a few years ago, the current remperature was given in both Fahrenheit and Celsius degrees.

So, what happened? The rest of the goddamn world is using metric. They call the President of the United States the "leader of the free world". Well, in this case, the United States is the "trailer" of the free world. And really, it is only because we are arrogant and lazy. There is no reason that our goverment doesn't set a definitive date a few years in the future for us to switch over. The prevailing language of international business is English, which means anyone who wants to take part in that business needs to learn English. Can't we make a small concession and learn the scientific language of the rest of the world?

Actually, the scientific community of the U.S. is mostly already operating in metric terms. It is just the lazy population of the U.S. that can't make the conversion. This is despite that fact that most people in this country buy their soda in 1 or 2 liter bottles. I say "mostly" because there are startling examples of "mixed" systems. A lesser example is my own wife. Any thing that was taught to Claudine in medical school was in terms of metric. Yet in her notes on a patient, she might write that she gave a woman 20 ccs of a certain medicine and infused a pint of blood. Cubic centimeters and pints mixed together. A larger, more glaring, example is the case of NASA's Mars orbiter. As you may know, NASA's Mars orbiter met with a rather untimely demise. The orbiter travelled for more than 10 months to reach Mars. The spacecraft was to slip behind the planet and enter into a stable orbit from where it was to transmit back information for many years. Well, it slipped behind the planet and never came back around. It was presumed to have entered too low into Mars' atmosphere and either burned up or simply slammed into the planet's surface. Turns out that one of the engineering teams on the orbiter used English units for measurement and another used metric. Oopsie... 300 kilometers is a lot different that 300 miles! Thanks for wasting my tax dollars, dickwads.