One hundred ninety-three countries use the metric system. The United States is not one of them. Three countries don’t use the metric system. The United States is one of them. The other two are Liberia and Myanmar. That’s right: The U.S. is the only developed country that uses the Imperial System of Measurement.
In the metric system, everything is divided by ten, one hundred, or one thousand. That means that 1000 g = 1 kg, 1000 m = 1 km and so on. Temperatures are measured in the way that 0 is the point of freezing. That makes a lot more sense than 32 degrees to me. Don’t even ask me at what point a person is running a fever. I have never been able to figure that out.
I had my first taste of the Imperial system when I immigrated to the U.S. As I boarded the plane in Frankfurt, I weight about 58 kg. That’s 116 pounds. But when I landed in Pittsburgh, I suddenly weighed over 127 pounds. What kind of woman would appreciate such a sudden weight gain?
Distances are another mystery. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Curiosity’s journey to Mars is measured in Kilometers, but my trip to the local supermarket is measured in miles!
Several years ago, I had an assignment to write a photo feature about a nature reserve and my husband accompanied me on the two-hour drive. We visited a bird-banding station in the morning of a 90 degree, humid summer day. After lunch, I debated whether to attend an aquatic survey along a creek. When I asked how far the survey area was from the parking lot, the reply was, “About 300 yards.” I said, okay. In reality, I had no idea what that meant. My husband asked me, “Do you know how far that is? That’s three football fields!” I gave him a blank stare. I don’t even know how long one football field is, let alone three! But I do know that football fields don’t usually have vegetation on them. This wilderness trek, on the other hand, had no trail at all. In the future I will consult my calculator before agreeing to another photo shoot.
Life gets particularly interesting when I receive a call from my aunt in Germany. Without fail, she’ll ask me what our temperature is. I have to consult my little refrigerator magnet thermometer to figure out how much 40 degrees are in metric degrees. Then she might ask me how much gas costs here. Out comes my calculator: If gas is 1.50 Euros per liter, I have to multiply that by 3.6 to get the cost in gallons. Then I have to figure out what the exchange rate for a Euro is on that day and the result is: Gas is cheaper here than in Germany! Now I can only hope my aunt will never ask me how many square meters our house measures…
Luckily for me, not all areas in life adhere to the Imperial System. As a photographer, I used a lot of 35mm film before the digital age. Now I use a digital camera that measures in megapixels and then download the images to my computer, which uses kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes.
No matter what mistakes I make in navigating daily life, none of them is as big and embarrassing as the one that caused a Mars Climate Orbiter to crash in 1998. While NASA applied metric units in their work, one of their subcontractors provided thruster performance data to the team in pound force seconds instead of newton seconds.
To some people, measuring units in square yards, ounces, and miles might be known as the Imperial System of Measurement. To me, it is just a Royal Pain.
Image Source: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste