Andrew Shea, assistant editor of The New Criterion, joins me to discuss cultural politics, in a conversation occasioned by the resignation of Warren B. Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 20, 2019
Who needs the metric system, anyway?
World Metrology Day is Monday. Forgive me if I don’t raise a pint—sorry, 473 milliliters—in commemoration. This date is meant to celebrate the International System of Units, otherwise known as the metric system. Against pascals of pressure, the U.S. stands nearly alone in maintaining its own “customary units” of weights and measures. We should stand tall on our own 2 feet. The metric system has never measured up. It was customary units that calibrated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and took us 240,000 miles to the moon.
Proponents of the metric system have been metering out contempt since their inhuman invention emerged from the French Revolution. In 1793 France’s own customary units, including the pied du Roi (king’s foot), fell victim to Jacobin Terror. The radicals standardized regional differences and went the extra mile, rationalizing their measures through the blinding logic of Enlightenment thought.
The metric system became a symbol of modernity. More than overturning millennia of custom, the meter also overturned man and his labor as the basis of measurement. Nearly all customary units derive in some way from use. The acre was the amount of land a yoke of oxen could till in a day. The fathom is 6 feet, the span of the arms, useful when pulling up the sounding line of a depth measure. The meter is unfathomable, calculated (imprecisely) as a tiny fraction of the Earth’s circumference.
Worse than the abandonment of human measure is the imposition of decimal division. From calendars to clocks, French radicals went all in for 10. That works well for abstract calculations, as with dollars and cents, but not when measuring things in the real world. The Romans counted in 12s, as in the hours on a clock and the inches in a foot. The Babylonians used 60, from which we get minutes, seconds and degrees. A simple system of 8 still exists in our ounces—and in computer bytes. Eight, 12 and 60 divide easily into halves and quarters, even thirds, while a decimal system does not. A third of a meter is roughly 33.33 centimeters, a third of a foot exactly 4 inches.
The abstract inhumanity of the metric system may be newly measured as new bases are adopted to replace “Le Grand K,” a platinum cylinder kept locked away in France that has been the kilogram standard. The metric kilogram will now be determined through a new fixed agreement of Planck’s constant, the length light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, and the amount of time it takes a cesium-133 atom to vibrate 9,192,631,770 times. It’s so simple!
The U.S. has come close to compulsory metrication more than once. The latest push came out of the 1970s, with metric textbooks, metric road signs, and “The Metric Marvels,” a “Schoolhouse Rock” knockoff. President Reagan ended the effort in 1982.
With the European Union being cut down to size, can we hope for a return to British imperial units, which the U.K. was forced to abandon after it joined? A pint’s a pound, the world around, and it beats walking the Planck.