Where We Live: Measuring The World

We're close to a new absolute system of measurement.

"World in the Balance" by Robert Crease
Photo:David J. High, Ruth Marten
Where We Live: Measuring The World
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Where We Live: Measuring The World

“A pint’s a pound, the world around.” Except...what’s a pint? And, for that matter, what’s a pound?

Here in America, we take for granted our feet, our inches, our Fahrenheit temperatures...we even watch our pounds.

But, leave this country, and it’s pretty clear we’re on an island - an island the rest of the world would measure in meters...an “international standard” that we’re still resistant to.

Today we’ll take the measure of the world of weights and scales, yardsticks and stones with philosophy professor Robert Crease. His new book is called “World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement.”

We’ll find out why we’re still struggling to figure out how to measure our world. We’ll look at wrangling over an international standard...and Robert Krulwich considers the “smoot.”



Email from Lucinda

I come from the UK and the transition to metric has been going on for decades. I am 40 and for my whole life cook books have used 'gas mark', fahrenheit and celsius.

The real imposed change occurred relatively recently (10 years ago??) when supermarkets listed things in kg and g larger than lbs and oz. However, I think the slowest thing to change will be lengths. For some reason, heights will always be in feet and inches.

The problem that I discovered only recently is the hybrid comprehension it has created. My sisters whom I consider to be bright people demonstrated to me recently that a lovely balmy summer day in London might be somewhere in the 70's whereas close to freezing is + or - zero. Confusion reigns!

Email from Gene

I find that using simple metric measures like distance and weight is quite simple. The bigger obstacle is trying to grasp compound units like cubic meters per second. In this area the people who work in areas of technology (who you might think are the most likely to change to metric units easily) are the most resistant. In the air conditioning industry in the US we measure air flows in cubic feet per minute (CFM). We could learn the conversion to metric units except for one problem: We have a large number of rules of thumb that are enumerated in those customary English (American?) units. For example how much ventilation air do we need for an office in CFM / person and CFM / square foot ? How much for a classroom? How much total air do we need to air condition that office in CFM/ sq. Ft. We remember these things and would be totally disoriented in our everyday work if we had to change

Email from Carolyn

As scientists, we routinely use the metric system easily and flawlessly lending to the ease of conversion by simple units of ten. I am absolutely convinced that the 'math phobia' I see again and again in students gets its foundation from the ridiculous first-exposure of learning and trying to convert between units that make no sense in our system (remind me, how many pints in a quart, pounds in a ton???)

Email from Philip

Good Topic

Yes we should go to one system streamline things...I can't tell you how often I curse the fact that we learned Imperial and not much of metric...
metric is so much easier ie 1000 grams in a kilo, half a kilo is 500g
and we cant use the excuse that change is tough....how many millions of people gave up their currencies to go to the Euro...they survived (including friends and family of mine)
We aren't kids, yes we will moan and groan but we will be fine.

Listener email from Steve:

I did want to point out that the actual measurement is 364.4 Smoots plus or minus one ear, not just plus one ear. No measurement is perfect, so a good engineer or scientist will specify the tolerance, or margin or error.

I also wanted to say that Oliver Smoot was Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) from 2001 to 2002 and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) from 2003 to 2004. He also gave testimony to the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology on March 20, 2000, entitled “The Role of Technical Standards in Today's Society and in the Future".

Listener email from Evelyn:

Your guest who noted that the faster we move, the slower time passes got me thinking:

Time during childhood seems to go so slowly – maybe because kids are always running around!

Kids today are more sedentary – maybe that explains why they are growing up so fast!

Listener email from Bill:

Here's a story that may not be true, but is a good illustration of a useful informal measure:

A visitor at a colonial outdoor museum was sampling a griddle cake that a woman was making over an open hearth and wanted to know the recipe. The cook was very general: some flour an couple eggs, some milk, etc. This didn't satisfy the visitor who pressed for more specific amounts "Exactly how much milk?' she asked with some irritation in her voice.

About a mouthful she replied.