Metric dreams

I like the metric system. The type of like that makes people cough in the uncomfortable silence that almost always follows a declaration like that. I, naturally, dig the hole deeper in expressing my wish that the United States moved to the metric system and it is one of the three major things I would like to see in my life. In effect, the acceptance of the metric system by my country of choice is my bucket list.


For the math challenged, such as my self, the metric system is elegant. The base-10 makes life a lot easier to know that there are 100 centimeters in a meter and 1000 meters in a kilometer. Diving and multiplying by 10 is a rather easy thing to do.

Coupled with that is numerical prefixes. "Kilo-" means a thousand. So kilogram and kilometer. Same with "deci-", "centi-" and even the more obscure ones like "giga-", "mega-", and "exa-".


One of the things I encounter when I talk about the metric system is pride. Pride in not wanting to switch over. For me, this equates to being proud of not reading books for enjoyment (two of my coworkers have pretty much said this in the last week).

Last week, MIL told me this:

We don't have to switch over to the metric system, we're the US.

My response was that we need to because we are the US and we need to continue to be a major player in the global markets, which means exports in addition to imports. The conversation went downhill from there because apparently "playing well with other countries" means "socialism" to MIL (I haven't figure out that one).

I feel that, as a country, our pride in not adopting the metric system is like the kid in the corner that plays with themselves because they insist on speaking their own language or using their rules (cough I wasn't that kid at all).


It is difficult to convert, but we are already there. I was ranting about the back of the Sun Chips earlier today (for other reasons) and I noticed that almost every measurement is already in metric. US labeling requires metric but the other measurement is not (from my understanding). Which means you can say "591 ml" or "20 fl. oz (591 ml)" but you can't say "20 fl oz." by itself.

The worse would be driving. But, I honestly think that people would get it after a few hours of driving. In Chicago, you always gave distances in time anyways (30 minutes to O'Hare) and most people don't really pay attention to the speed limits signs anyways.

Yeah, switching gas over to liters would be confusing... for about three tanks. But $50 worth of gas is $50 worth of gas. And, if one person cheats and tries to get a few more cents to the liter, you have every other gas station in the area willing to keep the price down. (It is a capitalistic system.)

It would be painful, but it would take less than a year before most of the country was used to it.


Conversion in the US would make jobs. There would be people to replace the signs, change the gauges in cars, to rework the insurance and billing systems. It would a ton of jobs to convert over to the metric. And, with rather high unemployment numbers, a conversion process has the potential of getting at least a small surge in employment.

Yeah, it's expensive. But it also means that it would be easier to export US products to the rest of the world. We are one of the last standouts that don't use the metric system.

In fantasy

There are places where the metric system doesn't quite work. My brother, a frame engineer who deals with metric every day, gave me a suggestion not to use metric in my new fantasy world, mostly because of theme. This was right at the beginning of me working on Fedran, the setting for FOTS and BAM. I thought about it for a while and realized that using a different measurement system was probably the right thing.

So, I went with the old style of measurement including the more common feet and miles, but also adding in chains, rods, and leagues. It means that I can't say they walked 5 kilometers but a league seems about right.

This is probably the only thing I wish I could fit thematically into my world. Now, the concept of chains and rods is pretty well engrained, so I'm leaving it.

(I also went with chains and rods because I really dislike made up terms of measure).

In science fiction

On the other hand, I like all my sci-fi to be metric-based. When I was younger, my mother and I were watching a sci-fi show. I think it was the original Battlestar Galactia. At one point, they were rattling off distances. "They are six microns away! Five microns!"

I don't expect writers to know all the numerical prefixes, but there are a couple that stand out at major failures. Kind of like Han Solo flying a route in less than a parsec.

The biggest comes with spaceships. Titan A.E. and some writers I enjoy all use 1000's of kilometers to describe distances between ships and planets.

We are 12,000 kilometers from the planet.

If everything is in 1000's, they probably would just say "5 megameters" or "5 megs" (to correlate to 5 clicks).

We are 12 megs from home.

This fits both with the natural tendency to use a shorter description and fits more consistently with the entire idea of the SI prefixes. Also, if you are always saying "a thousand kilometers", you'll reduce it anyways. If not to "megs" to "kay-kays" or something.

Likewise, when talking about distances between planetary systems, exa- (Em) or petameters (Pm) would be far better if every other measurement is in metric. One exameter is about 105 lightyears and one light year is about 9.4 Pm.

Side note, the distance to Alpha Centari is 40.12 petameters, which is a far easier number to understand than six million kilometers.

In the end

I really want to see this country move to metric. As I mentioned, it is one of my three Big Things on my bucket list. I do what I can, but I'm not sure what else I can do.

Sadly, as my brother and MIL point out: very few people care. Either there is the isolationism to do our own thing, or just a belief that people won't switch, but I honestly think that is needed to keep moving forward.