[Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming A Magician in the Laboratory that I’d like to offer Randi.org readers...]
I’m very well aware of the difficulty in maneuvering the scientific maze, in keeping all the caveats in mind, of maintaining the proper outlook, attitude, behavior, and goal in any scientific project or inquiry. I can also see that some cultural fixations and habits are holes in the road to be avoided. For example, a constant matter of wonder for me is the stubborn refusal of the United States of America to join the rest of the world in accepting logical, simplified, sensible, units of measurement. In my country, only the scientific community has opted to go along with standardization of temperature, distance, weight, and more exotic varieties of quality and magnitude – and that decision was dictated by the obvious fact that scientists have to understand one another or they might flounder about and fail to communicate. Just think of what could have happened if NASA had experienced any confusion about whether metric or “Imperial” measurements were to be used in one of their projects! That could have brought about a failure… Oh, wait a moment! That did happen!
Yes, in September of 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft was lost as it neared the Red Planet after traveling 416 million miles in nine months. It came to grief because, according to the official report, Lockheed Martin UK gave acceleration data to the NASA mission controllers in Imperial units – pounds of force – instead of the metric equivalent – newtons, the unit of force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at one meter per second per second. Those numbers were entered into a computer, which automatically assumed metric measurements. As a result, the Orbiter entered the Martian atmosphere at a trajectory 170km lower than intended, and earlier than planned, thus leading to its destruction. The cost of this project was US$327,600,000, though this hardly compares to the Mars Observer lost ten years earlier, some four billion dollars.
British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, obviously of the “old school,” commented with his view of the fiasco. Said he:
[This] just shows the dangers of creeping metrication. Why can't we stick to good old imperial measurements?
Why? Because, Pat, those rods, furlongs, barrels, bushels, stones, acres' breadths, perches, shaftments, handsbreadths, barleycorns, gallons, pints, inches, chains, and the 300+ other units used in the Imperial system which you so prefer, are difficult to convert – and ambiguous – compared to the seven metric units, that’s why.
There’s even confusion in the use of “billion” between the UK and the USA. Webster’s Dictionary says it’s a thousand millions, so Americans use it as 1,000,000,000. The Oxford English Dictionary used to say that it’s a million millions – 1,000,000,000,000, but they’ve now adopted the American version. The French say it’s a thousand million, but that’s probably just to annoy the UK… Similarly, a U.K. “trillion” used to mean a million million million – 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, but nowadays, it's generally held to be equivalent to a million million (1,000,000,000,000), as it is in America. I’m sure that’s all clear…?
I think you’ll now see why I find this lack of uniform standards so puzzling. You see, in 1971 I was resident in the UK working my wonders as a magician when the Brits finally converted to a decimal monetary system – just as I’d finally mastered the process of calculating percentages in the Alice-in-Wonderland pounds/shillings/pence system, of course. They still express their body weight in “stones” rather than pounds, but I simply choose not to get involved in such esoteric matters…
I’ll avoid getting into the finer points of the Fahrenheit/Celsius/Centigrade temperature scales here, nor will I introduce you to the Kelvin scale, but it’s about time we in the USA got into the decimal system and stayed there. We share our use of the Fahrenheit temperature scale only with Belize, which is .002 the size of the USA, and I do not believe that this fact brings about any noticeable improvement in international harmony.
Perhaps to your surprise – I was quite surprised when I discovered this – there is a reason for the reluctance of American politicians to engage in any sort of confrontation on the Metric Matter. A Washington acquaintance of mine, a member of a Congressional committee who will benefit from anonymity, told me that she is regularly visited by lobbyists who represent religious clients and caution her against endorsing any acceptance of metrication for common American use. Why? Because, they preach, the metric system originated with atheists, and not just any sort of atheists, but with French atheists, obviously the worst kind! One of the results of the French Revolution that was arrived at in 1791 was the adoption in that country of the metric system of measurements – which fell just short of changing clocks into a ten-hour dial with one hundred minutes – think of a possible revolt of clockmakers! – and was quickly taken up by almost all other civilized countries. American politicians have to think twice about accepting ungodly notions, no matter how useful, logical, rational, or reasonable such ideas may be. Those folks who can accept virgin birth by humans as well as talking bushes and serpents, will just have to muddle along…