Being a science teacher I talk about the metric system at the beginning of the school year in most of my classes. Usually this provokes a conversation, especially among the older physics students, about whether I prefer the metric system, whether and why America should adopt the metric system, what I think is holding it back, and when (if ever) America will adopt the metric system. This years conversation was no different except for two minor variations: 1) someone asked about the cost of conversion and whether it would be worth it and honestly it could get to be very expensive if we aren't careful, and 2) one student mentioned the following picture:
which isn't too different from:
I was caught a little off-guard by the comment and although I do find the joke humorous I also find it very sad. First, I feel that I should explain the history behind the first picture before I talk about my thoughts on the real issue.
The first picture was used by NASA in the following form
when they decided to use the Metric system as part of the "Moon, Mars, and Beyond" initiative that has been stopped then changed and modified so many times that they seem pretty directionless, but I digress. NASA made the decision to go all Metric now and in the future. This makes cooperation with international partners easier and also helps to avoid problems, like the one that lost the Mars Climate Observer in 1999 when there was a miscommunication problem between the Imperial and Metric system. This is why the scale Moon was added to the map. So, when NASA used the image to emphasize they were going Metric it seemed a little obnoxious that it has been repurposed to gloat about the US making it to the Moon, but fails to recognize the irony. Even if this is why the joke was made it is still annoying that something meant to recognize and give credit to the Metric system was turned against it.
So now to my actual thoughts. Yes, the joke is funny, but it ignores several issues. One of the biggest ones is how little America has continued to remain dominant in science and technology since the end of the Space Race. We've done some with the computer revolution, but even so it pales to what we were. Bragging about the Moon is great, at least it avoids the denialism that some have about the Moon landings, but as proud of that achievement as I am it is something that we achieved first 46 years ago and last did 43 years ago. We are bragging about an accomplishment that we've not recreated, that we can't currently recreate [we don't even launch our own people into space, we are hitching rides with the Russians and hopefully soon with private companies]. In the 90s we almost built a particle accelerator that would have been capable of discovering the Higgs Boson two decades sooner than it was, but the project was cancelled. There were maybe good reasons for canceling these programs and innovation does still occur in America, but not as much as it used to and we seem to lack the focus and the will to regain it. As a whole there are large parts of our society that deny good science or think that you can pick and choose your facts- this is why there is still belief in Creationism and disbelief in Climate Change and the value of Vaccinations just to name a few of the controversial hot-button issues that seem to continuously come up. I have become convinced that a lot of out modern woes like global warming, anti-vaxxers and community health, green energy, sustainable harvesting, and many others exist because of science denialism. When someone is given the freedom to cherry-pick the facts they want to believe then they have free-reign to deny good science. Ken Hamm, the Creationist, likes to argue that denying a literal account of Genesis 1-12 weakens the whole foundation of Biblical belief [and yet he still somehow welcomes and accepts Christians who don't believe that because it is not a Salvation issue even though he kind of makes it out to be]; well the same thing happens for science. If we get to choose what facts we believe then the whole system begins to collapse when someone wants to deny good science. Hamm, the Creationists, and many conservatives will sow doubt claiming that science is a system of beliefs, but facts are facts.
Next, the metric system is easier to use. On the whole the numbers are cleaner and it is just a matter of moving decimals around [technically dividing and multiplying by powers of 10] to convert units. In the
As to what is holding America back other than reluctance to change and ignorance/bias towards new ideas: sports and economics. I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who I first heard argue that sports got in the way because so many measurements are nice numbers in the Imperial system and complicated in the Metric system. For example, with football 1 yard ≠ 1 meter, so the middle of the field would be closer to the 45 meter line [45.72 to be precise]. Forty-five just doesn't sound as nice. Changing the distance to 50 meters is difficult because it adds almost 10 yards to the field. This changes strategies and the challenge to players, maybe we give them 5 downs instead of 4 or maybe we make some other modification. But then, if we make those changes, how do you compare records of the past to now [this is already the case when season lengths are different, especially in baseball] and the more practical issue, we can say we are changing the length of the field but that isn't easy to do in already existing stadiums and fields with set structures in place. This really gets into the economics of conversions, they are not cheap and some will always cling to the old system. There have been, however, nations in recent history [like Canada, America's hat] to make the conversion and it is doable. In the long run, there might even be economic benefits when it comes to cooperating with other nations.
Will the US ever go metric, unfortunately I'm a pessimist on this one. I think we will go Metric when we are forced to by other nations. Right now, being a dominant nation on the global scale we can make international partners use our weird system, and we can ignore them and have our own system when they won't. But someday, if and when, America isn't on top anymore a dominate nation like China or Japan or someone else will refuse to work with us until we convert and then we will be forced line up with the rest of the world. Recently Hank Green kind of came to this same conclusion on his podcast. This is not ideal and it is certainly not what I want. I want to see us stay on top, or return to it. When reading Packing for Mars a few years ago I became convinced that the new Asian Space Race that is happening will surpass what the US has done. I'm afraid that if we wait to join it and compete against them that we will be doing too little too late. But I told a student who is a huge NASA fan that my biggest fear about the new space race isn't that humans won't land on Mars in my lifetime, it is that it will not be the US and may not even be an international cooperation that includes a US crew member. Space isn't the only way to win the glory and stay on top, and certainly adopting the Metric system isn't enough either, but I want new US accomplishments in science and technology that we can be proud of- to brag about and put us on top again.
I know the images above were just meant to be jokes and not really meant to evoke pride in the Imperial system or even necessarily America, but we need to update our accomplishments. If we are always looking to a past that is nearly a half-century gone to say, "Look at how great we are," eventually everyone will realize what we are saying is "Look at how great we were." Let's take science and our role in the geo-olitical-technological scheme seriously. Let's be leaders and not followers we should have been the among the first to adopt the Metric system, and we need to once again strive to reach goals that are difficult so we can rise to that challenge and lead again.
On a totally random concluding note, last year I started a second graduate [Master's] degree and being full-time teacher and full-time student is pretty taxing. I kept to my reading cycle, slowly, last school year. Over the summer, I went through the cycle about 5 times [8 genres x 5 times = 40 books], but this year I am taking a break. Ever since it was confirmed there would be a Star Wars Episode VII I have had the goal of going back and re-reading the Star Wars Expanded Universe books. All the more since the announcement this past May that they were being removed from cannon to make way for a new story line in Episode VII. So there are a few summer reviews I have left to type, but after that I'm listening to around 150 Star Wars novels, many of them abridged audio versions, and a large majority of those being ones I've listened to dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. My plan is to listen to them in the in-universe chronological order. It will be a fitting farewell to them [though who knows I may come back again] and a welcome break for my mind. Especially, since although I discovered many great books and classics this summer, most of my favorites are still the sci-fi novels I read. Of course, I am not limiting myself to Star Wars novels, but I will not be forcing myself to read anything I don't want to, other than my stupid Statistics textbook.