A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Measure for measure

Mr. Government Employee Guy peered at my climate maps.  His brow furrowed. “You’ll need to convert everything to Fahrenheit,” told me.  “Nobody understands Celsius.”
Well, gosh, of course not.  And nobody understands kilometers or grams, either. That is, nobody except for the entire world -- outside of the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar (hi there, Liberians and … um … Burmese.)  
Why, why, why? My inner scientist is inconsolable.  The rest of the globe long ago graduated to a tidy, mathematically pleasing system in which one cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram, freezes at zero degrees Celsius, requires one joule of energy to heat one degree C, and has a volume of 0.001 liters.  Why is it that we Americans are still wedded to charmingly Medieval units whereby length is compared to the theoretical dimensions of a man’s impressively large pedal appendage; area is judged according to how much land your ox can plow in a day; volume comes in many handy and entirely logical increments: dram, teaspoon, tablespoon, pony, jigger, jack, gill, cup, pint, quart, pottle, and gallon; and the zero-point on our temperature scale is what Mr. Fahrenheit, back in England in 1724, thought was, like, super-duper cold?  [Ok, in truth, Daniel Fahrenheit supposedly generated the zero-point for his temperature scale by mixing equal parts of ice, water, and ammonium chloride and testing the resulting brine.  I’m sure he had a good reason for doing this.]
Metric (SI) units not only jive with what the rest of the world is doing and make overpoweringly more sense than our weird amalgam of body-part-based measurements -- they can also help prevent spacecraft from turning into fireballs.  Yes.  Seriously.  In 1998, the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere because Lockheed Martin provided thruster performance data in pound force seconds instead of newton seconds.  Way to go, America.
Nobody understands Celsius.  Hair-tearingly frustrating as statements like this are, I always used to assume that they reflected a simple lack of familiarity.  I used to think that when people moaned, “I don’t get centimeters” or, “How much is that in pounds?” it was simply because they were used to the old Imperial units (well, except for maybe the jiggers and pottles).   All folks needed was a simple conversion: “Don’t worry, my fine friends!  A kilogram is 2.2 pounds; a kilometer is about 2/3 of a mile; Celsius degrees are larger Fahrenheit degrees at a ratio of 5:9, and the two scales coincide at -40!”  Given this info, I thought everyone would be able to effect quick mentally-estimated conversions. 
Later, I realized that I was a moron. 
Professorial flashback.  “It seems that some of you are having trouble with units…”  This was an understatement on par with telling a roomful of elephants that they were having trouble with pole vaulting.  There I was, pinioned in front of a group of twenty-year-olds, all of whom were staring at me with semi-resentful eyes. They’d given me an answer – I can’t recall if it was eight-point-two, or five million and seventeen, or the square root of negative forty-two – but now I was demanding to know what the numbers actually meant?  I was going to withhold full credit unless they clarified whether we were talking about degrees Fahrenheit, tonnes per square kilometer, or pinches of fairy-dust per rainbow-sparkle unicorn?”  Obviously I was an Evil Professor with demonic delusions of world domination.  Obviously, I didn’t know how to teach math.
I still don’t.  I want to be good at explaining mathematical concepts to others.  I adore the intricate and interwoven world of numbers and logic.  Give me a conundrum involving an accelerating train, a leaking bucket, or an island inhabited by truth-telling trolls, and I will spiral into rapture.  Like any good zealot, I am always seeking converts.  Alas, however, I suspect that the inside of my head is such a peculiar landscape that inviting others to view its ecosystems and architecture is not only ill-advised, but also criminally impossible.
My brain has always been this odd.  I remember when I was a kid, and visited my family members in England during the period when that fine nation was suffering paroxysms of metrication.  Everyone was complaining – but I couldn’t imagine why, because the metric system was so clearly awesome.  By that point it was pretty clear that my little cousins were going to have to grow up knowing their centimeters and kilograms, so my aunt, trying to do what was best for her kids, was trying to use the correct terms in answer to a barrage of childish questions about sizes, weights, and volumes.  “Um… you’re about… ten centimeters tall?”  I was both amused and righteously horrified by how badly this esteemed adult – whose career was as a ballerina, not a mathematician -- was capable of massacring SI units.
Nonetheless, I suspect that my now-grown-up cousins are pretty comfortable with liters and joules.  Why? Because England forced the issue, while America waffled and whined.  It’s hard!  It’s expensive! We also trotted out the most powerful argument of all, in a country obsessed with personal freedom: We don’t wanna and you can’t make us!
To be fair, the distinction is not as clear-cut as I’m making it seem.  For one thing, British beer-drinkers refused to give up their pints. Meanwhile, the US is not metric-free; no, it’s much worse than that.  In America, we’ve created a nightmarish hodge-podge of unit-illogic.  Imagine tossing twenty jigsaw puzzles into a trash bag, shaking the bag violently, ignoring any pieces that fall out, and then trying to put together the remainder.  For example, your Advil, Sudafed, and Rolaids – and indeed all medications – are metric.  However, dosages by body weight are often in milligrams per pound.  (Yes, that is the sound of my head exploding).  Nutrition labels tell you about grams of sugar and milligrams of sodium, but refer to Calories rather than kilojoules.  I often run 5K or 10K races that are blithely signposted with… mile-markers.
I’ve long held the goal of avoiding another generation of this madness.  So, there I was in Natural Resources Management trying to get that classroom of kids (ok, twenty-year-olds are technically grownups, but I’m curmudgeonly, so I’m going to refer to them as kids) to solve a problem something like this: “A lake with a surface temperature of 12°C decreases in temperature linearly with depth, at a rate of 0.8 degrees Celsius per meter.  Express this temperature gradient in degrees Fahrenheit per foot, and report the temperature at 23 feet below the surface.”
College juniors and seniors.  None of them could solve this.
To their credit, the same students solved most of the other problems I assigned.  They gamely Googled conversion factors that allowed them to turn grams into ounces, acres into hectares, and board-feet into cubic meters.  Unfortunately, online calculators are only as useful as their users’ understanding of how they work.  Internet gizmos only convert absolute temperatures, not temperature gradients invented by psychopathic professors.  The zero-point on the Fahrenheit scale is arbitrary, kids; a real (absolute) zero exists somewhere (down at −459.67°F.) 
Even on the easier questions, quite a few kids effected their conversions backwards, never stopping to notice that as a result, their answers made no sense.  They shuffled digits around and plugged them into formulae without any clear notion of roughly what answer they were likely to get.  Um, did you know that miles are bigger than kilometers?  Yes sirree. 
Making sense is… well, it’s kind of a big deal to me.  Making sense is what I fall back on when my leaky brain refuses to hold onto details – which is, to be honest, most of the time. A lot of people have told me, self-deprecatingly or defensively, that they’ve forgotten what math they once knew.  I can relate all too well; I’m a champion forgetter.  I just had to look up the Fahrenheit reading for absolute zero.  I am a much crappier Trivia Bowl teammate than anyone seems willing to believe. Seriously, people.  I am not being humble.  I am BAD at this stuff.  Without sneaking peeks at the internet, I can’t list all nine Supreme Court Justices, tell you who wrote Gone with the Wind, or remember that our pottle-and-jigger-loving buddies are Liberia and Myanmar.
On the other hand, although I am a sieve when it comes to facts, I’m ok with concepts.  For me, forgetting mathematical concepts seems akin to forgetting how to read, or forgetting how to understand sarcasm.   I can’t tell you the formula for the surface area of a sphere, but I’d certainly be able to tell if my answer were off by an order of magnitude; a sphere is unlikely to have a surface area greater than a cube with sides the length of the sphere’s diameter, because – well, you know, THINK about it.  I also know, at the very least, that the surface area will be expressed in square units, and the volume in cubic units.  My students?  Well….not so much.
Not that I never memorize.  My understanding of measurement scales is, just like everyone else’s, based in part on memorization.  Twenty-six-point-two miles is a marathon.  One hundred and forty pounds is what I’d weigh if I lost fifteen pounds.  Three hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit is where you bake gooey chocolate chip cookies.   But my mental map is also based on a fundamental understanding that a scale – any scale – is merely a convenience, created and maintained by humans.  Days and years are real, inasmuch as they are units determined by the rotation and revolution of the earth.  Hours and weeks are not real.  Nor are miles, grams, or pottles.
I’m pretty sure the oddities of my brain at least partially dictate the oddities of my worldview.  From a mathematical and scientific perspective, what it comes down to is that any knowledge that I can’t turn inside out, view from all angles, and connect to fifteen other mental concepts is likely not to make it through even a single mental laundry cycle.  Oh, sure, I can learn something for a quiz; there was a fifteen-minute period of time, back in 1987, when I knew every country, capital, and major river in all of Africa and Latin America.  But Lesotho and Djibouti failed to link themselves to any of the detritus rattling around in my brain, and I now have no idea which is which.  Really, logic is the only thing that holds my brain together at all.  And the metric system is logical. 
What I finally came to realize is that most Americans love the old Imperial system for exactly the same reason that I love the metric system – because we’re lazy clods, and we want to fall back on what’s easiest.  The difference is that if memorization is your strength, then “easy” means sticking with what you already know, even if it’s illogical.  If memorization is your Achilles heel, then you long for a system in which all you need to recall is how many base-ten orders-of-magnitude to apply to your milligrams, kilometers, and terabytes.
Maybe, eventually, our nation will bite the bullet and actually force us to change – although that might be too much Big Gubmint to pass muster, politically.  Maybe, eventually, the infiltration of 2-liter soda bottles and fat-grams will render that lovely, logical system familiar enough that it will be acceptable even to people who Just Don’t Get Units.  Maybe one day we’ll stop accidentally burning things up in the Martian atmosphere.  Maybe, by the time I retire from this-here career in science, Americans will understand Celsius. 
Until then, Mr. Government Employee Guy is right, of course.  We’ll have to change the maps.  Except, of course, for the ones we’re producing for our neighbors in the Yukon…