September 02, 2017

Metric system is like a foreign language

I realize that in all my life I have not become accustomed to thinking about weights and measures in the metric system without thinking about the units in the U.S. standard or traditional system. This is much like learning a foreign language but having to translate in your head before speaking or understanding. I think this is because I learned about weights and measures as a child with the traditional system, so I have established mental reference points in my memory.

I was recently thinking about temperature. What would it take for me to understand Celsius so that I don't have to convert it mentally? Is 27 degrees in Celsius warm or cool? It is easy to talk about temperature in Fahrenheit, and I think I have memories of feelings or even specific things associated with different numbers:
  • 100 degrees: This is like baking in an oven. I remember the way it felt when I was a teenager walking across the deck to the back of my mother's house. I remember seeing someone jogging near The Varsity in Athens, Georgia, when it was above 100, wondering how the human body can even do that.
  • 90 degrees: Typical Georgia heat -- summers are often around 90. I think about people loudly saying "90 degrees!" as a complaint or a warning. In my head I see the sun shining through pine trees and hear cicadas.
  • 80 degrees: Just warm, potentially hot if you're active in the sun. I think about people in New England suffering without air conditioning.
  • 70 degrees: Along with 72 being "room temperature," this is a pleasant temperature. You always want it to be 70 degrees.
  • 60 degrees: This can feel cool, but it can also be warm, like a fall day in Georgia. However, when I experienced 60 degrees in April in New York, it was the most wonderful and amazing temperature ever. Reaching this temperature for the first time in months inspired a surge in outdoor exercise and picnicking; it was as exciting as the Fourth of July.
  • 50 degrees: Always a little cool. This would mean I was definitely putting on a jacket when I was going to school.
  • 40 degrees: Comfortable or cold, depending on the conditions. I remember my father talking about how people hunting outdoors would find this miserably cold if there was humidity and they weren't dressed properly. However, I also remember my evening walks in New York where I found this to be the most perfect, comfortable outdoor temperature when wearing a jacket since I had become acclimated to cooler weather.
  • 30 degrees: Always cold, but you can dress for it. I remember being miserable on the playground because my legs were cold if it was in the 30s. You might see your breath.
  • 20 degrees: This is really cold for Georgia, and you have to really bundle up.
  • 10 degrees: The only reference point is this is around the temperature at which my nose hairs freeze for every breath I take. I remember walking to my college dining hall in New York for breakfast when this was a typical temperature for the winter before it warmed up later in the day.
  • 0 degrees: I think I remember being a kid (here in Georgia) when the schools shut down. 0 degrees is a real weather event here. I once walked to work when it was 7 degrees and was proud of myself for dressing appropriately -- with my frozen nose hairs being my only discomfort -- but the heat inside my office couldn't really keep up.
  • Minus 20 degrees: I don't remember if it was minus 20 or minus 25, but I experienced this in New York for one or two days, and it was just unbelievable.
All these memories are associated with Fahrenheit numbers. Growing up, I heard weather forecasts talk about temperatures such as "low 70s" or "mid 60s", so I don't really know what to do with the Celsius numbers mentally. I consider it a challenge to create some reference points in my head, such as 22 (room temperature) and 37 (body temperature), but I can't help but think, "OK, so what is 80 degrees?" Thus I can only really "translate" this foreign language in my head.

I was recently only thinking of temperature, but these mental reference points exist in my mind for other measurements, such as one cup being a measuring cup or a carton of milk at school. Unsurprisingly, I see a gallon jug of milk when I think about gallons. I can see one foot as a ruler, six feet as a tall person, ten feet as a basketball goal, seventeen feet as a car or truck, or 200 feet as a certain gravel driveway. My clearest mental image of metric volume measurement is a two-liter bottle of soda, and I think about liters being similar to quarts. When I think about meters, I have to think about a yardstick since those are similar in length.

I have grown up hearing about Fahrenheit and seeing foot rulers, yardsticks, one-gallon jugs, and five-pound bags of sugar. I do wonder how the United States might convert to the metric system in a way that people were comfortable with it. Would the dairy industry sell milk in 2-, 3-, or 4-liter containers? Would discount stores stop selling foot rulers? What length is a ruler in the rest of the world anyway? Can police radar units change a simple setting to display speed in km/h? Should I tell my son the temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius, or would that just confuse him forever? Will I always need two sets of wrenches?

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