I’m an American and I use the Metric System

November 14, 2013

RRSF 79 - signs 20 - Metric System

I like to say my weight in kilograms and my height in centimeters. When I’m describing how far away something is, my default measurement is kilometers, not miles. And yet, this is supposed to be shocking? That someone who was born into thinking a certain way evolved, based on empirical evidence and convenience?

Subscribing to using SI (Système international to you Imperial heathens) isn’t the result of me being a well-traveled person, though living abroad certainly reinforced the idea. If you had asked me my height, my weight, and the distance between New York and Los Angeles at my high school graduation, I would have responded without hesitation in feet, pounds, and miles, respectively. I had been forced to use non-Imperial units in chemistry and physics, but I would definitely have identified myself as one of those “Yeah America! We’re number one!” types and thought SI was stupid; the rest of the the world should change to meet our needs because I found the size of a Coca Cola can in England comical.

Then I went to university, and two things happened: my career in engineering was completely dependent on using units scientists across the globe had agreed were the most pragmatic. More to the point, I learned why meters and grams were so much more useful than something based off a king’s foot. The first day of my orbital mechanics class, my professor described a $125 million mistake: a satellite crashing into Mars because Americans hadn’t remembered to convert their units.

Secondly, I began running more. A lot more. And socializing with different kinds of runners. Sometimes we’d just measure a route in miles and be done with it, but often at least one person would opt for a 10k instead of six miles. As a runner, meters and kilometers are much more visual. Ask any runner to sprint 100 feet, and he’ll probably do 100 meters out of habit. 5 km, 10 km, 42.195 km… all these distances are all too real for us. My pace may still be figured in minutes per mile, but my perception of distance is as far from the Imperial system as Europe.

This metric mentality – as a runner and engineer – was swimming around my brain long before I even had to deal with 355 mL sodas and adjusting the thermostat to 26 degrees Celsius in Japan. Every now and then I slip up; my oven in Korea had a maximum temperature of 250 degrees and I questioned whether that would be hot enough to bake cookies. But for the most part, getting on board with the rest of the world has been very advantageous.

Although I eventually had to turn it down, I was considered to be a traveling recruiter for Reach Out Volunteers, an Australian-based organization. One of their applications requirements, an introduction video, featured me discussing my experiences in Japan and Haiti. For some reason, I also felt compelled to mention they wouldn’t be burdened by my American usage of miles, pounds, and Fahrenheit. It turned out, that was what stuck out to them among a sea of other qualified candidates.

There have been some setbacks. Obviously there’s no point being cheeky to someone asking for directions in a US city and stating: “Oh, it’s about four kilometers that way.” Even amongst educated Americans, I come across as arrogant for daring to use a better system (even writing that sounds so, but isn’t it true?). It took me a while to realize that although the US is the only country that uses Imperial units exclusively, other countries still have traces:

– Canadians describe their height in feet and inches, but won’t hesitate to use kilometers for distance
– The UK shows SI and Imperial Units side by side

At this point, I couldn’t stop thinking in metric if you asked me to. It’s about 6 C outside and I’m feeling like an 8-km run later. First, I’d better drink at least 1 L of water. I need to regain some of that 5 kg of fat and muscle I lost while in Peru. At least I haven’t shrunk: I still measure 181 cm wearing my Vibrams. The grip strength of my right hand is still slightly weaker than my left, but only by a few Newtons.

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