The Cult of Stupid
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The Cult of Stupid

Dead Cat: Imperial Style

Jacob’s not taken his tablets again

Apparently, Jacob Rees-Mogg is casting around in his new role for Brexit Benefits, and he has alighted on the thought of how wonderful it would be to reintroduce Imperial units, according to today’s Indpendent. It just so happens that this little gem has surfaced at just around the same time as proposals to limit funding for university places arrive when the much delayed Augur Review into HE funding is finally published, and a day after the Health Secretary anmounced a round of NHS cuts, under the cover of everything going on the Ukraine, hoping no one would notice much. Well, given that I’m a nerd, and others will talk about the bigger stuff, I’m going to be the measurement anorak.

It’s a fairly pointless review really. The headline stuff is mostly what many people are used to, and membership of the EU didn’t change. This includes stuff like miles on road signs and mph for speeds, and pints in pubs and liquid measures in some places. EU membership didn’t prevent us using them, it merely said that we had to provide metric equivalents for conversion purposes. More precisely it removed the Imperial measures from statutory measurements and aligned to the SI system. The last place this was done systematically is via legislation, though even the measurements defined here were agreed via international standardisation agreements and track the SI ones. For anyone my age (currently 51) or younger, 70s and 80s primary school was usually mostly taken up with metrication and other symbols of onrushing modernity. Actually, in January 2020, these Imperial measures were once again admitted for use in trade in amendments to the Weights & Measures Act, which agains makes Mogg’s review utterly redundant.

But to start with, you have to ask what measures are “for”. The Imperial system is old, and is built on assumptions and needs that long predate the kind of world we live in now. It was the sort of world where you’d need to be able to quickly estimate how big an inch was, or a foot, or a yard, or measure a horse, or how much of a field you’d ploughed. These were all physical measures, usually calibrated against human bodies or activity.

That even includes the Fahrenheit temperature system, which was partly calibrated using normal human body temperature. The Celsius scale redefined things in entirely in terms of the behaviour of water, before that too was superseded as the need for wider measurement ranges was needed¹.

There are still vestiges of these measures today. UK shoe sizes still work in peppercorns (thirds of an inch), for example. Actually, there are things to be said in favour of Imperial units, even pre-decimal currency², specificially in terms of division. There’s a fair amount of love out there in the world for counting systems that use 12 (duodecimal) more than 10 (decimal) as a base for exactly this reason. So, Imperial measures are perfectly good for rough and ready reckoning: a yard of cloth, a pound of apples, a pint of water. The problem is that working with this panoply of different units and scalings across different contexts quickly gets unwieldy if you’re having to do anything vaguely technical or anything involving too much precision.

The SI system was an attempt to supersede this problem. The SI units were regularised, and calibrated to things which could be measured with greater precision, and were more easily reproducible. So the orignal base units were the kilogram, the metre, and the second³. It just so happens that one Imperial unit, the nautical mile, has a bit of that SI feel, given that it’s calculated as one arc minute of latitude circumference of the earth⁴. This in comparision to the metre, which was orignally defined as 1 ten millionth of a quarter of a latitude circumference. But now, each of the SI base units is calibrated according to measurable, reproducible physical constants. Even the measurement against the earth is gone. Both metre and second are defined against the speed of light in vacuo, temperature is defined against physical constants (such as K, the Boltzmann constant), and now, finally the kilogram is defined in terms of the mole, and other physical constants. And sitting on a single base unit, 10, makes things much easier to scale and convert. There’s a reason much so modern science is done in metric units. It’s just SO MUCH EASIER.

The SI system is a base system of units designed for an increasingly scientifically and technologically complex world, not a world where we have to measure things in terms of oxen. It’s also the dominant system of measurement internationally. Yes, the Americans use it, but even some of them can’t quite understand why⁵, and worse yet, some of their Imperial units differ from ours as well⁶. It’s not clear exactly what “benefits” switching to Imperial units for anything will have. After all, there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm from French champagne producers, or indeed from others, for the much-trumpted pint bottles of champers we were told were so much wanted. But of course, none of this is about sense. It’s about playing to a gallery, and a hard of thinking one at that. Most of the populaton under forty are used to working in a mostly metric world. And that won’t change. People will still work that way, and the world will go on. But it will please a group of people who are somehow attached to the idea that anything with the suspicious and garlic-tainted whiff of Europe is somehow inherently evil, and will be easily distracted by a bit of flag-waving from more pressing questions, like the conduct of the Prime Minister, who’s funding his party, why our export performance is dropping off a cliff edge, or any of the other assorted Brexit-related problems that are piling up. Oh yes, and the massive increases in fuel bills that will see people die. It’s another dead cat, planted on the table by a man whose ignorance of the world outside his own little bubble is matched only by his indifference to plight of the less fortunate within it. Sadly though it’s hardly a shock, given that sometimes the mid 19th Century feels dangerously modish to him.

¹ At this point I’m almost tempted to reproduce the Terry Pratchett footnote from Good Omens, p191 (Corgi edition ISBN 0–552–13703–0), which helps those unfamiliar with pre-decimal currency to work out what the hell is going on. But feel free to read it (and the whole book) yourself. Again, if necessary.

² So, today, as I sit and write, the temperature outside my window is 10ºC, 50ºF, or ~283K. Any of these will work, but weirdly in Britain we tend to stick to C for cold, and F for hot. Freezing outside is never 32ºF, but 0ºC. And a heat wave is always 100ºF, never 38ºC. We mix things up, all the time.

³ Today, there are six base units: kilogram (mass), metre(length), second (time), candela (luminous intensity), mole (number of atomic particles, based upon Avogadro’s Number, and the only one to have no dimensions), Ampère (electrical current), Kelvin (themodynamic temparature).

⁴ More precisely today, I nautical mile = 1852m (or around 1.15 miles)

⁵ The moves to officially move the US from Imperial to SI units have been going on since the mid 19th Century. Actually, around about the time that the UK started looking too.

⁶ Good luck working out if you’re talking about US or UK gallons, or whether a pint has 16(US) or 20(UK) fluid oz.

No, I distinctly said, “CULT”

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Darren Stephens

Darren Stephens

A northern man

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