Why the metric system matters – Matt Anticole
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Why the metric system matters – Matt Anticole

What does the French Revolution have to do with the time NASA accidentally
crashed a $200 million orbiter into the surface of Mars? Actually, everything. That crash happened due to an error in converting between
two measurement systems, U.S. customary units and their S.I, or metric, equivalence. So what’s the connection to
the French Revolution? Let’s explain. For the majority of recorded
human history, units like the weight of a grain
or the length of a hand weren’t exact and varied from place to place. And different regions didn’t just use
varying measurements. They had completely different
number systems as well. By the late Middle Ages,
the Hindu-Arabic decimal system mostly replaced Roman numerals
and fractions in Europe, but efforts by scholars like John Wilkins
to promote standard decimal-based measures were less successful. With a quarter million different units
in France alone, any widespread change would require
massive disruption. And in 1789, that disruption came. The leaders of the French Revolution
didn’t just overthrow the monarchy. They sought to completely
transform society according to the rational principles
of the Enlightenment. When the new government took power, the Academy of Sciences convened
to reform the system of measurements. Old standards based on arbitrary authority
or local traditions were replaced with mathematical
and natural relationships. For example, the meter,
from the Greek word for measure, was defined as 1/10,000,000
between the Equator and North Pole. And the new metric system was,
in the words of the Marquis de Condorcet, “For all people, for all time.” Standardizing measurements
had political advantages for the Revolutionaries as well. Nobles could no longer manipulate local
units to extract more rent from commoners, while the government could collect
taxes more efficiently. And switching to a new Republican Calendar
with ten-day weeks reduced church power
by eliminating Sundays. Adoption of this new system wasn’t easy. In fact, it was a bit of a mess. At first, people used new units
alongside old ones, and the Republican Calendar
was eventually abandoned. When Napoléon Bonaparte took power, he allowed small businesses
to use traditional measurements redefined in metric terms. But the metric system remained standard
for formal use, and it spread across the continent,
along with France’s borders. While Napoléon’s empire
lasted eight years, its legacy endured far longer. Some European countries reverted
to old measurements upon independence. Others realized the value
of standardization in an age of international trade. After Portugal and the Netherlands
switched to metric voluntarily, other nations followed, with colonial empires spreading the system
around the world. As France’s main rival, Britain had resisted revolutionary ideas
and retained its traditional units. But over the next two centuries,
the British Empire slowly transitioned, first approving the metric system
as an optional alternative before gradually making it offical. However, this switch came too late
for thirteen former colonies that had already gained independence. The United States of America stuck with
the English units of its colonial past and today remains one
of only three countries which haven’t fully embraced
the metric system. Despite constant initiatives
for metrication, many Americans consider units like feet
and pounds more intuitive. And ironically, some regard the once
revolutionary metric system as a symbol of global conformity. Nevertheless, the metric system is almost
universally used in science and medicine, and it continues to evolve according
to its original principles. For a long time, standard units were actually defined by
carefully maintained physical prototypes. But thanks to improving technology
and precision, these objects with limited access
and unreliable longevity are now being replaced with standards
based on universal constants, like the speed of light. Consistent measurements are such
an integral part of our daily lives that it’s hard to appreciate what a major
accomplishment for humanity they’ve been. And just as it arose
from a political revolution, the metric system remains crucial
for the scientific revolutions to come.

About James Carlton

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100 thoughts on “Why the metric system matters – Matt Anticole

  1. The reality is that a base 12 measurement system is better than a base 10 system. Base 10 is only evenly divisible by 2 and 5 while base 12 is evenly divisible by 2,3,4 and 6. Evenly divisible is king in measurement.

  2. A meter at least nowadays "…is defined as the length of the path travelled by light in absolute vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second." Meaning it will never change. A meter will always represent the same real distance. To the imperial system users (mainly americans), no we dont actually have to know that fact to be able to use the system. It just goes to show that a meter will always mean the same thing. Other than that, the metric system has 7 base units which can be used to derive all other units from known physics equations. E.g. distance is a base quantity with base unit m (meters). Time is a base quantity with base unit s (second). From these you can derive the unit of velocity which is from the eqn distance over time (d/t or m/s). So velocity is actually meters per second. If i want to get the equivalent value in kilometers per hour i simply divide the distance by 1000 and multiply the time by 3600 (60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, therefore 60*60=3600 hence the time in seconds * 3600 gives the equivalent time in hours)

  3. The only people who care about this are non-Americans who have some weird fetish for complaining about the USA not using their system. If you don't like it don't use it?

  4. Everyone: “omg America is the only country not using metric”
    Liberia and Myanmar: *looks the other way*

  5. 3:13 you later go on to say that the British refused the Metric System despite here showing that some of their colonies and Protectorates used it

  6. It's a nightmare for engineers. I always see these units in books and i have to convert them to metrics to understand it. It's like thinking in your own language .Why can't you be just normal America!

  7. Americans: Overthrow the British government inspired by the French Revolution
    Also Americans: Reject the (almost) universally accepted French standard to stick with the British Imperial system.

  8. Yay Philippines. Large distances in kilometers. Small in inches. Human height in foot-inches. Human weight in pounds. Fluids in either milliliters, liters, or ounces.

  9. Here in Québec we use a lot the imperial system in construction because of the us, we also says we are 6'2" 175lbs instead of using kilo and centimeter.

  10. Americans can't even get their youth to choose a gender how would they EVER adapt to the metric system?

  11. A cube of water 10 x 10 x10 cm is 1 liter of water which weighs 1 kg which needs 1 kcal to heat it up with 1 degree Celsius, it is so basic and simple it hurts

  12. ⚲⚲⚲⚲⚲⚲⚲⚲

  13. The painful thing is that when I go to a popular tourist spot in Malaysia just for a walk then an American tourists ask for directions in miles. I don't blame them for asking for directions but jeez I had to use google and search kilometers to miles. Still, love ya America. I want them classic rootbeers

  14. We do it because of Britain. Honestly I wish I knew the metric system. The most I know is I kinda know what a meter and centimeter looks like.

  15. Thanks AMERICA! Now we have to learn about how many hands make a foot in maths
    (No offense Americans, thank you French)
    -Sent from England

  16. Though the Imperial system is f*cling weird, that doesn't mean the metric has no faults. It's still based off an arbitrary chemical, planet, and number system. We should measure in binary based off Planck lengths and times.

  17. 4:01
    "As a symbol of global conformity"
    *Shows in the map that there are only 3 out of hundreds of nations that use the imperial system

    Oh the shade of it all, Ted Ed!

  18. When you use „meters“ instead of „bullet velocity of an AR-15 in football fields per fareinheit“

    Americans: *confused screaming*

  19. We're gonna use Zimbelic system now. One zimbelic pound is how much I weigh. One zimbelic mile is how much I can run in one zimbelic hour. One zimbelic hour is the time it takes for me to eat a bowl of mac and cheese. And one zimbelic gallon is the amount of fluid that fits in my mouth

  20. Britain uses metric. Hahahahaha. I’d rather say we use what we want when we want.
    We use Miles
    Metres and Cm
    ounces/ Pounds/stones
    Some use Celsius yet others use Fahrenheit

    Because why not.

  21. Why you judge people if they don't use metric system? They were raised under my "feet" it's not their guilt.

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