- A mountaineer - Hamish Brown
- An architectural modeller - Phil Durden
- A Chef - Peter Gordon
- A former nurse - Riane Martin
- An education advisor - John Muir
- A software engineer - Martin Vlietstra
- An oral poet - Benjamin Zephaniah
A Mountaineer, Author, Traveller and Photographer explains why he wants a World of Metric Simplicity
Where but in muddle-along Britain would we have the situation where walkers and climbers come off the hill on which they have used metric maps all day - and jump into cars to follow mile signs to the local pub?
I'm old enough to have suffered the schoolboy miseries of learning the old imperial weights and measures and even pounds, shillings and pence. It only took a few trips abroad to realise the cumbersome nature of all this so I was delighted when our maps went metric. I didn't have to swap systems every few months. But we seem to have fallen asleep between map and reality. The kilometre grid has been with us even before that, which makes judging distances in kilometres easy on the map yet books, newspapers, all manner of bumph and, above all else - to bamboozle most of the world - all our road signs are given in miles. Have we ever been given a reason by any of the governments over the last thirty years why they drew back at this last, logical, even simple, piece of metrication?
As an instructor, teaching navigation is made ridiculous for my beginners. Kids are schooled in metrics and then faced with a world of different measurements on the roadside or in shops. We have outdoor folk thinking in metres for heights yet having miles forced on them for distances. Other countries find this laughable; I find it embarrassing. What is education for but to equip kids for the practicalities of life yet they are having to unlearn metrics once out of school. Makes government not laughable but incompetent and illogical. But we know that anyway!
As a writer I am constantly having to waste time converting figures, as a trainer I'm all too aware of the possibility for error in outdoor activities. Not only efficiency but safety would be enhanced by completing this long-running muddle.
Climbing peaks in Switzerland, shopping in the souks of Morocco for expedition food, swotting logistics for travel in the Arctic, working in my darkroom, reading (and writing) guidebooks - I'm in a world of metric simplicity. Isn't it time the government came into the new millennium and joined the real world? They would actually gain Brownie points if they did besides making for a safer world.
Hamish Brown MBE, D.Litt., FRSGS is a well-known and respected mountaineer, author, lecturer and photographer who has led expeditions all over the metric world in a lifetime of climbing metric mountains.
The one kilometre grid system was introduced to Ordnance Survey maps in 1940. Its National Grid system is a key feature for safe route finding.
An architectural model-maker explains why metric is better
My lifelong creative interests turned into a career in architectural model-making once I had left college. As I was entering the industry, the company I first worked for had just installed a CNC machine along with CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programs. We use these to draw up sections of a building then input the data into the CNC, which cuts out components to a high precision. Although some CAD packages do have the option of imperial units, I can only imagine the nightmare confusion that could result of trying to work in fractions of inches. In an industry where deadlines are often tight, there is no room for long-winded calculations: only a simple, user-friendly system is acceptable for the job.
Many years ago, architects' plans were dimensioned in feet and inches, and drawn at bizarre scales such as 1/8th of an inch to a foot, which equates to an illogical 1:96. Imagine that on a drawing the height of the building is given as 27 feet 9 inches, then having to divide that by 96! Here goes... if every foot is represented by 1/8th of an inch, then 27 feet is 27/8ths of an inch (3 3/8 in). That is the 'feet' part. Then say that 9 inches is 3/4 of a foot, so 3/4 x 1/8 in = 3/32 in. Then add 3 3/8 in to 3/32 in, which is 3 15/32 in! The potential for errors is horrifying, and some drawings might have hundreds of such dimensions on them.
Thankfully architects' plans have been drawn and dimensioned in metric for many years now, and always use rational scales, such as 1:100. This could not be easier - 1650 mm (millimetres) on the plans equals 16.5 mm on the model. What could be easier and quicker than that? And all done in the head instantly! Now with CAD to draw, CNC to cut out parts, and of course metric units used throughout, we can turn out a high-quality, accurate model in weeks rather than months.
As well as his day job, Phil also finds a bit of spare time for mountain-walking, cycling, working with young people and collecting. He detests house prices.
Strangely enough, the song on the television ad still comes to mind, it went:
500 grams of Brussels sprouts,
500 grams of Cheddar,
that's about a pound of each,
Metrics can be simpler!
You have to remember that New Zealand was like a small British outpost in many ways. Most of the non-indigenous residents in New Zealand were descended from some place in Britain. My own family were predominantly Scottish, although I'm also part Maori, so for them to go from pounds, ounces, feet and miles to the metric system was quite tricky. However, the nation had decided that we wanted this new, more logical system and we went for it. 100%. For my generation it was a lot easier than for my parents, but as my father is an engineer, the metric system was far more logical for his work. For my Mum and step-mum, it meant having to buy a new set of scales and measuring cups - which was no big deal, and soon they were cooking in kilograms and litres as well. New Zealanders will still say, if they're feeling poorly, that they don't have an ounce of strength, or that they're inching along if they're walking slowly. We haven't lost all those old terms, we've just modernized our measurements. As a chef, I find metrics far more logical and easy to deal with. It's far easier to multiply a recipe by two when you're dealing with 200g as opposed to 7.14 ounces for example (I don't actually know how many ounces are in 200g?). By losing the old Imperial measuring system Britain isn't losing it's dignity, heritage or standing in world politics. It's merely moving into a more contemporary, practical and logical world. And any of you reading this on the internet will realise how contemporary, logical and practical the world is becoming, otherwise the only news you'd be getting would be over the wireless.
Peter Gordon was born in New Zealand and was head chef at the original Sugar Club in Wellington. He moved to London as head chef of Sugar Club in Notting Hill. He is now co-owner and head chef of London's Providores and Tapa Room.
Unlike the haphazard and confusing way in which this transition was handled in the UK, Australia introduced rapid public information about the change and why it was for the benefit of the nation to have one, easy-to-use system, in much the same way as it changed from £/s/d currency to dollars and cents. (The change to decimal currency was properly done in the UK too and for the same reason!)
Like other young people in Australia (and indeed young people over the past three decades in the UK) I learned to cook, build school projects, run races, gauge temperatures etc, all using a standard system based on 10s, 100s and 1 000s with any memory of the cumbersome complexities of the confusing old system soon forgotten.
On my return to the UK I worked for the NHS. Our NHS has been extremely progressive in its move to total reference to metric units in health records for our patients. Heights and weights are recorded in metres and kilograms respectively, with the appropriate tape measure and scales in hospitals and doctors' surgeries right across the country. Many of you will be pleased to know that our Body Mass Indices are calculated by using weight in kilograms and height in metres.
Modern health records just cannot be done in the old measures! In our modern age, doctors and nurses need to be "speaking the same language" for the sake of the patient's safety. For example, pharmacological dosages are always in metric (usually in milligrams or micrograms) and hence relate easily to body weights in kg. Sadly, in my profession, I had learnt of the death of a child through a health care professional using metric and a social worker incorrectly recording details in imperial.
Many operations and procedures are carried out today by satellite link and telephone with specialists in other countries. It is imperative that everyone knows instantly the correct information as lives would easily be lost if dealing with quantities which needed to be "translated" into other units. Imagine a surgeon in the UK speaking of "inches" of an incision to a specialist in Japan who only knows centimetres, or taking a sudden decision of how much medication to prescribe against a person's body weight if the weight quoted was not understood at all. Drug dosages that depend on body weight are always specified with respect to kilograms e.g. in μg (micrograms) per kg.
Despite what is reported in newspapers, newborn babies are weighed in kilograms, with each gram of weight gain and loss meticulously recorded in antenatal clinics across the UK. Young mothers are metric-educated themselves (no one of childbearing age at this time in UK history can "only understand" imperial!) Our babies are fed with quantities recorded in millilitres and grams, with their weight gains and losses appropriately measured in grams too. All nurses are metric-educated here or come from metric-using countries. Of course body temperatures are all recorded in degrees Celsius for safety and clear understanding.
An education adviser explains why we need to think metric
A good number of years ago, increasingly aware that my own children were part of a mathematically confused generation, I put pen to paper to suggest that society was out of step with education as far as metrication was concerned. When I embarked on a career in primary education in the early seventies, the teaching of imperial measures was forbidden; textbooks that mentioned them were purged and even conversion charts were discouraged.
Why, then, despite two generations of young people emerging from schools, do most of us fail to "think metric"? If asked your weight or height, do you reply in metric terms? Probably not, even if you had it drilled into you at school. There are those, of course, who would argue that common metaphoric parlance, such as "a yardstick to measure against", "give him an inch and he takes a mile", and "she always wants her pound of flesh" are undermined by the mere mention of metrication. I concede that "give him a centimetre and he'll take a kilometre" does not ring true. However, I am in no doubt that the current confusion, and the occasional public show of defiance, is down to the fact that successive governments have failed to follow the 30-year lead of schools.
While class lessons in mental arithmetic may be making a welcome comeback, the maths curriculum is solidly built on a metric foundation. Any suggestion that teaching in our currency should revert to bases other than 10 would be rejected at the highest level. Surely, then, there should be an "M for Metrication Day" when, once and for all, any remaining imperial measurements would go the way of pounds, shillings and pence as decreed on "D for Decimal Day" all those years ago. Imagine the chaos there would be at the tills if we had kept the old penny, the half crown and the ten bob note to be used whenever we liked alongside new pence. Yet, in terms of the move to the metrication of measure, we are doing just that.
It is not only foreign visitors who are bemused to find a society that sells milk in containers all marked in litres but some of a "pint" size; or where petrol is sold in litres, but whose citizens think of the performance of their cars in terms of miles to the gallon. And where else in Europe do they measure floor space in square metres but insist on road signs giving distances in miles?
The reality is that it did not cost much to tell shopkeepers to change to metric measures but it would certainly cost more to change all our road signs. There is a certain hypocrisy here, which defies logic and causes confusion in maths teaching.
We are moving in half measures in the UK. It is as though, on joining Europe, we had decided to phase in a decision to drive on the right side of the road. For the first month public transport would move to the opposite side, cars would follow after that. Two-wheeled vehicles would continue to have a choice for the foreseeable future.
If we don't do something about our pick-and-mix system of measurement, we will be the laughing stock of Europe, long after we have made up our minds on whether or not to join the euro. Worse than this, Britain is playing an irresponsible and cynical game with its children's education. By failing to complete the full adoption of metric units, British governments have undermined the foundation of the mathematical curriculum. Is it any wonder that today's children are both mathematically confused and failing to reach their potential in numeracy?
Appreciating measurement is a life skill that is learned both at school and at home and is intimately linked with numeracy. The present "schizophrenic" policy on units of measure is having an effect in the development of our children's understanding and ability to cope with key mathematical skills in our society. They are able to calculate in metric but face imperial in the media, at home and on the roads. The result is a disjointed world - one part for certain calculations (metric), the other for everyday parlance (imperial).
It is time to end the mathematical confusion of our children by adopting the metric system once and for all across society. While the Government must lead by legislation, you needn't wait till Westminster takes a vote. If you have children at school, use metric measures with them in the home, whether it is with the mixing bowl in the kitchen, checking their size for those new clothes or on the bathroom scales to find out if your diet is working!
John is an education adviser with The Highland Council. He writes regularly on educational matters in various publications and is the author of several books.
A computer software engineer explains why metric is better
I wrote my first computer program as a student in 1969 and the British currency was decimalised in 1971 - 14 years after India, 10 years after South Africa, 5 years after Australia. Britain was in fact the last major country to decimalise her currency. I shudder to think of the extra programming work (not to mention bugs) that occurred during the last years of pounds, shillings and pence.
I recently wrote a computer system to record the progress in children's development. Fortunately it is a legal requirement that all medical records in Britain now use metric units, otherwise consider the problems that I would have had. Traditionally the weight of a baby was given in pounds and ounces and its length in inches. The weight of an adult (or a teenager) was traditionally given in stones and pounds and the person's height in feet and inches. When exactly should the program start using stones and pounds rather than just pounds or pounds and ounces?
Likewise, when should the program start using feet and inches rather than just inches? If a graph of the child's development was being plotted, what should the axes be in - inches, feet and inches or decimals of a foot? Likewise, should weight be shown in pounds, in stones and pounds or in stones and decimals of a stone? All basic computer systems have the ability to handle numbers in decimal format but writing special pieces of code to display feet and inches or stones and pounds is expensive. The metric system combines the simplicity of a decimal system and in addition gives an easy transition from "smaller" to "larger" units. A baby's birth weight would typically be recorded as 3500 g, but this easily converts to 3.5 kg. Similarly, a birth length of 60 cm easily converts into a height of 0.6 m. These simple conversions are not possible with the imperial system.
Martin has degrees from the Universities of Manchester and Natal, is a Chartered Information Technology Engineer and a European Engineer.
An Oral Poet explains why going fully metric symbolises a progressive idea of ourselves
The past has been good and bad, but I am obsessed with the future, and I believe that our political and educational institutions should lead the way. Going fully metric makes sense to me too, not only is it easier but it also symbolises that we the British people have a forward looking and progressive idea of ourselves. Looking backwards just for the sake of it will only hold us back.
Dr Benjamin Zephaniah is an oral poet, musician, author, playwright and broadcaster. Benjamin is active in numerous charitable activities promoting justice, culture, animal protection and education.