A Defense of Inches and Fluid Ounces

May 15th, 2008 | By | Category: Units

Factors are Good

I know that as a scientist, I am expected to loathe all imperial measurements–inches, cups, quarts, gallons and Fahrenheit. Whining about the United States’ failure to embrace the metric system? Default behavior for dim bulbs seeking to seem sophisticated.

You know what? I don’t like metric measurements for many daily tasks. Why? Factors!

The metric system is based around base 10 numbers. Why? We have ten fingers, so our counting system is based around base 10. This makes jumping between large differences in magnitude–say between the size of my desk and the size of the State–relatively easy. But, ten is a terrible, ugly, number. With only two factors, two and five, it’s a bitch to subdivide measures.

Why couldn’t we have twelve fingers? Twelve is a beautiful number–breaking down into factors of two, three, four and six. Ahhh! Grab a ruler and try to measure a third of foot. Easy! Try to measure a third of a meter. A total pain in the ass! Nothing like an infinite repeat (33.3333333333333333333333333333333333… cm) to ruin a perfectly pleasant day.

Imperial measures for volume are even more pleasant, residing in the world of base 2. Thirty-two fluid ounces to a quart–factors of two, four, eight and sixteen. I’m practically drooling. Ever try to adjust a recipe using measuring cups in milliliters? Ack!

For the lab where I’m routinely bouncing between microliters, milliliters and plain old liters, metric measures are great. Nifty even. For daily activities like cooking? Not so much so.