Celsius 488

Metric is elegant (think: the French)

Harvard students get upset about a lot of things. Granted, getting a “living wage” for our janitorial staff is extremely important. But perhaps there are other issues out there that are of more importance.

For instance, Harvard prides itself on being a diverse university, a university that embraces its cosmopolitan and international flavor. And yet, it still hangs onto at least one tradition which smacks of cultural hubris: the U.S. customary units of measurement, derived from the British Imperial system.

The very name of the U.S. customary units’ progenitor should be enough to elicit the contempt and ire of Harvard students, but alas, for the most part they remain blissfully unconcerned. There is no student group lobbying for inclusive and internationalist measurements (although I’m told that some members on the Curricular Review are critical of the Imperial system’s “approaches to measuring”). No one seems to be concerned that Harvard students measure the volume of beer in gallons and barrels, not in liters. No one bats an eye when BTUs (British Thermal Units) are used and not kilojoules. But I am not content simply to sit around, waiting for Harvard to change. Along with that stalwart band of those in favor of metrification, I am called to action: Harvard must stop supporting American hubris through the use of the Imperial system, and it must do so immediately.

In all seriousness, America cannot reject the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocols and the metric system. Something simply has to give. The best method for Harvard to protest our nation’s uncouth tendencies toward unilateralism is simply to get rid of the Imperial system, or—as I’m told Bush calls it in private—“the freedom system.” Surely no one would disagree that America’s domineering and swaggering use of the inch and the pound is closely linked to our nation’s going to war in Iraq. Let’s not forget that, if we switched to metric, gasoline would go from costing (on average) $2.73 per gallon to $0.72 per liter—we all know that wouldn’t please Cheney’s Haliburton friends. Unfortunately, even a person as erudite as Michael Moore failed to see the close link between the war and the U.S. customary units when he called his insightful, scholarly opus on the War in Iraq Fahrenheit 911 and not Celsius 488.

When will Harvard (and America) join the rest of the world? We cannot and should not continue with pounds-per-square-inch when we could be using the far more elegant pascals. We cannot and should not continue with drams and stones, when centigrams and kilograms could be used instead. Metric is elegant (think: the French), while Imperial is ugly, cocky, authoritarian. (Perhaps it should continue to be used in the “red states,” but not anywhere near civilized folks).

Moreover, it must be acknowledged that the metric system is vastly more intuitive and logical than the imperial system. Certainly a meter (which is defined as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second) is far less arbitrary of a unit than a yard. (Then again, to be fair, the meter was originally defined as “one ten-millionth of the length of the earth’s meridian along a quadrant.”)

So why hasn’t Harvard taken the plunge? Perhaps President Summers isn’t sure if Harvard’s female scientists can make the switch from ounces to grams on their recipe cards. Whatever the case may be, switching to metric would greatly benefit the school. Tour guides would then be able to answer the pressing question on so many tourists’ minds: how many hectares is Harvard Yard?



Charles R. Drummond IV ’09, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.