Supersized Earth

A new series on BBC1 shows how our planet is being “re-engineered”, and it provides pointers to the future, some of them unexpected.

In 2012, the population of the world passed 7 billion (about 6.6 billion of whom live in countries where metric is the primary system of measurement, but that’s another story). It is also the year when, for the first time, over half the world’s population lives in towns and cities. A new series of three programmes on BBC1, “Supersized Earth”, looks at some of the consequences.

The presenter, Dallas Campbell, born in September 1970, is one of the UK’s metric majority, see Metric majority attained, and appears comfortable with using metric units (as you would expect). But the producer of the series throws in some miles, feet and inches too. Curious. What could be the explanation?

The law in the UK draws a distinction between the use of units for measurement and for description. Hence, you will see 5 foot (or should that be feet?) Christmas trees but timber sold by the metre. Miles, yards, feet, inches and pints are now the only imperial units commonly and legally used in the UK today for measurement, in particular for “road traffic signs, distance and speed” and with the pint limited to draught beer and cider. But in the USA, the only other major country that still uses “English” measures, yards are rarely encountered and the pint is different from the imperial pint. So that just leaves, yes – you have guessed, miles, feet and inches. The foot is used worldwide for altitude, as a result of US dominance of the aerospace industry immediately after the second world war, and this provides a further reason why we remain familiar with it.

So perhaps “Supersized Earth” gives pointers to the future, not only for cities in the twenty-first century, but also for the way we in the UK will continue to use measurements in our daily lives for many years to come – confusing for many and a handicap if we wish to compete in world markets, but nevertheless a real possibility.

That forgotten politician, who in 1972 decided to drop plans to change the UK’s road signs to metric, could hardly have foreseen the costly and far-reaching consequences of his decision. There will be more about him in a future Metric Views article.

Metric Views welcomes the comments of any readers who view episodes of “Supersize Earth”. The next is on Wednesday, 28 November, at 20:00 h on BBC1.

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6 Responses to Supersized Earth

  1. BrianAC says:

    That was a very interesting programme, marred as you say with the few oddball measurements. The impression I get is that its ok to use metric for vertical measurements, but those blasted road miles keep us using using miles for horizontal distance. The Dubai tower though had to be both 800 m and half a mile high.
    Palin's Brazil series uses mostly metric, and at age 68 he seems comfortable with km, as a well-travelled man would be. Unfortunately, he lapses into miles for the longer distances. David Attenborough at age 86 uses mostly metric, he also lapses into the odd inch or foot now and again, with the obligatory miles also. One article on BBC South East News on Monday evening both annoyed me and made me laugh, the latest plans for the Boris Island airport places it 6 km off shore (yes, BBC using km in UK!), but the rail link to Ebbsfleet will be 20 miles. Now if this was comedy I would think it plain daft, as it is real life I despair. Another in the same programme, a flood victim said said something like "... when I first got up, it was up the wheels 6 inches, an hour later it was a metre deep ...". Well, at least we are halfway there, just another 50 years and we may be almost there.

  2. Northstar says:

    I didn't watch Supersized Earth, but from recent similar programmes it seems that the use of metric measurements in psuedo-scientific/engineering documentaries is fairly widespread and accepted. But the comment about "measurement" and "description" is interesting, and compares nicely with my own explanation for the slow adoption of the metric system in everyday conversation in the UK - what I call "approximate" and "concise".
    For the last few years I have conducted an informal survey into the meaurement systems used by people selling items in my local free newspaper (about two closely-printed pages of small ads !); to begin with I'd say that roughly 75% used imperial, and now it's about 50%. This suggests to me - although we clearly have some way to go - that for actual measurements (the "concise") people are increasingly happy to use metric, and more importantly, that metric is becoming regarded as the "correct" system to use in these cases.
    Conversely, most people are equally comfortable using imperial when describing something ("it's about six feet deep") - the "approximate". But if they were asked to actually measure it, the chances are that they will use metric (probably in millimetres, no doubt !). Hence the tower in the programme being referred to as 800m (concise) and half a mile (approximate).
    Why is this ? Leaving aside ignorance as an excuse for not using metric, I think we have become so used to regarding metric as a concise system in the UK, that many people when saying "it's about 1.8 metres deep" would quite likely be assumed to be stating an absolute, correct depth.
    Because shades of meaning is such a part of everyday discourse in English, the speaker may well come across as pompous, even "intellectual" - a damning indictment in the eyes of your average white van man.
    This could mean that there are in fact many people in the UK who would like to use metric in everyday conversation, but who just feel rather uncomfortable doing so.
    I also like to mention another pet theory of mine, which is that nearly all metric terms are multi-syllabic when compared with their imperial "equivalents": kilometre (mile), metre (foot), kilogram (pound), centimetre (inch). Is it coincidence that the only metric measurement which has passed into common usage is the two-syllable litre (gallon) ?
    One last theory ! The mention of christmas trees as being measured in feet (even B&Q do this in their adverts) is enlightening; with the obvious exception of road signs, the few remaining examples of imperial units that the public most frequently interact with in the UK are also those that they come across in their everyday existence - pints of beer, 48 inch televisions, miles per gallon, 6-yard box, yes - 5 ft christmas's not very often that Joe Public goes shopping for ready-mixed concrete, sheet steel or North Sea gas.
    Sorry to ramble on. This is my first post, and something I've been wanting to say for a while. I'm a committed metric enthusiast by the way - the foregoing is just some of my thoughts on why we still have some way to go.

  3. Han Maenen says:

    On November 16 last, I attended a historical conference about the 'Valkhof' in Nijmegen, which is a very historic site where until 1795 stood a castle with a large tower, in that year it was demolished. The language used was English, as there were many people from abroad. I just hoped that no speaker would use imperial units; just one speaker dropped the word 'foot' once during the morning session. In the afternoon, a speaker compared the 'Valkhof' with an archeological site at Zutphen, about 50 km to the north. He used metric, except that he talked about a '12 acre site'. I thought: 'Why is he using the acre?' When we were allowed to ask questions, I asked him the meaning of '12 acres'. Then it appeared that he thought that 'acre' was the English translation for hectare! So, this '12 acre' site measured actually 12 ha!

  4. BrianAC says:

    Episode two, long boring and un-interesting. I suppose being about transport and a lot of it in America this had to happen. Even the space flight to the ISS had been dumbed down to miles when in fact it is 100% metric. Another series I will probable never watch again.
    I have noticed this before, certain programme series start off being all or mostly metric, even the first of the recent new "New Tricks" series was all metric, then it seems it all lapses back into yards, stories, football fields, Empire state buildings and anything else they can use to avoid metric. The series "How to build a .." was the same.

  5. Mårten Hammarstrand says:

    Apparently the diameter of the waste tunnel was 7 meters wide, 39 miles long and capable of transporting 150 cubic meters of water. Yeah...

  6. Ezra Steinberg says:

    I just watched Dinosaurs: Crater of Death on YouTube ( and was surprised that most of the scientists (a mixture of Americans and Canadians) consistently used SI when providing measurements. (One fellow used "inches" once and "feet" once, but that was it for Imperial).

    This program came from BBC Horizon. Its production date is 1997. Has BBC been going backwards and in the wrong direction overall since then? Or is the current situation a crazy hodge-podge of mostly SI in some places and lots of Imperial in others?


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