Then there were two

We ask if it is time for supporters of so-called British weights and measures to come to terms with the fact that only two systems of weights and measures are recognised world wide, and British aka Imperial is not one of them.

One of our supporters has written as follows:

“Very disappointed and disgusted that David Attenborough seems to have reverted to imperial in Planet Earth 2.  I can forgive the occasional mile or mph since that is what still appears on road signs in the UK, but last night’s “Deserts” episode had feet, ounce, inch and – incredibly – 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  How hot is that?  I thought this was supposed to be a serious quasi-scientific documentary. No other serious programme still uses the F word, so why has he reverted?  Has it been dumbed down for the American market?”

Perhaps the use of Fahrenheit gives the game away.  The choice of measures in Planet Earth 2 only makes sense if they are viewed as US Customary (USC). The use of pounds not stones for body weights also points to a script deliberately written in USC.

Sixty years ago, things were very different. The US had become the leader of the free world, as the Soviet Union had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. But around a fifth of the world’s population lived in the British Empire and most of them used Imperial measures for everyday purposes. Meanwhile, China was struggling to recover from WW2 and the communist takeover.

For a moment, it seemed as if the US and UK might be able to agree on a common measurement system which might have been a rival to metric. There was agreement, for example, on the definition of the foot (0.3048 m) and on a unified system of screw threads. One of our frequent contributors, BrianAC, commented on Metric Views on 3 March:

“After WW2, USA, assisted by the UK empire, took most of the world into the imperial hotchpotch non-system, and it really was most of the world. (I will even allow a bonus by saying the whole world if we include car wheels and pipe threads).”

But it was not to be. The US and the UK went their separate ways. BrianAC continued:

“Despite almost total world dominance, the world changed, it moved away from the imperial and towards the metric, the system now used and understood by the vast majority of the world’s people. The only ones not familiar are those who choose not to attempt to change.”

A key event was the decision by India in 1960 to adopt the metric system.

So where does this leave Imperial measures today? No longer used in the Empire, it is a safe to say.

The mile, yard, foot and inch, found on many UK road signs, are identical to their USC counterparts. So no problem there for the producers of Planet Earth 2. The troy ounce, used in dealing in precious metals, is also the same in both systems. But the Imperial pint, the only other unit authorised for use in trade in the UK, differs significantly from the US pint. There are also other measures used in conversation, though not legally in trade, that differ including, to name a few, the ton, the hundredweight, the gallon, the quart, and the fluid ounce (16 to a pint in the USA, 20 in the UK).

The US clearly continues to have much, if declining, influence in world markets, the use of inches for TV screens, monitors, lap tops, tablets and digital camera screens being one example. But the UK? The example of Planet Earth 2 shows that if the measurements are the same in both Imperial and USC, then they might continue to be acceptable worldwide. But where they differ, USC will be understood by default, leaving the way open to confusion. On occasions perhaps, Imperial will be seen as a historical curiosity. Like thatched cottages, Beefeaters and the US tourist’s pint in a Victorian pub.

And the Prime Minister’s “Global Britain”. Unless she sees us as a satellite of the USA, then it will have to be a global metric Britain: two hundred potential trading partners rather than two or perhaps three.

 

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32 Responses to Then there were two

  1. BrianAC says:

    One of the saddest things about Planet Earth 2 for me is that it has taken David Attenborough from a life long hero, to a rather sad, un-watchable zero. To abandon his UK fans, and his own principles, presumably for financial and / or world wide media fame is in-forgiveable. Some years back he was using pretty much all metric, he said he wanted to keep up with the advancing world. As much as the anti metric swing annoys me, re-watching (a little of) Planet Earth Two reminded me of the worst aspect, that awful music with everything. In a programme of his life on BBC he was totally aghast at use of music in nature, and all but vowed he would never use it.
    Contrast that with the BBC 2 programme of Steve Backshall (not a favourite of mine) in New Guinea which was an all metric, totally natural commentary which was much easier to follow.

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  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    English is the universal language in business as is the metric system. A "Global Britain" already has an advantage of English being the country's mother tongue, but if the metric system is not fully embraced, the advantage of being fluent in English will be lost.

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  3. derekp says:

    From this week's Radio Times, p. 6:
    "The next nature blockbuster
    David Attenborough's Planet Earth ll has conquered the US, too: episode one was the most-watched nature programme among 25- to 54-year olds in the past five years."
    Ominously, RT continues,
    "... the BBC will revisit the deep ocean in a sequel to 2001 hit Blue Planet ..."
    So ignore the lack of symmetry (US programmes are imported into the UK unchanged but BBC 'blockbusters' are now scripted in USC), and start brushing up on Fahrenheit.

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  4. BrianAC says:

    @ derekp says: 2017-03-18 at 11:28
    "From this week's Radio Times, p. 6:"
    I am not sure if that is a thumbs up or a thumbs down comment!

    It certainly confirms my suspicion that the BBC is more interested in the "Atlantic Bridge" than the UK viewers. It also justifies my previous beliefs of USC creep in UK, not that that is altogether a bad thing as it will bring home to the 'less well informed' that the two non-systems are not the same thing, and going imperial will not help our exports to the USA one little bit.
    As neither imperial nor USC are fit for purpose then having a bit more mix and match, muddled measures may well be to the advantage of metric advancement .

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  5. BrianAC says:

    By pure coincidence, today I was de-canting some 'Baylis & Harding' 'England', luxury hand wash.
    I notice the volume is quoted as " Net vol 500mL (E mark) 16.9 FL. OZ. U.S. ".
    So another example of supplementary units of measure on a UK (English) product being USC and not imperial measure.
    As my previous post above, it weakens the case for "British measures for British people", dual labeling will be for the US market, not the UK market.

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  6. Ezra Steinerg says:

    It is indeed so sad that the USA, which should be a world leader but is becoming less so by the day, has not "given an inch" (shall we say) when it comes to metric in visible, everyday public usage (as opposed to science, engineering, medicine, manufacturing, etc. most of which remains "hidden metric" to the man or woman on the street)

    Quite coincidentally I got a very sharp lesson in this just today while listening to the BBC World Service (as I do quite regularly given the sad state of most American media). Several scientists were discussing the Bronze Age and its technology all over the world. Among these was one lone American scientist.

    I must confess I was both surprised (though sadly I should not be) and chagrined to hear the American describe certain bronze artifacts and the raw supplies used to make them using USC whereas all the other scientists (including one Chinese and one British fellow) stuck exclusively to metric.

    It really highlighted to me how much the USA is an outlier when it comes to units of measurement. Even given their respective metric muddles in the UK and Canada, it is clear that theoe countries are nonetheless "miles ahead" (there I go again!) of the USA.

    As one might comment about the USA's deliberate ignoring of the rest of the metric world: "Sic transit stupiditas!"

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  7. Kevin Hammond says:

    I wrote a complaint to the BBC about this, but got a rambling reply about how they need to appeal to people of all ages.

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  8. Bob says:

    It has just struck me that the official BBC responses never mention selling programmes to a US market. I wonder why.

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  9. John Steele says:

    The media might be slightly over-hyping "most-watched nature programme." I did some research on viewer numbers. In the UK, Planet Earth II netted around 12 million viewers, ahead of "Strictly Come Dancing."

    In the US, Planet Earth II, while heavily viewed for a nature program, drew 2.7 million live viewers (about 51% higher for Live+3 to account for DVRs, streaming services, etc), while Dancing With The Stars drew around 12 million (both based on much larger audience populations, but also many more program choices).

    There may be more to BBC's decision-making process than disrespecting 12 million UK viewers to pick up 2.7 million incremental US viewers. Also, viewers watching this type of programming in the US are probably more likely to be able to handle metric than the general populace. The BBC may have too many BWMA and ARM members, or at least are listening to them too much.

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  10. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @John Steele:

    I suspect you are right about the US audience for programs like Planet Earth being much more accepting of metric than the general American population.

    It is indeed puzzling to see (hear) this sort of backtracking on the part of the BBC and Sir David from pure metric back to Imperial.

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  11. Daniel Jackson says:

    @ Kevin

    Exactly how are they appealing to the people of all ages if they they are not using metric at all? what about the young who never learned imperial or the older ones who worked in professions that used only metric? Seems to me they are appealing to no one.

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  12. Daniel Jackson says:

    @ John Steele

    "There may be more to BBC's decision-making process than disrespecting 12 million UK viewers to pick up 2.7 million incremental US viewers."

    It all depends on the personal preference of whoever is authorised to make such a decision. It is more likely than not a decision made by a person who hates the metric system and is pushing his/her personal preference on to others and justifying it with excuses. Pressure from the BWMA and ARM can be ignored by a person's who prefers metric and insists upon it.

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  13. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Just saw the "bad" influence of the USA tonight watching my wife's favorite program called "Heartland" which takes place on a ranch in Alberta. One of the characters was complaining that his truck was stuck in a ditch "about 5 miles" down the road.

    I know for a fact that any Canadian would have given that distance in "kilometers". It's only because the show is widely distributed in the USA that they wrote that into the script.

    Another sad moment ...

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  14. Ezra Steinerg says:

    As a counterpoint to the "Imperial" influence of the USA on the BBC, I was listening to a British BBC reporter (no Aussie accent) describing the cyclone that was going to hit the northeast coast of Australia. All of relevant numeric info (size of storm, height of waves, wind speed) were given naturally and easily in 100% metric. This was no doubt the case because the source of the information (Australia's version of The Met) provided its information to the public and to reporters in pure metric.

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  15. Ezra Steinberg says:

    It looks like the writers and producers of "Heartland" aren't always able to hide the fact that Canada is metric in many ways. I noticed in the latest episode that my wife was watching tonight that the GPS unit in the grandfather's SUV kept talking about how many meters ahead the next turn was and then at one point it said that the destination was 4.5 kilometers away on the left.

    Still, it's too bad that the people who run that show feel the need to scrub away metric when they notice it in the show in order to pander to what they think Americans expect to hear (only USC) in the TV shows they watch. I personally would have more faith in my fellow countrymen (the latest election for President notwithstanding!)

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  16. Daniel Jackson says:

    Whoever approved the posting of comment from ARM obviously did not click on the link to view the video. If someone had, the post would have been deleted as it should. This type of post shows the mentality of the anti-metric groups, their desperation and anger at being ignored by the majority.

    Please delete this post. It has nothing to do with metrication. it was deleted by the moderators at r/metric and was down-voted to zero. It would have gone negative if it could.

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  17. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Another classic case of dual personality from the BBC talking about hurricane Ophelia:

    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-41620071

    Temperatures purely in Celsius but wind speeds in miles per hour. Yet another foul result of the abandonment of road sign conversion decades ago thanks to the Tories short-sightedness which continues to train Britons to think of speed in Imperial only.

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  18. Han Maenen says:

    Another area where the USA is completely and deliberately out of step with the world is time notation. On all airports in the world (Canada included) arrival- and departures times are in the 24 hour notation. But on all airports in the USA it is am/pm. I saw that in numerous flight reports on Youtube. And as I naturally would presume that 12 pm is midnight, and if I did not ask to be sure, I would miss my flight by 12 hours.

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  19. Anon. says:

    Honestly I don't know what the fuss is about, it's a harmless documentary. Who the hell has the time to get annoyed about hearing that Attenborough weighed a chameleon in pounds not kilograms?

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  20. BrianAC says:

    @Anon. 2018-01-13 at 19:24
    "Honestly I don't know what the fuss is about, it's a harmless documentary."

    Another wind up, what possible information could this programme give to a lifelong metric user? Just a long boring string of unintelligible information with pretty background pictures.
    It is supposed to be educational, paid for with our (UK licence fee payers) money.
    As an educational programme it is useless if we have to convert all the data into units we understand while at the same time watch the programme, that is assuming one knows what the units are in the first place!
    A young metric user would not know what feet and inches were to start with, miles they may have an idea if they are worldly wise, thus zero interest.

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  21. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Just watched another superb documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough about the Red Sea and the Gulf of Arabia / Persian Gulf called "Desert Seas". I highly recommend it (on Youtube).

    Much to my surprise and pleasure the entire program was done in metric (with just one solitary slip of the tongue when Sir David said "miles"). So, I thought to myself that the BBC has finally decided to drop Imperial once and for all.

    Alas, the closing credits reveal that the documentary was not produced by the BBC at all but by Icon Films Ltd in association with Saudi Aramco for the National Geographic Channels and it was done all the way back in 2011.

    Ah, well. As Dickens correctly noted about our era (unintentionally, of course): "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."

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  22. BrianAC says:

    @ Ezra Steinberg 2018-01-14 at 22:11

    Yes, before 'Planet Earth 2' Attenborough (and I refuse to use the 'sir') was pretty much all metric as I mentioned in the first post on this thread (BrianAC 2017-03-16 at 23:14). Thank you for confirming that.
    It is this fact that I, and most here, find so irritating, a backwards step from as near as possible fully metric to not even Imperial, but to USC, so even most old timers would find a lot of it difficult (the high 'inches' and 'pounds' figures were never used in UK), as for that F word, I’m not sure who would understand that these days.

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  23. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Han Maenen questioned the use of "12 pm". Anybody who has done Latin will know that "pm" is short for "post meridiem" or "after midday", while "am" is short for "ante meridiem" or "before midday". Logically midnight can be either, but to use either for noon is a logical contradiction. My observation of the airline industry (I have no experience of the US), is that all times are rounded to the nearest 5 minutes except those scheduled for midnight when incoming flights are scheduled for 23:59 and outgoing flights for 00:01 (ie no scope for confusion).

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  24. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @ Martin:

    Yes, 12 hour am/pm time is not at all helpful.

    And am and pm really do apply only to times between midnight and noon (am) and between noon and midnight (pm), which leaves noon and midnight out of the nomenclature.

    The best correct usage I have seen or read is "12:00 o'clock midnight" and "12:00 o'clock noon" or just "midnight" and "noon".

    Can't wait for the USA to switch to 24-hour time! 😉

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  25. Anon. says:

    @Brian AC 2018-01-14 at 11:20

    And if the program was in metric only, what could this programme give to a lifelong imperial user? Everybody in the UK understands imperial measures, or, at least has an approximate idea of how much an ounce and a foot is. I've grown up accustomed to both.
    Plus, if a metric user saw the programme, it wouldn't be what units Attenbourough is using that would get them interested, it supposed to be his description of the natural world and amazing imagery. You might not know how much a yard is, yet you would still understand 90% of what's going on. And for those few who do not know the imperial system, they will learn it from programmes such as this and thus will get acquainted with it.
    The purpose of this programme is to get people interested in the natural world. In this programme Attenourough wants to raise awareness about the enviroment and get us to make more of an effort towards preserving it. If somebody won't even make the effort to simply look up how much an inch is, then that means they are not interested and that they certainly would not make the effort and awareness Attenbourough is hoping for. Even if it was in metric it would make no difference, if you're not interested you're not interested.
    I'm all for metric in science, it's much easier to calculate, but for day to day things like when Attenbourough describes the length of a leatherback turtle, feet and inches do the job just as well.

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  26. BrianAC says:

    @ Anon. says: 2018-01-17 at 17:14

    There are no 'lifelong Imperial users', UK has been metric for over 50 years! The Commonwealth even more so. USA has its own muddled non-system.
    I think you overstep the line by saying "Everybody in the UK understands imperial measures, or, at least has an approximate idea of how much an ounce and a foot is." The latter bit may well be true, which is every reason to stop using the units.
    You say "And for those few who do not know the imperial system, they will learn it from programmes such as this and thus will get acquainted with it." Why? Why on Planet Earth would anyone need to be taught this? The planet does not need a mishmash of independent measures alongside its universal and internationally maintained SI system. I just don't get the rationale behind this.
    This tired, repeated phrase from Imperial activists, "I'm all for metric in science, it's much easier to calculate, but for day to day things like when Attenbourough describes the length of a leatherback turtle, feet and inches do the job just as well." So, if SI is easier to calculate then that is all we need to know! Why deliberately introduce a more complicated set measures (for us plebs) debasing the science of planet awareness?
    There is no need for two measuring 'systems', let alone three.

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  27. Martin Vlietstra says:

    If the UK was a ring-fenced island with nobody entering or leaving, then Anon would have a point ("Everybody in the UK understands imperial measures, or, at least has an approximate idea of how much an ounce and a foot is"). However people are entering and leaving the UK all the time (just go to Heathrow and watch the number of aircraft landing or taking off) and not everybody who arrives in the UK has an understanding of the imperial system. That is why it is mandatory for all safety notices to be in metric units - everybody understands them, both Britons and visitors. Likewise, when Britons are abroad, all safety notices will be in metric units, and remember, if a safety notice affects you, then you need to understand it immediately.

    Not everybody can cope with two systems of units of measurement - for this reason it is essential that everybody should be familiar with metric units, so why waste time expecting people to also be familiar with imperial units?

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  28. Anon. says:

    @Brian AC

    Even though the UK has been officially metric since that time, imperial measures are still widely used, and there are still older folk who are much more comfortable with them. Sure, they have had exposure to the metric system for a long time, but younger generations have also been exposed to the imperial system. There are neither any lifelong-exclusive metric users.
    ""Everybody in the UK understands imperial measures, or, at least has an approximate idea of how much an ounce and a foot is." The latter bit may well be true, which is every reason to stop using the units." If everybody as I said knows them or at least approximately knows them, doesn't that mean it makes more sense to use them than, for example if nobody knew them at all? Knowing "approximately" what a foot is causes a lot less confusion than not knowing at all.
    "Why deliberately introduce a more complicated set measures". They are not being introduced, they were already there.
    "The planet does not need a mishmash of independent measures". I might agree if every country used their own unique measures, but if it is practically only the United States using customary units, it is nearly the only one odd one out, it is not like every place you go uses something else. Perhaps we like using them because they constitute part of our culture? Otherwise if we ever read the old classics it will only be to quote you a "long boring string of unintelligible information". You are probably rolling your eyes, but that's as good a reason as any, and we are not the only country trying to preserve historical aspects of our culture. China sticks to their cumbersome character-based script for the same reason, and they seem to be getting along fine with it. Besides, some countries that officially use metric also still have informal use of native measures for the same reason. In Japan, traditional Japanese units are still in use for some purposes despite metric being official, to calculate land area, volume, etc, look it up. They obviously get it to work. And if Japan is not a modern country with an industrial, efficient economy I don't what is.

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  29. Jake says:

    Anon.:

    Yes, some countries use old names for metric units. But everyone understands them as metric units. They do not have old units interspersed or running in parallel with metric units. Culture does not mean "how we used to live". If that were true, it would have been a cultural abomination to abolish the horse and cart or to stop sending boys up chimney as chimney sweeps. The way we live, and measure, and count our money, evolves and will probably never stop evolving. There is no defence for holding up progress in attempting to achieve a uniform system of measurement that everyone understands and can use. If that system is also the system taught in school as the national standard, there is no defence for retaining outdated measurement units any more. They belong in the history book or the local museum.

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  30. Michael Glass says:

    Culture is not a good excuse for sticking to something that is less efficient. Horses were wonderful, but they were largely replaced by trains, buses, cars and lorries for moving goods and people. Human memory is essential but pen and ink are more reliable, and printing is more efficient for producing books. Now computers are now part of our culture, and so is the internet.

    The reason that traditional weights and measures were able to hold out so long in English-speaking countries was that though they were messy they were mostly consistent. However, the metric measures are coherent and consistent and that is why they have taken over almost universally.

    Our literature is not going to disappear because some words have become obsolete. Those seven league boots can easily be explained as enabling the wearer to go 100km in three steps! Whether you use the old measures or the metric system, The Deacon's Masterpiece will still contain a lot of words that most won't understand, but it's still a good yarn. See for yourself at http://holyjoe.org/poetry/holmes1.htm

    Shakespeare and Dickens are still read and appreciated in Australia and New Zealand. Ireland and the rest of the English-speaking world still values Jonathan Swift. Yes, each generation takes us a little further from the time of the old classics, but that's no reason to reject the improvements that have come along. The Gregorian calendar is better than the Julian calendar. It caused some inconvenience in 1752 when the UK changed over to its use, but no-one would go back to using the Julian calendar today.

    It's the same with the metric system. People get used to it. Ask any older Australian or New Zealander. If we can do it, so could the UK.

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  31. Daniel Jackson says:

    Those who use culture as an excuse to oppose metrication or the use of the metric system by others are hypocrites. British culture has changed drastically in the last century especially with the huge influence of American cultural influences. Yet, none of these metric opposers are complaining. If they feel this strongly about cultural influence, then they should be on the band wagon opposing the American imposition of its culture on the UK.

    I believe the real issue here is that these complainers are finding themselves more on the outside as the younger generations use more and more metric in their lives and have come to reject imperial as obsolete. They try to convince themselves everyone knows imperial, but in reality no one really does and keeping imperial on some road signs is not working to teach the younger generations imperial nor getting them to oppose metrication completely. It irks them to no end knowing they will be the last imperial generation as the future will be a completely metric one.

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  32. Anon. says:

    Actually the Japanese system, which I have already said is sometimes used does not have nice, rounded metric equivalents. You act as if the modern era and retaining the use of imperial measures for some occasions are wholly incompatible, when they are, in fact (once again I use Japan as an example). Using them is not keeping us stuck in the past, compromises are possible between modernity and antiquity.
    @Daniel Jackson make sure not to tar everybody with the same brush. There is little correlation between trying to maintain imperial units and resisting American popular influence.
    Also I find people here to be complaining just as much as anybody else, if fact it's that that I take issue with in my first comment. What I find funny is that many seem to be irritated by what is complete trivia, no one of the British public care what units Attenbourough uses, the author is being excessively pedantic in this article.

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