Pounds and ounces baffle top students

In last night’s “University Challenge” (BBC2) between St Cross College, Oxford and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, the following question came up …

“Imperial measures. How many ounces in two and a half pounds?”

After a slightly long pause …

Team A’s Answer : “20”
Jeremy Paxman : “No”
Team B’s Answer : “40”
Jeremy Paxman : “Correct”

I wonder whether it was their mental arithmetic skills that let down these top students, or whether it is simply an indication of how irrelevant imperial weights have become in modern Britain.

23 thoughts on “Pounds and ounces baffle top students”

  1. These sorts of questions are good for mental arithmetic problems as they do exercise the brain. Team B obviously had someone who actually knows these units for some reason (the best I can think of is cooking).
    Using the ounce in cooking has always been fine for me just as long as I remember that there are 16 oz. in 1 lb. (hence 16+16+(0.5*16)=40).
    Forgive me for saying, but I think that a pound sounds much nicer than 454 grams.
    An all in one cake mixture is 6 oz. flour, 6 oz. butter, 6 oz. sugar and 3 eggs, what could be easier to remember than 6,6,6,3?

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  2. I wonder how many people are out there who think metric internally, but convert to imperial for communication for fear of being seen as “sellouts to the EU”?

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  3. I’m not surprised at all. I often hear my peers use “feet” and “yards” in conversation. Whenever I mention that we should switch to metric they initially defend imperial measurements, yet when I ask them a question like “How many yards are in a mile?” they quickly realise that they are using measurements that they really don’t understand. Needless to say they then agree that switching to metric is a good idea.

    I’ve yet to find someone my age who can answer that question. Often they initially respond with “1,000”.

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  4. The title of the programme says it all.

    Imperial measures are a challenge to modern University students!

    A question like “how many grams are there in two and a half kilograms” would be far too easy …

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  5. Tabitha Jones wrote “An all in one cake mixture is 6 oz. flour, 6 oz. butter, 6 oz. sugar and 3 eggs, what could be easier to remember than 6,6,6,3? ”

    Given that a medium sized egg is defined as an egg have a weight of betwen 53 g and 63 g and that 2 oz is equal to 58 g, her recipe could equally well be stated as “An all in one cake mixture has equal measures of flour, butter, sugar and eggs”. What could be easier to remember?

    Reference: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/90927/0021840.pdf

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  6. Would not an answer of 30 would have been equally correct? Since the question never specified which ounce and pound was intended, then the troy as well as the avoirdupois versions could be assumed.

    There are 12 troy ounces in one troy pound. 2.5 x 12 is 30.

    Even though troy weights are used for precious metals the troy units were incorporated into imperial in 1824.

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  7. Tabitha Jones Says:

    2007-08-07 15:40

    “Using the ounce in cooking has always been fine for me just as long as I remember that there are 16 oz. in 1 lb. (hence 16+16+(0.5*16)=40).
    Forgive me for saying, but I think that a pound sounds much nicer than 454 grams.”

    I was under the impression that imperial used cups and spoons when cooking. Thus in imperial cooking there is the introduction of confusion if there are two opposing methods. In metric there is only one method.

    As for metric cooking, there is no 454 g. There is 400 g or 500 g. Nice & sweet round numbers.

    “An all in one cake mixture is 6 oz. flour, 6 oz. butter, 6 oz. sugar and 3 eggs, what could be easier to remember than 6,6,6,3? ”

    Not if you use cups and spoons. This version would seem odd and confusing to those who don’t have or use a scale. In metric, it is just as easy: 200, 200, 200, 4. Since all of the ingredients (except the egg) Tabitha mentions is sold in rounded metric amounts with no clutter added, then you can get exact amounts out of your purchased materials with minimal wastage.

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  8. It would be interesting to see how many people in the US would get that answer correct. It seems that in any typical supermarket or deli, if you ask for ounces you get a confused look from the person assisting you.

    The scales are in pounds and decimal pounds only and the person doing the weighing expects you to ask for a pound, 0.5 pound or 0.25 pound only. Even if you try to be clever and ask for 8 ounces, they will ask you how many pounds you want.

    This indicates that even people who must work with imperial/USC (FFU) measurements daily don’t know how to work with them entirely. They are limited to a few common values and the rest is confusion as they can’t do a conversion. This situation is not existent in metric.

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  9. Tabitha once again manages to show the lack of logic in the arguments against metric. Of course 454g sounds silly, but this pseudo-imperial measure (like 568ml) only remains because companies are either too lazy or too scared to update their packaging and recipes.

    I’ve recently spoken to one company who produce bolognese sauce who continue to tell people to use “225g of mince”. After I carefully explained that my supermarket sells packs of 250g or 500g and hence if I followed their instructions I would be wasting 75g of mince they told me that using 500g shouldn’t effect the product – my response, why not just say 500g on the jar then!

    The campaign to retain pints and pounds is, in my mind, nothing more than the result of decades of tabloid campaigns to reject anything foreign, even if it is better (and even if it isn’t foreign after all!)

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  10. Most new-born babies lose between 5 and 10 percent of their birth weight in the first few weeks of life. A weight loss of up to 10 percent is considered within the normal range.

    Calculating 10% of 7 lb 11 oz is not straight forward, even for those that know how many ounces are in a pound. Whereas anyone can tell you that 10% of 3.5 kg is 0.35 kg.

    Considering that a new-born baby’s weight is actually measured in metric, it seems particularly inappropriate for the health service to then convert this value to imperial before giving it to parents, especially if parents don’t even know how many ounces are in a pound.

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  11. Alex Bailey Says:
    2007-08-09 09:24

    “I’ve recently spoken to one company who produce bolognese sauce who continue to tell people to use “225g of minceâ€?. After I carefully explained that my supermarket sells packs of 250g or 500g and hence if I followed their instructions I would be wasting 75g of mince they told me that using 500g shouldn’t effect the product – my response, why not just say 500g on the jar then!”

    Alex, you have me confused. If I buy 250 g of mince and only use 225 g, then I waste only 25 g. How would you be wasting 75 g? If I bought 500 g, and only used 225 g, then I would preserve (possibly by freezing) the other 275 g for another time. In this case, though, I’d be wasting 50 g (25 g + 25 g) total.

    Did you also mean to say that if they intended for the usage to be 250 g instead of 225 g then put 250 g on the instructions, not 500 g as you wrote?

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  12. Daniel… I regularly make similar mistakes when I speak or write about combined metric and imperial measures, I seem to have a mental block which jumps out every time I start doing conversions which spill over into everything else. I usually double and triple check everything I post because of it but this one slipped through the net!

    It just goes to show how easy it is to slip up if you’re forced to use two separate systems in the way we are. If our doctors, university students and even NASA can make mistakes then I’m sure those of us who are less well educated are going to do it too!

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  13. Going back to the original story for a moment…

    I don’t watch this (or any other) quiz show, so I don’t know the format. Was this question asked as “general knowledge”, or was it a specialist round on the history of metrology? It strikes me as a little unfair, if not racist and age-ist to expect people from all backgrounds and cultures to have any knowledge of this subject. Surely in the UK, knowledge of imperial measures can only be assumed in middle-aged people who have lived in the UK all their lives. If it was a general knowledge round, I hope some viewers have complained to the programme makers.

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  14. David,

    The questions on quiz shows are suppose to have a certain degree of difficulty. I’m sure the producers of the show know that imperial units are not that well known in the UK. Unit names may be spoken everyday but the feel for sizes or the relationships of one unit to another is not well understood.

    Thus the producers knew that if they asked a question which might appear on the surface to be simple may in fact would be difficult because the knowledge is simply not there. Otherwise they would go broke giving out too many prizes.

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  15. My wife always uses imperial when cooking and it has never gone wrong for her.
    I think an important reason for the continuation of the imperial system is that the units are very easy to say. Compare an inch and a centimetre. One has 1 syllable, the other 4. If people are in full conversation, getting out a word like centimetre is far less convenient than the inch. This is a major problem that must be overcome if people like Tabitha Jones are to be convinced of switching. I’m sure Tabitha will mention this somewhere, let’s see what she has to say.

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  16. I’m in my 30’s and had no idea what the answer would be. It’s no surprise that Uni students don’t know the answer either.

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  17. Here’s a nice easy metric question: ‘What is the area of a rectangle of sides 5 decimetres by 14 hectometres in decametres?’
    I think the answer is 70 dam.
    Is that easier than the pounds and ounces question? Can you do my puzzle in your head? Or do you need paper, like me?!

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  18. Tabitha,

    I think that “5×14=70” is a lot easier to have to deal with than your earlier “16+16+(0.5*16)=40″… and in the metric case I don’t have to remember that there are 16 oz in a lb. Nor do I have to remember how many feet or yards in a mile or how many pints or quarts in a gallon because in metric I only have to thing about 10’s, 1000’s etc.

    Most metric calculations I can do in my head… I only need paper or calculator when it comes to imperial, that’s assuming I can remember how many imperial things there are in an imperial wotzit!

    Here’s one for you. Drive your car down the road until you see a sign that says “xxx yards”. Look at your speedo and tell me how to link the 10ths of a mile on your odometer to what it says on the sign.

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  19. It’s interesting that Joe Oakley prefers words of one sylable. That expression is normally a term of contempt – “do you want me to explain that in words of one sylable?”. When defending the imperial system suddenly words of one sylable become virtuous. Perhaps that should not surprise anyone!

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  20. Tabitha wrote : ‘What is the area of a rectangle of sides 5 decimetres by 14 hectometres in decametres?’

    Leaving aside the fact that you probably meant square decametres, the sum is still a lot easier than its imperial equivalent. Try finding the area of a rectangle of sides 5 feet by 14 furlongs. Choose any units you like for the answer.

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  21. In response to Tabitha’s question, actually, the correct answer would be 7 (not 70) square decametres – or. more sensibly, 700 square metres. In reality, although hectometres and decametres are theoretically within SI, they are not recommended for general use. This is an example of an imperialist trying (unsuccessfully) to ridicule the metric system by using an unrealistic example. In practical terms the example is simply 0.5 m by 1400 m, and the answer is obvious. How would you calculate the equivalent distances and area using imperial measures?

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  22. Peter K has a question for me. Let me begin.

    A furlong is equal to 660 feet. The furlong is still used regularly in horse racing along with the mile. The furlong is also equal to an eighth of a mile, or 5280 feet. Therefore 14 furlongs is 9240 feet. The area of the rectangle is 46200 sq. ft. Or 6652800 sq. in. Or 1.06 acres. Or 4733.33 sq. yards. Or 156.47 sq. rods/poles.
    Is that good enough for you, Peter? I have given quite a few units.

    Editor’s note: These prodigious calculations are a good illustration of how unwieldy imperial units are – and how unsuitable they are for the modern world.  However, the discussion has strayed far from the subject matter of the original article, which was that even the best educated young people have limited ability to calculate in imperial units.  As the topic has been given a good airing, the discussion is now at an end.

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