Readers may have seen versions of world maps showing ‘non-metric’ countries, usually Liberia, Myanmar and the US. The previous article on Metric Views generated comments about the qualifications for membership of this select band, and we now consider this further.
During a discussion with a journalist from the Washington Post, Elizabeth Gentry of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) advanced the view that metric transition could be seen as a continuum, with every country in the world at some point along a line from 0% to 100% metric. This interview may be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/UKMetric#p/c/76165B395B031A51/0/xXK-QJ_9SLs with Gentry’s comment beginning at 1:23.
This view of metric transition, which brings to mind a long, straight and level road with travellers strung out between the beginning and the end, may suit the purposes of NIST, but it is sometimes unhelpful in assessing countries’ progress and relative positions in their metric changeovers. In particular:
- It is unclear how a country’s location on the line should be determined.
- There is little agreement on the point at which a country may be said to be metric. 50%? 60%? 75%? 90%?
- Since all countries use metric for such activities as scientific teaching and research and for measuring electricity and illumination, the starting point of a country’s metric transition does not correspond to 0% of metric use.
- Most importantly, there is a point in the metric transition when the going gets tough, when standards and regulations have to be rewritten, when manufacturing industry has to retool and to restock, when package labelling has to change and measuring equipment to be replaced, when the changeover on the roads has to begin, and when schools have to revise the curriculum and to buy new text books.
Perhaps we should forget Gentry’s continuum, and think of the metric changeover as resembling the crossing of a mountain barrier. At the point where the going gets tough, this is when the easy amble across the plain and through the foothills ends, and when the assault on the mountains begins.
A bleak mountain pass is no place to linger, but having crossed the summit and reached the slopes on the other side, the going gets easier. People become familiar with the new measures, and begin to appreciate the simplicity of the new system and perhaps also its logical basis and universal application. Success in one area feeds into other areas, and those holding out to retain the old measures find it increasingly difficult to stand aside from the mainstream. This is when some might decide that a country has become metric.
So how do we decide when a country has made it through the mountains and is heading downhill to the green pastures on the other side? Readers may wish to make their own suggestions. We think these tests might be sufficient:
- Is teaching in schools primarily in metric?
- Does the government use metric for most purposes?
- Are metric-only labelling of packaged goods and the sale of ‘loose goods’ in metric permitted?
So, where does this leave the usual suspects, and what about those world maps?
Myanmar and the US do not do too well. Both seem to have become established in the foothills and show no sign of planning serious attempts to cross the mountain barrier, although, as the last article hinted, America may one day surprise us.
The information about Liberia drawn to our attention by Michael Glass in his comment on the last Metric Views article indicates widespread use of metric by government, but is this enough to class the country as metric? One suspects also that its neighbour, Sierra Leone, has work to do before it can really be seen to have passed the barrier. If any of our readers has recently visited either of these countries, or any other country which is known to be dragging its heels, then Metric Views would be delighted to hear from you.
And what about the UK? A “yes” to each question underlines the progress made, often at a snail’s pace, over the past 45 years. Metric is becoming firmly established and accepted in many aspects of life, as reflected in Michduncg’s comments on the last article. But the UK Department of Transport has been left behind, and seems to have set up camp on the other side of the mountains, always happy to explain why this is not the right time to tackle the crossing. Perhaps it should make contact with Myanmar, which is over there somewhere and could probably use a few transport specialists familiar with Imperial measures.