Metrological Extremes

Al’s coffee shop smells festive. “Hiya, Sy. Can I interest you in a peppermint latte this morning?”

Adapted from a YouTube video contributed by NPL(UK)

“You know me better than that, Al. My usual black mud, please. Hmm… What flavor’s hiding under the chocolate frosting on the scone rack?”


“In that case I’ll take two. Your latest artwork behind the cash register is more a scroll than a poster.”

“You noticed. Yeah, it’s very cool but I don’t understand a couple things.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Like what’s NPL, for starters, but mostly what the poster’s even about. I get that it’s science-y and my Physics and Astronomy customers chuckle at it, but…”

“Well, for starters, NPL is the United Kingdom’s National Physical Laboratory. In USA terms they’re a little bit like a mixture of NIST and what used to be Bell Labs with a side order of DARPA. They were early supporters of high‑precision instrumentation, computer and network tech, lots of cutting‑edge stuff until they were privatized and the company that mostly bought them lost a whole lot of money. Now they’re back to a government plus academy structure but they’re still a going concern, one of the major drivers behind the SI conventions.”

“You wrote about that a while ago, din’tcha?”

“Did a whole series that started with revising the official mass standard and wound up at the full set of Système International basic and derived units. Pretty boring until you realize that precise measurement has been crucial to practically all manufacturing since the introduction of mass production. And it’s important to use a consistent set of units. One of NASA’s worst black eyes was the Mars Climate Orbiter failure when one team used Imperial feet‑and‑pounds units and everyone else was on the metric system.”

“I gotta use both sets. Most of my baking supplies come in pounds, but the coffee beans and some of the flavorings come in kilograms. I gotta use my computer to resize a recipe.”

“That’s the thing with the metric system. It’s all about powers of ten. No dividing by 12 or is it 16 or even 5280 to get to a different size range — just move the decimal and you’re done. I don’t know why people have so much trouble with it.”

“It’s something new, Sy.”

“Yeah, but it’s not been new since the 1800s. It’s a long time since doctors prescribed by the scruple or minim. All there’s been for generations is milligrams and microliters. Gas prices being what they are these days I’m surprised the oil companies haven’t been pushing to sell by the liter — price per unit volume would drop by nearly a quarter.”

“I see ‘milli’ and ‘micro’ ornaments on one of those Christmas trees. Is that what they’re about?”

“That’s the ‘divide by a thousand’ tree. You already know ‘milli’ as the first cut‑down from grams or whatever the unit is. Divide by another thousand, you’ve got ‘micro’, which is one millionth or 10‑6. You’ve seen the ‘nano’ prefix by now — it’s 10‑9 and I like the nano‑nine connection. The ornaments on that tree display the prefixes for smaller and smaller subdivisions. The gold ones near the bottom are new this year. ‘Quecto’ is 10‑30, which would take you 30 digits if you wrote the number out.”

“So I guess the other tree is ‘multiply by a thousand.‘ Yup, there’s the ‘kilo’ for a thousand grams. Someone once told me I get about ten thousand beans in a kilogram bag.”

“Ten beans to a gram, then. That makes each bean a tenth of a gram or 100 milligrams. See how easy? Try figuring that in ounces.”

“Nice. Hey, I recognize ‘mega’ next to … a million. Counting’s hard without the commas in there.”

“Some people use spaces. You probably remember ‘giga’ and ‘tera’ from gigabytes and terabytes, you being a computer user.”

“Gigabucks, too. I read the news, you know. Politicians and CEOs play in the billions. But who needs numbers as big as ‘quetta’? That’s what, 1030?”

“Scientists and computer storage managers, mostly. Jupiter’s just shy of two quettagrams, and civilization’s on the path to generating a ronnabyte of data.”

~~ Rich Olcott

One thought on “Metrological Extremes

  1. “That’s the thing with the metric system. It’s all about powers of ten. No dividing by 12 or is it 16 or even 5280 to get to a different size range — just move the decimal and you’re done. I don’t know why people have so much trouble with it.”

    I’ve long know that there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon and 8 (fluid) ounces in a cup, but it was only a few years ago when I realized that there are 2 tablespoons in an ounce. So that means there are 384 teaspoons in a gallon, something I’ve never needed to know.


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