A Measure of Confusion

Typical timber frame joints
Typical timber frame joints

We had a visitor from New Zealand stay with us this summer.  While he was here he took a course on building in the Timber Frame construction style.  This involved heavy beams, mortise and tenon joints and lots of measuring.   His biggest frustration was the measuring. As he is from a metric nation, he had a very hard time with our system using inches and feet.  He had a hard time imagining what a 1/16 of an inch was and if 3/8 inch was bigger or smaller than 7/16.  With some work, he was able to finish the work and they came out great.

Students in school will be facing a similar challenge, but perhaps in reverse, as they will once again be meeting the metric system in their science classes.  In some ways the U.S. Customary system of weights and measures is much worse than any other countries.  We are stuck with a Frankenstein’s monster of measurements that involves a mishmash of systems from many different sources. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda by the liter.  Athletes play football on a 100-yard field, but they run the 100 meter dash in track and field.  We measure in fractions of an inch, until things get very small and then we use decimal measures, such as thousandths of an inch.ChemMatters Cover - Dec. 2014

This is the topic of an article I wrote for the December 2014 issue of ChemMatters magazine. ChemMatters is an award-winning magazine for high school chemistry, which aims to explain how chemistry works in our everyday lives. Each issue includes a Teacher’s Guide containing background information, follow-up hands-on activities, classroom demonstrations, and other resources to facilitate student comprehension.

In my article “A Measure of Confusion” I follow some the issues surrounding our current system of measures, including the loss of a NASA spacecraft that crashed instead of landing on mars. This was due to an incorrect conversion from English to metric units.

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By the way, if you join the new American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT), you will receive a one-year subscription to ChemMatters as part of your membership.  And there is nothing confusion about that!