Watching the Paralympic Games in Rio, I’ve been so inspired by the abilities of those 4,342 athletes from 159 countries. But, of all their incredible accomplishments, I was most impressed by one thing these athletes could do: They could use the metric system.
As commentators described 100-meter freestyle, one- kilometer time trial, 40-kilogram power lifting, they might as well have been speaking the original language of the Olympics – Greek. In metric units, I was clueless about distances, depths or weights. And when it came to Rio weather, I couldn’t figure out if 20 degrees meant freezing or sweltering. I’m not the only one. One study concluded only about two in 10 Americans understand the metric system.
The United States, along with Liberia and Myanmar, are the only three remaining nations in the world that have not converted to metric measurement. We’ve been thinking about going metric: In 1968, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced moving to metric was in our best foreign trade interests, and the 1975 National Metric Conversion Act designated metric measurement the “preferred” system of weights and measures. But in 2016, the metric experience of most Americans is pretty much limited to buying a 2-liter bottle of soda. Distance is still measured based on the length of an English king’s feet and weight is calculated with pounds – a standard based on a Roman rock.
My own metric misunderstanding has me thinking our country needs to go for the mathematical gold and switch to the metric system, once and for all. Metric measures – based on units of ten – are much more simple, as well as more practical and precise. And as more metrically-minded nations begin to challenge our championship status in the race to be the leader in science, technology and engineering, we need to conform to the measurement standards used by the rest of the world.
Like the Paralympics themselves, the metric system is an inspiring example of peaceful global cooperation. And with those amazing Paralympic athletes as real proof almost any goal can be achieved with enough determination, the time has come for the United States to cross the finish line to the metric system.
With a Perspective, I’m Richard Swerdlow.
Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.