No Olympic games without measurement

Accurate and consistent measurement is fundamental to modern life, and in few branches of human activity is it more important than in sport – including, of course, the Olympic Games. This is the message given by Andrew Wallard, the President of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) to mark World Metrology Day (article suggested by Martin Vlietstra).

In his message Professor Wallard argues that “Our motto for 2008, “No Games without Measurement,” may be stating the obvious but we all know that measurement is important to nearly all aspects of society. So let us use [World Measurement Day] to press our message home to a particular group of people with whom we may normally have little contact, in the hope that they will appreciate what we do for them! Let us all hope they may go on to appreciate the importance of good measurement in its broadest contexts in our world.” If only.

Unfortunately, many British people (including many journalists) are non-numerate when it comes to measurement. Probably the most important reason for this is the fact that we try to muddle through with two incompatible systems of measurement, often making inaccurate conversions and failing to grasp the meaning of reported dimensions. Thus, journalists measure height in “double decker buses”, length in “football pitches”, and use “the size of Wales” as a unit of area. Meanwhile the NHS has invented a new unit of measurement for alcohol imaginatively called … the “unit”!

This reluctance to use the obvious measurement units (in these examples, metres, square kilometres and centilitres) is partly the result of the Government’s policy of teaching metric units in school maths and science lessons while maintaining imperial units for much of everyday life outside the school gate. In practice, in order to function effectively in modern Britain, people need to understand both metric and imperial units – yet many do not have a secure grasp of either. Hence the resort to physical comparisons and disguising metric units with new names.
Professor Wallard’s message can be read in full on the BIPM website at this link.

Also of interest on the BIPM website are the links to the following factsheets issued on World Metrology Day:


(NB: Copyright on these factsheets rests with BIPM and its partners)

  1. World Metrology Day was 20 May – the anniversary of the signing of the Metre Convention in 1875, which the UK signed up to (late, of course) in 1884. The official text of the Convention is in French, but an English translation can be read on the US Metric Association website at this link.
  2. Andrew Wallard, Director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) studied Natural Philosophy (Physics) at St Andrews University where he was awarded his PhD. He subsequently worked at the National Physical Laboratory and at Whitehall in the Department for Trade and Industry before taking up the deputy directorship of the BIPM under fellow-Briton, Prof Quinn. After Prof. Quinn retired, Wallard was appointed director of the BIPM.

Are Imperial units based on 12s?

It is often claimed that imperial is based on 12s (duodecimal) and that this has advantages over decimal. But is this truth or myth?

Of course it makes more sense to use the same number system for measurement, money and other practical uses. But let’s look at whether imperial is duodecimal.

Consider length:
One foot = 12 inches
One yard = 3 feet
One rod = 5.5 yards
One chain = 4 rods
One furlong = 10 chains
One mile = 8 furlongs
Only the foot uses a base of 12.

Consider volume:
One pint = 20 fluid ounces
One gallon = 8 pints
No duodecimal units

Consider avoirdupois weight:
One pound = 16 ounces
One stone = 14 pounds
One hundredweight = 8 stones
One imperial ton = 20 hundredweight
Again no duodecimal units

A disadvantage of imperial is that it does not have any consistent number system but uses a hodgepodge of bases.