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:

Distance
Height
Mass
Pressure
Speed
Substance
Time
Traceability

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

  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.

3 thoughts on “No Olympic games without measurement”

  1. The Olympics have given rise to another journalistic unit – the “Olympic swimming pool”. Since few people know exactly how big such a pool is, this is just another example of media sensationalism. I understand an Olhympic pool is 50 m wide. Its width and depth are less exactly defined; I understand that there are minimum values but some pools exceed these minimums.

    Likewise, it is questionable whether a football pitch is a good measure of area. How many people have ever been inside a football stadium? Probably fewer than most of us may think. Although football take up a lot of space in the news, it is in fact a minority interest.

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  2. Metricmac, from what I can work out from the media, an Olympic swimming pool, measured in double decker buses is 5 long, 3 wide and one deep, a very good place for parking dd buses.
    How many swimming pools to a football field I have no idea, that takes a bit more creative thinking.
    Lets see what the current commonwealth games in Birmingham can come up with.

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  3. From what I have seen of the Commonwealth Games, everything there is in metric, including long distances. My take on Brexit is that it has happened, whether or not as individuals we voted for it, so we should strengthen our links with the Commonwealth. There is a clear message here for those that argue that leaving the EU means a return to imperial measurements.

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