Remarks by Eric Schmidt throw up a paradox

The executive chairman of Google remarked recently that Britain needs to “bring arts and science back together”. But the USA, where he is based, is the most backward country in the world for sharing of measurement units between scientists and others. So what does this say about the measurement muddle in both countries?

In an article in January 2010, Metric Views drew attention to the problems arising from the different measurement units used by scientists and the general public, and referred to the comments by CP Snow half a century earlier about “two cultures”:

Now, the executive chairman of Google, Dr Eric Schmidt, has taken up this theme and lambasted Britain in a lecture he gave in Edinburgh on 25 August 2011. He said our society favours “luvvies” over “boffins” and warned that unless we take action to support science in education and business “the UK will continue to be where inventions are born – but not bred for long-term success”. He also took Lord Sugar to task for suggesting that engineers are no good at business – Schmidt graduated as an electrical engineer. The Independent’s report on the lecture, published on 27 August, may be found here:

But there is a paradox. The USA is a hub of technological innovation. Think of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo … Yet the USA has the widest differences of any country in the world between the units used by scientists and those used by others, including engineers (forget Burma and Liberia – neither has officially ‘gone metric’ but both are being drawn, inexorably, into the metric world by their neighbours).

An explanation for this paradox? Suggestions from readers are welcome.

Certainly, as a regular visitor to the USA, I am always struck by the ferment of ideas whenever I meet young people. Innovation and enterprise appear to be ingrained there in a way absent in the UK. Perhaps nostalgia for our Imperial past, for the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, battles won on the playing fields of Eton, and so on, is standing in the way of acquiring that new mindset required to succeed in the new world of the twenty-first century.

5 thoughts on “Remarks by Eric Schmidt throw up a paradox”

  1. Although the US is slow to adopt metric there is a strong tendency to decimalize and a disinclination to use more than one unit. For example pounds only rather than stones and pounds, inches only instead of feet and inches for relatively large measurements. There is also a tendency to decimalize the inch rather than use fractions.

    It is as though the non-metric Americans would like the advantages of metric but are inhibited from using it outright.

    As for the paradox, it may be that engineers are not motivated in the same way as pure scientists. The latter group value the unified simplicity of the SI. They are more interested in seeing patterns and connections – that is the basis of their work and how they achieve their results. Engineers on the other hand are more interested in making things work. How well they understand underlying principles is of less concern. So long as they can re-use something, it will do.

    That may be over-simplified but I am quite convinced there are two modes of thinking at work, not just in the US but here in the UK as well.


  2. As an American I can say that the population is totally disconnected from the very things that make this country work, or better said, worked in the past. Times are changing and the US is not great nation it was was. We are in decline, even if we pretend not to be.

    You mention technological innovation and then tell us to think of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo … It should be noted that even though these companies world headquarters are in the US and their Executive officers are Americans that is where it ends. These companies are global and when it comes to Engineering, designing, manufacturing and servicing, all of it is done outside the US.

    Components and assemblies are made in Asia, mostly China, software is written in India, Russia, Bulgaria, etc, Engineering could be anywhere in the world, and servicing comes from India (those notorious call centres).

    This is why there is no big hurry to metricate the US. When a product needs to be metric for world-wide consumption it can easily be done in any number of locations outside the US. The result is high unemployment in the US and what employment there is is usually low wage service jobs.

    No one is going to force an American to to use metric, but on the same note no American can force a business to hire someone who refuses to learn and develop the skills needed to work in a modern company.


  3. It is interesting that Apple has embraced metric. I spoke with a consultant on printed circuit board manufacturing. He has been thanklessly trying to convince PCB makers in the US to go metric. When he lectured at Apple he was pointing out how well 0.5 mm grid spacing works for placing electronic components—because by international agreement they are metric. The engineers at Apple had to tell him that they were using 0.1 mm spacing (cutting edge) and had been metric for sometime.

    Americans (I’m an American) seem to have a strange notion that we can have one system for everyday and another for “scientists” and it is just fine that way. It is a destructive point of view because the benefits of decimalization are not seen along with a simplified measurement system. When I see 3/4, I see an unfinished mathematical operation (division). 3/4 =0.75

    The other odd aspect in America is that “more is always better.” Therefore more tools = better. Mechanical engineers complain to me when I bring up metric that there are sizes they “just can’t get in metric.” I find it strange the European Space Agency seems to build space probes without resorting to imperial fasteners. There is always an excuse, rational or not.

    It has distressed me that George Orwell appears to have been against metric. I believe this is because he confused measurement with his observations about language. I’ve often wondered just how much Orwell has hurt metrication in English speaking countries.


  4. Interesting information about printed circuit boards (PCBs). As an engineer working during the 1980s in the UK (for a US-based company) on products containing PCBs, I thought how daft to use a grid of 2.54 mm. Of course, components in those days had pins on inch-based centres and were probably of US origin.
    What is the current situation? I’m not quite sure from Randwulf’s first paragraph, but I am quite sure that there is just as much a muddle as elsewhere. Take, for example, the desktop PC situation with its mixture of metric screws for optical drives and inch-based screws for hard-drives.
    Randwulf hits on one particular ‘chicken and egg’ situation where engineers “just can’t get (it) in metric.” Here in the UK, you cannot buy non-metric nuts and bolts off-the-shelf, so there is absolutely no point in having one of those huge boxes of spanners (sorry, wrenches). Also, since there are fewer threads (and consequent head sizes) in the ISO range compared with previous inch-based systems, all you really need is a set of 8, 10, 13 and 17 mm a/f spanners and you are sorted!
    With all such situations, however, who calls the shots? Engineers will buy components that are cheapest because they are produced in sufficiently high volumes irrespective of whether they are metric or not – unless told otherwise and are forced to pay a premium. Eventually, metric-based components will prevail simply due to overwhelming production volumes.
    There are still some examples, however, where (I presume) production volumes dictate the lowest cost for inch-based products over proper metric ones. An example is chipboard sold in the UK in a ‘standard’ 2440 x 1220 mm sheet whereas plasterboard is sold in 2400 x 1200 mm. Why is that? Does anyone know? Who decides these things in the first place? If you are building something on a 300 mm grid, why should you have to cut lumps off a sheet of chipboard when you don’t have to do the same with plasterboard?
    I can think of loads of other non-standard ‘standards’ but would start to get off the metrication track but that’s where they should all start!!


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