GWR2023 reflects our measurement muddle

Today, we start the year with the 2023 edition of Guinness World Records, a famous annual publication. Obviously, this publication would not be possible without measurement. Unlike some foreign language versions of GWR2023, the English version is published with dual units to make allowances for metrication laggards like the UK and USA. GWR2023 contains some measurements in metric only and a few in imperial only, mainly related to records in the US, but the vast majority of measurements are predominantly expressed in dual units.

Measurement usage in the GWR2023 is based on the implicit assumption that readers are familiar with metric and imperial units. Some dual units are expressed with the metric units first followed by the imperial units in brackets and others are expressed with the imperial units first followed by the metric units in brackets. The problem with dual units are conversion errors, rounding errors, lack of clarity about which units are accurate where there is a discrepancy between the two systems, which one was used for the original measurements and whether the metric units were converted to US customary units or to British imperial units where they differ (e.g., different pints, gallons and tons). The original measurement would presumably be the one that is quoted first but is that always the case?

One of the consequences we face for our and other English-speaking countries’ failure to complete metrication is that our media and publications tend to use dual units whereas foreign-language media and publications tend to use metric units only. GWR is a classic example of this. On the Amazon® website, I looked at the preview pages of GWR in French, German and English to compare measurement usage. In the images below, the French and German versions use metric units only whereas the English version uses dual units:

German version of GWR2023:

French version of GWR2021 (I was unable to find preview pages for GWR2023):

English version of GWR2023:

Why do the publishers believe that the English-speaking world requires conversions of metric units but speakers of other languages do not?

The problem that publishers face when deciding on unit conversions is whose usage they should cater for. In the English version, their conversions appear to cater for an American audience. They convert body weight into pounds only (no stones appear in GWR2023) and temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit. They use US gallons and US tons.

Unusually, some very small quantities are converted, some with rounding errors. For example, GWR2023 says “… , ingesting or inhaling as little as 4 g (0.1 oz) of hydrazine is enough to kill an adult human” (p16). In fact, 4 g is equivalent to 0.14 oz. Other small conversions used are:

  • 1 g (0.04 oz) on p40 (correct conversion: 0.035 oz)
  • 1.27 mm (0.05 in) on p44
  • 0.95 mm (0.04 in) on p54
  • 1.6 g (0.05 oz) on p121 (correct conversion: 0.056 oz)

There are other examples of conversion errors in GWR2023.

For example, the section on the Great Pyramid of Cholula (on the page about Mexico, p120), it says “Although shorter than the Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt, its volume is greater by almost 2 million m³ (7 million cu ft)”. This is a spectacular conversion error that is wrong by a magnitude of 10. There are approx. 35 cubic feet in one cubic metre. Therefore, the correction conversion is 70 million cu ft.

On page 233, GWR2023 says “Markus Rehm leapt out to 8.62 m (28 ft 3 in) on 1 Jun 2021 at the World Para Athletics European Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, smashing his own world record by 14 cm (5 in).”. In fact, 14 cm is equal to 5.5 inches.

On page 247, under the heading “Fastest Women’s University Boat Race”, GWR2023 describes the length of the Oxford-Cambridge race course as 4-mi 374-yd (6.7-km). In fact, the metric distance is equal to 6.779 km, which is closer to 6.8 km.

GWR2023 uses two different gallons. On page 47, GWR2023 tells us that Mosquito Bay contains up to 700,000 tiny dinoflagellates per gallon (4.5 l). The British imperial gallon is equivalent to 4.5 litres. Elsewhere, GWR2023 uses the smaller US gallon. For example, on page 52, it tells us that the combined capacity of blue whales’ lungs is 5000 litres (1320 gal) of air.

These problems could be avoided if the English-language version of GWR2023 just used metric units, like the foreign-language versions. It uses metric units without conversions when quantities are really tiny (e.g., nanometres), when there is no imperial equivalents, At a Glance sections for countries, where metric is well established for sports distances (e.g., 100 m athletics race) and in several other places.

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