A 21st Century Approach to UK Peaks

Walking has never been so attractive. It’s cheap, it keeps you fit and it gets you away from the crowds. Yesterday’s launching of a new interactive website on Ben Nevis draws together for the first time a UK-wide peak challenge and a wealth of information for hill walkers. Continue reading “A 21st Century Approach to UK Peaks”

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.

The London Marathon

This weekend thousands of runners will test themselves to the full in the annual Flora London Marathon. At 42.195 km, it is a race of endurance. But why 42.195 km? That is tied up in the history of the 1908 London Olympic Games. But why does the United Kingdom press call it a 26 mile 385 yard race and does it matter? For the record, two measurements differ by 1 cm. (Article contributed by Martin Vlietstra)

Continue reading “The London Marathon”

Football going metric?

Viewers of “Match of the Day” on 9 December had the unusual experience of hearing football commentary in metric. Was this an aberration or a straw in the wind? (asks Robin Paice)

There was an interesting exchange on “Match of the Day”

Three football pundits (Ray Stubbs, Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson) are discussing the “goal of the season” scored by Matthew Taylor for Portsmouth against Everton. Lawrenson is describing the volley, voice over an action replay: “straight as an arrow, like a rocket, dipping – here’s the measurement [screen shows 42 metres]. Similar thing at Sunderland last season, like an arrow, goalkeeper on his six yard box [sic] didn’t stand a chance [screen shows 39 metres], not quite so far but still a very good goal. He won’t score many better than that. 42 metres …

AS: By the way, I work in yards.

ML: [slightly condescending] It’s 42 lots of 39 inches.

AS: [to RS] Carry on then.

ML: It’s about 45 and a half yards, give or take.

RS: Have you just worked it out that quickly?

ML: No, I’ve been practising all day.

[All fall about laughing].

Football tends to be militantly imperial despite the fact that as the sport is relatively unknown in the USA, and despite the prominence of foreign players and managers in English and Scottish football, Britain and Ireland are the only countries in the world which still cling to expressions such as the “eighteen yard box” (meaning the penalty area). So it was encouraging, and perhaps we should thank Mark Lawrenson for introducing the footballing masses to the novelty of metric measurements – albeit it was treated somewhat light-heartedly – as though metres are not real measurements.

I would guess that the explanation for this unexpected foray into the world system was that the software used by the BBC in this instance was probably metric. It was easier to use it than try to amend it.

Anyway, thanks to Mark Lawrenson.