Measured response

I was most disappointed that you published Mike Batiste’s complaint about the use of imperial units in your golf Brain Teaser.

I was most disappointed that you published Mike Batiste’s complaint (Letters, 27 February) about the use of imperial units in your golf Brain Teaser.

Personally, I applaud the use of such units as a reminder of the reality in which we live. Perhaps you just wanted to provoke other readers such as myself into responding, so here is one of what I am sure is many replies to Mr Batiste.

Imperial units are alive and well and in widespread use in engineering, both in the UK and abroad, even if most particularly in the US.

As undergraduates 25 years ago, we had to do a certain proportion of our work in imperial units, as it seemed likely that we would continue to need them.

The chief advantage of the SI system to an engineer is that it’s easier to do your sums, since it makes a reliable distinction between force and mass, while with imperial units we very lazily use pounds or tons for both purposes.

This means that one can very often get an error by a factor of about 32.2 (for those who don’t know g in ft/sec/sec) and have to think — an activity all too rare in young engineers.

The metric system has its weaknesses — the thousandth of an inch is still a much more useable unit of measurement for small dimensions and tolerances, and I wonder if car wheels will ever be generally measured in anything other than inches.

As a cyclist, I have to put up with the absurdity that a 700mm wheel is smaller than a 27in one — but understanding both systems at least means that I get the right tyre.

The SI system has made plenty of adjustments to give us good comparisons to familiar imperial units, but I’m forced to wonder if Mr Batiste knows why a PS is a PS for power output, or why a tonne is a tonne.

I’m sure, as he says in his letter that he is not the only person who has no concept of ounces and pounds, but it is not the use of the units that is at fault; it’s the fault of those who have not given Mr Batiste this most important knowledge, and of course his own fault in not recognising its importance.

I’m not a dinosaur — being able to think and work equally happily in both metric and imperial units — and I think metric units should take over, if only to improve overall efficiency and costs.

but imperial units will remain in use, and if you can’t cope with that, then you’d best stay out of mechanical engineering, keep off the roads, or not go in an aircraft (how else will you know how high you’re flying?), along with plenty of other things.

I must stop now to measure my children’s height in varas — 33 1/3in, what a fantastic unit.

Mike West
Corsham, Wiltshire

I think you were too ready to apologise to your correspondent Mike Batiste over using imperial units in your golf Brain Teaser (Problems, 13 February).

Not only are imperial measurements often the measure of choice, being based on real-world physical units, (it tends to depend on the specifics as well as the person) they are still the UK legal unit for, among other things, road signs, milk and beer. Furthermore they are the customary measure of the US — a fairly big player in the world economy.

It reflects badly on engineers in general if individuals cannot be bothered to gain an understanding of the wider world.

Ann Cooper

It was sad to read Mike Batiste admit that he had no concept of ounces and pounds and he finds it frustrating that imperial measures are still being used.

In our company — a toolmaker to the aerospace industry — knowledge of imperial measures is essential. For example, all the tooling for the AgustaWestland US101 helicopter, which has been selected for the US Presidential Flight, is measured in imperial or ‘English’ units.

Mr Batiste is sadly ill-equipped to work on most engineering projects from our largest trading partner, the US. He has the same lack of schooling as some of our apprentices, whom we have to train in the imperial system.

David Delaney
Chairman, PPB

I must protest and take issue with Mike Batiste regarding the use of ounces and pounds.

There is nothing wrong with giving the mass of a golf ball in ounces, kilograms or any other recognised unit. The problem is one of inflexibility.

I think that in order to deal effectively with the rest of the world it is very important that engineers can deal with all units ranging from Centigrade, Fahrenheit and Kelvin to miles, metres and yards.

Closing one’s mind to other people’s units closes that market and reduces our overall understanding.

Howard Bradfield

In reply to Mike Batiste’s letter ‘Golf Handicapped’, those of us who are old enough to have used imperial measures and were taught how to divide £19 17s 3d by seven in our heads as children are grateful for the mental agility conferred by this.

I suspect that at 63 I could cheerfully hold my own with those of Mr Batiste’s generation in, say, calculating the log to the base three of 29 expressed in hexadecimal to 15 places — and it’s all thanks to this childhood background of mixed radix arithmetic.

Sometimes, the easiest option is not the best.

JM Williams

As an experienced Maths teacher, I would always teach the full range of systems — English (one of the oldest), Napoleonic (metric), Babylonian (the circular measures) and Roman — which we need to understand our history.

Only teaching metric is what I, and the dictionary, call ‘indoctrination’.

For preference our traditional weights and measures (ft/lb/sec) are better than the metric (cgs or kms) — and we should not change from miles to kilometres.

The views of non-English people are likely to be unsupportive of our weights and measures. But this does not make their views correct or scientific.

Robin Willow