Could the United States finally adopt the metric system?

Science

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we return to one of — another of our periodic essays.

There are many hot topics under debate in 2016. Bestselling author Daniel Pink wants us to focus on one issue not making headlines, how the metric system measures up.

DANIEL PINK, Author: This is my phone. Like many of you, I use it to check the temperature. And right now, a spring afternoon in Washington, D.C., my phone says that, outside, it's 16 degrees.

That's not a mistake. That's Celsius. And I'm not a crank or a Canadian. It's just that, a few years ago, I went metric, and it's time for you and the rest of America to join me.

Let me take you back in time, the 1970s, Columbus, Ohio. I'm in third grade. One day, Mrs. Williams tells us something amazing. In a few years, she says, the United States will go fully metric.

Four decades later, I'm still waiting, all 84 kilograms of me. Today, only two other countries still have not embraced the metric system, Liberia and Myanmar. But metric is a good idea whose time has finally come.

On the muddy racetrack of 2016, it now offers a rare political trifecta. It's good for business, good for international harmony and good for kids.

Begin with business. Getting our organizations on a single standard will avoid mistakes like the one a while back when a $125 million Mars orbiter exploded because NASA was using the international standard, but its contractor was using pounds. Metric makes international trade easier and smoother and eliminates duplication in manufacturing and labeling.

Next, international relations. America has a tattered image overseas, but going metric can help mend that by showing we're ready, willing and able to work with the rest of the world.

And, finally, children, those little creatures every candidate says are the future. Our kids' future is global and high-tech. Well, 95 percent of the globe has already gone metric. So has 100 percent of science and technology. Just as kids in China are racing to learn English, the world's linguistic standard, shouldn't American kids be mastering metric, the world's measurement standard?

There's another advantage I have learned from my own conversion to liters and meters. Metric is easier than the Liberian system. Believe me, it's much simpler to divide by 10 and 100 than by eight and 12.

There's even evidence that, when prescriptions calls for doses in milliliters and come with a metric dispenser, people make far fewer mistakes than when dosages are in teaspoons, which raises another question.

Teaspoons? It's two-and-a-half centuries since we broke from King George, and our health care system is using teaspoons? We can do better, America, but we will have the lead our politicians, instead of waiting for them to lead us.

So, take out your phones and switch to Celsius. Reset your bathroom scale to kilograms. Maybe even dump your yardsticks into Boston Harbor.

Together, we can lead this country into the future, even if we have to do it millimeter by millimeter.

GWEN IFILL: All right.

You can find all of our essays on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/essays.

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