A Modest Proposal

There are two standard systems of measurement used in the world today.

The oldest in common usage is the American version of the old Imperial English units. There are inches, feet, yards, miles, acres, quarts, cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, tons (both short and long). There are also units for time with origins in antiquity.

The other and by far the most common worldwide is the Metric System. This is based on a standard unit of length, the meter. A cubic meter of Water at a standard temperature and pressure is then used as a standard unit of volume (kilo Liter). The Meter is divided into decimal units. 1/100 meter is a centimeter. 1/1000 of a meter is a Millimeter. There are continuing units both larger and smaller than the Meter.

A meter was originally defined as the distance from the North Pole to the Euqator through a specified point. This point was to be London when the system was first proposed, but England didn’t want it. So, it was proposed to France. There it was accepted, so the median line was taken through Paris France. This means that the earth is 40 Million Meters in circumference by definition. Or, it would be if the earth was a perfect sphere. But, the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere. So, the French devised a workaround. they calculated carefully, and crafted a standard meter bar, made of Platinum, and kept it in a vault at a standardized temperature Until the last half of the last century, this was the reference Meter.

Then the United States stepped in. Technology had progressed enough that the standard would not give enough precision any more. Two forms of quantum energy radiation were selected to give both a reference time and a reference distance. Time came from a Cesium clock. This gave a source that could be replicated anywhere, and would give the same length to a time signal. Distance came from a Krypton Laser. This gave a replicable distance measure. But the light was a very small wavelength. True, it was much more reliable than the platinum bar, but it wasn’t really easy to get. It took a specific number of wavelengths, including a fractional part to get the length.

So, we have two different measurement systems, on based on very old measurements, and one based on the Earth, ultimately. The future looks like it will take us off of the earth, and out to the other planets and space, eventually we hope to make it to the stars. We can’t continue to rely on strange numbers based on a planet we will have left for accurate measurement.

If we are considering a future of Humanity that includes moving at least some people off of the Earth, then we should ask ourselves why we are using a measurement system that is based on the earth. The entire Metric System is based on the size of the Earth. Standard measurements are based on what is considered normal for the surface of the earth.

Absolute measurements which can be independently verified with relatively simple equipment is a real need. This would help long term for us as well.

Consider a few examples. The Volt, the basic unit of measurement for electric force is based on a length of carbon in a stack, and a level of current. The current is in turn based on a relatively random number of electrons. So are the units of capacitance, magnetic impedance and the basic unit for magnetism.

The same things are true for the basic units of pressure and viscosity.

Temperature is another case that doesn’t make any real sense. The two temperature scales commonly used are based on the thermal expansion of some material. This expansion is then read off against a scale. The most common material is colored alcohol. Formerly, liquid Mercury was used, but bi-matellic strips or solid metal rods are also used. The scales used vary, but the two that we all run into are Celsius (Centigrade) and Fahrenheit. The Farenheit scale uses a graduation of 100 equally spaced ‘degrees’ between the hottest day and the coldest day of one particular year in Germany. The Celsius scale uses the freezing and boiling points of water, with 100 equally spaced ‘degrees’. There are several reasons why this is a bad way to measure temperature.

For one, on the Celsius scale for example, water freezes at 0 degrees. But, freezing starts at around 4 Degrees Celsius, and continues as the temperature drops. If the pressure changes, then the freezing and boiling temperature also changes. The famous 100 degree boiling temperature is true only at a specific atmospheric pressure. If the atmospheric pressure is increased, the boiling temperature increases, and if the atmospheric pressure is reduced, the boiling temperature decreases. If the pressure is reduced enough, then body temperature will boil water. That is why high altitude pilots and astronauts must wear pressure suits.

First we should ask what are we measuring when we measure temperature? What we are measuring is the atomic momentum of the material. The real energy that is placed into the material speeds up the atomic motion. This is a non-linear function to the ‘temperature’ measurements. This means that there is a complicated formula for adding energy to reach a desired temperature. A much more correct unit would be Electron Volts (EV). This is a direct energy measurement. In thousands (K), millions (M) and billions (G) of EV this is what high energy physics uses instead of temperature. What works for physics would make much more sense than what we are using now.

For high temperature projects, Scientists commonly use the total energy content of the material. For instance, look at Fusion research. The various fusion reactors use the energy content of the plasma. It is a function of both temperature and density. The energy content of the gas needs to be great enough to both strip the atoms of electrons, and for the momentum of the Hydrogen nucleus to overcome the nuclear force trying to keep it from combining (or fusing).

Common reporting on these projects report temperatures of ‘Millions of Degrees’. The Physicists on the other hand expression these temperatures in KEV, MEV or even GEV. Electron Volts are a unit of energy. The same kind of measurement used in particle research. It’s not just a different measurement, it is something that is more directly measurable and much closer to the real energy barriers that need to be overcome.

So, why do we continue to measure the average energy around us by using the expansion of common or uncommon materials? looked at independently, it doesn’t make any real sense.

I would like to propose a much more sensible set of units. I call this a Standard Hydrogen System (SYS) of measurements. The standard unit of mass would be a neutral Hydrogen atom. The standard unit of electromotive force would be the bonding strength of the Hydrogen atom. This is approximately 1.5 Volts in the current Metric System. You have seen it. It is the natural voltage of most batteries cells. The standard unit of electric current would be a single electron. This would be scaled up to much greater levels. Computers are good at that. Common values used in every day life would be much greater values of course, but the values would be easily converted.

For values of distance and time, I would like to propose that we use another convenient property of hydrogen. There exists for Hydrogen both a set of emission lines and absorption lines. Astronomy uses one of these absorption lines as a standard. This is the famous 21 cm line. This gives us a convenient quantum length that is close to a human related scale. It also gives us a basic unit of time/frequency. The base value would be the Beat. a speed of one beat per beat would be the speed of light.

I would also like to use a base 16 system for changes to these units. Yes, I know that it is not Decimal Friendly, the major advantage for the Metric System. But, the Metric system has many physical reasons why this is not really an advantage.

By 300 BC, Greek geometers knew that while a line could be bisected (divided in two equal lengths), it could not be trisected. (divided into three equal lengths). In fact, by the methods of geometry, a line cannot be exactly divided into any odd number of pieces. Ruling out all of the odd number factors, leaves us with only powers of two as the candidates that can be subdivided exactly.

What geometry can do, other physical processes can also do. what geometry cannot do, other physical processes cannot do exactly, only approximately. This means that in every decimal process, there are always errors.

That is why computers use Hexadecimal mathematics internally. 16 is a convenient value for a base, and as a power of two, it makes the circuitry easier to design.

Yes, it is not Decimal, but decimal numbers are not really hard wired into us as people. Most people assume that a base of ten is ‘natural’, but that isn’t true. There are languages that are used today that don’t have numbers larger than three or four. These people use our number names for larger numbers.

English actually has three different bases for numbers built into our number names. Consider. I don’t believe that anyone would seriously argue that the numbers from one to ten are not a base ten number system. and it is, but consider eleven and twelve. These are easy example of English supporting a base twelve system. That dates all the way back to Babylon, where they wanted to make fractions easier. A base of twelve makes it easier to deal with fractions made up of bases of 1, 2, 3 and 4. The Babylonian scholars even took the next step and added 5. That means that the minimum base system is base 60 (3x4x5) And before you say that it is silly, and no one would ever use base 12 or base 60, please answer these two questions.

First, considering that Babylonian scholars considered Day and Night to be two different periods, how many hours are in a day?

Secondly, How many minutes are in an hour? How many seconds are in a minutes?

See, you are still using both Base 12 (by two, to include both day (AM) and night (PM)). You are also using Base 60. The influence of ancient Babylon is still dominating some aspect of our lives, four thousand years and more after it was commonly practiced. (By the way, Horoscopes also came to us from ancient Babylon. So you also know many people who adhere to Babylonian superstitions.)

There is one other number base built into the English language. That is a base 20 system. The number names from thirteen to nineteen give evidence of that. You probably learned twenty as the next number. But, there is a twenty-six, but no twenty-seventeen. That is because the last number in the old German counting system was not twenty, it was one score. (Remember Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, “Four Score and Seven Years ago..”) A score, like a dozen is still with us.

So, number systems of up to 60 have been used, and number systems of up to 20 have been widely used, even by people you might consider completely uneducated.

So, I conclude that using a base of 16 for more exact measurement is doable, and if we understand the reasons, can even be simply implemented.

Computer people need to become comfortable in Hex, base 16 arithmetic. And they do. It usually takes place in college, and takes about a half a semester for them to become used to it. They often get calculators that support ‘Hex’ math. If started earlier, First Graders could be as good at Hex Math as they are with Decimal Math. The number after fifteen then would be Hex.

I will leave it to others to name the units that would be needed to make this all work out. Constants would of course be easily converted by computer.

An atomic clock, and a quantum based micrometer could be easily fabricated as a semiconductor chip. The base frequency would be close to 1.4 GHZ. If we chose a base time, say some convenient value close to the age of the universe, then our time calculations would never need to have any negative numbers.

See how much better everything would be if we would just get off of our parochial dependence on local or even nonsensical measurement systems, and get on a true universal measurement system? why delay, we should start today!


About yetanotherbob

Electrical Professional Engineer I suffered a stroke in 2008 which left me unable to work. However, I can still think clearly about two hours a day. If you can't understand, it may mean that I have spent too much time that day trying to think clearly, or it may mean that you are not as smart as someone with brain damage, you may take that as you find it. I do hope that the opinions expressed here are worth your time.
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