It is time for America to switch to Celsius

One of the most tedious parts of science education is familiarizing students to the International System of Units (a.k.a “metric system”). We would realize substantial gains if we were to incorporate any aspect of that system into the standard American language, but too many people just don’t see any reason to exert any effort towards learning a new system. While efforts to introduce the system have floundered (such as converting from miles to kilometers), I think American society has finally reached the point where conversion to the Celsius system is achievable.

To achieve this, we can take advantage of two big changes of the past generation:

1) A large minority of Americans now attend colleges, particularly at large public universities.

2) Digital display screens are now ubiquitous.

If you combine these with the continued, if not growing, importance of the natural sciences in our economy, then we have the right conditions for a change.

The strategy that I devised (over a cup of coffee) goes like this:

The core of this push would be the science departments at higher education institutions. Technology companies may also be interested in contributing. On university campuses, digital thermometer displays could be placed at popular locations, both indoors and outdoors. In addition to displaying the current temperature in Celsius, they could also display forecasts. The presence of forecasts would give students incentives to learn how to interpret the Celsius system. Given that many university buildings already have large flat-panel displays gratuitously distributed around the campus, the initial cost of implementing this system should be minimal. Even installing new specialized thermometer displays should be a reasonable cost for universities. Emphasis would start with science departments, then expand across the university, then into community colleges, secondary and primary schools.

Technology (especially software) companies could incorporate Celsius thermometers into their products. Any retailer or other manager of public space could install Celsius thermometer displays.

I think that converting our temperature-measuring system will be substantially easier than converting other systems, such as distance- or weight-measuring. The primary reason is that temperature is typically of public interest (e.g. a weather forecast), whereas measurements of distance or weight is typically dependent on an individuals idiosyncratic needs at a particular moment. The public nature of most temperature measurements makes it easier to offer an unsolicited measurement to others. A further advantage is that the Celsius scale incorporates intuitive reference points (water’s freezing and boiling points).

I’m excited about this… let’s see if anything will come of it (as if I have the time or clout to organize a campaign like this).

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