Measuring the World around You

Whenever you use a ruler, a yardstick, a tape measure, a scale, or a thermometer, you venture into the world of units of measurement. Measures are pretty much standardized throughout the different countries of the world. And gone are the days of using hands (although horses are still referred to as so many hands tall), joints of the thumb, and the distance from your nose to the tip of your outstretched arm. You can now depend on the simple plastic ruler to give you the same measures as the next person’s ruler.

Converting from Unit to Unit

You know that 12 inches equal afoot and that 4 cups are in a quart. But what about changing 16 yards to inches or 400 ounces to pounds? Are you still comfortable when faced with these measures? I hope so. But just in case you aren’t, I offer a basic conversion formula in this section that works for all unit-swapping that you may have to do. You do need to start with the basic equivalents (such as 5,280 feet = 1 mile), but after those basics are established, the rest is straightforward and consistent.

Using the conversion proportion

A linear measure has one dimension — how long it is. Think of measuring along a straight line. The standard linear measures are inches, feet, yards, rods, and miles.

Adding a third dimension: Volume

Volume is measured by how many cubes you can fit into a structure. (A cube is like a game die or a lump of sugar.) When you talk about the size of a factory or office building, you give measures in terms of square feet. But the building really has a third dimension: the height of each room. You don’t know, from the square footage of a building, whether the rooms have ceilings that are 7 feet, 12 feet, or more above the floor. The amount of volume in a building plays a huge role when trying to heat and air-condition the space. It also makes a difference when it comes to painting, wallpapering, and decorating

Understanding volume equivalences

If I declare that the volume of the Great Pyramid is over 91 million cu. ft., you may not quite see the magnitude of the landmark. Even 1 million cu. ft. is difficult to comprehend. Some restaurants have wood-burning fireplaces to add ambience to the dining experience. So they have to order and store firewood.

Making Sense of the Metric System

The metric system of measurement is used by 96% of the world’s population. The metric system is popular because of its simplicity. Each type of measure (length, volume, and mass) is based on a single unit and on powers of ten of that unit. For lengths or linear measures, the unit is the meter; for volume, it’s the liter; and for mass or weight, it’s the gram.

Moving from one metric unit to another

Converting from one unit to another in the metric system involves nothing more than sliding the decimal point to the right or left. Changing 4.5 decameters to centimeters, for example, means moving the decimal point three points to the right. So 4.5 decameters = 4,500 centimeters. If you know your prefixes, you’re in business to convert from one metric unit to another. The scale in Figure 7-3 shows the relative positions of the different prefixes used in the metric system.

Converting from metric to English and vice versa

One of the reasons that the metric system was developed was to eliminate the need for converting from one system to another. Two hundred years later, we’re still doing the measurement conversions. At least, we’re down to two basic systems and some pretty standard conversion values. However, in this section, you’ll see that the numbers aren’t exactly pretty. Converting from metric to English or English to metric isn’t an exact science — and I mean that literally. The measures are approximate — or as close as three decimal places can get you.

Last word

Have you ever been to a lumber yard? No aroma quite matches that of stacks and stacks of wood — all types of trees and all ages of planks. I have a friend whose business is carving out and constructing cellos. He creates cellos from hunks (very nice hunks) of wood. He buys the wood and then lets it sit for about five years to age before working on it. Such patience.

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