May 20

World Metrology Day


The measurements were all wrong.

Bryant regretted his grade school days in the 1970s, when the homeroom teacher introduced the US units of measurement.  Ounces and pints and pounds, foot and yard and mile.  He hadn’t paid attention.

According to Bryant’s father at the time, the US system was soon to be obsolete.  His dad was a kind of metric-system militant, insisting on the base-10 system as more sensible and convenient, assuring his son that the US would be converting everything to meters and grams within the year.

So why bother learning how many ounces fit in a cup?

When the US metric system adoption never happened, Bryant found himself in a kind of limbo, not confident with either measurement system.  Rather than being able to rely on memory, he constantly had to refer to charts and conversion tables.

He didn’t have any cheat sheets at the moment.  The diagram explained how to avert the coming tragedy, but the drawings were crude.  Symbols for beakers were of varying sizes, and the numbers indicating quantity were apparently not to scale.

Some of them were in US measurements, and some of them were in metric.

A third measurement system, a strange amalgam of the others, indicated uncertain weights of the key powdered substance.  The explosive.

Bryant poured liquids from decanters into beakers, a strange bubbling reaction suggesting that, in more than one mixture, he’d guessed incorrectly about proportions.  Perhaps the heating element would correct the apparent problem.  A crack appeared in the side of one beaker, while a cloud of black smoke rose from another.  He’d have to start again.

Meanwhile, the clock over the laboratory desk counted closer to the crisis point.  On the instruction sheet, a boxed diagram indicated the heating times for each procedure. Some of the clock diagrams were digital, and some were analog.  A few diagrams confused both systems, looking like drawings of clocks that had already exploded.

He had never felt more confused.  Bryant hoped he was trapped in a recurring dream, but the sense of urgency felt too real.  His decisions were vital, but each one of them was based on ignorance.

With a metal measuring spoon — was it a division of a teaspoon? a multiplication of grams? — Bryant gathered a heaping scoop of the loose, black powder, and then threw it at the imprecise liquids, anxious to see the colors of the flames.