If God wanted us to use the metric system, he would have given us meters instead of feet. -- Burton Walder

SI is here


It's easy.

SI stands for "International System of Units" (in French) but we Americans call it the *%#)+@^! Metric System. The French did most of the work around the time we formed the Unites States. We might have helped but we were too busy being independent.

There are seven base units of measurement. They define: length, mass, time, electric current, temperature, luminous intensity, and amount of a substance. Only three of these are different from our units and interest us in our daily lives. They are length, mass, and temperature. We also commonly encounter the derived units for area, volume, and speed.

SI is coming whether we like it or not and it's easy enough to get comfortable with it. Here's a start for you.


First you'll need to know these - well, a few of them.
Greek prefixes make things big.            Latin prefixes make things small.
prefix  symbol  multiply by
deka D or da101 (ten)
hectoH or h102 (hundred)
kilo K or k103 (thousand)
mega M106 (million)
giga G109 (billion*)
tera T1012 (trillion*)
peta P1015 (quadrillion*)
exa E1018 (quintillion*)
zettaZ1021 (sextillion*)
yottaY1024 (septillion*)
prefix  symbol  divide by
deci d101 (ten)
centic102 (hundred)
millim103 (thousand)
microu106 (million)
nano n109 (billion*)
pico p1012 (trillion*)
femtof1015 (quadrillion*)
atto a1018 (quintillion*)
zeptoz1021 (sextillion*)
yoctoy1024 (septillion*)
* Prefixes, symbols, and powers of ten are universal but these words have different meanings in different countries. Here's more.


Start with the meter. Think of it as a slightly big yard. That's close enough for most everyday use. Then there is the centimeter - think of it as a half inch (only smaller). The kilometer is a short mile - well closer to half a mile. Keeping these three things in mind will give you a good sense of what people are talking about when they tell you how long things are.
easy to remember more precisely
A meter is about a yard. 1 m = 39.37 inches
100 meters is about a football field. the most common unit of meaure used in the United States
1000 feet is about 300 meters. 1000' = 304.8 m
About two and a half centimeters make an inch. 1" = 2.54 cm exactly
A millimeter is between 1/32 and 1/16 of an inch. very close to 1/25"
A thousand millimeters is a meter.
Think of 500 mm as a half yard or 300 mm as one foot.
That's it: 1000 mm = 1 m
A kilometer is a really small mile. 1 Km = 0.62 miles


While riding in your car this is the same stuff we learned for length - a kilometer is a short mile - well closer to half a mile. So going a hundred Km/h isn't so fast (about 60 mph). Our old 55 mph speed limit is about 88 Km/h. You may hear "meters per second" occasionally. Multiply by 2 to get a rough guess at miles per hour.
easy to remember more precisely
You can go more kilometers per hour than mph. 1.61 Km/h = 1 mph
1 meter per second is two miles per hour. 1 m/s = 2.24 mph


You probably won't encounter this often. Let's just say that square meters are big square yards (almost 11 square feet).
easy to remember more precisely
A square meter is a big square yard. 1 m² = 1.2 sq yd
Two and a half square kilometers is about one square mile. 2.59 Km² = 1 sq mi


You're used to this already. A liter is a quart - close enough.
easy to remember more precisely
A liter is about the same as a quart. 1000 cm³ = 1 liter = 1 qt 1.8 fl oz
About 16 cc's make a cubic inch. 16.39 cm³ = 1 cu in
One of my elementary school teachers told me, "A pint's a pound the world around." (Please, tell me more.) SI ties the volume of water with it's mass too - a liter of water is one kilogram. Then they went a step further: a cube 0.1 meters on each side has a volume of one liter. Make one with each side a tenth of that (or one cm) and you have a thousandth of the volume (1 ml), or as you may have noticed, 1 cc is the same as 1 ml and that much water is one gram. Expressed in SI, 1 g of water occupies 1 ml or 1 cm³.


Think of a kilogram as a good solid handful - the weight of a 1 liter Coke. The gram? Well, it's very little - about 30 grams in a one ounce letter.
easy to remember more precisely
A kilogram is about 2 pounds. 1 Kg = 2.205 lb
500 grams or half a kilogram is about a pound. 454 g = 1 lb
A tonne (metric ton) is close to an American ton.1 megagram = 2205 lb
30 grams is about an ounce. 28.3 g = 1 oz


Celsius has 0 degrees at freezing and 100 degrees where water boils - sounds simple but our 0 degrees is not where water freezes so you can't convert by just multiplying or dividing. But we can work with it easily if we remember a few things.

First, just memorize a few Celsius numbers:

Along with this, keep in mind that Celsius degrees are about twice as big as Fahrenheit degrees. For big numbers the 32 degree freezing point shift becomes insignificant and you can just multiply or divide by 2. For example, if somebody tells you the inside of the furnace is 2000 degrees Celsius, just think of it as 4000 degrees Fahrenheit (hotter than you can imagine in either case). The same will do for large negative numbers like the temperature on Neptune.
easy to remember more precisely
A degree Celsius is about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. 5°C = 9°F
One more thing: Kelvin is the same as Celsius except that zero is 273.15° colder - at absolute zero - where everything stops (almost).


Well, time, measured the same way everyplace, right? - yes, but not written the same way. There's an international standard but, guess what, we Americans don't use it. A date is written like this:
That's right, four digit year, dash, two digit month, dash, two digit day. And time is similar:
Yes, two digit hour, colon, two digit minute, colon, two digit second. Of course the seconds are usually left off.

So, the correct way to write the current date and time is:

0000-00-00 00:00:00
The best part is they naturally sort correctly.

Now you need to learn to speak SI.

If you would like to do some conversion, here is good website for that.

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