A Hot Topic

It seems to me quite strange the way that we have held on all these years to the Fahrenheit scale for temperature.  Sure, anyone over the age of about 50 who was brought up in the UK had to learn the system, but then again such people had to deal with pounds, shillings and pence when they were small, and they’ve long since learned to do without that.

Is it the fact that North America has retained Fahrenheit which makes it still so resistant to all attempts to kill it off?  Our Met Office has been using dual indicators (degrees F and what they always call Celsius) since the 1970s.  the original plan was to use both for a while, with the Celsius number as a back-up, then invert the two so that Celsius became the main figure, and then finally to forget Fahrenheit.  But it’s still there…

Now let’s admit that if you have never used the Celsius/Centigrade system it is comfortable and natural to rely on Fahrenheit.  But really, is there any contest from a logical point of view?  Let’s suppose that we had no scale at all right now for measuring heat, and someone came along and said: “Ok, guys, I have this great system. It starts at 32 degrees – that’s when water freezes, right?  And  I reckon there are 180 steps towards boiling, and so water will boil at 212 degrees.  It’s simple!”  And everyone would carry on with whatever they were doing at the time…

Until, that is, another thoughtful person came along and said: “Tell you what, why not start from a base figure of zero – no warmth, and water freezes – and give a value of 100 to boiling.  Then we just make 100 divisions.”  I reckon that if we put aside prejudices and imagine that “blank page of A4” scenario, the latter system would win.  It would have saved many weeks of tuition time for school pupils, for a start!

The trouble is, there is still a lot of prejudice there.  Comments on the BBC weather website include all sorts of rants from people protesting about the use of Celsius, and somehow blaming it on the EU (if you don’t like or understand something, always blame it on the EU).  If it had anything to do with Europe, why have Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (for example) adopted it so naturally, along with the rest of the metric system?  Of course, there is a delicious irony in the fact that Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit himself was born in the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and spend most of his life in the Dutch Republic.  With that background his scale wouldn’t have stood a chance in the UK today!

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