The Metric System: A Dystopian Fantasy?

Remember the movie Fahrenheit 451? Me neither. This less than excellent film was based on the 1953 book by Ray Bradbury, which is usually described as a “dystopian novel,” in which books are burnt rather than read. 451 refers to the temperature that paper self-ignites – that is if you follow the Fahrenheit scale.

“Who doesn’t follow the Fahrenheit scale?” you might ask, and let me tell you: EVERYWHERE THAT IS NOT HERE. The USA is one of the very few countries that continues to hold on to this mind-bogglingly confusing system of measuring temperature. 

I have this fantasy that one day in the early 18th century Mrs. Fahrenheit sat down to dinner, which obviously she had cooked, and said to Mr. Fahrenheit, “Say, Bob, I was thinking when I was making you your gin and tonic, you know when water freezes and becomes ice? I was thinking we could call that 0 degrees. And when I was making you a cup of tea, I was thinking that when water boils and becomes steam, we could call that 100 degrees? What do you reckon?”And Mr. Fahrenheit looked at her and said “Oh honey. You’re so cute. But that’ll never catch on. Gawd. Girls!”

A mere score years later (Oh? You want an actual number? You can have that. After you’ve learned the metric system) Mr. Anders Celsius came up with exactly the same idea as Mrs. Fahrenheit had had just a few years earlier, and on account of him being Swedish, the idea actually caught on.’

(OK that was not the reason. Also, I made up Mrs. Fahrenheit. The point is, however unbelievable my fantasy world is, it still does not even get close to the incomprehensibility of the Fahrenheit scale.)

I will grant Fahrenheit this: in the Covid pandemic it is useful to know that when your body temperature reaches 100 is when you should call the doctor. OK. I do not however think this is enough of a reason to hold on to the notion that to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius (in case you want to communicate temperature to your loved ones in roughly 190 of the world’s ~195 countries) you simply subtract 32 and multiply by .5556. That is not how most people’s brains work.

Fahrenheit, inches, yards, ounces, gallons: all of these belong to the imperial system. Imperial. Belonging to the Empire. Now I may not be too smart when it comes to numerical conversions, but I do know this number: 1776. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of Happiness. And, as any second-grader will tell you, Happiness resides in the multiplication table of ten. 

So join me in reimagining the 2022 remake of Fahrenheit 451 as Celsius 233. And while we are at it, let’s also imagine it starring Sandra Oh. The pursuit of happiness is really not that complicated.

Lalita Dee
Author: Lalita Dee
Lalita Dee is a writer and comedian originally from Amsterdam. Her observational and narrative humor describes her queer experiences as she navigates her way through the US, the heteropatriarchy, and single motherhood. Her humor has been described as “intelligently hilarious” as well as “some feminist BS."