A Universal Language: the triumph of the SI

The World Standards Day Poster.

The World Standards Day Poster.

A Universal Language – a language that would allow genuine communication among all of humanity – has been a dream for as long as languages have existed. For spoken language, I suspect that this will remain a dream, and indeed the diversity of language is probably a cause for celebration. Scientifically, English is undoubtedly the current lingua franca, but scientists in many countries publish their findings in other languages, notably Russian, Chinese, French and German. However, when it comes to scientific measurement, there is an amazing and near universal agreement: the International System of Units – the SI – is the agreed system of measurement units amongst almost all the scientists in almost every country on Earth.

Just like a spoken language, the shared use of the language of measurement enables communication and indicates the existence of shared culture. I am writing this because this is a truly remarkable achievement which is largely uncommented upon. Despite the astonishing diversity of languages and cultures, there is almost universal use of the SI system of units when scientists communicate their results.

To be sure, there are still exceptions. Many subgroups of scientists value their own group culture above the ability to communicate universally. Typically they say they find their familiar units ‘more convenient’ or ‘more natural’. But time is not on their side . Whereas we are all losers when a spoken language is lost, we are all winners when people abandoned the use of angstroms and chose to use nanometres instead.

The SI system may appear to be essentially unchanging, but like all ‘languages’ it evolves with the culture it supports. I once spoke with Richard Davis, at that time the Executive Secretary of CCT, about the difference between the SI and the previous systems of units – the CGS system (centimetre – gram – second) and the MKS system (metre-kilogram-second). ‘Basically‘ he said, ‘the SI is the MKS system, but it has people who care about it‘.

Measurement may be defined as ‘quantitative comparison of an unknown quantity with a standard quantity’, and practically this requires people to agree about the standard quantities and exactly how they are realised – something which changes with time and technology – and how the comparisons are made. So there is an extensive system of committees which discuss points of  detail which affect the minutiae of the measurement system. But the existence of these committees keeps the system of units ‘alive’.

Whereas ‘globalisation’ is a contentious issue when it comes to manufacturing and industry, when considering the language of science, there is no doubt in my mind that it is an unequivocally positive process. And I think it is worth pausing, perhaps just for a moment, to reflect that occasionally people can cooperate in a global scale and achieve great things.

Pause… … …

Bring on Global Warming!


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2 Responses to “A Universal Language: the triumph of the SI”

  1. Dan Shutt Says:

    may we use this image as a profile picture?

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