As I mentioned in yesterday's column, Puerto Rico does not use consistent units. This definitely
leads to confusion if you are not used to this. Many of my students see no reason for making sure
they all use the same units of measurement.
One reason for using the same units is to increase communication so everyone is on the same page. We have all heard stories of something two companies built but the final product did not work because the two companies used different systems.
The perfect example can be found if you look at the Mars Climate Orbiter from 1998. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena worked with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Denver on the software. Unfortunately, JPL did all their calculations in metric while Lockheed Martin used the English system of feet, inches, etc.
This lead to the space craft entered the Mars atmosphere at the wrong angle and was lost. What makes this so sad, is the fact neither group caught the error in all the months they worked together. This error resulted in a 125 million dollar ship being destroyed.
If you look back to 1983, you will find the story of a Jet plane running out of fuel due to a mistake in converting units. Air Canada's Boeing 767 ran out of fuel a routine flight because someone thought the fuel weight was in kilograms when it was actually in pounds. As you know 1 kilogram = 2.2 lbs. This means the plane had half the fuel it should have had. Fortunately, the two pilots onboard had gliding experience and were able to safely land the plane.
This is not a recent occurrence. It has been happening since the Vasa Warship was built back in the 1600's. Apparently the ship was asymmetrical because builders used the 12 inch Swedish ruler while the other side used the Austrian 11 inch ruler and these folks were working in the same shipyard!
The final example is the Laufenberg bridge built back in the early 2000's. The bridge straddles Germany and Switzerland. The problem arose because each country defines sea level. This caused one side to to be 54 cm higher than the other side. In other words one side was taller than the other.
So the next time students wonder about the importance of using the same units, you can share these examples. Let me know what you think.