I love the metric system. After struggling for years with the common unit system, in 6th grade science, we were introduced to the metric system, and I fell in love. No longer did I have to take 1/4 of something and then 1/3 of that, and end up with… what, 1/12? Everything was subdivided into 10 parts, and this made it all so much easier, intuitive even. In many cases, dividing things just required moving the decimal point.
So even if we convert fully someday to the metric system, there is still something forever locked into another system: Time. Clocks have 12 hours on them. This has bugged me for years. If the metric system is so great, why don’t we re-calibrate time to metric. A day would have 10 hours, an hour would have 100 minutes, and a minute would have 100 seconds.
For 12 increments we get four:
So we can express portions of a day easily as a half, a quarter, third, or sixth. If gets even better with 60 increments as in the case of minutes. We can divide an hour easily into many distinct segments, depending on the need. Twenty groups of five minutes? No problem.
Even better than that is the compass, broken into 360 degrees. You can express many different subdivisions of 360 without having to resort to a fraction, and that is a big help when trying to navigate.
Regardless, 12 or 360, the point is these are not based on 10, and they work better.
It turns out, our use of 10 is completely arbitrary. Simply because we have 10 fingers, and can count on them, our number system became based on 10 (base-10). This is how the Egyptians counted, and the Minoans, and thus the Greeks and Romans also. So the reason is digits on our hands. What if we had 11 fingers? That would be odd. The thing is, this was not the only natural way to count. The Sumerians took a different path. By counting the knuckles on each hand with their thumbs, they developed a natural number system based on 12 (base-12). This later was handed down to Middle Eastern and Asian cultures some of which still use it today.
So if we had a number system based on twelve, the leftmost digit place in a two digit number would mean twelve, so 10 would be twelve (twelve plus zero) , 11 would be thirteen (twelve plus one), and so on. In fact, we would need two more symbols to express ten and eleven. Some have suggested we could use T and E, respectively. So the numbers in base-12 are:
0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,T,E, 10, 11, ...
So if I give the number 65, this is actually, in base-10 notation, 6 x 12 + 5, or 77. The problem is we have all been raised on base-10, so we have a mental image of how much 65 is, and it’s certainly not 77. It would take an enormous effort to reprogram ourselves to think different (despite what Steve Jobs may have wanted). So switching to base-12 would not simply be changing how we measure things, like changing to the metric system, but changing how we actually count things. This is a much more significant change.
If you are all confused at this point, don’t feel bad. This would be like asking to think of the color green when I say ‘blue’. However, if we could reset our brains and reboot our culture, surely, knowing what we know now, we would use a base-12 number system.
My intent is not to suggest we change from metric to a base-12 system. Believe it or not there is actually a movement to do just that. They are called Dozenalists and are active in America and Great Britain.