METRIC SYSTEM – How Far to Swim


This week on, we will pull together in one week some of the posts that were written to inform and to promote the metric system, an incredibly obviously superior system of measurement to the one we here in the United States use. This post was written during the first week of the summer Olympic games this year.

Hoping you all are sensible, intelligent, insightful, and reasonable thinkers. Then you all would be pro-metric…

Well, as an engineer, and an avowed supporter of the metric system, watching the Olympics is much less difficult to do than most spectator events. All the distances are in metric. Next week, when track and field cranks up, the distances people run will obviously be in metric, and even the distances people jump or throw objects are announced in metric, until the announcers convert it to feet and inches for the non-engineering, American audience.

I did figure out some people who would have like the Olympics in the archaic English system of measurements – the men’s swim team. I have tried to avoid comments about specific athletes, but will have to break with that norm for once. So, think about this: if the distance Michael Phelps would have swam in the butterfly would have been in the English system instead of metric, he would have gone 200 yards, not 200 meters. 200 yards is 182.88 feet. At that point in the race, Phelps was another meter or so, make that a few feet, ahead and would not have gotten barely beat out at the end.

Here is something to consider. A few nights before, the Americans were beat out in the last few meters, make that feet, for a first place in a relay. If the race had been in English, and not metric, the Americans may have won. But, they got beat out by the French team. Where did the metric system get introduced in 1799? In France.

It is a good thing that engineers are not, by and large, conspiracy theorists, and that they are supporters of the metric system. Otherwise, we couldn’t enjoy the Olympics. The rest of the USA can fret and watch gymnastics.

METRIC WEEK – You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you convert all the distances in the Olympic events to the English System of measurements and use them in every day conversation about the Olympics, just to show how senseless it is for the USA not join the 98% of the world’s countries who use the metric system.

This week on, we will pull together in one week some of the posts that were written to inform and to promote the metric system, an incredibly obviously superior system of measurement to the one we here in the United States use.

Hoping you all aren’t my friend, Dave, who has not idea how many feet are in a mile, but still thinks the rest of the world should be converted to the English System…

What Event You Should Do

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A few members of our family were answering the question: If you could compete in any Olympic sporting event, what would it be?  My first response was, of course, the premier event – the triple jump. Setting that aside, I got thinking that, as an engineer, I could figure out what event in which to compete. Here is my reasoning.

The goal is to win a gold medal. And even though the gold medals in these Olympics are only 1.34% gold, there is something to be said for the honor and prestige of winning, I guess.

My thought is that I would want to compete in an event that has the smallest difference between the third and first place finisher. I could make this the sixth and first, or the tenth and first. But I will stay with the third place to the first place, just to demonstrate my engineering solution. The reason to choose this approach is that I would like the best chance to move up to first place, thinking that I will not start in first. So, as we consider just track and field events (the original Olympics), and look at some of the times and distances for various competitions that were completed in this year’s Olympics, we can see which event it would be easiest to move up by calculating the percent of time or distance that the third place was compared to the first place. Of course, for distance events, one wants higher numbers, for time, lower. Therefore, the percent of the lower place score will be below 100% in distance events and above 100% in time, so we will compare the difference from 100%.

Here are the results (all time in seconds, distances in meters):

Event 1st 3rd % Diff % 3rd off 1st
100 m 9.63 9.79 101.66% 1.66%
200 m 19.32 19.84 102.69% 2.69%
400 m 43.94 44.52 101.32% 1.32%
800 m 100.91 102.53 101.61% 1.61%
1500 m 214.08 215.13 100.49% 0.49%
10000 m 1650.42 1651.43 100.06% 0.06%
110 m Hurdles 12.92 13.12 101.55% 1.55%
400 m Hurdles 47.63 48.1 100.99% 0.99%
Shot Put 21.89 21.23 96.98% 3.02%
Discus 68.27 68.03 99.65% 0.35%
Long Jump 8.31 8.12 97.71% 2.29%
Triple Jump 17.81 17.48 98.15% 1.85%

I will now start training for the 10000 meter run. I will forget about the Shot Put.

Run the numbers. It’s the only sensible way to decide.

What If…

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My son thinks up these impossible what if questions. They are impossible. I pay him no mind.

In the Olympics, athletes compete against each other in the same events. But, as an engineer, always trying to improve things, I get thinking sometimes about improvements we could make to the various sports. Can we combine running with swimming and bicycling? They already have it – the triathlon.

OK. How about this. Let’s race a human – an Olympic athlete – against a bicyclist and against a horse. If they were going the same distance, that would obviously be unfair. But if we take the average speed of a human for, say, 1000 meters, then take the time of that run and set the horse and bicyclist out at the distance that their average speed would take them in the same amount of time, then we could race the human running, the horse galloping, and bicyclist cycling. It would all be done with rates of speed, precise distances, and timing to the hundredth of a second. It sounds a bit odd, but it would give the engineer calculations to perform and distances to lay out. He could write up a report on it and submit it to…

All right. It has been done. When I was a kid, my parents, uncharacteristically took all their children to the horse races. It was family day and my dad, a math teacher who understood odds, only bet on the favorite horse to show. We came out 2 or 3 dollars ahead for the evening.

One of the events that headlined the night was a race between – you guessed it – an Olympic champion runner, a bicyclist, and a horse. The Olympic champion was Dave Wottle. In 1972, he won gold, not in his premier event, the 1500m, but in the 800m. Look up the story. It is interesting to read.

So, they placed Dave one distance from a common finish line, the bicyclist further out, and the horse around the curve somewhere. The horse ran valiantly, the bicyclist fell, I think breaking his bike, and embarrassingly landing in some, shall we say, fertilizer. But Dave Wottle won.

A marketer was no doubt behind it, and made sure Dave would win. People liked him. Engineers, code of ethics and all, were likely not to have been consulted. But the engineer could run the numbers, for this race and many like it, making them fair races and using any number of combinations for competitions.

The benefit engineers could have to society if they would only let us stray from providing clean water, electricity, engines, fuel, transportation, wastewater treatment, etc., and provide entertainment for all.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have ever thought that the design and construction engineers of all the Olympic buildings should be getting medals way more than the athletes, and have designed the look of the medal for those events.


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We are continuing our look at the Olympics here at 156 is not a number near and dear to engineers, but it is a number that came up in the Olympics recently and one that reminds me how engineers can have fun with the Olympics, and indeed, improve various sports.

Today’s sport to improve is basketball. The USA team scored 156 points against a quite inferior opponent in a recent game. This is in a basketball game where there are 8 less minutes than in an NBA game. The Olympic games are split up into four 10-minute quarters. After the first quarter the American team had 49 points. At that pace they could have scored 196 points, so scoring “only”156 was a sign they eased up in the last three quarters.

Scoring 156 points means the team averaged 39 points a quarter, and 3.9 points every minute. And that is with the other team also possessing the ball and scoring 73 points of their own.

This brings me to an idea I have had for a while about basketball and how the broadcast networks can make the game more intriguing to engineers. We are all about numbers – rates, ratios, interpolation and extrapolation. I propose that every 15 or 20 seconds throughout a game, an alternate scoreboard is kept that will extrapolate out what the score will be if the rate at which the teams are scoring is maintained. At the end of the first quarter of the game mentioned above, the score was 49-25. That translates into a final extrapolated score of 196-100.

People would greatly enjoy not only watching the score of the game, but the extrapolated score as it would be updated three or four times every minute. The announcer could say, “Even though there are only 3 minutes and 20 seconds gone in the game, at this rate the (team ahead) will be scoring 136 points! What a rate!”

Didn’t I say engineers could make this game more fun.

d = (1/2) * 2πr

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Watching the Olympics over the weekend gave me the wonderful opportunity of not only being a spectator, but, as an engineer, thinking about how to improve the races for the athletes.

I watched parts of the 10,000 meter race for both the women and the men. That  distance equates to 6.2 miles, so this is no sprint. The athletes run around the 400-meter track 25 times. That’s a lot of running, and almost made me want to exercise.

So, I am watching these races and the lead runner often has a shadow, the runner in second place, running right off his or her shoulder, for many of the laps. It made me think, which is a good thing for an engineer to do. I wondered how much longer that second-place runner had to run every time around the track. The lead runner is running about a half meter off the inside line of the track and the second-place runner about a half meter outside of that. This means that the second place runner must be running further as he or she runs half the circumference of the curve of the track.

I looked it up. The track dimensions are laid out with a curve of radius 36.500 meters. Therefore, the distance around the curved end of the track is explained by the equation:

d = (1/2) * 2πr


d = the distance along the curve

r = the radius of the circle

It is 1/2 of the full circumference of 2πr because the curve is 1/2 of a circle. Simple enough.

Considering we know the radius, and note that the first runner is 0.5 meters outside of the inside track line, and second runner, in same lane (the lanes being 1.17 meters wide), right off the first runner’s shoulder, is 0.5 meters outside of the first runner, we end up with a table like this:

Line                                 Radius (m)             Distance around curve (m)

inside lane line          36.500                              114.668

first runner                 37.000                             116.239

second runner          37.500                              117.810

We have found out that the second runner runs 117.810-116.239 = 1.571 meters further as he or she runs just off the first runner’s shoulder, and this happens every time around one curve of the track. For a full lap, this is doubled to 3.142 meters. When I was watching, a second place runner would easily hang out there for up to 10 laps, meaning that runner would run 31.42 meters longer! 10,000 meters is a long race, but the difference between first and second is often under 30 meters. I don’t know if it was over the weekend. I was busy doing calculations. But I was able to run the numbers and, if I had their cell numbers, would have texted the coaches of the second runners and tell them to  back off and run right behind or go ahead and run in front of the other runner. Save the distance. It could mean the distance between silver and gold.

The engineer helps improve the Olympics once again.

The Winner

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Watching the Olympics brings up a recurring discussion with my family, mainly between my wife, the non-engineer, and me, the engineer. As an engineer, I can appreciate it when things are able to be quantified and measured. Numbers are our game.

(Of course, some of these “measurements” are carried way to far by managers at work places who have no idea how statistics work and wouldn’t know a regression to the mean if it bit them on their… oops, that’s for another post.)

My wife and I will watch a race and the runner or swimmer who wins will beat the second place person by 1 or 2 or 3 hundredths of a second. This may be after racing for many minutes, and my wife, kind-hearted soul she is, would say that they all finished about the same time. “Is there really any difference between the athletes?” She would give them all gold medals.

We now have the ability to measure quite precisely the time span from the start of the race to the end in hundredths or thousandths of a second. It’s not like the old days when someone may have to make a judgment on who crossed the finish line first or touched the wall before anyone else. It is measurable and specific. One person wins, the other does not.

What I figured out, though, is that I am just as “kind-hearted” as my wife, at least as far as an engineer can be. I may be more kind-hearted because I support the system where the true winner, the absolute winner, the winner proven to be the winner, is the one who is declared the winner.

Specific, measurable, precise, and using significant digits that identify accurate results. An engineer can appreciate that.

0.45 vs. 0.233

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We continue with an engineer’s look at the Olympics by considering two numbers: 0.45 and 0.233.

These represent two margins of results in two different sports. The first one, 0.45 is the difference in seconds (a fraction of a second) between 1st and 2nd place in a swimming race, specifically, the 4x100m freestyle. It is a measurable phenomenon – time. We have the knowledge and ability to measure differences in two people or teams to far less than 0.45 seconds. This is a very specific number and method of measurement, and a specific quantity of measurement.

On the other hand, 0.233 is the difference in the score between two gymnasts, meaning one will make it to the finals and one will not. This brings up the question: o.233 whats? Points? Points of what? This number is not a discrete measurement of time or distance, but instead, it is a compilation of scores of “opinions” of judges. In the absence of being able to measure specific distances or times or weights or whatever, the engineer will consider the option of using a group of experts to score items and weigh the scores, comparing scores, throwing out outliers, etc. In that respect, the Olympics does that right.

But in a strict comparison between the two sports, the engineers will overwhelmingly choose the one where results are measured on an absolute scale and not left to opinion, even if they are experts. Give us track and field. We will take swimming or cycling, or rowing. But vary off the path of time, distance, or weight and venture into gymnastics or diving, well, the engineer will either fall asleep or stay up all night devising a better, specific measurement of those sports.

s = d/t

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This is a simple equation:

s = d/t


s = speed

d = distance

t = time

Watching the Olympics, an engineer can “enjoy” them better by running calculations on average speed in various races.

Take swimming for example. Looking at the four strokes for the men’s world record at 100 m:

butterfly s = 100m/49.82s = 2.007 m/s

freestyle s = 100m/46.91s = 2.132 m/s

breast s = 100m/58.46s = 1.711 m/s

back s = 100m/51.94s = 1.925 m/s

Therefore, when it seems like the breaststroke swimmers are going slow, the engineer will be able to tell you that compared to the freestyle swimmers, the breaststroke athletes are going 80.25% as fast as the faster freestylers. If you want to talk about efficiency, go with the freestyle. It will get you there at over 6% faster by speed than the next fastest stroke, the butterfly, which in itself is 4.26% faster than the backstroke.

Believe me, there are many more comparisons, all based on simple speed calculations, as one considers different speeds of the different strokes at different distances. And this is just swimming.

More on the Olympics, and fun one can have watching them, the rest of the week.