The madness has won when most people prefer to measure things by water than by people. The Fahrenheit temperature scale sets “96” as the temperature of the human body (it was a little inaccurate when first established). The Celsius or Centigrade scale sets “100” as the temperature at which water boils. At the chillier end of things, Fahrenheit chose “0” as the point at which a particular brine mixture would freeze, and, according to the story, because it was the coldest temperature he measured in Danzig. Celsius, of course, chose “0” to be the point at which water freezes.
But never mind the technicalities. Think of F and C like this: If it’s 0 C or 0 F outside, it’s cold. If it’s 100 F, it’s hot, but if it’s 100 C, you died long ago. So which is the more human scale?
Where the numbers are round in Celsius, where the tens click into hundreds, water can survive but you cannot. And yet, thousands of people with too much time on their hands across the globe are convinced measuring by when water (or steam) survives is the One Right Way, the logical way, the Scientific way. It doesn’t matter that Fahrenheit has smaller degrees (5/9 the size of a degree C) and is thus more precise. It doesn’t matter that those more precise degrees stretch across a vast range of temperatures assignable to mundane human experience It doesn’t matter that it’s possible to qualitatively know the difference between 80 and 85 F for more easily than 80 and 85 C even though the latter are further apart because the degrees are larger. It doesn’t matter that Celsius is a more dishonest Kelvin, pretending for the first 40 degrees or so to be a human-compatible temperature scale and then for the majority of the numbers merely describing cooking temperatures or chemical changes.
No, none of that matters, they insist, because water shouldn’t freeze at 32 and boil at 212.
Water doesn’t even make thermometers.
Okay, maybe water doesn’t make thermometers, but don’t numbers in some sense make thermometers? Because really, the choice of Celsius is a choice of more easily divisible numbers, a selection of more straightforward calculation. Water isn’t even used to define the Celsius scale anymore, the Boltzmann constant is, and the actual melting point of ice is now below 0 C, which just goes to show you, Celsius is for nerds.
I am not trying to insult the nerd community. There is no particular reason that the average human need to comment on the weather (it’s 93 degrees out there!) supersedes the human need to calibrate a thermometer or divide things by ten. However, there is also no reason the latter should replace the former. It’s simply an arbitrary choice of priority. If it insults your sensibility for water to freeze at 32, a seemingly-arbitrary number, then you prioritize Celsius, and you are a quant, generally definable as a person who wants the numbers to fit.
Being a quant is like preferring chocolate ice cream; it’s indefensible because the entire category is arbitrary. Some hugely influential early modern scientist quants such as Johannes Kepler echoed ancient quants like Pythagoras in their literal math worship. An obsessive devotion to numbers inspired their more accurate theories in astronomy. Their madness has been to the great benefit of humankind.
The path of least resistance is a commonsense rule that does not fit within physics, where it is too general and loses accuracy, but physics fits within it. Physics (the modern version, it goes without saying) is a quant’s paradise, and to be a quant is the path of least resistance.
I wasn’t entirely honest a couple of paragraphs ago when I said choosing to be a quant is just like choosing a favorite ice cream flavor. It’s more like choosing a favorite ice cream flavor in Maoist China, and Mao loves rocky road. Although there is no way to choose a ‘right’ flavor theoretically, there is undoubtedly a particular flavor that’s pragmatic and wise to eat. The rocky road here is quantification, and Mao is power (just like in real life). If power matters to you, if your survival depends on strength, then quantification can be very useful, as everyone from the Apache to the Zulu learned.
And no one, we assume, quantifies better than a quant. You want someone whose whole reality is numbered measuring your gunpowder so your cannon shoots more accurately than the other guy’s. That guy may have a pocket protector or thick glasses, and he probably thinks Celsius is better than Fahrenheit, American military might notwithstanding.
Ceding the decision to the eggheads and their knuckle-dragging overlords may make us mighty and give us a sense of control over nature, but it also makes thermometers less meaningful to the average human being. What to do? The path of least resistance says if we must use force to stay alive anyway and Celsius is leading the charge to conquer nature, why mess with any other way? Let us build a life around this little nugget of power that water boils at 100, you and I!
But paths of least resistance are not the rule in our universe. Just because the quant is useful does not mean he’s always right. Indeed, they have yet to invent (despite attempts drowning vast lands in blood) a quant who lives in a quantified world. So far, all the physicists awaken to an ambient temperature many years before conducting their first lab experiments, and are raised by parents who discuss the weather as just another thing they experience.
Who could possibly pretend that math working is the measure of all things?
I’m not one for conspiracy theories but if there is a “big lie,” then scientism might be it. Scientism is the belief, usually left unsaid because of how silly it sounds, that everything there is to know can be known by science. This belief may be useful just as Celsius is useful, but it cannot be true. Since it is sometimes marketed as true, it is worse than useless, the way marketing rocky road as objectively the best flavor is worse than useless.
We know scientism is false because there is no indication that science can know scientism is true. Science has no experiment and no theory to prove that science can know everything. It has no such things because science doesn’t even understand what the human mind is or what a truth is or what it means for a human mind to know a truth. There is no reason to think it will ever have such things because everything science claims to know now, it knows by ignoring the human mind and the human mind’s ability to know. When you hear ‘science explains why the sky is blue’ it never, ever explains how you, the subjective entity reading these words with your eyes, perceive the blue of that sky. It instead deals with wavelengths and chemicals and all other sorts of things in the causal chain other than what it purports to explain, that is, why the sky is blue. And if there is no scientific explanation why the sky is blue, nor is there any scientific explanation of how I know that 1 + 1 = 2, why should anyone believe there will one day be an explanation of how all perceived truth is scientifically explicable?
On the other hand, to even conduct a scientific experiment or form a scientific theory, one must already take for granted that one knows things. It seems intuitive that while is a subset within everything we can know, the reverse relationship does not hold; we can know things (and must know them in order to ‘do science’) that science will never know.
Yet, science still appeals to the innocent public (not just the popularizers of science, marketers with advanced degrees) as the measure of all things, and it leads to all sorts of madness. An entire populace is taught in high school about Newton’s three laws, which are simple to calculate and make scientists feel strong, but which do not capture the actual reality of the universe any more widely than the ‘path of least resistance’. They are like ‘folk science’ that only works some of the time when things are simple. Things are therefore kept simple for the high school student, for no reason better than the math is easier and (I suspect) because this easier math makes better fodder for science’s propaganda arm.
Relativity, in which Einstein shows that Newton’s laws are valid…in certain contexts, blows apart some of the most comforting math in the world, such as the math describing the earth’s rotation around the sun. Man was once benighted, we are told, for believing the sun revolved around the earth. Then the quants came along, made up stories about how everyone before them for centuries was stumbling around in the dim and dreary ‘dark ages’, and shewed (as they would have spelt it) the earth to pinwheeleth around the sun. But this was not knowledge, as Einstein demonstrated. In truth, when two bodies are in relative motion, either one may be declared the reference frame and said to be still. There is no scientific demonstration that the fly is climbing up the wall rather than the entire universe moving down. We only teach kids that the earth revolves around the sun because the math is easier and it means we’re better than the middle ages with their uncomfortable ideas about actually perceiving the sky to be blue.
For if there is an unquantifiable being that can perceive unquantifiable things, then there is no new method to conquer the blue of the sky. The sky might not, in its passive observation of our rises and falls, its inky sheltering of all our triumphs and horrors, quite belong to us.
The distinction between Fahrenheit and Celsius is what we choose to be the measure of all things. Is it the math fitting more neatly to scientifically-measured phenomena, or is it the human experience? One does not reduce to the other. The number-centric approach to events is part of the human experience but will never expand to encompass the whole thing as some hope it to. To what end, then, are we to use less accurate degrees across a shorter range in our mundane experience? I like the number 32 for water freezing. It reminds us that the world cannot be divided into tens just because it makes us feel powerful. The real power is recognizing which impulses inspire such approaches, so we can control them rather than vice versa.