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Mike Richman

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The Larger Meaning of World Metrology Day

Human connection through standardization

Published: Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 12:14

One hundred and forty-five years ago today, on May 20, 1875, delegates from 17 nations to the Metre Convention in Paris signed the Treaty of the Metre, which established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). This organization standardized many of the measurements that we now take for granted and ushered in an unprecedented age of interoperability and international cooperation which, despite war, economic deprivation, and pandemics in the intervening years, remains in place today.

Those are the facts, and they are of absolute importance to quality assurance, metrology, and industry overall. But the larger meaning of this event, and World Metrology Day (which we celebrate on the 20th of May every year) go beyond the technical aspects, important as they are. What started in the City of Light nearly a century-and-a-half ago continues to bond international humanity together. In the age of COVID-19, when we are all socially distancing, understanding the nature of those bonds is perhaps more necessary now than ever before.

Unfortunately, supporting the bonding together of international humanity has become something of a political statement. Even preceding COVID-19, the world was witnessing an increased resurgence of nationalism, of an every-nation-for-itself mentality that chips away at the sense of internationalism, of the perspective that we’re all one people with the capability of solving world problems together. Yet we are one people, and we can solve (or at least ameliorate) our problems. But we cannot do that if we choose to see ourselves as separate from one another.

Standardization is an important part of that effort. When we agree upon weights and measures, we agree upon the validity of the scientific method, which is the bedrock of cultural learning. But more than that, we can then agree that ideas which move the human family forward, properly vetted and proven, are of value wherever and whenever they come from. It is a way of strengthening connection across the globe and across the ages.

Metrology, the science of measurement, is built upon this foundation. Take our favorite organization, the Coordinate Metrology Society. The CMS is truly international in scope, with members hailing from every continent on earth except Antarctica (at least, as far as I know!). Concepts flow freely across national boundaries, and a good idea that will improve the accuracy and efficiency of measurement will quickly spread throughout industry. Standard protocols and measurements make this possible, as does that attitude of internationalism and relatively low trade barriers. Complex and far-flung supply chains require the continuation of these trends, at least to some measure.

One might argue about whether all of these realities, now being challenged by the reassessment forced on political and business leaders by COVID-19, will remain unchanged in the years to come. My sense is that much should change, and it likely will.

Certain elements will hopefully continue, however—not the least of which is the sense that the path begun in Paris 145 years ago will continue for many years to come. As long as we remain bound together in agreement about weights and measures, procedures and process, and standards and standardization, humanity will continue to enjoy a powerful underpinning of partnership and agreement. In any uncertain time, that certainty is one that should provide a measure of comfort regardless of the vicissitudes of politics and partisanship. This is an important legacy of the Treaty of the Metre, and one worth pondering on this World Metrology Day and all days to come.

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Mike Richman