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Wind chill, metrics, and the romance of being cold.

According to weather.com, it’s just a smidgen below zero degrees Fahrenheit outside, with a wind chill of -14°F. Sometime tonight, it’s to drop down to -23°F, with a wind chill of “oh my goodness that’s cold”°F. On Friday, we had a high of 37°F. Vive le difference, or however it is they say it over there.

Notice, however, that I said Fahrenheit. Now, I’m all for the metric system, but having grown up with the “Standard” way of doing things here in America, I of course have a more developed sense of proportion for our system, no matter how cock-eyed it may be. But were the world (oh wait, I mean the U.S.) to switch to the metric system, and I with it, I might still resist the siren’s song of Celsius, and clutch my ragged, tattered Fahrenheit scale close to my sweatered chest.

You see, there is a certain humanity that comes with Fahrenheit that I find missing in the cold, scientific logic of Celsius. Indeed, water freezes at a specific temperature, and it makes every bit of rational, scientific sense to center your scale on that figure. Settled: water freezes at 0°C, and the numbers march on to infinity in either direction. (Not true, actually, and Lord Kelvin has a lot to say about it. But we’re not going there tonight.) But it makes small difference to me whether water freezes at 0°C or 32°F. I either have to scrape the ice off my windshield, or I don’t. And then they salt the roads, and everything gets all screwy.

No, what matters to me is, how cold will it feel to me when I venture outside the heated shelter and face the elements themselves? This is the very essence of the age-old struggle between Humankind and Nature, and old Fahrenheit gets it exactly right. Negative signs on a temperature should mean something. Celsius is off playing Chicken Little, claiming the sky is going to freeze right up into big minus-shaped chunks and fall on our noggins, while Fahrenheit is keeping his cool, saying, “It’s okay folks—it’s cold, but it’s only in the teens. Just wear a hat when you go outside.” Then, when it really does start to get right cold (like it is here, right now), there’s that big fat 0°F sitting there, just in the nick of time, to warn you to wear your woolies. And then, when the big boys come out to play, there’s that steady, even-tempered minus telling you to stay calm, stay inside, and turn the thermostat up a notch.

It works the other way too, though this end of the discussion is less relevant to my current circumstances. You see, it makes small difference to me that it’s easier to remember that water boils at 100°C, compared to whatever arbitrary number that Fahrenheit claims. What matters is that where Celsius gets all panicky at the slightest chill, it sits dumbly, like the proverbial frog in the pot, while the temperature creeps up, a degree at a time, until suddenly water’s boiling everywhere and it’s still only 100°C. No. A good rolling boil is not a number, but the sound of bubbling water, or the whistle of a kettle, or the rising of steam. A temperature of 100° should be a fearsome thing, but endurable. It should certainly not be a cause for bodily harm just so long as you seek shade, stay hydrated, and avoid strenuous activity. 100° should be a warning, just like it’s kindred 0°. Much above that, and yes, you should start to worry. Get into the 200s, and you better just be making tea.

The main difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit, then, is the space in the middle. Between 0°C and 100°C, you proceed from a frigid but livable temperature to the very fires of Hell itself. But between 0°F and 100°F, in those wide open decimal fields lie all the joys and pleasures of life, from broomball and skiing to frisbee and a glass of cool lemonade on the front porch. This is the Fahrenheit scale for me: loyal, friendly and calm, even under fire.

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