Here’s a quick quiz to consider before diving into the metric system. A person weighs 72 kilograms and is about 1.85 meters tall.

Question 1: Do you have any idea about how much the person weighs or how tall they are?

Question 2: Are they shorter or taller than you and do they weigh less or more than you?

If you don’t live in Burma, Liberia or the U.S. you can probably answer these questions pretty easily. However, if you are in one of the three counties here, then having a calculator would be a huge help (or a Google search). Chances are you would still have to think pretty hard about question one and struggle with question two.

The Problem

Unfortunately, there is a rather large disconnect between the sciences you do and how you live your day to day life. The metric system is simply not used for measurements, making it quite confusing for those who have no previous experience with it. In fact, the only experiences you likely have with the metric system include the 100 meter dash, a 750ml bottle of wine and two liter soda bottles.

The Basics of the Metric System

The metric system provides units of measurement for temperature, time, mass, volume and distance. These units are created using a basic set of prefixes. The basic units of the metric system include: distance, measured in meters; volume, measured in liters; mass (weight), measured in grams; time, measured in seconds; and temperature, measured in degrees.

You can combine large and small metric units by linking basic units with a prefix. For example, when you link the prefix of kilo- to the basic unit of measurement meter, you get kilometer, which actually means 1,000 meters. Also, when you link the prefix milli- to the unit liter, you get milliliter, which is actually 0.001 (on thousandth) of a standard liter.

Units of Distance

In the metric system, the basic metric unit of distance is meter, or simply “m.” Some other common units of measurement include kilometers or “km,” centimeters or “cm,” and millimeters, or “mm.” For example:

1 kilometer = 1,000 meters

1 meter = 100 centimeters

1 meter = 1,000 millimeters

Units of Fluid Volume

For fluid volume, which is also referred to as capacity, the basic metric unit is liter, or “L.” Another commonly used unit of measurement is the milliliter, or “mL.”

1 liter = 1,000 milliliters

Helpful Tip: One milliliter is also equivalent to one cubic centimeter, or “cc.”

Units of Mass

Technically, the metric system does not have a way to measure weight; instead it measures mass. This is because weight is how strong gravity pulls an object toward the earth. Mass is the amount of matter in an object. If you went to the moon, your weight would change, which means you would feel lighter; however, your mass would stay the same, which means all of you is still there. Unless you have plans to travel to space, you don’t really have to understand the difference between mass and weight.

In the metric system, a gram is the basic unit of weight. However, more common than the gram (g) is the kilogram (kg).

1 kilogram = 1,000 grams

Helpful Tip: One kilogram of liquid has the volume of one liter.

Units of Time

Just like with the English system, second (s) is the basic metric unit of time. For the majority of purposes, other units of time are also used, including hours, minutes, etc.

For scientific purposes, the second is the only unit that is used for measuring time. Large seconds and small fractions of seconds are displayed using scientific notation.

Units of Speed

The most commonly used unit of speed in the metric system is kilometers per hour, which is written as “km/hr.” Another measurement you may see when the metric system is used is meters per second, or “m/s.”

Units of Temperature

For measuring temperature, the basic unit used is Celsius degree, or °C, which is also called Centigrade degree. The Celsius scale is set up in a way that at sea level, water boils at 100° C and freezes at 0° C.

While the metric system may seem a bit confusing at first, many who learn how it works find it easier to understand than the traditional system used in the United Sates. However, regardless of what you do, you will run into metric units at some point. Knowing what they are measuring and what they mean can help you better understand how to solve the problem in front of you.