Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Measure for measure

In yesterday's post we looked at one bizarre human obsession, which is drawing lines all over the place and pretending they represent something real.  Today we're going to look at another, which is our penchant for quantifying everything.

Certainly, accurate measurement is critical in science; data, for the most part, is numerical, and most models these days are mathematical representations of reality.  But still, there's a strange aspect to it, which British science historian James Burke got at in his brilliant series The Day the Universe Changed:

[T]he structural view of things at the time controls what science does at every level.  From the cosmic questions about the whole universe, to what bits of that universe are worth investigating, to how far you let the questions take you, what experiments to do, what evidence you can and can't accept.  And down at that detailed level, the control still operates, because it even tells you what instruments you should use.  And of course, at this stage, you're looking for data to prove your theory, so you design the kind of instruments to find the kind of data you reckon you're going to find.  The whole argument comes full circle when you get the raw data itself.  Because it isn't raw data.  It's what you planned to find from the start.

He goes on to make the important point that true leaps in understanding occur when the unexpected occurs, and some piece of the data doesn't fit with the existing model; then (assuming the data are verified and found to be correct), there's no choice but to revise the model -- or trash it entirely and start over.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

But what this has done is created a morass of different units of measurement, and I'm not referring solely to my own country's pig-headed insistence on avoiding the use of the metric system.  Imperial units -- feet, miles, pounds, quarts, and so on -- are certainly cumbersome (check out this hilarious video if you want to find out just how awkward they are), but they're not the weirdest ways that humans have chosen to subdivide the natural world.  So for your edification, here are a few of the stranger units of measurement I've run into:

  • the micromort -- defined as a one-in-a-million chance of death.  For example, smoking a cigarette and a half increases your chance of dying by about one micromort.
  • a jiffy is 1/60 of a second, from the vertical refresh period on NTSC analog video hardware running on American (60 Hertz) alternating current.  So next time someone tells you, "I'll be back in a jiffy," you can confidently respond, "I seriously doubt that."
  • so many people in Britain publicly compared the areas of geographical regions to the size of Wales that it led to a unit of area, the nanowales -- one billionth the area of Wales, or about 20.78 square meters.
  • the Sverdrup, named after Norwegian oceanographer Harald Sverdrup, at least has its basis in metric units.  It's a unit of flow rate, equal to one million cubic meters per second.  Being as huge as it is, you might imagine it has limited utility -- in fact, it's pretty much only used in oceanography and meteorology.  (For reference, the flow rate of the Gulf Stream varies between 30 and 150 Sverdrup, depending on where you measure it and what you consider its boundaries to be.)
  • the dolor is a unit of pain.  One dolor is equal to the difference between two levels of pain that is just noticeable.  The subjective nature of pain has resulted in it not being widely accepted in the medical community.
  • a millihelen is a unit of beauty, named after Helen of Troy -- the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.
  • when I taught dimensional analysis in physics, I had students practice converting from one set of units to another -- a useful skill when doing science.  I always made a point of having them convert velocities from meters per second to furlongs per fortnight, which firmly cemented in their brains that I have a screw loose.  (For what it's worth, a furlong is 660 feet, or about 201.17 meters; a fortnight is fourteen days, so 1,209,600 seconds.  Thus, the speed of light is about 1.8 terafurlongs per fortnight, a factoid you can bring out at the next cocktail party you attend, especially if you want people to find ways to avoid you for the rest of the evening.)
  • one mickey is the smallest resolvable movement possible with a computer mouse.  Most of them have a sensitivity of about five hundred mickeys per inch.
  • a Smoot is a unit of length, named after Harvard student Oliver R. Smoot.  The story is that one day in 1958, Smoot got falling-down drunk, and his buddies (who were also snookered but not as badly as Smoot was) were basically dragging him home, and decided to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge in Smoot-lengths (about 170 centimeters).  The bridge, they found, was 364.4 Smoots in length plus a little bit, so there's now a plaque saying "364.4 Smoots and an ear" on the bridge.  (Smoot went on, I shit you not, to be the chairperson of the American National Standards Institute and president of the International Organization for Standardization.  Talk about being destined for a particular career.)
  • the weirdest unit of volume I've ever heard of is the Hubble-barn.  This combines the Hubble length -- the radius of the known universe -- with a unit of area called the barn, which is used to measure the scattering cross-section of atomic nuclei and is equal to 10^-28 square meters.  One Hubble-barn is the volume of a rectangular solid that has a square face with an area of one barn stretching across the entire known universe.  If you do the calculation, it's way less volume than you'd think -- on the order of 13.1 liters.
  • last, we have the ohnosecond, which is the time elapsed between making a mistake and recognizing it, such as pressing "send" on an email describing details of some illicit but highly pleasurable activities you want to experience with a coworker with whom you're having a clandestine dalliance, and realizing too late that you forgot to change the "to" line from "Reply All."

So there you have it -- some ways to measure the world, some serious, some not so much.  In any case, I'd better wrap this up.  So far I've had only about 0.02 Hubble-barns of coffee, so I'm moving at a velocity of around a furlong per fortnight.  I should post this, and hope that there are at least a few ohnoseconds between hitting "Publish" and seeing what I've wrought.


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