Human beings are a funny bunch. Some of the ways we’ve developed to figure out our way through this world seem far from intuitive – think of the idiosyncrasies of language, or even the way the stock market works. It would all seem pretty alien to our distant, cave-dwelling ancestors, or to actual aliens, for that matter like the measurement of objects and people.
One weird obsession that does seem to have some rationality, however, is measuring things. In fact, measurements are, by definition, rational. But what began as scientific enquiry has become an bizarre obsession with knowledge. Google wants to map every street, scan every book, and quantify every last dollop of information in the known universe. Even superhero movies are no longer as obsessed with daft world-saving scenarios as they are with going back to the ‘origins’ and showing, measure by measure, just how Batman (or whoever) came to be Batman.
Since around the Age of Enlightenment, myth has no longer cut it for the enquiring mind: we need numbers, and wherever possible a silly word or bunch of letters to give those numbers some context. And we call those words or letters ‘units of measurement’.
But thankfully, humankind’s puerile sense of logic does not end with the birth of Newtonian physics and the mathematics of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Because humans are basically super-smart monkeys, are science is not always the stuff of cold-hearted decision-making and sterile, clunky nomenclature.
Take the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example. Some of our finest scientific minds are tuned in that particular temple of knowledge – yet silliness abounds. MIT ‘hacks’ are what happens when the students get bored, or drunk, or both, and decide to turn science on its head. Indeed, it’s where the temple of knowledge meets the theatre of the absurd. So the nomenclature of the measurement system a bunch of 1960s MIT frat-boys came up with to figure out how far different places were on campus was come to by making the smallest of their party, one Oliver R. Smoot, lay from end to end several times over, so that they could see how many ‘Smoots’ there were in the Harvard Bridge. And in case you came here for the science, we can reveal that there are exactly 364.4 Smoots and 1 Ear from one end of the bridge to another. The measurement marks remain painted there today.
If that’s the kind of science you like, check out this new illustrated guide to unusual measurement types. Because science is useful, but laughter is human.
G. John Cole
John is a digital nomad and freelance writer. Specialising in leadership, digital media and personal growth, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.