From scientists to farmers, bar owners to computer engineers, humans have shown boundless capacity for conjuring up strange and humorous ways to quantify the world around us.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists have come up with some of the most vivid units. For example, computer scientists needing to measure tiny cursor movements came up with the Mickey, which is now commonly used when programming mice and other input devices. And yes, it is derived from Mickey Mouse. Even scientists love cartoons.
If you think that sounds bizarre, you haven’t heard anything yet. They even use bananas to measure radioactivity. There’s not much in one banana, but enough that a few bananas will often trigger radiation sensors used at US ports to detect smuggled nuclear material. What better way to increase our understanding of the hazards of radiation than to use the universally recognized banana to measure it?
It’s not just scientists who tend to invent weird units. Historically, people have used their body parts to measure things and this made way to a whole new set of measurement units. Thousands of years ago, stacking one man’s fist upon another was the simplest system of measuring a horse and MIT student Oliver R. Smoot famously used the length of his entire body to measure the Harvard Bridge in 1958.
And when we need to measure something so big that the usual units just don’t convey the desired grandeur, we can use double decker busses. In the past they have been used to quantify the size of holes created by sewer collapses and the size of whales.
Not all measurements have to be literal, though. For 19th century farmers in Ireland, the actual size of a field was much less important than how many cows it could sustain, so they used a cow’s grass to measure farmland.
Some of these phrases even make it into everyday vernacular. In electronics, a jiffy is the time between cycles of alternating current. So the next time someone says, “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” you can inform them that they might be exaggerating slightly.
If you’ve ever wondered how long a smoot is, or how many smoots is the Empire State, look no further. This infographic tells the stories of how some of the most bizarre units of measurement came into being.
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Britannica. (2017). Barn. britannica.com
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Kelly, J. (2012). The graves are walking: The great famine and saga of the Irish people. New York: Henry Holt.
Bellotti, A. (2017). The other common use of the double decker bus. londonist.com
Barnett, L. (2011). A schooner of lager? Or how about a jigger of whisky? theguardian.com
Hyper Physics. (2017). What is a slug? hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu
Rowlett, R. (2017). How many? A dictionary of units of measurement. unc.edu
Curran, S. (2005). Smoot makes his mark in standards and measurements. web.mit.edu
Blastland, M. (2011). Go figure: What bananas tell us about radiation. www.bbc.co.uk
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