Peppers, particles, pain, and the weird words that measure them
For many people, the following two statements probably apply:
- 20 May is just another day, and
- You can’t remember the last time you took a moment to contemplate, gratefully, all the varying words that enable us, more-or-less concisely, to understand and efficiently communicate measurement.
Yes, measurement. And although 20 May is in fact World Metrology Day, we’re not going to celebrate it only talking about meters. In fact, we’re going to have a look at some of the other wacky and wonderful words of measurement at our disposal as English-speakers—from barns to butts. Some you may know, many you won’t, but one thing’s for certain: you’re going to need a way to measure how cool your friends think you are when you impress them with this trivia.
Foodies among us may know this one already: a Scoville unit measures the spiciness—or specifically, the quantity of capsaicin—in a chili pepper. (Capsaicin is a chemical compound in these spicy peppers that produces a sensation of heat when it comes into contact with your skin—especially your mucous membranes.) Scoville units are named for Wilbur Lincoln Scoville, an American pharmacologist who designed a test to measure the relative hotness of chili peppers— in essence by measuring how much a pepper would have to be diluted in sugar water before its spiciness was no longer detectable. Though now a more accurate test determines the amount of heat-causing capsaicin itself, Scoville’s name is still given to these units of measurement today.
Have you ever heard someone—probably someone inept with a gun—described as being unable to “hit the broad side of a barn”? How about something being “as big as a barn door”? Strange idioms, but they make sense: barns are big! (And if you can’t hit the side of one, you probably aren’t a very good shot.)
So now that we know the sides of barns are easy to hit because barns are quite large in general, let’s apply that lesson to nuclear physics.
During World War II, nuclear physicists at the University of Purdue in Indiana were trying to determine the size of the nuclei of certain atoms such as uranium. In order to measure such an infinitesimal, amorphous thing, they had to find a cross section of it—or the dimensions of an area showing the probability that particles within will interact by hitting each other. What they found, ultimately, is that the nucleus of uranium is relatively huge—big like a barn door, or like the side of a barn: very easy to hit! It was then that a barn became known as 10^−28 square meters, or the approximate cross sectional area of the nucleus of a uranium atom, sometimes represented as b. There is also Mb (the megabarn, 10^−22 square meters) and yb (the yoctobarn—smaller in area than a nanobarn—at 10^−52 meters).
How big is a butt? In the US, it is a liquid measure equal to 126 gallons (or 477.5 liters). In this sense, a butt is originally an old (15th century at the latest) word for a wine or ale cask, from the Latin word for cask, buttis. There is also evidence for compounds like butt-beer (beer from such a cask) and butt-shaped (used to describe pottery). But beware: silliness may ensue if you try to use this word, or these compounds, in this sense today (particularly in North America).
If you think the phrase “we’re in eighteen fathoms” sounds vaguely pirate-y, you’re on the right track. Today, a fathom is quite simply equal to six feet, or 1.83 meters—and is used chiefly to measure the depth of water, particularly in nautical contexts. Why six feet, though?
The original sense of the word in fact was ‘an embrace’, or in plural, ‘the embracing or encircling arms’ (in Old English, it was equivalent to the old sense of bosom meaning ‘the enclosure formed by the breast and the arms’). Later, it came to mean a stretching of the arms in a straight line to their fullest extent—and then the length of this line, standardized to six feet.
The verb fathom as we tend to use it today is also not far from these senses; we usually mean ‘to understand’, or more literally, to be able to grasp or embrace a meaning—as follows from the first sense of the verb, to encircle with extended arms.
Even if you’ve only used the internet once in the past five years, you probably are familiar with a word that sounds just like googol.
But first things first: a googol is ten raised to the hundredth power (10^100)— that’s the digit one followed by 100 zeroes—and is not really used for anything other than measuring extremely huge numbers. But a googol isn’t even the largest unit of measurement, in this capacity; a googolplex is somehow even huger, meaning ten raised to the power of a googol , and is written out 10^googol or (10^10^100). This number is so huge that Carl Sagan—after noting by comparison, an apple pie has about 10^26 atoms, and the universe has about 10^80—estimated that even writing down a googolplex (1, followed by a googol of zeroes) would take more space than exists within the known universe.
The word itself has fanciful origins; it was coined in 1938 by the young nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner, when Kasner asked him to name the enormous number 10^100. Sixty years later, a famous internet search engine would borrow the name: Google. In fact, the Google headquarters is called the Googleplex!
From the word dolor—Latin for pain, also the root of words like dolorous—a dol is a (now seldom-used) unit of measurement for pain. In the 1940s, a group of scientists from Cornell University were researching pain physiology. They conducted a series of painful experiments, the most famous of which involved the dolorimeter, which focused light on an area of the subject’s skin to produce heat in increasing increments. (They found that most people started to feel pain when the skin reached a temperature of 113°F, or 45°C.) Dols became a method of “quantifying” at what point a person feels a higher level of pain.
The group then experimented on women in labor, using various pain-causing stimuli directly following each contraction so that the women could compare the pain of each and communicate how severe the birth pains were. Needless to say, that experiment did not conclude with total cooperation or success—and ultimately, the dol was considered too subjective a measurement to be of much use.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the strange units of measurement in English—both serious and silly (take a look at beard-seconds, for instance). What can we say? We’re human; we like to organize, label, delineate, and by so doing, fathom (!) the world around us. World Metrology Day, not merely a celebration of rulers, reminds us of our keen sense of curiosity—and our creativity.