Thursday, May 10, 2012

How far is that in smoots?

Boy, the things you learn noodling about on the Internet.  Just last evening I was taking my quarterly look at Google Earth to see if the techno-wise folks out yonder in la-la land have updated their satellite pictures of the Virginia mountain where I live.  And, as has been the case for more than five years, the answer is still no. The last satellite picture of our mountaintop is still from January 2007 -- George Bush was still in the White House then and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression had yet to occur.  Houses have been built, occupied and burned down in that time. And even rebuilt. Google still thinks my address is about 1.5 miles west of where it is, and has been, for years.

But Google Earth is still mighty handy.  I was pondering how far our farm was from a neighbor, and when you use the online ruler, you can find out exactly how far you are from one point to another -- in feet, in yards, in statute miles, in nautical miles and even in smoots.

Smoots?  Yup.  Turns out that the good folks at Google may not have much interest in posting up-to-date Satellite pictures, but they have a good sense of humor. And they've given Google Earth users the opportunity to measure distances in smoots.

See, the smoot is a unit of measure -- five feet, seven inches -- based on the height of a certain MIT student in the 1950s.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

The smoot (play /ˈsmt/) is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot, a fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 lay on the Harvard Bridge (between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts), and was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the bridge."

Evidently they measured the entire length of the bridge, marking off regular smoots.  When the bridge was renovated years later, the engineers doing the work etched the smoots into the structure's surface. The bridge was determined to be 364.4 smoots long, plus one ear.  There's a picture somewhere on the 'net of that proviso.

Ol' Oliver Smoot was a cousin of a Nobel Prize winner, George Smoot, and later became a lawyer of some distinction, becoming head, naturally, of the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization.  Well, who better?

I like the fact that I can measure my place from, say, Jim Newlin's ridge house or Barnie Day's farmhouse in smoots. For the record, it's 3.03 miles, as the crow flies, to Jim's place and 1.7 miles to Barnie's.  But in smoots, it's 2,865.3 smoots to Jim's and 1,603.39 smoots to Barnie's.   Imagine the conversation coming to an astonished standstill when you drop those little facts.  Or when you convert those measurements to dog smoots.

Wellsir, it gets better.  Wikipedia has as much fun as Google does when it comes to measurements. Turns out, at least according to Wikipedia, that there are other, um, humorous standards of measurement. There's the scientific term "barn," as in:

A barn is a serious unit of area used by nuclear physicists to quantify the scattering or absorption cross-section of very small particles, such as atomic nuclei.[9] It is one of the very few units which are accepted to be used with SI units, and one of the most recent units to have been established (cf. the knot and the bar, other non-SI units acceptable in limited circumstances).[10] One barn is equal to 1.0×10−28 m2. The name derives from the folk expression "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn", used by particle accelerator physicists to refer to the difficulty of achieving a collision between particles.

I didn't understand that, either.  But there's a rictus scale, a takeoff on the Richter Scale, to measure reader reaction in gapes, gasps, yawns or other mouth-dropping reactions to news stories about earthquakes.

There's the Helen scale, to measure beauty, after Helen of Troy, who was so beautiful that she had "the face that launched a thousand ships," so that "1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship."

And there are canards, "a unit of quackery created ... in the need for a fractional fruitloopery index... to replace the old Crackpot Index....Quack words include 'energy', 'holistic', 'vibrations', 'magnetic healing', 'quantum'. These words are usually borrowed from physics and used to promote dubious health claims."

The list goes on.  It may indicate that a great number of people have nothing better to do than to think up these things. Or to write blogposts about them. And you'd be right.
I understand the forces that sometimes move men to name units of length. Bob Auman, then the farm editor of the Greensboro Daily News, used to produce long takes of copy by pasting together the newsprint sheets we typed stories on about 45 years ago in the Gate City of the South.  His standard unit for a column was about seven sheets pasted together end to end -- thus, an auman.  
Or the way they'd figure it up at MIT, approximately 1 smoot.

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