originally published February 16, 2013

If this massive project accomplishes nothing else (and with any luck, it won’t), I hope to expand the working vocabulary of myself and those around me. I want some new level of understanding, an appreciation for as wide a swath of the available lexicon as we all can muster.

And where words fail us, we should just make them up. That’s what brought us today’s subject: a collection of unusual units of measurement.

Back in the days before the citizens of France had decided that King Louis XVI’s head needed to spend some quality time apart from his body, his royal highness requested a standardized, decimal system of measurement. For calculating weight, his team came up with the ‘gramme’, the weight of one cubic centimeter of water. A thousand of these make up a ‘grave’, which was to become the standard unit of measuring weight. Thus the expression, “you’re looking rather grave” would have probably come to mean “tubby” instead of “serious”.

But that never happened. The French Revolution did happen though, and the new guys in charge didn’t like the word ‘grave’, which sounds (with French pronunciation) like ‘graf’, a German nobility title. The new guys were all about equality and razing the aristocracy, so ‘grave’ was tossed out, and the prefix ‘kilo’ was added to ‘gramme’, giving us a kilogram. The photo above is the prototype kilogram weight, on display in Paris. Trust me, hit the Louvre instead.

To be clear, a jiffy is both a colloquial expression as well as a (somewhat) precise unit of measurement. The expression came first, so if you tell someone you’ll be “back in a jiffy” and they try to sound smart by pointing out that you’re likely to take longer than 1/60th of a second, feel free to smack them on the side of the head and tell them you were using the word’s original context. Then, if they’re bigger than you and prone to violence, run.

Gilbert Newton Lewis decided in the early 20th century that a jiffy should be the time it takes light to travel one centimeter (about 33.36 picoseconds). Then someone decided it should be the time between alternating current power cycles, so about 1/50th or 1/60th of a second. In the 70’s someone else figured it should be one tick of the system time interrupt in a computer chip. Then a physicist in 1981 claimed a jiffy should be the length of time it takes light to travel one Fermi, about the size of a nucleon.

Screw it, a jiffy is an arbitrarily short amount of time. Let’s not overthink this.

Just for fun, here are a few other curious units of measurement. Feel free to incorporate them into a conversation today, letting people know that you are well-read and educated, at least when it comes to counting stuff.

  • Looking to buy some land in the American southwest back in the day? The Mother Cow Index was a common way to measure the quantity and quality of what you’d be getting. The number should correspond with how many pregnant cows an acre of a plot of land could support. So you’d be calculating resource ability, soil quality, and arability of a place, not just how many fat heifers you could cram between your fences.
  • If you’re just getting into chess but somehow think it needs more math, first of all we probably don’t have much of anything in common. Second, you’ll want to be aware of the measurement of centipawns. This is the way computer chess programs calculate the strength of a player’s position, or how strong a particular move would be. So if a program is faced with one move that’s rated at 532 cenitpawns and another at 624, it would automatically take the latter. How this is calculated specifically… well, I’d run out of time explaining it. It’s totally not true that I have no freaking idea. Totally.
  • In 1912, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville decided he wanted to measure just how much anguish food can cause in a human being. He developed the Scoville Scale, the measurement of how spicy-hot a food item would be. A banana pepper would rate between 100 and 900 on the Scoville Scale. A jalapeno clocks in between 3500 and 8000. The Naga Bhut Jolokia pepper, pictured above, is well over a million. That pepper is so hot, if one merely enters the same building you’re in, your mouth will probably burn so much you’ll pass out.
  • Cullen Murphy, writer for The Atlantic, decided to take Andy Warhol’s notorious “everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes” soundbite and make a measurement out of it. One kilowarhol is the equivalent of being famous for 15,000 minutes, or 10.42 days. That’s about the most someone like that Pants On The Ground guy from American Idol could hope for. A megawarhol means you’re famous for 15 million minutes, or about 28.5 years. That’s something to shoot for.
  • NASA uses the ‘Garn’ as a measurement for how badly one adapts to the weightlessness of space. US Senator Jake Garn took flight in 1985 and became supremely space-sick. Now, if someone is totally incapacitated by reaching orbit, they are suffering with one Garn of symptoms. What a way to be immortalized.
  • A micromort is a unit of risk measurement, calculating what the chances of death may be in relation to a given activity. Smoking 1.4 cigarettes equals one micromort, due the risk of disease. Travelling 10 miles on a bike or 230 miles in a car are also one micromort. So is living two days in New York City, due to air pollution. So is living two months in Denver, because of cosmic radiation. Skydiving is worth seven micromorts per jump, so if you’ve lived two weeks in New York, you may as well jump out of a plane. You are just that badass.
  • Lastly, a Wheaton is the measurement of one’s popularity on Twitter. Specifically, if you have 500,000 followers, you have one Wheaton, as determined when former Star Trek actor-turned famous online lovable geek Wil Wheaton hit that number. Of course, Wil now has over four Wheatons himself, but once a standard has been set, it shouldn’t be changed. A milliwheaton (500 followers) is a more achievable standard for us non-celebrities. A guy’s gotta dream.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s