Measuring the worth of measurements
By Max Pinczes, Scientell intern
Every day people use measurements. Whether they are actively measuring something (like a cup of flour for a cake), or just thinking about how long they will be at work, how far away work is, or how long until the bus and so on. But people rarely think deeply about the concept of measurement.
Measurement is a fairly abstract concept. A metre and a barleycorn are both measures of length and distance. Yes, a barleycorn is a measure of shoe size.
USA, Myanmar and Liberia aside, the world employs the metric system.
But what if our measurement system was based on other obscure measurements such as furlongs firkins and fortnights? Set up the same way as the metric metre-kilogram-second system, the impractical FFF system allows you to measure all sorts of units. Weight can be measured as firkin furlong per fortnight squared. Velocity can be expressed in furlongs per fortnight.
While these measurements are quite odd, they are still ‘correct’ in the sense that we could measure the world around us. It just isn’t very practical to tell people that you work 24 micro-fortnights (just over 8 hours) a day and it’s even less practical to go to the deli and ask for 20 micro-firkins (about half a kilo) of sliced ham.
While these measurements may be impractical, they raise an interesting question about the best way to use measurements. Sometimes the ‘official’ measurement of something may not be the easiest to interpret. Therefore, comparisons can work well for quantities that can be difficult to visualise. A hydrologist is likely to have a feel for the volume represented by 1000 gigalitres. But most people will get a sense of this if you explain that 1000 gigalitres equal twice the volume of water in Sydney Harbour.
You can have fun with these comparisons. It takes me about nine-tenths of the height of Mount Everest (7.9 kilometres) to get to work in the morning. You can find all of these measurements and more on The Measure of Things website.
How many Titanic lengths do you cover on your way to work in the morning?