Verbal Energy

The measure of a man

Hearing the story of a bridge whose length is counted in 'smoots' reminds the Monitor's language columnist just how many scientists have lent their names to units of measurement.

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It's human nature: We visit the notable sights where we live mostly when we have company from out of town. So it was that I ended up touring the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a few weeks ago.

Among the stories our student guide told was that of the Harvard Bridge, aka "the Mass Ave bridge," whose length is marked in smoots.

Smoot, you say? What's that? It's a who, actually.

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As The Washington Post tells it, the "smoot" began in the fall of 1958. Two upperclassmen of Lambda Chi Alpha wanted a way to measure the bridge they crossed regularly from their fraternity house, across the Charles River in Boston, to the MIT campus in Cambridge.

They decided to make their pledges use one of their own as a human measuring stick. To make the task more demanding, they required that the shortest pledge be the unit of measure. At 5 foot 7, Oliver R. Smoot filled the bill. The pledges measured the bridge at 364.4 smoots "and one ear."

The smoot as a unit is both personal and concrete, and obviously something of a joke. But the world of science is full of units of measurement named for people. It's not all meters and milligrams, not by a country mile (or even a rural 1.6 kilometers).

Renowned inventor Nikola Tesla is honored with the tesla, which measures a magnetic field. The weber (named for Wilhelm Eduard Weber) measures magnetic flux. The curie, a measurement of radiation, honors Marie and Pierre Curie.

There is hertz, a representation of cycles per second. (There is not, however, an "avis.")

Earlier this year, a group of scientists proposed establishing a unit to measure energy efficiency, the "rosenfeld," to honor the work in that field of Arthur Rosenfeld of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

These scientists have achieved a certain kind of lowercase immortality. It all gives new meaning to something the Greek philosopher Protagoras said during the 5th century BC: "Man is the measure of all things."

We may forget the roots of some of these terms in the pantheon of scientific pioneers. The watt, for instance, which measures electrical power, honors James Watt, the Scottish engineer and inventor.

Volt seems like such an ordinary English word (on the pattern of bolt and jolt) that we may not realize it's named for an Italian scientist, Count Alessandro Volta. Ditto amp, in full ampere, comes from André-Marie Ampère, a Frenchman credited as one of the discoverers of electromagnetism.

Here I can't resist mentioning Luigi Galvani, though he lent his name to a phenomenon rather than a unit of measure. He was an 18th-century Italian physicist who ran currents through the legs of dead frogs, thereby discovering "electricity produced by chemical action," known today as galvanism.

When pundits hold forth in postelection commentary about politicians "galvanizing the base," we may think of Galvani and his frogs.

There is a little more to the story of Mr. Smoot and the Harvard Bridge. After MIT, he earned a law degree and made a career in measurement. He chaired the American National Standards Institute from 2001 to 2002. From 2003 to 2004, he was president of the International Organization for Standardization. He is a man who has given good measure, truly.

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