36 Unusual Units of Measurement

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gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to measurement, we have a lot of words that mean a bunch of stuff or a bit of something, but many of those terms have actual, specific meanings.

Let's learn about a whole barrel full of them.

1. A barrel changes depending on what's in it.

Many barrels stacked on a dock with the water in the background
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When you're talking about oil, a barrel is exactly 42 gallons. For beer, a barrel is 31.5 gallons. For dry goods, it's 105 dry quarts. That last one was defined by Congress in 1915.

2. A dash is part of a teaspoon.

Multicolored measuring spoons
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Then there's the dash, as in, "just a dash of salt," which is between 1/16 and 1/8 of a teaspoon.

3. A pinch is part of a dash.

Chef putting pinch of salt on food
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A pinch is half a dash, or 1/16 of a teaspoon.

4. A Smidgen is a real thing.

Black peppercorns in a measuring spoon
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It's a half of a pinch, or 1/32 of a teaspoon.

5. Pats of butter are 1/3 of an ounce.

Pat of butter on corn
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Butter is packaged at 48 pats per pound, which means that each pat is 1/3 of an ounce or 1 tablespoon.

6. A drop is 1/480 of a fluid ounce.

A dropper releases a drop into a brown vial
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Okay, to be more specific, it's .05 milliliters, which you probably already knew if you're a pharmacist.

7. Australians used to measure rain by points.

Flooded street with splashing cars
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We don't measure rain by drops, but in Australia, they used to measure rain by points. A point was .254 milliliters, so you might say, "We got a hundred points of rain last night!," which sounds like a lot, but isn't.

8. The Jiffy is about 10 milliseconds.

Computer circuit board
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The jiffy is a unit of time used in computer engineering that has to do with a computer's clock cycle. It's about 10 milliseconds. It means something even faster in physics, where a jiffy is a unit of measurement for the time it takes for light to travel a distance the size of a nucleus.

9. A Shake is 10 nanoseconds.

Nuclear power plant
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Physicists also have the shake, which is used to measure nuclear reactions. A shake takes 10 nanoseconds, or 10 billionths of a second, so the next time you go somewhere for the weekend, you can tell friends you'll be gone for 17,280,000,000,000 shakes.

10. A hogshead was 63 gallons.

Black and white engraving of three men opening a hogshead barrel
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Specifically, 63 gallons of wine. It's a term dating back to at least the 15th century, and it might be a corruption of the term hog's hide, which might make clearer sense for referring to a wine container, but we really don't know how the word came about. The casks are also repurposed to mature whiskey.

11. You can have a double hogshead ...

Port pipe barrels
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It's called a port pipe, and it holds about 145 gallons.

12. ... or a butt.

Man pouring wine out of a barrel
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A butt holds about 132 gallons, so when someone tells you that they drank a buttload last night, they are either lying or dead.

13. Megadeath is a unit of atomic bomb destruction.

Atomic explosion
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Megade(a)th is not just the third-greatest heavy metal band of all time. It's also a terrifying unit of measurement. It was coined in the '50s as a unit of atom bomb destruction. One megadeath is equal to one million deaths.

14. A micromort measures the probability of death.

Woman holding a cigarette
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On the other end of things, we've got the micromort, a unit for measuring the statistical probability of death. One micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. So, smoking 1.4 cigarettes, or spending an hour in a coal mine increases your risk of death by precisely one micromort. Going skydiving? Seven micromorts. They're the coolest thing—and also the only cool thing—ever invented by actuaries.

15. manpower is about 1/10th as powerful as horsepower.

Close up of three horse heads looking to the left
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So you've heard of horsepower, but did you know there's also a measurable unit of manpower? It was worked out to somewhere between 1/8 and a 1/10 of a unit of horsepower. Horsepower was based on the fact that the average brewery horse could move something weighing 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute, stop, and repeat for eight hours. And it would take about eight to 10 men to do the same, so your Camaro might have a 300 horsepower engine, but my Chevy Volt has like a 2000 manpower engine.

16. A Darwin is, naturally, a unit of measuring evolution.

Statue of Charles Darwin
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We also measure things using the names of famous people. A Darwin, for instance, is a special ratio for measuring the rate of evolution. Evolution happening at the rate of one Darwin would change something by a factor of about 2.7 over a million years.

17. A Gal measures gravitational acceleration.

Milky Way over a mountain
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A Galileo or Gal is a unit of measurement used by physicists to talk about gravitational acceleration, but because there's only about a seven Galileo difference between the lowest and highest possible measurements on Earth, calculations are usually done in milli-Galileos.

18. Movements of your computer mouse are measured in Mickeys.

Woman holding computer mouse
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There's another guy you might have heard of who gave his name to a unit of measurement having to do with your computer mouse. The smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse—somewhere around 1/10 of a millimeter—is called a Mickey.

19. A Half-million twitter followers is a wheaton.

Woman smiling at smartphone
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After half a million people followed Wil Wheaton on Twitter, John Kovalic dubbed that number a Wheaton. The beloved actor and brewmaster got to about six Wheatons on the social site before deactivating his account in 2018.

20. The Length of a Beard-SEcond is in dispute.

A redheaded man with a big beard gestures a size with his fingers
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Speaking of great men with facial hair, a beard-second is the average length a man's beard grows in one second, but beard growth experts disagree on what that length actually is. Some say it's 10 nanometers. Some say it's five. Some say, "I can't believe that we're spending our time talking about this."

21. A millihelen is 1/1000th of one helen of troy.

Ships on a blue sea
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Helen of Troy's magnificent mug is said to have launched a thousand ships, but what if there's just one ship that needs help getting out of port? Then, you need a millihelen, the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship.

22. A barleycorn is 1/3 of an inch.

Barley on a wooden table
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A few hundred years ago in England, small objects were measured in barleycorns, as in grains of barley. A barleycorn was a third of an inch, which means it's barley there at all.

23. A poppyseed is even smaller.

Poppyseed rolls
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If you needed something smaller than that, you could measure by poppyseeds, defined as either 1/4 or 1/5 of a barleycorn. In fact, grain is the basis of our whole system of terms for measuring weight.

24. A pound was 5400 or 6750 grains.

Pound weight
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The Roman forerunner to the pound was the libra, which is why the lb. abbreviation stuck. Medieval England takes credit for using a pound (5400 grains) to measure metals and a mercantile pound (6750 grains) for goods.

25. A Bushel changes depending on the foodstuff.

Bushel of apples
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The USDA has assigned individual bushel measurements to different things we grow in the ground. A bushel of corn is 56 pounds, while a bushel of oats is 32 pounds.

26. A Span is 9 inches.

Six different arms outstretched
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A span isn't just a vague term for how long something is, like a bridge or wings or the length of time you can pay attention to something. It originally meant a distance of about 9 inches, or the width of a man's hand with the fingers out.

27. A Hand is now 4 inches.

Man's hands on horse
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Besides the span, we also have the hand, now mostly used for measuring horse height. It's the width of your hand with the fingers closed. But these days, it just means 4 inches no matter how gigantic your hands are.

28. A Finger is the width of your finger.

Pouring a cocktail
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Noah Webster measured the breadth of a finger and nailed it down as 3/4 of an inch, but finger has been used a lot as a unit of measurement. Thus, it's not always clear whether we're talking about the width of the finger, like when your bartender pours you two fingers of booze.

29. A Finger can also be 4.5 inches of cloth.

Fabric rolls
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This unit uses the length of a finger as the basis.

30. A Nail is 1/16 of a yard.

Woman cutting fabric
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A nail of cloth, which is based on the length of your finger from the nail to the second joint, is half a finger, or 2.25 inches. That's also 1/16 of a yard.

So, there you have it. There are about seven barleycorns in a nail, two nails in a finger, four fingers on your hand, and three hands in a foot.

31. A Centipawn measures the value of chess positions.

A hand moves a black pawn forward on a chess board
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And now let us discuss centipawns. Chess computer programs can evaluate the value of a particular piece or position in terms of hundredths of a pawn, or centipawns.

32. A Frigorie is a Calorie's nemesis.

Woman putting food container in the fridge
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You've heard of the boring old calorie, a unit that measures energy that produces heat. A Big Mac, for instance, has 550 of them. But, what about the energy to cool something? That unit of refrigeration is called a frigorie, which fell out of use in the 1970s.

33. An Oxgang is about 15 acres.

Green fields with cows
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Also lost to history is the oxgang, a unit for measuring the area of land approximately equivalent to 15 acres—or the amount of land that a farmer could plow with an ox in one season.

34. An Olf is a unit of odor.

Cat nose
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Luckily, we've still got the melodious olf. Olfs are used for measuring the air quality of indoor spaces, like offices. One olf is basically the amount of odor of one standard person. So, what's a standard person? The olf standard is a person with a skin area of 1.8 square meters, who bathes 0.7 times per day, and is seated comfortably in a comfortable temperature. If the person becomes slightly active, it rises to 5 olfs. A heavy smoker gives off 25 olfs while smoking and six while not.

35. A QuasiHemidemisemiquaver is a unit of brief musical time.

Girl's hands playing piano
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Also known as the 128th note, it lasts for 1/128 of a note. Nice how that works. Beethoven and Bach were fans.

36. You can cut the Quasihemidemisemiquaver in half.

The great news about music is that you can always go smaller: a demisemihemidemisemiquaver is a 256th note, and it's been used in works by Beethoven and Mozart. 

For more information on offbeat units of measurement, check out the video below, hosted by John Green. You'll be measuring things by fingers in a jiffy.

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11 Tips for Avoiding Germs at the Grocery Store

The early bird doesn't catch the germ.
The early bird doesn't catch the germ.
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While going to concerts, movie theaters, bars, beaches, and other recreational destinations is temporarily on hold, there’s one outing that remains a necessity during self-isolation: grocery shopping. If any supermarkets in your area offer home delivery or even store pickup, this is a good time to take advantage of those services.

But if you, like many of us, still need to stock up on food the old-fashioned way, here are some helpful tips for avoiding germs when you venture to the store.

1. Go early in the morning.

Not only will stores be less crowded in the early morning, but they’ll probably be cleanest then, too, since the staff often sanitizes the premises at night. Because many stores are devoting their early hours of operation to senior citizens only, Reader’s Digest suggests calling ahead to find out when your store opens to the general public.

2. Bring hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, or disposable gloves (and wipe down your cart).

Though many stores are now putting disinfectant wipes near the carts so you can wipe them down, you should bring your own just in case. This is especially important, since studies have found that COVID-19 can live for two or three days on plastic surfaces.

Your cart won’t be the only potentially germy place you put your hands during your trip—door handles in the frozen food section, self-checkout screens, and credit card keypads are all risky zones. Be sure to either wipe them down before touching, use hand sanitizer after touching, or just wear gloves that you can toss out at the end of your trip.

3. Don’t touch your face.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you might be especially prone to absentmindedly touching your face while you contemplate which non-dairy milk to choose when your first choice is out of stock.

4. Don't touch your phone either.

Phone screens are a great example of high-touch surfaces where germs can live, so instead of keeping a grocery list on your smartphone, write it on a piece of scrap paper that you can throw away after you’re finished.

5. Give yourself more time to shop than you usually need.

Maintaining at least 6 feet between you and every other shopper means occasionally waiting for occupied aisles to clear and moving more slowly so you don’t run into people—not to mention the time it takes to use hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes intermittently. If you’re trying to fit in a quick shopping trip before an important Zoom call with your boss, you may be less conscientious about shopping safely.

6. Inspect items for holes in the packaging (or the food itself).

Make sure there aren’t any rips or tears in cereal boxes, potato chip bags, or any other packaging—and that goes for produce, too. Give those apples a nice long look to be certain there aren’t any holes or breaks in the skin that germs could easily get into.

7. Bypass the free samples.

Surprise snacks at supermarkets are one of the perks of grocery shopping, but Livestrong points out that exposed food is an easy target for germs. So skip the free samples and don't graze on those bunches of grapes; instead, reward yourself with an extra snack at home. Some stores, like Costco, are even suspending their samples during this time, so you won't be so tempted.

8. Don’t pay with cash.

While there’s a certain satisfaction in counting out exact change, cash has a reputation for being a hotbed for germs. If possible, stick to cards or other automatic methods of payment. Even then, it's not the worst idea in the world to wipe down debit and credit cards after using them.

9. Leave the grocery bags on your doorstep.

Store employees are being extra cautious about cleanliness, but it’s still possible that your bags could pick up germs during the checkout process. To avoid the risk, leave them outside and only bring your items into the house.

10. Wash reusable bags between trips.

If you’ve made the switch to reusable shopping bags, Food Network recommends tossing them in the washing machine or wiping them down with soap and water between shopping trips.

11. Wash produce and wipe down other items.

Per usual, you should thoroughly rinse produce before eating it. Dr. Lisa Larkin, a Cincinnati-based internal medicine physician and founder of Ms.Medicine, told Reader’s Digest that you can also wipe down jars, cans, and bottles with a disinfectant wipe before putting them in your pantry for good measure.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]

12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

iStock
iStock

For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. Firstborn sons need to fast for Passover.

matzo
iStock

The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. Passover lasts either seven or eight days.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
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The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. Leavened grains are a no-go at Passover.

Person sweeping the floor
iStock

One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. Matzo, which is made from wheat, is one of the most important parts of a Passover meal.

baking matzo
iStock

While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes.

5. Grains get complicated during Passover.

matzo ball soup
iStock

As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. Some of the best matzo flour is made in Arizona.

field of wheat
iStock

One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. Pets also get special food during Passover.

cute dog with head tilted
iStock

For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. There are six symbolic Passover foods.

seder plate for Passover
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The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. Sometimes an orange is added to the Seder plate.

slice of orange
iStock

In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. Some major companies produce special kosher-for-Passover food and beverages.

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. Maxwell House coffee holds a special place at Passover.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. The world's largest Seder happens in a surprising location.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

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