Ten Unbelievably Strange Units of Measurement

Not everything can be measured in meters, seconds, or the size of a breadbox. Sometimes, to quantify something, extreme and silly steps have to be taken. Find out how big Siberia is, and how long a beard grows in a second.

10. The France

Russians have a difficult time describing just how massively big their country is. To get the right scale across, they don't use miles or kilometers, they use France. This is unofficial, but they liked to describe units of land in their Siberian regions by saying, "Twice the size of France."

9. The Cricket Pitch

Countries in which cricket is popular have a unit of measurement equal to 22 yards. They also have my condolescences. I mean, cricket? Really?

Ten Unbelievably Strange Units of Measurement

8. The Foe

This unit is actually used to measure the energy given off by a supernova. Lest anyone think that scientists are being whimsical, there is a logical explanation for the name. An erg is a standard unit of energy. A Foe is a unit of energy equal to ten to the power of fifty-one ergs. F.O.E. To give a standard of reference, the sun puts out about four billionths of a billionth of a Foe per second.

7. The Garn

This is a unit that is irreverently used by Nasa to measure space sickness. Weightlessness, and other effects of space, take a huge toll on the body. Astronauts often get very sick. Senator Jake Garn was so sick during his mission to space that complete incapacitation due to weightlessness is considered "One Garn."

6. The Barn

The Barn is a measurement of area, and an ironic commentary on the size of the Uranium nucleus. Compared to most everyday objects, it's very small. Compared to smaller nuclei, it is 'as big as a barn,' at 10^-28 square meters. (It would be fantastic to see dressmakers and DIY people start describing sections of fabric in Barn units. "To make this mini-skirt you'll need at least 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Barns of fabric.")

Ten Unbelievably Strange Units of Measurement

5. The Smoot

One night, in 1958, a fraternity at MIT charged its pledges with measuring the length of the Harvard Bridge between Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. The pledges' shortest member was Oliver Smoot, at 5'7". He lay down on the bridge, and they rolled his body to measure the length of the whole thing from beginning to end. It ended up being 364.4 Smoots, give or take the length of an ear. The unbelievability of this unit isn't that it was made, but that it somehow endured as a niche, but popular, unit of measurement. If you walk the bridge from MIT to Boston today, you can still see many helpful lines painted onto it, showing how many Smoots you've gone.

4. The Carat

We've all heard of this unit forever, but I'm willing to bet many people don't know what it means. It has mostly served as a source of cheap puns in Bugs Bunny cartoons. A carat is equal to one fifth of a gram. The weight comes from the carob bean, which nature precisely weighted well enough to be used as an ancient unit of measurement.

3. The Nine

Nines are a measure of how uptime on computers, and on the purity of various materials. They refer to how many nines are after the decimal point. A five N material will have five nines after the decimal point (.99999) and be 99.999% pure.

Ten Unbelievably Strange Units of Measurement


2. The Donkeypower

This is used, always with a smirk, by engineers to express pathetically weak machinery. A unit of donkeypower is 250 Watts, or one third of a horsepower.

1. The Beard-Second

The light-year is the distance that light travels in a year. It is used to express otherwise disorientingly large numbers. People might not have the patience or experience to see the difference between 6,000,000,000,000 and 6,000,000,000,000,000, but they can appreciate the difference between one light-year and a thousand light-years. Scientists, kidding around, wanted a unit of measurement that would express extremely small numbers, and so the beard-second was born. It measures the distance (5 nanometers) that the average (presumably male) physicist's beard grows in one second.

Via Urban Titan, Jay Garmon, NPR, About.com, and Royal Pingdom.