Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Big Unit(s)

I was looking something up today at work, and it occurred to me to share with y'all one of my favorite online resources: How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement. Now, for some of you, this might seem like a pretty geeky site to list among my favorites... but if you are (as I am) one of those people who can look up a word in a common dictionary and get sucked into browsing for hours, you'll find this site every bit as dangerously compelling as your Funk and Wagnalls. It's full not only of ordinary, everyday units of measure like inches and amperes and footcandles, but also of the arcane and obscure: units from ancient times (ever wonder what a cubit really is?) or foreign lands (bet you didn't know that in Central America a manzana is unit of land equal in area to a square 100 varas on a side), and units for things you never knew anyone bothered to measure (lunar eclipse brightness? the hardness of tablets [i.e., pills]? the darkness of beer or honey?)

As a technical writer, I often use this site to confirm the proper usage, abbreviation, symbol, etc., of units that appear in the documents I edit... but sometimes the information is of more, umm, topical use. If, for instance, you're thinking of going hunting with Dick Cheney, you might be interested in how they measure birdshot pellet sizes or shotgun gauges, and your next of kin might want to bone up on the Glasgow Coma Scale. And if you've been following the Winter Olympics in Italy, you might be interested to learn that the Torino Impact Hazard Scale measures not the force with which an ice dancer's hip hits the rink, but rather the risk of devastating impact posed by a near-Earth asteroid or comet.

Fascinating, eh? This is all the brainchild of one Russ Rowlett, director of the University of North Carolina's Center for Mathematics and Science Education. Check it out... but when you find you've wasted way too many hours learning (for instance) that a butt is generally defined as two hogsheads, don't blame me; blame Dr. Rowlett.


No comments: