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Smoot's Ear:
The Measure of Humanity

by Robert Tavernor

2007 by Robert Tavernor

Yale University Press


This plaque is in honor of THE SMOOT which joined the angstrom, meter and light year as standards of length, when in October 1958 the span of this bridge was measured, using the body of Oliver Reed Smoot, MIT ’62 and found to be precisely 364.4 smoots and one ear. Commemorated at our 25th reunion June 6, 1987 MIT Class of 1962.

Commemorative plaque on the Harvard Bridge, Massachusetts, USA.

From the preface


Measure is as old as language and both have influenced the development of civilizations. The origins of language and measure are simple and immediate, having their roots in the practical and useful. Language and measure are necessary parts of everyday experience, so much so that we take them for granted—until, that is, attempts are made to regulate or impose change, and so wrestle the familiar from popular consent.

Grammar, spelling and the form of the written word define ideas and speech. They combine to give language shape, rhythm, power and authority. There is an official language regulated by lawyers, teachers and governments, and a conventional everyday language of the street and marketplace. We define language, and then language defines us. Through the popular media, novels, newspapers, television and Internet, there are constant challenges to the value and purpose of regional and national language. The unconscious and deliberate breaking of rules, the use of slang and the formal inventions of poets and writers modify the official language as new exemplars enter usage. In short, we express ourselves through language—individually and in groups, locally, regionally and nationally.

Until the globalisation of standards, weights and measures had a voice too—local, regional and national. They were usually characterised in relation to our daily activities and to the form of our bodies. Conventionally, I might say that something beyond me “about my height”; or I may gesture, hands apart, to indicate the size of a smaller object. In as much as language defines human speech, measure also has its own official structure of agreed interrelationships: being calibrated and subdivided into parts that relate to a governing idea or set of principles, organized around a primary unit length of measure.

Industry and government would argue that measure cannot be as fluid as language because, like any medium that affects the monetary value of the trade and exchange of commodities, nationally and internationally, there is a need to agree and control the quantities involved. The modern—post-Enlightenment—world has worked to achieve a strictly regulated international language of exchange, based on the metric system, that allows for the effective global communication of lengths, weights, volumes and related measures. The metric system is truly international. It is used everywhere, but belongs to no one. Originally, it was meant to relate to the dimension of the earth. In fact, its length is defined by a light wave in gas; it does not represent anything physical; and it is intangible and unrecognisable.


From the introduction.

From, yes, Hammacher-Schlemmer,
Holiday Preview 2007.


Editor's Comment: Hammacher-Schlemmer needs to recognize the market that bibliotherapy has recognized and market The Voice Recognition Anxieties Organizer. This is the voice-activated device that comes pre-loaded with mental complaints as specific as "I think the neighbors are stealing hair from my cat," "that fat bitch is looking at me," and "someone is rearranging my topiary." Think of the convenience of printing an anxieties list prior to an appointment with a psychotherapist, a call to Dr. Phil's talent bookers or your life coach. —B.L.

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