Unusual objects and their measurements
November 19, 2012 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Please list your best, favorite, most interesting object that could be used as a unit of measure for one of the following: area, volume, or temperature. For your answer to be useful I require the object and its measure. The ideal object is unusual but relatable at the human scale.

I'm thinking of doing a project that will use standard household items as well as more wacky objects as measures of things. Objects that are mass produced or that provide a repeatable experience are best to confirm the measurements but finding things that are also interesting is the challenge.

I have done some basic research that has turned up some wikipedia lists e.g. list of humorous units of measurement and list of unusual units of measurement. But the items are not as unusual or interesting as I had hoped. I've also done some brainstorming on my own but the results are tending toward filling out the more mundane end of the spectrum e.g. Giants stadium, olympic sized swimming pool, baseball, basketball for volume. Ignition point for safety matches, average human body, water boiling and freezing for temperatures. Etc.

Thanks and hopefully the results will find their way into a projects post at some point!
posted by safetyfork to Science & Nature (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So you are looking for things that are more on the wacky side, less on the standard-familiar-household side? So things like deck of cards, or Statue of Liberty, would NOT be good answers?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:39 PM on November 19, 2012

Fun fact I've been carrying around since elementary school: a paperclip weighs almost exactly a gram. Not sure whether this is the smaller paperclips or the "jumbo" ones, but it should be easy to figure out.
posted by Sara C. at 12:43 PM on November 19, 2012

You know about smoots, right?
posted by scruss at 12:44 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

# Cricket Chirps in 14 seconds + 40 = degrees Farenheit
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:45 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Superlative animals and plants - biggest (obvious ones include blue whale, giant redwood), smallest, fastest, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:46 PM on November 19, 2012

LobsterMitten, those are already better than what I had come up with! I rate them as kind of wacky and therefore good. For the answer to be of value I do need the measurement too though. Otherwise I think we'd just be listing wacky things which is not what I hope to achieve. On preview I do not know about smoots.
posted by safetyfork at 12:47 PM on November 19, 2012

I have also heard the paperclip/gram thing.

It's not really standardized, but I'm a big fan of 'human measurements', being able to measure your environment using your body parts - the distance from my thumb to the first knuckle is about an inch, from the tip of my middle finger to a certain spot I can point to on my hand is 6", distance from the floor to my kneecap (when I'm wearing work boots) is 18", my armspan is slightly shorter than my height (because I have a slightly negative ape index), etc.

Water can be measured by weight - "a pint's a pound, the world around."
posted by rmd1023 at 12:49 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Looks like it may be apocryphal, but I was taught in grade school that Fahrenheit based his temperature scale on the freezing point of blood (0 degrees F).

"A pint's a pound the world round" - a pint of water weighs one pound. Gasoline is roughly six pounds per gallon and varies more widely due to temperature than water.

Egg whites set at about 160F, and the whole egg sets at about 165F - "hot enough to cook eggs" is right around there.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:54 PM on November 19, 2012

If you hold your arms outstretched to the sides, the length from fingertip to fingertip is (supposedly) almost exactly the same as your height.
posted by coraline at 12:57 PM on November 19, 2012

Oh, and temperature gradients in the atmosphere - as a rule of thumb, temperature drops 3F for every 1,000 feet of altitude gained.

Maybe you are also interested in the various candy-making stages.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:58 PM on November 19, 2012

I've heard (and used as a guideline!) the "pint's a pound the world around" bit as well. My mom told me just the other day that a US dollar bill is 6" long. I, too, use my hands for measuring things. The first knuckle on my thumb is about an inch, just the thumbnail about half an inch, both thumb knuckles 2 inches and the span of my hand (thumb tip to pinky tip) is about 7 inches. When trying to figure out if that's my 8 or 9 inch cake pan, my hand is more, ahem, handy, then a ruler.

(I don't know that I've ever found a use for knowing my wingspan, but since someone already brought up ape index, I'll share that mine is like 3 inches positive. Very annoying when shopping for long sleeved shirts, but handy when doing goofy dances that require flailing.)
posted by hungrybruno at 12:59 PM on November 19, 2012

Not sure if this is universal or just me, but when it comes to temperature, 50º is where it's warm enough to go out without socks. 49º and below, you need them.
posted by Mchelly at 1:03 PM on November 19, 2012

Unless you're in Los Angeles, where locals walk around in flannel and tall winter boots at 65 degrees.

(In all seriousness, temperature perceptions are extremely regional. I was once in Pune, India, where it was about 80 degrees in February, and an old man told me that "this winter has been an especially cold one". He was, like, bundled up in a scarf and everything.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:19 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

a 35mm film canister holds the easy-to-remember volume of 35ml of fluid
posted by colin_l at 1:22 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few more thoughts - many of these you can find pretty easily on the web, once you have the idea of what you're searching for, so I haven't linked to all.

Longest ships
Tallest buildings and structures
Highest mountains

Monopoly board - 20x20"
bases or diamonds according to the MLB baseball rules
wing area of the Wright brothers' first airplane
Largest artificial island
Great Pacific Garbage Patch (estimates of area vary)

Volume (same could be used for surface area)
volume of standard dice
volume of a deck of cards
volume of a blue whale's heart
volume of wood a woodchuck could chuck
volume of all the tea in China (couldn't find a quick reference for this, but you could probably come up with a good back of envelope estimate)
volume of the Colosseum, or St Peter's, or the Taj Mahal, or the Pentagon, or Fort Knox, etc.
volume of Grand Canyon
volume of oil spilled from BP's Deepwater Horizon spill (or other notable spills like the Exxon Valdez
volumes of the world's oceans
Volumes of the planets

Temperature - how wide a range do you want?
Temp of various cooking stages - temp of sugar to make caramel, temp of interior of Thanksgiving turkey when it's done, temp of water to make best coffee, etc
Internal body temp of various animals
Temp at bottom of ocean
Temp at bottom of Antarctic ocean
Average temp in Sahara
Average temp at top of Mt Everest
Average temp in the heart of the Amazon rainforest
Average temp in the vault of the international seed bank in Spitsbergen
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:22 PM on November 19, 2012

area of a dollar bill

temperature to melt various metals - eg gold, silver - or to condense other substances - eg nitrogen, oxygen
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:26 PM on November 19, 2012

Horses are measured in "hands" which was originally the width of an average sized man's hand, now standardized to 4".
posted by fshgrl at 1:35 PM on November 19, 2012

One serving of protein should be about the size of your palm, which is also about three ounces.

Slight derail: In high school, I often worked double shifts at the Mighty Taco at the same time as my friend Mike. We'd while away the time as though our seven-hour day was watching the movie Titanic twice over, calling across the kitchen when, say, Jack was the king of the world, or when the ship struck the iceberg. The movie is 194 minutes long, twice over is 388 minutes, or 6 hours and 28 minutes (we did not "watch" on break). I should note that this was not scientific at all: it had been seven or eight years since the film was in theatres and I don't think either of us had watched it since.
posted by troika at 1:36 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, a cubit is roughly the crook of your elbow to the tip of your middle finger. This would be incredibly useful if anything was measured in cubits.
posted by troika at 1:37 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

For more mass-produced items (obviously for some of these you'd need to stipulate an average, but they're good reference points.):
volume of standard recycling bin for your city
volume of a bus/subway car for your city
volume (interior or total) of certain model of vehicle (eg firetruck, Escalade, VW bug)
volume of a Starbucks venti coffee cup
volume of a delivery pizza box
volume of a kitchen sink
volume of a cooking pot
volume of a refrigerator
volume of a standard toilet tank
volume of a standard bath tub
volume of a standard ice cube
volume of a standard martini glass (or old-fashioned glass, or other type of named barware)
volume of a milk jug (gallon most obvious here)

area of standard postage stamp
area of standard business envelope
area of standard sheet of printer/copier paper
area of a STOP sign
area of a CD or DVD
area of an iPad - or pick your technology item of choice
area of a dinner plate (could stipulate eg from the Obamas' official White House china set or whatever)
area of a standard skateboard deck
area of a famous painting - eg the Mona Lisa, or Sistine Chapel ceiling, or pick a painting relevant to your project
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:40 PM on November 19, 2012

XKCD is relevant.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 1:43 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

volumes of famous types of hat - most obviously the 10 gallon hat
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:46 PM on November 19, 2012

volume of a soda pop can
volume of a tuna fish can
volume of a concert grand piano

area of a ping-pong/table tennis table, or pool/billiards table
area of a McDonalds burger patty
area of a twin mattress (or full/queen/king)
area of a flat bedsheet for a twin bed (etc)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:26 PM on November 19, 2012

The healthcare field has an unfortunate habit of characterizing volumes according to fruit size. Obstetrics in particular is guilty of this. There are tons of websites where you can go to find out how big your fetus is, based on gestational age: poppy seed, cherry, kumquat (like anyone knows how big a kumquat is!), etc. on up to watermelon.
posted by vytae at 2:33 PM on November 19, 2012

the acre-foot!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:42 PM on November 19, 2012

"(like anyone knows how big a kumquat is!)"

I do. Doesn't everybody eat them for their delicious tart taste? According to The Register's online conversion guide, a kumquat is about 0.2 linguine.

(Explanatory video here)
posted by Pinback at 2:44 PM on November 19, 2012

One possibility is using apples to measure height/length -- the canonical example being that Smurfs are three apples high.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:50 PM on November 19, 2012

Not sure if this counts under what you're looking for, but the length from your wrist to the crook of your elbow is almost always the length of your foot.
posted by jorlyfish at 4:12 PM on November 19, 2012

"a pint's a pound, the world around."

Not in the UK! More like a pound and a quarter, or 568 grams.
posted by knapah at 5:50 PM on November 19, 2012

a dollar bill (listed above as being 6 inches) is actually 6.14" so it is best used for estimating length rather than precisely measuring it.
posted by QuakerMel at 5:57 PM on November 19, 2012

Klein Bottles have zero volume. Of course, *zero* volume isn't that helpful of a measurement...
posted by sarah_pdx at 6:20 PM on November 19, 2012

Take a letter size piece of paper (8 1/2x11), portrait orientation. Fold one of the upper corners down so it meets the opposite long side, forming a right triangle with 45 degree angles. The diagonal of the side you created is 12 1/4" long - certainly close enough to estimate a foot.
posted by neilbert at 7:04 PM on November 19, 2012

rmd1023 writes "
Water can be measured by weight - "a pint's a pound, the world around."

As a kid I'd hear this on American TV and be completely confused because my pints weren't a pound; A Canadian/UK Pint being larger than a US pint. A Canadian gallon of water is 10 pounds vs the US 8 which always seemed more rational (if such a term can apply to any such wacky system of measures).
posted by Mitheral at 7:27 PM on November 19, 2012

US nickel (5 cents) = 5 grams
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe Weirdconverter.com will amuse you for a while.

1 bathtub = .14 cubic meters = 34 human stomachs
posted by booth at 10:05 AM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of great examples for me to think about here so it's hard to pick a single best answer. Collectively you shook this up for me in some unexpected ways — awesome. Thanks everyone!
posted by safetyfork at 6:42 AM on November 21, 2012

My understanding of "a pint's a pound" was that it was 16 ounces in each, though it was fluid ounces for pint and avoirdupois ounces for pound.
posted by knile at 7:35 AM on November 21, 2012

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