10 Scales Worth Posting an Article About

Tiny cannons, Mr. Tornado, and a fail-proof test for figuring out whether she likes you or like-likes you? Hold the page -scales just got interesting.


(Image credit: Flickr user Eden Politte)

In the early 19th century, Wilbur Scoville, an up-and-coming pharmacist from Connecticut, was hired to work on a muscle salve that used chili peppers to generate its punch. For some reason, the batches kept coming at different strengths. Scoville identified the problem immediately: No one had standardized the types and amounts of peppers being added to the mix. He set about creating a rating system for pepper spice levels, and when no instrument proved as sensitive as Scoville's own tongue, he made himself the guinea pig. He'd soak peppers in an alcohol solution to draw out the key spicy compound- capsaicin. Then he'd dilute the infused liquid with sugar water until the spiciness barely registered on his taste buds.

Sticklers will tell you that the Scoville Organoleptic Test doesn't actually measure the amount of capsaicin in a pepper, but rather the number of dilutions needed to put out a capsaicin-fueled fire. Jalapeño, for example, must be diluted 3,500 to 8,000 times, while a garden variety bell pepper needn't be diluted at all. Because no two tongues experience capsaicin the same way, the American Spice Trade Association began using a High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph to quantify hotness in Scoville Heat Units, a method that became the standard in 1998.

Scoville was hardly a one-trick pony. His 1895 work, The Art of Compounding, was still being used as a standard in the 1960s, and his papers on strange chemicals (such as the cantharides in Spanish Fly) made him a legend in the field. Still, in our minds, Scoville's greatest achievement is pepper-related: He's the first scientist in record to suggest drinking milk to put out a spicy mouth fire.


It may seem obvious now, but when Columbia Medical School anesthesiology professor Virginia Apgar claimed in 1952 that a newborn baby's survival was linked to its condition right after birth, the idea was revolutionary. One year later, after observing 2,096 deliveries at the Sloane Hospital for Women in New York, Apgar put a bib on the concept. Specifically, she proposed applying a "grading" system to newborns, given at one minute and again at five minutes after birth. The scale awarded points from 0 (poor) to 2 (good) across five criteria: pulse, respiration, muscle tone, color, and reflexes. Added together, the numbers generated an Apgar Score, which is still the standard within maternity wards. A score lower than 4 is considered critical, while 7 or greater means the baby is in good health. Most crucially, the process of assessing the five criteria forces nurses and doctors to pay closer attention to potential problems, leading to earlier interventions.

Today, Apgar is credited with saving hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lives. A 2001 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "the relation of five-minute Apgar scores to neonatal survival indicates that the Apgar score is just as meaningful today as it was almost fifty years ago."


"Do you like him or do you like-like him?" While that's the sort of question you'd expect from recess chatter, it's also the type of question American sociologist Zick Rubin discussed in Liking and loving: An Invitation to Social Psychology, his landmark 1973 book. Rubin, who developed the Rubin Like/Love Scale while still a grad student at the University of Michigan, is considered the first person to establish empirical measurements of very fuzzy assessments of regard and affection.

Rubin crafted his scale by whittling down 80 statements about liking and loving to two questionnaires of 13 statements each. The "Like Scale" measures sentiments of respect and an assessment of similarity to oneself. It includes statements such as "X is one of the most likable people I know" and "X is the sort of person whom I myself would like to be." The "Love Scale," on the other hand, delves into matters of the heart with statements that measure caring and intimacy: "I find it easy to ignore X's fault," and "I would do anything for X." In each scale, a person rates his or her responses from 1 (Not True/Strongly Disagree) to 9 (True/Agree Completely).

The scale has been used in a variety of ways; online dating questionnaires and women's magazine quizzes are the spiritual heirs of Rubin scales. Mostly, though, they're used by researchers of all stripes to measure the differences in how men and women value their significant others. Women, for example, are more likely than men to consider their partners good friends.

As brilliant as his scale is, Rubin still flies under the radar. Way under the radar. In 2011, Rubin wrote a hilarious op-ed piece titled "How the Internet Tried to Kill Me" in the New York Times detailing his attempts to convince various websites that he wasn't dead after his demise was erroneously reported in the 2001 edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. One exchange featured an editor asking him, "Is it possible the page is talking about a different Zick Rubin? The article is about a social psychologist." Something's telling us Rubin neither liked nor loved these conversations.


The Bogardus Social Distance Scale was created in 1933 to measure how accepting people are of other social groups. Over the years, it's become a favorite indicator for academics and government researchers -specially ones interested in race relations, immigration, and tourism. The scale works its magic by asking test subjects to assess their comfort with members of other groups through a spectrum of social-contact possibilities. Responses range from 1. would be willing to marry to 7. would bar from my country. Intermediate levels include 2. a willingness to have as a close friend, 3. next-door neighbor, 4. colleague, 5. citizen, and 6. visitor. While no specific applications rely on the BSDC, its results can be used to explain or predict behavior and attitudes in any number of areas. New Zealand, for example, recently used Bogardus research to help revamp its tourism industry, specifically the way the country markets itself to various ethnic groups.

The scale's creator, Emory S. Bogardus, was one of America's most prolific sociology writers, with more than 250 books and articles to his credit. In 1967, Bogardus published A Forty Year Racial Distance Study based on findings using his scale. Its major conclusion: Over time, the distance and distinctions between different social groups in the United States were decreasing -a positive indicator for a nation that had struggled with civil rights for so long.


Two centuries ago, geologists and folks who cared deeply about rocks, minerals, and other naturally occurring inorganic material would classify substances by their chemical makeup. But German professor Friedrich Mohs had a different idea: Why not sort rocks by traits like shape, hardness, and um, cleavage (how a mineral breaks apart)? After all, everyone who encounters minerals in their work -from miners to builders to manufacturers- cares an awful lot about how weak or strong the substances are.

Inspired by scratch tests that miners used to gauge hardness, Mohs devised a 1-10 scale for minerals based on which one could scratch the other. Talc, one of the softest minerals on Earth, is 1 on the scale; diamonds, one of the hardest, registers a 10. Number 2 through 9, if you're keeping score, are gypsum, calcite, fluorite, apatite, orthoclase feldspar, quartz, topaz, and corundum.

All 10 Mohs Scale minerals were chosen based on industrial-strength popularity, not because they followed a perfectly divided sequence of increasing hardness. The truth is, any substance can be valued on the Mohs Scale. The human fingernail, which scratches gypsum but can be scratched by calcite, earns a feeble 2.5; unglazed porcelain, meanwhile, rates an impressive 7. You show 'em, unglazed porcelain!


Almost a century after Mohs left his mark on the rock world, Swiss engineer Johan August Brinell decided that a simple scratch-based test wasn't sophisticated enough for metals. So in 1900, he developed a better hardness test by using ...a tiny cannon! No joke- the Brinell Hardness Test evaluates the strength of metals by shooting a 10-millimeter-diameter ball of hardened steel into a hunk of whatever you want to test.

The scale is particularly useful for engineers designing anything from hammers to cars. Here's why it works: The Brinell Hardness Number (HB) is obtained by dividing the load in kilograms by the spherical area of the indentation in square millimeters. Lead, a shamelessly soft metal, earns a 5 HB, while copper merits a 35. Meanwhile, stainless steel throws down at 200 HB. Oddly enough, Brinell's Jackass-ian genius has spawned several imitators. In 1906, Austrian researcher Gabriel Janka developed a wood hardness test by measuring how much force it takes to embed a .444-inch steel ball in a plank. (It takes a lot more force to get a steel ball into Australian buloke than balsa, but you probably knew that.)


Inspired by the birth of his daughters in 1885 and 1887, French psychologist Alfred Binet launched a career-long investigation into the nature of intelligence. In 1904, Binet and former intern Theodore Simon were appointed to a commission to study education for mentally retarded students. In response, the pair created the first widely accepted empirical measurement of intellect and mental abilities. The Binet-Simon test reflects a child's skill at completing 30 wide-ranging tasks -from the recognition of food as food to rhyming skills- and scores correspond with age: a 5 on the scale means the test-taker's intelligence equals that of a 5-year-old.

In 1916, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman adapted the Binet-Simon scale for use by the American public. Terman developed a score that calculated mental age divided by a person's chronological age multiplied by 100, and called it an Intelligence Quotient. In the modified system, which would come to be known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, scores around 100 were considered normal. People with an IQ of 140 or higher earned the label of "genius," while those who scored in the 50-59 range were classified as "morons." People with scores from 20-49 were called "imbeciles" and anyone scoring below 20 earned an "idiot" status.

The SBIS has been revised many times over the years, most notably with a 2003 switch from an age-based "normal" score to one derived from the test results of a random sample of people. Modern versions are also kinder to low scorers; yesterday's idiots are now said to have a "profound deficiency."


(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Alessio Damato)

British naval officer Francis Beaufort wasn't the first person, or even the first Englishman, to develop a system for categorizing the strength of the wind. (Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe devised his own system during a particularly tempestuous storm in 1703.) But Beaufort's scale -which measured the visible effects of wind rather than its actual speed- was the first to be adopted by the Royal Navy.

Beaufort devised his scale in 1805, while serving aboard the HMS Woolrich. A year later he described it in his diary: It ran from 0 (calm) to 13 (storm) and was eventually accompanied by various abbreviations describing the weather: "fg" for foggy, "dr" for driving rain, and so on.

Amazingly, the scale is still being used -though it's evolved over the years as instruments measuring wind force have become more realiable. Today, the scale starts at a "calm" 0 -meaning wind speed less than one knot with a sea surface that's "smooth and mirror-like" and maxes out at a "hurricane" 12 -registering a 64-plus knots and a scene described as "air filled with foam, [and] waves 45 feet tall." But as enduring as Beaufort's wind scale is, it's hardly his greatest gift to science -Beaufort's bigger accomplishment was getting a young Charles Darwin a ticket on the HMS Beagle.


For centuries, all tornados were considered equal -or at least equally desetructive. But in 1971, Ted Fujita changed all that. Using the Beaufort Scale as a model, the University of Chicago meteorology professor theorized that a tornado's wind speed determined the damage it left.

Based primarily on ground and aerial surveys but frequently incorporating eyewitness reports and ground-swirl patterns, Fujita's six point "F scale" starts at F0 (40-72 mph winds; think damaged chimneys, broken tree branches, uprooted mailboxes, and splintered billboards) and goes up to F5 (261-319 mph winds; uprooted redwoods, overturned mobile homes, and relocated neighborhoods). Since 1974, the F-scale has been used to categorized every reported tornado in the United States. No wonder Fujita, who died in 1998, was known by friends and reporters as "Mr. Tornado." In 2008, a new Enhanced Fujita Scale helped standardize ratings using specifically defined combinations of factors, none of which include the number of cows being juggled in the air.


From 1948 through 1969, Northwest University astronomy professor J. Allen Hynek investigated UFO sightings for the Air Force. Despite nearly single-handedly turning the study of extraterrestrials into a respected discipline, Hynek worried about being labeled "a UFO nut." So he applied more and more method to his study. Today, Hynek is mostly remembered for a scale enumerated in his 1972 book, The U.F.O. Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, a classification system for encounters with aliens and/or their crafts.

The "close encounters" are of three kinds: First, spotting an alien craft with the naked eye; second, having evidence of a landing, such as crop circles or other physical effects on plants, animals, and humans; and third, contact between an alien life form and humankind. It was the last classification that inspired the idea behind Steven Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hynek, who died in 1996, was a technical advisor on the film.


The above article by Gary Belsky is reprinted with permission from the May-June 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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I like the description of the bullet ant sting: "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel."
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One of my favorite scales is the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schmidt_Sting_Pain_Index) Researcher and entomologist Justin Schmidt subjected himself to a variety of stinging insects including fire ants, bees, wasps, and something called a tarantula hawk. The best part of the index is the written description that accompany that numeric indices, such as this description of a yellowjacket sting, rated 2.0 "Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue."
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