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The Department of Silly Measurements

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Flickr user Olivier T)

You’ve heard of a “New York minute” and a “stone’s throw”… but how about a “potrzebie”? Here are a few more strange units of measurement (and one very serious one) that you may not be familiar with.


Description: The shortest distance from which sheep can appear picturesque— or about ⅞ of a mile.

Explanation: Invented by Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and British television producer John Lloyd, in their book The Meaning of Liff, a collection of fake —and funny— definitions of actual place names. (Liff is a village in Scotland.) They named the sheppey after the Isle of Sheppey, which lies off England’s southeast coast and is famous for its picturesque sheep.


Senator Jake Garn is pictured at the upper right.

Description: A measure of space sickness, with one garn being the highest level of space sickness possible.

Explanation: Named after U.S. senator Jake Garn of Utah, who became the first sitting member of Congress in space, when he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. Garn, who had very little training prior to the mission, became violently ill from of the effects of weightlessness during the flight— so ill that people around NASA derisively created the garn measurement from his name. “Most guys will get maybe to a tenth garn, if that high,” NASA scientist Robert E. Stevenson said in a 1998 interview. “The mark of being totally sick and totally incompetent is one garn.”


Description: The sagan is a measure of quantity equal to billions and billions (or just a lot) of something.

(YouTube link)

Explanation: Invented as a humorous tribute to famed astronomer and writer Carl Sagan, who became a target of comedians in the 1980s for his frequent use of the phrase “billions and billions” to describe the vast number of stars, galaxies, black holes, and other cosmic objects in his television shows and documentaries. Sagan denies ever using the phrase, although he did use the word “billions” (and “millions” and “trillions”) a lot. The joke started in February 1980, when Johnny Carson did a sketch impersonating Sagan, wearing a thick wig and corduroy jacket and used the phrase “billions and billions” several times, putting a comedic emphasis on the “b” in “billions”. The sagan was invented with that in mind, and it became popular by the early 1990s. Sagan himself must have thought it was funny: his last book, published in 1997, is titled Billions and Billions.


Description: A measurement of length equal to the thickness of issue #26 of Mad magazine (November 1955), or 2.263348517438173216473 millimeters.

Explanation: The potrzebie was invented for a piece in the June 1957 issue of Mad magazine, titled “The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures,” written by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth (who, incidentally, went on to become a world-renowned computer scientist). Knuth got “potrzebie” from the magazine itself. Mad’s founder, Harvey Kurtzman, discovered it in 1954, in the Polish language section of an instruction sheet in a bottle of aspirin. (It’s a form of the Polish word potrzeba, meaning “a need.”) He liked the word so much, he used it in the magazine numerous times. (In the June 1954 issue, for example, an airplane in the background of a comic is seen pulling a banner with the word “Potrzebie” printed on it.) Knuth took the word, invented his potrzebie measurement system— and the rest is Mad history.


Description: A unit of area used in nuclear physics equal to 10−28 square meters, which is really, really small. It’s a serious unit of measure with a funny story behind it.

Explanation: In 1942 physicists at Indiana’s Purdue University were working on the Manhattan Project (the World War II project that led to the development of the atomic bomb) and needed a secret code word for the area of a uranium nucleus. The number is incredibly important in nuclear physics because it’s fundamental to the math involved in creating nuclear reactions. They wanted a code name for it so they could write and talk about it without the risk of giving vital information to the enemy. At some point the physicists focused on the phrase “as big as a barn”— because uranium nuclei, while incredibly tiny, are actually huge compared to the nuclei of other elements. So the area of a uranium nucleus became known as a barn. The name stuck… and the barn is still a fundamental part of nuclear physics today.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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