Sunday, May 13, 2012


Last week was a great time for backyard planet-gazing, with the moon out of the picture and the sky free of night haze.  What made it really special was that Saturn was at its closest to earth at 1304-million kilometers and shining with the extra brightness of full “opposition”; that is it was juxtaposed on the opposite side of earth from the sun.  With its glowing rings and 62 moons, Saturn is one of my favorite planets to observe. What made the viewing this year so memorable, was that from my specific  location, the night sky would have measured no more than 1 or 2 on the Bortle scale.
            In an article published in Sky & Telescope magazine in February, 2001, astronomer Jim Bortle introduced his “Dark Sky Scale”, with a measuring system going from “excellent” at class 1, to “inner city” at class 9.  His article helped to focus attention on the viewing damage brought about by “light contamination”, and steps we can take to alleviate this visual intrusion on one of life’s great pleasures.
            Because I spend a lot of time in my kitchen exploring the culinary possibilities limited only by my imagination, I have regular cause to be thankful for the work of Wilbur L. Scoville, an American pharmacologist who back in 1912, developed a system we know as the Scoville Scale for measuring the relative hotness of chili peppers. When I choose to feature a Poblano or Anaheim pepper (500-2500) rather than a Jalapeno (2500-6000) or a Serrano (10,000-23,000) in a particular recipe, I am not without guidance.  Likewise when pressing grapes or apples in my fruit press in the fall, I pay attention to the Brix Scale, a measurement of sugar content named for Adolph Brix (1798-1870), who set about to improve vitaculture by rating the sweetness of fruit on a scale of 8 to 24. (For the best apple cider I prefer a blend of McIntosch for juiciness, Gold Delicious for sweetness and Northern Spy for tartness.) By the way, a 6-liter wine bottle is known as a “Methuselah”, a 9-liter a “Salmanazar” while a 12-liter bottle is a “Balthazar” and the gigantic 15-liter job is called a “Nebuchadnezzar”.
            Because we hear about weather phenomena on a regular basis, we know all about terms such as the Richter Scale, the term most often used to gauge the strength of a seismic event, introduced by Charles F. Richter in 1935; (every unit represents a factor of ten). When we hear reports of an “F-4” tornado touching down somewhere, it is an abbreviation of the Fujita Scale developed by weather scientists named Theodore Fujita and Allen Pearson, with factors of F-0 to F-5. (The term FE means Fujita (enhanced). On the other hand, Mariners at sea have long rated wind speed according to The Beaufort Scale created by British Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort in 1805, in which 8 equals “gale force” and force 12 is a hurricane.  Major Atlantic and Pacific storms conjure up the work of civil engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Bob Simpson whose 1971 measuring system gave us The Saffir-Simpson Scale of Category 1 to Category 5.
            In 1999, astronomers from around the world met in Turin, Italy to assess – among other things I suppose – the likelihood of earth being impacted by a comet or asteroid. From this prestigious gathering came the infamous Torino Number as reflected on The Palermo Scale.( I am perfectly content not to know that number).
            It may be widely known that the Carat, as a unit of mass when applied to diamonds and precious stones was established in 1907 to be 200 milligrams in weight.  What may be less appreciated is the fact that the term originally grew out of a comparison with carob beans in ancient Greece, and barleycorns in old England.  And of course everyone knows about Herman Snellen (1834-1908), the Dutch ophthalmologist who would be pleased to know that my corrected vision comes very close to 20/20 on his world-respected Snellen Fraction.
            Although not a horse-racing fan, I have always assumed that the furlong must be a track measurement firmly rooted in some sort of scientific algorithm. Imagine my surprise when I learned that prior to the Norman conquest of 1066, Saxon farmers came up with the formula: “the distance a team of oxen could plow a furrow without needing a rest”.  Even in science, it would appear, things are not always that exact.  For example The Mouse Unit (MU) in pharmacology stands for “the dose of any toxin sufficient to kill 50% of mice weighing 20 grams each”.
            If only I had more space, I would wax even longer about The Hayflick Limit, The Bubnoff Unit and the unforgettable Flehmen Response; perhaps another time.

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