New Popular Unit of Measurement Discovered

By David L. Brown

We have written before about the strange way the popular press likes to invent new units of measurement when attempting to describe things scientific. For example, see my essay “Just How Big WAS That Bus, Anyway?” posted June 3. In that piece I discussed such journalistic “units of measurement” as school buses, microwave ovens, and the ever-popular football field.

Now I am delighted to announce that a new way of communicating scientific values, this time relating to the temperature scale, has been discovered by the writers of popular science news, as in this excerpt from a story today on FoxNews.com:

“Gabrielse and his colleagues isolated a single electron in a bottle devoid of almost all other particles, and chilled it to temperatures colder than the surface of Pluto.”

Now I hate to be a spoilsport, but unlike football fields, microwave ovens, and school buses, the temperature on Pluto is probably not something about which most news readers have very much knowledge and certainly no personal experience against which to relate the value. This statement might leave most readers wondering, “Huh? I wonder how cold it is on Pluto, anyway?” and yet others musing, “Hmmm, Pluto is a dog, right? How cold could that be?”

Now I suspect that what the original scientists were up to was cooling an electron to a temperature close to absolute zero. But that is a phrase that would obviously present difficulties for the typical reader, few of whom know that “absolute zero” is minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, minus 273 degrees Centigrade, or Zero degrees Kelvin. Most readers might in fact focus on the “zero,” ignore the “absolute,” and assume that the article is referring to a temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit, or a typical cold day in Iowa. (Don’t mention Centigrade or you’ll really lose them, at least here in the U.S. And Kelvin, isn’t he a rock star or something?)

So we have an obvious communication challenge here (due to the readers being challenged), and the FoxNews writer has made a brave effort to address it. However, this effort falls short in my opinion. The tried-and-true journalistic way to invent new “units” of measurement is to refer to something with which almost everyone is familiar (i.e., school buses and such), which for most people does not include the temperature on the surface of Pluto. In this case, it would have been more appropriate to use one of the following “units” from the everyday world:

  • “Colder than the temperature in your refrigerator;”
  • “Colder than a Fudgesickle in February;”
  • “Colder than a six pack of Budweiser;”
  • “Colder than your toes after walking barefoot in the snow;”
  • “Colder than a brass monkey’s private parts;”
  • “Colder than Donald Rumsfeld’s heart,” or even that old familiar
  • “Colder than a witch’s chest area.”

These all provide common references with which everyone is familiar, and each statement would be perfectly true (and with a large margin for error) assuming that as in this case we are apparently talking about a temperature somewhere not too far above absolute zero or minus 459 degrees F.

In fact, the way this journalistic phrase is structured, it would also be perfectly true and accurate (although somewhat misleading) to say “colder than the surface of the Sun,” or even “colder than Heck.”

Of course, none of this would be very helpful. In fact, the original “colder than the surface of Pluto” is by far the more accurate statement and it’s just too bad that we cannot assume the average reader is familiar with that “unit.”

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