Monday, March 21, 2011

MEASURE FOR MEASURE: What it all amounts to

Dogs are a unit of temperature.
     Consider, if you will, the scruple and the dog. They have something in common, the scruple and the dog: both are units of measurement.
    The word “scruple” is derived from the Latin “scrupulus,” meaning a small, sharp stone. At some point, I suppose, the Romans decided that all those small sharp stones on Italy’s beaches were useful for something other than causing classical calluses, so they apparently began using them to balance their scales, as well. Hence, in the measuring system used by apothecaries, a “scruple” became a unit of weight. It is equal to 20 grains, a grain being the weight (truly) of the average grain taken from the middle of an ear of wheat. Three scruples equal a dram, eight drams equal an ounce, and twelve ounces (apothecary) equal a pound. It is all very beautiful.
     The dog, on the other hand, is a unit of temperature. In the Australian outback, the aborigines keep dogs not only to help them hunt, but also to snuggle up with on chilly nights. A cool night is a one-dog night. A cold night is a two-dog night. A three-dog night is as cold as it gets. (Hence, of course, the cooler than cool name of the great rock band.) The idea of measuring temperature in terms of dogs is also very beautiful. I wish our local tv weather forecasters would adopt it. In more fickle climes and times, they might wish to extrapoloate to other units: October in Blacksburg, for example, is full of two-cat mornings, one-dog nights, and six-gerbil afternoons.
    I first became preoccupied with the subject of measurement way back in high school. (WARNING: DIGRESSION AHEAD.) Mr. William Cates was my English teacher in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. He was a small, stern, brilliant, uncharming man given to calling us coldly by our last names: “And what do you think Piggy’s broken glasses symbolize, Mr. Weathers?” he would ask, terrifyingly, in the middle of a class discussion. And I, of the two-pound spectacles, for whom broken glasses meant slow death while propped helplessly against a tree in a post-nuclear survivalist landscape, would spin out some blather about the loss of perspective in a world without visible philosophical landmarks. With an unsmiling nod that could have meant anything from “You are a brilliant student who will turn the world upside down with your revolutionary ideas” to “Only twenty years to retirement, thank God,” Mr. Cates would then go on to terrify some other adolescent while I sat there astonished by what had come out of my mouth. Mr. Cates was the finest teacher I have ever had.
Protagoras wrote, "Man is the measure of all things."
     Anyway, Mr. Cates had one curious idiosyncrasy: at the end of every semester, on our final exam, he would always ask the exact same question. It went like this: “ ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ Apply this quote to the books we have read this term.” Twice a year for three years I was faced with this command, and twice a year for three years I was faced with the knowledge that I had no idea what it meant. In the middle of my junior year, I actually tracked the quote down, discovering that it was the first line of a work called Truth by a Greek philosopher named Protagoras. Truth didn’t help. I have discovered since that it rarely does.
    After 48 years, I still don’t know what “Man is the measure of all things” means, but if I had to take one of Mr. Cates’ finals today (a hypothesis that still haunts my dreams), my answer would basically consider two possibilities: either a) the quote is a typographical error for “Man is the measurer of all things,” or b) it means that all things should be measured by their effect on people. Which, finally, gets us back to the subject.
    Over-achieving chimpanzees (not to mention crows, termites, and other smart critters) have pretty much exploded the notions of man as the only tool-using creature and man as the only language-using creature. More power to the chimps and termites. Man remains, however, the animal kingdom’s greatest measurer. He has taken time, for example, and sliced and diced it right down to the nanosecond, then reconstituted it into eternity itself, figuring the dates for the birth and death of a whole universe. He has likewise reduced space to the micron on the one hand, then stretched it to the light year on the other. He has invented negative numbers to measure negative things and imaginary numbers to measure (I suppose) imaginary things. (Oh frabjous day when the square root of minus 144 was conceived!) Man even devotes whole buildings to the worship of platinum bars that weigh just so much or are just so long. 
A platinum-iridium bar in Sevres, France, defines what a kilogram is.
    For me, the final measure of man as measurer is googolplex. First came the number googol, which is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. It was invented by the American mathematician Edward Kasner, for what purpose I can’t discover. It was named, aptly enough, by Kasner’s nine-year-old nephew. Imagine a distance of googol feet. It would just about span the universe. Then somebody decided that googol wasn’t enough, and he invented googolplex, which is the number one followed by, get this, googol zeroes. I’m told that if you totaled up all the particles in the universe, it wouldn’t come to googolplex. What can the point of such a number be, except to defy the gods? The inventor of googolplex is probably being punished in some Hades right now, doomed to an eternity of counting dust motes.
    When you get right down to it, though, man’s best measures aren’t very good. Googolplexes aside, it seems to me that man, too eager to step off the distance between points, often ends up missing the point itself altogether. In the world of measurement, there are too many scruples, too few dogs. I therefore suggest a new approach, less scientific perhaps, but in human terms more useful, to the whole question of measurement. The essential principle: let man be the measure of all things. That is, let all things be measured by their human-response components—by the dogs we use.
Juliet Binoche, an 8 d/d woman.
     Instead of measuring airplane flights in distance or hours, for example, measure them in, say, the magazines we read aloft: “L.A. to New York is a six-magazine flight.” Instead of measuring adolescents in years or feet, measure them in slammed doors and sighs: “I have a fifty-sigh-a-day, six-slam daughter.” Measure golf, not in strokes, but in expletives. Measure movies, not in stars or R’s, but in spr’s: the number of times you shift in your seat per reel. Measure the opposite sex, not on some mindless one-to-ten scale, but by something concrete, like daydreams: Angelina Jolie is a 3 d/d (daydreams per day) woman; Juliet Binoche in her youth was an 8 d/d woman (and she’s still a 5 d/d woman today). Measure love in perspiration. Measure success in grins.
     And so on. I’d like to patent this concept. Anybody know a good twenty-scruple lawyer?

The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine in February 1984.

No comments:

Post a Comment