Friday, September 28, 2007

One of these days, Alice! To the Moon!

I watch a lot of nerd TV: the Discovery Channel, The History Channel, The Military Channel, National Geographic, The Learning Channel, The…well, you get the idea.

Something I’ve noticed - almost every show employs some fairly ill-defined units of measurement.

For example: tonight I was watching Modern Marvels – Snack Food Tech II (Hey! I like to know stuff) and the show made the following statement: “If all the Coca-Cola ever made was bottled in 8oz bottles, stacked end to end, it would reach to the moon and back 136 times.” Holy shit! That’s a lot of brown carbonated beverage, but that’s not what I’m getting at. It’s that whole “…to the moon and back…” part. This type of comparison is used a lot on these shows, I think a little clarification is in order.

This measurement is not well defined, do they mean from center to center of the two bodies? Or from surface to surface? Logically, I assume surface to surface, surface being sea level on Earth and the average surface level on the Moon. Now the Moon is in an elliptical orbit around the Earth so the distance between the two bodies doesn't remain constant, but mean distance, center to center, between the Earth and Moon is approximately 238,863 miles. The Earth is about 8,000 miles in diameter, and the moon is roughly a quarter that at 2159 miles more or less. Subtracting the radius of the moon, 1079 miles, and the radius of the Earth, 4000 miles from the mean Earth/Moon distance gives us roughly 233,784 miles surface to surface, plus or minus a certain margin of error which I’m just going to ignore. 233,784 miles, times 2 (there and back again), times 136 equals 63 million, 589 thousand, 248 miles. Like I said above, holy shit! That’s a lot of Coke.

Another common measurement on these shows is the Earth’s circumference. I.e. if all the iPods currently in existence were laid end to end, they would make a line long enough to stretch completely around the Earth. Again, just a little vague here, which iPod model? The numbers vary significantly depending on if we're talking Classic or Nano for example. For the purposes of convenience I'm just going to average all the models together. Now the circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901.55 miles. But, if you measure the earth through the poles, the circumference is a bit shorter - 24,859.82 miles, because the earth is an oblate spheroid. In other words, it’s a little wider than it is tall, giving it a slight bulge at the equator. The difference is only 41 miles or so, but 41 miles is a lot of iPods, about 3.6 million by my calculations (based on an average of 6 inches per iPod). So, which measurement do they mean? Since most people think equatorial rather than circumpolar when they talk about Earth's circumference, I’m assuming we’re taking the 24.901.5 measurement.

And finally, another common unit of measurement on these shows is the distance between New York and Los Angeles, which is about 2445 miles. Now is this as the crow flies (assuming a crow would want to fly in a straight line between these two cities. Hey it could happen, New York ravens might get the urge to go Hollywood and find their fortunes), or are we talking highway miles here? Beats me. All I know is that if you took all the Starbucks Venti-sized paper cups and stacked them up, they’d make a line stretching from the Big Apple to the City of Angles. That’s a lot of Carmel Macciatoes, and would explain all those white paper cups I see alongside the road.

My question is this: who figures this out? Is there some kind of Office of Really Big Vague Measurements, manned by guys from the old Monty Python sketch comedy troop somewhere? As the future Ultimate Emperor of the Universe, I think it's just about time we did something a little more official about this.

ATTENTION International Standards Organization (ISO): It’s about time you got off your Swiss Chocolate yodeling asses and did your jobs. I’ve already done most of the math for you (see above), and I’ll even go the final step and suggest a couple of unit names as follows:

The Alice: the basic unit of mean distance between Earth and Moon, surface to surface, 233,784 statute miles (376,238 Kilometers). Named for Audrey Meadow’s character Alice Kramden on the hit TV show The Honeymooners. “To the Moon, Alice, to the moon!”

The Clemens: the basic unit of measurement around the Earth’s circumference at the Equator, 24,901 statute miles (40,074 kilometers). Named for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who in 1897 wrote the famous travelogue Following the Equator. Which was immortalized in one of my favorite Jimmy Buffet songs, which I'm listening to right now.

I’ve got no idea what to call the NY to LA measurement. You guys at the ISO need to do some work. Figure it out.

Maybe if you ask real nice, somebody here can come with an idea?


  1. Well, and then there's the NY to LA distance that airplanes fly, which isn't a straight line over the globe. So distances can vary.

  2. Why?

    Seriously, these things bother me. Somebody has to do something about sloppy measurements on TV. Think of the impressionable children! This cannot be tolerated.

  3. I think the measurement should be straightline, and named the "flyover".

    Not especially original, but people would get the reference.

  4. Punxatawny Phil. He predicts 6 more weeks of winter. In Western Pennsylvania. On February 2nd. Yeah? That takes us to the middle of March. Big damn deal. Around these parts, it'll snow up to the middle of March and be damn cold almost every damn year. Let's see him accurately predict that it stays cold and snowy through August. Now, we'd be talking...


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