Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Fiction

Conversations With a Garbage Truck
by Margret A. Treiber

Freshly Brewed
by Preston Dennett

Triangle
by Barton Paul Levenson

Gift of Nibelung
by Olga Godim

Spectral
by Fonda Lee

Send in the Humans
by Harold R. Thompson

Rhythm of the Rain
by Samuel Van Pelt

Worms of Titan
by Brian Biswas

Shorter Stories

Wobble
by C.R. Hodges

Subsumation
by David Steffen

Fast Time Machines at Ridgemont High
by Fred Coppersmith

Articles

Madness of the Winter Soldier
by Erin Lale

Resistance Fighters
by John McCormick


Cover

Editorial

Comic Strips

Reviews

Feedback

Submissions

Editorial

Olympic-Size Blue Elephants

IT BOTH AMUSES AND ANNOYS ME that units of measurement are often discarded in favor of “comparisons with which a reader (or listener) might be more familiar.” Quite frequently, perhaps usually, the comparison makes no sense at all, because people’s primate brains have no better concept of a billion than how big a blue whale is, or how far away celestial bodies might be.

NBC ran a show from 1964 to 1965 called “That Was the Week That Was (TW3)” that starred David Frost and many comics of the period. (The recordings have been lost to time so these are my recollections.) On it, David Frost played the part of a science boffin holding an orange in front of the Capitol Dome. “If this orange were the size of the U.S. Capitol Dome, the star Arcturus would still be eight hundred million billion trillion times as big.” Then he looked at the orange, looked puzzled, and tossed it over his shoulder.

I am reminded of aboriginal tribes (there are several) whose counting system is “one, two, many,” and that this system is not so far from what the average person uses in thought processes. People don’t have a good grasp of how big and how many, but I think comparisons to blue whales and elephants don’t help the matter, either.

Football Fields. "Wind Power’s Next Big Hope: blades as long as two football fields. Johnsonville made a bratwurstthe same length as a football field, including both end zones. The Maersk Majestic is nearly as long as four football fields. It’s also taller than a twenty-story building ... The world’s longest aircraft, called the Airlander, is more cutting-edge. It’s heavier than air, which means a crew doesn’t have to pull it back down to the ground, and can be entirely controlled via remote. Oh yeah, and it’s also the size of a football field minus the end zones ... which could help if you are landing on one.

Olympic-sized swimming pools. Apple’s current financial position: $110 billion in cash reserves. They could fill fifty Olympic-size swimming pools with dollar bills ... or, one supposes, jusshuttlet one Olympic-size pool with $50 bills. It would take one hundred people a lifetime to produce enough spit to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The Goodyear Blimp is about two-and-a-half times the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool. Recently, a urinating teen polluted fifty-seven Olympic-size swimming pools. Center Launch Gantry says that one turbo pump from one Space Shuttle engine can drain an Olympic-size swimming pool in twenty-five seconds. An Olympic-size swimming pool holds eight billion jelly beans.

Of course, units of measure have historically started with comparisons to actual things, often body parts.

English Foot. Stand at the door of a church on a Sunday and bid sixteen men, tall ones and small ones, to stop as they happen to exit when the service is finished; then make them put their left feet one behind the other, and the length thus obtained shall be a right and lawful rood to measure and survey the land with, and the sixteenth part of it shall be the right and lawful foot.

But that’s about as far as it went. Measuring things by comparison to body parts or how much work a horse could do in an hour (poor horses!) has always been silly. But not even the Egyptians had real actual units as far as anybody knows. They used fingers, hands, fists, cubits (elbow to fist), and a variety of knots, ropes, and sticks. One would hope there was some engraved standard for these units, but maybe not. My stones didn’t have to fit your temple.

Blue Whales. A blue whale’s tongue weighs around 2.7 long tonnes (3.0 short tons or 2,700 kg) and, when fully expanded, its mouth is large enough to hold up to ninety long tonnes (ninety-nine short tons or ... eighty-one metric ...) of food and water. Blue whales can grow up to thirty meters. Lengthwise, that’s the equivalent of two city buses, thirty Cassini spacecraft, the space shuttle orbiter, and longer than an NBA basketball court. Blue whales can weigh up to two hundred metric tons. That’s cashabout eight DC-9 aircraft or fifteen school buses or one-quarter of a Boeing 747 fueled and loaded. A B747-cargo could actually carry a blue whale along with an aquarium big enough to contain it. (Do blue whales eat peanuts?) A good-sized, furnished American house weighs approximately as much as a blue whale. And why is it always blue whales?

[Left, stacks of cash courtesy of wpclipart.]

It is oddly attractive to some people to picture stacked money reaching into outer space to explain some things. Why this is so baffles me. The total U.S. debt of $17 trillion can be pictured as a stack of bills. The Moon is 345,000 kilometers distant; U.S. currency is 0.11 mm thick. Do the math. Or we can use $50 bills (Ulysses S. Grant), which will get us to the Moon in just one stack.

Some people prefer to make comparisons with playing cards, but they are not so uniform in thickness, so they have to specify the thickness, too: “I have a stack of playing cards, each 0.4 mm thick.” It reminds me of the nutty TW3 Orange-Capitol-Dome-Arcturus skit. These people probably have something up their sleeves.

In South Dakota, miners recently found a crystal of a mineral called spodumene (which includes the colorless to yellowish, purplish, or lilac gemstones kunzite and yellow-green to emerald-green hiddenite). It was 12.8 meters long and more or less the size of two Cassini spacecraft. It weighed about 90,000 kg—(somebody is asking you to believe they actually weighed it. Hah!)—which is the weight of the biscuits Saudi Emirates sent to the U.K. on March 2 in two fully loaded 777 cargo aircraft to alleviate a critical biscuit shortage.

Hailstones are often compared to common objects. This is almost standard meteorology. Golf-ball-size hailstones are the largest ones that are normally non-lethal. So maybe that’s why so many hailstones are compared to them.

Hailstones are measured according to their diameter. But unless you are good at eyeballing measurements, or throw one into your freezer for later examination and entry into the Guinness Book of Records, most people do find it much easier to estimate size by comparing it to everyday items.

The largest hailstones are reported to be the size of friggin’ bowling balls. Historically these meteorological gravity bombs have sometimes annihilated all the humans and animals caught out in the open over a sizeable area. Even though rare, there is no reason to believe we are immune to such natural disasters. In fact, we should expect to see more of them as the globe warms up.

Modern Descriptor Diameter mm  
• Pea 6.4 mm  
• Marble (smallest) 12.7 mm  
• Penny 18 mm  
• Nickel 21.2 mm  
• Quarter 25.4 mm  
• Golf Ball 44.5 mm  
• Billiard Ball 57 mm Lethal
• Baseball 70 mm Lethal
• Grapefruit 100 mm Lethal
• Softball 112 mm Lethal
• Bowling Ball 216 mm Lethal

But I’d rather experience raining cats and dogs than hailing taxicabs. Thank Thor there’s a lot more small hail than bowling-ball-size hail.

Physics usually imposes size limits on natural phenomena. For example, rocks come in all sizes, but there are few known glacially-deposited rocks larger than about two meters in diameter ... larger than the Umpire Rock in New York City’s Central Park.

Raindrops, for example, usually don’t get bigger than a few millimeters. Curiously, a lot is known about raindrop shapes and sizes. No raindrops are shaped like teardrops, of course, but others have distinct shapes depending on their size.

Snow usually gets to a few millimeters in diameter. However, in late 1993, I was privileged to witness a snowfall of 18-20 cm diameter snowflakes calmly drifting to Earth, slowly spinning in a dead calm morning. Because these don’t maintain the neat hexagonal structure of single flakes, they are more snow-accumulations. No camera. Dammit! But I was quite careful at estimating their sizes as being the same as the large-size paper plates, that being very much easier to remember than “18-20” anything.

But what I want to know ... what I really want to know, is: if I told you a blue whale’s tongue is the size of an African elephant, would you find that hard to swallow?

Eric M. Jones

 

 donate

   

        

humehill

 

bendayAbout Our Cover thumbMartin Hanford has been a freelance illustrator for about twenty years, starting out with some book covers for The Black Library, and various album covers. He used to work primarily with traditional paint media, but now works on a PC for some mixed media work, like this month’s “Perihelion” cover. His PC is refurbished, as is the graphics tablet that he purchased online.
benday