When did elephants become a unit of measure?

unid

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Feb 24, 2009
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I read this article in the New scientist (Feedback) today.

"SEARCHING for metaphors to illuminate the meaning of numbers can all too often lead writers into dark places. Mary Vango, for example, was a bit surprised by what the magazine of the UK consumer rights group Which? had to say in a report on food packaging: "The average bacon packet was nearly 15 grams and we [in the UK] eat about 50 million packets of bacon a year. That's 7500 tonnes of packets, the equivalent of 50 blue whales."
We can't help thinking: "Mmm - blue whale rashers." We also can't help thinking, like reader Jeff Gottfred (24 April): "What's that in elephants?"
Enter UK newspaper The Guardian , which announced in an article about melting glaciers in Greenland: "Scientists put the annual net loss of ice and water from the ice sheet at 300 to 400 gigatonnes" - and then reached for "...equivalent to a billion elephants being dropped in the ocean". The paper later removed the metaphor, but not before reader Martin Midgley sent us this comment: "According to my maths, that means an average elephant weighs in at 300 to 400 tonnes. The story is quite terrifying enough without visions of these gargantuan beasts, each almost as heavy as a million squirrels, or 70... er... elephants."
Worrying as that sounds, it is apparently nothing compared with the number of elephants that already exist in the ocean. Several readers were quick to inform us last month that an item on the Australian ABC News website states: "An army of bacteria weighing as much as 240 billion elephants is lurking in the depths of the oceans, researchers say."
And there's more from Mary Vango, who spotted the BBC's Focus magazine stating confidently: "The total amount of water in a typical cloud weighs as much as 200 bull elephants". Would those be African elephants, the smaller Indian ones, or the gargantuan Guardian -reading elephants that keep falling on our heads?
It is all getting rather difficult to comprehend - but James McMillan takes us into the murkiest territory yet. He reports the Discovery Channel getting stuck in its attempt to quantify pressure and ending up telling us that special concrete for bank vaults is "ten times stronger than normal concrete: it can withstand pressure of up to 12,000 pounds per square inch... That's the equivalent of 100 elephants dancing on stilts".
At this point, we give up on the elephants. Our imagination just can't cope any more.
I saw another example in the guardian last week.
"deployed helicopters to drop sandbags the size of elephants"

What else should be measured in elephants?
 

Jaffa Cake

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Aug 1, 2004
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You have to be very careful with these units of measurement. I believe a few years back a space probe was lost due to differences in the US and European systems, and the resulting confusion over the length of a football pitch.
 

unid

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I think that was Imperial Vs Metric confusion, only the US Burma and Liberia haven't adopted metric. How many elephants wide is your pitch?
 

Jaffa Cake

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Aug 1, 2004
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How many elephants wide is your pitch?
Silly unid – you're getting confused. Elephants are of course a measurement of mass, whereas a football pitch can be used as a measure of length or area.

For the record, there's quite a discrepancy between the length of an American Football pitch and its far nicer Association Football cousin. As sports fans everywhere will know, the American version (minus end zones) measures in at 10.83 London buses in length, whereas the UEFA approved Association version comes in at 12.5 London buses.

That's quite a difference when you consider the precision required to fire stuff at Mars...
 

unid

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Silly unid – you're getting confused.
Sorry yes my bad, perhaps I meant how many tigers wide is your goal :p
(it seems elephants on stilts can also be a unit of pressure).

As an aside Duchamps' famous piece '3 stoppages' is inspired by the adoption of the SI metre.
 

steve2112

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Feb 20, 2009
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Here in the U.S., we use states as a unit of measure. For instance, the oil spil in the Gulf of Mexico is now the "size of Rhode Island". For some reason, Rhode Island is often used as a unit of measure. For really big stuff, Texas may be used.
 

-aggie-

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Jun 19, 2009
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Where bunnies are welcome.
Here in the U.S., we use states as a unit of measure. For instance, the oil spil in the Gulf of Mexico is now the "size of Rhode Island". For some reason, Rhode Island is often used as a unit of measure. For really big stuff, Texas may be used.
We also use “pant load” (and its variants), but this has never been accurately quantified.
 

Queso

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Mar 4, 2006
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And how many sizes of Wales the world loses in rainforest every year. We're good at measuring Wales we are.
 

snberk103

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Oct 22, 2007
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Similiarly over here people often use Wales as a measure, i.e the subsurface oil plume is the size of Wales.
UK news people need to be clear whether they are using the word as a measure of volume or area. I can just imagine a Brit turning to pub companion and asking whether the news was talking about a Humpback, Grey, Blue, or Minke Welshman .... :D
 

snberk103

macrumors 603
Oct 22, 2007
5,484
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An Island in the Salish Sea
Here in the U.S., we use states as a unit of measure. For instance, the oil spil in the Gulf of Mexico is now the "size of Rhode Island". For some reason, Rhode Island is often used as a unit of measure. For really big stuff, Texas may be used.
Yep. Rhod Gilbert does a skit about it in his standup, pointing out that it tends to be used as a measure of disasters.
That would make an interesting survey for a US media class. Since the US has 50 states available for area comparison purposes, do certain states get "picked on" and used as measures of disasters, and other states used as a measure of good things......
 

steve2112

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Feb 20, 2009
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We also use “pant load” (and its variants), but this has never been accurately quantified.
Oddly enough, Adam Savage from Mythbusters tried to do just that. He published this survey called "Survey to Yield an Accurate Taxonomy of Idioms Pertaining to Large and Small Amounts". He was asking people to rate the relative size of things based on phrases. I have it saved in a PDF. Try this link (warning, it opens a PDF) for the survey. Some of the terms are great.