Math isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s sometimes baffling to wrap your mind around, and that’s before we even get into the mess that is differential equations. Within the realm of mathematics and physics, there’s a healthy debate between the world and one North American country about which system of units is best. Avoiding that debate, there’s one unit that I think we can all agree is the best mathematical unit in all of history: the smoot.
A smoot is a nonstandard unit of length that originated at MIT in the 1950s. The year was 1958 and Oliver R. Smoot was pledging to the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. His fraternity brothers challenged his class as a prank to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge between Boston and Cambridge, but there was one problem – they weren’t given any tools to measure by.
So, Oliver Smoot decided to lay down repeatedly on the Harvard Bridge and have his companions mark each length out. After marking, he’d get up, align himself again, and have his pledge mates make another mark.
The unit of one smoot is equal to Oliver’s height at the time of the prank, which was 5 feet 7 inches, or 1.7 meters. The bridge was eventually measured to be 364.4 smoots long. That equates to 2,035 feet or 620.1 meters “plus or minus an ear.”
Image Source: Wikimedia
The accomplishment made by Smoot and his class eventually made its way around MIT and became foundational lore to the school. Oliver Smoot eventually graduated from MIT in 1962, became a lawyer, and ironically, became the chairman of the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, in 2001.
The story of the creation of “smoot” as a unit eventually became so famous that on the prank’s 50th anniversary in 2008, October 4th was named as Smoot Celebration Day at MIT. In 2011, the word smoot was even added to the American Heritage Dictionary, further cementing the unit’s legacy.
As for the Harvard bridge at the core of the smoot unit? It’s now painted with regular markings indicating how many smoots there are since the beginning of the sidewalk crossing it. Each semester, the incoming class of Lambda Chi Alpha repaints the markings to keep them fresh.
Image Source: Wikimedia
As for using smoots in your everyday life? Google Calculator incorporates the smoots unit, which equates to 67 inches or 170.18 centimeters. You used to be able to use smoot as a unit in Google Earth or Google Maps for distance measurement, but unfortunately, that went away with an update in 2014.
Finally, an MIT college run radio station broadcasts at the wavelength of 2 smoots, or 88.1 MHz.
So, sometimes mathematical units don’t have to be the most practical, or even the easiest to use to stick around. Sometimes, mathematical units can stick around because, frankly, they’re hilarious to use. I think in order to make math just a little bit more fun, we ought to start measuring everything around us smoots. For example, your morning commute gets a lot more fun when you have to drive 14,185.1 smoots to work at an average speed of 56740.3 smoots per hour. There’s nothing like starting your day off with the most hilarious mathematical unit in history.