The smoot /ˈsmt/ is a nonstandard, humorous unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha by Oliver R. Smoot, who in October 1958 lay down repeatedly on the Harvard Bridge between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that his fraternity brothers could use his height to measure the length of the bridge.[1]

"364.4 smoots ± 1 ear" painted on the Harvard Bridge sidewalk in Cambridge, Massachusetts
General information
Named afterOliver R. Smoot
1 smoot in ...... is equal to ...
   imperial/US units   ft 7 in
   SI units   1.702 m

Description edit

One smoot is equal to Oliver Smoot's height at the time of the prank, 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m). The bridge's length was measured to be 364.4 smoots (2,035 ft; 620.1 m) "± 1 εar" with the "±" showing measurement uncertainty and spelled with an epsilon to further indicate possible error in the measurement.[2][3] Over the years the "±" portion and "ε" spelling have gone astray in many citations, including some markings at the site itself, but the "±" is recorded on a 50th-anniversary plaque at the bridge's end.[4]

History edit

Measuring distances by the repeated prostration of one's body, moving forward each time only to the length marked by one's outstretched fingers, is an ancient religious practice in Tibet.[5] In My Life As an Explorer Sven Hedin mentioned that it also could be a form of punishment in this region, with criminals forced to traverse very significant areas in this fashion.

A plaque on Harvard Bridge on the history of the smoot

Oliver R. Smoot was selected by his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity pledgemaster because he was deemed shortest—which made measuring the bridge the most labor-intensive—and he was the "most scientifically named".[2][6] To implement his use as a unit of measure, Smoot repeatedly lay down on the bridge, let his companions mark his new position in chalk or paint, and then got up again. Eventually, he got tired from so much exercise and was carried thereafter by the fraternity brothers to each new position.[7][8]

Smoot graduated from MIT in 1962, and then attended Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., where he obtained his Juris Doctor. He served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute from 2001 to 2002,[9] and then as president of the International Organization for Standardization from 2003 to 2004.[1][10] He is a distant relative of Nobel Prize in Physics winner George Smoot.[11][12]

Public knowledge and interest in the story began when Holiday investigated the marks on the bridge years later, and published an interview with Smoot.[6] The prank's fiftieth anniversary was commemorated on October 4, 2008, as Smoot Celebration Day at MIT, which Smoot attended.[8]

In 2011, smoot was one of the 10,000 new words added to the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.[13][14]

A 2016 April Fools' Day article by the MIT Alumni Association announced that MIT would recalibrate the smoot to 65.7500 inches (1.67005 m) and the ear to 2.48031 inches (62.999874 mm), and the bridge would thus be 372 smoots give or take 11 ears.[15]

100-smoot mark with the Charles River and Cambridge, Massachusetts in the background

On May 7, 2016, Smoot served as Grand Marshal of the alumni parade across the bridge, celebrating the 100th anniversary of MIT's move from Boston to Cambridge.[16]

Practical use edit

The bridge is marked with painted markings indicating how many smoots there are from where the sidewalk begins on the Charles River bank in Boston, with a number every ten smoots.[17] The marks were repainted each semester by the incoming associate member class (similar to pledge class) of Lambda Chi Alpha before they were suspended due to repeated infractions of MIT's alcohol rules.[18][19][20] Lambda Chi Alpha alumni, along with current students of MIT, have maintained the markings.[21][22]

Markings typically appear every 10 smoots (56 ft; 17 m), but additional marks appear at other numbers in between. For example, the 70-smoot (390 ft; 120 m) mark is accompanied by a mark for 69. The 182.2-smoot (1,017 ft 3 in; 310.1 m) mark is accompanied by the words "Halfway to Hell" and an arrow pointing towards MIT.

The markings are recognized as milestones on the bridge, to the degree that during bridge renovations in the 1980s, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department requested that the markings be restored, since they were routinely used in police reports to identify locations on the bridge. The renovators at the Massachusetts Highway Department also scored the concrete surface of the sidewalk on the bridge at 5-foot-7-inch (1.70 m) intervals instead of the conventional 6 feet (1.83 m).[23] The Lambda Zeta (MIT) chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha, which created the smoot markings, continues to repaint the markings once or twice per year.[24]

Starting in 2011, Google Earth enabled the ability to measure distance using smoots, with the standard length of 5 feet 7 inches.[25]

MIT's student-run college radio station WMBR broadcasts at a wavelength of two smoots (3.40 m), i.e. 88.1 MHz.[26]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ a b Curran, Susan. "Spotlight: A salute to Smoot". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Archived from the original on June 20, 2015. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Durant, Elizabeth (June 23, 2008). "Smoot's Legacy". MIT Technology Review. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ... so they added the plus or minus, and wrote the e in ear as an epsilon. 'The epsilon referred in a cutesy way to this error measurement,' [Smoot] says. And therein lies another detail that has evolved over time: the epsilon has been lost from written accounts of the story, Smoot says, and the minus sign is often omitted as well.
  3. ^ Tavernor, Robert (2007). "Preface". Smoot's Ear: The Measure of Humanity. Yale University Press. pp. xi–xvi. ISBN 978-0-300-12492-7.
  4. ^ "Smoot in Stone". MIT News. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. June 4, 2009. Retrieved July 20, 2010. Specifically noting the bridge's length of 364.4 Smoots (+/− 1 ear), the plaque, a gift of the MIT Class of 1962, honors the prank's 50th anniversary.
  5. ^ Distance & Destiny
  6. ^ a b Gillooly, Patrick (September 24, 2008), Smoot reflects on his measurement feat as 50th anniversary nears, Massachusetts Institute of Technology News Office, retrieved July 10, 2020
  7. ^ Kostoulas, Andy (October 12, 1999). "This Month In MIT History". The Tech. Archived from the original on May 4, 2009. Retrieved April 18, 2009.
  8. ^ a b MIT Celebrates 50th Smoot-aversary with Party, Volunteerism, & Plaque. Oct. 4, 2008
  9. ^ Speakers Bureau: Oliver R. Smoot, American National Standards Institute, retrieved July 10, 2020
  10. ^ ANSI Reception Honoring Oliver R. Smoot as ISO President (PDF), February 26, 2003
  11. ^ "At MIT, future Nobelist not above a prank or two - the Boston Globe".
  12. ^ Smoot, Oliver. "The SMOOT as unit of Length". Smoot Group Astrophysics and Cosmology. Laurence Berkeley Labs. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  13. ^ Cornish, Audie (November 13, 2011). "Looking Up Words In A Book Not So Strange Yet". National Public Radio. Retrieved December 10, 2012.
  14. ^ "American Heritage Dictionary entry". American Heritage Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Retrieved December 10, 2012.
  15. ^ London, Jay (April 1, 2016), "MIT to Recalibrate the Smoot", Slice of MIT, MIT Alumni Association, retrieved July 10, 2020
  16. ^ Fleming, Nicole (May 7, 2016). "By land and by water, MIT celebrates 100 years in Cambridge". Boston Globe. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  17. ^ MIT Trivia: Harvard Bridge, MIT Museum, archived from the original on August 6, 1997, retrieved July 10, 2020
  18. ^ "Lambda Chi Alpha national suspends MIT chapter for at least five years". MIT News. October 30, 2014.
  19. ^ "LCA banned five years, brothers move out Sunday".
  20. ^ Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) (1987). Harvard Bridge, Spanning Charles River at Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. Philadelphia: Department of the Interior. p. 5. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  21. ^ "Repainting the Smoots". MIT Admissions. October 27, 2023. Retrieved February 29, 2024.
  22. ^ "Uncovering The 'Smoots' on Harvard Bridge". NBC Boston. September 20, 2021. Retrieved February 29, 2024.
  23. ^ Fahrenthold, David A. "The Measure of This Man Is in the Smoot". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
  24. ^ Keyser describes his top five hacks - MIT News Office
  25. ^ "Google Earth backs Smoots as measurement standard | Blue Mass Group". October 10, 2011. Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  26. ^ Wolfram|Alpha Can't [@wacnt] (June 14, 2017). "W|A can: WMBR frequency * smoot / speed of light" (Tweet) – via Twitter.

External links edit