In the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, people wanted to know how long it took for the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arahapo forces to annihilate Custer and the men of the 7th Cavalry. Interviewed about this later, Two Moons, a chief of the Cheyenne, said that it took “as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner.”
This a phrase worth mulling over for its expressive value alone. I can well imagine that after everything that had preceeded the battle, the Indians consumed the forces of the 7th Cavalry as ferociously as a hungry man eats his dinner.
But the phrase is also distinctive as a sort of direct human-based measurement. The people who decide these things have an ongoing debate: should measurements be based on “scientific” units — objective measurements arising from the physical universe as interpreted by scientific instruments? Or should they be based more on tradition and the human world? As an example of the latter you have the foot. As an example of the former you have the metre, which is offically defined as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1⁄299,792,458 of a second.”
Obviously the poets will vote for the human world. The scientists will point out that they’re the ones who have to work with measurements all day long and please could they have them in decimal, at the very least? And you can’t really write, “The instrument detected that the neutrino passed through the item in question in 1⁄299,792,458 of the hungry/man/dinner interval.”
In an interesting advance on modern philosophy that actually makes sense to civilians, the philosopher/linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have been weighing in on our tradition of defining things by human experience. In Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh, they point out the extent to which the human body underlies our orientation to everything. This is not just in units of measurement like feet, cubits (the length of your forearm), inches and ounces (both your thumb), and ells (your arm — with a bow in the middle). It’s also in the fact that we talk of things facing outwards, as if their fronts were faces like ours. Or how when we talk about time, we say that “January comes ahead of April,” as if time is walking along like a person, with its head primary.
In my muddy unscientific way, I love descriptions I can visualize without doing mental calculations. Clearly the world needs precision. I don’t want my car designed by someone who just eyeballed the engineering or my medicine calculated by a pharmacist who measures with his thumb. Nevertheless I think we should also celebrate the powers of experience-based measurement. I know how long it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner. But I don’t have a gut feeling for the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom. (In other words, a second.) And when I read that the regulation size of an Olympic handball field is 40 metres, I don’t really know how long that is. Heck, I’m not even sure I can eyeball 40 yards. Before people measured everything out, they would have said that from here to there is about a stone’s throw. And I do know how far a stone’s throw is.
(The fact that “a stone’s throw” was a common medieval description of distance gave rise to a catch-riddle found in many folktales. The lowly suitor eager to win the hand of the princess agrees to answer three questions asked by the conniving king. One of the tricky questions is “How deep is the sea?” The clever suitor’s answer is, of course, “A stone’s throw.”)
So the precise, scientifc units are good for measuring, but the old human-based measurements are better for describing. They’re also direct — you use what you have on hand to do the measuring and the describing.
Back before the caesium 133 atom had been quantified, those Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors were still able to measure the passage of time — they used the movement of the sun around the poles of their tipis. The poles were equal distances apart, and the movement of the sun divided the day into equivalent units, marked by the poles. It was like living in a giant sundial.
This thought about depending directly on the sun leads me finally to a passage from Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1916), a book aware of the movement from one kind of measurement to the other:
“Sun-dial,” repeated Betsy. “What’s that?”
“Why, to tell the time by, when —”
“Why didn’t they have a clock?” asked the child.
Aunt Abigail laughed. “Good gracious, there was only one clock in the valley for years and years, and that belonged to the Wardons, the rich family in the village. Most people had sundials cut in their window sills. There’s one on the window sill of our pantry this minute. Come on, I’ll show it to you…. There!” said Aunt Abigail, opening the window. That’s not so good as the one at school. This only tells when noon is.”
Elizabeth Ann stared stupidly at the deep scratch on the window sill.
“Don’t you see?” said Aunt Abigail. “When the shadow got to that mark it was noon. And the rest of the time you guessed by how far it was from the mark. Let’s see if I can come anywhere near it now.” She looked at it hard and said: “I guess it’s half-past four.” She glanced back into the kitchen at the clock and said: “Oh, pshaw! It’s ten minutes past five! Now my grandmother could have told that within five minutes, just by the place of the shadow. I declare! Sometimes it seems to me that every time a new piece of machinery comes into the door some of our wits fly out at the window!”