While my socially distant friends in the Netherlands are getting used to the one-and-a-half-meter society, America, far from the metric system, has opted for the six-foot society. Converted, that is 183 centimeters, just a little longer. Or, as Governor Murphy jokingly says, “Always keep at least 1.043 Einsteins of space between yourself and others.” The great scholar, according to his immigration papers, was 5 feet and 7 inches long.
Princeton University has enlisted its own mascot into service. Everywhere on campus there are signs that urge to keep “one tiger apart.” A reader wrote to me that the Dutch 1.5 meters is almost the same as the ancient Roman measurement of one “passus,” or two steps. An accepted modern value is 1.48 meters long. A thousand steps gives a mile. Mile, pass, foot. The human dimension is completely back.
You don’t have to explain this to the students at MIT, the renowned technical university near Boston. In 1958, members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity decided to convert the height of a freshman, Oliver R. Smoot, Jr., into a measure of length. Thus, the smoot was born. By the way, it was exactly the same length as the einstein, 5 feet 7. One of the reasons was that it just sounded good. Meter, ampere, watt—why not smoot?
To put the theory into practice, fellow members decided to measure the nearby Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between the university and their fraternity house by rolling the poor student head over heels across it. Every 10 smoots they drew a thick marking with paint. The bridge turned out to be exactly 343.4 smoots long. Plus an ear. Since then, the smoot has become a well-known measure of length among the MIT nerds. When the students walk home across the bridge on the cold winter nights, they know exactly how many smoots they have to make.
When the bridge had to be repainted in 1987, an important cultural heritage was endangered. The local newspapers managed to find Oliver Smoot. He was now 48 and director of an organization of, yes, standard measurements. But he had absolutely no intention of being rolled over the bridge again. His son, also a student at MIT, volunteered, but he was a bit taller which would mess everything up. Later the father confessed that he was actually worried to find out that he had shrunk over the years.
The smoot stripes have been preserved, now painted in bright colors. Some of the original markings can be found in the MIT Museum. And the construction company has made the concrete pavement tiles just a little shorter than the usual 6 feet, exactly 1 smoot long. There is also a plaque memorizing how the smoot was added to the light year, the ångström and other famous units of length. The renovated bridge has become a bit longer, by the way: 372 smoots. Plus 11 ears.
I would say that there is an excellent opportunity for politicians to follow Oliver Smoot’s example and be immortalized as their unique unit now. Where is the merkel (5 feet 5), the macron (6 feet) or the trump (officially 6 feet 2, although he himself claims 6 feet 3)? Yes, that would be a bad outcome for the Dutch. After all, we are the tallest nation in the world. Our prime minister Mark Rutte is 6 ft 3. Plus or minus an ear.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S.