If Carolyn Solon joined a superhero team, it wouldn’t be a Squadron. Nor a Patrol, or Corps, or a Legion. It would be a League.
Did you know that the title of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” doesn’t refer to a depth, but a horizontal distance of travel (while “under the sea”?
A league was originally the distance an average person could work in an hour. For me, that’s about three miles under decent conditions, so 60,000 miles would be an extremely deep ocean. The deepest part of the ocean we have, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, is only 6.9 miles deep.
It gets a bit more complicated, of course, as old units often do. A nautical league, which is more relevant to that particular story, is three nautical miles. That comes out to 6,076 feet, compared to a U.S. of A. mile of 5,280 feet.
The word “league” comes from a Roman phrase, the “leuga Gallica,” or “League of Gaul.” It was about 1.4 miles, so I guess I walk faster than a typical Roman.
It was brought to England by Vikings (well, Normans, which are very nearly the same thing).
Eventually, leagues became almost synonymous with stadia (see last week’s post), which eventually became something more like the mile we use today.
Carolyn Solon, as a superheroine, has the same obligation as Batman and Robin to make snappy, themed quips for every situation. Hers tend to fall into two categories: Latin phrases and units of measure.
Dr. Solon is a geek, pure and simple, so it should come as no surprise that one of her favorite hobbies is the study of unusual units of measure. In the book, she uses them as one-liners, puzzles, and most importantly, ways of changing one’s perspective to see things at a different scale.
The most important unit of measure in the book is the plethrostadion. One plethrostadion is equal to the amount of superpowered energy released from the smallest bone in the human body.
The word was created by Solon herself, from “plethron”, the amount of land the Greeks could plow in a day (about 900 sq meters, used similarly to the hectare or acre), and “stadion”, a long length, used for measuring great journeys (the unit being between 100 and 200 meters, in practice). These are related to the English words “plethora” and “stadium.” Both imply massive size.
E is the energy released, in Joules. m is mass, in kilograms. c is celeritas, the speed of light (usually in meters per second), an especially interesting unit in its own right. Of course, other units work as well, but that’s not the focus of today’s post.
A stirrup bone weighs about 4×10^(-6) kg. The speed of light is 3×10^8 m/s. That gives you about 3.6×10^11 Joules of energy. 360,000,000,000 Joules.
For reference, one ton of TNT is in the neighborhood of 4×10^9 Joules, so the smallest bone in Carolyn’s body would net her as much energy as 100 TONS of TNT, which she can direct in any way (not just explosions).
Here’s a video from a quick Google search of that number:
Carolyn brags that, although her control over energy is quite refined, she couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn (100 square femtometers).
She uses units for things other than destroying stuff, however. When setting up a computer system, she told tech support, “The length of my cable is one-fortieth of a cable-length (185m).”
Finally, her favorite swear in mixed company is “Dram it!”
As I mentioned in the last post, the dram was a component unit of measure used extensively in Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia, often meaning different things depending on where you were. It can be a unit of volume (like when it is used in liquor measurement) or a unit of mass (when used to define a batman). It is occasionally still used in modern times, even by those who are not measurement specialists, where it is 1/8 of a fluid ounce.
Carolyn Solon loves units of measure. She believes that your way of thinking is heavily influenced by the sorts of units you use, not to mention how scientifically useful a solid understanding of units can be.
We’ll start with…
Nah, not that Batman. The costumed hero was created in 1939. The unit of measure was already in widespread use in the 14th century.
The batman was an important unit of weight in the Ottoman Empire, from eastern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. It was mostly used to sell dry goods such as silk, seed, and food. The name seems to have evolved from the Arabic unit “the mann,” a unit name still used in Afghanistan.
In India under British Rule, they called it the “maund” and measured it with these cool dumbells:
Like most units of measure before the modern era, there were many different weights that defined a batman, anywhere from 2kg to 25kg. Early in its history, it was closer to about 3.0kg.
The many contentious uses of the batman are amusing. In Persia, for example, there were two batmans (batmen?): the Great Batman and the Lesser Batman. No, that doesn’t describe Christian Bale and Adam West. Instead, a Great Batman (the Batman of Churay) weighed double the Lesser Batman (the Batman of Taurus).
The batman has divisions: it contains “6 rattels, 300 derhams, 600 muscals, or 3600 dungs.”
In slightly more modern terms, a batman was equal to 6 okes, each oke being 400 drams (“Dram!” is one of Solon’s favorite swears when she is in mixed company). A unit called the dram was used in the USA as recently as the mid-twentieth century.
My favorite division of the batman? The “pood.” It’s so fun to say! 1 Tatar Batman = 1000 pood. A kilopood, if you will. The pood is further divided into 40 “funt,” which I didn’t use as a swear in the book, but perhaps I should if schools won’t ban my book for it.
The batman is itself a division of the artaba, used in Egypt where Solon bred her virus. The artaba is the equal of 9 batman.
You can view even more arcane subdivisions on Wikipedia or sizes.com.
So, as you can see, there were a lot of definitions for what constituted a batman, many of them conflicting and none of them involving capes or batarangs. To make things worse, there was even a Central Asian unit of area called the batman: one batman of area was the amount of farmland that could be seeded with enough seed mass to weigh one batman.
Too confusing? Fast forward to Turkey, 1933, where all the old values of the units were actually banned from use during a metrification process. The new value was placed at exactly 10kg metric.
“Comic Art – Batman by Jim Lee (2002)” by Apparent file taken from DC Comics official website. Original file would have been placed on DC’s site for promotional purposes.. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Comic_Art_-_Batman_by_Jim_Lee_(2002).png#/media/File:Comic_Art_-_Batman_by_Jim_Lee_(2002).png
By Booradleyp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons