Poet laureate composes ode to NASA mission, celebrating body-based units of measurement


On 10 October 2024, NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which will study Jupiter’s moon Europa in a series of flybys. In anticipation of the launch, the US poet laureate Ada Limón has written an ode to the mission.

Called “In praise of mystery: a poem for Europa”, the 21-line poem was published and read aloud this week by Limón. According to a report from Reuters, it will also be engraved in the poet’s handwriting on the exterior of the spacecraft.

You can listen to Limón recite her poem in the above video.

The hand and the foot are two examples of body-based units of measurement. While these two units are mostly used in the English-speaking world, many other body-based measurement systems have emerged throughout the world.

Still in use

Now, a trio of Finnish researchers have done a comprehensive survey of such units across more 180 cultures worldwide. Writing the journal Science,  Roope Kaaronen, Mikael Manninen and Jussi Eronen of the University of Helsinki point out that many body-based units are still in use despite being replaced by standardized measurement systems.

“We argue that body-based units have had, and may still have, advantages over standardized systems, such as in the design of ergonomic technologies,” they write, adding, “This helps explain the persistence of body-based measurement centuries after the first standardized measurement systems emerged”.

Like me, you are probably wondering whether there are any units specific to Finland. Not surprisingly, there is one associated with Nordic skiing. The researchers write about a standardization in how 16th century Saami skis were made that is related to the height of the skier and the length of their feet.

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