United we stand


Lord Rutherford once said that you may think you know a subject, but until you can measure it and calculate it your knowledge is of a vague and unsatisfactory kind.

And in that deceptively simple statement his lordship really encapsulated the essence of science - the fact that you cannot retreat to the comforting vagueness of words.

No, you must employ numbers, which the mathematician Tobias Dantzig described as the language of science, earning the rapturous agreement of Albert Einstein no less. And you must fashion those numbers using mathematics, which Ada Lovelace, one of the founders of scientific computing, rather confusingly also said was the language of science. Whatever.

Of course there is more to it than that. Some people defy definition. Scientists deify it. And from that insistence on definition springs the need for units.

It is no coincidence that one of the greatest honours that scientists can earn is to have a unit of measurement named after them, although some, like the unfortunate Celsius, may have to wait a couple of hundred years for recognition.

It might be thought, as science has been around one way or another for quite a while now, that all the necessary units had been identified and named, but in fact there are a couple of rather glaring omissions.

Consider for a moment the distasteful subject of cheating. The system of peer review, the only thing in the known universe pickier than your mother-in-law, has kept science relatively free of chicanery, surprisingly so given the size of the prizes for important advances nowadays. But sadly it does exist - although, by the by, a thorough survey I carried out recently in the bath suggests that chemistry has been gratifyingly unsullied - and so we need a unit of scientific skulduggery.

To my mind, the obvious choice would be the maxwell, bearing in mind that the late swindler Robert Maxwell based his fortune on publishing scientific papers. My own first paper appeared in one of his journals, and when I met him some 20 years after that he immediately recognised my name and remarked that I was one of his authors. I don’t think so.

Anyway, the maxwell it would undoubtedly be but for the inconvenient fact that it is already taken. The maxwell is the unit of magnetic flux, named after the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell. However, there is a solution enabling us to have our cake and eat it.

When Cap’n Bob bought into the Scottish newspaper industry he was immediately dubbed ’McSwell’, so I propose that chicanery be measured in mcswells. There is no danger of confusion as the new unit would be pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, whereas the older one would have it on the first.

The other unit needed is one to measure balderdash, of which science has had its share over the years. Remember N-rays? Well, of course you don’t, as the French have kept remarkably quiet about the subject ever since their Monsieur Blondlot erroneously claimed to have discovered them a century ago. But you surely recall the memory of water - another French breakthrough - and cold fusion, in which, sadly, an eminent chemist was involved.

Again there is an obvious candidate for the missing unit. Consider the twaddell, the traditional measure of the relative specific gravity of liquids. Worthy as the twaddell undoubtedly is, it is wasted on relative density and would be much better employed in gauging drivel.

Again the solution lies in correct pronunciation. The unit of balderdash would be the TWADD-le. This would immediately distinguish it from the existing unit, for Mr Twaddell, whoever he was, being only human surely insisted that his name and eponymous unit be correctly pronounced as twadd-ELL.