Units, you nit!

20 01 2011

My old junior school science teacher was the first person to show me how to do an experiment. We planted broad beans wedged between the outside of a jam jar and some blotting paper and then measured the root and the shoots over the next few weeks.

It was fun but in my youthful enthusiasm I kept on forgetting to add the units after my measurements. In the margin of my jotter he would write units, you nit! and it is a lesson that I still remember to this day.

Is it important to state the units when you are doing a show? Of course it is. Is it far too easy to forget? Unfortunately so.

Some mistakes can be forgiven (and are largely ignored by audiences) in the heat of the moment. When you read the transcripts of even the world’s best orators you’ll find them riddled with mispronunciations, pauses and missing words so what chance do we stand as lowly science communicators? Well these sorts of mistakes are inevitable. But leaving units off a measurement is unforgivable. Without a unit a measurement is worse than useless.

When I play back my own performances and discover mistakes like this I can hear my old teacher and it makes me cringe:

Me: Liquid nitrogen boils at minus 196.

Teacher: At minus 196 what? Minus 196 penguins?

Me: Sorry, sir, at minus 196 degrees.

Teacher: You fool, Soper, minus 196 degrees what? Degrees round a circle? Units, you nit!

Me: Yes, sir, sorry sir. Minus 196 degrees celcius.

So, remember all of you. Units, you nit!

I’ve added these videos to illustrate how easy it is to miss out the units- I’m sure I’ve made these same mistakes at one time or another and so will you have. We shouldn’t be too harsh on these performers on the basis of these clips and yet they have all felt them suitable for posting to the internet as representative of their work. They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure there are many other examples on the site, these were taken from just the first page of results for search term “liquid nitrogen”.




One response

24 01 2011

Units play a great role in both science and mathematics. Science – of course, there is a difference between nm or mm or m. Mathematics – huge difference between radians and degrees.

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