A while back, Susan Moran (bio) was working on a rewrite and found herself referencing a 2-million-square-mile swath of something. “How big is that, really?” she wondered. She wanted to compare it to something readers could relate to.
We have all been there, on deadline, trying to put numbers—especially the very big and the very small—in context. “It’s surprisingly hard to think of things that everyone in the audience knows, that don’t vary in size, and aren’t horribly cliché,” says Michelle Nijhuis (bio). Comparing something to the size of a football field (57,600 square feet or 0.76 acres, including end zones) might feel overdone, but trying to be original by referencing the area of a jai alai court (8720 square feet) will leave many readers more confused than just giving a number alone.
This week, we’re here to help. In this post, we’ll deal with things bigger than the proverbial breadbox, but we know some of you out there write about molecules, so later this week in a follow-up post, we’ll tackle the tiny. We’ve also recruited some help making sense of the vast scales of outer space, for a final installment to come next week.
Breadbox and bigger
For starters, if you’re writing about something that’s in the neighborhood of 7.4 x 18.9 x 10.9 inches, or 0.88 cubic feet, you’re talking about something the size of Hillary Rosner’s (bio) actual breadbox. It was a wedding gift, and she reports that it is the size of, well, a breadbox.
Getting bigger from there, animals can be useful points of reference. Here are a few: house cat (5-20 pounds); Labrador retriever (55-75 pounds); bison (up to 2,200 pounds, 11.5 feet long
tall); blue whale (up to 200 tons, 105 feet long); apatosaurus (up to 30 tons, 70 feet long). Remember you can always use a multiple or a fraction of anything: The largest blue whales weigh more than six times as much as an apatosaurus ever did.
Scilancers have used the kitchen as a source of comparisons beyond the breadbox. The refrigerator (interior volume about 18 cubic feet, height about 5.5 feet) is the most obvious.
Football fields and Olympic-sized swimming pools (660,000 gallons) are well-trodden examples (But here’s a novel use of the pool comparison). In summer, try a baseball diamond (infield, 810 square feet). Now is a very good time to trot out the size of a soccer pitch (at least 4050 square meters, almost precisely an acre).
The areas of cities, U.S. states, and countries are good for things that are bigger than we can take in at a glance, as are bodies of water like Lake Superior (which has enough water to cover all of North and South America in a foot of water), Hudson Bay or the Red Sea. However, plenty of ice chunks have been compared to some multiple of Manhattan (22.8 square miles). Time for something new.
Michelle tries “thinking of large weird things I could use as comparisons and finding out how large they are. Doing that a few times can help you home in on something.” Some examples she has used include the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas (2.75 acres), Central Park (843 acres), Yellowstone National Park (3468 square miles), the Great Pyramid of Giza (5.75 million tons), Big Ben (over 315 feet), the Statue of Liberty (305 feet), and other well-known monuments.
Many items between a breadbox and a building are well within our grasp to imagine or observe. Taking a walk can be good for brainstorming potential points of comparison: a streetlamp, a park bench, a dumpster, a Porta Potty, a McDonalds, a semi-truck, or a cruise ship. Then go home look up their actual size (Porta Potty = 88 x 44 x 48 inches, or about 107 cubic feet).
Hannah Hoag (bio) points to Wolfram Alpha as a useful tool, though she notes it’s a bit hit or miss for this purpose. According to the site, Susan’s 2 million square miles is ~ 0.54 x the size of the U.S., ~ 0.54 x the size of China, and 0.6 x the largest extent of the Roman Empire. (Novel and intriguing, but perhaps not the most useful context for the reader.)
Finally, googling the number in question is a good shot-in-the-dark try.
One caution: Wikipedia has a nice ranked lists of the sizes of cities, states and countries (some linked above), and gives the size of places like Central Park, making it good as a starting point. But Wikipedia doesn’t pass journalistic muster. So use the official Central Park site to find the park’s size, check a peer-reviewed paper to find the size of the Amazon, or go to the United Nations site to find the size of Russia.
What are your best comparisons? Please share more below.
Photo Credit: Kendall Powell