The Width of a Human Hair, Part 1

Every article I read about nano explains the scale in terms of the width of a human hair. Why? Aside from the pedantic point that human hairs have different widths, so it’s not an accurate point of reference, I think it’s not very creative.

A human hair can range from about 20 to 200 microns, and one micron is a thousand nanometres. Take a rough average and round figure of a hundred microns, why not use the hair as the standard comparison for all measurements of size? How far to the pub? Only 100,000 hairs!

Or go the other way, and give nanoscale objects scales relating to random objects. “Researchers at MIT have managed to create a cheese grater only 35nm wide- less than one thousandth of a gnat’s testicle”.

The width of a human hair is a cliché, it’s lazy journalism and it doesn’t help people to visualise scale.

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4 Comments on “The Width of a Human Hair, Part 1”

  1. True! The sizes of human hair are quite broad, but the obvious reason for it’s use as a analogy representing the scale of things nano, is that it’s something with which every human is intimately acquainted. I generally try to mention the phrase “…in general..” when discussing lay representations of nano dimensions and say that it’s the diameter of the hair that’s significant. I do however see your point about mangled and inconsistent analogies. I have another challenge in regard to nanoscale technologies – that’s describing how various nanomaterials are produced. As a friend of mine from Boston said yesterday (Jan. 13th, 2010), “you have a black box. In goes one thing [coal in my case] and out comes carbon nanotubes.” Why? How? That’s a different story altogether.

    Tim Williamson

    • jjjhayton Says:

      I agree that it is a useful analogy, otherwise it wouldn’t have become a cliché in the first place. Certainly If an expert is explaining the nano scale to someone, it’s fine! But it’s become so widely used that journalists pick it up and use it even if it isn’t appropriate. We need to think carefully about the language we use in explaining science to a lay audience.

  2. harsh Says:

    the article seems quite well adapted from “NATURE” …but yeah!you have designed an ultimate blog on nanotechnologies and nanoscience. Your work is really worth appreciation. Cheers!

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