[Ads-l] Milli-Helen: The quantity of beauty required to launch exactly one ship

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 9 22:27:34 UTC 2021

Thanks for your response, GAT.

The novel "The Rebel Angels" by Robertson Davies contains a passage
that ascribes the creation of "millihelen" to W. A. H. Rushton. This
origin story for millihelen is mentioned in the Wikipedia article for
"Helen (unit)", and I decided to mention it in the QI article.

The Wikipedia article describes W.A.H. Rushton as a "Cambridge
mathematician". This description is, almost certainly, taken from the
novel which states that Rushton was a "great Cambridge mathematician".

However, the novel is not reliable. I found, as you did, that Rushton
was a physiologist at Cambridge and not a mathematician. I also found
that the novel contained a fictional school called "the College of St.
John and the Holy Ghost" nicknamed "Spook". Thus, arguably, the novel
takes place in an alternate universe.

Below is the discussion from the Quote Investigator article.

[Begin excerpt from QI article]
In 1981 a character in the novel “The Rebel Angels” by Robertson
Davies referred to the “Rushton Scale”. The character elaborated on
the definition and employed the term “millihelen”. In the alternate
universe of the novel, W. A. H. Rushton was a mathematician. In this
universe, Rushton was a Professor of Physiology at Trinity College,

[Begin nested quotation from novel]
“Surely you know it? Devised by W. A. H. Rushton, the great Cambridge
mathematician? Well, it’s this way: Helen of Troy is accepted as the
absolute in female beauty, and we have it on a poet’s authority that
her face launched a thousand ships. But clearly ‘face’ implies the
whole woman. Therefore let us call a face that launches a thousand
ships a Helen. But what is a face that launches only one ship?
Obviously a millihelen.”
[End nested quotation from novel]

[Begin excerpt from QI article]


On Sun, May 9, 2021 at 10:12 AM George Thompson <george.thompson at nyu.edu> wrote:
> It's worth noting that Asimov was born in 1920, so he would have been in
> his mid-30s when the term began to circulate.  Can Mario Castillo be
> identified and dated?
> Also: according to the Wikipedia bio, Rushton was a physiologist, not a
> mathematician.  William Albert Hugh Rushton FRS (8 December 1901 – 21 June
> 1980) was professor of Physiology at Trinity College, Cambridge. His main
> interest lay in colour vision and his Principle of Univariance is of
> seminal importance in the study of perception.
> On Sat, May 8, 2021 at 11:51 PM ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com>
> wrote:
> > An article about the humorous unit described in the subject line has
> > now been posted to the Quote Investigator website.
> >
> >
> > https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__quoteinvestigator.com_2021_05_08_milli-2Dhelen_&d=DwIBaQ&c=slrrB7dE8n7gBJbeO0g-IQ&r=v2Wtu7DQZxSBMSJv-oEMNg&m=4wbP0u79OlbMeY76VeBX-URkdaFFOalUSyOOkcNaueg&s=hituozUjn_Gn1_xTA-OPMeoHiIBGzKr5M9qh8ZMY9j4&e=
> >
> > A discussion on this topic occurred on this mailing list way back in
> > 2011, and another occurred last week. Here is the somewhat lengthy
> > acknowledgement accompanying the QI article.
> >
> > [Begin acknowledgement]
> > Great thanks to the 2011 and 2021 mailing list discussants on this
> > topic including: Stephen Goranson, Jesse Sheidlower, Wilson Gray,
> > Laurence Horn, Dave Hause, Pete Morris, and David Daniel. The 2011
> > discussion inspired QI to initiate this research and ultimately led QI
> > to create this article.
> >
> > Thanks to Pete Morris who found the crucial 1954 match in "Punch"
> > magazine. Thanks to Jeffrey Graf at the Herman B Wells Library of
> > Indiana University, Bloomington. Graf accessed and verified the match
> > in "Punch". Thanks to Stephen Goranson who pointed to the February 23,
> > 1958  citation in "The Observer". Thanks to Jesse Sheidlower who
> > identified the February 26, 1958 citation in "The Manchester
> > Guardian".
> > [Begin acknowledgement]
> >
> > Garson O'Toole
> >
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society -
> > https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__www.americandialect.org&d=DwIBaQ&c=slrrB7dE8n7gBJbeO0g-IQ&r=v2Wtu7DQZxSBMSJv-oEMNg&m=4wbP0u79OlbMeY76VeBX-URkdaFFOalUSyOOkcNaueg&s=w966VFERS41luQdvfqlj0d6xdEGWqjWpFK66WTdpoqI&e=
> >
> --
> George A. Thompson
> Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
> Univ. Pr., 1998.
> But when aroused at the Trump of Doom / Ye shall start, bold kings, from
> your lowly tomb. . .
> L. H. Sigourney, "Burial of Mazeen", Poems.  Boston, 1827, p. 112
> The Trump of Doom -- also known as The Dunghill Toadstool.  (Here's a
> picture of his great-grandfather.)
> http://www.parliament.uk/worksofart/artwork/james-gillray/an-excrescence---a-fungus-alias-a-toadstool-upon-a-dunghill/3851
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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