Helen (unit)

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A helen is a humorous unit of measurement based on the concept that Helen of Troy, from the Iliad, had a "face that launched a thousand ships". The helen is thus used to measure quantities of beauty in terms of the theoretical action that could be accomplished by the wielder of such beauty.


Helen leaving for Troy with Paris, as depicted by Guido Reni

The classic reference to Helen's beauty is Marlowe's lines from the 1592 play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?"[1] In the tradition of humorous pseudounits, then, 1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship.

According to The Rebel Angels, a 1981 novel by Robertson Davies, this system was invented by Cambridge mathematician W.A.H. Rushton. Isaac Asimov claimed to have invented the term in the 1940s as a graduate student in his 1992 collection of jokes and limericks.[2][3] In a 1958 letter to the New Scientist, R.C. Winton proposes the milli-Helen as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.[4] In response, P. Lockwood noted that the unit had been independently proposed by Edgar J. Westbury and extended by the pair to negative values, where −1 milliHelen was the amount of ugliness required to sink a battleship.[5]

Derived units[edit]

The Catalogue of Ships from Book II of The Iliad, which describes in detail the commanders who came to fight for Helen and the ships they brought with them, details a total of 1,186 ships which came to fight the Trojan War. As such, Helen herself has a beauty rating of 1.186 helens, capable of launching more than one thousand ships.

Negative units[edit]

Negative values have also been observed, which are measured by the number of ships sunk or the number of clocks stopped. An alternative interpretation of −1 helen is the amount of negative beauty (i.e. ugliness) that can beach a thousand ships.

Objection to decimal units[edit]

The webcomic Irregular Webcomic! dedicated a strip to the helen unit of beauty, in which is stated that the millihelen should not be used, because metric prefixes should not be mixed with troy units.[6]

Fink’s logarithmic units[edit]

Theoretical physicist Thomas Fink defines beauty in The Man's Book[7] both in terms of ships launched and in terms of the number of women, on average, than whom one woman will be more beautiful. He defines one helen (H) as the quantity of beauty to be more beautiful than 50 million women, the number of women estimated to have been alive in the 12th century BCE.[7][8]

Fink also defines a related, but smaller unit called a “helena” (Ha), based on a logarithmic scale, like the Richter scale, or deciBells (dB).

Ten helena (Ha) is the beauty sufficient for one oarsman (of which 50 are on a ship) to risk his life, or to be the most beautiful of a thousand women. Since the unit is logarithmic on a base of 2, for beauty to increase by 1 Ha, a woman must be the most beautiful of twice as many women, so one helen is equivalent to 25.6 Ha. The most beautiful woman who ever lived would score 34.2 Ha, the equivalent of 1.34 helen, the pick of a dozen women would be 3.6 Ha, or 0.14 helen.[8]

Goines’ proposal[edit]

David Goines has written a humorous article[9] giving examples of various Helen-unit levels. It has a chart with the fire-lighting and ship-launching capability for different powers of "Helens". For example, a picohelen (ph) (10−12 helens) indicates the amount of beauty that can "Barbecue a couple of steaks and toss an inner tube into the pool".

Units of Measurement in David Goines’ Helen Beauty Scale
Unit Symbol Factor Description
attohelen ah 10−18 Light up a Lucky while strolling past a shipyard
femtohelen fh 10−15 Burn a dinner candle and spit a toothpick into a water glass
picohelen ph 10−12 Barbecue a couple of steaks and toss an inner tube into the pool
nanohelen nh 10−9 Send the old man on a canoe trip and build a good roaring blaze in the fireplace
microhelen µh 10−6 Christen a motor boat and start a grass fire
millihelen mh 10−3 Launch one Homeric warship and burn down a house
centihelen ch 0.01 Incinerate a city block and launch Christopher Columbus's entire fleet: the Niña (40 tons), the Pinta (50 tons), and the Santa Maria (100 tons)
decihelen dh 0.1 Torch the central business district of Oakland, California, and launch the clipper ship Flying Cloud (1,800 tons)
helen h 1 Raze one city and launch the World War I US Battleship Delaware (20,000 tons)
dekahelen dah 10 Oversee the incendiary bombing of the Kantō Region in Japan and launch the aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt (91,500 tons) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (91,500 tons)
hectohelen hh 100 Instigate a major modern conflict and launch the oil platform Statfjord B (with ballast, 899,000 tons), the supertanker Seawise Giant (624,000 dead-weight tonnage); the oil/ore carrier World Gala (282,500 dwt), and the bulk-ore tanker Hoei Maru (208,000 dwt)
kilohelen kh 103 Launch the equivalent of one million Greek warships and spark a nuclear confrontation
megahelen Mh 106 Launch the equivalent of one billion Greek warships and blow up the World
gigahelen Gh 109 Launch the equivalent of one trillion Greek warships and destroy the solar system
terahelen Th 1012 Launch the equivalent of one quadrillion Greek warships and make serious inroads on the welfare of the galaxy

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "''The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'' by Christopher Marlowe - Project Gutenberg". Retrieved 2011-09-05. 
  2. ^ Asimov, Isaac (1992). Asimov Laughs Again. Harper-Collins. p. 200. ISBN 0060168269. 
  3. ^ "About Isaac Asimov". Asimovhumanists.org. Archived from the original on 2012-06-14. Retrieved 2011-09-05. 
  4. ^ Winton, R.C. (13 November 1958). "The Mathematics of Beauty". New Scientist. Retrieved 2017-01-06. 
  5. ^ Lockwood, P. (8 January 1959). "Unit of Ugliness". New Scientist. Retrieved 2017-01-06. 
  6. ^ Mar, David Morgan (2005-10-24). "Irregular Webcomic!". 
  7. ^ a b Fink, Thomas (2006). The Man's Book (1st ed.). London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-0297851639. 
  8. ^ a b Fink, Thomas. "The Man's Book". Thomas Fink personal webpage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 5 September 2011. 
  9. ^ Goines, David Lance (4 August 1987). "On the inefficiency of beauty contests and a suggestion for their modernization". Retrieved 18 March 2012.