Smoots, Naticks, and glass bananas

During my 20 week lead up to running the Boston Marathon on April 15, I put in a lot of miles: on the marathon course, in Boston, and around Cambridge, where I live. This area is, as some street signs warn drivers, “thickly settled,” both with people and with history. I spent many long runs thinking about the quirks of the landscape. Like: what are those purple, green and yellow numbers painted on the Mass Avenue bridge toward MIT? It took me more than a year, but I finally figured it out. And instead of just telling you, I’ll give you the fun of guessing.

Enjoy this quiz of Boston area oddities!

1. What is a Smoot?

a) A unit of measurement named after MIT alum Oliver Reed Smoot ’62

b) A technique for rolling a joint to make it look like a mechanical pencil, named after Janessa Smoot, a leader of student protests at MIT against the war in Vietnam.

c) A paper note folded into a aerodynamic triangle shape that college rowing fans throw off bridge at boats during races on the Charles River. The more “smoots” fans land in a particular boat, the better luck the boat will carry with it to the end of the race.

Text painted on cement in purple, green and yellow: 364.4 SMOOTS 1 EAR
364.4 SMOOTS 1 EAR: Painted on the Harvard bridge (which actually leads to MIT)

2. Why is there a banana on display in the Harvard Natural Museum of History?

  1.  A visiting member of the Norwegian royal family left behind the remains of a snack on a tour and museum staff were too irritated to remove it.
  2. An early experiment in cryogenics, biochemists in 1951 “glassified” a half a banana by injecting silica into its cell walls. Housed temporarily in the museum, the banana is scheduled to be reconstituted to edible status in 2051.
  3. Included in the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, a banana made out of glass demonstrates the “fruit” of Musa x paradisiaca.

3. What is a Natick?

  1. Massachusetts town located at Mile 8 of the Boston Marathon course
  2. In crossword jargon, an intersection of two obscure answers, leaving the solver with no hope but to guess at a solution.
  3. A small flying insect you have to swat while solving the Sunday crossword puzzle


1. a

There are big purple, green and yellow numbers painted onto the sidewalk of the Harvard Bridge, counting up from the Boston side toward MIT. For more than a year of doing runs across this bridge, I wondered what the heck they meant. Some kind of a rowing thing? (Crews from Harvard, MIT, Boston University and probably a bunch of other places glide under the bridge all the time.) Finally, a plaque told me: MIT alum Oliver Reed Smoot ’62 did go on to head the International Organization for Standardization, but his passion for measuring things must have started during his college years. Or maybe it was imposed upon him; as a Lambda Chi Alpha pledge activity, his 5′ 7″ body was used to measure the Harvard bridge: 364.4 smoots and one ear.

2. c

In the last 1800s, Harvard commissioned father-son glassmaker team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka to create a 3D text book of sorts: hundreds of glass models of flowering and non-flowering plants. The models are remarkable. We don’t think of glass as durable but compared to actual plants these models last forever. They magnify the complexity of plant existence and they are works of art in their own right. Yesterday I went to hang out in the glass flower room on my lunch break and it occurred to me that a model of wheat rust fungus magnified 400 times looked like a beaded dress Bjork might wear. The glass banana is my favorite object in the collection. Look at the care taken to create that bruise!

Huge flower and two bananas. Both very realistic, they are made out of glass
Glass bananas included in the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Flowers

3. b

Small Massachusetts town at the eighth mile of the Boston Marathon: Natick. American artist who illustrated a 1911 edition of Treasure Island: NC Wyeth. I’m not a crossword puzzle whiz but I would have gotten these two intersecting clues. However, a crossword blogger deemed both answers too obscure for the average solver and coined the term “Natick” to describe the dilemma when two hazy clues cross at their first letters, forcing the solver to guess. Hatick? Zatick? I learned this piece of Boston area trivia while writing about Anna Shechtman’s marvelous book “The Riddles of the Sphinx,” a feminist history of the crossword, this spring.

Shop window painted in blue and yellow lettering
A shop window in downtown Natick celebrates the Boston Marathon and its communities. This spot is at Mile 10 of the marathon, but runners first enter Natick around Mile 8

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