Milli-Helen: The Quantity of Beauty Required To Launch Exactly One Ship

Isaac Asimov? W. A. H. Rushton? R. C. Winton? Edgar J. Westbury? Christopher Marlowe? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Standards of beauty are notoriously subjective and variable. Different qualities are prized over time, and distinct cultures value divergent attributes.

In the domain of Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy “Doctor Faustus” contains the following lines about her:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium

An aspiring humorist proposed the “Helen” as a measure of female pulchritude. Thus, the “milli-Helen” (one thousandth of a “Helen”) was the amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship. The hyphen is sometimes omitted. This quip has been attributed to science fiction author Isaac Asimov and physiologist W. A. H. Rushton. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared in the London humor magazine “Punch” in 1954. The quip was attributed to an unnamed “professor of natural philosophy”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Scientists and aesthetes alike have heard with interest that the “unit of absolute beauty” has been invented by a professor of natural philosophy, who calls it a Helen and explains that it is divisible into millihelens. It is hoped that the millihelen may in time be interpreted in terms of power, when it should prove handy for launching a single ship.

In 1992 science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov made the interesting claim that he invented the term “millihelen” during a discussion with a friend in the early 1940s. See the 1992 citation given further below. QI has not yet located substantive support for this claim.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Milli-Helen: The Quantity of Beauty Required To Launch Exactly One Ship

Notes:

  1. 1954 June 23, Punch or The London Charivari, Volume 226, Issue Number 5936, Page Title: Punch: Charivaria, Quote Page 737, Column 3, Published at the Office of Punch, London, England. (Gale Cengage “Punch” Historical Archive)