"E. coli … moves its whole length in two nanoseconds. If it were the size of a Volkswagen, it would be going four times the speed of light."
The classic VW Bug, with its nearly immutable design, has been driven all over the world and all over the movies for the better part of a century. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who couldn't pick its shape out of a lineup or, more realistically, a weedy Southern California backyard.
So its not surprising the Bug, so imbedded in our culture, is an object of reference. If you need to describe something about size of a Volkswagen to someone who can't see it, well, you know they're going know size of the Bug. What's odd is how the VW absolutely eclipses all other objects of comparison.
Sure, things are judged the size of a Buick or a 747, and maybe, for bonus points, your math teacher asked how many basketballs or dollar bills put end to end you need to reach this or that. It's true Quarter Pounders and other McDonald's menu items are forever being stacked to the moon. But these things don't compete with the massive number or variety of comparisons made to the VW.
It's the measure of things. It is the ruler itself.
Most other objects are limited in their comparative function. For example, Mack trucks are exclusively used to describe objects we are to think of as large. But Volkswagens are used to describe things as too small and too large and, more importantly, as they really are.
As such, science writers make the most use of the vehicle, deeming everything in or from space, made or conceived by man or God to be about the size of a Bug. The VW-size Mars Global Surveyor looked down at the planet with cameras capable of resolving VW-size objects such as the "nearly" VW-size Spirit and Opportunity, which themselves captured images of VW-size rocks in their travels.
Beloved Jalopnik writer and Bug owner Jason Torchinsky once suggested to me that so many spacecraft share the VW size because of the commonality of the delivery system — the cargo bays of the launch craft are similar in dimension. Why the cargo bays would be the size of a Volkswagen he didn't explain.
It doesn't matter. As seen in the table, people writing on every topic compare their subjects to the Volkswagen. The comparisons are pervasive, diverse, and at times inappropriate, useless, and forced — leading to the impression that many writers feel the examination of a subject would be incomplete without a Bug comparison.
When divisibility doesn't work, writers switch to weight to find equilibrium with the Bug:
These weight comparisons prove less common, presumably because a limited number of people can heft the weight of a Beetle in their head, as you would, say, a bowling ball.
So why the persistent need to describe objects in Bug-terms? Is it the fan-boyish love of the brand (possibly found more prominently in free-spirited "writer types")? Is it just the iconic stature of the car? Is it the snowballing popularity of the metaphor itself?
Maybe it's all of these. Or maybe something more is going on. Perhaps we're missing a unit of measure. Maybe the size in question is particularly useful for illustration and classification— an expression of the Goldilocks Principle as applied to measurement. The Bug is not too big or small. It's just right. It filled a descriptive void.
Infinitely more important than these everyday descriptive uses would be the advances likely to occur in serious thought and science. Philosophers suggest that without the vocabulary to express an idea, we have a difficult time even conceiving of that idea. Human development may have been hamstrung due of the lack of the vw. Since the Bug's inception in 1938 and its de facto but still limited use as a measure, the pace of human invention has accelerated. If the vw was used universally, who knows what we can achieve?Selection of Things "The Size of a Volkswagen"