June 05, 1993

BRITISH Thermal Units, or BTUs, have been much in the news

since the Clinton administration decided to base energy taxes on the heat content of various kinds of fuel.

But what exactly is a BTU?

According to Chamber's Technical Dictionary, 1958 edition, a BTU is "the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one Fahrenheit degree."

Simple enough, you might say, but the Encyclopedia Americana (1968 edition) tells us that in 1929, because of difficulties in determining the exact value of a BTU, it was redefined:

"One BTU is now equal to 251.996 International Steam Table (IT) calories, the IT calorie being defined as 1/860 watt-hour. The BTU is thus equal to 778.26 foot-pounds, in units of mechanical energy."

Simple enough but the Encyclopedia Britannica (1974 edition) tells us that since 1956 the BTU has been defined as equal to 1055 joules.

And what is a joule? The Random House Dictionary (1985 edition) tells us a joule, named after British physicist James Prescott Joule (1818-89), is "the meter-kilogram-second unit of work or energy, equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves through a distance of one meter in the direction of the force: equivalent to 10 to the seventh power ergs and one watt-second."

And what is a newton? According to Webster's New World Dictionary (1988 edition), a newton -- named for English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) -- is "the force which imparts to a mass of one kilogram an acceleration of one meter per second per second."

Now that this department has straightened everyone out on the BTU, Congress can enact an energy tax we guarantee will be one of the most complicated in history.

The administration bill would tax most fuels at the rate of 26.8 cents per million BTUs with a 34.2-cent surtax added to most oil, gas and diesel. Utilities using several kinds of fuel would have to determine the heat content of each in calculating cost per kilowatt hour.

At this point we are starting to think that a nice simple gasoline tax, say 7 cents per gallon at the pump, would be enticing.

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FROM GERMANY comes the tale of five University of Trier students who wanted to determine if their compatriots were as willing to follow directives as rumor has it.

So they posted two official-looking signs on side-by-side outdoor telephone booths with the notice: "Women Only" and "Men Only." Then they settled down to watch.

The results: Of 69 telephone users observed, nearly all of the women and three-fourths of the men obeyed the absurd signs. Almost all complained about the ridiculous rule, but only one woman (it turned out she was French) and nine men dared to defy it.