When, on a print map, 1 cm figures a real distance of 1 km on the terrain, we say that the map has a 1:100,000 scale.
But scales are not limited to a proportional ratio (or rule of three) between an actual distance and a length on paper. More generally, they describe how an actual dimension of the original data is to be represented as a visual variable. In this sense, scales are one of the most fundamental abstractions of data visualization.
Scales from the d3-scale module are functions that take as input the actual value of a measurement or property. Their output can in turn be used to encode a relevant representation.