From the Wall Street Journal – By JEANNE WHALEN
In a vault beneath a 17th-century pavilion on the outskirts of Paris sits a platinum cylinder known as Le Grand K. Since 1889 it has been the international prototype for the kilogram, the standard against which all other kilos are measured.
But over the years, scientists have noticed a problem: Le Grand K has been losing weight. Weigh-ins at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures show that the bar has shed approximately 50 micrograms—roughly equal to a grain of sand.
The problem has vexed scientists who monitor the kilo the way tabloids track the waistlines of Valerie Bertinelli and Kirstie Alley. The stakes, however, are weightier.
“It’s a scandal that we’ve got this kilogram hanging around changing its mass and therefore changing the mass of everything else in the universe!” Bill Phillips, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, exclaimed at a scientific summit in London this week. No one knows for sure what went wrong with Le Grand K, but some theorize it lost weight from being cleaned.
Dr. Phillips and other mandarins of metrology were gathered at Britain’s Royal Society to debate an urgent question in the science of measurement—how to re-define the basic unit of mass, as well as other measurements such as the second, ampere, kelvin and mole.
The aim is to tie each to a widely accepted property of nature, rather than to a lump of metal or some other imprecise benchmark. The meter, for instance, was once measured as the distance between two notches on a metal bar. It is now defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.
The new definitions are “as big a change as the introduction of the metric system during the French Revolution,” says Terry Quinn, a dapper Briton who organized the seminar and once served as director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which ensures world-wide uniformity of measurements. Frequent clashes about the best approach mean the temperature of debate has at times “risen quite high,” he added, without specifying by how much.
Full story at the Wall Street Journal