Monday, May 28, 2012

the kilograms, they are a changin'

The people in charge of the standard kilogram are worried that it may be changing.  Currently the kilogram is defined to be the mass of a particular cylinder of platinum iridium alloy in a vault in France.  There is a geeky heist movie waiting to be made.  At some point, a measurement was taken to compare a lump of metal to other lumps of metal which were supposed to be equal in mass.  They were not equal, and this was worrying.   Everyone who reads this will grossly underestimate the disappointment of all involved.  I mean really worrying.  The article compares the difference in mass to that of a small grain of sugar, so we're talking pretty severe discrepancies.  Did the lumps all wane, and if so was it at the same rate?  Did the tools of measurement fail?  If there is a difference noted, isn't the standard by definition the correct one-kilo mass?  By saying that the standard does not meet the standard, are we not then admitting a different standard? 

There is a riddle here (for some an honest-to-goodness crisis), about a Platonic ideal and an earthly shadow, and in this case the very discussion dances haphazardly around an elegantly iconic question of The Kilogram and a reality which is possibly greater than our theoretical capacity to define it.  For those who hold that truth and reality are not defined beyond our observations, this is shattering.  Yet we see the writing on the wall, MENE, MENE, TEKEL PARSIN.  Weighed, measured, and found wanting.  There is a standard, and it is not met by our best efforts to define it, yet we possess somehow the discernment to criticize our scientific process and declare that the standard we have created does not meet the Standard that there is. 

As much as our postmodern world rejoices to see the erosion of standards, this news has people concerned.  Now I suppose some people would be annoyed at that last sentence, because physical standards and moral standards surely cannot be held to the same, um... standard... of absolute uniform nature, right?  And so I would expect that many of those insisting on absolute properties of our universe would nevertheless object to my own failure to meet what they presume is a universally immutable standard of 'tolerance' by my implying that moral laws are well-defined and beyond human invention.  We need something solid and permanent so that every time we ask what a kilo is we get the same answer, because a kilo is now what it will be in a thousand years and no amount of wishful thinking or semantic trickery will change it.  Right?

Can you see a smokey-eyed hippie saying in a dreamy voice to get over it man, because the world is changing and growing like a flower and the kilo is just like doin' its thing, man, let's embrace the change and forget the world of our forefathers, man, they didn't use the kilo for love anyway, and why does the man want everyone to have the same kilo, can't we just use the kilo that's best for us--I've got my kilo and you've got your kilo and isn't that what matters?  Staunchly against this casual attitude stand the scientists who desperately expect and demand to work with the language of the immutable laws of the universe, and who expect and demand that the same kilo truly does need to apply to everyone. 

I find it mesmerizing.


  1. Great post, Nate! Trying to think of a response that won't be four paragraphs long. : ) Thanks for thinking carefully and sharing it.

    Update on this when you learn more. I'd like to know if I weigh more or less than I actually weigh. : )

  2. I enjoyed reading this... thanks.