A matter of kilos

It’s been the topic of a weighted discussion for quite some time, but today it has been decided: “Le Grand K” will no longer be used to define a kilogram.

“Le Grand K” is not a big box of Special K, but a platinum-iridium cylinder stored by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in an underground vault in Paris that has defined a kilogram of mass since 1889. There are a few official copies, and many more copies, so each country has their own kilogram to calibrate to.

Last Friday (November 16th) the kilogram has been redefined so it no longer depends on a material object. Because a material object can be scratched, chipped or destroyed. Or stolen. Or accidentally thrown into the bin. And it can degrade – in fact, “Le Grand K” weighs about  50 µg lighter than its six official copies. You don’t really want to gold – ahem, I mean platinum-iridium – standard for weight to change in weight, right?

So now the kilogram will be defined based on a universal, unchangeable constant. Much better, I think you would agree. The constant of choice here is the Plank’s constant, a number that converts the macroscopic wavelength of light to the energy of individual constants of light. Representatives from 58 countries universally agreed on this new definition, so from next year, the kilogram will be constant forever.

The ampere (electrical current), the kelvin (temperature) and the mole (amount of chemical substance) have also been redefined. That means that all seven units in the International System of Units (S.I.) will be defined by universal constants:

meter unit of length
  • Originally defined as a 10-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator along the meridian through Paris, later as the distance between two scratches on a bar of platinum-iridium metal
  • Since 1983 defined as the distance traveled by a light beam in vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, with 299,792,458 m/s being the universally constant speed of light.
kilogram unit of mass
  • Initially defined in terms of one liter of water, but since as a small ~47 cm3 cylinder stored in a basement in Paris.
  • Now redefined in terms of the Plank constant h = 6.62607015×10−34 J*s (J = kg*m2*s−2)
second unit of time
  • Originally defined as 1/86,400th of a day
  • Since 1967 it has been defined as the time it takes an atom of cesium-133 to vibrate 9,192,631,770 times
ampere unit of electrical current
  • Originally defined as a tenth of the electromagnetic current flowing through a 1 cm arc of a circle with a 1 cm radius creating a field of one oersted in the center
  • Now redefined in terms of the fixed numerical value of the elementary charge e (1.6602176634×10−19 C with C = A*s and second defined as above)
kelvin unit of temperature
  • The centigrade scale was originally defined by assigning the freezing and boiling point of water as 0 °C and 100 °C respectively. Note: absolute zero is the lowest temperature (0K =  -273.16 °C)
  • Now redefined in terms of the Boltzmann constant k = 1.380649×10−23 J⋅K−1
mole unit to describe the amount of substance
  • Since 1967 defined as the amount of substance which has as many elementary particles as there are atoms in 0.012 kg of carbon-12.
  • Now one mole substance contains exactly 6.02214076 × 10^23 particles. This constant is known as Avogadro’s number*
candela unit to describe the intensity of light
  • Originally taken as the luminous intensity of a whale blubber candle in the late 19th century.
  • Since 1979 the light intensity of a monochromatic source that emits radiation with a frequency 5.4 x 1014 hertz and has a radiant intensity of 1/683 watt per steradian in a given direction **
So that was “this week in science.” I’ll leave y’all with a related joke:

kilogram

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Sources/Further reading:

The international system of units: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_System_of_Units

The new kilogram was in the news: www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/science/kilogram-physics-measurement.html and www.theregister.co.uk/2018/11/17/amp_kelvin_kilogram/

Comic from xkcd.com

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* Avocado’s number, however, states that 6.02214076 × 10^23 guacas make up one guacamole. (I knooooow, I already made this joke).

** I have to be honest and say that I have no idea what this all means

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