Nature Blog Network

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Holy Standards! The Kilogram's Losing Mass!

CNN .com reports that the official prototype of the kilogram is 'mysteriously' losing weight. Obviously a terrorist plot. For over 118 years this sensational standard, housed at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, France, has provided the definitive definition of mass for the world (minus the United States and select few others, a.k.a the Coalition of the Weighing). Physicists will be dismayed, chemists are contemplating career changes, biologists and geologist... really could care less since our error bars are so big anyways. So just how much weight has this universal standard mysteriously sloughed off? 50 micrograms! That 5 x 10^-10 10^-8 kilograms. Clearly an international catastrophe of catastrophic proportions.

"The mystery is that they were all made of the same material, and many were made at the same time and kept under the same conditions, and yet the masses among them are slowly drifting apart. We don't really have a good hypothesis for it."-Physicist Richard Davis at IBWM
Richard Davis, keeper of the kilo, bamboozled over the mysterious loss of weight of the sealed air-tight, well-guarded weight.

Thankfully, CNN reassures the public,
"But don't expect the slimmed-down kilo to have any effect, other than possibly envy, on wary waistline-watchers: 50 micrograms is roughly equivalent to the weight of a fingerprint."
I for one wasn't aware that fingerprints had mass. Now I am a bit self-conscious about my fingerprint...

The mysterious nature of this caper is striking.
"It is kept in a triple-locked safe at a chateau and rarely sees the light of day -- mostly for comparison with other cylinders shipped in periodically from around the world."
Could it be an inside job? Is it Al-Qaida? Hamas? The Michigan Militia? Congressional conservatives still angry that Freedom Fries didn't become universally accepted? Is Loki playing tricks again? Is Satan pulling his shenanigans? So many questions but so few answers.

So what are we, the public whom relies on accurate standards supposed to do?
The kilogram's fluctuation shows how technological progress is leaving science's most basic measurements in its dust. The cylinder was high-tech for its day in 1889 when cast from a platinum and iridium alloy, measuring 1.54 inches in diameter and height. At a November meeting of scientists in Paris, an advisory panel on measurements will present possible steps toward basing the kilogram and other measures -- like Kelvin for temperature, and the mole for amount -- on more precise calculations. Ultimately, policy makers from around the world would have to agree to any change.
Once again we must call on our superhero. Super Policy-Maker! With the super ability to form censuses, will this hero save the day and preserve tradition or turn to the dark side and change the definition of something that is supposed to be standard. Stay tuned as The Other 95% covers this dramatic issue.
Many measurements have undergone makeovers over the years. The meter was once defined as roughly the distance between scratches on a bar, a far cry from today's high-tech standard involving the distance that light travels in a vacuum.

"We could obviously use a better definition," Davis said.


  1. 5 micrograms is not 10 to -10 grams, it is 10 -6 grams and any biochemist will tell you that 50 ul = a quite visible amount.

  2. ul should be ug and i should have said for most substances

  3. Hi Anon.

    Read a little more closely. I converted to Kilograms, not grams. But i do have error, It is 5 x 10^-8 kilograms not 5 x 10^-10 because I converted 50 micrograms to 5 kilograms. Its 10^-9 going from 1 microgram to 1 kilogram. And then an extra 10^1 for 5 to 50, so it be would be 10^(1 + -9)=10^8.

    I apologize for this error and it is corrected above

    Yes 50ug may be a a fair amount for some circumstances but to everyday people I don't think they will notice the difference as much.

  4. Clearly, a higher power is at work here and this whole kilogram controversy proves evolution wrong.

  5. So is the loss of mass God's will? Divine intervention? Was this standard really intelligently designed?

  6. Can't trust those French with anything.


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