Saturday, September 23, 2006

Science: Cool?

I find this sort of thing very interesting.

The kilogram or kilogramme, (symbol: kg) is the SI base unit of mass. It is defined as being equal to the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram.

It is the only SI base unit that employs a prefix [1], and the only SI unit that is still defined in relation to an artifact rather than to a fundamental physical property.

A kilogram is approximately equivalent to 2.205 avoirdupois pounds in the Imperial system and the customary system of weights and measures used in the United States.


The kilogram was originally defined as the mass of one litre of pure water at standard atmospheric pressure and at the temperature at which water has its maximum density (3.98 degrees Celsius). This definition was hard to realize accurately, partially because the density of water depends slightly on the pressure, and pressure units include mass as a factor, introducing a circular dependency in the definition.

To avoid these problems, the kilogram was redefined as precisely the mass of a particular standard mass created to approximate the original definition. Since 1889, the SI system defines the unit to be equal to the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram, which is made from an alloy of platinum and iridium of 39 mm height and diameter, and is kept at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures). Official copies of the prototype kilogram are made available as national prototypes, which are compared to the Paris prototype ("Le Grand Kilo") roughly every 10 years. The international prototype kilogram was made in the 1880s.

By definition, the error in the repeatability of the current definition is exactly zero; however, in the usual sense of the word, it can be regarded as of the order of 2 micrograms. This is found by comparing the official standard with its official copies, which are made of roughly the same materials and kept under the same conditions. There is no reason to believe that the official standard is any more or less stable than its official copies, thus giving a way to estimate its stability. This procedure is performed roughly once every forty years.

The international prototype of the kilogram seems to have lost about 50 micrograms in the last 100 years, and the reason for the loss is still unknown (reported in Der Spiegel, 2003 #26). The observed variation in the prototype has intensified the search for a new definition of the kilogram. It is accurate to state that any object in the universe (other than the reference metal in France) that had a mass of 1 kilogram 100 years ago, and has not changed since then, now has a mass of 1.000 000 050 kg. This perspective is paradoxical and defeats the purpose of a standard unit of mass, since the standard should not change arbitrarily over time. The philosopher Saul Kripke elaborated on the philosophical implications of this kind of problem, referring, however, to the then-current definition of the metre in terms of an artifact, a choice which was later dropped.

Thanks, Wikipedia! Oh, and Sam Walker already knew most of this when I asked him about it.



At 4:22 PM, September 24, 2006, Blogger Houley said...

Science: Very cool.


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