Why the Metric System Might Be Screwed

International Bureau of Weights and Measures
International Bureau of Weights and Measures

The world’s most perfect weight isn’t so perfect anymore. And that has scientists scared.

Hidden in a vault outside Paris, vacuum-sealed under three bell jars, sits a palm-sized metal cylinder known as the International Prototype Kilogram, or “Le Grand K.” Forged in 1879 from an alloy of platinum and iridium, it was hailed as the “perfect” kilogram—the gold standard by which other kilograms would be judged.

Although it’s arguably the world’s most famous weight, Le Grand K doesn’t get out much. Since hydrocarbons on fingertips or moisture in the air could contaminate its pristine surface, it goes untouched for decades, under triple lock and key at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Every 40 years, however, it makes an appearance. The weight is ushered from its chamber, washed with alcohol, polished, and weighed against 80 official replicas hand-delivered from laboratories around the world. Today, whenever scientists need to verify something is precisely one kilogram, they turn to one of these replicas, over which Le Grand K reigns supreme.

This system sounds absurd, but not too long ago, lots of units relied on similar methods. The kilogram was just one of seven standards of measurement established by the French Academy of Sciences in 1791, all based on physical prototypes. These benchmarks caught on worldwide because standardization was sorely needed. At the time, some 250,000 different units of weights and measures existed in France alone, which meant that the only constant was complete chaos.

Weight Problem

While basing measurements on tangible benchmarks was an improvement, using physical standards wasn’t without its flaws. For one, they have a nasty habit of changing. In Le Grand K’s case, it’s been losing weight. At its most recent weigh-in in 1988, it was found to be 0.05 milligrams—about the weight of a grain of sand—lighter than its underling replicas. Experts aren’t sure where this weight went, but some theorize that the replicas have been handled more often, which could subtly add weight. Others postulate Le Grand K’s alloy is “outgassing,” which means air is gradually escaping the metal.

Whatever the reason for Le Grand K’s gradual wasting away, it’s got scientists scrambling for a more reliable standard. Some argue that this is long overdue, since all other units of measurement are already defined by fundamental constants of nature that can be reproduced anywhere anytime (provided you’ve got some sophisticated lab equipment). The meter, for example, used to be defined by a metal rod stored alongside Le Grand K. But in 1983, it was redefined as the distance light travels in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Standardizing the kilogram has been trickier, though. Australian scientists are polishing a one-kilogram sphere of silicon, hoping that they’ll be able to count the number of atoms it contains to create a more accurate standard. American physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are attempting to redefine a kilogram in terms of the amount of voltage required to levitate a weight. But so far, neither approach can match Le Grand K’s accuracy.

Why should we care whether a kilogram in a vault is “perfect” or not? Because it’s bad news when your standard is no longer standardized. While no one’s worried whether a single kilogram of apples is a hair lighter or heavier at the produce stand, a small discrepancy can become a gargantuan one if you’re dealing with, say, a whole tanker of wheat. The kilogram is also used as a building block in other measurements. The joule, for instance, is the amount of energy required to move a one-kilogram weight one meter. The candela, a measure of the brightness of light, is measured in joules per second.

These links mean that if the kilogram is flawed, so are the joule and candela, which could eventually cause problems in an array of industries, particularly in technology. As microchips process more information at higher speeds, even tiny deviations will lead to catastrophes. Le Grand K’s unreliability “will start to be noticeable in the next decade or two in the electronics industry,” warns NIST physicist Richard Steiner. If your next smartphone is buggy, you’ll know which hunk of metal to blame.

So scientists continue to chase the perfect kilogram. “Maybe we have all been looking for too high-tech an answer,” says Stuart Davidson of England’s National Physical Laboratory. “There could be something really obvious out there we’ve missed.” The NPL’s website encourages others to give it a shot: Any better ideas on a postcard please. Until then, Le Grand K will remain king—short of true perfection, but as perfect as it gets.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

Astronomers Want Your Help Naming the Largest Unnamed Dwarf Planet in the Universe

iStock.com/jgroup
iStock.com/jgroup

Part of the fun of becoming involved in science is naming things. Entomologists are notorious for branding new species of insects with fanciful names, like the Star Wars fans who labeled apoid wasps Polemistus chewbacca and Polemistus yoda. Sometimes scientists invite the public’s opinion, as in the 2016 petition by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to have internet users name a polar research ship. They dubbed it Boaty McBoatFace. (That choice was overruled, and the ship is now known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough.)

Now, astronomers are looking to outsource the name of a dwarf planet. But the catch is that there’s no write-in ballot.

The planet, currently known as (225088) 2007 OR10, was discovered in 2007 in the Kuiper Belt orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune and may have a rocky, icy surface with a reddish tint due to methane present in the ice. It's bigger than two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt—Haumea and Makemake—but smaller than Pluto and Eris.

The three astronomers involved in its identification—Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz of Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California—are set to submit possible names for the dwarf planet to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). They’ve narrowed the choices down to the following: Gongong, Holle, and Vili.

Gonggong, a Mandarin word, references a Chinese water god who is reputed to have visited floods upon the Earth. Holle is a German fairy tale character with Yuletide connotations, and Vili is a Nordic deity who defeated a frost giant.

The team is accepting votes on the planet’s website through 2:59 EDT on May 11. The winning name will be passed on to the IAU for final consideration.

[h/t Geek.com]

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