Another repost from Felloffatruck Publications, this one from 24 September 2007. Folk seemed to like the post … although most of them found it through searches such as How much do celebrities weigh? I’m not sure that most of those searchers got what they were seeking. It’s not a question I would have thought to ask anyway; to me, the only sensible answer is “enough”. Unless you’re one of these Auschwitz-memorial fashion models.
Are you a scale-hopper? C’mon, fess up. You can tell me. No one’s going to know. It’s not like you’re posting your personal data on I Can Has Cheezburger? or something.
You step on this infernal machine, which is probably in your bathroom, and it tells you just how round you’re getting. To the pound. If you’re fancier people than me, you might have a scale with a digital readout that tells you your weight in pounds to 17 decimal places.
Or maybe you’re not a Damyank, and your scale’s in kilograms. Make that kilogrammes, you spelling purists. You’re still getting told you’re getting fat in far more detail than you ever thought possible. Or necessary.
Or are you? Sure, you have this lovely number that tells you how much you weigh to 17 decimal places. OK, five. In pounds. Or kilogram(me)s. Or livres. Or slugs. No, not that kind of slug. This kind of slug. What? You didn’t know you could weigh yourself in slugs? And you don’t want to? Oh, never mind. Let’s pick a unit and move on. Kilograms. There’s a reason. Hang with me. And I’m leaving the extra letters off. So there.
Anyway. You have this number. It tells you what you weigh. In kilograms. Which is fine. More or less fine depending on what that number is. And if you know what a kilogram is.
Made you think, did I? What is a kilogram? How do you know? I mean, what would you do if someone asked you how tall you are in cubits? It could happen. Ask Bill Cosby, in the famous Noah skit:
God: I want you to build an ark.
Noah: Riiight … What’s an ark?
God: Get some wood. Build it 300 cubits by 80 cubits by 40 cubits.
Noah: Riiight … What’s a cubit?
God: Let’s see. A cubit. I used to know what a cubit was …
Turns out, a cubit is the length of an extended human arm from the elbow to the tip of the index finger. Which is fine. Until you ask: whose arm? Mine, or Yao Ming’s? Trust me, if we’re both making widgets, and he’s using his cubit and I’m using mine, we are going to have some difficulties with the interchangeability of parts.
Which, in an industrial society that expects my Lexus to take the same parts as anybody else’s Lexus (this sentence shall not be taken to mean that I have a Lexus; at present what I do have is a bus pass, but – another time, shall we?), simply is not cool. Somebody’s gotta pick an arm and say “This one”. And we’ve all got to agree. “Yep, this one’s the one.” And then the arm has to be measured, and the information preserved. The information, not the arm. No one I know is about to give up his right arm for the sake of knowing what a cubit is.
That’s what happened with the kilogram. Somewhere in Paris is this slug of metal, sitting in a sealed room, which scientists in the 19th century all agreed, “This is a kilogram”.
Which is fine. So long as the thing don’t change.
The scientists in the 19th century did the best they could. The slug of metal is an alloy of platinium and iridium, two metals that don’t rust or corrode. They made several precisely-measured copies and sent them to various places around the world, so they could be used to compare with each other and make sure no one made off with any chips. They sealed them off from the outside world as best they can.
But the bottom line is that, today, the kilogram is lighter than it used to be.
Think about that a minute. I’ve just been slogging, and sweating, and turning myself into an asocial ogre with the hungry horrors, all to get a few digits taken off that monstrous measuring device in my bathroom. Only to discover that I have to give it all back because the kilogram (and therefore the pound) is lighter than it used to be! People have jumped off tall buildings for less.
OK, I’m exaggerating. The total change in the mass of “the” kilogram over more than 120 years is less than the weight of a single fingerprint. But even this much variation, in a world where bathroom scales are measuring the weights of ordinary people to 17 decimal places, could do a lot of damage. For instance, it could cause spacecraft that should be in orbit around Mars to crash into Mars. No, wait, that was somebody who forgot to convert inches into centimetres, wasn’t it? Oh, well …
Anyway. “The” metre used to be a metal bar in a sealed vault somewhere in Paris – until they discovered that it changes length with time and temperature. Now, “the” metre is the calculated distance that light will travel in a vacuum in 1/299792458ths of a second. Speaking of decimal places. The scientists are working on a similar definition of a kilogram, so they can retire that damned changeable platinum/iridium bar.
Which is fine.
Just so long as they don’t mess with my bathroom scale. I’m having enough trouble managing what it’s telling me as it is.
– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.