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Old Dusty Kilogram Swapped for Something More Stable: Scientists

It has taken years of work to fine-tune the new definition to ensure the switchover will be smooth.

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Kilogram
The International Prototype of the Kilogram (IPK) is pictured in Paris, France, in this undated photo obtained from social media. VOA

After years of nursing a sometimes dusty cylinder of metal in a vault outside Paris as the global reference for modern mass, scientists are updating the definition of the kilogram.

Just as the redefinition of the second in 1967 helped to ease communication across the world via technologies like GPS and the internet, experts say the change in the kilogram will be better for technology, retail and health — though it probably won’t change the price of fish much.

The kilogram has been defined since 1889 by a shiny piece of platinum-iridium held in Paris. All modern mass measurements are traceable back to it — from micrograms of pharmaceutical medicines to kilos of apples and pears and tons of steel or cement.

kilogram, weight
Border Security Force officials showing 17 kilogram heroine.

The problem is, the “international prototype kilogram” doesn’t always weigh the same. Even inside its three glass bell jars, it gets dusty and dirty, and is affected by the atmosphere. Sometimes, it really needs a wash.

“We live in a modern world. There are pollutants in the atmosphere that can stick to the mass,” said Ian Robinson, a specialist in the engineering, materials and electrical science department at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory.

“So when you just get it out of the vault, it’s slightly dirty. But the whole process of cleaning or handling or using the mass can change its mass. So it’s not the best way, perhaps, of defining mass.”

What’s needed is something more constant.

kilogram, weight
The Kilogram. Flickr

So, at the end of a week-long meeting in the Palace of Versailles, Paris, the world’s leading measurement aficionados at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures will vote Friday to make an “electronic kilogram” the new baseline measure of mass.

Just as the meter — once the length of a bar of platinum-iridium, also kept in Paris — is now defined by the constant speed of light in a vacuum, so a kilogram will be defined by a tiny but immutable fundamental value called the “Planck constant.”

The new definition involves an apparatus called the Kibble balance, which makes use of the constant to measure the mass of an object using a precisely measured electromagnetic force.

Paris,diesel,kilogram, weight
The kilogram has been defined since 1889 by a shiny piece of platinum-iridium held in Paris.VOA

“In the present system, you have to relate small masses to large masses by subdivision. That’s very difficult — and the uncertainties build up very, very quickly,” Robinson said.

“One of the things this [new] technique allows us to do is to actually measure mass directly at whatever scale we like, and that’s a big step forward.”

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He said it had taken years of work to fine-tune the new definition to ensure the switchover will be smooth.

But while the extra accuracy will be a boon to scientists, Robinson said that, for the average consumer buying flour or bananas, “there will be absolutely no change whatsoever.” (VOA)

Next Story

Scientists to Detect and Count Stranded Whales from Space

It is hoped that in the future the technique will lead to real-time information as stranding events happen

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Scientists, Whales, Space
Now we have a higher resolution 'window' on our planet, satellite imagery may be a fast and cost-effective alternative to aerial surveys allowing us to assess the extent of mass whale stranding events, especially in remote and inaccessible areas. Pixabay

Analysing satellite images may help scientists detect and count stranded whales from space, new research has found.

In a study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers tested a new detection method using Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite images from space tech compnay Maxar Technologies.

“This is an exciting development in monitoring whales from space,” said lead author Peter Fretwell at British Antarctic Survey.

“Now we have a higher resolution ‘window’ on our planet, satellite imagery may be a fast and cost-effective alternative to aerial surveys allowing us to assess the extent of mass whale stranding events, especially in remote and inaccessible areas.”

Scientists, Whales, Space
In a study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers tested a new detection method using Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite images from space tech compnay Maxar Technologies. Pixabay

It is hoped that in the future the technique will lead to real-time information as stranding events happen.

The study by scientists from British Antarctic Survey and four Chilean research institutes, could revolutionise how stranded whales, that are dead in the water or beached, are detected in remote places.

In 2015, over 340 whales, most of them sea whales, were involved in a mass-stranding in a remote region of Chilean Patagonia.

The stranding was not discovered for several weeks owing to the remoteness of the region. Aerial and boat surveys assessed the extent of the mortality several months after discovery.

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The researchers studied satellite images covering thousands of kilometres of coastline, which provided an early insight into the extent of the mortality.

They could identify the shape, size and colour of the whales, especially after several weeks when the animals turned pink and orange as they decomposed.

A greater number of whales were counted in the images captured soon after the stranding event than from the local surveys.

Scientists, Whales, Space
“This is an exciting development in monitoring whales from space,” said lead author Peter Fretwell at British Antarctic Survey. Pixabay

“The causes of marine mammal strandings are poorly understood and therefore information gathered helps understand how these events may be influenced by overall health, diet, environmental pollution, regional oceanography, social structures and climate change,” said study co-author and whale biologist Jennifer Jackson at British Antarctic Survey.

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“As this new technology develops, we hope it will become a useful tool for obtaining real-time information. This will allow local authorities to intervene earlier and possibly help with conservation efforts,” Jackson said. (IANS)