The official kilogram. Credit: BIPM
By Margaret Harris
Pick the correct definition of a kilogram:
a) the mass of a body with a de Broglie wavelength of 6.626069311 x 10^-34 m at a velocity of 1 m/s
b) a mass of a body at rest such that Planck’s constant h is 6.626069311 x 10^-34 Js
c) a mass of exactly 5.0184512725 x 10^25 unbound carbon-12 atoms at rest in their ground state
d) the mass of a lump of platinum-iridium sitting under three vacuum jars in a French laboratory
Readers with an interest in metrology will know that the answer is d) — and anyone who didn’t know it could probably have guessed from the photo. But why is the kilogram, alone of all SI units, defined by something so un-fundamental as a lump of metal?
The difficulty, as Bryan Kibble explained this afternoon in a talk at the QuAMP conference in Leeds, is that several of the alternatives have problems of their own. Options a) and b) both rely on pinning down a value for Planck’s constant, and thus might seem like the best way to go; indeed, one of them may actually become the new SI definition, perhaps as early as 2011. However, Kibble argued, both options are somewhat circular, swapping uncertainty in the kilogram for uncertainty in other Planck-derived units, and there’s not really any new science involved in them.
A definition in terms of carbon-12 atoms — or indeed, any kind of atoms — would be more satisfying, Kibble says, but as efforts like the Avogadro project at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory have shown, counting atoms isn’t a trivial task.
Nobody offered any solutions during the question period after the talk, but we did manage to pin down one thing: any fluctuations in fundamental constants (like the fine structure constant, for example) will not affect the kilogram problem — at least not for around 1000 years. So that’s all right then.