Nothing is as it seems

We tend to take reality for granted. Not surprising, really, since to question it may lead to uncomfortable revelations. Such as different realities! And if realities as we understand them are not fixed and permanent then how can we be sure of anything? Far easier to just let things be.

Still, such a basic existential question arises from a snippet of news that emerged the other day. And a very weighty issue it is, too. For, it seems, our kilogram has put on weight. Let me explain . . .

In our ever-so-regulated world we need certain standards to ensure uniformity. This provides us with a degree of certainty and – in more recent mass consumerist times – enables authorities to crack down on rip-offs. How unfortunate it should be that one of the absolute realities of existence is that there is always someone out there, ready to take us down. But I digress!

So, 137 years ago in Paris, a lump of platinum-iridium was weighed very carefully indeed and was established as the official, exact, one kilogram measure. It was replicated numerous times and these Sons of Kilo were dispatched around the world so other nations could have their real kilo for their calibration purposes, too.

And, there in a vault in a Paris basement, sat our original kilogram doing not very much at all. Except it got heavier. And the replicas also diverged in their weight! Not by  much admittedly but how to explain weight gain by a lump of ore that appears not to consume anything or shed anything?

A Professor who has dedicated himself to such matters has gone in search of answers and taken lots of very exacting measurements through X-ray photo-electron spectroscopy. His findings are quite intriguing.

To his surprise, he found the original kilogram had lots of mercury attached to it. Well, lots of is a very relativistic term. We’re talking micrograms here. Still, how did the mercury get onto the ore? Seems our weight was stored near mercury thermometers and they, being generous souls, shared with their supposedly inert colleague.

I tell ya, the things that go on in laboratories under the cover of darkness!

Then there was ‘carbonaceous contamination’. You and I might call this dust. And we know from our own homes just how voluminous and intrusive this bloody stuff is. Not that our Kilo was not kept under cover. But dust is determined, it seems, and Kilo attracted some billionths of his total mass thanks to his new friends the dust motes. Attraction is such a beautiful thing.

Anyway, our scientific colleagues are determined to put things right and restore rality to its proper place so they are going to give Kilo a big clean. Their choice of ‘detergent’ is UV light and an ozone wash. When they’ve finished, Kilo will be trim and svelte, just like new in fact, but he won’t have any friends accompanying him on his journey through time.

Spare a thought, then, for Kilo as he serves our greater interests and don’t forget to ponder just how flexible reality can be.


Acknowldgement: Tom Whipple, The Times.