The Case of The Garlic Calzone

I’m on an after-lunch hike through the park, trying to digest one of Pizza Eddie’s roasted garlic calzones. Vinnie’s walking a path that joins mine. “Hey, Sy. Whoa, lemme get upwind of you. You did the garlic calzone again, huh?”

“Yeah, and this time Eddie went two cloves over the line and didn’t roast them enough. Talk to me, take my mind off it, OK?”

“Sure. Uhhh… Let’s get back to kilograms which I got started on from a magazine article saying they’re chucking the old kilogram for something better. We were talking about that but got sidelined with measuring time and distance. So what’s the better thing?”

“They weren’t really sidelines, Vinnie, they were setting-up exercises. The technical world needs a set of measurement standards that are stable and precisely reproducible anywhere, any time. The old kilogram, the IPK, isn’t any of that. It’s a polished cylinder of platinum-iridium alloy in a Paris vault. You can’t reproduce it exactly, just very close. All you can do is bring a candidate object to Paris, measure the mass difference between it and the IPK, and then carry your newly-certified junior standard home to calibrate other masses on down the line. And hope you don’t scratch yours or get fingermarks on it en route.”

“But if we’re talking mass, why did time and distance standards even come into the conversation?”

“Several becauses. High-accuracy time measurement is fundamental to all the modern standards; much of the laser technology that supports the new time standard also plays into the other revised standards; and the time standard is the simplest one to describe and implement. No matter where you are, you can build a cesium-atom maser and fire it up. Start counting peaks in the maser beam and when you reach the defined number you’ve been counting for exactly one second. <burp> Excuse me.”

“You’re ‘scused. Yeah, the distance thing is pretty simple, too, now they’ve defined the speed of light as a standard. Is the mass standard that simple?”

“Nowhere near. In fact, it’s easier to describe the technique than to explain why it meets the requirements. It depends upon an apparatus called the Kibble Balance, named in honor of the late Bryan Kibble who devoted two decades of his life to perfecting the machine. Like with the spring balance we talked about, you estimate an object’s mass by comparing the force of gravity on it to some opposing force that you can quantify. The object in question goes on the Balance’s test pan. The opposing ‘pan’ is essentially a motor-generator, just a permanent magnet and a moving coil of wire.”

“Alright, I know enough about motors to see that’s complicated. To figure the balance of forces you gotta know the magnet’s strength and geometry, the coil’s resistance and geometry and speed, the voltage across it, the current through it… They’re none of them exact numbers. And you gotta account for how gravity can be different somewhere else like on Mars. Hard to see how that’s much of an improvement.”

“That’s the beauty of it. Kibble’s machine and measurement protocol are designed so that many of the finicky quantities drop out of the calculation. What’s left is high-accuracy counting-type numbers.”

“Measurement protocol? It’s not just ‘load the test pan and read a dial’?”

“Nope, it’s a three-step process. First step is to measure g, the acceleration of gravity in the Kibble room. Galileo showed all masses accelerate the same so any mass will do. National standards labs can’t just take a value from a book. At their level of rigor g has measurably different values on different floors of the building. You need a high-accuracy gravimeter — a vertical evacuated pipe with a laser interferometer pointing up from the bottom. Drop a mirrored test mass down the pipe while an atomic clock records exactly when the falling mass passes each of hundreds of checkpoints. Two adjacent distance-time pairs gives you one velocity, two adjacent velocity-time pairs gives you one acceleration, average them all together. <BURP!> You got any antacid tablets?”

“Do I look like somebody with a first aid kit in my purse? Don’t answer that. Here.”

“Thanks. No more garlic calzones, ever.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Advertisements

An Official Mass Movement

A December nip’s in the air.  I’m in my office trying to persuade the heating system to be more generous, when Vinnie wanders in carrying a magazine.  “I been reading about how a pound won’t be a pound any more.”

This takes me a moment to work out.  “Ah, you’re talking kilograms, not pounds, right?”

“Pound, kilogram, same difference, they’re both weights.”

“No, they’re not.  A kilogram at the bottom of the sea would still be a kilogram at the top of a mountain, but a pound high up weighs less than a pound lower down.”

“In what alternate universe does that make sense?”

“In any universe where Galileo’s observations and Newton’s equations are valid.  Thanks to them we know the difference between weight and mass.”

“Which is…?”

“That’s where things get subtle and it took Newton to tease them apart.  It’s the difference between quantifying something with a spring scale and quantifying it with a balance.  Say you put a heavy object on a scale.  It pulls down on the spring and the spring pulls up on the object.  When everything stops moving, the upward and downward forces are equal.  Given the spring’s stretch-per-pound relationship, you can measure the stretch and figure out how many pounds of force the object exerts.”

“Yeah, so…?”

“So now you put the same object on one pan of a balance.  You put kilogram blocks on the other pan until the balance beam levels out.  The beam goes level because the two sides of the balance carry the same mass.  Count the blocks and you know your object’s mass in kilograms.”

“Like I said, same difference.”

“Nope, because you’ve done two different operations.  On a balance your object will match up with the same number of blocks wherever you go with them.  Balance measurements are all about mass.  With the spring scale you compared gravity’s force against some other kind of force.  If you go somewhere else where gravity’s weaker, say to the top of Mt Everest, the scale will show a different weight even though the mass hasn’t changed.”

“How much different?”

“Not much for most purposes — about two pounds per ton between sea-level and Mt Everest’s peak.  But that’s a huge variation for physicists who look for clues to the Universe in the 5th or 6th decimal place.  High tech science and engineering need measurements, like mass, that are precise, stable and reproducible in many labs.  You noticed that both of my example measurements are too approximate for the techs.”

“Sure, the scale thing can be off because the spring can get wonky with use.  Um, and you can only measure the stretch within a percent or so probably.  But you can count the kilogram blocks — that ought to be a pretty good number.”

“Count-based metrics are indeed the most precise, but they’re problematic in their own way.  For one thing, maybe the object isn’t an exact number of kilograms.  Best you can do is say it’s between and n+1 kilograms.  But it’s worse than that.  The kilogram blocks can get wonky, too — finger-marks, corrosion, all of that.”

“But you can counter that by comparing the daily-use blocks with a standard you don’t use much.”

“Which sooner or later gets wonky with use so you have re-calibrate it to a whole chain of calibration blocks going back to a lovingly preserved great-grandmaster standard block, but what do we do when we get to Mars where it’d be difficult to get the local standard back to Earth for a re-calibration?”

“I see the problem.  Is that why a kilogram won’t be a kilogram any more?”

“Well, that’s why The Kilogram won’t be Le grand K, the great-grandmaster standard — a carefully monitored hunk of platinum-iridium that’s actually kept in a guarded, climate-controlled vault in a Paris basement.  It’s taken out only once every few years to compare with its kin.  Even so it appears to have lost 50 micrograms since 1889.  We think.  So they’re demoting it.” 

“What’re they replacing it with?  Not another lump of metal, then?”

“Oh, no, they need something that’s precisely reproducible anywhere, preferably something that’s count-based.  The new standard will be official soon.  It’s a great physics story.”

~~ Rich Olcott