Thursday, July 18, 2013

A documentary film about the Kilogram and the scientific efforts to redefine it



Amy Young (USA) - The State of the Unit documentary follows a historic decision in the field of metrology: to redefine the kilogram through a relationship of fundamental constants of physics, specifically Planck’s constant h.

Since 1889, a “kilogram” has been defined to be the mass of a specific platinum-iridium cylinder, secured in a vault outside of Paris. But measurements every few decades since then have shown that the mass of the cylinder is changing.

Starting from popular headlines about how “the kilogram is losing weight,” the film continues the discussion in more depth with the scientists who strive to reach the highest levels of precision in measurement.

This almost imperceptible accuracy comes from commercial needs for improved standards. Achieving this precision requires a changing how the units are defined: All base units will be linked to unchanging characteristics of building blocks of the universe, aptly named the fundamental constants of physics. One such constant is c, the speed of light in vacuum. Planck’s constant, among several other scientific definitions, is essentially a conversion factor, which determines the relation between the wavelength of a photon and the photon’s energy.

Typically throughout history, measurement standards have been man-made artifacts, sized to fit commonly used objects and quantities, such as a bottle of wine, or a sack which a donkey could carry all day. In contrast to human-sized standards, definitions based on atomic-sized particles and events, are much less accessible to the general population.

When asking whether the general public can understand Planck’s constant, the larger question arises: Should the average person be able to understand where their standards come from? Ignorance of measures leads to mistakes and, often, fraud.

Before the French Revolution, merchants and farmers faced different standards when selling their goods in Paris. To address these difficulties—a top complaint of the clergy, nobility, and working classes—King Louis XVI initiated standardized measures, which evolved into today’s metric system.

Even today, renters and landlords don’t always agree on the square footage of apartments in New York City. Buyers and sellers often come up with different numbers.

The atomic-level definitions, called the New SI, offer vastly better standards. But we will know later whether the New SI encourages the public to deepen their knowledge of physics or to accept the standards without understanding their origins.

The filming to date includes visits to historic sites, national metrology labs and other institutions in France, Germany, and the United States.

In addition to many scientists, Amy has filmed historians and experts in metrology education who look at measuring in daily life, the historical developments of measuring weight/mass, and the impact of fair and open standards on trade and society as a whole.

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About Amy Young:
Amy Young graduated with an MFA in Film Directing from the California Institute of the Arts. Her films reflect her interests in history, science, and questions of perception and ethics.

Before going back to school to study film, Amy worked as a web developer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and technical script consultant on the CBS television show NUMB3RS. Currently she is a video production specialist at Illinois Wesleyan University.

For more information about the The State of the Unit: The Kilogram documentary click here.

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