Scientists just voted to change the definition of a kilogram
The definition of a kilogram will now be fixed to Planck's constant, a fundamental part of quantum physics.
- The new definition of a kilogram is based on a physical constant in quantum physics.
- Unlike the current definition of a kilogram, this measurement will never change.
- Scientists also voted to update the definitions of several other measurements in physics.
Since 1889, the definition of a kilogram has been the mass of one particular chunk of platinum-iridium alloy called the International Prototype Kilogram, stored at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France.
The cylindrical hunk of metal, nicknamed Big K, has many copies around the world that are used to calibrate scales and keep society in agreement on what constitutes a kilogram and other units of measurement. This helps the global economy to function smoothly.
But this system has a fundamental problem: Big K loses mass over time, about 50 micrograms since its creation, or the mass of an eyelash, as Vox reports. Strangely, when this happens, the definition of a kilogram stays the same. (After all, a kilogram is defined simply as the mass of Big K.) This causes headaches for industries and fields of study that have to account for the miniscule changes.
That's set to change. On Friday morning, scientists at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles voted to change the definition of a kilogram, opting to affix it to a physical constant that will never change, whether you're measuring it on Earth or light years away in the cosmos.
"Today marks the culmination of decades of work by measurement scientists around the world, the significance of which is immense," said Barry Inglis, director of the International Committee for Weights and Measures. "We will now no longer be bound by the limitations of objects in our measurement of the world, but have universality accessible units that can pave the way to even greater accuracy, and even accelerate scientific advancement."
Starting May 2019, a kilogram will be defined in terms of Planck's constant, a fundamental constant in quantum physics that links the amount of energy a photon carries with the frequency of its electromagnetic wave.
Here's a relatively simplified explanation of Planck's constant from the University of Windsor:
"In 1900, Max Planck was working on the problem of how the radiation an object emits is related to its temperature. He came up with a formula that agreed very closely with experimental data, but the formula only made sense if he assumed that the energy of a vibrating molecule was quantized — that is, it could only take on certain values. The energy would have to be proportional to the frequency of vibration, and it seemed to come in little 'chunks' of the frequency multiplied by a certain constant. This constant came to be known as Planck's constant, or h, and it has the value 6.626x10-34 J x s"
It's complicated, but the philosophy behind the change is clean and simple: Scientists are using unchanging properties of nature — tiny, discrete bits of energy — to move the world from a relative unit of measurement into one that's universal and absolute.
A more decentralized calibration system
Image source: Jennifer Lauren Lee, for the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
One upside to the change is decentralization. Soon, anyone will be able to derive the exact definition of a kilogram, while in the past you needed to directly compared the mass of an object to Big K, or one of its copies, to exactly measure a kilogram.
Now, you just need a Kibble balance, which, in simplified terms, can find Planck's constant by translating the mechanical energy produced by the mass of an object into an equivalent amount of electrical energy. The Kibble balance is a highly expensive and complicated instrument, but they could become cheaper and more accessible in the future.
The International System of Units will also receive several other updates in 2019:
- The kilogram – will be defined by the Planck constant (h)
- The ampere – will be defined by the elementary electrical charge (e)
- The kelvin – will be defined by the Boltzmann constant (k)
- The mole – will be defined by the Avogadro constant (NA)
- Developing a new balance for the new kilogram -- ScienceDaily ›
- Kilogram conflict resolved at last : Nature News & Comment ›
- kilogram gets a new definition - BBC News ›
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- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
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- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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