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The Unbearable Lightness of the Kilogram, Universes Next Door, and the Occupy Movement

November 29th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Books, Chicago, Culture, Essays, Fringe, Journalism, News, Performance, Politics, Science, The Economy, Stupid, TV, Writing

Context: This essay was written for, and performed in, the November 19, 2011 edition of The Paper Machete, a weekly showcase for Chicago journalists, comedians, and other writers, hosted by Christopher Piatt. I’m just getting around to posting it now because, well, my own universe is fairly chaotic and other deadlines prevailed. You are encouraged to mentally translate references to “this week” as “a week or so ago.”


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a shiny hunk of metal in the shape of a cylinder. This particular cylinder is made of platinum and iridium, and it’s kept under three different bell jars, locked away in a vault outside of Paris. It requires three different officials with three different keys to access it. Human hands are not allowed to touch it, except under special circumstances, on rare occasions.

It’s even known by a special name: Le Grand K. Or Le Grand Kah, if you want to be very French about it, and since we’re all grown-ups here I suppose we can.

What’s so special about this particular metal cylinder? According to an article in the October 2011 issue of Wired magazine, Le Grand K is currently one of the loadbearing support beams of the metric system. The kilogram by definition is equal to the weight of the international prototype, which is the majestic cylindrical beast known as Le Grand K.

Once a year, the officials with the three keys sneak a look at Le Grand K to make sure it’s safe and sound. And about every 40 years, Le Grand K is given a ceremonial weigh-in. Its weight is compared with that of a number of duplicate cylinders, including the ones used as the national standards for other countries, which have traveled all the way to France for the occasion. The cylinder for the US usually lives in an underground vault outside of Washington, D.C. Missing Paris in the springtime something fierce, no doubt.

So here’s the beautiful part: For no good reason that anybody understands, since the 1940s, as compared to the duplicate cylinders, Le Grand K has been mysteriously losing weight.

Either that, or the entire universe has been getting fatter. Really, it amounts to the same thing —since the metric system is the unitary lingua franca of modern science, in some sense every measurement scientists make depends on it. So if something alters the mass of Le Grand K, then by definition, that changes the mass of everything in the universe.

By 1988, when the last official weigh-in was conducted, this discrepancy in mass had grown to be “as much as five hundredths of milligram,” or as Wired puts it, “about the weight of a dust speck.”

You might be thinking that’s not too much to worry about. My own weight can easily vary a good five pounds between morning and evening, depending on the buoyancy of my mood and whether I’ve even thought about anything made from a potato. But for engineers working to, say, make smaller computer chips and expand the frontiers of nanotechnology, that dust speck is a pretty big pea under the mattress of science.

And so the caretakers of our system of weights and measures are, to use another French phrase, losing their merde about this.

Scientists are now working feverishly to redefine the mass of one perfect kilogram based on a constant of nature — a measurement that can’t change, according to the laws of physics — rather than a physical object that might be secretly worrying about what its ass looks like in those jeans. One team of scientists in Germany is attempting to count the number of atoms in a perfect 1-kilogram sphere of silicon precisely enough that the kilogram can be defined as an exact number of silicon atoms. Another team in Maryland is working to redefine the kilogram in terms of the precise amount of electric voltage needed to lift Le Grand K into the air.

A third team, working out of my apartment, is attempting to define the kilogram in terms of the precise number of swear words needed to remove a kilogram of cat hair from the sofa using an ordinary sticky roller.

But talking about unchanging laws of nature leads us to another area of disturbing inconsistency that’s keeping some scientists from sleeping peacefully. In the December issue of Harper’s Magazine, there is an essay by Alan Lightman called “The Accidental Universe: Science’s Crisis of Faith.” (Online version is available only to subscribers, alas.) Alan Lightman is a physicist and a professor at MIT, but most people will know him as the author of a spiffy little book called Einstein’s Dreams.

Lightman tells us that what we have thought of as universal laws of nature may be more like … local customs. He writes:

“Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents — a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.”

In other words, physicists used to think that the basic laws that govern our universe would hold true for all of the other universes throughout the multiverse. Now they think that those laws might change from universe to universe, like the speed limit being different in Indiana than it is in Illinois. I’m not entirely sure from reading the essay what these differences might be, but I suppose that there may be universes where the speed of light is different, or water boils at a some other temperature, or where things you buy at the store come in packaging that can be opened without sharp objects and the risk of personal injury. Or where cerebral TV sitcoms can stay on the air for more than three seasons without being canceled. (So long, Community.) [Update: Since I wrote this, it’s emerged that Community isn’t officially cancelled yet, just on hiatus and fairly thin ice. But still.]

This is understandably disturbing for those who want the world to hew to a consistent set of rules. It’s certainly easier to get around in Chicago, where the blocks are laid out on a consistent number grid, than in New York where you can walk one block east and find yourself apparently several blocks south of where you were, without even trying. And yet it appears that the multiverse may be laid out a little more like New York than Chicago. This is disorienting for scientists, who need consistency in order to do what they do — but then again, we might console them that perhaps this means the multiverse will have better pizza. Although the apartments will be smaller — unless they’re on TV, in which case they will look bigger than most Midwestern houses.

I guess what I’m saying is, if the laws of the nature are less steadfast than we’ve been led to think, perhaps there’s some hope in that. If we must enlarge the realm of the possible, perhaps that creates additional room in the multiverse —even within our own universe — for unexpected good things as well as bad.

As recently as three months ago, I would have told you that it was a settled law of the political universe that street protests can’t change anything in the US. They’re too easy for the media and politicians to ignore, I would have said. They do nothing but wear people out, and then people go home feeling like they’ve made their best effort without having accomplished anything. None of the hours I spent marching around chanting in my twenties and thirties ever seemed to make the universe any lighter or any heavier.

And now look at us. Well — I say us, I mean them. The people younger than me who haven’t given up on street protest, in some cases because they hadn’t gotten around to trying it yet. When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I thought it would be another exercise in futility. And yet — just to offer one possible measurement of its success at influencing the public mood — by the time Bank Transfer Day rolled around on November 5th, more than 650,000 customers had opened new accounts at credit unions, transferring as much as $4.5 billion away from big banks. And suddenly bankers, like the guardians of Le Grand K, are feeling a growing unease over the unexpected loss of weight in their own vaults.

This week on MSNBC, Chris Hayes reported on a memo from a prominent lobbying firm addressed to one of its Wall Street clients, worrying that US politicians may begin to embrace the Occupy Wall Street agenda, which could have “very long-lasting political, policy and financial impacts on the companies in the center of the bullseye.”

I think about how suddenly the Berlin Wall fell when its time came, and I think of the Arab Spring, and the news story that Salman Rushdie tweeted this week, reporting that the government of Libya is now ceremonially unbanning books that had been blacklisted in the Gaddafi era — including those of Salman Rushdie. I watch the Occupy protesters on YouTube, taking batons to the stomach and pepper spray to the face, and although I’ve seen this kind of thing before, I no longer feel like what these particular protesters can accomplish is necessarily limited by constant and unchanging universal laws.

And I like to think that maybe, just maybe, the forbidding mass of political impossibility is getting lighter, leaking electrons away into the ether like Le Grand K.

Also: This morning I read that Netflix will be airing 10 brand-new episodes of Arrested Development beginning in early 2013. Which helps make up a little bit for the Community thing.



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