The platonic ideal of a kilogram is represented by a lump of metal in a vault outside Paris. This lump of metal appears to be losing weight, however, having shed the "weight of a fingerprint" since it was stored. No one knows why.
Physicist Richard Davis of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, southwest of Paris, says the reference kilo appears to have lost 50 micrograms compared with the average of dozens of copies.
"The mystery is that they were all made of the same material, and many were made at the same time and kept under the same conditions, and yet the masses among them are slowly drifting apart," he said. "We don't really have a good hypothesis for it."
The kilogram's uncertainty could affect even countries that don't use the metric system -- it is the ultimate weight standard for the U.S. customary system, where it equals 2.2 pounds. For scientists, the inconstant metric constant is a nuisance, threatening calculation of things like electricity generation.
(Photo credit: Fair use is made here of a reduced-size crop from a larger image attributed to AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
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