International System of Units overhauled in historic vote

International prototype of the kilogram

All modern mass measurements are derived from the kilogram, whether micrograms of pharmaceutical medicine or gold dust, kilos of fruit or fish, or tonnes of steel.

Untill now, the kilogram is defined as the being equal to the mass of the International Prototype of the Kilogram (IPK), a cylinder of a platinum alloy stored at the BIPM in France.

"We know from comparing the kilogram in Paris with all the copies of the kilogram that are all around the world that there are discrepancies between them and Le Grand K itself", Dr Stuart Davidson, head of mass spectrometry at the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom told the BBC.

For 130 years, a kilogram has been defined by a lump of metal sitting in a vault in Paris. The update will take effect May 20. Scientists at the meeting were giddy with excitement: some even sported tattoos on their forearms to mark the moment.

The real prototype is-and will continue to be-kept in Paris at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), the arbiter of global measurement standards since the Meter Convention in 1875.

Nobel Prize-winning American physicist William Phillips called the update "the greatest revolution in measurement since the French revolution", which ushered in the metric system of metres and kilogrammes. Scientists want to keep studying them to see whether their masses decay over time.

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The change will have no discernible impact for most people. Rather than basing the unit on this physical object, henceforth, the measurement will be based on a fundamental factor in physics known as Planck's constant.

Unlike a physical object, the new formula for the kilo, now also known as "the electric kilo", can not pick up particles of dust, decay with time, or be dropped and damaged. This will result in a more democratic system and that is something we can definitely get behind! "We're in chaos", said Barry Inglis, a scientist from Australia.

Bathroom scales won't suddenly get kinder when the definition of a kilogram changes. "This will pave the way for far more accurate measurements and lays a more stable foundation for science".

Quantum phenomena that are identical everywhere are already used to define the second, which is the SI unit for time, and the meter, the SI unit for distance. He said Friday's gathering "was just leaving me in a puddle of tears".

Other SI units with new definitions include the mole, kelvin, ampere, and candela. The kelvin will be based on quantum-level measures of atomic motion and will be tied to the Boltzmann constant that relates an object's energy to its temperature, as well as on the Planck and cesium frequency constants; while the mole will be based on an improved value for Avogadro's constant.

At the General Conference on Weights and Measures (yes, this is a real thing), in Versailles, scientists from more than 50 nations weighed in on the historic vote. "This is the most important decision that the BIPM has made in maybe 100 years, which may be a slight exaggeration, but at least since 1960 when they adopted the International System of Units", Terry Quinn, emeritus director of the BIPM, told Engadget last year. Very rarely have they seen the light of day.

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