Sunday, February 22, 2015

Weighty Matters

This morning an evil thing caught my attention: the bathroom scale. “Step on me!” it cried out soundlessly. I defied its siren call, but am likely to succumb at some point.

Inevitably (a wonderful adverb that extinguishes responsibility), I add pounds beginning Thanksgiving week and peak on or shortly after January 1. Rarely do those pounds begin to come back off before March. In modern fashion, I blame others for this, particularly greedy furniture manufacturers for making sofas so soft and comfortable that I sit on them too much instead of exercising to wear off excess calories. The sofas don’t even come with warning labels, except for the mysterious little tags that say, “This tag may not be removed under penalty of law.” Perhaps businesses should be forced to offer furniture made out of “healthy alternatives” such as concrete.  (Thomas Edison actually manufactured concrete furnishings in 1911 – they didn’t catch on.) Perhaps also there should be a hefty sin tax on soft cushions to discourage consumers from buying them. Or then again, I could stand up and walk around of my own accord, though that’s asking an awful lot.

Another option to lower my weight is to raise my elevation, though even at 10,000 feet above sea level weight is reduced only by about 0.1%. In order to drop a full pound I’d have to rise much too high to breathe. Besides, that is just weight. The real issue is mass: a balance scale will read the same at .1g as at 1g since both weights will have been reduced by the same amount.

The real solution is to buy a metric scale. This won’t change mass either, but at 2.2 pounds per kilogram, the number in the faceplate will be substantially lower, and that at least will be satisfying. Besides, a kg scale would be official. The US Congress formally adopted the metric system in 1866. Yes, it did. Not that it has made a difference. Not even the federal government makes much use of it even in minor matters. The 1970s stab at converting highway signs to kilometers, for example, was so unpopular the feds gave up on it after only a few years. Americans have some sense of weights though, thanks to their vices. P. J. O'Rourke: “Drugs have taught an entire generation of Americans the metric system.”

A couple of blogs ago I mentioned the redefinition of the second back in the 1960s. It was part of a general move toward defining measurements in fundamental and immutable terms. Scientists ran into trouble, though, while trying to redefine the kilogram as something other than the cylinder of 90% platinum and 10% iridium sitting in a case in Sèvres. (This chunk of metal itself was an 1889 redefinition of the previous “1000 cc of water” adopted by the French National Convention in 1795, a standard which had problems of its own.) The scientists’ problem in the 1960s was that redefinitions put on the table for the kg either were tautological or still effectively required weighing a physical object, so what was the point? Yet, the mass of the IPK (International Prototype Kilogram) cylinder isn’t constant. No matter how well it is protected, some contamination to the surface is inescapable. According to Livescience, the IPK “has gained tens of micrograms of mass” since it was cast. Since the IPK by definition is the kilogram, and since carefully made copies will contaminate at different rates in different environments, undesirable inconsistencies are introduced into very precise measurements.

Relief is on the way. In 2015 the kilogram is the last remaining SI (Le Système International d'Unités) measurement defined by a particular physical object, but a proposal exists for redefining it in terms of the Planck constant. In 2010 the International Committee for Weights and Measures put this on the agenda for 2014 but then delayed it to 2015. If this new definition is accepted, the problem will be resolved, though the technical challenges of measuring mass this way mean that all but a handful of people still will opt for a balance scale and metal weights.

If the new kilogram is large enough (perhaps we can include those contaminants), I can lower the readout on the bathroom scale a bit. That beats the alternative of eating less and exercising more. Anything but that.

Beatles – Carry That Weight



  1. Yes, I blame the weather a lot, also my allergies, but the furniture could be another scapegoat. I feel your pain gain, for I too have put on a few pounds since Thanksgiving. I tell myself once spring gets here, I'll get out more and shed a few pounds. But I've been known for lying every now and then. :)

    1. It reminds me of the HG Wells story "The Truth About Pyecraft" in which Pyecraft buys a potion to make him lose weight, which it does literally without affecting his size. I'd be satisfied with reversing that result.

  2. Yeah I bulk up for winter. You know to stay warm in California... um yeah... You're remark about moving to a higher altitude cracked me up. Orbital platforms for the win!

    1. That inverse square rule for gravity just doesn't help that much at achievable heights. Now if it were an inverse cube...but then I suppose the universe would have flown apart by now and we wouldn't be here.