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The Kilogram, Reinvented
from IEEE Spectrum
Once a year, three officials bearing three separate keys meet at the bottom of a stairwell at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, in Sèvres, France. There they unlock a vault to check that a plum-size cylinder of platinum iridium alloy is exactly where it should be. Then they close the vault and leave the cylinder to sit alone, under three concentric bell jars, as it has for most of the past 125 years.
This lonely cylinder is the International Prototype of the Kilogram, known colloquially as Le Grand K, and it is the last remaining physical object to define a unit of measure. It's a quaint throwback to a time when people compared the ocean's depth to the span of a man's outstretched arms and the second to a tiny fraction of a year.
Now we fix our rulers to the speed of light and our clocks to a spectral property of cesium. By thus linking measurement to fundamental and unchanging phenomena, scientists have paved the way for GPS satellites, gravity-wave detectors, and many other precision technologies that simply wouldn't have been possible before.