This November, Le Grand K will be retired. For more than 100 years, this little cylinder of metal has been the kilogram upon which all kilograms are compared. It is the last physical object in the world still in use to determine mass. When it retires to a museum, so does the whole concept of using physical objects as arbiters of measurement. Going forward, all measurements will be based on atoms.
I learned about the retirement of Le Grand K from Simon Winchester’s first public book signing for The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. Fifty people came to Barnes & Noble on a nice spring day in New York to learn about the history of precision from the .1 inch cylinder that saved steam engine design to the 10^ -38 inch cylinder used in LIGO today. Winchester was on his way to DC where he’d meet for the first time the man who suggested in the first place that he write a book about precision. This man, Colin he’s called, is a scientific glass blower and made for Winchester a Klein bottle, which Winchester produced from his podium and showed to the crowd. Very difficult to make in practice, a Klein bottle is like a Mobius strip without edges. It is not terribly precise, and neither is Le Grand K compared to its atom-measured modern counterparts, and is therefore a tribute to imprecision.
In chapter 11 of Janna Levin’s book How The Universe Got Its Spots, she suggests the Klein bottle as one of the many shapes that the universe could be in order to appear infinite but actually be finite.
Winchester delighted us with stories of automobiles, steam engines, locks, aircraft engines, and cell phones, all of which can be found in his book, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, on sale today from Harper wherever good books are sold. Pick one up from Powell’s.