## Archive for the ‘SI’ Category

### How big is that fire?

August 12, 2022

Click on the image for a larger version. The picture is courtesy of Michael Newbry.

Friends, you may have noticed that we have recently entered a period of what is euphemistically called “enhanced risk of wildfires”.

And reports of wildfires from around the world include some truly apocalyptic images.

But many of these reports fail to communicate clearly one of the key metrics for fires: the size of the fire.

Some reports do mention the area affected in hectares (abbreviated as ha) or acres, but while I can just about grasp the meaning of one acre or one hectare – I struggle to appreciate the size of a fire covering, say, 6,000 hectares.

In order to convert these statistics to something meaningful, I work out the length of one side of a square with the same area.

Areas expressed in hectares.

A hectare is an area of 100 m x 100 m, or 0.1 km x 0.1 km so that there are 100 hectares in a square kilometre.

So to convert an area expressed in hectares to the side of the square of equal area one takes two steps.

• First one takes the square root of the number of hectares.
• One then divides by 10.

So for a fire with an area of 6,000 hectares the calculation looks like this:

• √6,000 = 77.4
• 77.4÷10 = 7.74 km

Since the original area was probably quite uncertain I would express this as being equivalent to a square with a side of 7 or 8 km.

Areas expressed in acres.

An acre is an area of 63.6 m x 6.36 m, or 0.64 km x 0.64 km so that there are roughly 2.5 acres in a hectare.

I can’t think of an easy way to get a good approximation for acres, but a bad approximation is better than no estimate at all. So I recommend, the following 3- or 4-step process:

• First one divides the number of acres by 2
• Then one takes the square root of half the number of acres.
• One then divides by 10.

So for a fire with an area of 15,000 acres the calculation looks like this:

• 15,000÷2 = 7,500
• √7,500 = 86.6
• 86.6÷10 = 8.7 km

At this point one can either just bear in mind that this is a slight over-estimate, or correct by 10%. In this context, the overall uncertainty in the estimate means the last step is barely worthwhile.

How bad is the situation in Europe?

Click on Image for larger version. Estimates of the cumulative area (in hectares) burned by wildfires in each of the EU countries. The red bars show data for this year, and the blue bars show the average area burned between 2006 and 2021.

There is a wonderful website (linkwhich publishes estimates of wildfire prevalence in all the countries of the EU. One output of the website is shown above:

• The blue bars shows the average area burned from 2006 to 2021
• The red bars shows the average area burned so far this year.

You can immediately see that Spain, Romania, and France are having bad years for wildfires.

But how big an area is 244,924 hectares – the area burned in Spain so far? Using the rule above, one can see that it is an area equivalent to a square with a side of 50 km – roughly equivalent to (say) the area of Cheshire.

The area burned in France so far this year is 60,901 hectares. Using the rule above, one can see that it is an area equivalent to a square with a side of 25 km.

When trying to visualise large areas expressed in hectares (or acres) I find it useful to work out the length of side of a square which would have the same area.

### The Last Artifact – At Last!

May 20, 2021

Friends, at last a film to which I made a minor contribution – The Last Artifact – is available in full online!

It’s the story of the redefinition of the kilogram which took place on this day back in May 2019.

The director Ed Watkins and his team carried out interviews at NPL back in August 2017 (link) and then headed off on a globe-trotting tour of National Metrology Laboratories.

Excerpts from the film were released last year (link), but somehow the entire film was unavailable – until now!

So set aside 90 minutes or so, put it onto as big a screen as you can manage, and relax as film-making professionals explain what it was all about!

The Last Artifact

### The Last Artifact

October 5, 2020

A long long time ago (May 2018) in a universe far far away (NPL), I was asked to take part in a film about the re-definition of four of the seven SI base units: The Last Artifact

The team – consisting of director Ed Watkins, videographer Rick Smith and sound recordist Parker Brown – visited my lab and I spent a happy afternoon and morning chatting.

I later heard that a version of the film was shown to VIPs in May 2019 when the kilogram, kelvin, candela and ampere were re-defined, and I was told that some my words had made the cut!

But then the film disappeared!

I wrote to director Ed Watkins earlier this year and he shared a version with me privately, and I was impressed. But there was still no version to share.

I am writing this because a set of clips have now emerged which will hopefully be relevant for classroom use.

I don’t think the clips individually make as much sense as the film as a whole because they lack the continuing narrative that the film provides. But they are still beautiful and provide views of otherwise unseen laboratories and artifacts and people.

Personally, I was shocked to see myself on film – so shocked I found it difficult to see the rest of the film clearly. But as my shock subsided, I grew to like the film.

This film is a not made for people like me, and it is not the film I would have made. Rather it is a film for non-scientists and schoolchildren. It is by turns gorgeous, colourful, engaging, and humorous. And when I showed it to a UK Science TV producer they said it worked for them!

The colour and music and sound quality are outstanding and make watching it a simple pleasure. I recall at the time noting that they were shooting at ‘8K’ resolution when I had only ever heard of ‘4k’: Now I know why!

This page contains links to all 12 films or you pick from the list below – the links are in the film’s title: Films with a red asterisk (*) feature me! (sometimes just my voice).Clips

Film 1: (Re)Defining The Universe  (1 miniute 55 seconds)

An introduction to what is meant by an ‘artifact’ ending with a beautiful shot of the international prototype of the kilogram itself.

Film 2 *: What is Metrology? (3 minutes 33 seconds)

An introduction the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and its role in the international measurement system: the SI.

Film 3 *: Metrologists (1 minutes 18 seconds)

Metrologists speak!.

Film 4 *: Measurement: System International (3 minutes 14 seconds)

An introduction the SI.

Film 5 *: The Hunk of Metal (3 minutes 33 seconds)

An introduction the international prototype of the kilogram.

Film 6 *: The History of Measurement (7 minutes 10 seconds)

A nice summary of the history of measurements.

Film 7 *: Redefinition and Fundamental Constants (2 minutes 48 seconds)

The idea of moving away from artifacts..

Film 8 : Avogadro’s Constant  (1 minutes 24 seconds)

One option for re-defining the kilogram

Film 9 : The Avogadro Sphere (2 minutes 37 seconds)

How to make an Avogadro Sphere.

Film 10 : Planck’s Constant (2 minutes 16 seconds)

Some chit chat about the Planck Constant.

Film 11 : Watt Balance (4 minutes 29 seconds)

The concept of weighing with electricity using a Kibble Balance. A chance to hear Ian Robinson speak.

Film 12 *: The Next  Frontier (3 minutes 31 seconds)

What changes after re-definition of the SI units?

### Getting there…

November 14, 2019

Life is a journey to a well-known destination. It’s the ‘getting there’ that is interesting.

The journey has been difficult these last few weeks. But I feel like I am ‘getting there

Work and non-work

At the start of 2019 I moved to a 3-day working week, and at first I managed to actually work around 3-days a week, and felt much better for it.

But as the year wore on, I have found it more difficult to limit my time at work. This has been particularity intense these last few weeks.

My lack of free time has been making me miserable. It has limited my ability to focus on things I want to do for personal, non-work reasons.

Any attention I pay to a personal project – such as writing this blog – feels like a luxurious indulgence. In contrast, work activities acquire a sense of all-pervading numinous importance.

But despite this difficulty – I feel like I am better off than last year – and making progress towards the mythical goal of work-life balance on the way to a meaningful retirement.

I am getting there!

Travelling

Mainly as a result of working too much, I am still travelling too much by air. But on some recent trips to Europe I was able to travel in part by train, and it was surprisingly easy and enjoyable.

I am getting there! By train.

My House

The last of the triple-glazing has been installed in the house. Nine windows and a door (around £7200 since you asked) have been replaced.

Many people have knowingly askedWhat’s the payback time?

• Using financial analysis the answer is many years.
• Using moral and emotional analysis, the payback has been instantaneous.

It would be shameful to have a house which spilt raw sewage onto the street. I feel the same way about the 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide my house currently emits every winter.

This triple-glazing represents the first steps in bringing my home up to 21st Century Standards and it is such a relief to have begun this journey.

I will monitor the performance over the winter to see if it coincides with my expectations, and then proceed to take the next steps in the spring of 2020.

I am getting there! And emitting less carbon dioxide in the process

Talking… and listening

Yesterday I spoke about the SI to more than 800 A level students at the Emmanuel Centre in London. I found the occasion deeply moving.

• Firstly, the positivity and curiosity of this group of group of young people was palpable.
• Secondly, their interest in the basics of metrology was heartwarming.
• Thirdly, I heard Andrea Sella talk about ‘ice’.

Andrea’s talked linked the extraordinary physical properties of water ice to the properties of ice on Earth: the dwindling glaciers and the retreat of sea-ice.

He made the connection between our surprise that water ice was in any way unusual with the journalism of climate change denial perpetrated by ‘newspapers’ such as the Daily Mail.

This link between the academic and the political was shocking to hear in this educational context – but essential as we all begin our journey to a new world in which we acknowledge what we have done to Earth’s climate.

We have a long way to go. But hearing Andrea clearly and truthfully denounce the lies to which we are being exposed was personally inspiring.

We really really are getting there.

### World Metrology Day 2019

May 19, 2019

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Monday 20 May – World Metrology Day 2019 – is a day towards which I have been working for the last 14 years.

Back in 2005, my NPL colleagues Richard Rusby,  Jonathan Williams and I compiled a report on possible methods for measuring the Boltzmann constant. The aim of the measurement would be to obtain an estimate of the Boltzmann constant with sufficiently small uncertainty that the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) would feel able to redefine what we mean by ‘one kelvin’ and ‘one degree Celsius’ in terms of this new estimate.

To cut a very very long story short, we succeeded. And tomorrow, that project comes to fruition.

Of course it wasn’t just me. Or even me and my immediate colleagues in the thermal team at NPL. We were helped by colleagues from across the laboratory, and from other institutions. Notably:

• Cranfield University who manufactured the key component in the experiment,
• The Korean National Laboratory KRISS and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Council who helped with isotopic analysis of argon gas.
• Colleagues helped us from:
• LNE-CNAM in France,
• INRIM in Italy,
• NIST in the USA,
• PTB in Germany,
• CEM in Spain.

And I have probably missed an important institution or partner from this list because – frankly – it has been a long haul!

But even this list doesn’t include all the other teams involved in the wider kelvin re-definition project.

Several other institutions also sought to independently measure the Boltzmann constant using a range of different techniques and the value chosen by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) was the weighted average of estimates from this international effort.

In all, hundreds of scientists, engineers and technical staff around the world have supported this effort and I feel humbled to have had the opportunity to take part in a project of this scale.

And it is not just the kelvin, today three other units will also be be redefined – the mole, the ampere and the kilogram.

In this troubled world, it is a real comfort to me to feel the friendships built and professional relationships created during these last 14 years.

I think it shows that the International System of Units is a living international institution which really works; which brings people together from around the globe to make measurements better. The SI is an institution of which the whole world can feel proud.

Happy World Metrology Day 🙂

### The Death Knell for SI Base Units?

January 30, 2019

I love the International System of Units – the SI.

Rooted in humanity’s ubiquitous need to measure things, the SI represents a hugely successful global human enterprise – a triumph of cooperation over competition, and accord over discord.

Day-by-day it enables measurements made around the world to be meaningfully compared with low uncertainty. And by doing this it underpins all of the sciences, every branch of engineering, and trade.

But changes are coming to the SI, and even after having worked on these changes for the last 12 years or so, in my recent reflections I have been surprised at how profound the changes will be.

Let me explain…

The Foundations of the SI

The SI is built upon the concept of ‘base units’. Unit amounts of any quantity are defined in terms of combinations of unit quantities of just a few ‘base units’. For example:

• The SI unit of speed is the ‘metre per second’, where one metre and one second are the base units of length and time respectively.
• The ‘metre per second’ is called a derived unit.
• The SI unit of acceleration is the ‘metre per second per second’
• Notice how the same base units are combined differently to make this new derived unit.
• The SI unit of force  is the ‘kilogram metre per second per second’.
• This is such a complicated phrase that this derived unit is given a special name – newton. But notice that it is still a combination of base units.

And so on. All the SI units required for science and engineering can be derived from just seven base units: the kilogram, metre, second, ampere, kelvin, mole and candela.

So these seven base units in a very real sense form the foundations of the SI.

The seven base units of the SI

This Hierarchical Structure is Important.

Measurement is the quantitative comparison of a thing against a standard.

So, for example, when we measure a speed, we are comparing the unknown speed against our unit of speed which in the SI is the metre per second.

So a measurement of speed can never be more accurate than our ability to create a standard speed – a known number of ‘metres per second‘ – against which we can compare our unknown speed.

FOR EXAMPLE: Imagine calibrating a speedometer in a car. The only way we can know if it indicates correctly is if we can check the reading of the speedometer when the car is travelling at a known speed – which we would have to verify with measurements of distance (in metres) and time (in seconds).

To create a standard speed, we need to create known distances and known time intervals. So a speed never be more accurately known that our ability to create standard ‘metres‘ and ‘seconds‘.

So the importance of the base units is that the accuracy with which they can be created represents a limit to the accuracy with which we could conceivably measure anything! Or at least anything expressed as in terms of derived unit quantities in the SI

This fact has driven the evolution of the SI. Since its founding in 1960, the definitions of what we mean by ‘one’ of the base units has changed only rarely. And the aim has always been the same – to create definitions which will allow more accurate realisations of the base units. This improved accuracy would then automatically affect all the derived units in SI.

Changes are coming to the SI.

In my earlier articles (e.g. here) I have mentioned that on 20th May 2019 the definition of four of the base units will change. Four base units changing at the same time!? Radical.

Much has been made of the fact that the base units will now be defined in terms of constants of nature. And this is indeed significant.

But in fact I think the re-definitions will lead to a broader change in the structure of the SI.

Eventually, I think they will lead to the abandonment of the concept of a ‘base unit’, and the difference between ‘base‘ units and ‘derived‘ units will slowly disappear.

The ‘New’ SI.

The seven defining constants of the ‘New’ SI.

In the ‘New’ SI, the values of seven natural constants have been defined to have exact values with no measurement uncertainty.

These are constants of nature that we had previously measured in terms of the SI base units. The choice to give them an exact value is based on the belief – backed up by experiments – that the constants are truly constant!

In fact, some of the constants appear to be the most unchanging features of the universe that we have ever encountered.

Here are four of the constants that will have fixed numerical values in the New SI:

• the speed of light in a vacuum, conventionally given the symbol c,
• the frequency of microwaves absorbed by a particular transition in Caesium, atoms conventionally given the symbol ΔνCs, (This funny vee-like symbol ν is the Greek letter ‘n’ pronounced as ‘nu’)
• the Planck constant, conventionally given the symbol h,
• the magnitude of the charge on the electron, conventionally given the symbol e.

Electrical Units in the ‘Old’ SI and the ‘New’ SI.

In the Old SI the base unit referring to electrical quantities was the ampere.

If one were to make a measurement of a voltage (in the derived unit volt) or electrical resistance (in the derived unit ohm), then one would have to establish a sequence of comparisons that would eventually refer to combinations of base units. So:

• one volt was equal to one kg m2 s-3 A-1 (or one watt per ampere)
• one ohm was equal to one kg m2 s-3 A-2 (or one volt per ampere)

Please don’t be distracted by this odd combination of seconds, metres and kilograms. The important thing is that in the Old SI, volts and ohms were derived units with special names.

To make ‘one volt’ one needed experiments that combined the base units for the ampere, the kilogram, the second and the metre in a clever way to create a voltage known in terms of the base units.

But in the New SI things are different.

• We can use an experiment to create volts directly in terms of the exactly-known constants ΔνCs×h/e.
• And similarly we can create resistances directly in terms of the exactly-known constants e2/h

Since h and e and ΔνCs have exact values in the New SI, we can now create volts and ohms without any reference to amperes or any other base units.

This change is not just a detail. In an SI based on physical constants with exactly-known values, the ability to create accurate realisations of units no longer discriminates between base units and derived units – they all have the same status.

It’s not just electrical units

Consider the measurement of speed that I discussed earlier.

In the Old SI we would measure speed in derived units of metres per second i.e. in terms of the base units the metre and the second. And so we could never measure a speed with a lower fractional uncertainty than we could realise the composite base units, the metre or the second.

But in the New SI,

• one metre can be realised in terms of the exactly-known constants c /ΔνCs
• one second can be realised in terms of the exactly-known constant ΔνCs

So as a consequence,

• one metre per second can be realised in terms of the exactly-known constant c

Since these constants are all exactly known, there is no reason why speeds in metres per second cannot be measured with an uncertainty which is lower than or equal to the uncertainty with which we can measure distances (in metres) or times (in seconds).

This doesn’t mean that it is currently technically possible to measure speeds with lower uncertainty than distances or times. What it means is that there is now nothing in the structure of the SI that would stop that being the case at some point in the future.

So in the new SI, any unit – a derived unit or a base unit – can be expressed in terms of  exactly-known constants. So there will no longer be any intrinsic hierarchy of uncertainty in the SI.

On 20th May 2019 as the new system comes into force, nothing will initially change. We will still talk about base units and derived units.

But as measurement science evolves, I expect that – as is already the case for electrical units – the distinction between base units and derived units will slowly disappear.

And although I feel slightly surprised by this conclusion, and slightly shocked, it seems to be only a good thing – making the lowest uncertainty measurements available in the widest possible range of physical quantities.

June 24, 2018

In just a few days, we will be setting up our stand about the International System of Units, the SI, at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (RSSSE).

In May 2019 the world plans to redefine four of the base units of the SI. The re-definition represents a profound change in our concept of measurement.

And it involves quantities with which most people are familiar, such as ‘a kilogram’, or ‘a degree Celsius’.

So we have thought long and hard about how to communicate this at RSSSE.

Where to start?

The geographical theory of knowledge  suggests that ‘explanations of concepts’ are like ‘directions from one place to another’.

And thus, when people visit our stand, we are obliged to start giving ‘directions’ from where they actually ‘are’.

Although we want to talk about the re-definition of the SI, we have to acknowledge that most people don’t actually know much about the SI.

So if we want to ‘start from where people are’, we first need to explain what the SI is now, and why it matters. And that is what we have done.

In the ‘orientation’ for colleagues who will be helping at the RSSSE, we have stressed three starting points to help orient visitors to the stand.

• At the heart of science and engineering, there is measurement.
• Measurement is the comparison of an unknown thing against a standard.
• In the International System of Units there are seven standard things against which all physical quantities are compared.

We then have seven hands-on demonstrations – one for each of the seven standard quantities (called ‘base units’)- which will hopefully serve as starting points for conversations.

Keep it simple!

In developing the ‘hands-on demonstrations we worked with the magical people at Science Projects to build apparatus that was robust and simple.

They have years of experience developing hands-on kit for museums and interactive science centres.

As we honed our initial ideas, Science Projects staff constantly challenged us to ‘keep it simple’. And in (almost) every case, their instincts were sound.

A demonstration which is engaging and which can be immediately grasped is a dramatically better starting point for a conversation than one which is beautifully sophisticated, but only elicits the Ah-yes,-I-see-now-moment after 5 minutes.

NPL tweaks!

We developed the demonstrations and tried them out on NPL’s Open Day in May. The stands all survived and people seemed happy with the demonstrations.

But because we are NPL, and because at RSSSE we also need to interact with Fellows of the Royal Society, we had to add some truly complex and amazing features that are right at the forefront of science.

• The ‘time team’ decided to develop an app that would allow people to compare the time on their own phones with the time from NPL’s Caesium atomic clock.
• The ‘length team’ decided they wanted to develop a laser interferometer that would measure the height of SI-bots in terms of the wavelength of light.
• The ‘mass team’ wanted to put an actual working Kibble balance on the stand at the Royal Society.

As I write this on Sunday 24th June, – none of these demonstrations are ready! But my colleagues are working hard and I am cautiously confident they will succeed.

If you get a chance to visit, the RSSSE is FREE and runs from Monday 2nd July 2018 until Sunday 9th July 2018.

### Summer Science

May 26, 2018

For some months now I have been preparing for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

We have been working with the fabulous team at Science Projects on developing seven demonstration experiments – one for each of the seven SI base units.

Being so distracted, the deadline for submitting a video almost passed me by. In fact my colleague Andrew Hanson and I remembered with just one day to go!

So after a necessarily short planning phase, Andrew and I shot the video below on Andrew’s iPhone.

The background noise on some of the sections was problematic and Andrew had to do a great deal of filtering to get anything close to intelligible.

But given that everything was shot in’one take’, we were pretty happy with it, even if it came out a bit long (5’20”)

The end of the film was forced on us because my colleagues from the ‘length team’ were both absent when the end of the film was shot at about 7:30 p.m.!

After feedback from the team at the Royal Society we were asked to shorten the video and we took that opportunity to re-shoot the start and end of the movie with a proper microphone.

And here is the final shortened version (2’34”) which should be on the Royal Society site next week.

I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks

Thanks to everyone who helped: Andrew Hanson, Brian Madzima, Rachel Godun, Stuart Davidson, Robin Underwood, Teresa Goodman, Lucy Culleton, Masaya Kataoka and Jonathan Fletcher

### The Last Artifact

May 20, 2018

Don’t pack away your Royal Wedding party gear just yet! Today (Sunday 20th May) is World Metrology Day 2018!

And that means there are just 5 months and 26 days until the commencement of the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM).

At this governmental level gathering, it will hopefully be decided to go ahead with the redefinition of four of the base units of the International System of Units, the SI.

And if matters proceed as planned, in one year’s time – World Metrology Day 2019 – we will finally make the change.

All the unit redefinitions – of the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole – are important.

But the redefinition of the kilogram has been the hardest and is considered an event of such significance that someone is making a high-end film about it.

I was fortunate enough to meet the co-director Ed Watkins and his crew when they swung by NPL last year to film.

The film will be released on World Metrology Day 2019, but the trailer (below) certainly looks intriguing.

How mass measurement will change.

At the moment, when we weigh something we:

• compare the force of gravity on that object with the force of gravity on a standard object.
• and the force of gravity on that standard object is known by comparison against the force of gravity on a more special standard object
• Add so we proceed in many steps until eventually, we encounter a weighing against the International Prototype of the Kilogram (the IPK). This single unique ‘artifact’ currently defines what we mean by ‘one kilogram’.

This kind of repeated comparison against standards until we reach a defining artefact is completely normal in traditional metrology.

In future, when we weigh something we will:

• compare the force of gravity on that object with the force of gravity on a standard object.
• and the force of gravity on that standard object is known by comparison against the force of gravity on a more special standard object
• Add so we proceed in many steps until eventually, we encounter a weighing on a Kibble Balance or a weighing against a specially-made silicon sphere.

It is these two new options that represent the change.

• When we weigh an object on a Kibble Balance, we compare the gravitational force on an object with an electromagnetic force which can be calculated in terms of volts and amperes and related to fundamental physical constants.
• Alternatively, the special silicon spheres have their mass calculated in terms of their physical properties: size, density etc.

In either case, the final definition of what we mean by one kilogram is determined by the basic physical measurements, and is no longer simply a comparison against an arbitrary physical artifact.

That’s it. It’s a small change, but as I am sure the film will make clear, a profound one.

### Error Bar

April 15, 2018

This picture arrived in my in box through the medium of Twitter.

The Bar

It shows the Error Bar, with 20 ± 2 beers on tap, and a neon sign in which two glasses conspire to make an uncertainty indication.

It must surely be run by a burned-out metrologist who couldn’t take the heat of cutting-edge metrology.

The modern day equivalent of Graham Greene’s ‘whisky priest’, they retired to a town with barely a single calibration laboratory.

Here, they run the Error Bar and (unheeded) give advice on uncertainty estimation to random passers by while dispensing precise doses of tequila, with amounts of ethanol traceable to the SI base unit mole .

The awning of the bar sports the logo of the BIPM – the International Bureau of Weights and Measures – where they were seconded for a summer.

However it was here that their true love slipped away while they worked on an impossible uncertainty budget. And they never recovered.

In memory of their lost love,  they commissioned the local blacksmith to create a railing on the disabled access ramp which reflects the uncertainty that life always entails.

The Restaurant

And after a drinking a glass or two of tequila, one can retire to the restaurant next door – Measurands (literally meaning “the things which are measured”).

Is this place real?

I doubt it.

But the picture has been created with great care by a metrologist and (if they can ever confess to creating this picture)  I would love to shake their hand…

…and perhaps buy them a drink in this little out-of-the-way bar I have heard of…