The State of the Unit documentary follows a historic decision in the field of metrology: to redefine the kilogram through a relationship of fundamental constants of physics, specifically Planck’s constant h.
Since 1889, a “kilogram” has been defined to be the mass of a specific platinum-iridium cylinder, secured in a vault outside of Paris. But measurements every few decades since then have shown that the mass of the cylinder is changing.
Starting from popular headlines about how “the kilogram is losing weight,” the film continues the discussion in more depth with the scientists who strive to reach the highest levels of precision in measurement.
This almost imperceptible accuracy comes from commercial needs for improved standards. Achieving this precision requires a changing how the units are defined: All base units will be linked to unchanging characteristics of building blocks of the universe, aptly named the fundamental constants of physics. One such constant is c, the speed of light in vacuum. Planck’s constant, among several other scientific definitions, is essentially a conversion factor, which determines the relation between the wavelength of a photon and the photon’s energy.
Typically throughout history, measurement standards have been man-made artifacts, sized to fit commonly used objects and quantities, such as a bottle of wine, or a sack which a donkey could carry all day. In contrast to human-sized standards, definitions based on atomic-sized particles and events, are much less accessible to the general population.
When asking whether the general public can understand Planck’s constant, the larger question arises: Should the average person be able to understand where their standards come from? Ignorance of measures leads to mistakes and, often, fraud.
Before the French Revolution, merchants and farmers faced different standards when selling their goods in Paris. To address these difficulties—a top complaint of the clergy, nobility, and working classes—King Louis XVI initiated standardized measures, which evolved into today’s metric system.
Even today, renters and landlords don’t always agree on the square footage of apartments in New York City. Buyers and sellers often come up with different numbers.
The atomic-level definitions, called the New SI, offer vastly better standards. But we will know later whether the New SI encourages the public to deepen their knowledge of physics or to accept the standards without understanding their origins.
The filming to date includes visits to historic sites, national metrology labs and other institutions in France, Germany, and the United States.
In addition to many scientists, Amy has filmed historians and experts in metrology education who look at measuring in daily life, the historical developments of measuring weight/mass, and the impact of fair and open standards on trade and society as a whole.
Principal photography is nearly done, and editing has begun. The expected release is January 2014. Funds raised on Kickstarter will finance the post-production steps including editing, animation, narration, and music.
Risks and challenges
A specific challenge of this type of project is communicating high-level scientific ideas to a general audience. Meeting this challenge requires an understanding of the specific areas of science and experience in communicating it through film/video. For six seasons as a script consultant for the CBS show NUMB3RS, Amy provided feedback and ideas for representing scientific and technical information in a format both appropriate and enjoyable to a general television audience. In addition, the film’s science advisor is an expert in units and measures, historical and current.
Another challenge is representing events occurring over many years, at microscopic sizes, or hundreds of years in the past—or phenomena that are not visible at all. To depict these phenomena and events, the production team can apply experience in a variety of visualization techniques, including computer animation, stop-motion animation, and hand-drawing.
A third challenge, shared among film/video projects, is getting the word out, to potential viewers. From years of professional experience in science and technical fields, the production team has a strong base of interested colleagues. In addition, Kickstarter funds will support submitting to film festivals, and creating specific screening formats.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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