Measurement system will be based on four fundamental constants of nature

The world’s measurement system will be based on updated values for four fundamental constants of nature. A revised SI ( the International System of Units ) based fully on accurate values of these constants underpins science and commerce and ensures uniformly precise measurements that scale smoothly from almost infinitesimal to enormous.

“The values of these four constants won’t change anymore,” said Peter Mohr, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a member of the CODATA TGFC. The values will be fixed and stated as exact values, he said, just as the speed of light is currently defined as an exact value. This in turn will allow scientists to focus on measurements that compare other important quantities to the constants.

Redefining the SI

Together with previously accepted constants, the updated values would redefine the SI’s seven base units, which include the kilogram (the unit of mass), the kelvin (the unit of temperature), and the ampere (the unit of electrical current).

Since 1889, the kilogram has been defined by a platinum-iridium cylinder stored in France, known as the International Prototype of the Kilogram, or, “Le Grand K .” Scientists from around the world have had to travel to France and compare their countries’ copies of the kilogram to the original in order to establish accurate mass measurements in their nations.

Meanwhile, temperature has been defined in terms of the “triple point” in a sealed glass cell of water. The triple point is the temperature at which water, ice and water vapor exist in equilibrium. However, the water in these cells can contain chemical impurities that can shift the triple point temperature to inaccurate values. And measurements of temperatures higher or lower than the triple point of water are inherently less precise.

The updated constants include
the Boltzmann constant (which relates temperature to energy), and
the Planck constant (which can relate mass to electromagnetic energy),
the charge of the electron and
the Avogadro constant (the quantity that defines one mole of a substance).

“There are no dramatic changes. The Boltzmann constant is very consistent with earlier values,” said Mohr. “The temperature experts requested eight digits for the constant and the last digit happened to be 0,” he recounted—an amusing situation for metrologists since they can obtain the precision of eight significant digits by only having to use seven.

The Planck constant has shifted downward by 15 parts per billion from its earlier value, due to new data collected since 2014. The Planck constant was determined by two experimental techniques, known as the Kibble balance and the Avogadro method. All of the measurements that were used for determining the new Planck value met previously agreed-upon international guidelines for levels of accuracy and consistency with one another.

The Planck constant can be used to define the kilogram, and using a fundamental constant for defining mass will solve many problems, Newell said. Mass must be measured over a very large scale, from an atom to a pharmaceutical to a skyscraper. “At the low end, you currently use one type of physics to determine mass; at the high end, you use another type of physics,” he said.

But the Planck constant will provide a consistent way for defining mass across all of these scales, with whatever laboratory method is used to measure mass.

The volt will change as well, since the Planck constant will also help to define it in the revised SI. A volt based purely on the fundamental constants will be very slightly smaller, about 100 parts per billion, than the current scientific realization of the volt, established in 1990. So, the top-level metrology labs will have to recalibrate their high-precision voltage measurements.
“People doing such high-precision measurements will notice the shift,” Mohr said.

That’s why the official rollout of the revised SI is slated for May 20, 2019, on World Metrology Day, to give metrologists time to adjust to the new values.

“It’s a broader philosophical paradigm shift,” Mohr said. “When the speed of light became a fixed number, researchers stopped measuring the speed of light. They focused on realizing the meter. It’s the same with the Planck constant. You’re not going to be measuring the Planck constant anymore. You’re going to be realizing mass and electrical standards more precisely.”

The CODATA 2017 Values of h, e, k, and N A for the Revision of the SI


Sufficient progress towards redefining the International System of Units (SI) in terms of exact values of fundamental constants has been achieved. Exact values of the Planck constant h, elementary charge e, Boltzmann constant k, and Avogadro constant N A from the CODATA 2017 Special Adjustment of the Fundamental Constants are presented here. These values are recommended to the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures to form the foundation of the revised SI.

6 thoughts on “Measurement system will be based on four fundamental constants of nature”

  1. Well, I happen to think this is a premature optimization. While the consensus might be that the speed of light is constant, how are we ever going to find out if it truly isn’t, now?

    I strongly suspect this will turn out to be wrong, but probably not proven so for 10-20 years.

  2. Pretty awesome, actually. This is about as high of an awesome factor as the conclave of the world’s scientific community agreeing upon Le Grande Kilogramme in Paris, 1889. That was – hard to believe – a really big deal. It was like the once much celebrated pounding of a pure silver rail-spike into the last sleeper laid on the first American transcontinental railroad line. “Its done! Let’s use it now!”

    For Le Grande Kilogramme was likewise the Great Signal that Metric measures would henceforth be engaged with determination, tirelessness, sweeping breadth and extraordinary precision; first obviously for Science, then in an open society of international trades, commerce and measures.

    It was equally propitious when, what in 1989 or something (100 years since Le Kilo) the august body of metrologists gave way from an ever-refined measure of ‘c’, the speed of light to a fixed constant. 299,792,458 meters per second. Since the second was rather well defined as 9,192,631,770 cycles of the hyperfine transition of Cesium, well … the meter had to change to the now SET speed of light. Now a meter would be 30.663319 wavelengths of the cesium oscillation in a vacuum. Its surprising perhaps, but metrologists can rather regularly measure distances of μm at meter distances. 1 cesium wave is therefore 32,612.26 μm or so in length. By using wave nulling (which is extraordinarily precise), the wave-antiwave cancellation point can be measured with well over 7 digits accuracy. Benchtop, with equipment costing less than a year’s salary of a good metrologist.

    I’m no longer able to rattle off the derivative equations – the volt, the newton, the gravitational constant, vacuum permeability, vacuum permittivity, Rydberg constant, Boltzman constant, the ideal Gas Constant an so on… old brain, never much used these in life. But I was once quite satisfied that ALL of these derivative constants are directly calculateable from the ones listed on the little card in the picture above.

    However – the big WOW! again – is that finally ALL the primary constants are now fixed. This is really something, actually. Science has finally agreed, some 100 years since 1889, that these primary constants, and these alone can BE fixed, and still result in a “nominal metric system” that in daily life changes not a whit, yet scientifically is now completely consistent at all scales from subatomic to astrophysical.

    Well done, lads.
    Well done.


  3. Calculating Planck’s constant with this Kibble balance looks [b]WAY[\b] easier than using a NIST maintained reference weight.

    • Tongue in cheek? Actually you should see what hoops have to be traversed in order to compare my secondary kilogram to The Big Cheese kilo. It takes an act of Parliament (seriously!) just to get Le Grand Kilogramme out of its temperature, humidity, atmosphere controlled cave. And to use the Grande Balance in turn to compare things. Takes no less than a dozen metrologists watching each other to ensure that nothing mars the Grande Kilogramme. Needless to say, the procedure is only done every few years at most.


      • Yeah, I know it is a royal pain and the mass is not exactly constant; even fingerprint oil makes a difference. Basing the units of measure on fundamental constants is an awesome thing. Still, it would be nice if these things were accessible to casual experimenters/enthusiasts (the type of guy that would make a UV laser with air in his basement).

Comments are closed.