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Yardsticks, Kilograms, Constitutions, and the Rotation of the Earth for your enjoyment

I have never given much thought to the spinning of the Earth. Perhaps, like most people, I just took it for granted. I have, however, started thinking about it. Several days ago, I was listening to the radio, driving to Denver, when I heard a story about the earthquake in Chile. The basic gist of the story is that the force of the earthquake has subtly altered the rotation of the earth. Find it here. The result of this is that, based upon calculations I will probably never understand, the Earth will spin about 1 microsecond faster than it did before. This means that each day, we have one less microsecond than we did before this earthquake happened per day. Don’t worry about it. You probably won’t notice because 1 microsecond is 1 millionth of 1 second. So over the course of 2,739.726 years, we will lose one second. In addition, if an earthquake can cause a loss of 1 microsecond, I assume there will be some other things that happen on earth that will also change the Earth’s rotation. So maybe over the next 2 millennia we will lose more than a few seconds or maybe gain a few. So where does this leave us? I have no clue.

I bring this up because it touches on an interesting philosophical issue.

My first thought, when I was listening to the story, was that because the earth is spinning faster, we will actually age a little bit faster. This is because the year is a little shorter – around 365 microseconds shorter – each year. But wait. This is where the issue arises: isn’t the measurement standard, ‘one year,’ based upon the time it takes for the Earth to move around the sun, which is based upon the spinning of the Earth? Isn’t it then the case that the year is actually shorter, meaning that the day, hour, minute, second, all the way down to the microsecond is actually a shorter period of time than it was before?

What I mean is that if we use a ruler, say a yardstick, to measure something we will come up with a measurement. For instance, a marathon in yards is 46,165 yards. Let’s say that persons A and B are mapping out a marathon course. A and B go to different stores and purchase different yardsticks (yes, they’re going to figure out the courses by laying the yardsticks down by hand), and the lengths are slightly different – imagine they are made out of different types of wood and a particularly dry spell has caused one of those types of wood to shrink ever so slightly. Now, when A and B go out to measure the course, one course will be a little longer than the other and one course will be a little shorter. Maybe it will be a difference of a few centimeters, or maybe it will be a more significant difference.

A and B are perplexed, as to how they’ve provided different distances, so they measure their yardsticks against each other, and they discover one is short/longer than the other. This means, one of their sticks is wrong. The only way to tell who is wrong is to find the True Standard of a Yardstick and use that to measure their yardsticks to find out which stick is wrong and therefore which distance is right.

So let us suppose that A and B travel to the True Standard of the Yardstick and measure both of their sticks, and neither of them are exactly the same as the True Standard. They call over to the person who keeps tabs on the True Standard and he informs them that, in fact, the True Standard has been in flux. Or so we think. We do not really know, but other standards that are measured against the True Standard have shown that the True Standard has shrunk, or maybe it is possible that the other standards have grown, but we don’t really know how to reconcile this problem. The True Standard no longer seems to be accurate, so we do not really know what is the exact measurement of a yard.

This seems terribly far-fetched, and it is. I don’t know if there is such think a True Standard for the yardstick. However, something like this happened with the kilogram. There is a true standard of the kilogram. It's in France and they call it "Le Grande K". I'm not joking. Even though this is pretty strange it is a problem. It is especially a problem for studies where we think there is a True Standard, but maybe there really isn’t: the law.

We often talk about the Constitution or the Law as though it is like the True Standard. It is true that there are certain laws that are tough to interpret in multiple ways. The most common example is that the Constitution specifies that Presidents must be at least 35 years old to hold office. That’s cut and dry. But what about when the Constitution mentioned liberty or freedom? Or equal protection?

Maybe you deign this as mere platitudes. But I think it provides an interesting comparison between law and science. Maybe something as ephemeral and plastic as the law is more like science than we initially believe, which, rather than bolster law, denigrates the objectivity of science (or at least denigrates being able to take measurements with any assurance of being more than approximate).

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Yardsticks, Kilograms, Constitutions, and the Rotation of the Earth for your enjoyment + running man