Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Third Helping of Saturday Serial

Previously on The Grand Caper: When the U.S. decides to go metric, two men go a little mental. Dave, the leader of a grassroots effort to stop the conversion meets Ray, who's "crazy, but only 3/5ths so" and together they created a bestselling book parodying the effect metric conversion would have on popular culture. The book lands them an appearance on the David Letterman show, and afterwards, Ray shares  some secrets about his past while walking through his old hometown in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. It is there that he also unveils his plan to steal Le Grand K...

 The Pavillon de Breteuil, home of Le Grand K in Sevres, France

“First, a little history” Ray started. “As you know, the kilogram is the base unit of mass in the metric system. And as a base unit, many other units are defined in relation to it, so its stability is important. But for some reason, unlike other units of measure, the kilogram was not defined by a natural constant…”

Seeing a blank stare, Ray stopped to explain.

“Natural constants are fundamental physical properties that can be replicated in laboratories, take the speed of light, for example. The idea is that if things are defined by what we can find in nature, there’s no chance of variability or human error. Anyway, scientists searched for a constant, and came close when they found that the weight of a liter of water was almost equal to a kilogram. But in order to be as accurate as possible, the International Committee for Weights and Measures decided to manufacture a prototype, and that’s how the IPK was born. Using somewhat circular logic, the kilogram was defined as being equal to the mass of the IPK, which stands for the International Prototype Kilogram. The IPK, or Le Grand K as the Frenchies call it, is a platinum-iridium cylinder that is stored in Sevres, France - and while it’s literally worth its weight in platinum, its real worth to the sanctity of the metric system is invaluable. Which is why I’m suggesting we steal it!”

Dave laughed, assuming Ray was joking. But when the laughter stopped and Ray was still watching him expectantly, he realized he was serious
“So let me make sure I have this straight,” Dave started, choosing his words carefully. “First, I’m going to forget the whole stealing thing for a moment - which is just crazy -  but are you telling me that without this cylinder, there would be no way to accurately measure metric weight anymore? We could kill the kilogram?”
“Not exactly. You’ve heard of Greenwich Mean Time, right? How  we basically set our clocks based on the official time over in England? Well let’s say that British clock were to be destroyed, time would still continue, right? I mean, the sun would rise and set, days would pass. Life would go on.. But, there’d be no reliable reference point anymore. Nothing to synchronize our watches to. It wouldn’t be chaos, but it would be confusing for a while.”
“Confusing? You want to risk going to jail, creating an international incident and perhaps getting ourselves killed, just to generate some confusion?”
“It’s from Henry Miller, one of my favorite authors. What I’m trying to say is that if we want to change the world, or in our case, stop our world from changing, then confusion may not be a bad place to start. Right now, the American people are lemmings, blindly following their leader. We need to open their eyes and show them that there are other options. And confusion, by definition, occurs when there is a wealth of options.”
“But what you’re suggesting is criminal.  And dangerous.  I started this movement knowing full well I’d be subjecting myself to ridicule and maybe some mild harassment, but I’m not a terrorist!”
Ray shook his head, but it was unclear if he was chiding Dave or dismissing his concerns, until he spoke…
“There’s a thin line between terrorism and activism,” he said, “and I think we may have to cross it. But don’t worry. I have a plan. If things work out, no one will get hurt. ”
The two men continued walking.  Dave was no longer sure if Ray had a destination in mind, yet he was following him anyway. He thought back to their first meeting, and the strange sense that he had just shook hands with the devil. So far their partnership had been both fun and rewarding, but he couldn’t shake the thought that they were headed for disaster.  

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