Meet the member for space and time
Katie Lee was pleased to see my interest in the subject but a little wary.
I had encountered Katie on a tour of the National Measurement Institute’s laboratories in Sydney in my new role as a Parliamentary Secretary.
Keen to see Australia’s original kilogram, the most its keeper, Katie, would allow was to lead me to a window where I could see a safe in the next room.
Protectively she placed herself in front of the door to that room with all the devotion of a member of President Obama’s security detail.
“It shouldn’t be disturbed”, Katie explained.
Australia’s kilogram is a precise copy of the original kilogram in Paris which defines mass in this world. And as it turns out, over the decades, the original kilogram has been putting on weight.
No one is exactly sure why but the phenomenon is a cause of great concern.
But not to me though. The thought that a small block of platinum-iridium alloy in a double glass encased atmosphere controlled environment was itself struggling with its weight made me feel much better about my own travails in this regard.
In fact if it could only put on weight a little faster then earth could be redefined as a place where eating pizza would be a weight loss activity.
Yet to avoid such complications in Australia, gratuitous viewings of our kilogram are strictly banned. Disappointedly I sulked out the door. Secretly I was impressed by Katie’s dedication to her job.
Next on the tour was the sport-drugs lab.
NMI has Australia’s only World Anti-Doping Agency accredited testing facility. And so it is in here that every A and B sample from our finest athletes is tested to ensure they are clean. Inside this lab you can feel the distilled genetic presence of greatness even if that greatness is contained in small vials of urine.
Above each bench is a sign indicating the banned substance which is the object of their search. I headed straight for the diuretic bench and wondered how the fortunes of world cricket were permanently altered right here.
In a much larger building is housed the high voltage lab. This lab is a room the size of an aircraft hangar. Peter Parsons – our host – had set up an electrified arrangement of wires and poles. We started to hear a hum followed by a crackle, sparks and finally a loud bang as a lightening bolt jumped a set of insulators and hit the ground.
I found myself jumping up and down shouting “again, again” like my two year old after a really good horsy ride. Peter obliged with a knowing look that assured me I was not the first person to instantly regress into boyhood on witnessing one of his experiments.
It is just possible Peter has the best job in Australia.
The highlight of my visit to NMI was seeing Australia’s atomic clock. This is the base reference of time for our entire nation.
Reading this in my brief, having been told that I would be responsible for NMI, I fantasised about a title change: the Parliamentary Secretary for Time. The fantasy was accompanied by long scarves and visions of Dr Who.
On sharing these thoughts with my office all they could see was the irony of a Parliamentary Secretary for Time who was never on time. They thought a better title might be: the Parliamentary Nerd for Being Ridiculous.
Australia’s atomic clock is a large digital device set at eye level in a bank of computers. Some think it is an anti-climax. I was enthralled. And there on top of the clock is a model of Dr Who’s time-machine: the Tardis.
My fantasy was vindicated. That the person in charge of Australia’s atomic clock is a Dr Who fan was living proof that our world is in harmony.
Last week marked the 5th birthday of the National Measurement Institute. NMI began life on 1 July 2004 as a merger of CSIRO’s National Measurement Laboratory, the National Standards Commission and the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories. Since then it has grown to be one of Australia’s most important scientific assets.
Thomas Jefferson regarded his signature achievement as America’s first Secretary of State as being the introduction of America’s system of weights and measures. The work of NMI is indeed both fundamental and astounding.
It is infrastructure as basic to our national scientific effort as the Hume Highway is to our national transport system. It is a world class facility and we are lucky to have it.
So happy birthday NMI: I can’t wait for my next tour.
NB: for the sake of public servant anonymity names have been changed.
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