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The constant variation of change

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By John Pawlak

Back in high school, I was in a college-bowl style competition (team, buzzers, timers, etc.) that covered the span of general knowledge taught in science, math, English and history classes.
One of the questions asked was, “What is Avogadro’s Constant?” The competing team hit the buzzer first and answered, “6.2 times 10 to the 23rd power.”
When the moderator said, “That’s correct for 40 points”, I jumped out of my seat and yelled, “No! The correct value is 6.02 times 10 to the 23rd power.”
I then added, “In fact, it’s 6.02252 times 10 to the 23rd power!” The chemistry teacher agreed, the moderator canceled the question, and the points were taken back.
My team ended up winning the competition by a mere 10 points.  Thank you, Amedeo!
When I got to college, that “constant” had changed to 6.022045 10^23.  Over the decades, it changed again and again, and just recently I read that it is now a constant of 6.0221413 10^23.
Avogadro’s Constant is a fact. It’s consistent. Stable. Steady. Unvarying. Steadfast. Unchanging!
You have to admire the wavering dynamic nature of constants in life. It’s the very definition of human to accept the present as “this is how it’s always been and always will be.”  And when things change, it’s very human to first fight those changes (with a passion), and then eventually adopt the new present as the new way “it’s always been.”
Change is invariably viewed with suspicion and opposition. The one true constant in life is that things change, and hence we constantly resist the inevitable.
For instance, how many children in the past 100 years stayed home “sick” because their temperature was an unhealthy 99.3 and not the recommended constant of well being, 98.6?
And then it turned out that different people have different “normal” body temperatures, and that the measured temperature varies greatly depending on time of day, age, what activity the person has been doing, and where you take the temperature.
Now, I understand some of these variations, but why would the measurement  change depending on where you take it? Do body temperatures differ that much when you measure them in the kitchen versus the supermarket?
I actually did try it at the supermarket to see if it makes a difference, but they kicked me out of the store. I suppose it was a bad idea to use a rectal thermometer.
Anyway, life goes on and we deal with changing facts every day, some of them welcomed and others quite disappointing.
Paleontologists decided to kill the beloved Brontosaurus, now claiming it never existed! So much for my collection of Beanie Baby dinosaurs.
Pluto was demoted to a “big rock” by some know-it-alls at the IAU (International Astronomical Union). They now say that you cannot see the Great Wall of China from outer space. Of course, if you could see it, would that make orbiting politicians “experts on Russian economics?”
And I found out that witches weren’t burned at the stake in Salem. My history teacher lied to me! And I really was looking forward to moving there and having fun with a few of my relatives.
I memorized pi out a couple hundred places, so I’ll be quite irritated if they ever decide to change that one.
Ah, there are facts, and then there are facts. I was taught that the tongue had four taste receptors: sweet, salt, sour and bitter. Now there’s a fifth one, umami (for glutamates) and possibly even a sixth one for fat.
Residents of New Mexico know that there are two others: the chile receptors. One for red and one for green.
As constants change every year, it should be no surprise to people in Los Alamos that facts have a short half-life.
The year is nearly over and once again we find ourselves looking forward to the upcoming new year with hopes and fears of the changes to come.
Yeah, some things never change. It’s the same thing every year.
I’m OK with changes, but I don’t give a celestial hoot what the International Astronomical Union says. Pluto is a planet!