According to popular legend, Atlas has always carried the weight of the world upon his shoulders - but not even he could have told you just how heavy planet Earth is. Perhaps until now, that is.
Professor Jens Gundlach of the University of Washington in Seattle has calculated the Earth's mass to be 5,972 sextillion metric tons. (Hint: that's 5,972 with 18 zeros behind it, for those of you who didn't quite get around to covering sextillions in math class.) That's "good" news for Atlas's laden shoulders. This new estimate is lighter than the previously accepted figure of 5,978 sextillion metric tons.
How did the scientist work this out without the aid of a cosmic bathroom scale? The key was working out the elusive measurement of the force of gravity. The figure, represented by the capped letter "G," and thought to be a universal constant, is one that, over the years, has led to much number-crunching by physicists followed by heated debates in academic journals. Prof. Gundlach constructed a hugely expensive device called a torsion balance to calculate G. Consisting of a gold-coated plate hanging by tungsten thread inside a rotating cylinder, the device measured the gravitational effects of four large stainless-steel balls rotating in a counter-direction outside of the cylinder. He measured the force operating on the thread. The most subtle disruptions had the potential to effect the outcome of the experiment. The University of Washington researchers will continue to refine their calculations while others review their initial results. Hopefully, Atlas won't shrug.
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