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Squid #404
(published October 16, 2008)
Ask the Giant Squid: What Has Mass Got To Do, Got To Do With It?
Who is Poor Mojo's Giant Squid?
Dear Giant Squid,

What is the weight of one pound note sterling, old or new?

Lord British

My Dearest Lord British,

Ah, wry jester you! You do make to make light of me, and my keenly incisive — though seemingly, occasionally, somewhat over literal — mind. Do not think that I do not see what you have here done, inviting my hungry mind down a blind alley by asking of the weight of the British pound. True, in my younger days, when I had dispensed so very much less advice, I might have been tempted into a long, circumlocutious exegesis on the history of various currencies of our dear Rue Britannia, noting first and foremost that the earliest English coin that can be properly called sterling is the Tealby penny, forged of hearty 92.5 percent pure silver and introduced into circulation by the sly ministrations of our dear fire-haired, be-frecktackled King Henry Il Deuce. This was wrought in the 1158th year following the birth of the Mewling Jesus Baby, about whom the less said, the better. These Tealby pennies massed at 1.45 grams each, with 240 to the "pound sterling" — cryptic, as this twenty-times-twelve of pennies was noticeably short of laying proper claim to being a pound of anything. Totalling just shy of 350 grams, this 240-set of silver pennies would be significantly less than the conventional pound (which weighs in at 454 grams, give or take), and still even a dozen pennies' weight short of being even the "Troy" — or coward's — pound. However one might choose to count it, the original pound sterling was a modest pound — and thus, to a certain manner of thinking, quite appropriate to such a notably modest king. That, or it stands as a testament to the dearth of suitably accurate and precise measuring aparati amongst the Medieval Britains.

But to engage in this discussion would be to follow your trained red herring upriver, where the waters grow shallow and the bears bold. This I shall not do, dear Lord British, for I am a sagacious squid.

Yours is a trick question.

Thus, I cannot tell you what a pound note weighs. I cannot say, not for ignorance in the general, but because I know not where you are located as you type your query. As we all well grant, "weight" describes the degree to which a body is in the thrall of gravity: 454 crisp new US dollar bills weigh one pound resting on a beach at sea level, but give those same bills to an honest sherpa, pay him one-third kilo of oats, eight Twizzlers, and a snifter of stiff peach brandy to haul these same bills to Mount Everest's tipmost peak, spring scale in hand, and he will discover that his pound of bills is now only .9975 pounds, although not a single of the 454 bills has wandered astray. Further, should this sherpa catch the white man's ambition from the his heady grog of oats and brandy, and trek himself all the way to your cold and sterile moon, he'll discover that his pound of bills is now but only .1667 pounds, although, still and ever faithful, each and every singular one of the 454 portraits Washingtonne remain intact and accounted for. Provided he was not raised in a rationally metric nation, our dear sherpa might take the final moments, as he his skin freezes from the vacuum's cold embrace, and his blood boils from the dearth of equalizing pressure, to consider this apparent paradox.

But, men of action — men like you and squids like I — know better, tricky Lord British, for weight is the term for how ardently gravity desires to suck hold of our mass, and mass is the absolute discussion of how very much of us there is to love.

The mass of your new pound note sterling (any denomination) is .6 grams. Should you stand upon the sunny beaches, then this note weights 0.00131 pounds. As you convulse in the tepid light and murderous chill blasts of Ms. Mount Everest, that bill crumbled in your swiftly frosting fingers is just a shade lighter, at .00129 pounds, a reduction hardly worth noting. Having slipped this all-too-confining corporeal envelope high in the icy wastes, you and your single pound sterling note might recline upon the bright Nirvana of the moon, where that note is now itself as ethereal as you, weighing just .00021 pounds. Yet, where so ever you might trek, and who so ever you may be, without regard for the posture of your immortal soul or state of your all-too-frail physique, now and forever, that pound sterling will always mass at .6 grams.

(As an historical aside, I suppose it bears mention that while 240 of Henry Il Deuce's Tealby pennies never weighed a modern, seaside pound of any sort, they would have weighed one standard pound, had they been placed on Uranus. Perhaps the curious provenance of the "pound sterling" speaks to the early astronomical explorations of Medieval Britons, or to the reduced mass of this blue-green orb during the Darkened Ages, more than it reveals of poorly manufactured scales. Determining the likelihood of any of these explanations is, in any event, more an exercise for the reader than an appropriate topic for this column.)

In these times of fiscal irascibility, held in the thrall, as we are, of a bilious and fickle liquidity market, this steadfast consistency in mass might serve as cold comfort. But cold comfort, she is comfort too, no? Even as your pound sinks in value and varies in weight, her mass is as constant as an ugly lover, and that is not nothing at which to scoff.

I cannot help but think, in the retrospect, that this would please dear, dead Henry Il Duce, even while the current economic woes and their deleterious effect on his countrymen would return him, long-faced and scowling, to the soothing occupation of his needlework.

I Remain,
Your Giant Squid

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