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Historical context of the SI

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Unit of amount of substance (mole) Abbreviations: CGPM, CIPM, BIPM

       Following the discovery of the fundamental laws of chemistry, units called, for example, "gram-atom" and "gram-molecule," were used to specify amounts of chemical elements or compounds. These units had a direct connection with "atomic weights" and "molecular weights," which were in fact relative masses. "Atomic weights" were originally referred to the atomic weight of oxygen, by general agreement taken as 16. But whereas physicists separated isotopes in the mass spectrograph and attributed the value 16 to one of the isotopes of oxygen, chemists attributed that same value to the (slightly variable) mixture of isotopes 16, 17, and 18, which was for them the naturally occurring element oxygen. Finally, an agreement between the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) brought this duality to an end in 1959/60. Physicists and chemists have ever since agreed to assign the value 12, exactly, to the "atomic weight," correctly the relative atomic mass, of the isotope of carbon with mass number 12 (carbon 12, 12C). The unified scale thus obtained gives values of relative atomic mass.

       It remained to define the unit of amount of substance by fixing the corresponding mass of carbon 12; by international agreement, this mass has been fixed at 0.012 kg, and the unit of the quantity "amount of substance" was given the name mole (symbol mol).

       Following proposals of IUPAP, IUPAC, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the CIPM gave in 1967, and confirmed in 1969, a definition of the mole, eventually adopted by the 14th CGPM (1971):

    1. The mole is the amount of substance of a system which contains as many elementary entities as there are atoms in 0.012 kilogram of carbon 12; its symbol is "mol."

    2. When the mole is used, the elementary entities must be specified and may be atoms, molecules, ions, electrons, other particles, or specified groups of such particles.

       At its 1980 meeting, the CIPM approved the 1980 proposal by the Consultive Committee on Units of the CIPM specifying that in this definition, it is understood that unbound atoms of carbon 12, at rest and in their ground state, are referred to.


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