World Gets Its Most Accurate Clock

Loses just one second in 50B years

By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff

Posted May 31, 2013 11:31 AM CDT

(Newser) – Most clocks lose minutes over time and need to be reset—but if you're a scientist or an engineer, you need clocks that are just a bit more reliable. And now researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have created the world's two most accurate atomic clocks. The next time they'll need to be reset—for a mere one-second delay—is in 50.8 billion years. The researchers' paper describes the significance of the development: It's like "specifying the age of the known universe to a precision of less than one second or Earth's diameter to less than the width of an atom."

The clocks, as all atomic clocks do, keep time using light frequencies and the fluctuation of atoms. But small movements of the atom or stray electric fields can interfere with the frequencies, so the new design—known as an optical lattice clock—minimizes these problems, holding the atoms in a vice-like grip, MIT Technology Review reports. And while you're probably thinking no one should be that obsessed with being on time, there are real-world applications. As Smithsonian explains, the clocks may help measure small changes in glacier ice thickness or tectonic plate movement; they're even useful for GPS systems.

An example of an atomic clock, which maintains time using light frequencies and the fluctuation of atoms.
An example of an atomic clock, which maintains time using light frequencies and the fluctuation of atoms.   (Shutterstock)
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