Fed invents most accurate clock in the world

Tuesday - 6/29/2010, 4:55pm EDT

If you are a stickler for time then your in luck.

A young scientist at NIST has invented the world's most precise clock. It's based on quantum computing research and made out of aluminum.

Till Rosenband is a physicist in NIST's Time and Frequency Division.

He has also been nominated for a Service to America (Sammies) medal, which are awards that are given out annually by the Partnership for Public Service that honor the exceptional work of federal employees.

He explains that the current, standard model is made out of cesium.

"So, to give you an idea, if these things could run for billions of years, they would lose one second in about three billion years. . . . That's about 30 times better than the cesium clock."

Yes, he did say billions.

An example of the clock. (Courtesy: NIST)

The project, in essence, is not new, either. Rosenband credits his boss with a lot of the ideas for this new clock, and says many scientists have been working on how to develop a new, more accurate one for about the past 30 years.

"All these ideas have been coming together, and I just feel lucky that I could take a lot of the new developments and put them together in the lab and build this really accurate clock."

Now that the project has been successful, he says there are all sorts of applications for it. His office, for instance, can measure the shape of the earth more accurately which, in turn, means technologies like radar could potentially benefit.

"As your continental plate rises or falls a little bit due to geophysics, this will shift the rate of your clock slightly. So, with a more accurate clock, you could really make new kinds of measurements. In the future, there may be new navigation applications and things like that."

Though it might seem complicated to most people, Rosenband says the relationship between time and physics is actually pretty simple if you think about it long enough.

"Time sort of drives everything in life and in nature. Everything changes with time, and so you can use these changes to see how time was running -- and that's basically what a clock does. It's one of the most basic quantities in nature, and physics is really operating at that level. Physical laws all deal with time."

Speaking of time, Rosenband admits he is young for his accomplishments. At 31 years old, he explains that federal service just seemed natural to him.

"I think in science, in particular, if you're not working for the government directly, you're probably working at a university that gets a lot of government funding. I think the government really has kind of the long term view that science has -- that it is a long-term investment that the government should be making just to make our lives better. There is so much technology and so many new inventions and they require this kind of long term investment. . . . If you just wanted to deliver profits every quarter, you probably wouldn't be working on this, but if you want precise navigation 20 years down the road, then this is the kind of project you would be working on."

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Email the author of this post at dramienski@federalnewsradio.com