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It’s hard for most people to get excited about a clock, but in some circles, this may be the biggest development of the year.
A group of scientists recently reported in the journal Science they have developed a new type of atomic clock that is precise to one part in 10 to the 18th power, or 1 billion billion. This is about 10,000 times as precise as the current standard.
For everyday purposes, this new level of precision won’t make much difference, but they are essential for “applications in relativistic geodesy, enhanced Earth- and space-based navigation and telescopy, and new tests of physics,” as co-author Andrew Ludlow, researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., puts it.
“The ytterbium optical lattice clock has demonstrated a groundbreaking, new level of clock stability,” Ludlow said. “One could say that this is like measuring time over a hundred years to a precision of several nanoseconds.”
The current standard atomic clock measures the energy oscillations in electrons of Cesium atoms after exposing them to light. It takes billions of oscillations to make up a single second, and it is accurate to one part in about 10 to the 14th power. The new clock uses a different element, Ytterbium, with an atomic number 70. When exposed to a certain wavelength of yellow light, the electrons in this element’s atoms oscillate at nearly one quadrillion times per second. This, of course, allows for more precise measurements of time, with a correspondingly lower margin of error.
This increased precision will help scientists better understand the relativistic effects of gravity, which will in turn help make better corrections to our current Global Positioning Satellite system.
To determine exactly how much more accurate this new type of atomic clock actually is, scientists will have to do more testing.