Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology have built the world’s most precise atomic clock in order to shed light on both time and the universe.
The researchers built the new machine by vibrating atoms across three dimensions and then using laser light to trap them inside a bookcase-like modular where they count down to the tiniest measurable units of time. Though the clock has no strong applications yet, it could one day help researchers conduct advanced experiments in the field of quantum mechanics.
“Developing a clock like this represents the most sensitive and inquisitive instruments mankind has built,” study co-author Jun Ye, a researcher from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told Gizmodo. “We want to use it to describe the connection between quantum mechanics, the mathematics describing the smallest pieces of the universe, and general relativity.”
Atomic clocks are merely atoms that vibrate in a special way when subjected to light. Though scientists first used microwaves to run such machines, they now use visible light because it is both more accurate and more precise.
However, there are some issues with the technology as well. For example, the more atoms they use, the higher the chance inter-atomic interactions will undo any accuracy benefits. The signal from the vibrating atoms can get fuzzy as well.
To overcome such problems, researchers in a new study used a special gas at hyper-cold temperatures to amplify one of the specific properties shared by atoms in the gas. This then reduced the interactions between the molecules and helped the new clock become more precise than any other.
Though the new technology is not going to be used in everyday life anytime soon, it could have large applications for future research. A wristwatch loses roughly 1 second a year. That may not seem like a huge deal, but it can make a big difference in the world of quantum mechanics.
In addition, extremely precise clocks can be used to look at some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. For instance, they could be used to detect both dark matter and gravitational waves.
“This new strontium clock using a quantum gas is an early and astounding success in the practical application of the ‘new quantum revolution,’ sometimes called ‘quantum 2.0’,” said Thomas O’Brian, a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who was not involved in the research, according to Phys.org. “This approach holds enormous promise for NIST and JILA to harness quantum correlations for a broad range of measurements and new technologies, far beyond timing.”
The technology is a big step forward for quantum mechanics, but there is still a lot work to do. While the clocks are precise, that does not mean they are accurate. Further research is needed to see how the ticking compares to the way the universe keeps time.
The new study is published in the journal Science.