Atoms As Clocks

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Few things excite us more than the measurement of time.

Here at Online Clock, we embrace the preciseness of timekeeping. That is why we find it pleasurable to inform you that a new clock has been created. We are quite excited about this new discovery! Apparently, there is a new clock that uses a single atom to measure time. This new research suggests that more exotic clocks could be created in the future. Is that possible? We thought mankind had time precision all worked out. However, someone thinks we can do better. Let’s examine how current clocks operate and compare them to the possibility of a more accurate measure of time.

Currently, all clocks rely on certain parts that repeat behavior to measure time. The atomic clock is the world’s most accurate clock. Atomic clocks measure how electrons move between two particular energy levels. They rely on two particles, which are the nucleus of an atom and the electron moving between different energy levels. This measurable observance is what is used to calculate time. This has been the simplest method to measure time; however, researchers have found an even simpler way to tell time, and the implications are promising.

Holger Müller, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley has discovered a new method of measuring time. Ever since he was a small boy growing up in Germany, he would consistently ask himself a simple question: What is time? That question eventually led Müller to study physics in an attempt to find an answer through time measurement. After completing his studies, he began to ask himself another question: What is the simplest thing that can be used to measure time? Eventually, Müller began the search for a simple system that actually feels the passage of time. He found that system by using a laser to split one cesium atom.

A Description of the Breakthrough

In natural environment, matter can be a particle and a wave. Müller has discovered a method of telling time by observing and counting matter wave oscillations. The wave frequency of mater is 10 billion times higher than visible light. In the January, 2013 publication of Science, Müller and his UC Berkeley research team describe a new method of telling time by exclusively using the matter wave of a singular cesium atom. Using this methodology, Müller created a clock. He refers to this particular method as a Compton Clock because it is based on a Compton frequency of matter wave. Müller’s Compton Clock is far less accurate than an atomic clock, but improvements to the Compton Clock could boost precision to match and possibly surpass the accuracy of current atomic clocks.

John Close, a quantum physicist at the Australian National University in Canberra believes that Müller’s experiment is beautiful and cleverly designed, but he also thinks that it will be hotly debated. Müller has welcomed debate. His experiment involves a basic concept of quantum mechanics, which employs the wave particle duality of matter that has befuddled students for nearly 90 years. He is quite eager to discuss his findings.

Müller’s team consists of post-doctoral fellows and graduate students. They are all part of UC Berkeley’s Department of Physics. All of the research and experiments took place at UC Berkeley’s facilities. Müller’s research at UC Berkeley will continue, and perhaps his team’s research will spark similar research at other physics labs around the world.

Holger Mueller

The Meaning of This New Discovery

Researchers believe that this new discovery could help solve a problem concerning a the unit of measure known as the kilogram. The kilogram has been defined by the mass of a particular golf ball size cylinder of iridium and platinum for more than 100 years. The cylinder is kept in a vault that is located just outside of Paris. The difficulty of defining the kilogram on such an object is that surface contaminants may cause it to carry some extra weight, and cleaning it may cause it lose weight. This can potentially wreak havoc on the way that science describes most everything in the universe.

Researchers have searched for ways to base the kilogram on more fundamental constants. A new fundamental standard of measure would mean that researchers would not have to rely on the arbitrary measurement of an artifact. Müller’s team developed links to time by connecting it to the mass of a single atom. Because of this, not only can atoms be used to measure time, but time could also be used to define mass.

As an example, scientists could manufacture extremely pure crystals of silicon, which are known as Avogadro spheres. These crystals are so precise that the number of atoms inside of them are known to a very high accuracy. Using this clock and the Avogadro spheres would create one of the best realizations of a newly defined kilogram. Knowing the exact ticking rate of this new clock is the same as knowing the mass of a particle. Once the mass of a single atom is known, the masses of others can be compared to it. It is good to have more than one way to measure mass because it provides a way to check for consistency.

Atomic Clock

An entirely different kind of Atomic Clock 🙂

The Future of Time Measurement

Müller believes that it may be possible to create simpler clocks. Perhaps creating clocks that are based on zero particles are on the horizon. Quantum theory states that what might seem like a vacuum is crowded with many virtual particles that move in and out of existence on a regular basis. This activity generates measurable forces.

Müller believes in the possibility of constructing a clock that contains zero particles, which means that not even a single particle will be needed to measure time. Another possibility is developing an antimatter version of Müller’s clock. When normal matter and antimatter make contact, antimatter annihilates matter. One of the universe’s greatest mysteries is that visible matter is nearly all normal matter and not antimatter. Explaining this is difficult. Many have tried, but their theories have fallen short of a true explanation.

Müller’s lab at Berkeley is quite interesting. He has a website, and the pictures of his team’s research facility are amazing. He explains his research in detail on the site. It takes a little reading to interpret exactly what is going on there, but once you brush-up on your science and scientific terminology, you should be able to understand the paragraphs he has written to explain the method to his madness of a one atom clock. As with all research, interesting thoughts on Müller’s new discovery will likely ensue. People posting opinions on many of the news stories reporting this new finding can be quite amusing. It is hard enough for someone to grasp a clock made of one atom, but it is even harder for people to imagine a clock made of antimatter.

Müller’s work has opened up so many possibilities. It literally lays down the groundwork for things that we can’t even perceive in our current technological world. We rely on the exactness of the measurement of time for things like data transfers over the Internet, GPS measurements and cellphone transmissions. Imagine what possibilities an improvement on time measurement might open up!

It is believed that improved time measurement capabilities will be the basis of the future developments in technology simply because they exist. It’s a Field of Dreams analogy; if we build it, the new technology will come. If we look back in time, the technological advancements of things like the calculator made way for the digital watch, which made way for the technology that followed that. One simply builds on the other.

Not an Atomic Clock

What’s Next In This Line Of Research?

The next phase for Müller and his colleagues is to continue their research by collaborating with other physicists and scientists to explore the possibilities of new ground in fundamental physics. They are excited to map new territory for the technology that will follow their research. While pondering Müller and his team’s future discoveries, consider that the NIST and NASA are two of the organizations that are sponsoring their work.

We will just have to wait to see what his discoveries may bring. However, for now, we must rely on our clocks and watches for preciseness. Considering that the atomic clock, which is the current device used to calibrate time, is accurate by less than one second within several years, it’s safe to say that we are doing quite well with time measurement.

Let us know what you think about this new one atom clock. What do you think might come of Müller’s discovery and future research? Perhaps you have some new technologies that you are hoping to experience in the near future. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, or you can leave a message here on the blog to discuss your thoughts and visions for future developments. As always, you can count on us to keep you posted on all new discoveries in time.

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