Atomic Clock NIST-F2: So What?

Atomic ClockThe new atomic clock called NIST-F2, which is three times faster than its predecessor NIST-F1, may have many asking the “so what?” question, especially among the non-scientific circles. The answer is in fact, woven into our daily lives and activities, and though it may seem that Time compels us to keep moving forward, always in a hurry, it is in fact us who are obsessed with the performance of this invisible, yet apparently obvious entity.

To answer the “so what” question, it may help to go through a quick journey of how humans became so addicted to timekeeping, and explore the origins of this new atomic clock.

As far back as the earliest human to walk on this planet, there has been some form of timekeeping. Like the rest of the animal kingdom today, humans too depended completely, and utterly, on the movements of the Sun, and the Moon. As man developed a higher consciousness, he was able to track the stars other than our Sun, and use their movements to develop more advanced perception of time. These earliest timepieces had the most basic of functions to perform by today’s standards, but they meant life or death to our ancestors.

Using the light from the Sun, the earliest man kept track of how far he could venture out away from his forest home, in order to get back safely before sundown. Today, we wait for 5 pm to roll around so we can get back home in time to watch our favorite TV shows, hit the gym, or beat the traffic.

The first human farmers came around only about 12,000 years ago, and though the Sun has always played a central role in farming, it was the phases of the Moon that were used for “precision” planting. Even today, many farmers and hobbyists use the Farmer’s Almanac that provides information on tides and predicts weather based on movements in the heavens. Technology has allowed far better tools for agriculture, and even though the basics of agriculture remain relatively unchanged, the changes in timekeeping has changed agriculture profoundly. For example, through weather satellites, we can predict bad weather, or climate changes through long-term patterns, and plan agriculture accordingly.

The satellites themselves of course, use precision timekeeping that are linked directly to the atomic clocks on Earth. These satellites not only help with weather predictions, they are used in navigation as well.

Human mobility is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of our species. In earlier centuries when trade across continents developed, timekeeping was still rudimentary. Mechanical clocks may have improved punctuality over land, but keeping accurate time at sea was a different matter. Away from land, the earliest seafarers had to rely on their trusted sources, the Sun, and the Moon, and later the sextant was invented that was used in calculating position at sea. Even so, it was the invention of the chronometer by clockmaker John Harrison that changed the world. Today, trade among nations is possible because of accurate timekeeping on ships that allows the shipping industry to transports bulk goods, cheaply, across oceans. Without the advantage of transporting goods over sea, trade among nations would have been extremely limited.

Precision timekeeping has made its way even in our entertainment realm. Think of the Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt beating their opponents by the tiniest of a fraction of a second, or a 106 mph pitch in a baseball game. The sheer thrill of watching man compete at this level owes its gratitude to precision timekeeping.

In the early 20th century, Einstein gave us a revolutionary view of the Universe that has changed our concept of Time forever. Even though we cannot see Time as a manifested entity like a cup of coffee or the Moon, it is woven in the fabric of the very space in which the entire Universe exists, including us. We can determine the age of the Universe and when the Big Bang happened by calculating time backward. We have proven the existence of Black Holes by measuring the time it takes the nearby stars go around this mysterious phenomenon. It is our ability to measure time at distances measured in light years through which such knowledge is possible. We have come so far that time travel has become a part of our acceptable realm of possibilities.

So what does the advent of the new atomic clock mean for today’s society? If there was ever a place where precise and faster measurement of time meant millions of dollars in profit or loss, it is the Wall Street. In the age of the Internet where transactions online have replaced physical exchange of monies, trade order take place in a fraction of a second in cyberspace. The faster computers and processors in use today allow communication to happen at split-second speed. Without these improvements in timekeeping, much of the world we see today would not be possible.

The Cesium-based atomic clock NIST-F2 utilizes the frequency of the narrow microwave spectral line produced by the atom when it is exposed to microwaves. When the Cesium atom vibrates at a resonant frequency, the measurement of corresponding cycles is also a measurement of time. This clock will keep time accurate to within one second in 300 million years. There is no way to know if humans will be around by that time. Nevertheless, our legacy, if it survives, will be a window into the ancient past of beings far in the future. So what does the new atomic clock mean to us? Perhaps to most, it is only a momentary technological curiosity and wonder. However, for humanity, it is the timeless spirit of being human.

Opinion by Amit Singh


Free Press Journal

ABC News

Denver CBS Local

Tycho US Naval Observatory

History of Agriculture

Farmer’s Almanac


National Institute of Standards and Technology