Atomic Time

There is an article on concerning a miniaturized atomic clock. Imagine a time standard the size of a grain of rice in a wristwatch.

Atomic clocks are valuable in science because they keep incredibly accurate time. Some can achieve accuracies as high as one second in six million years! This miniature model would be a little less precise.

… the atomic clock would be accurate to within a second every 300 years, making it more than 1,000 times more reliable than a very good wristwatch.

Reading this reminded me of the time I actually saw the atomic clock at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Boulder, CO&#185. At the time I was hosting Inside Space on the SciFi Channel. Boulder is a hotbed of planetary science, which is what drew us. Going to NIST was icing on a nerdy cake.

The word ‘atomic’ conjures up the image of nuclear power or the Atom Bomb. That not what atomic is all about – at least in the clock world. The atomic clock at NIST measured a stream of atoms from a cesium source. I really don’t understand all the theory except to say that cesium is resonant at a very predictable frequency, 9,192,631,770 Hz. That’s the secret of the clock’s accuracy.

Unlike a standard clock, the NIST clock is a calibrating device. It doesn’t tell you the time. It just helps calibrate the instruments that do.

I hope I haven’t made this too difficult or screwed up my explanation. It really doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point of the story.

Our crew walked into a room and there was the clock. I remember it being longer horizontally than it was tall. There were wires and probes in it. I also remember some sort of insulating material over part of it.

It looked technical and homebuilt – like some astounding science fair project on steroids. We asked if it would be OK for me to stand alongside it while I taped an on-camera standup.

Our NIST guide said it would be fine… but one thing. Don’t bump into the clock. That sounded reasonable. And then, he continued.

“Don’t bump into the clock because they’ll have to evacuate the building. Of course, it won’t be a problem for us. We’ll be dead.&#178”

As it turns out, cesium is never found in nature as a pure element. It is very reactive – it wants to combine with other elements. It does that with great explosive power.

It reacts explosively with water, and with ice down to -116 C. In air, it catches fire spontaneously and burns with a brilliant sky-blue flame. Its hydroxide is the most powerful aqueous base known, and will eat through glass, flesh, bone, and numerous other substances.

I’m just trying to figure out how they’ll get this on someone’s wrist?

&#185 – Though I don’t remember the exact date, it was within a week or so of the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey in Boulder. Most locals were upset seeing a TV crew until they found out we weren’t covering that story.

&#178 – This is probably not an exact quote, though these exact words are etched in my mind. Whatever he said, it was very close to this. It certainly scared me and made me astoundingly careful.

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