Back when I used to host Inside Space on SciFi, we took a trip to Boulder, CO for a series of shows. In one, we went to the atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technologies.
The NIST building is Boulder was jam packed with nerds and geeks – my people. Inside, some scientists are tracking the weather on the Sun, while others are following the orbits of objects which might one day hit the Earth. Who knows what else goes on?
The atomic clock we visited wasn’t really a clock as much as an accurate counter. A small stream of cesium passed by a sensor. Since cesium has a very predictable resonant frequency, it became the calibration source for the counter¹.
I remember the clock being more plumbing than anything else, with wires exiting at various intervals. Parts of it were wrapped with what looked like, and probably was, thermal insulation. It was definitely a homebrew device.
Dave Brody, our producer, spoke with the clock’s master. Dave wanted to know where we could set up and shoot our video?
The answer was simple. We could do what we wanted, but we had to be very careful. If we bumped the clock, the building would have to be evacuated. Of course, it wouldn’t matter to us. We’d be dead!
We got the point. This scientist was being funny, but also serious. This was one dangerous clock.
I really didn’t know much about cesium, except that it doesn’t like to be alone. When cesium combines with other elements, the reaction is explosive!
At least, that’s what I’d heard. I’d never seen cesium at work until tonight when I ran across the video at the bottom of this entry.
I am now very glad we stayed away from the clock. Very glad.
¹ – That last paragraph was done from memory. I’m sure it’s not 100% right, but it gets you in the ballpark.