- Current time is measured by atomic clocks
- Optical clocks measure time better, but the technology has been limited
- More precise timekeepers could improve GPS, stock trades, the power grid
A study released Wednesday in Optica
, the Optical Society's
research journal, is putting the pieces together about how to get an even better way to keep time.
Beyond being a great conversation starter in a philosophy class or at the bar, you might want to know about this more precise timekeeper because it could mean better directions, safer travel and even more money in the stock market.
To understand how, you've got to know a little more about how we currently keep time.
What is time, anyway?
Our understanding of a second is based on a system of technology developed in the 1940s and an agreement among scientists in 1967. Keeping time is a lot more complicated than counting "one Mississippi, two Mississippi."
A clock counts the intervals of something that happens repeatedly, ideally with as little variation as possible. A second used to be defined as 1/86,400 of the mean solar day, but irregularities in the Earth's rotation make this measurement of time imprecise. To understand how important it is to have a good timekeeper, just ask the captains of ancient ships, whose clocks took them off-course as they neared the equator or the North Pole or moved through humidity.
Scientists realized they could get a much more exact measure if they could gauge the movement of something more consistent. Enter Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi,
a physics professor at Columbia University who figured out that a clock could be created from a technique he mastered in the 1930s called atomic beam magnetic resonance.