Record-Breaking Most Precise Clock Would Lose One Second In 40 Billion Years

Precision time-keeping has a new record. Researchers have created a clock with an uncertainty of about 8 parts per tenth of a billionth of a billionth. This level of precision is so incredibly small that it would take the clock slightly less than three times the age of the universe to lose a single second – 39.15 billion years to be exact.

The sun could live and die four times and this clock would still just lose a single second. The device is known as an optical lattice clock, described in a pre-print paper that has yet to undergo peer review, and uses 40,000 strontium atoms trapped in a one-dimensional lattice. The atoms are kept at just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero and the ticking of this clock is a transition between specific energy levels for the electrons in this atom.

The team has been developing optical atomic clocks for years already, reaching precision that is impossible with regular atomic clocks that use cesium atoms. Still, over the last several years, the team has progressed in constraining uncertainties and systematic effects to further improve the precision of this device.

“We’re playing a bunch of tricks to make it the most accurate clock we possibly can,” lead author Alexander Aeppli, from the University of Colorado Boulder, told New Scientist.

You might ask how more precise can you get than that. Well, the team thinks they can go even further. They hope to reach 10 times more precise measurements, and could maybe even reach levels 100 times more precise. They have been able to improve their precision by a factor of 10 in just a few years, so it seems that their confidence is well-placed.

These clocks are expected to bring forth a new definition of the second, no longer based on the best atomic clock but on one of these devices. But this is not the only scientific use for these devices – with incredible precision, discoveries well beyond time-keeping await.

“There will be very interesting discoveries that are waiting for us if we get to the times that are sensitive to the very small space-time curvature,” senior author Professor Jun Ye told IFLScience when it was announced he had won the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

Atomic clocks are already sensitive to relativistic effects, but the sensitivity of optical lattice clocks is 1,000 times higher which means that they can be used to measure gravity like never before as well as testing our theory of gravity – general relativity – to a more stringent limit. If this wasn’t already very cool, these clocks could be used to study dark matter.

A paper describing these results was published on Arxiv ahead of peer review.

[h/t: New Scientist]

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