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Extremely Accurate Atomic Clock Loses One Second Every 300 Billion Years

Scientists measure Einstein's theory of general relativity at the tiniest scale ever recorded.

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JILA researchers measured time dilation, or how an atomic clock's ticking rate varied by elevation, within this tiny cloud of strontium atoms.
JACOBSON/NIST

Atomic clocks are already the world's most precise time keepers, but physicists are tinkering with a new design that could make them "50 times more precise than today's best designs," according to new research results published Wednesday in Nature by physicists at the JILA research institute.

Atomic clocks function by using a laser to count the times a single atom moves back and forth. Due to their precision, atomic clocks are used to set standards for Coordinated Universal Time, which is the world's primary standard for regulating time itself. Atomic clocks also are also used in science for research purposes like NASA's deep space atomic clock experiment

The JILA physicists who conducted the experiment are looking to use the new model for cutting-edge experiments in understanding curved space-time, a concept pioneered by Albert Einstein in his 1915 theory of relativity. 

"The most important and exciting result is that we can potentially connect quantum physics with gravity, for example, probing complex physics when particles are distributed at different locations in the curved space-time," NIST/JILA Fellow Jun Ye said in a statement. "For timekeeping, it also shows that there is no roadblock to making clocks 50 times more precise than today -- which is fantastic news."

However, the research from JILA is only one of two papers on a new atomic clock model that will be published in the February edition of Nature. Physicists at University of Wisconsin-Madison have built their own version of a highly functional atomic clock. 

While the atomic clock created at University of Wisconsin-Madison is precise to the point of "losing just one second every 300 billion years," the physicists say it isn't as precise as the model developed by the JILA team. But the UW-Madison physicists also notes the laser they used is of a much lower quality than the one used by JILA.

"The amazing thing is that we demonstrated similar performance as the JILA group despite the fact that we're using an orders of magnitude worse laser," says Shimon Kolkowitz, a UW-Madison physics professor and senior author of the study. "That's really significant for a lot of real-world applications, where our laser looks a lot more like what you would take out into the field."