Entry 310: Beat the Clock

Well, big news from the world of science: They’ve invented a clock.

I know, I know. You’ve already got one of those. But you don’t have one like this unless you’ve got a bunch of strontium atoms bouncing around your house.

I’m talking, of course, about the new stronium lattice clock, developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Denver (Motto: “The Pot Here is Legal”). Get a load of the following description, and then imaginebrookstone_big_opt[1] it in a Brookstone Catalog:

“Its centerpiece is a few thousand atoms of strontium held in a column of about 100 pancake-shaped traps. When bathed in red laser light, the atoms “tick” — oscillate between energy states — 430 trillion times a second.”

How much would you pay for something like that? Especially when you hear the guarantee:  This strontium lattice clock is guaranteed to remain accurate to the second for at least five billion years! That’s 50% more precise than that old quantum logic clock you bought a few years ago.  See? That’s what happens when you always have to have the latest gadgets.

But don’t you find the phrase “about 100 pancake-shaped traps” kind of odd? You’ve got a clock that keeps the precise time for five billion years, and you’re not exactly sure how many pancake-shaped traps you’ve got in there? “Oh, well, it could be 100, or maybe Flapjack Frank down the hall threw a couple of extra in there.  And we’ve been having an issue with employee pancake-shaped trap theft, so maybe it’s only 99.”

n-NEW-ATOMIC-CLOCK-large[1]Uncharacteristically, the Huffington Post article about this clock was missing two important pieces of information: How big is this thing and how much did it cost to build? I did some extensive research, and 10 minutes later, still had not found that data. But I’m guessing that tall stack of pancake-shaped traps doesn’t fit in your standard bedside alarm clock.

As for cost, well I couldn’t find that, either, although apparently I can buy a month’s supply of 680mg strontium capsules for $10.99 (with FREE SHIPPING!). According to the website selling it, Nature’s Life, strontium is “vital for bone health.” However, according to another website, Wikipedia, strontium is a grey, silvery metal that “will ignite spontaneously in air at room temperature.”  So you might want to take those capsules with plenty of water.

You might wonder, as I did, why people would go to (we must assume) some great expense 680to create a timepiece guaranteed to be perfectly accurate for five billion years…especially since new research suggests that the gradual brightening of the sun will kill all life on the planet in less than two billion years. I mean, if that happens, and then your strontium lattice clock starts running fast, who are you going to return it to?

But you already know why they created this clock. It’s the same reason they made it so that my Samsung TV recognizes my voice. Because they could.

You may also be wondering how they could possibly know the strontium lattice clock will be accurate five billion years from now. Well, obviously:

Their comparison with three independent caesium fountains shows a degree of accuracy now only limited by the best realizations of the microwave-defined second, at the level of 3.1 × 10 16

And don’t you feel like an idiot for even asking?

Hah, I’m kidding of course. While the paragraph above is from the abstract about the clock in the journal Nature, I have no idea if it’s explaining how long the clock will be accurate for or how long it will take to cook their new strontium-laced microwave popcorn.

The Huffpost article, however, has this explanation, which seems to be more understandable, at least until you think about it:

“The researchers gauged the precision of the new clock by showing that it agreed fully with another strontium lattice clock built in 2005 — thereby confirming the less-than-one-second-every-5-billion-years accuracy.”

So let me get this straight. I start a clock ticking in 2005, and nine years later I make a new clock that has the same time, so that naturally means it will be accurate five billion years from now? That seems like a hell of an extrapolation. Wouldn’t you at least need to let the new clock run for awhile–say a couple of thousand years–and then see if the two clocks have the same time?  Does this mean I could go to Walmart, buy a Timex, set it to the same time as one I purchased in 2005 (and haven’t worn since 2010) and claim it will be accurate in the year 5000002014?  And, just as important, if we’re in the 2010’s now, what will we be in then?

Here’s what really pisses me off: they spend all this time and money inventing the world’s most accurate clock, and, no matter what we do, our friggin’ DVR still cuts off the last 30 seconds of Modern Family.  Hey you guys at NIST–how about sharing some of those strontium atoms with Cablevision?

One of the scientists behind the clock claims that they’re not finished yet. “You can expect more new breakthroughs in our clocks in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

I really want to tell these people to stop. Just stop. What’s more accurate than “totally images[8]accurate” for five billion years? Totally accurate for 10 billion years? What’s the point? There’s a finite accuracy ceiling here, folks. Just like you can’t bowl more than 300, you can’t have a timepiece more precise than “the right time.”

And, besides, most of the people I know are always late anyway.

See you soon.

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