What are atomic clocks? All about them

You probably have heard of atomic clocks as not are they the most accurate way of measuring time as of now but it are also used scientifically in various ways. The authenticity of them being the most accurate clock can be inferred by the fact that it looses 1 second after every 138 million years. That’s a big figure. An example of a famous place it is used at is CERN, NASA, and many others.

What Are These Atomic Clocks?

Well, nature itself provides us with many clocks, to begin with. When humanity was still a bit young we used to mark time by the rising and setting of the sun, and a month by the waxing and waning of the moon. But as we grew we built better and more precise ways of telling time. Like a water drip clock, a pendulum clock, and finally Quartz crystal oscillators. All of these clocks have one thing in common they measure periodic events. For instance, how long it takes for a pendulum to swing back and forth. Or the earth to move around the sun. And today, we are using the same idea to build something even more accurate, “The Atomic Clocks”

Atomic clocks are clocks that measure the oscillations (movement) of atoms. This is pretty complicated stuff but the basic concept is that all atoms of a given element vibrate or tick the same number of times per second. To elaborate, there are 9,192,631,770 ticks in one second. And though this number seems a bit weird it is quite important. Since today the international standard for what a second is based on that many vibrations/ticks of a cesium atom

A picture of a miniature atomic clock to better answer the question "What are atomic clocks? All about them"
A picture of an atomic clock

But why are these atomic clocks so important. And why do we even need clocks this accurate?

Fun fact:

The clock that the U.S. uses to calibrate its time is accurate to a second in a 100 million years. So if you had put one of these clocks in the medieval ages they will still tell the same time in this day and age.

Data transmission on the internet, as well as the GPS navigational system and cell phone towers and even the high grid, depends on these types of clock. In conclusion, our high-speed interconnected world works because we can use different pieces of technology using accurate time. So, you take that out of the way, and by that taking them out of the picture we’d say goodbye to the internet, And isn’t that just sad?

Moreover, whenever we build a new clock, engineers find some good way to use it. So, in the future, if we develop even more accurate clocks, who knows where they will lead us

Why is it important for technologies like the internet?

A picture of a question mark to  to better answer the question "What are atomic clocks? All about them"
What are atomic clocks? All about them

Well, as we have already discussed, atomic clocks have a big impact on our world as a whole. How? is a question that you might be wondering as of now.

Let’s start with the internet, where exact timings are critical. And atomic clocks as we know by now is what helps with that accuracy. Moreover, for GPS satellites to work out your precise position, your timing of the signals it sends and receives has to be super accurate. The signals travel at the speed of light, which means that an error of even a single microsecond error translates to an error of 300 meters on the ground. The timing has to be so precise that even tiny effects like relativity need to be tracked. So we do have Einstein to thank for that because if we didn’t have his equations we wouldn’t have a GPS.

To be exact with each and every microsecond GPS satellites have to carry atomic clocks. The more accurate the clock is, the more accurate GPS can calculate your location

When were Atomic clocks invented?

A picture of idea/invention to better answer the question "What are atomic clocks? All about them"..
What are atomic clocks? All about them

This amazing clock that literally changed how things work in our world came into being in 1949. It was announced by Harold Lyons who was the chief of the microwave standard section at the time. And for those of you who haven’t yet got it, it is not radioactive and cannot be used in a harmful way, despite its name.

It was made as there was a need for the timing standard to allow the radio station to stay in their assigned frequency.

Some interesting facts

  • The invention of the atomic clock also gave us another beautiful concept. It proved that the higher you live above sea level, the faster you age. Another thing that came through with the help of relativity
  • The first atomic clock used ammonia atoms and was heated and shot out of a copper pipe. Though this proved that the concept of atomic clocks could work, it never was used for timekeeping.
  • In 2008, a second was added to every atomic clock on earth simultaneously. This was to synchronize the atomic clock’s time with the Earth’s rotation. More interestingly, we did not turn the clocks by a second by turning them off for one. But rather, the earth adjusted itself as the rotational speed of earth slows down by two milliseconds every day. What causes this you ask? Well, magnetic storms, solar winds, resistance from its own surface and most importantly of all through the moon’s gravity and the effect it has on it
  • There is a possibility of an atomic clock that will keep us exact inline with the Universe. How will this be done? Spoiler, things are about to get a bit technical now. The researchers at the University of Nevada and the University of Georgia propose that we could use a laser to rearrange pieces of an atom so that we would be able to use a neutron to act as our pendulum/ oscillating machine. Rather than using an electron that we use now. This would mean the formation of an atomic clock that will be 100 times more accurate than any we have right now. And who knows what doors of opportunities that will birth

And if you want to see what NASA has to say about atomic clocks, their website has a great article written on just that so do give it a look too if you are interested, “What Is an Atomic Clock?Opens in a new tab.

Final Thoughts

A picture of Final Notices to better answer the question "What are atomic clocks? All about them"
What are atomic clocks? All about them

This was an extensive article on atomic clocks answering some of the questions that you might have had regarding them. Hopefully, it was helpful and catered to your queries well. Moreover, if you still have any further related questions do use the comment section below.

Lastly, if you want to know why clocks don’t appear in dreams, we have a great article on just that so do give it a click if you are interested “Why don’t clocks appear in dreams? Clocks and dreams!Opens in a new tab.

AK Iqbal

A University of London’ student with a passion for writing. Clocks have always intrigued me and the importance that they have in our lives is way beyond phenomenal. So, on this site, I write everything about clocks, everything from answering any clock-related queries that you might have along with recommending some of my favorite clocks accordingly. Moreover, I will also be conducting some researches on clock related topics and sharing the things that I learn. So stay tuned to ohmyclock for all the fun clocks related content

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