New Atomic Clock Keeps Time Even More Precisely

The design, which uses atoms entangled at the quantum level, could also allow scientists to detect dark matter and study gravity’s effect on time.

(CN) — Researchers announced the creation of a new type of superaccurate atomic clock that could be capable of measuring undiscovered cosmic phenomena like dark matter and the effect gravity can have on time itself.

Humans throughout history have relied on natural occurrences and manmade instruments to gauge the passing of time. From the ancient Egyptian sundials that tracked the sun’s progress through the sky to battery-powered wristwatches of the modern era, humans have utilized numerous inventive methods to measure and define our journey through time.

Perhaps one of the greatest advancements in humans’ ability to track time arrived roughly 70 years ago with the invention of the first atomic clock. These timekeeping instruments use a series of lasers to monitor the timely vibrations and oscillating behaviors of atoms. This method of measuring time, experts say, is so accurate that if a person had been keeping time since the dawn of the universe and existence itself, today that atomic clock would only be off by roughly half a second.

As accurate as these clocks can be, however, experts have long worked towards making them even more exact — precise enough to measure universal phenomena that has eluded scientists’ grasp for decades, such as dark matter and gravitational waves.

In a study published Wednesday in Nature, physicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they have designed a type of atomic clock that relies on a new way to monitor and interact with the vibrations of atoms. Rather than build an atomic clock that gauges the oscillation of a group of seemingly unrelated atoms as most atomic clocks do, researchers created a clock that measures a cluster of atoms that have become quantumly entangled by light.

This entanglement was made possible by using a series of optical techniques on around 350 different atoms. A series of lasers was beamed between two mirrors and created a reaction that caused the atoms to gradually sync with one another.

Chi Shu of MIT, one of the authors of the new study, says that this unique method was made possible by the special relationship between atoms and light.

“It’s like the light serves as a communication link between atoms,” Shu said with the release of the study. “The first atom that sees this light will modify the light slightly, and that light also modifies the second atom, and the third atom, and through many cycles, the atoms collectively know each other and start behaving similarly.”

The relationship that formed between the atoms, according to researchers, is what gives their new atomic clock unparalleled accuracy. Previous atomic clocks use atoms that are unrelated and operate on their own frequencies, resulting in a small margin of error, for how those clocks use the vibrations of the atoms to keep time.

But the clock revealed Wednesday has largely solved that issue. By creating a network of atoms that have become entangled with one another and have been conditioned to behave similarly, researchers reveal that they have created a clock at least four times more accurate than those that do not use quantumly entangled atoms.

This atomic clock is so accurate, experts theorize that if it were measuring the lifespan of the universe since the Big Bang, it would likely be off by less than 100 milliseconds.

Researchers report the implications of this new method could prove to be astonishing, and that this could be the tool to help them detect new cosmic phenomena and answer pressing questions like how gravity influences the passage of time or how time itself changes as the universe ages.

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