NIST Researchers Achieve ‘Unprecedented’ Atomic Timekeeping Precision, Consistency in Study

Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology have carried out an experiment with atomic clocks, whose results have set records in terms of timekeeping precision and consistency.

A team of NIST researchers led by Andrew Ludlow performed the experiment using a pair of ytterbium optical lattice clocks, where atoms of the chemical element ytterbium are enclosed within a gridwork of lasers.

Atomic clocks tell time by detecting the frequency at which an atom switches between energy levels. This switching, which is equivalent to the “ticking” of a regular clock, happens when an atom is bombarded with radiation.

During the experiment, Ludlow and his team were able to achieve switching rates that very closely matched the natural frequency of the ytterbium atoms. Consequently, their clocks were able to keep time more consistently within the course of a given period.

Most significantly, the frequency measurements between the two atomic clocks used in the experiment agreed with one another. The researchers compared the readings on their clocks 10 times and found the differences to be exceedingly miniscule.

These results, which the researchers described as “unprecedented,” indicate a level of timekeeping accuracy that would make it possible to use atomic clocks to investigate phenomena like gravity waves and dark matter, or even test Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The researchers discuss the study in detail in a paper published by the science journal Nature.

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