New laser clock may redefine how we measure time

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We may soon be redefining what one second of time is, thanks to French scientists who have devised a new clock, called the optical lattice clock, that is so accurate, it only loses a second once every 300 million years.

Our clocks tick away every day, second by second, but have you ever stopped to wonder what defines those seconds?

The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and pretty much every other civilization up through the years have all split the day up into different units of time, of course. However, it wasn't until the mid-1500s that the second showed up in our time-pieces, and it didn't become formally defined by science until the 1800s. Even then, it was still a fairly 'loose' definition — based on Earth's orbit around the Sun — and it wasn't until we switched to a much smaller measuring device that the definition became much more accurate.

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It was the invention of the atomic clock — using the 'vibrations' of atoms of the element cesium (9,192,631,770 of them, to be exact) — that let us define the second down to such precision that this clock only loses a second once every 30 million years.

This new optical lattice clock, though, pushes that precision even further, to once every 300 million years, by using something that 'vibrates' even faster.

"In our clocks we use laser beams," said study co-author Dr. Jerome Lodewyck, from the Paris Observatory, according to BBC News. "Laser beams oscillate much faster than microwave radiation, and in a sense we divide time in much shorter intervals so we can measure time more precisely."

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When it comes down to it, do we really need to define a second that accurately? You bet!

Not only is the second part of the fundamental basis of the metric system and the Imperial system, but the accurate measurement of time is very important for telecommunications and power grid management. Satellite GPS navigation is dependent on it, and the more accurate the second, the more accurate navigation can be. Apparently, according to the BBC News article, even the stock market relies on it.

For now, measuring the accuracy of the second to one in 300 million is pretty good, but scientists aren't stopping there. There's even a quantum clock that is reportedly accurate out to 3.7 billion years.

(Photo courtesy: Paris Observatory)

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