Attosecond clock accuracy that is one thousand times better than atomic clocks of 20 years ago

Atomic clocks have been transformational in science and technology, leading to innovations such as global positioning, advanced communications, and tests of fundamental constant variation. Next-generation optical atomic clocks can extend the capability of these timekeepers, where researchers have long aspired toward measurement precision at 1 part in 10^18. This milestone will enable a second revolution of new timing applications such as relativistic geodesy, enhanced Earth- and space-based navigation and telescopy, and new tests on physics beyond the Standard Model. Here, we describe the development and operation of two optical lattice clocks, both utilizing spin-polarized, ultracold atomic ytterbium. A measurement comparing these systems demonstrates an unprecedented atomic clock instability of 1.6 X 10^18 after only 7 hours of averaging.

A measurement at the 10^18 fractional level is equivalent to specifying the age of the known universe to a precision of less than one second or Earth’s diameter to less than the width of an atom.

NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology) has a history of atomic clocks

In 2010, there were clocks accurate to 1 X 10^17 seconds

The new clocks immediately make possible a number of new and important applications. These clocks are so sensitive that they can easily measure the gravitational redshift, in which clocks tick more slowly in more powerful gravitational fields. In other words they can sense changes in height.

The best clocks today are sensitive to changes of many metres or kilometres. The new clock should be able to discern changes of around 1 cm at the Earth’s surface. That will be for applications such as hydrology, geology and the measurement of ice pack changes in climate change studies.

It would also physicists to test whether things like gravitational red shift and the fine structure constant change with position, important fundamental tests of physics.

The improvement of clocks is an ongoing process that humanity has undertaken over several thousand years. These latest timepieces are the impressive culmination of all this work and yet they are bound to be eclipsed in the not too distant future.

Indeed Ludlow and co point to various improvements that they had to make in the near future to make their clock even better. And when they do the next clocks will be even better. Such is the nature of technology.

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