Atomic Clocks

Written by Patricia Skinner
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Keeping Wonderful Time

Ever wondered how governments and official organizations keep time? Every wondered how science laboratories time their experiments down to the nano-second? Ever wondered how space missions are timed just as tightly? It's all down to atomic clocks. These wonderful inventions allow us to synchronize every aspect of our lives as minutely as we like, because they are simply unimaginably accurate.

If you can even imagine this, atomic clocks are more accurate than the rotation of the earth and the movement of the stars!They were invented way back in 1049, although the concept was first suggested by professor Isidor Rabi of Columbia University in 1945. Atomic clocks are like ordinary clocks, in that they have an oscillating mass and a spring. But in atomic clocks, the oscillating mass is between the nucleus of an atom and the surrounding electrons.

More Facts about Atomic Clocks

So atomic clocks are not radio active, they just use an atom to work! There are various types of atomic clocks, that all fit into three categories basically. They are cesium atomic clocks, hydrogen atomic clocks and rubidium atomic clocks.

In the US, official time is kept by atomic clocks at the US Naval Observatory. In Britain, for example, time is kept by atomic clocks at the Greenwich Observatory. These places used to keep time by the observation of the movement of planets in the heavens. They all use atomic clocks now.

Just to give us all an idea of how different life would be without atomic clocks, consider these facts: Without the accurate timing of atomic clocks, we could not synchronize the Internet. We could not send missions out into space. We could not safely navigate air traffic. We could not predict the weather as we do now. The accurate measurement of atomic clocks is essential to many of the fantastic modern technologies that we take for granted in our everyday lives.


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