NIST physicist Jim Bergquist

An experimental atomic clock based on a single mercury atom is now at least five times more precise than the national standard clock based on a “fountain” of cesium atoms.

The experimental clock, which measures the oscillations of a mercury ion (an electrically charged atom) held in an ultra-cold electromagnetic trap, produces “ticks” at optical frequencies. Optical frequencies are much higher than the microwave frequencies measured in cesium atoms in NIST-F1, the national standard and one of the world’s most accurate clocks. Higher frequencies allow time to be divided into smaller units, which increases precision.

The current version of NIST-F1—if it were operated continuously—would neither gain nor lose a second in about 70 million years. The latest version of the mercury clock would neither gain nor lose a second in about 400 million years.

I thoroughly understand the usefulness of an advancement like this for science and mathematics.

That’s right. I haven’t worn a watch since 1986.



  1. Mike Voice says:

    “Stick to technology, enough with the religion and politics…”

    “That picture of the scantily-clad woman has nothing to do with the subject of the post…”

    You listen to what people say they want…. and end up with zero comments… [grin]

  2. Rob says:

    It just amazes me that in today’s science-hostile Bush federal government, agencies like NIST are still able to invent and innovate like this. You’d think the smart scientists would have fled to private industry years ago.

  3. Mr. H. Fusion says:

    And the life of a baby has just been saved because the nation’s watch is right on time.

  4. James Hill says:

    Fusion stumbled into a decent point: I’m all for my tax dollars going towards science that even indirectly aids society. How does improving the national clock do that?

  5. GregAllen says:

    Maybe this is a dumb question but… if space-time theory is true, aren’t there limits to how accurate a clock can get?

    We are all traveling at slightly different and slightly ever-changing speeds, right? I suppose our differing speeds is so small that even molecular clocks couldn’t differentiate it.

    Probably you’d have to shoot this clock to Mars and back (or similar) to document time-space theory. That would be cool, though.


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