Today's quartz wristwatches are pretty darn good at keeping time, gaining or losing only about 15 seconds a month.
But a new atomic clock -- an experimental device described in a paper in the journal Nature -- is a bit better. Tests show it wouldn't gain or lose even a single second over the course of 5 billion years. That's a new world record.
The "strontium lattice" clock was created by researchers led by Dr. Jun Ye, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is housed at JILA, an institute operated by NIST and the University of Colorado at Boulder, according to a written statement released by the institute. It's about 50 percent more precise than the previous world record-holder, NIST's so-called "quantum logic" clock.
For all its incredible accuracy, however, the scientists who took the time to create the new clock aren't quite satisfied.
"We already have plans to push the performance even more," Dr. Jun Ye said in the statement. "So in this sense, even this new Nature paper represents only a 'mid-term' report. You can expect more new breakthroughs in our clocks in the next five to 10 years."
The strontium lattice clock is the latest in a series of increasingly precise clocks created since the first atomic clock was constructed in 1949. Atomic clocks make possible many familiar technologies, including GPS systems, computer networks, and telecommunications networks.
As you might expect, the new timepiece is a bit more complicated than the one on your wrist or nightstand (or in your phone). According to the statement, its centerpiece is a few thousand atoms of strontium held in a column of about 100 pancake-shaped traps. When bathed in red laser light, the atoms "tick" -- oscillate between energy states -- 430 trillion times a second.
The researchers gauged the precision of the new clock by showing that it agreed fully with another strontium lattice clock built in 2005 -- thereby confirming the less-than-one-second-every-5-billion-years accuracy.
Of course, if the new clock doesn't quite deliver that level of accuracy over 5 billion years, no one will be around to notice. New research suggests that the gradual brightening of the sun will vaporize all water on earth -- and kill all life on the planet -- in less than two billion years.
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that the "strontium lattice" clock was located in Denver, but it is in fact located in Boulder.
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