Atoms. They’re small.

Here’s something: before I can even begin to figure out how atomic clocks work, it may be helpful to understand what an atom is. An atom is the smallest thing that exists. Anything you can touch is made out of atoms. Lots of ‘em. There is literally nothing physical that’s smaller than an atom.

An atom is made out of subatomic particles, but these can’t be separated so they don’t count as being smaller than a whole atom.* These particles have Greek names (like Aristotle hahajustkidding). In the middle of the atom are neutrons and protons stuck together in a clump, called a nucleus. Around the nucleus are electrons, circling like the moon circles Earth.** The electrons don’t fly away from the nucleus because the neutrons and protons exert a magnetism kind of like gravity.

So, no, I still haven’t figured out how the atomic clock works. This is taking longer than I thought. I’ll be back as soon as have more info. Please continue to hold.

*Ms Physics chimes in: “Atomos (Greek) ‘indivisible’ later proved incorrect!” Well, yes, that’s true. I don’t want you kids getting any ideas. Please, if you manage to isolate an atom—DON’T SPLIT IT!



** Another Western Civ Irregular Jeffrey K takes exception to me comparing an atom’s nucleus to a planet and electrons to orbiting moons. He says “Electrons don’t really orbit like planets– more like moths around a flame (without the usual fatalities). Also electrons are magnetic but the rest is held together by nuclear forces.” I said “So far as I know, nobody’s seen an atom because they’re so teensy.” So he sent me this:



Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

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