Remember how mechanical clocks are prone to lose time? It’s because they’re made out of physical machinery—pendulums or mainsprings and gears. We replaced those mechanical parts with a quartz crystal, zapped it with electricity to make it vibrate and got digital clocks. Digital clocks are more reliable, but they still lose 15 seconds every month.
To make the even-more-reliable atomic clock, we replaced the quartz crystal with atoms. Atoms vibrate on their own. We’re building a clock that’s as free of physical, mechanical parts as we can manage in this bad old fallen world.
Here’s what I’m getting from my exhaustive research so far: somehow cesium atoms are funneled down a tube. How do they get the atoms out of the cesium? I don’t know. The atoms are exposed to radiation—radio microwaves like the kind you use to heat up your old cold French fries—which makes them switch back and forth between energy states. The idea is to tune the radio waves to sync up with the atom’s own vibrations at 9,192,631,770 times every second. It’s not easy to get this exactly right—like tuning in a jazz station from 2 counties over on an old radio with dials. There’s a detector at the end of the tube. When the radio waves are at the exact right frequency (the same frequency as the atoms’ vibrations), the atoms change energy states and bounce off the detector—which means one second has passed. Then what? I dunno. How does the detector know when the atoms change from State B back to State A ? I dunno.
Back to my research. Thanks for your patience. Please continue to hold.
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space