When we take a glance at our watches or the office clock we often take for granted that the time we are given is correct. We may notice if our watches are ten minutes fast or slow but take little heed if they are a second or two out.
Yet for thousands of years mankind has strode to get ever increasingly accurate clocks the benefits of which are plentiful today in our age of satellite navigation, NTP servers, the Internet and global communications.
To understand how accurate time can be measured it is first important to understand the concept of time itself. Time as it has been measured on Earth for millennia is a different concept to time itself which as Einstein informed us was part of the fabric of the universe itself in what he described as a four dimensional space-time.
Yet we have historically measured time based not on the passing of time itself but the rotation of our planet in relation to the Sun and the Moon. A day is divided into 24 equal parts (hours) each of which is divided into 60 minutes and the minute is divided into 60 seconds.
However, it has now been realised that measuring time this way can not be considered accurate as the Earth’s rotation varies from day to day. All sorts of variable such as tidal forces, hurricanes, solar winds and even the amount of snow at the poles effects the speed of the Earth’s rotation. In fact when the dinosaurs first started roaming the Earth, the length of a day as we measure it now would have only been 22 hours.
We now base our timekeeping on the transition of atoms with a second based on 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation emitted by the hyperfine transition of a unionized caesium atom in the ground state. Whilst this may sound complicated it really is just an atomic ‘tick’ that never alters and therefore can provide a highly accurate reference to base our time on.
Atomic clocks use this atomic resonance and can keep time that is so accurate a second isn’t lost in even a billion years. Modern technologies all take advantage of this precision enabling many of the communications and global trade we benefit from today with the utilisation of satellite navigation, NTP servers and air traffic control changing the way we live our lives.