04 February 2009
The invention: A clock using the ammonia molecule as its oscillator that surpasses mechanical clocks in long-term stability, precision, and accuracy. The person behind the invention: Harold Lyons (1913-1984), an American physicist Time Measurement The accurate measurement of basic quantities, such as length, electrical charge, and temperature, is the foundation of science. The results of such measurements dictate whether a scientific theory is valid or must be modified or even rejected. Many experimental quantities change over time, but time cannot be measured directly. It must be measured by the occurrence of an oscillation or rotation, such as the twenty-four-hour rotation of the earth. For centuries, the rising of the Sun was sufficient as a timekeeper, but the need for more precision and accuracy increased as human knowledge grew. Progress in science can be measured by how accurately time has been measured at any given point. In 1713, the British government, after the disastrous sinking of a British fleet in 1707 because of a miscalculation of longitude, offered a reward of 20,000 pounds for the invention of a ship’s chronometer (a very accurate clock). Latitude is determined by the altitude of the Sun above the southern horizon at noon local time, but the determination of longitude requires an accurate clock set at Greenwich, England, time. The difference between the ship’s clock and the local sun time gives the ship’s longitude. This permits the accurate charting of new lands, such as those that were being explored in the eighteenth century. John Harrison, an English instrument maker, eventually built a chronometer that was accurate within one minute after five months at sea. He received his reward from Parliament in 1765. Atomic Clocks Provide Greater Stability A clock contains four parts: energy to keep the clock operating, an oscillator, an oscillation counter, and a display. A grandfather clock has weights that fall slowly, providing energy that powers the clock’s gears. The pendulum, a weight on the end of a rod, swings back and forth (oscillates) with a regular beat. The length of the rod determines the pendulum’s period of oscillation. The pendulum is attached to gears that count the oscillations and drive the display hands. There are limits to a mechanical clock’s accuracy and stability. The length of the rod changes as the temperature changes, so the period of oscillation changes. Friction in the gears changes as they wear out. Making the clock smaller increases its accuracy, precision, and stability. Accuracy is how close the clock is to telling the actual time. Stability indicates how the accuracy changes over time, while precision is the number of accurate decimal places in the display. A grandfather clock, for example, might be accurate to ten seconds per day and precise to a second, while having a stability of minutes per week. Applying an electrical signal to a quartz crystal will make the crystal oscillate at its natural vibration frequency, which depends on its size, its shape, and the way in which it was cut from the larger crystal. Since the faster a clock’s oscillator vibrates, the more precise the clock, a crystal-based clock is more precise than a large pendulum clock. By keeping the crystal under constant temperature, the clock is kept accurate, but it eventually loses its stability and slowly wears out. In 1948, Harold Lyons and his colleagues at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) constructed the first atomic clock, which used the ammonia molecule as its oscillator. Such a clock is called an atomic clock because, when it operates, a nitrogen atom vibrates. The pyramid-shaped ammonia molecule is composed of a triangular base; there is a hydrogen atom at each corner and a nitrogen atom at the top of the pyramid. The nitrogen atom does not remain at the top; if it absorbs radio waves of the right energy and frequency, it passes through the base to produce an upside-down pyramid and then moves back to the top. This oscillation frequency occurs at 23,870 megacycles (1 megacycle equals 1 million cycles) per second. Lyons’s clock was actually a quartz-ammonia clock, since the signal from a quartz crystal produced radio waves of the crystal’s fre- quency that were fed into an ammonia-filled tube. If the radio waves were at 23,870 megacycles, the ammonia molecules absorbed the waves; a detector sensed this, and it sent no correction signal to the crystal. If radio waves deviated from 23,870 megacycles, the ammonia did not absorb them, the detector sensed the unabsorbed radio waves, and a correction signal was sent to the crystal. The atomic clock’s accuracy and precision were comparable to those of a quartz-based clock—one part in a hundred million—but the atomic clock was more stable because molecules do not wear out. The atomic clock’s accuracy was improved by using cesium 133 atoms as the source of oscillation. These atoms oscillate at 9,192,631,770 plus or minus 20 cycles per second. They are accurate to a billionth of a second per day and precise to nine decimal places. A cesium clock is stable for years. Future developments in atomic clocks may see accuracies of one part in a million billions. Impact The development of stable, very accurate atomic clocks has farreaching implications for many areas of science. Global positioning satellites send signals to receivers on ships and airplanes. By timing the signals, the receiver’s position is calculated to within several meters of its true location. Chemists are interested in finding the speed of chemical reactions, and atomic clocks are used for this purpose. The atomic clock led to the development of the maser (an acronym formicrowave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), which is used to amplify weak radio signals, and the maser led to the development of the laser, a light-frequency maser that has more uses than can be listed here. Atomic clocks have been used to test Einstein’s theories of relativity that state that time on a moving clock, as observed by a stationary observer, slows down, and that a clock slows down near a large mass (because of the effects of gravity). Under normal conditions of low velocities and low mass, the changes in time are very small, but atomic clocks are accurate and stable enough to detect even these small changes. In such experiments, three sets of clocks were used—one group remained on Earth, one was flown west around the earth on a jet, and the last set was flown east. By comparing the times of the in-flight sets with the stationary set, the predicted slowdowns of time were observed and the theories were verified.