Atomic clocks have been a huge influence on our modern lives with many of the technologies that have revolutionised the way we live our lives relying on their ultra precise time keeping abilities.
Atomic clocks are far different to other chronometers; a normal watch or clock will keep time fairly accurately but will lose second or two each day. An atomic clock on the other hand will not lose a second in millions of years.
In fact it is fair to say that an atomic clock doesn’t measure time but is the foundations we base our perceptions of time on. Let me explain, time, as Einstein demonstrated, is relative and the only constant in the universe is the speed of light (though a vacuum).
Measuring time with any real precision is therefore difficult as even the gravity on Earth skews time, slowing it down. It is also almost impossible to base time on any point of reference. Historically we have always used the revolution of the earth and reference to the celestial bodies as a basis for our time telling (24 hours in a day = one revolution of the Earth, 365 days = one revolution of the earth around the Sun etc).
Unfortunately the Earth’s rotation is not an accurate frame of reference to base our time keeping on. The earth slows down and speeds up in its revolution meaning some days are longer than others.
Atomic clocks however, used the resonance of atoms (normally caesium) at particular energy states. As these atoms vibrate at exact frequencies (or an exact number of times) this can be used as a basis for telling time. So after the development of the atomic clock the second has been defined as over 9 billion resonance ’ticks’ of the caesium atom.
The ultra precise nature of atomic clocks is the basis for technologies such as satellite navigation (GPS), air traffic control and internet trading. It is possible to use the precise nature of atomic clocks to synchronise computer networks too. All that is needed is a NTP time server (Network Time Protocol).
NTP servers receive the time from atomic clocks via a broadcast signal or the GPS network they then distribute it amongst a network ensuring all devices have the exact same, ultra precise time.