Have Scientists Found Faster than Light Particles?

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The physics world got itself into a bit of a tizz this month as scientists at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, found an anomaly on one of their experiments, which seemed to show that some particles were travelling faster than light.

Time server's can provide atomic clock accuracy

Faster than light travel for any particle is prohibited of course, according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, but the OPERA team at CERN, who fired neutrinos around a particle accelerator, travelling for 730 km, found that the neutrinos travelled the distance 20 parts per million faster than photons (light particles) meaning they broke Einstein’s speed limit.

While this experiment could prove to be one of the most important discoveries in physics, physicists are remaining sceptical, suggesting that a cause could be an error generated in the difficulties and complexities of measuring such high speeds and distances.

The team at CERN used GPS time servers, portable atomic clocks and GPS positioning systems to make their calculations, which all provided accuracy in distance to within 20cm and an accuracy of time to within 10 nanoseconds. However, the facility is underground and the GPS signals and other data streams had to be cabled down to the experiment, a latency the team are confident they took into account during their calculations.

Physicists from other organisations are now attempting to repeat the experiments to see if they get the same results. Whatever the outcome, this type of groundbreaking research is only possible thanks to the accuracy of atomic clocks that are able to measure time to millionths of a second.

To synchronise a computer network to an atomic clock you don’t need to have access to a physics laboratory like CERN as simple NTP time servers like Galleons NTS 6001 will receive an accurate source of atomic clock time and keep all hardware on a network to within a few milliseconds of it.


The Atomic Clock History Accuracy and Uses

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Most people will have heard of atomic clocks, most people, probably without realising have even used them; however, I doubt many people reading this will have ever seen one. Atomic clocks are highly technical and complicated pieces of machinery. Relying on vacuums, super-coolants such as liquid nitrogen and even lasers, most atomic clocks are only found in laboratories such as NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) in the US, or NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in the UK.

NPL's atomic clock

No other form of timekeeping is as accurate as an atomic clock. Atomic clocks form the basis of world’s global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Even the length Earth’s spin requires manipulation by the addition of leap seconds to UTC to keep the day synchronised.

Atomic clocks work by using the oscillating changes of atoms during different energy states. Caesium is the preferred atom used in atomic clocks, which oscillates 9,192,631,770 times a second. This is a constant effect too, so much so that a second is now defined by this many oscillations of the caesium atom.

Louis Essen built the first accurate atomic clock in 1955 at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, since then atomic clocks have become increasingly more accurate with modern atomic clocks able to maintain time for over a million years without ever losing a second.

In 1961, UTC became the world’s global timescale, and by 1967, the International System of Units adopted the Caesium frequency as the official second.

Since then, atomic clocks have become part of modern technology. Onboard every GPS satellite, atomic clocks beam time signals to Earth, enabling satellite navigation systems in car, boats and aeroplanes to judge their locations precisely.

UTC time is also essential for trade in the modern world. With computer networks speaking to each other across timezones, using atomic clocks as a reference prevents errors, ensures security and provides reliable data transfer.

Receiving a signal from an atomic clock for computer time synchronisation is incredibly easy. NTP time servers that receive the time signal from GPS satellites, or those broadcast on radio waves from places NPL and NIST, enable computer networks across the globe to keep secure and accurate time.

Oddities of Time and the Importance of Accuracy

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Most of us think we know what the time it is. At a glance of our wristwatches or wall clocks, we can tell what time it is. We also think we have a pretty good idea of the speed time move forwards, a second, a minute, an hour or a day are pretty well-defined; however, these units of time are completely man-made and are not as constant as we may think.

Time is an abstract concept, while we may think it is the same for everybody, time is affected by its interaction with the universe. Gravity, for instance, as Einstein observed, has the ability to warp space-time altering the speed in which time passes, and while we all live on the same planet, under the same gravitational forces, there are subtle differences in the speed in which time passes.

Using atomic clocks, scientists are able to establish the effect Earth’s gravity has on time. The high above sea level an atomic clock is placed, the quicker time travels. While these differences are minute, these experiments clearly demonstrate that Einstein’s postulations were correct.

Atomic clocks have been used to demonstrate some of Einstein’s other theories regarding time too. In his theories of relativity, Einstein argued that speed is another factor that affects the speed at which time passes. By placing atomic clocks on orbiting spacecraft or aeroplanes travelling at speed, the time measured by these clocks differs to clocks left static on Earth, another indication that Einstein was right.

Before atomic clocks, measuring time to such degrees of accuracy was impossible, but since their invention in the 1950’s, not only have Einstein’s postulations proved right, but also we have discovered some other unusual aspects to how we regard time.

While most of us think of a day as 24-hours, with every day being the same length, atomic clocks have shown that each day varies. Furthermore, atomic clocks have also shown that the Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing down, meaning that days are getting slowly longer.

Because of these changes to time, the world’s global timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) needs occasional adjustments. Every six months or so, leap seconds are added to ensure UTC runs at the same rate as an Earth day, accounting for the gradual slowing down of the planet’s spin.

For technologies that require high levels of accuracy, these regular adjustments of time are accounted for by the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) so a computer network using an NTP time server is always kept true to UTC.

Precise Time on the Markets

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The stock market has been in the news a lot lately. As global uncertainty about national debts rise, the markets are in flux, with prices changing incredibly quickly. On a trading floor, every second counts and precise time is essential for global buying and selling of commodities, bonds and shares.

NTS 6001 from Galleon Systems

The international stock exchanges such as the NASDAQ and London Stock Exchange all require accurate and precise time. With traders buying and selling shares for customers across the globe, a few seconds of inaccuracy could cost millions as share prices fluctuate.

NTP servers linked to atomic clock timing signals ensure that the stock exchange keeps an accurate and precise time. As computers across the globe all receive the stock prices, as and when they change, these two use NTP server systems to maintain time.

The global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is used as the basis for atomic clock timing, so no matter where a trader is on the globe, the same timescale prevents confusion and errors when dealing with stocks and shares.

Because of the billions of pounds worth of stocks and shares that are bought and sold on trading floors every day, security is essential. NTP servers work externally to networks, getting their time from sources such as GPS (Global Positioning System) or radio signals put out by organisations like the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) or the National Institute for Standards and Time (NIST).

The stock exchanges can’t use a source of internet because of the risk this could pose. Hackers and malicious users could tamper with the time source, leading to mayhem and cost millions and perhaps billions if the wrong time was spread around the exchanges.

The precision of internet time is limited too. Latency over distance can create delays, which could lead to errors, and if the time source ever went down, the stock markets could hit trouble.

It is not only stock markets that need precise and accurate time, computer networks across the globe concerned about security use dedicated NTP servers like Galleon Systems’ NTS 6001. Providing accurate time from both GPS and radio signals from NPL and NIST, the NTS 6001 ensure accurate, precise and secure time every day of the year.

Hackers and Time Servers

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Computer hacking is a common subject in the news. Some of the biggest companies have fallen victim to hackers, and for a myriad of reasons. Protecting computer networks from invasion from malicious users is an expensive and sophisticated industry as hackers use many methods to invade a system.

Various forms of security exist to defend against unauthorised access to computer networks such as antivirus software and firewalls.

One area often overlooked, however, is where a computer network gets it source of time from, which can often be a vulnerable aspect to a network and a way in for hackers.

Most computer networks use NTP (Network Time Protocol) as a method of keeping synchronised. NTP is excellent at keeping computers at the same time, often to within a few milliseconds, but is dependent on a single source of time.

Because computer networks from different organisations need to communicate together, having the same source of time makes sense, which is the reason most computer networks synchronise to a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

UTC, the world’s global timescale, is kept true by atomic clocks and various methods of utilising UTC are available.

Quite often, computer networks use an internet time source to obtain UTC but this is often when they run into security issues.

Using internet time sources leave a computer network open to several vulnerabilities. Firstly, to allow access to the internet time source, a port needs keeping open in the system firewall (UDP 123). As with any open port, unauthorised users could take advantage of this, using the open port as a way into the network.

Secondly, if the internet time source itself if tampered with, such as by BGP injection (Border Gateway Protocol) this could lead to all sorts of problems. By telling internet time servers it was a different time or date, major havoc could ensue with data getting lost, system crashes—a type of Y2K effect!

Finally, internet time servers can’t be authenticated by NTP and can also be inaccurate. Vulnerable to latency and affected to distance, errors can also occur; earlier this year some reputable time servers lost several minutes, leading to thousands of computer networks receiving the wrong time.

To ensure complete protection, dedicated and external time servers, such as Galleon’s NTS 6001 are the only secure method of receiving UTC. Using GPS (or a radio transmission) an external NTP time server can’t be manipulated by malicious users, is accurate to a few milliseconds, can’t drift and is not susceptible to timing errors.


75 Years of the Speaking Clock

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Britain’s speaking clock celebrates its 75th birthday this week, with the service still providing the time to over 30 million callers a year.

The service, available by dialling 123 on any BT landline (British Telecom), began in 1936 when the General Post Office (GPO) controlled the telephone network. Back then, most people used mechanical clocks, which were prone to drift. Today, despite the prevalence of digital clocks, mobile phones, computers and a myriad number of other devices, the BT speaking clock still provides the time to 30 million callers a year, and other networks implement their own speaking clock systems.

Much of the speaking clock’s continuing success is perhaps down to the accuracy that it keeps. The modern speaking clock is accurate to five milliseconds (5/1000ths of a second), and kept precise by the atomic clock signals provided by NPL (National Physical Laboratory) and the GPS network.

But the announcer declaring the time ‘after the third stroke’ provides people with a human voice, something other time-telling methods don’t provide, and may have something to do with why so many people still use it.

Four people have had the honour of providing the voice for the speaking clock; the current voice of the BT clock is Sara Mendes da Costa, who has provided the voice since 2007.

Of course, many modern technologies require an accurate source of time. Computer networks that need to keep synchronised, for security reasons and to prevent of errors, require a source of atomic clock time.

Network time servers, commonly called NTP servers after Network Time Protocol that distributes the time across the computers on a network, use either GPS signals, which contain atomic clock time signals, or by radio signals broadcast by places like NPL and NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) in the US.

Summer Solstice The Longest Day

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June 21 marks the summer solstice for 2011. The summer solstice is when the Earth’s axis is most inclined to the sun, providing the most amount of sunshine for any day of the year. Often known as Midsummer’s day, marking the exact middle of the summer, periods of daylight get shorter following the solstice.

For the ancients, the summer solstice was an important event. Knowing when the shortest and longest days of the year were important to enable early agricultural civilisations to establish when to plant and harvest crops.

Indeed, the ancient monument of Stonehenge, in Salisbury, Great Britain, is thought to have been erected to calculate such events, and is still a major tourist attraction during the solstice when people travel from all over the country to celebrate the event at the ancient site.

Stonehenge is, therefore, one of the oldest forms of timekeeping on Earth, dating back to 3100BC. While nobody knows exactly how the monument was built, the giant stones were thought to have been transported from miles away—a mammoth task considering the wheel hadn’t even been invented back then.

The building of Stonehenge shows that timekeeping was as important to the ancients as it is to us today. The need for acknowledging when the solstice occurred is perhaps the earliest example of synchronisation.

Stonehenge probably used the setting and rising of the sun to tell the time. Sundials also used the sun to tell the time way before the invention of clocks, but we have come a long way from using such primitive methods in our timekeeping now.

Mechanical clocks came first, and then electronic clocks which were many times more accurate; however, when atomic clocks were developed in the 1950’s, timekeeping became so accurate that even the Earth’s rotation couldn’t keep up and an entirely new timescale, UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) was developed that accounted for discrepancies in the Earth’s spin by having leap seconds added.

Today, if you wish to synchronise to an atomic clock, you need to hook up to a NTP server which will receive an UTC time source from GPS or a radio signal and allow you to synchronise computer networks to maintain 100% accuracy and reliability.

Stonehenge–Ancient timekeeping

Keeping Track of Global Time

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So much business these days is conducted across borders, countries and continents. Global trade and communication is an important aspect for all sorts of industries, trades and businesses.

Of course, communicating across borders often means communicating across time zones too, and this poses problems for both people and computers. When those in United States start work, Europeans are half way through their day, while those in the Far East have gone to bed.

Knowing the time in several countries is, therefore, important for many people, but fortunately, many solutions exist to help.

Modern operating systems like Windows 7 have facilities that allow you to show several time zones on the computer clock, while web pages and apps such as:  https://www.worldtimebuddy.com offer an easy way to work out the different time across time zones.

Many offices use multiple analogue and digital wall clocks to provide staff with easy access to the time in important trade countries, sometimes these use atomic clock receivers to maintain perfect accuracy, but what about computers? How do they deal with different time zones?

The answer lies in the global timescale UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC was developed following the invention of atomic clocks. Kept precise by a constellation of these super-accurate clocks, UTC is the same across the globe enabling computers to communicate effectively without the differences in time zones affecting functionality.

To ensure preciseness in communication, computer networks need an accurate source of UTC as system clocks are nothing more than quartz oscillators, which can drift by several seconds a day—a long time for computer communication.

A software protocol, NTP (Network Time Protocol) ensures that this time source is distributed around the network, maintaining its accuracy.

NTP servers receive the source of UTC, often from sources such as GPS or radio referenced signals broadcast by NPL in the UK (National Physical Laboratory—transits the MSF signal from Cumbria) or NIST in the USA (National Institute of Standards and Time—transmits the WWVB signal from Colorado).

With UTC and NTP time servers, computer networks across the globe can communicate precisely and error-free enabling trouble free computing and truly global communication.

NTP server

Keeping the World Synchronised A Brief History

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Global time synchronisation may seem like a modern need, we do after all live in a global economy. With the internet, global financial markets and computer networks separated by oceans and continents—keeping everybody running in synchronisation is a crucial aspect of the  modern world.

Yet, a need for global synchronicity began a lot earlier than the computer age. International standardisation of weights and measures began after the French revolution when the decimal system was introduced and a platinum rod and weight representing the metre and the kilogram were installed in the Archives de la République in Paris.

Paris eventually became the central head of the International System of Units, which was fine for weights and measures, as representatives from different countries could visit the vaults to calibrate their own base measurements; however, when it came to standardising time, with the increased use of transatlantic travel following the steamer, and then the aeroplane, things became tricky.

Back then, the only clocks were mechanical and pendulum driven. Not only would the base clock that was situated in Paris drift on a daily basis, but any traveller from the other side of the world wanting to synchronise to it, would have to visit Paris, check the time on the vault’s clock, and then carry their own clock back across the Atlantic—inevitable arriving with a clock that had drifted perhaps several minutes by the time the clock arrived back.

With the invention of the electronic clock, the aeroplane and transatlantic telephones, things became easier; however, even electronic clocks can drift several seconds in a day so the situation wasn’t perfect.

These days, thanks to the invention of the atomic clock, the SI standard of time (UTC: Coordinated Universal Time) has so little drift even a 100,000 years wouldn’t see the clock lose a second. And synchronising to UTC couldn’t be simpler no matter where you are in the world—thanks to NTP (Network Time Protocol) and NTP servers.

Now using GPS signals or transmissions put out by organisations like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time-WVBB broadcast) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory—MSF broadcast) and using NTP servers, ensuring you are synchronised to UTC is simple.

NTP servers like Galleon’s NTS 6001 GPS receive a atomic clock time signal and distributes it around a network keeping every device to within a few milliseconds of UTC.


Galleon's NTS 6001 GPS Time Server

Japan Loses Atomic Clock Signal after Quakes

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Having suffered earthquakes, a catastrophic tsunami, and a nuclear accident, Japan has had a terrible start to the year. Now, weeks after these terrible incidents, Japan is recovering, rebuilding their damaged infrastructure and trying to contain the emergencies at their stricken nuclear power plants.

But to add insult t injury, many of the Japanese technologies that rely on an accurate atomic clock signals are starting to drift, leading to problems with synchronisation. Like in the UK, Japan’s National Institute of Information, Communications and Technology broadcast an atomic clock time standard by radio signal.

Japan has two signals, but many Japanese NTP servers rely on the signal broadcast from mount Otakadoya, which is located 16 kilometres from the stricken Daiichi power station in Fukushima, and falls within the 20 km exclusion zone imposed when the plant started leaking.

The consequence is that technicians have been unable to attend to the time signal. According to the National Institute of Information, Communications, and Technology, which usually transmits the 40-kilohertz signal, broadcasts ceased a day after the massive Tohoku earthquake struck the region on 11 March. Officials at the institute said they have no idea when service might resume.

Radio signals that broadcast time standards can be susceptible to problems of this nature. These signals often experience outages for repair and maintenance, and the signals can be prone to interference.

As more and more technologies, rely on atomic clock timing, including most computer networks, this susceptibility can cause a lot of apprehension amongst technology managers and network administrators.

Fortunately, a less vulnerable system of receiving time standards is available that is just as accurate and is based on atomic clock time—GPS.

The Global Positioning System, commonly used for satellite navigation, contains atomic clock time information used to calculate positioning. These time signals are available everywhere on the planet with a view of the sky, and as it is space-based, the GPS signal is not susceptible to outages and incidents such as in Fukushima.