Nuclear Weapons, computers, GPS, atomic clocks and carbon dating – there is much more to atoms than you think.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century mankind has been obsessed with atoms and the minutiae of our universe. Much of the first part of the last century, mankind became obsessed with harnessing the hidden power of the atom, revealed to us by the work of Albert Einstein and finalised by Robert Oppenheimer.
However, there has been much more to our exploration of the atom than just weapons. The studying of the atoms (quantum mechanics) has been at the root of most of our modern technologies such as computers and the Internet. It is also in the forefront of chronology – the measuring of time.
The atom plays a key role in both timekeeping and time prediction. The atomic clock, which is utilised all over the world by computer networks using NTP servers and other technical systems such as air traffic control and satellite navigation.
Atomic clocks work by monitoring the extremely high frequency oscillations of individual atoms (traditionally caesium) that never changes at particular energy states. As caesium atoms resonate over a 9 billion times every second and never alters it its frequency it makes the m highly accurate (losing less than a second every 100 million years)
But atoms can also be used to work out not just accurate and precise time but they can also be utilised in establishing the age of objects. Carbon dating is the name given to this method which measures the natural decay of carbon atoms. All of us are made primarily of carbon and like other elements carbon ‘decays’ over time where the atoms lose energy by emitting ionizing particles and radiation.
In some atoms such as uranium this happens very quickly, however, other atoms such as iron are highly stable and decay very, very slowly. Carbon, while it decays quicker than iron is still slow to lose energy but the energy loss is exact over time so by analysing carbon atoms and measuring their strength it can be quite accurately ascertained when the carbon originally formed.