Most people have vaguely heard of the atomic clock and presume they know what one is but very few people know just how important atomic clocks are for the running of our day to day lives in the twenty first century.
There are so many technologies that are reliant on atomic clocks and without many of the tasks we take for granted would be impossible. Air traffic control, satellite navigation and internet trading are just a few of the applications that are reliant on the ultra precise chronometry of an atomic clock.
Exactly what an atomic clock is, is often misunderstood. In simple terms an atomic clock is a device that uses the oscillations of atoms at different energy states to count ticks between seconds. Currently caesium is the preferred atom because it has over 9 billion ticks every second and because these oscillations never change it makes them a highly accurate method of keeping time.
Atomic clocks despite what many people claim are only ever found in large scale physics laboratories such as NPL (UK National Physical Laboratory) and NIST (US National Institute of Standards and Time). Often people suggest they have an atomic clock that controls their computer network or that they have an atomic clock on their wall. This is not true and what people are referring to is that they have a clock or time server that receives the time from an atomic clock.
Devices like the NTP time server often receive atomic clock signals form places such as NIST or NPL via long wave radio. Another method for receiving time from atomic clocks is using the GPS network (Global Positioning System).
The GPS network and satellite navigation are in fact a good example of why atomic clock synchonization is much needed with such high level of accuracy. Modern atomic clocks such as those found at NIST, NPL and inside orbiting GPS satellites are accurate to within a second every 100 million years or so. This accuracy is crucial when you examine how something like a cars GPS satellite navigation system works.
A GPS system works by triangulating the time signals sent from three or more separate GPS satellites and their onboard atomic clocks. Because these signals travel at the speed of light (nearly 100,000km a second) an inaccuracy of even one whole millisecond could put the navigational information out by 100 kilometres.
This high level of accuracy is also required for technologies such as air traffic control ensuring our crowded skies remain safe and is even critical for many Internet transactions such as trading in derivatives where the value can rise and fall every second.