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Time and place are linked.

Time and place are linked.

More accurate than Swiss watchmaking? Yes, it is possible, thanks to a team of researchers who were able to observe time distortions on an infinitesimal scale. © Keystone
More accurate than Swiss watchmaking? Yes, it is possible, thanks to a team of researchers who were able to observe time distortions on an infinitesimal scale. © Keystone

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Published on 02.03.2022

The most accurate clock ever developed can transform fundamental physics

to know ” Scientists have succeeded in observing Einstein’s general theory of relativity on the smallest scale ever tried. They explained that the two-hour clocks are off quite a bit when they are only a fraction of a millimeter apart.

According to Jun Ye of the University of Boulder in Colorado, it is “by far” the most accurate watch ever developed. And it could pave the way for new discoveries in quantum mechanics, which governs the subatomic world. The researcher and his colleagues published their findings in the journal naturedescribes technical advances that have enabled them to create an object 50 times more accurate than their previous watch, which in 2010 had already broken the record for accuracy.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity, according to which the gravitational field of a very large object distorts spacetime, dates back to 1915. According to this theory, time slows down as one approaches an important mass. But this was not verified until a long time later thanks to the invention of atomic clocks, which measure time by detecting the transition of atoms to a higher energy state.

Relative Effects

In 1976, one of the experiments involved sending a clock into space, which was found to be 1 second faster every 73 years than its counterpart on Earth. Since then, clocks have become more accurate, and thus better at detecting the effects of relativity. A decade ago, Jun Ye’s team broke a record by noticing the time difference when their watch was raised 33cm up.

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Jun Ye’s breakthrough was working with so-called “optical grid” clocks, using lasers to trap atoms in certain ways. This technique prevents them from falling due to gravity or movement which could cause a loss of accuracy.

Inside the new watch are 100,000 atoms of strontium, sandwiched in several layers, with a total height of one millimeter. The clock is so accurate that when this group was divided into two halves, scientists were able to detect the time differences between the upper and lower halves.

At this level of sensitivity, the watches act as sensors. “Time and space are connected,” Jun Yi said. “And with such an accurate measurement of time, you can see how space changes in real time, because the Earth is a living and dynamic body.” Such clocks could, for example, make it possible, in volcanic regions, to distinguish between hard rock and lava beneath the surface, and thus help predict volcanic eruptions or study how global warming is causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise.

theory of everything

But what excites Jun Yi most is the role these clocks can play in physics. The current clock can detect a time difference of more than 200 micrometres, but by reducing that number to 20, it can explore the quantum world, and help fill in some theoretical gaps. That is, if relativity nicely explains how large objects such as planets or galaxies behave, it is incompatible with quantum mechanics, which deals with very small things. The intersection of the two fields could make it possible to take another step towards a “theory of everything” capable of explaining all the physical phenomena of the universe. ATS / AFP

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