Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Multiple lasers are used to cool the atoms, trap them in a grid of light, and probe them for clock operation. A blue laser beam excites them. Credit: G. Edward Marti, JILA

Two years ago, physicist Jun Ye and his colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology built an atomic clock so precise it doesn't lose or gain a second over the entire age of the universe. Today, they report they've made one ten times as precise using a new technique.

Why it matters: Similar atomic clocks are accurate enough to measure the effects of gravity on time by moving them just a few centimeters up and down. Beyond improving GPS and other time-dependent technologies, atomic clocks could be used to better understand what is below Earth's surface. That could help them model the flow of water, better predict weather or detect magma moving inside a volcano.

The goal: These clocks aren't just for ticking. Their accuracy and precision are allowing scientists to begin to test the predictions of Einstein's general relativity. They hope to study the grand question of physics: what is the connection between quantum theory and gravity — the laws governing our universe's smallest and largest realms?

"This will be a trendsetter for the whole community," says Jan Thomsen, who researches atomic clocks and is head of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. "It's mind-blowing."

How it works: Like the pendulum on your grandfather's clock, an electron's movement back and forth between two energy states is the counter in an atomic clock. That movement is caused by hitting an atom with light or radiation.

Today, a second is measured by exciting electrons in a cesium atom with a microwave at a particular frequency (9,192,631,770 Hz). In other words, the second can be thought of as the amount of time it takes for electrons in the element cesium to oscillate 9,192,631,770 times.

The problem: An atomic clock's performance is based on:

  1. accuracy (how close a measured second is to its true value)
  2. precision (any variation when you measure a second repeatedly)
  3. stability (in this case, a measure of how much the ticking rate changes over time).

Researchers want to use atoms that oscillate at a higher frequency to improve accuracy and more atoms to make timekeeping more precise and stable. But more atoms jammed into a space, the more likely they are to interact with one another, which can quickly throw off the entire clock. They've built clocks that use different atoms and approaches to try to address this tradeoff, with varying success.

Ye and his colleagues report that a new scheme solves that problem with 100,000 times more "ticks" per second. "Nothing is perfect, but this approach comes closer than before," says NIST's William Phillips.

How it works: The researchers used lasers to cool and suspend 3,000 atoms of the element strontium in the shape of a cube. (Imagine a grid of light with an atom in each pocket of it.) Another laser, tuned to the frequency to make the electrons jump, hits the atoms and causes the oscillations. Those jumps are counted, and when 430 trillion occur, a second is considered passed.

What's new: In existing one-dimensional quantum clocks, each atom behaves as an individual and is measured independently. Ye created a quantum gas that allows the atoms to be held in a 3D matrix, which minimizes their interactions.

"We essentially created a system where you can continually expand the number of atoms without worrying about the interaction. We removed the compromise," says Ye, who says he hopes to build clocks like this with a million atoms.

What it means: This clock isn't for measuring time right now. Ye is quick to point out that while the precision of this new clock is improved, they haven't yet evaluated how accurately it counts a second.

The real advance, says Ye, is the method they used for cooling the atoms to create a gas in which quantum interactions between the atoms dominate. That allowed them to trap the atoms in a 3D grid while avoiding the deleterious effects of multiple atoms being close together, because at these near absolute zero temperatures, the atoms become aware of their neighbors and essentially synchronize. He hopes this quantum "playground" could one day be used to study the link between gravity and quantum mechanical effects.

Go deeper

Updated 57 mins ago - Health

Texas to end all coronavirus restrictions

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaking at the White House in December 2020. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Texas will end its coronavirus restrictions next week with an upcoming executive order, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Tuesday during a press conference in Lubbock.

Why it matters: After Abbott signs the new order, which rescinds previous orders, all businesses can open to 100% capacity and the statewide mask mandate will be over, though large parts of the state will remain under mask local ordinances.

Senate confirms Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo as commerce secretary

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D). Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Senate voted 84-15 on Tuesday to confirm Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to lead the Commerce Department.

Why it matters: The agency promotes U.S. industry, oversees the Census Bureau, plays a key role in the government's study of climate change through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and evaluates emerging technology through the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director warns "now is not the time" to lift COVID restrictions — Exclusive: Teenagers' mental health claims doubled last spring.
  2. Axios-Ipsos poll: Americans' hopes rise after a year of COVID
  3. Vaccine: J&J CEO "absolutely" confident in vaccine distribution goals — Vaccine hesitancy is shrinking.
  4. World: China and Russia vaccinate the world, for now.
  5. Energy: Global carbon emissions rebound to pre-COVID levels.
  6. Local: Florida gets more good vaccine newsMinnesota's hunger problem grows amid pandemic — Denver's fitness industry eyes a pandemic recovery.