Brain Pickings

The Timekeeper: Behind the Scenes of Humanity’s Most Accurate Atomic Clocks, Which Dictate Our Daily Lives


“Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.”

Since the beginning of human existence, we have sought to understand time, to map it, to hack it, to standardize it, and to perfect our bodily experience of it. We have turned it into our civilization’s greatest meme and have probed it with our most unrelenting scientific rigor. Today, time not only dictates the rhythms of our daily lives but is also at the center of our digital universe — and yet it remains largely misunderstood by us lay people.

In this fascinating micro-documentary, Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory — the same federal agency that hired astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman employed by the government — takes us on a tour of the USNO’s 100 atomic clocks, where the time on your iPhone originates. Dr. Matsakis explains how these atomic clocks — which won’t fall behind or race forward by a single second in 300 million years, rendering them the most accurate measuring devices ever created by humanity — also synchronize GPS, coordinate military operations, dictate financial transactions, and orchestrate internet communication. He then peers into the future to imagine the time-accuracy that is to come, as well as the dark side of such precision.

Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.


In one sense, we’ve figured out everything from a practical point of view — the fundamentals — and in another sense, we don’t know anything at all… There are people who say time could stop, time could have a beginning, time is a derived quantity and not a fundamental quantity, and those are things I can’t give answers to. It’s something like being a doctor who may know how to keep someone alive, but doesn’t know what life is. I know how to compute the second — that’s my job.

Complement it with Dan Falk’s excellent In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time, a fine addition to these 7 excellent books about time, then revisit the curious psychology of why we experience time as elastic.

via The Dish

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