By exploiting the weird quantum behavior of atoms, physicists at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated a new technique that someday could be used to save weeks of measurements needed to operate ultraprecise atomic clocks. The technique also could be used to improve the precision of other measurement processes such as spectroscopy.
The technique, described in today’s issue of Science, effectively turns atoms into better frequency sensors. Eventually, the technique could help scientists measure the ticks of an atomic clock faster and more accurately. Just as a grandfather clock uses the regular swings of a pendulum to count off each second of time, an atomic clock produces billions of ticks per second by detecting the regular oscillations of atoms. The trick to producing extremely accurate atomic clocks is to measure this frequency very precisely for a specific atom.
In the latest experiment, the scientists used very brief pulses of ultraviolet light in a NIST-developed technique to put three beryllium ions (charged atoms) into a special quantum state called entanglement. In simple terms, entanglement involves correlating the fates of two or more atoms such that their behavior--in concert--is very different from the independent actions of unentangled atoms. One effect is that, once a measurement is made on one atom, it becomes possible to predict the result of a measurement on another. When applied to atoms in an atomic clock, the effect is that n entangled atoms will tick n times faster than the unentangled atoms.
Laura Ost | NIST
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