Forget the ball-drop in Times Square. When it comes to accurate time, the whole nation looks to those blinking towers northeast of Fort Collins.
“Got a second?”
When a friend asks that, you gird yourself for a long exposition about the fish he almost caught, or what a jerk his boss is. But when James Burrus of the National Institute for Standards and Timing (NIST) in Boulder asked me that, my thoughts inclined toward the profound.
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Like, how long is a second, really? And which is the best way to measure that clock tick: with a cesium, strontium, or hydrogen clock? Or, maybe even a ytterbium clock? (Yes, that’s a thing.) And are they hooked up with the 11,875-pound Waterford-crystal ball dropping in front of 500,000 drunks in Times Square on New Year’s Eve? And how accurate is that “5-4-3-2-1!” business, anyway?
Having met Burrus and his NIST colleagues in Boulder and Fort Collins, I personally prefer to have my time accurate down to 10 to the -19th power: a decimal point followed by eighteen zeroes until you get to the error part — about a billionth of a billionth of a second. That’s how accurate NIST’s new ytterbium clock is, which they introduced at the end of November. How does that work? By measuring the movement of super-chilled ytterbium atoms through a laser grid, naturally.
So to the technicians in Boulder, and their broadcast outlet in Fort Collins, that Times Square ball is the equivalent of a cave person tracking the sun’s passage with a stick. (A ball-drop technician in New York watches a GPS time-signal, then punches a button. No ytterbium atoms at all!) Boulder scientists have won four Nobel Prizes since 1997, and their clocks get 40 billion hits a day keeping untold watches and wall clocks up to date, time-stamping every transaction on Wall Street, locking in your smartphone to cell towers, GPS, and accurate time, and guiding you and Google Maps on the road to wherever turn by turn. As readers of the Dava Sobel book “Longitude” know, the key to determining location is an accurate clock, and NIST scientists are to accuracy what Lady Gaga is to the meat gown —prime, grade A, a rare breed.
John Lowe, a time scientist in Boulder, explained: “We build these clocks without actually knowing what they’ll be used for. But they always find something.” Then he rhetorically considered whether the new ytterbium clock might be accurate enough to guide a robotic hand to cut out your gallbladder before it explodes. Not so farfetched when you consider that the current generation of clocks is accurate enough to keep a self-driving Tesla from crossing the double yellow line, no matter how many doobies Elon Musk was enjoying in the back seat.
Before my visit to the Boulder labs, there was a short delay as they tore my car apart looking for weapons of mass disruption—which would surely be the result if a bomb-laden visitor (not me) took the NIST labs out. In fact, their presence in Boulder and Fort Collins are the result of exactly that fear.
Back in the Eisenhower administration, all eyes were on destruction from the skies. So the military sought to decentralize key functions from the D.C. area, and military time was one of them. The citizens of Boulder raised $90,000 to buy out at 210-acre farm near Baseline Road, and beat out the universities of Arizona and Nebraska for the labs; then the nation’s timekeepers located the signal towers northeast of Fort Collins, which was then such a communications backwater that it wouldn’t interfere with the clock’s radio signals. And the metallic content of our soil amplifies the signal — like a giant dish antenna. Take that, Times Square.
When I was visiting NIST in Boulder, John Lowe opened up what looked to be a janitor’s closet to reveal 27 atomic clocks, providing the kind of redundancy you’d hope for when 340 million people rely on you for the time of day. But for all of that atomic brainpower, Lowe blames “earth wobble” for the need to add leap seconds—27 since 1972—to keep earth movement in sync with those the cesium atoms that drive the bossman clock in Boulder. “It’s all part of the cosmic dance,” Lowe says.
Matthew Deutch has just four atomic clocks up in Fort Collins, syncing time with Boulder via satellite. But what Deutch lacks in clocks he makes up for in antennae, which pulsate on the skyline north of town. When he took the job 30 years ago (tempus fugit, Matt) as an electrical engineer fresh out of Colorado State University, he specified that he could do everything the job required, except replace light bulbs. Those towers are 400 feet tall. Now, he says, “My colleagues fight over who can go up there.”
And for all of that sci-fi talk about ytterbium tickers in Boulder, the whole outfit in Fort Collins uses Navy surplus control pods, big as whales and reliant—no kidding—on spare parts from Russia, just like Facebook. Don’t laugh: this garage-sale ethic saves your tax dollars! The blinking, analog behemoths once guided our submarines around the world; now they send a time signal around the country, from stations WWV and WWVB. And if they falter after business hours — a lightning strike will do it— Matt Deutch gets a robocall on his cell phone, so he can hit reset.
Got a second? Check your watch or phone, and thank NIST for determining exactly which second that is, down to 10 to -19th power.
For more information about NIST and the atomic clocks, poke around on NIST.gov. No public tours are offered at either facility. But you can call (303) 499-7111, and listen to the tick-tock of the cosmic dance broadcast from WWV in Fort Collins. Eventually, an eerie male voice will announce the “coordinated universal time.” Subtract seven hours, and voila, it’s Rocky Mountain time! Precisely!