Now That’s A Timepiece

17 September 2016

A clock that remains accurate for one billion years.

The Chinese have launched an atomic clock (with an unfortunate acronym in English, CACS) into space that’s more accurate than any existing timekeeping technology, including solar calendars systems. It will lose 1 second after 1 billion years.

Take that Switzerland!

China’s new space laboratory has an atomic clock which, Chinese engineers say, is more accurate than the best timepiece operated by America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The device, called Cacs, or Cold Atomic Clock in Space, was launched this weak along with other instruments of the Tiangong-2, China’s second orbital lab. According to the South China Morning Post, it will slow down by only one second in a billion years. In comparison, the NIST-F2 atomic clock, which serves as the United States’ primary time and frequency standard, loses a second every 300 million years.

Circular Time App Thing

18 November 2014

Me and the techmologies… we don’t always understand them.

CircleTime – a revolutionary (get it) calendar for the 21st century.

the website is trying too hard to sell this thing, which puts me off.

It’s an interesting idea that creates a visual representation of projects given particular start dates and deadlines. It seems to me like a stop-watch applied to calendar time. This would have been much easier to pull off with almost any other of the world’s calendars. Now that’s persistence.

New Clock discovers Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

3 November 2014

Or words to that effect.

NPR (and others) reported recently that our ability (or more precisely, those geniuses and technicians who keep the damn thing running based on cesium oscillations) to measure the minutia of time has lead to some interesting questions about its nature.

I don’t know if we’ve ever known what time is (or why would this blog even exist? I mean, I’d look up “time” on wikipedia, read a satisfactory answer, and move on. It’s not an easily described phenomenon, becauses it encompasses so many different ideas from across history and culture.

[you can listen to it on NPR, follow the link back to their site, or just read what I’ve copied below.

“My own personal opinion is that time is a human construct,” says Tom O’Brian. O’Brian has thought a lot about this over the years. He is America’s official timekeeper at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado.

To him, days, hours, minutes and seconds are a way for humanity to “put some order in this very fascinating and complex universe around us.”

We bring that order using clocks, and O’Brian oversees America’s master clock. It’s one of the most accurate clocks on the planet: an atomic clock that uses oscillations in the element cesium to count out 0.0000000000000001 second at a time. If the clock had been started 300 million years ago, before the age of dinosaurs began, it would still be keeping time — down to the second. But the crazy thing is, despite knowing the time better than almost anyone on Earth, O’Brian can’t explain time.

“We can measure time much better than the weight of something or an electrical current,” he says, “but what time really is, is a question that I can’t answer for you.”

Maybe its because we don’t understand time, that we keep trying to measure it more accurately. But that desire to pin down the elusive ticking of the clock may soon be the undoing of time as we know it: The next generation of clocks will not tell time in a way that most people understand.

The New Clock

At the nearby University of Colorado Boulder is a clock even more precise than the one O’Brian watches over. The basement lab that holds it is pure chaos: Wires hang from the ceilings and sprawl across lab tables. Binder clips keep the lines bunched together.

In fact, this knot of wires and lasers actually is the clock. It’s spread out on a giant table, parts of it wrapped in what appears to be tinfoil. Tinfoil?

“That’s research grade tinfoil,” says Travis Nicholson, a graduate student here at the JILA, a joint institute between NIST and CU-Boulder. Nicholson and his fellow graduate students run the clock day to day. Most of their time is spent fixing misbehaving lasers and dealing with the rats’ nest of wires. (“I think half of them go nowhere,” says graduate student Sara Campbell.)

At the heart of this new clock is the element strontium. Inside a small chamber, the strontium atoms are suspended in a lattice of crisscrossing laser beams. Researchers then give them a little ping, like ringing a bell. The strontium vibrates at an incredibly fast frequency. It’s a natural atomic metronome ticking out teeny, teeny fractions of a second.

This new clock can keep perfect time for 5 billion years.

“It’s about the whole, entire age of the earth,” says Jun Ye, the scientist here at JILA who built this clock. “Our aim is that we’ll have a clock that, during the entire age of the universe, would not have lost a second.”

But this new clock has run into a big problem: This thing we call time doesn’t tick at the same rate everywhere in the universe. Or even on our planet.

Time Undone

Right now, on the top of Mount Everest, time is passing just a little bit faster than it is in Death Valley. That’s because speed at which time passes depends on the strength of gravity. Einstein himself discovered this dependence as part of his theory of relativity, and it is a very real effect.

The relative nature of time isn’t just something seen in the extreme. If you take a clock off the floor, and hang it on the wall, Ye says, “the time will speed up by about one part in 1016.”

The world’s most precise atomic clock is a mess to look at. But it can tick for billions of years without losing a second.

Ye group and Baxley/JILA/Flickr

That is a sliver of a second. But this isn’t some effect of gravity on the clock’s machinery. Time itself is flowing more quickly on the wall than on the floor. These differences didn’t really matter until now. But this new clock is so sensitive, little changes in height throw it way off. Lift it just a couple of centimeters, Ye says, “and you will start to see that difference.”

This new clock can sense the pace of time speeding up as it moves inch by inch away from the earth’s core.

That’s a problem, because to actually use time, you need different clocks to agree on the time. Think about it: If I say, ‘let’s meet at 3:30,’ we use our watches. But imagine a world in which your watch starts to tick faster, because you’re working on the floor above me. Your 3:30 happens earlier than mine, and we miss our appointment.

This clock works like that. Tiny shifts in the earth’s crust can throw it off, even when it’s sitting still. Even if two of them are synchronized, their different rates of ticking mean they will soon be out of synch. They will never agree.

The world’s current time is coordinated between atomic clocks all over the planet. But that can’t happen with the new one.

“At this level, maintaining absolute time scale on earth is in fact turning into nightmare,” Ye says. This clock they’ve built doesn’t just look chaotic. It is turning our sense of time into chaos.

Ye suspects the only way we will be able to keep time in the future is to send these new clocks into space. Far from the earth’s surface, the clocks would be better able to stay in synch, and perhaps our unified sense of time could be preserved.

But the NIST’s chief timekeeper, Tom O’Brian, isn’t worried about all this. As confusing as these clocks are, they’re going to be really useful.

“Scientists can make these clocks into exquisite devices for sensing a whole bunch of different things,” O’Brian says. Their extraordinary sensitivity to gravity might allow them to map the interior of the earth, or help scientists find water and other resources underground.

A network of clocks in space might be used to detect gravitational waves from black holes and exploding stars.

They could change our view of the universe.

They just may not be able to tell us the time.

Creative Timekeeping

2 November 2014

An art clock – lovely but impractical (mind you, how hard is it to find out the time these days?)

the Year in Knitting

14 August 2012

Tic one, pearl two.

I’m all for creative timekeeping, and I have to say I’ve become somewhat blase about the whole thing, not having comes across anything that really challenged my thinking on calendars and such, until today, that is. the 365 clock by designer Siren Elise Wilhelmsen really made my day. It’s a physical clock that tracks time through a clever output. See for yourself.

The clock includes a circular knitting machine with 48 needles, a thread spool, a thread holder, and roll of yarn. The design seeks to make time a tangible, physical thing. It moves clockwise and after one year, creates a scarf two meters long.

129 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Behind the Times

30 June 2012

One Second at a Time

Which is to say that June 30th 2012 was 86,401 seconds long. An additional leap second was added to account for the slowing of Earth’s rotation, and to ensure that our atomic clock and the solar Year are in synch. Fortunately, theAbysmal Calendar allows for such adjustments without throwing off the perpetual year (although a leap second is hardly as disruptive as daylight savings). Any adjustments to the calendar year, whether leap seconds or days or what have you, can be added to the New Year’s Day (equivalent to December 21st), without changing the other 364 days of the year.

from the cbc

June 30, 2012 will be exactly one second longer than any other day this year, according to the world’s timekeepers.

Horologists will be adding one “leap second” to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) this weekend to compensate for the very gradual and unpredictable slowing down of our planet.

Basically, there are two main standards for measuring time on earth: solar time, based on the rotation of the earth, and International Atomic Time, which relies on the pulsation of atoms to measure time with near-perfect accuracy.

The earth takes just over 86,400 seconds for a full 360-degree revolution, but the gravitational pull of ocean tides, the sun and the moon all affect its rotation ever so slightly.

This has led to a creeping discrepancy between the two times, which the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) decided to start fixing in 1971 with the introduction of leap seconds. A total of 24 leap seconds have been added to the clock since.

These leap seconds must be inserted every 1 to 2 years to avoid solar time and atomic time from spreading too far apart, according to the IERS.

However, due to an unusual temporary acceleration of the Earth, no leap seconds were needed between 1998 and 2005. The last leap second occurred at the end of December in 2008.

This weekend’s leap second will effectively make the last minute of June 61 seconds, instead of the standard 60 – meaning that you have one extra second to enjoy this Canada Day long weekend.

174 Days to Dec 21st 2012

Cycling through time

15 April 2012

Or, how bicycles geared me for cyclical thinking.

In about 1997 I rediscovered the joys of cycling. I bought a hybrid and rode the streets and trails around Ottawa. I then discovered the Gatineau Hills, and bought a mountain bike. Hundreds of km of trails through the gorgeous forests. New joys. I moved out to Vancouver, and there discovered the difference between hills and mountains. Steep. My learning curve rose like the incline.

It was shortly after I moved there that I met my first real-live calendar enthusiasts. The majority of them followed Jose Arguelles dreamspell calendar, a 13-month calendar that used the tzolkin of a sort. Although it is often called the Mayan Calendar, it isn’t. It is certainly inspired by it, and has some of the same functions, however, they aren’t the same thing. What is important for the sake of this post, is that the dreamspell calendar is cyclical, and fractal. This was my immersion in different ways of thinking about time.

I owe some thanks to Cori, who explained dreamspell to me. She’s also an avid cyclist, and DJ. She is definitely adept at the spinning of cycles. Hi Cori! As I was getting a grip on these Maya cycles within cycles of time, she mentioned in passing that she found that bicyclists had an easier time picking this stuff up than others. This has stayed with me, somewhere in the back of the vast space inside my skull, and hence this post.

What a  Mesh

There are a number of common elements to cycling and cyclical time. The meshing of different sized wheels (either of cogs or time periods) is the most evident. However, I found that riding a bicycle has several advantages over automobiles (there are disadvantages as well, by why dwell on those?). For one, you’re up higher, and get a broader view of what lies ahead. Two, you are open to the environment of sounds, sights and alas smells (so much for avoiding disadvantages). Three, it is easier to go at your own pace.

And of course, there’s the idea of moving forward. With time, we have little choice but to move forward (or so goes our perception). With a bicycle, it’s impossible to ride backwards (or at least foolhardy).

In essence, it comes down to ratios. The ratio of the chain ring (wheels at the pedal) to the cassette wheels (cog set at the back wheel) determines the gear you’re in. Shifting gears moves the chain, and changes the ratio. Take advantage of these for steep hills and flat straightaways. In terms of calendar “cogs”, it’s the ratio of different time periods, day:lunation:year. As these aren’t even (so go natural periods), we’ve created our own artificial periods – day:week:month:year or day:week:quarter:year, and certainly plenty of others. The Gregorian system doesn’t have even ratios (with the exception of months:quarter and months:term and month:year). Otherwise, everything falls into the realm of the decimal.

On a bicycle, there are no half cog teeth. Everything is a whole number. Like theAbysmal Calendar‘s measures. If cycling has taught me anything (well, it’s taught me lots, actually), it is the advantage of regular cadence and rhythm. It makes for smooth, efficient progress.

Three Blind Mice, etc…

The clock is the more familiar meeting place of time and cogs. As the oscillator vibrates away, the various wheels, cogs and gears spin away the seconds, minutes, hours and days. I’ve always liked this older, mechanical technology over the newer electronic type, only because I feel it’s something I can figure out if I look at it long enough. With electronics, I didn’t feel any closer to understanding by staring at the blinking 12:00 on my various devices (although I may have been mesmerized into a different kind of understanding). I prefer watches that display their works proudly, with nothing to hide. I don’t wear a watch, but still, I like the aesthetic of time pieces.

Marc Maradan’s Tellurium Clock

As serendipity would have it, while I was poking around looking for material for this post, I happened on this description of a Tellurium Clock. There are a number of different types, that measure both the time of day as well as astronomical phenomena. Its creator, Marc Maradan, a process engineer in Switzerland, was inspired by the Antikythera Mechanism.

A gear-head’s dream come true.

The Tellurium construction is in five main parts. The Moon gear with 16 gears, the sun gear with 5 gears, the precession gear with 8 gears, the malteser linear mechanism, and the malteser cross mechanism with 7 gears.

The moon gear show the earth rotation, the sidereal month of the moon, the synodic month of the moon, and the lunar phases, metonic cycle and golden number. The sun gear ensures the earth/moon constellation turns around the sun. The precession gear shows the position in the zodiac and the month and is responsible for the movement of the equinox point.

The malteser linear gear is a device to make visible the difference in sunrise between summer and winter, and also the quotient from day and night. Marc also points out that the transformation from rotation in a linear movement always has the same speed (no sine function). The malteser cross mechanism is responsible for the change of the seasons.


The Tellurium Clock is a mechanical version of how I initially envisioned the calendar. I’m anxious to see the finished version. In the meanwhile, I’ll keep riding my bikes, playing with times, and posting random bits of gobbledy-gook about it.

250 Days to Dec 21st 2012