Inventing The World's Most Precise Timekeeping Device

The Partnership for Public Service
Friday, September 3, 2010; 4:45 PM

Government physicist Till Rosenband is a young man who is very far ahead of his time.

Working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratory in Colorado, Rosenband in just a few short years invented a remarkable new version of the atomic clock that is now the world's most precise timekeeping device.

"This clock is so accurate, it's almost hard to imagine," said NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. "What is so stunning is that this young scientist took a radical new idea that was happening in quantum physics and in three years revolutionized the field. This is the biggest thing that has been done to the atomic clock in 60 years."

Such advances, said Gallagher, ordinarily take decades. But he said Rosenband's accomplishment represents a "powerful" and "fundamental discovery."

Thomas O'Brian, the chief of NIST's time and frequency division, said the clock is considered 30 times better than the current atomic clock and will lose only one second in three billion years.

The atomic clock provides precise time and frequency information that is used every day for such key applications as synchronizing telecommunications and computer networks, controlling electric power grids, enabling satellite navigation and positioning systems, and documenting financial transactions. It has numerous other applications that directly affect our security, economy, public safety and daily lives.

Much of the nation's technology infrastructure depends on the precision of atomic clocks, and making them even better as Rosenband has done could not only improve existing technology, but could also open many new frontiers.

For example, Rosenband's colleagues at NIST said his new atomic clock is so precise and sensitive that it could be used to detect tiny changes in time, magnetic fields and gravity, and could provide new information on fundamental physics, such as the origins and ultimate fate of the universe.

"What Till has done is advance timekeeping by what I consider to be an absolutely astounding amount," said William Phillips, a NIST Fellow and Nobel Prize winner.

NIST, a non-regulatory federal agency within the Department of Commerce, is charged with promoting U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. One of its functions is to provide precise time services to the nation.

Rosenband, 31, said he took the idea of using quantum physics for advancing the precision of atomic clock, and developed and implemented it.

Rosenband graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later jettisoned the idea of finishing his PhD at the University of Colorado to work full time at NIST because of its cutting-edge research in quantum computing.

Like other scientific breakthroughs, Rosenband said, his new version of the atomic clock did not magically happen overnight. "Nothing really works the first time you try it. In the laboratory, you're constantly figuring out why something doesn't work."

The young scientist's clock is based on NIST's world-leading research in use of laser-cooled ions (electrically charged atoms) as the elements of prototype quantum computers┬┐calculating machines that will be vastly more powerful than today's best supercomputers because they exploit quantum mechanics, the strange behavior of matter and energy at the level of individual atoms.

Rosenband developed a radical new way to use quantum computing operations on laser-cooled ions to create a whole new type of atomic clock.

O'Brian, Rosenband's supervisor, described him as "a remarkable young man in the early stages of his career."

"He's such a bright and creative guy. He has tremendous experimental ability," said O'Brian. "At the same time, he is a very modest young man."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Visit for more about the organization's work to recognize the men and women who serve our nation.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company