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Scientists work on ‘quantum superclock’ to reveal mysteries of time itself

Published time: June 18, 2014 20:31
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for (RED)/AFP

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for (RED)/AFP

Physicists say they believe they’re on track to creating a “quantum superclock” that would revolutionize the way the world tells time.

If the work proves to be a success, than the concept of time as it’s currently understood could be changed drastically and allow a whole new idea of accuracy to prevail.

According to a study published by the researchers this week in the Nature Physics scholarly journal, it might soon be possible to harness the power of a global quantum network of clocks to “allow construction of a real-time single international time scale (world clock) with unprecedented stability and accuracy.”

The study — “A quantum network of clocks” — calls for “a quantum, cooperative protocol for operating a network of geographically remote optical atomic clocks.”

“Using nonlocal entangled states, we demonstrate an optimal utilization of global resources, and show that such a network can be operated near the fundamental precision limit set by quantum theory,” reads an abstract of their report. “Furthermore, the internal structure of the network, combined with quantum communication techniques, guarantees security both from internal and external threats.”

Broken down, the scientists’ project isn’t all that complicated. Alexandra Witze wrote for the Nature website that, essentially, the researchers are relying on two ideas that are already major points of focus for physicists: atomic clocks as they currently exist, and quantum entanglement, “in which pairs of particles become linked in such a way that measuring a property of one of them instantaneously determines the same property for the other,” she wrote.

By linking a network of orbiting, atomic clocks, those two schools of study may be able to be merged and provide physicists with what would unarguably be the most precise clock in existence. The scientists' response for the Nature Physics story says linking 10 such atomic clocks and putting them into satellite may be the way to proceed.

“One satellite, as the network's center, would start by preparing its clock particles in an entangled state. It would then communicate with a neighboring satellite to extend the entanglement there. The linking would eventually spread through the whole fleet, joining the satellites in one quantum network,” Witze wrote.

“You’d be able to see someone digging a tunnel under the US-Mexico border from space,” Chris Monroe, a physicist at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland in College Park, told Science News this week.

Eric Kessler, a co-author of the paper, told Nature that his colleagues’ proposal, while still in the planning stages, is admittedly “a little bit visionary.” Nevertheless, the researchers believe the blueprint does exist to take the theory behind quantum physics and create a network of atomic clocks that would be more accurate than anything ever available.

“All the building blocks have been demonstrated in principle, and we want to show what might lie ahead if all these fields merge together,” Kessler said.

“There’s no doubt this is a very futuristic proposal,” said Kessler. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

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