Ultra-precise clock technology wins $ 3 million breakthrough in physics award
Two physicists just won $ 3 million for helping develop a super-precise clock that could allow scientists to study and explore the universe like never before.
Hidetoshi Yatori and Jun Ye won the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics “for their outstanding contributions to the invention and development of the optical lattice clock, which enables precision testing of the the laws of nature“Breakthrough Prize representatives announced today (September 8).
Yatori is based at the University of Tokyo and the Riken Research Institute in Japan, and Ye resides at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The duo have worked independently and will share the $ 3 million prize.
The Universe: From the Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps
Yatori and Ye’s research was instrumental in creating the optical lattice clock, which representatives of the Breakthrough Prize claim improves timing accuracy by a factor of 1,000. The new timepiece would waste less time. a second if it was used for 30 billion years, more than twice the age of the universe.
Optical lattice clocks are an evolutionary step beyond traditional atomic clocks, which are based on the quantum jumps made by electrons in energized atoms. Indeed, “a second” is officially defined as 9,192,631,770 cycles of the radiation which allows the electrons of a cesium atom to make a quantum leap.
Atomic clocks initially used microwave radiation to induce these jumps. A breakthrough has come with the substitution of optical light, which has frequencies about 100,000 times higher than those of microwaves. These higher frequencies allowed for greater timing accuracy, just as they do in grandfather clocks with faster oscillating pendulums, representatives for Breakthrough said.
Measuring the higher frequencies was much more difficult, but this problem was more or less solved by the “optical frequency comb”, a technology developed by John Hall and Theodor Hänsch which won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. ( Hall was Ye’s doctoral director at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Ye took over his mentor’s lab when the older man retired.)
Optical frequency atomic clocks use strontium atoms rather than cesium. Yatori and Ye both discovered how to tame strontium atoms, keeping them stationary so they could be measured. Researchers use an “optical lattice”, a standing wave from a laser beam that creates a sort of egg box shape whose wells trap atoms.
“It’s almost like a science fiction tractor beam,” Ye told Space.com. “You put a tractor beam in the middle of the vacuum chamber and you can hold atoms in the middle of the vacuum chamber with light.”
Manipulating atoms in this way could disturb them enough to affect measurements crucial for accurate timing. As Ye said, “You crush these atoms. How can you be sure they are going to tell you the truth? But Yatori and Ye realized that choosing the right wavelength for the “tractor beam” solves this potential problem.
“We designed it in such a way that this action of latching onto these atoms does not disrupt the measurement of the energetic spacing between these two quantum states that really mattered to the clock measurement,” Ye said. . “So it was almost like free lunch.”
This breakthrough helped make the optical lattice clock a reality and earned Yatori and Ye the Fundamental Physics Breakthrough Award. The potential applications of the technology are many and diverse, said representatives for Breakthrough. For example, optical lattice clocks could greatly improve the accuracy of the Global positioning system and other satellite navigation networks and provide more precise guidance for space probes.
The technology could also allow new tests of Einstein’s theory of relativity – for example, by allowing researchers to study gravitational time dilation and other effects more precisely. Optical grating clocks could help detect gravitational waves thus, alerting researchers to the tiny temporal variations induced by these spatio-temporal undulations.
The link between gravity and time means the technology could also help researchers track volcanic and seismic events here on Earth and search for buried oceans on alien worlds. Optical lattice clocks might even help research elusive black matter, he said.
“Dark matter has to somehow interact with ordinary matter, other than gravitational physics,” Ye said. “We want to be able to see very weak signatures of a possible dark matter component compared to ordinary matter that we know on Earth in the signatures of a slowed down or accelerated clock as dark matter passes. experiences like that. “
Gallery: Dark matter in the universe
Other prices too
The annual Breakthrough Prize in Science and Math was founded in 2012 by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki and Yuri and Julia Milner. It is the richest prize in science; each is worth nearly three times as much as a Nobel Prize. (A Nobel Prize is now accompanied by a cash prize of SEK 10 million, or approximately US $ 1.2 million at current exchange rates.)
The Breakthrough Prize rewards pioneering research in the life sciences, mathematics and fundamental physics. The awards aim to increase the cultural cache of science and technology and inspire children to pursue careers in these fields, representatives of the Breakthrough Prize said.
Three $ 3 million Breakthrough Prizes were awarded this year in the life sciences, one of which recognized researchers for their RNA engineering work that enabled the rapid development of Vaccines against covid-19. A Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics was awarded, and Yatori and Ye shared the only Fundamental Physics Prize.
The Breakthrough Prize Foundation also awarded a handful of $ 100,000 in “New Horizons” prizes this year to early-career researchers. One of them was attributed to four scientists “for leading the creation of the basis for electromagnetic observations of gravitational wave sources, and for leading the extraction of rich information from the first observed collision. of two neutron stars“, according to today’s price announcement.
You can find out more about all the new Breakthrough Prize winners. here.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.