Occasionally a sign at work makes me look twice. And last Friday as I staggered into work after my talk at Keele University, I came across a sign pointing to ‘Time Laboratories’. It made me smile and so I took the picture above.
The sign was for tours later in the day for distinguished visitors who were celebrating the fact that NPL had been chosen by the European Physical Society as ‘The Birthplace of Atomic Time‘. I gate-crashed the unveiling of the plaque, but didn’t get to go on the tours – work!
Back in the 1960s a scientist (Louis Essen) in a position only a little more senior than my own, worked out how to make a clock that could tick in time with the vibrations of atoms. Humankind’s ability to measure time immediately improved by a factor of nearly 1000.
Even at the time, people understood this was important. It was relatively quickly incorporated into the definition of the unit of time, the second.
This also represented the first realisation of the insight of James Clerk Maxwell in 1870 that we should base our units of measurement on the properties of ‘imperishable’ atoms.
And now in an age of the internet and global positioning systems, atomic time is commonplace and essential. But it is hard to imagine that anyone back in the 1960’s could have foreseen just how-reaching would be the consequences of this measurement innovation.
Personally I draw two lessons from this story. Firstly, I suspect that improvements in measurement capability will rarely go unexploited for long. And secondly, I think we really have no idea what the consequences of a particular measurement exploit will be.
If only we had some kind of ‘time laboratory’ that could allow us to see into the future. In fact it may be that we do have that already – I didn’t get to go on the tour 😦