The weight of a kilogram changed overnight; the length of a second may be next

Currently, the second is defined by atomic clocks made of cesium atoms. Those atoms absorb a certain frequency of light. The wiggling of the light’s electromagnetic waves functions like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, rhythmically keeping time. One second is defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the light.

But a new generation of atomic clocks, known as optical atomic clocks, outdo the cesium clocks (SN: 11/11/17, p. 8). “Their performance is a lot better than what currently defines the second,” says physicist Andrew Ludlow of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo. Because those optical atomic clocks operate at a higher frequency, their “ticks” are more closely spaced, making them about 100 times more precise than cesium clocks.

Ideally, the length of a second should be defined using the most precise timepieces available. A switch might happen in the late 2020s, Ludlow says.

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