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February 5 2013

Beating heart of a quantum time machine exposed


BEHOLD, the beating heart of a time machine! Or "clock", as most people call them, but this one is nothing like your grandfather's. This super-accurate timekeeper is an optical atomic clock built by the UK's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and its tick is governed by a single ion of the element strontium.

The ion is trapped in an electromagnetic field within the small cube at the centre and cooled with lasers to just a fraction above absolute zero. The lasers are fired through three of the glass shafts emanating from the cube, but must be carefully directed out of the other side to prevent them scattering within the clock, which is why there are six shafts in total.

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