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Precise to 1/20th of a sec in 14bn years

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The force that binds neutrons to an atom's nucleus could be used to create clocks that are 100 times more accurate than today's best atomic clocks, say physicists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The nuclear clock outlined in a paper accepted for publication in Physics Letters Review would neither lose nor gain 1/20th of a second in 14 billion years, the age of the universe.

The unprecedented accuracy of this new time-keeping comes from linking the system to the orbit of a neutron within an atomic nucleus. That makes it more accurate than atomic clocks, explains Professor Victor Flambaum, Head of Theoretical Physics at UNSW.

Atomic clocks use the orbiting electrons of an atom as the clock pendulum. But we have shown that by using lasers to orient the electrons in a very specific way, one can use the orbiting neutron of an atomic nucleus as the clock pendulum, making a so-called nuclear clock with unparalleled accuracy.

Because the neutron is strongly bound to the nucleus, its oscillation rate is almost completely unaffected by external disturbances, unlike those of an atomic clock's electrons, which are much more loosely bound.

Flambaum and colleague Dr Vladimir Dzuba's ultra-accurate time-keeper would allow scientists to improve modern applications that currently rely on atomic clocks: GPS navigation systems and high-bandwidth data transfer.

It could also help push the boundaries of physics: "It would allow scientists to test fundamental physical theories at unprecedented levels of precision and provide an unmatched tool for applied physics research," said Prof Flambaum. ®

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