Auld Lang ‘Time’ | Quality Digest

As primary standards improve, researchers must develop better ways of getting time out to industry and the public. Things such as GPS, mobile phone communications, and time-stamping stock market transactions require the use of precise time. 

Happy New Year!

It’s hard to grasp, but a nanosecond is one billionth of a second. Think about the speed of light—it travels about 1 foot in a nanosecond! 

I’m also an avid collector, a hobby which also relates to time. I love bits of ephemera, such as old restaurant menus, unique cereal boxes, movie/concert ticket stubs, and found photographs. I like board games, toys, and other objects related to TV, movies, and other pop culture. 

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So, if you turn on a flashlight, that light will have traveled a foot away from the flashlight in a nanosecond—that’s inconceivably fast. 

I enjoy creating experiences for people. I’ve been in bands and other performances and strive to produce interesting art. I’ve created themed food events and puzzle hunts. 

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The most stable clocks get the most “weight” mathematically in the average. Thus, if a clock starts to show drift or has other problems, it gets less weight, so it doesn’t affect the average. The output of this time scale is Coordinated Universal Time for the United States, known as UTC (NIST). We contribute our clock and time scale data to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Our time is a part of the worldwide weighted average, which is called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). 

There are studies about how our perception of time changes as we get older. Each passing day, month, or year is a smaller sliver of your total life the older you get. When you’re a kid, a year is a significant portion of your life. At 80 years old, one year makes up a tiny fraction of your life and experiences. 

If we strive to do new things and create significant memories, time may pass by quickly as they are happening, but our stored recollections will be plentiful. Our lives may seem much longer and fuller, and I try to do this as much as possible. There is plenty of capacity in our brains, and keeping our minds active is a way to help us store and recall all the great times we’ve had.

Making the most of every moment 

By measuring and comparing all these atomic clocks, we create a clock ensemble. You wouldn’t want to have just one clock keeping time for the whole country, so we use a weighted average of the clocks for the best possible stability. 

My topics are usually vaguely related to something else happening that evening, but I never announce the topics ahead of time. Our brains remember the unexpected. So even if people don’t like it, they will remember it, even if just to complain about it the next day! Most of the projects I work on are about subverting or going beyond people’s expectations—which is what makes them interesting or memorable.

Something I find fascinating is our perception of the rate of time. Some days (and years!) go by quickly, and some drag on. When we think back to the past, even distant memories are sometimes clear, and some recent memories have already faded away. 

Published Dec. 28, 2023, on NIST.

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There are also many important users who need accurate time but only within milliseconds. For time at this level, we have the Internet Time Service (ITS), where people can synchronize computers and other equipment or devices to our internet servers. This is built into most computer operating systems. Your computer accesses this information automatically, so you’ve probably used this service without even realizing it. 

We’re always working on better and better atomic clocks for future definitions of the second. But we also have our primary standard clocks for the current definition. These are cesium fountain clocks that measure the second by tuning themselves to the precise frequency of microwaves that are absorbed by cesium-133 atoms. We use the primary standard clocks to calibrate many commercially available atomic clocks. 

A millisecond is one-thousandth of one second, and a microsecond is a millionth of a second. 

Our PROMISE: Quality Digest only displays static ads that never overlay or cover up content. They never get in your way. They are there for you to read, or not. lets you see the official U.S. time in multiple time zones at once. It actually uses your computer clock to measure the round-trip delay of the request to the NIST server so it can display the correct time on your screen.

Tempus fugit

NIST researcher Andrew Novick stands next to racks of frequency measurement equipment in his lab at NIST’s campus in Boulder, Colorado. On New Year’s Eve, he’ll be keeping an extra close eye on, the source to see current, official time throughout the United States. Credit: R. Wilson/NIST


Auld Lang ‘Time’

Welcoming the new year as a time expert

I happen to take it a little further, using objects of unknown origin from thrift stores, estate sales, or simply found to imagine or wonder about their history. Finding a family photo album or a collection of letters presents interesting information about total strangers. I once even found a stack of letters between a person in prison and their sweetie on the outside. People’s things offer such a fascinating glimpse into lives and times different from our own.