A number of weeks back I made the semi-reckless decision of choosing the Atomic Clock as my “time keeping device” for the class research paper. I say semi-reckless because I really did not know much about clock other than the concept of it— I didn’t even know the name. I just knew that there was a singular clock that was deemed “the standard” time keeping device, and I believed it to have a central location. Knowing this little about the clock made researching it so complex, but also so much more rewarding. Now, with my knew knowledge of the Atomic Clock, I feel as though I see and hear about it in so many casual ways. It’s not exactly like everyone is chatting about it, but I heard the reference in pop-culture as I picked up on a drummer being nicknamed “The Atomic Clock”, and I heard it mentioned even on 60 Minutes an investigating they were doing on radio waves used in warfare. It is truly astonishing how much atomic clocks are used, and to what extent.
My hyper awareness to these clocks, with which I have spent so much time, lead to me noticing their use in NASA’s capturing of the first ever photographic evidence of a black hole. This was a particularly excited usage to see because I was already so amped up about the photo before I realized that the Atomic Clock played an integral role. I remember just seeing the announcement and the photo all over twitter, and as a personal fan of scientific theories and with a fascination of how they did it, especially considering I had no idea it was even possible, I immediately starting looking up videos to give me an explanation. In my journey I found this video to be particularly helpful in giving both a basic understanding of black holes, as well as diving deeper into more advanced description, all without being overbearing: https://youtu.be/qpYcCI9uzKo.
If you don’t want to watch the video, then I’ll break it down very quickly. What a black hole looked like was always just theoretical, or based on other data collected that would reference the result of light entering areas of such a high gravitational pull. Why they are called “black holes” and why they are such a phenomena is quite obvious: they are areas of mass with such a high gravitational pull that no light can “escape” or otherwise be reflected or projected. This means that you cannot take a picture of black hole because you cannot take a picture of something unless you are able to get some sort of exposure on the object (photography 101). So the nature of black holes, the fact that the nearest black holes to us are incredibly far away, and the fact that there are no singular telescopes on Earth that are large or powerful enough to be able to take such a photo have lead to us never having grabbed that long desired snap of a black hole.
RESUME HERE: I continue to be amazed by the Atomic Clock, and several times throughout the process or watching this video I really did have to laugh to myself as to how blown away I am by what is both such a extremely simple, yet complex device. But really, its function is so simple, but the things it could be used for seem to be endless. The video only briefly mentioned the atomic clock, and another listener who had not just done a research project may have missed its mention, but I can attest that without the atomic clock, this photo would not be possible. Let’s dive in to what the video left out.
First is that just implementing the atomic clocks in the satellites is not enough, they surely had to wait for an atomic clock precise enough to get as synched up as they were. As recently as November 2018, a new and even more precise atomic clock was introduced. This new clock measured the oscillations of the element ytterbium. Once an atomic clock’s time keeping abilities are able to measure faster oscillations at a more consistent basis, older elements that were being measured can be replaced with faster moving ones, therefore making “the second” that is being counted a more finely tuned one that can be trusted and created better harmony between multiple devices all using the same atomic clocks.
This type of harmony between multiple devices in order to use their connectivity to make a more powerful “unit” or “network” is nothing new in the field of the atomic clock. The very same technique is used in satellites orbiting, and on, Earth in order to make for better cell phone service. The technology is also in use in all senses of GPS navigation. Boats crossing, planes landing, cars navigating, all of these actions are made better and smoother by the use of atomic clock powered networks of devices, allowing services and updates to be accurate and in real time. This use of GPS networks and cellular networks were easier for me to grasp than the network of photos, however. That is until I realized that these scientists used the size of the Earth in relation to the size of the black hole to their advantage.
The black hole in the photo is 6.5 billion times larger than our sun. A black hole of that size certainly makes it easier to get a photo, but a high powered satellite or system of image captures was still required. Being that the earth is so small in comparison, it would be very easy to use this network to make it as if the entire planet were its own camera. It’s a cop-out example, but think about how the Death Star works in Star Wars, or how a stadium light is made up of a collection of lights. This is just a theoretical representation of how the cameras worked since theirs was more likely a consistent collection of data depending on the rotational position of the earth, but in theory it is quite like how the death star would make one large streaming laser out of several that would convene at a singular point. This is just exercising the simple physical law that multiple energies convening will make for a greater energy.
Of course the satellites coming together is much more complicated. It was as if two or more satellites collecting data would tap out another. All this is to say that this became a highly coordinated event. A photo capturing series that relied on exposure that would take place over months. When working in harmony like this, the most important facet has to be the timing. You could have the best scientists in the world with the most powerful equipment, but when comes down to it, if these systems are not in time with one another, then there is no result. The Atomic Clock proves itself again, and thanks to this ever-evolving system of time keeping, science makes another breakthrough achievement.