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UCLA scientists achieve atomic clock milestone

UCLA scientists achieve atomic clock milestone

Atomic Clock

Scientists at UCLA have achieved a significant milestone in nuclear spectroscopy that could lead to the development of the most accurate atomic clocks ever made. The breakthrough involves using lasers to raise the energy state of a thorium-229 atom’s nucleus, a feat previously hindered by the interaction between light and the electrons surrounding the nucleus. For nearly half a century, physicists have sought to excite an atom’s nucleus using lasers, a process that could replace today’s atomic clocks with even more precise nuclear clocks.

Such advancements could radically improve deep space navigation and communication and allow scientists to measure the stability of the fundamental constants of nature accurately. An effort led by Eric Hudson, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, has now realized this dream. By embedding a thorium atom within a transparent fluorine-rich crystal and bombarding it with lasers, Hudson’s team has enabled the thorium nucleus to absorb and emit photons in ways previously only observed with electrons.

The achievement, published in Physical Review Letters, suggests that measurements of time, gravity, and other fields can now be conducted with unprecedented accuracy. The technique, by minimizing disturbances from the surrounding electrons, enhances the precision of measurements involving the nucleus. Hints from astronomy suggest variability in the fine-structure constant, which defines the strength of atomic forces.

If these constants are found to change over time or space, it could fundamentally alter our understanding of the laws of physics. The nuclear clock, enhanced by this new technology, would offer the most sensitive test of such variations.

Nuclear precision in atomic timekeeping

Hudson’s group has spent 15 years working towards this goal. By embedding thorium-229 atoms in a transparent crystal, fluorine atoms in the structure closely bond with the thorium’s electrons, allowing laser light to reach the nucleus more efficiently. This setup allows the nuclei to absorb and re-emit photons, with their excitation detected and measured.

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According to Hudson, this breakthrough has the potential to revolutionize fields requiring extreme precision in timekeeping, such as communication and navigation. Unlike existing room-sized atomic clocks, a nuclear clock based on thorium would be smaller, more robust, and more accurate. Beyond practical applications, this new nuclear spectroscopy can unveil the universe’s mysteries by allowing scientists to study nuclear properties and interactions with exceptional precision.

Such insights could challenge or validate the constants of nature and our understanding of the laws of physics. The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Denise Caldwell, acting assistant director of NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, highlighted the profound impact this technique could have on our understanding of fundamental constants.

“Using a nuclear clock for these measurements will provide the most sensitive test of ‘constant variation’ to date,” Hudson said. “Our work has taken a big step toward these measurements, and we are certain to be surprised at what we learn.”

This breakthrough marks a new chapter in precision measurement and fundamental physics, with potential discoveries that could shape our understanding of the universe.

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