How Accurate Is Your Countdown?

Dec 31, 2013

As we celebrate the start of a new year Tuesday night, many of us will be counting down to midnight. So with that many eyes on the clock, we decided to ask some questions about time. Utah Public Radio recently spoke with the organization that’s keeping time down to the smallest fraction.

With so many of us checking our clocks around midnight tonight, it might be a good time to ask: What time is it, exactly?

For that we turn to the people at NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo.  Scientists at this facility carry out world-class research on everything from computer chips to smart power grids. NIST is also home to some of the world’s most accurate atomic clocks.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology calibrates the nation's time.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology calibrates the nation's time.
Credit Matt Jensen

"The National Institute of Standards and Technology is in charge of all weights and measures," explains John Lowe, who oversees the Time and Frequency Services group at NIST. "For instance, how long is a meter? Or how much is a kilogram? Well we're in charge of: how long is a second? And the accumulation of that, of course, constitutes time of day."

Lowe says the atomic clocks at the NIST labs are extremely accurate. How accurate?

"Ten to the 18th – which is now approaching one second in a billion years," he said.

Now, none of us run our schedules that tightly. But keeping track of accurate time is necessary to run this technological world we live in. Today’s banking and computer networking systems rely on accurate time, as do electrical utilities that produce the power coming out of your wall outlet.  GPS depends on highly accurate time – that’s how your Garmin can guide you so accurately as you drive around in your car.

But if you want to know the exact time, you don’t need a cesium atomic clock in your basement; all you need is a cellphone.

The clock on your phone is linked to the National Institute of Standards and Technology clocks. This isn’t so you don’t miss an appointment but rather to make the phone work properly. Again, John Lowe:

"Cellphones require highly accurate time interval information in order to keep their frequencies in sync," he said. "When you used to travel with your phone and you'd go from one cell tower to the next, your call would get dropped. The reason your call was dropped is because they had poor timing synchronization between the two. That has been resolved now by using NIST as a standard reference. Every cell tower in the country somehow finds their way back to the National Institute of Standards."

If you’re a real time buff and need the sharpest synchronization possible, you can call the NIST labs and listen to a feed from one of the atomic clocks.

But if you’re coordinating your clocks right now, it’s probably not a good idea to use any cues you hear on the TV or radio. The time you hear on radio broadcasts, for example, is way out of whack.

The sound you hear from a radio broadcast on UPR  is about 15 seconds late. Utah Public Radio uses a profanity delay which adds eight seconds to our broadcast. Add to that the delay in digitizing and delivering the signal and you’re already late for the prom.

And since we’re on the topic of time, John Lowe and those in the time business, remind us about another minor detail.

"Most people probably don't realize that Jan. 1 has not always been the first day of the year," said Lowe. "It used to be March 1. And if you think about the names of the months, it makes a bit of sense. December should be the 10th month of the year. October should be the eighth month of the year. In the 1500s we moved the calendar around to accommodate religious services and now we have Jan. 1 as the first day of the year."

So at midnight tonight, forget the ball at Times Square and turn down the BBC. It’s probably best just to check your phone.

I’m Matt Jensen. Happy New Year from Utah Public Radio