Wired.com looks at super-precise time keeping clocks.

I’m a complex and ironic sort of guy. Take my fascination with the concept of time which is something I think about fairly regularly in both the abstract and literal senses of the word. You’d think that someone, like me, who not only ponders time quite a bit, but also has a small collection of clocks, would be a very punctual person, but I’m not. I’m often either earlier than I need to be or later than I should be to any appointment I might have and which end of said scale I tend to lean towards is probably dependent on who’s making the assessment (my wife, for example, thinks that I am habitually late to everything). Yet the concept of time and its measurement captures my fascination like few other things and probably explains my love of shows such as Doctor Who.

Needless to say that means super-geeky science articles such as the one titled How Super-Precise Atomic Clocks Will Change the World in a Decade at Wired.com make me giddy just thinking about them:

These rooms are where NIST is testing a new way of tapping the precision time built into elements like calcium and ytterbium. Cesium clocks like NIST-F1 use lasers to slow a cloud of cesium atoms to a measurable state, then tune a microwave signal as close as possible to the cesium’s resonant frequency of 9,192,631,770 cycles per second (See sidebar: How the World’s Best Clock Works). In this manner, the F1 achieves a precision topping 10-15 parts per second.

At least, in theory. To tap the F1’s full accuracy, scientists have to know their precise relative position to the clock, and account for weather, altitude and other externalities. An optical cable that links the F1 to a lab at the University of Colorado, for example, can vary in length as much as 10 mm on a hot day—something that researchers need to continually track and take into account. At F1’s level of precision, even general relativity introduces problems; when technicians recently moved F1 from the third floor to the second, they had to re-tune the system to compensate for the 11-and-a-half foot drop in altitude.

Cesium, though, is a grandfather clock compared to the 456 trillion cycles per second of calcium, or the 518 trillion provided by an atom of ytterbium. Hollberg’s group is dedicated to tuning into these particles, which hold the key to a scary level of precision. Microwaves are too slow for this job—imagine trying to merge onto the Autobahn in a Model T—so Hollberg’s clocks use colored lasers instead.

Can you imagine that? A clock so accurate that you have to take into account where you are in relation to it and the environmental effects of where it’s located to make full use of it? The article points out that this is a level of precision that is generally not used by the vast majority of people who are just trying to make it to the airport on time or figure out when to take lunch. So why then are they trying to come up with clocks that are even more precise than cesium based ones? Because once you get that precise some really funky stuff starts happening that turns your clock into more than just a ridiculously precise timing mechanism:

At that level, clocks will be precise enough that they’ll have to correct for the relativistic effects of the shape of the earth, which changes every day in reaction to environmental factors. (Some of the research clocks already need to account for changes in the NIST building’s size on a hot day.) That’s where the work at the Time and Frequency Division begins to overlap with cosmology, astrophysics and space-time.

By looking at the things that upset clocks, it’s possible to map factors like magnetic fields and gravity variation. “Environmental conditions can make the ticking rate vary slightly,” says O’Brian.

That means passing a precise clock over different landscapes yields different gravity offsets, which could be used to map the presence of oil, liquid magma or water underground. NIST, in short, is building the first dowsing rod that works.

On a moving ship, such a clock would change rate with the shape of the ocean floor, and even the density of the earth beneath. On a volcano, it would change with the moving and vibrating of magma within. Scientists using maps of these variations could differentiate salt and freshwater, and perhaps eventually predict eruptions, earthquakes or other natural events from the variations in gravity under the surface of the planet.

How freakin’ cool is that? Using a clock to find oil and water or mapping the bottom of the oceans! Of course this will require atomic clocks small enough to carry around, but they’re working on that already as well:

At the University of Pittsburgh last fall, researchers used a NIST-produced atomic clock the size of a grain of rice to map variations in the magnetic field of a mouse’s heartbeat. They placed the clock 2 mm away from the mouse’s chest, and watched as the mouse’s iron-rich blood threw off the clock’s ticking with every heartbeat.

Since then, NIST has improved the same clock by an order of magnitude. An array of such clocks, used as magnetometers, could produce completely new kinds of imaging equipment for brains and hearts, packaged as luggable units selling for as little as a few hundred dollars apiece.

The same technique for looking inward works outward too. Electromagnetic fields are all around us, and change very slightly in response to our movements. A precise enough clock perturbed by these fields can give data on where things are and what’s moving. Like the mouse’s heart, a closely synced array could build a real-time continuous picture of the surroundings—an area of research called passive radar. You could passively visualize pedestrians on a sidewalk, O’Brian says, “from the microwaves of the Doppler shift of someone walking.”

This sort of science is just uber cool to me and I can’t get enough of it. It gets me all excited in a way few things can and causes Anne to shake her head at me in wonder of what the hell I’m going on about. Not that she’s alone. I tried sharing this with the guys here at work and they just blinked at me a couple of times and went back to jabbering about sports.

“TIME” reporter Lev Grossman is a clueless ass about video games.

I knew there was a reason why I tend to prefer Newsweek over TIME magazine. Newsweek just seems to be more in-touch with reality than TIME does and I always thought it was some bias I held more so than any actual fact of the matter, but then I read an article by Lev Grossman on Microsoft’s money-printing franchise known as Halo called The Man in the Mask which is chock full of idiotic passages such as this (emphasis added) one:

There is an invisible subculture in America. Those who belong to it love it with a lonely, alienated, unironic passion. Those who don’t belong to it walk right by, uncaring, just as people walk right by that unmarked building in downtown Kirkland. It is the subculture of hard-core video games, and that oddly shaped building, which houses a company called Bungie, is one of its temples.

We start right off with a couple of absolutely idiotic statements. Does Mr. Grossman seriously expect his audience to believe that video gamers are an invisible subculture? Who the fuck in 2007, outside of Mr. Grossman obviously, doesn’t know that gaming is a hugely popular pastime among a good percentage of the population? Given all the negative attention the news media puts on video games anytime some nutcase who happened to play video games goes on a rampage it’s kind of hard to see how this “subculture” is all that invisible.

According to the Entertainment Software Association surveys show that 69% of American heads of households are gamers, the age of the average gamer is 33 years and they’ve been a gamer for around 12 years, 80% of gamer parents play games with their kids reporting that their families are closer as a result, and 49% play games online for an hour or more weekly. Lonely and alienated? Hardly. Much like my blogging habit, my years as a gamer has provided me with friends I’ve never met face to face but have spent hours gaming with and even a few that I have met face to face for offline non-gaming activities.

Bungie makes a series of video games called Halo that are among the most revered in the gaming canon. It’s doubtful that many people reading this could say exactly, or even approximately, what the Halo games are about.

If that’s true then apparently TIME has a much smaller readership than I thought, probably mostly idiots who don’t read mainstream newspapers or watch the evening news if Mr. Grossman is anything to judge by. Gamers come from all walks of life and more than a few of us take the time to read news magazines such as TIME. Considering the number of gamers out there it’s probably a safe bet that most of the folks reading Mr. Grossman’s article know more about Halo and its plot line than Mr. Grossman himself.

That much becomes clear once Mr. Grossman attempts to explain said plot:

IT’S DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN THE STORY OF Halo, but that difficulty is in itself worthy of note. This isn’t Donkey Kong. The Master Chief is not an Italian plumber whose girlfriend has been kidnapped by a gorilla. His story is rich and complicated in ways that we’re not used to in video games.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I’d be willing to bet, again, that more of Mr. Grossman’s audience is unfamiliar with the “story” of the original Donkey Kong, in as much as it could be said to have a story in the first place, than is unfamiliar with the plot of Halo. This would seem to indicate that Mr. Grossman may have once played a game or two back in the mid-80’s and probably hasn’t touched any since then. The fact that he claims Master Chief’s story is “rich and complicated” in “ways that we’re not used to” only serves to confirm that suspicion.

Maybe you aren’t used to it, Mr. Grossman, but I’ve played a lot of video games with some amazingly sophisticated story lines not the least of which would include the Splinter Cell series , the Hitman series, Silent Hill series, several of the Final Fantasy series (particularly FFXII), and many many others. Just because you’re ignorant of the current state of video games doesn’t mean everyone else is.

Moving on we come to another couple of stupid statements:

THE CLICHÉ ABOUT GAMERS IS THAT THEY’RE antisocial, if not sociopathic, but Bungie is very much a community.

The Bungies bring a grinding, jeweler’s meticulousness to what most people consider an unhealthy amusement for children.

A small reminder: 69% of American heads of households are gamers. I’d be surprised if “most people” consider video games an “unhealthy amusement for children.” Certainly some people view it that way, Mr. Grossman seemingly among their numbers, but not most nor even a majority.

We’ve got time for a couple more slams from Mr. Grossman before he wraps up his stunning display of idiocy:

This devotion is fueled by a belief, not shared by the world at large, that video games are an art form with genuine emotional meaning and that Halo 3 will be the premier example of that art.

There’s an opportunity beyond video games, too, for Halo to break out of the ghetto and become a mainstream, mass-market, multimedia entertainment property.

Not that the Bungies care. They don’t need to legitimize Halo by associating it with other, more respectable media. They sell enough units and make enough money. They’re happy in their invisible geek ghetto. But that’s the logic of the marketplace: it can’t leave subcultures alone; it has to turn them into cultures. It may be time for the Master Chief to come in from the cold and join the party, with the popular kids. Just don’t expect him to take off his helmet.

About the only way TIME could have come up with a more offensive column on video gamers would’ve been to invite Jack “Douchebag” Thompson to write it. As it is they should try to find someone who’s more familiar with video games beyond the likes of Donkey Kong for any future articles they decide to undertake. It’d be nice if he’d at least played something from this century before sitting down to bang out this tripe.

Set your clocks for it.

An interesting oddity will occur (very) early tomorrow morning:

At three minutes and four seconds after 2 AM on the 6th of May this year, the time and date will be 02:03:04 05/06/07. This will never happen again.

***Dave, who got this via DOF who got it from Living the Scientific Life, points out that, actually, it will happen again in a hundred years, but still it’s pretty nifty just the same.