The clock uses lasers to cool strontium atoms to billionths of a degree above absolute zero and traps them in optical lattices. (Image credit: Pixabay)


Hidetoshi Yatori (University of Tokyo/RIKEN) and Jun Ye (UC Boulder/NIST) have won the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their contributions to the invention and development of optical lattice clocks that enable precision testing of fundamental physics. The Breakthrough Prize is like the “Oscars of Science” and recognizes the world’s top scientists who have made breakthroughs in their respective disciplines. The winners receive $3-million for their contributions, which will be split between Hidetoshi and Jun.


Atomic clocks are a timekeeping mechanism is based on the interaction of electromagnetic or microwave radiation with the excited states of certain atoms. Most combine a quartz crystal oscillator with an ensemble of atoms to achieve greater stability and lose only one second every 10-million years. On the other hand, optical clocks take advantage of optical frequencies that are much higher in the spectrum, and therefore are more precise than their microwave counterparts.


Hidetoshi and Jun’s clock use lasers to cool strontium atoms to billionths of a degree above absolute zero and trap them in grids of laser light known as optical lattices. The lattices are formed by the interference of counter-propagating laser beams, which creates a spatially periodic polarization pattern. Atoms, in this case, strontium, are cooled and trapped in an egg-shaped lattice and held still so they can be measured. The clock is so precise that it would neither gain nor lose one second in 15-billion years, about the same age as the universe itself.


Strontium is the front runner among the atom candidates to replace the cesium that’s currently used to define the international standard of time, the SI second. While atomic clocks are used for GPS and advanced communications applications, the optical lattice clock could be used for precision measurements of gravity, motion, magnetic fields, and more.


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