MAS Monthly Meeting

A Brief History of Time(keeping): Optical atomic clocks and their applications

Image of an optical atomic clock

At the August MAS meeting, our guest speaker will be Shimon Kolkowitz of the UW-Madison physics department (assistant professor). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this meeting will again be held via Zoom.

Optical atomic clocks are now the most stable and accurate timekeepers in the world, with fractional accuracies equivalent to neither losing nor gaining a second over the entire age of the universe. This unprecedented level of metrological precision offers sensitivity to new physics phenomena, opening the door to exciting and unusual applications. This talk will provide an introduction to how and why time is measured from a historical perspective, with an emphasis on the recent development of optical atomic clocks and their applications. I will discuss recent progress on pushing clocks to even greater levels of precision, as well as prospects for future improvement. Finally, I will give a brief overview of potential future applications of clocks, including gravitational wave detection, tests of general relativity, and searches for physics beyond the Standard Model.

Shimon Kolkowitz is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where his research is focused on experimental atomic physics and quantum science. He works on building novel and precise sensors to study fundamental physics and to develop new quantum technologies. Shimon received his B.S. from Stanford University, and his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University, where his research focused on nanoscale sensing with quantum systems. He did his postdoctoral research on ultra-precise optical atomic clocks at NIST/CU Boulder, where he was a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow. He is the author of research articles published in Science, Nature, and Physical Review Letters amongst many other journals. Shimon was recently named a 2019 “Packard Fellow for Science and Engineering.”

The August meeting will be a virtual event, hosted with Zoom. Members will receive an email with link and instructions to join a day or two before the event. Again this month we are opening the virtual meeting up to Facebook Group members who may want to join in. If you would like to attend the MAS virtual meeting, send an email to by noon Friday August 14 to let us know of your interest. We will email you the Zoom link at 3pm Friday August 14 that will get you into the meeting at 7:30 on Friday evening.

PHOTO CAPTION: “In the picture above, the glowing blue ball at the center of the round vacuum chamber window is a cloud of roughly 10 million strontium atoms cooled to one-thousandth of a degree above absolute zero and levitated in empty space by a combination of laser light and large magnetic field gradients. These atoms are the heart of the ultra-precise atomic clock being built in the Kolkowitz labs at the UW-Madison physics department.”