Friday, January 7, 2011

What Are You Working On?

Consider, for a moment, the importance of precision: How an exact measurement defines our progress. How it sets the new standard.

Even something as elemental as a footrace may come down to a photo finish—a thousandth of a second separating the fastest runner from the also-rans.

The naked eye isn’t enough. Not in sports, and certainly not in science.

In science, technology, and the businesses built around them, the difference between success and failure is measured in microns, milliseconds and parts per trillion.

Measurement has the power to change our understanding of the world. It tells us what’s possible now and inspires us to reach even farther.

I say all that because I happen to work for the world's premiere measurement company. We have a lot of brilliant scientists here doing things that, frankly, I can barely comprehend. I just know they're helping make the world a better place.

Recently I had the pleasure of writing about one of our research fellows, Curt Flory.

Curt is not only brilliant, he's funny and self-effacing.

"I compulsively have to know how things work," he told me. "In fact, my wife often needles me and says, 'You can’t be happy just using something. You have to know where all the electrons are going.'"

Among his achievements: Curt helped develop the cesium beam atomic frequency standard—the basis of the most precise commercial timekeeping device in the world and probably one of the most accurate pieces of instrumentation of any kind

How accurate? In a million years, such a clock would lose maybe one second, if it could run that long without exhausting its supply of cesium. So who needs that kind of precision? Try everyone who depends on the satellite-based Global Positioning System, or GPS, to figure out where they are or where they’re going.

"The thing GPS is measuring is the flight time of light, or electromagnetic radiation, and that travels really fast. So let’s imagine you’re off by a microsecond—one millionth of a second. In that time, light has traveled 300 meters. You want to be more accurate than that," he said. "So that’s a pervasive example of why timing, time synchronization, time intervals, frequency stability—all of those things—are so important."

Of course, that was some time ago. What's he working on now? I can't tell you that, but I can tell what typically happens when his wife asks the same question.

"If my wife is having trouble sleeping," Curt told me, "she’ll roll over and say, 'So what are you working on now?' Every time, I fall for it. I always think, 'She’s finally really interested.' So I start talking about it, getting all excited, and within two minutes, I hear: 'Zzzzz.' Now I’m wide awake and I have to get up and start jotting things down."