National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

National Institute of Standards and Technology

An array of radio towers sits behind security fences amid farms and pastures north of Fort Collins. This is home to WWV, the country's oldest radio call letters. The station's high-frequency broadcasts can be heard around the globe if you have the right kind of radio.

Now playing: pulsing sounds, every second, followed by an announcement of the exact time.

The station is run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, which is home to the atomic clock. WWV is capable of more than telling time. It could, if need be, save the world.

"My own personal opinion is that time is a human construct," says Tom O'Brian. O'Brian has thought a lot about this over the years. He is America's official timekeeper at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado.

To him, days, hours, minutes and seconds are a way for humanity to "put some order in this very fascinating and complex universe around us."

Scientists announced this week that they have created the most advanced clock in the world.

The clock, described this week in the journal Nature, is so precise that it would neither lose nor gain one second in about 5 billion years of continuous operation. That's pretty good, considering that the Earth itself is only around 4.5 billion years old.

Grace Hood / KUNC

Hundreds of Colorado federal lab workers including two Nobel Prize recipients are furloughed during the government shutdown. Other university and contract workers are shut out of federal buildings and labs.

www.nist.gov

Thousands of Colorado employees have been furloughed due to the government shutdown. Included in that number are more than 3,600 federal laboratory workers in Boulder County.

It has been a deadly year for the people who fight wildfires. In total, 32 people have lost their lives fighting fires in 2013; the highest number in nearly 20 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Just one incident accounts for most of those deaths, the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. In June, the blaze blasted through a firefighting crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots; 19 of the 20 men died.

What a makes a good clock? Andrew Ludlow, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says one of the most important criteria is stability.

"If you could imagine a grandfather clock and see the pendulum swinging back and forth, ideally that pendulum would swing back and forth very uniformly," Ludlow says. "Each swing would take exactly the same amount of time."

That's stability. But what if something perturbs the system, like a mischievous toddler?

You wouldn't be surprised to learn that a laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Commerce is working on more precise methods to measure stuff.

However, you might not expect it to be at the cutting edge of the mind-bending world of quantum physics. But on Tuesday, David Wineland became the fourth employee at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a federal lab, to win a Nobel since 1997. Wineland learned he will share the Nobel Prize in physics with Frenchman Serge Haroche for work that's both esoteric and practical.

Geoffrey Wheeler / NIST

It has been a whirlwind day for David Wineland, who along with Serge Haroche, won the Nobel prize for physics this year.

NIST

Two scientists – one French, one American - have won the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics. Serge Haroche and David Wineland will share the $1.2 million award for their work in quantum physics.

Pages