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There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis

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2018-08-16 Metro.jpg

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OLIVER STALLWOOD MEETS A PHYSICIST WHO 1S BRITAIN'S SENIOR TIME LORD


DR PETER Whibberley is a time lord. He doesn't fly about in a Tardis, but the senior research scientist in Time and Frequency at the National Physical Laboratory is responsible for ensuring the UK's time runs accurately and is consistent with other countries. He is currently working on new atomic clocks accurate to one second in the entire lifetime of the universe.

Are you ever late for work? Without accurate, consistent timekeeping, there would be no way of telling if anyone was early or late, so it would be a sort of irony if I was. That's one of the benefits of widespread use of clocks and watches - they enable us to work together, at the same times. We have flexible working hours at NPL, and I usually come into work later and leave later to avoid the rush-hour traffic.


When were you first interested in time, and why?

Like many people, I've always had some interest in timekeeping and its development, and enjoyed HG Wells' The Time Machine as a teenager, but I only moved into the time group at NPL when I was asked to take over a project from someone who was unwell. So it was a bit of an accident really. But my interest developed from there, and I've now worked in time for 28 years.


What path did you take?

I joined NPL straight from the University of Oxford with a degree in physics, and have stayed since.


Why is time important?

Precise and accurate timekeeping underpins so much of the technology that we take advantage of every day. At NPL, we're pushing the boundaries of what we can do with time, creating the next generation of optical clocks, and using these to measure time with greater accuracy, as well as to measure gravity. You could say it's an exciting time for time.


What does your lob entail?

It's quite difficult to summarise in a few words, as it involves a varied range of different activities. There is lab work to maintain the UK's national time scale, called UTC, we upgrade systems and carry out research into new techniques.


Do you get Doctor Who jokes?

Not many, though anyone from the Time And Frequency group at NPL that's around 45 scientists and 15 students - is invariably called a time lord'. We don't have any sonic screwdrivers, but the lab is similar to the Tardis in that it may seem small from the outside, but manages to fit in all sorts of high-tech equipment.


What do people not know about your job?

NPL is the home of UK time, providing accurate time to radio-controlled clocks, to the internal clocks of computers across the country, and to the financial sector, among others. Many people assume incorrectly that time still comes from Greenwich.

How do the new atomic clocks you're working on operate? NPL already operates the most accurate clocks in the UK, which are among the best in the world. But we are also developing the next generation of clocks, called 'optical clocks, as they use laser light to probe atoms, which will be around 100 times more accurate, and capable of keeping time to around one second over the lifetime of the universe.


Will time travel be possible?

It will not be possible in the next few decades, but I'd hesitate to say it would never be possible - you never know.


Happy accident: Peter took over the time group from an unwell colleague

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  • APA 6th ed.: Stallwood, Oliver (2018-08-16). There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis. Metro (England) p. 42.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Stallwood, Oliver. "There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis." Metro (England) [add city] 2018-08-16, 42. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Stallwood, Oliver. "There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis." Metro (England), edition, sec., 2018-08-16
  • Turabian: Stallwood, Oliver. "There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis." Metro (England), 2018-08-16, section, 42 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/There%27s_no_sonic_screwdrivers_but_the_lab_is_like_the_Tardis | work=Metro (England) | pages=42 | date=2018-08-16 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=24 June 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=There's no sonic screwdrivers but the lab is like the Tardis | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/There%27s_no_sonic_screwdrivers_but_the_lab_is_like_the_Tardis | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=24 June 2024}}</ref>