“I don’t even wear a watch!” laughs William Bowden, a second year PhD student in physics at the University of Oxford.

The 26-year-old Capilano University alum has only been at Oxford for just over a year, but he is already carving out a place for himself—right at the forefront of timekeeping research.

William is working on a next-generation atomic clock for the National Physical Laboratory just outside of London.

The clock is just one of many large devices around the world that help set the world’s most accurate time standards.

William’s work has the potential to impact a large number of global industries.

One of the most important applications of atomic clocks is in the field of fundamental physics. Highly accurate clocks are used verify Einstein’s theories of general relativity, measure the variation of fundamental physical constants, and potentially hunt for dark matter.

In addition, atomic clocks are used to provide measurement standards for international time distribution services used by the finance industry, GPS satellites and telecommunication networks such as 4G, among others.

When airline and transportation industries rely on accurate GPS coordinates, and when billions can be made or lost in a matter of seconds in the finance industry, William’s research ends up carrying some big responsibilities.

He needs to make sure the clock runs as accurately as possible.

“I’m looking at all the different ways that clocks can speed up or slow down,” William says, “and trying to measure them as best I can.”

His research involves taking into account various physical factors that affect the atoms that run the clock.

“We’ve developed one atomic clock, so we’re currently in the process of evaluating systematics,” says William, referring to the process of assessing these factors.

World’s most accurate clock

William’s team is just one of many working on these clocks. Other similar research groups are taking place across Europe—in places like Finland, Germany, Italy and France.  

William says all these different institutes are currently comparing research and data, in an attempt to ensure the clocks are in agreement. He says this is an important check to determine if researchers may have missed certain physical processes that affect these clocks’ operation.

“Various institutes across Europe are in the process of developing their own atomic clocks,” says William. “Part of the collaboration is trying to learn how to make them better.”

The atomic clocks are large devices. William says they are quite sensitive to gravity and consist of laser systems and vacuum chambers, which are used to manipulate the atoms inside.

For William, the opportunity to sharpen his technical skills as part of this group of scientists from around Europe was too good to pass up.

“There is a rich history of timekeeping research, it’s cool to be part of the next step in that process,” he says.

Having the opportunity to work with more experienced scientists has been extremely rewarding for him.

“Going into the field, I didn’t realize the camaraderie around timekeeping and time standards,” William says. “These complex experiments are very much a team effort. It’s interesting working as part of a community.”

He has had the chance to work with a number of different engineers and research scientists. The interdisciplinary aspect of the whole project has also given him the freedom and creativity to pursue his own ideas.

 “There’s an engineering aspect—you’re building electronics and instrumentations—but there’s also a physics aspect. I’ve had to draw on a lot of things I’ve learned in the past,” he says.

 A taste of engineering

Upon graduating high school, William says he wasn’t sure if engineering was the right field for him.

His journey to timekeeping research started at Capilano University’s engineering transfer program, before he eventually transferred to UBC’s engineering program.

“[Attending] UBC right off the bat was quite daunting for me. In your first year at UBC, your classes have hundreds of students—it’s easy to be overwhelmed,” says William.

“I felt that Cap gave me a good opportunity to see if I wanted to do this.”

William says he enjoyed the chance to develop more personal relationships with his instructors at Capilano U and the opportunity to get a better sense of what engineering was really about.

“I could tell [the instructors] are very passionate about teaching,” he says. “I was sad to leave. I only spent a year there, but I enjoyed that year.”

Future research goals

William’s long-term goal is to continue in research science at universities and government research labs. He wants to find other similar projects in which to be involved. “It’s very easy to find work, especially in research science,” he says. “People who have good technical skills in science are in very high demand.”

“There’s a fair amount of interesting research around the world that I hopefully will be in a good position to contribute to after my PhD,” he says.

Submitted by Communications & Marketing, written by GP Mendoza

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