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The US Naval Observatory now keeps the "golden ball." The ball was previously located in Foggy Bottom and would drop to mark time for visiting ships moving in and out of port.
Jocelyn Frank
The US Naval Observatory now keeps the "golden ball." The ball was previously located in Foggy Bottom and would drop to mark time for visiting ships moving in and out of port.

Demetrios Matsakis is sometimes referred to as father time, or one of the time lords. He's one of approximately 70 people around the world who manage, monitor and measure time. Matsakis's official title is Department Head of the Time Service Division at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Situated just off of Massachusetts Avenue in the northwest corner of Washington D.C., the U.S. Naval Observatory contains a series of buildings that make up the Time Service Division. Matsakis explains that the exact number of buildings is something they prefer not to talk about. Time service is very sensitive work. There is a lot of security.

Matsakis walks toward one of the non-descript white buildings, punches in a key code on the wall, enters one door, and then another that is locked by another different keypad. The doors open up to a very sparse room. There are four glass-enclosed chambers, and each holds exactly the same type of machine.

"It looks like a giant water heater," Matsakis says, pointing to the one closest. It's one of four U.S. Navy Rubidium Fountain Clocks.

"The technology was the subject of maybe four or five Nobel prizes." He explains that this fancy water heater works a bit like a water fountain.

"Atoms inside are treated like a water fountain," he says. "One of these can measure time frequency to 16 decimal points." Matsakis describes the Navy Rubidium Fountain Clock as, "the most precise operational measurement system ever built by mankind."

It needs to be. The data from the four fountains combined contributes to the U.S. Naval Observatory's master clock, and that clock is queried for the exact time between half a billion to 1 billion times a day.

Working with time

Demetrios Matsakis admits he's always a bit on edge. In the 14 years that he's been head of the division, the clocks have failed three times, but there are always backup machines running to avoid catastrophic problems. Time is increasingly important to the everyday lives of all people. Computers, GPS, phones and, of course, countless meetings, votes and appointments depend on punctuality to run smoothly.

Matsakis admits that even though he devotes his working hours to time, he still has the same kinds of challenges as most other people, "I don't wear a watch. I consider myself very punctual, but other people might not think so," he chuckles.

Matsakis has a large office with a typical desk and computer at one end, some bookshelves and a large conference table and chairs. There is a wall-mounted clock at one end of the room, and below it is a poster of Albert Einstein. At the other end of the room is an image of Stonehenge. His tables are covered with scattered papers, file folders, binders and knickknacks (a turtle shell and a bit of quartz — a mineral important to time keeping). He says his day-to-day work is mostly bureaucratic, but in the evenings, as people start to leave for the day, he switches over to more creative and scientific work.

"I get to do science — playing with data, analyzing better ways to generate time perhaps, and also doing quality control... looking at the systems and outputs my department produces, and making sure [that] they are the best they can be."

He keeps quite busy. The U.S. Naval Observatory maintains about 100 atomic clocks and a dozen hydrogen maser clocks. One maser is often described as the master clock. It, like the Navy Rubidium Fountain Clocks, is kept in its own highly regulated temperature-sensitive room.

The philosophy of time

The many clocks of the U.S. Naval Observatory have diverse requirements for optimal conditions, and the technology continues to evolve. The hallways of the Time Service department serve as a reminder of that evolution. Display cases hold antique clocks, measurement tools, parts, mechanisms, and the Earth's minerals — all time-keeping tools, which we're depended on at one time.

Compared to some of the early designs of the past, today's time measurement tools require an immense amount of detailed and precise work, but Matsakis balances his attention to detail with a view of the bigger picture.

"Here we are struggling to understand what science is about, where the world is going, and we can project great confidence to the world, but really we're all just struggling along trying to figure out what's going on, and how to get out of here — I mean get out of our current state of not knowing all that there is to be known."

[Music: "Working for the Weekend" by The Brown Derbies from We Deliver / "Vivaldi Spring" by Edvin Marton from Stradivarius ]

Photos: D.C. Gigs

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