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Time: Direct Relationship Between Clock Accuracy and Entropy

By Dick Weisinger

Measuring time isn’t free. Measuring time requires work and researchers have found that as clocks are made more accurate, more work is required, the process gives off more heat, and entropy in the universe increases. Clock accuracy is directly proportional to the entropy created.

In order to test this, researchers created a “classical clock” that had tunable precision and configured it so that energy flow from the clock could be measured. The relationship between accuracy and entropy seems to be similar under both classical and quantum conditions. The results suggest that time can never be perfectly measured.

Natalia Ares, researcher at the University of Oxford, said that “if a clock is more accurate, you are paying for it somehow. Clocks are in some way like little steam engines — you need to put work into them to measure time. Work is the energy transfer needed to make mechanical devices like clocks run. In order to get that regular tick, tick, tick, you have to get the machine going. That means you need to invest in entropy production.”

Mark Mitchison, researcher at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, said that “it’s still unclear how this principle plays out in real devices such as atomic clocks, which push the ultimate quantum limits of accuracy.” Better understanding of clocks and time will be useful in designing and building devices where accuracy and temperature are important. In particular, these results may be important in the design of quantum computers.

Ares joked that “by measuring time, we are increasing the entropy of the universe. The more entropy there is in the universe, the closer it may be to its eventual demise. Maybe we should stop measuring time.”

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