'Time Nuts' Live for the Clock

Tom Van Baak, a self-described "time nut," has turned a spare bedroom into a lab dedicated to the study of time.

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TOURE, host:

Hey, Alison, do you remember that "Saturday Night Live" fake commercial they did in the '80s about the bank that only makes change?

ALISON STEWART, host:

Classic.

TOURE: They said, we're here for all your change needs. If you want 22 twos, we'll give 22 twos. And at the end they said, people ask, how do we make money? The answer is volume.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: That always kills me. I love that bit. And that's what I thought of the first time I heard of the time nerds with their time labs. I mean, how are you studying time? You look at your watch, it's 7:47. That's what time it is.

No. There hundreds of brilliant people out there snapping up atomic clocks and studying extremely precise time keeping. Tom Van Baak is one of them. He's a former software engineer who's turned his spare bedroom into a lab dedicated to the study of time.

I spoke to him earlier. How much earlier? I bet he knows.

Tom, when you say time lab and the study of time, it makes me think about, like, a bank that makes change, you know. Like time is time. You know, my watch says 11:47, that's what time it is. How much deeper can we go?

Mr. TOM VAN BAAK: Yes, okay. Well, I'll tell you. There's a couple of aspects to that. The bank analogy is actually a good one, because you probably know people that collect coins.

TOURE: Right.

Mr. VAN BAAK: And so one thing that people can do, if they're interested in money, is to collect coins or to collect bills.

TOURE: Right.

Mr. VAN BAAK: And so they go all over different countries or different eras within the same country, and they just derive pleasure out of exploring the variety of coinage and the history of bills and everything pertaining to that. And so one thing that I do at the time lab, but almost as a time museum, is to collect old timepieces. And in particular, my specialty is electronic timekeepers. So not so much wristwatches or pendulum clocks and mechanical contraptions like that, but the geeky electronic quartz or rubidium timepieces.

TOURE: Tell me about the time nuts.

Mr. VAN BAAK: Well, it was in the late '90s that I started exchanging e-mail with one or two other people that I found were interested in time at the nanosecond level. And at that point, there was no doubt that there were leading scientists in the world that did this as a matter of their profession -clearly, people that worked for NIST or the Naval Observatory or the comparable laboratories in Europe. And, of course, there were people at NASA that were doing this.

But the question was who was doing this just for fun? And so I was able to find a couple of people, and we exchanged e-mail and advice and questions amongst ourselves. And I thought, you know, some of these information is pretty interesting and might have wider usage. And so I started a mailing list that we called Time Nuts, and from the original three or four people, it's grown to 300 or 400 now.

TOURE: Wow. What do your kids think about all this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN BAAK: Maybe years later you could ask them, but they think it's sort of a normal thing right now. It's - daddy has his clocks. Daddy has his machines. Daddy does his experiments. And they're actually fairly well informed about all of this. They're - they definitely know their microseconds from their nanoseconds, and they know their leap seconds from their leap years. So that's - at least they're a little bit involved in it.

TOURE: And you took them on a trip to show them nanoseconds at work.

Mr. VAN BAAK: Yes. You're referring to Project GREAT, and that was kind of a - that was a wonderful experiment that I had really only dreamed about years ago. The basic idea of that experiment was to demonstrate or even to confirm that Einstein was correct in his prediction that time can speed up or time can slow down, depending on speed or on gravity.

And the actual theory of this is that clocks should - or they were predicted to run a little bit faster if they are placed in an area of less gravity. And so you don't have to imagine sending them up to the moon or a rocket ship to have less gravity. You can even do it right here on earth. And, in particular, we have a very nice volcano within view of the Seattle area. It's Mt. Rainier. And there is a road that goes up to it to about a mile-high level.

And that provided the test bed for this experiment, where we took essentially two clocks - we left one at home and we took one with us in the family minivan - and let it sit up there on the mountain a mile high for a whole weekend. And the idea is that because of the difference, the very, very slight difference in gravity, that the clocks upon the mountain should run a tiny bit faster than the clocks left at home. So that's what we did.

TOURE: So your kids lost nanoseconds from their life.

Mr. VAN BAAK: They actually - I think we gained nanoseconds relative to the people we left behind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Okay.

Mr. VAN BAAK: And so while everybody else in town went through their normal life, we actually lived 22 nanoseconds longer.

(Soundbite of music)

TOURE: That was my earlier conversation with Tom Van Baak, a former software engineer and a self-described time nut.

STEWART: Good self-description, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Hey, coming up on the show, we check in on the BPP blog with editor Laura Conaway with a bat update.

TOURE: This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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