Shaping the sound of time

An artist collaborates with physicists developing a highly precise atomic clock. The goal? Grasping the music of time


Time is “what we read from a clock located at the same point at which an event occurs”, said Albert Einstein. American theoretical physicist John A. Wheeler defined it as “a phenomenon which prevents all things from happening simultaneously.”


Atomic clocks are the most precise time-measuring instruments built by humanity (source: Wikimedia Commons)

While time remains an eternal mystery for philosophers and scientists, the language of art tries to represent it. German artist Kerstin Ergenzinger, fellow of the graduate school at the Berlin Center for Advanced Studies in Arts and Sciences, started cooperation with a team of physicists participating in the FET nuClock project, who are trying to create a highly precise clock using the nucleus of the Thorium-229 atom. This collaboration is part of FEAT, another FET project which investigates how art and science can inspire each other.


“The atomic clocks that we know today rely on an oscillator that produces an electromagnetic wave, and the atomic reference is used to control the frequency of this wave, in order to guarantee the precision of the clock,” explains Ekkehard Peik, head of the “Time and frequency” department at the German National Metrology Institute in Braunschweig, partner of nuClock. “By using Thorium 229 we propose an oscillation inside the atomic nucleus, where the charges are much more tightly bound and where the forces are stronger, thus making the frequency measurement more robust against external perturbations.”


Art and science can join their forces to shed light on the nature of time

While time measurement means many calculations and laboratory experiments for the scientists, Kerstin Ergenzinger wants to express the cadence of time through sounds.


She is building an acoustic instrument, based on nitinol drums, able to filter equally distributed random noises. The drums are arranged in a cloud-like formation and suspended from a ceiling, which creates a sonic environment evolving in time and space.




Cover image: via