Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 15/11/2004No matter how geeky one is, there are always times when it's not quite geeky enough. I knew I was in trouble on this front when I was sent a pointer to a chess set that had been made entirely out of 50 ohm radio frequency connectors.

Monday 15/11/2004
No matter how geeky one is, there are always times when it's not quite geeky enough. I knew I was in trouble on this front when I was sent a pointer to a chess set that had been made entirely out of 50 ohm radio frequency connectors. We've all built sculptures out of BNC T-pieces back in the days when Ethernet ran over coaxial cables, but the chess set takes things many, many steps over edge of the abyss.

Of course, I want one. I may have to build one. Worryingly, I already have many of the parts to hand.

However, I was naturally curious about what sort of man -- and it would be a man -- who would make such a thing. Oh, who am I kidding: there had to be some sort of radio obsessive at the end of that thing. The only question is -- just how bad is it?

I was wrong. The guy -- whose name is Tom Van Baak, a software engineer in Seattle (ah-ha!) -- is not some two-bit amateur nut. He has a hobby so extreme, I don't think I've seen its like. He collects -- and builds and maintains -- atomic clocks. He has every precision time standard that HP ever made, and a few hundred other sundry items to boot. He thinks nothing of cobbling together a caesium atomic device in his kitchen. He has a Sigma Tau hydrogen maser -- the temperature of which, for good measure, he monitors to an accuracy of 0.001 Kelvin. And he got most of this stuff from boot sales, eBay, government surplus auctions and specialist second-hand dealers: "you can build up quite a collection very cheaply," he says. I did not want to know that.

It all started 10 years ago when he decided to build an LED clock that would know when to adjust itself for the occasional leap second that the timekeeping standard institutions introduce now and again to compensate for the fact that the Earth doesn't rotate an exact number of seconds in a day. From there, things got a little out of hand… but anyone who can say with a straight face and a clear conscience "my high-performance 5071A caesium standards show a slight hint of approaching a noise floor below 5x10 to the 15 after running 200 days" is clearly happy with his lot.

Go and check his Web site at www.leapsecond.com -- you'll never worry about your radio ham friends again.

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