Old News: The first atomic clock vs. Ahmed’s clock

Dani Tuchman, co-editor-in-chief

If you were alive on this day in 1956, you would have witnessed headlines that read, “First Atomic Power Clock Exhibited in New York City.” The idea of utilizing magnetic resonance, which is the absorption and emission of electromagnetic radiation, was proposed by physicist Isidor Rabi in 1945. For four years, the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology experimented with the idea and ultimately completed the revolutionary machine in 1949.

Six years later, a more accurate version of the clock was created in the United Kingdom. It was soon followed by the production of the first commercial device, the Atomichron, on our side of the pond in Malden, MA.

What makes the atomic clock better than a wristwatch? The advantage of the atomic approach is that atoms resonate at highly consistent frequencies, making it an extremely precise time-teller.

As with any unveiling of a technological, game-changing product (consider the first iPhone release back in 2007, for example), the atomic clock’s first exhibition represented one engineer’s dream made into a reality. On Sept. 14, 2015 in Irving, TX, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed hoped to achieve a similar dream when he constructed his own digital clock from a pencil case and another disassembled timepiece.

Deciding to reveal to his teacher what, in his eyes, was an innocuous invention, his ambition was soon challenged. In place of his probable bus ride home at the end of the day, he was instead confronted by policemen and arrested for the crime of developing a hoax bomb.

Apparently, Mohamed’s engineering teacher urged him to promptly place his device in his locker to avoid more teachers’ suspicion. However, Mohamed disregarded these instructions and subsequently panicked anyone who saw the clock throughout the rest of the school day.

This inattention to his engineering teacher’s suggestion begs the question: Was Mohamed intentionally defying him in order to gain recognition and eventual publicity for his problematic device? In other words, did the freshman want his 15 minutes of fame? If fame is what Mohamed desired, it didn’t take long until he had the entire nation’s eyes upon him and a consequent invitation to visit the White House from President Barack Obama himself.

Mohamed’s story soon provoked the supportive trending hashtag on Twitter: “I Stand With Ahmed.” His arrest was viewed by many to be another example of racial profiling due to his Muslim background. However, it has also been argued that his innovative, intelligent mind should have known to apprise his school of his clock’s questionable appearance ahead of time.

According to CNN News, Texas law states that a person who commits a hoax bomb offense is one who “knowingly manufactures, sells, purchases, transports or possesses a hoax bomb with intent to use it” or intentionally causes alarm or reaction. The underlying question still remains: How do you arrest someone and accuse of them of malicious intent when there is no definitive proof, particularly as Mohamed was a so-called engineering student whose supposed intent was to fabricate a one-of-a-kind clock?