One of the fundamental mysteries surrounding the concept of time is whether it’s continuous and our chronological measurements are just a way of making the sense of the world, or if it actually breaks down into discrete “ticks” at the teeniest scales.
Assuming the latter is true — Live Science reports that our technology isn’t yet nearly sensitive enough to find out for sure — a team of physicists from Penn State has now theorized the absolute maximum amount of time that a universal oscillation could take.
The number is bafflingly small. The largest possible value this fundamental unit of time could be is one thousandth of a quectosecond, according to research published last month in the journal Physical Review Letters. That’s ten to the -33rd power or, as Live Science helpfully put it, just one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second.
And that’s just the upper limit, based on the performance of the best atomic clocks we have. In the abstract world of mathematical theory, Live Science reports the absolute smallest unit of time could be yet another 100 billion times shorter.
The best atomic clocks can measure down to a tenth of a billionth of a billionth of a second, or ten to the -19th power, Live Science reports. If the fundamental unit of time were any larger, it would eventually make our atomic clocks fall out of sync.
But this is all theory. As atomic clocks improve, scientists may find themselves exploring smaller and smaller units of time before they ever hit a wall — and time may be truly continuous, rather than discrete.
READ MORE: The universe’s clock might have bigger ticks than we imagine [Live Science]
More on time: Astrophysicist Says He Knows How to Build a Time Machine