Proving the theory of relativity in your minivan

Geek Culture

It’s always good to begin a new venture with a role model. I propose that Tom Van Baak may be the archetypical Geek Dad. It all began Van Baak says , “ten years ago [when] I wanted to build a LED digital analog clock that would be accurate to better than one second per year — so I would have the fun of adjusting it when a leap second occurred.” That’s the geek part. Once Van Baak’s passion was for amateur ultra precise timekeeping was ignited he went onto collect way too many vintage atomic clocks, like those manufactured by HP (yes the same company). The gear is rather bland looking, more like hi-fi components — a lot of blinking lights, meters andswitchology. But it is extremely accurate. As his collection of atomic clocks grew, he had an inspired idea for his kids. The geek dad part. As he writes in his blog Leapsecond:


As a collector of vintage and modern atomic clocks, I discovered it was possible, using gear found at home, to convert our family minivan into a mobile high-precision time laboratory, complete with batteries, power converters, time interval counters, three children, and three cesium clocks. We drove as high as we could up Mount Rainier, the volcano near Seattle, Washington, and parked there for two days. The trip was continuously logged with the global positioning system; the net altitude gain was +1340 meters. This is perhaps the first case where the general theory of relativity is confirmed with a family weekend road trip using surplus atomic timing equipment.


Instead of fanciful stories of rocket ships and twins, the kids got a hands-on introduction to general relativity with real clocks and a family road trip. Furthermore, by being at high altitude for the weekend, we experienced more time together, relatively speaking. It was the best extra 22 nanoseconds I’ve ever spent with the kids.

There you have it: the essence of GeekDad.

And here’s the data to prove it:


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