Just a Leap Second

June 12, 2015

I read Just a Second by David Wolman for Slate a few minute ago. The piece fascinated me. It addresses the interface between NIST-F2, an atomic clock and the most accurate clock ever built by human beings, and where the sun is at any given moment. Bottom line: the effing Earth does not move in synch with 9,192,631,770, which is some number which relates to something having to do with Cesium. (Some Clock might be what you’d expect to see in Charlotte’s web in Mr. Zuckerman’s barn.)

So how do smart people deal with the fact that 9,912,631,770 and the effing Earth are not in synch. Well, they watch the Earth and, “whenever it looks like the difference between Earth rotation time and atomic time will exceed 0.9 seconds,” a leap second gets added. Ten seconds got added in 1972, 25 have been added since then—roughly a billion seconds passed during the same period, making the addition of 25 seconds a 0.00000254% change.

Initially, I thought a second couldn’t possibly matter. It does, of course, but not in the way you might first think. Mr. Wolman details a whole series of issues related to computers, GPS systems, and such. Fine tuning with leap seconds—which, unlike the less fine day every four years on the calendar, come randomly—interferes with machines. Alas, we have the Brits, and some astronomers. Mr. Wolman reports that this group argues that “the leap second was and remains a smart fix, and that keeping time without any reference to the position of objects in the heavens is contrary to our understanding of the universe and our place in it.” They reference quaint notions like daylight savings times and winding watches.

The International Telecommunication Union—ITU for short—will host the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 for 25 days in November in, where else, Geneva. Really smart people will come together to solve, among other things, the leap second issue. Stay tuned for the outcome!

I wrote about the leap second issue for a few reasons. First, I don’t begin to appreciate the complexities of the world we live in. Second, I’m glad others do. Finally, I’m amazed by the fact that, with countries coming together over all manner of issues that affect daily lives, they cannot figure out how to avoid wars.

The world uses English as a standard for commercial aircraft communications. Countries “run” by people who think not very much about beheadings of Westerners and committing terrorism around the world still adhere to this standard, and they’ll set their clocks according to whatever the folks in Geneva—surely mostly Westerners—decide. Odd it is, at least to me!

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