Science

U.S. Naval Observatory, Coordinated Universal Time
Julie Jacobson/AP

Happy New Year, But Wait a Second

December 29, 2008 02:44 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
An extra “leap second” has been added to the last day of 2008, meaning that 2009 is set to arrive a bit later than expected.

Official Timekeeper Delays New Year

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The U.S. Naval Observatory, the world’s official timekeeper, announced that it will add an extra second on Dec. 31 to match the world’s atomic clocks to the Earth’s rotation on its axis, reports Reuters. The extra second will be inserted at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, or 6:59:59 p.m. EST (23:59:59 GMT).

An international agreement in 1970 created two time scales: UTC, based on highly precise atomic clocks that are accurate to about one-billionth of a second per day, and another based on the Earth’s observed rotation, which gets slower over time. Leap seconds are used so that the difference between atomic clocks and Earth’s rotation does not exceed 0.9 seconds. This year’s extra second will be the 24th in history; the first leap second was inserted into UTC on June 30, 1972.

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service determines whether or not to add or remove the second based on its observations of the Earth’s rotation, which slows for a variety of reasons, including the actions of tides, the amount of snow at the polar ice caps, solar wind, space dust and magnetic storms.

Opinion & Analysis: The value of the extra second

This year’s “leap second” could be the last one ever, if a proposal by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is implemented. The group of timekeeping experts suggests that leap seconds should be abandoned in favor of a “leap hour” that would occur about every 600 years. The proposed change would mean that official time would no longer be linked to the Earth’s rotation, and it would have wide-ranging effects, including reducing the importance of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), requiring changes to astronomical telescopes, and making sundials more inaccurate. “It would be a change with profound cultural implications,” said Robert Massey, of the Royal Astronomical Society, to the Times of London. “We’d be decoupling our clocks from what the Sun is telling us.”

The thought of being given an extra second may not be that exciting to many people, but The New York Times reminds readers that much can be accomplished in just one second. “If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider that in one second a cheetah can dash 34 yards, a telephone signal can travel 100,000 miles, a hummingbird can beat its wings 70 times, and eight million of your blood cells can die. As the saying goes, every second counts. In the case of leap seconds, that is especially true.”

Pete LaMaster at the Orlando Active Seniors Travel Examiner has some suggestions as to how you should use your extra second this year, which include “Just relax,” “Question authority,” “Fall in love” and his top suggestion, “Gaze into your lover’s eyes.”

In the Toronto Star, Dan Falk takes some time out of the extra-long year to examine the nature of time, and man’s attempts to measure it, but comes away from his analysis dissatisfied. “Even after Newton and Einstein, in a world in which we slice time so finely that a ‘leap second’ is needed, we still yearn to understand what time ‘is’—and we wish that science could provide a better answer than ‘what clocks measure.’”

Related Topics: “Daylight-Saving Time Changed”

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