Wait A Second, And What Else To Do With It

Jan 21, 2012
Originally published on January 21, 2012 9:03 am

Let me take a second here.

Not very long, was it?

But a second tied up delegates to the UN's International Telecommunication Union, who postponed a decision this week on whether to abolish the extra second that's added to clocks every few years to compensate for the earth's natural doddering.

The earth slows down slightly as we spin through space. No one falls off, but earthquakes and tides routinely slow the earth by a fraction of a fraction of a second, which makes clocks minutely wrong. If not corrected, it could make a minute of difference a century.

So every few years, official clocks around the world repeat a second. The last "leap second," as it's called, was added at the end of 2008.

Ah, I remember it well.

The UN agency has been talking about abolishing the leap second for eight years. If you ever wonder why the UN can seem so slow to act in a crisis, consider the time they've had just deciding what to do about a second. But the implications are astronomical.

For centuries time was figured by the rotation of the earth. But atomic clocks keep time by the movement of electrons in atoms.

The U.S., France and Japan consider the leap second to be a nuisance, like having to reset the clocks on the alarm and microwave twice a year, especially when power grids and global positioning systems rely on millisecond timing.

Physicist Włodzimierz Lewandowski asked the panel, "Does it make sense to ... use an imperfect clock based on a wobbly planet?"

Don't be offended, Earthlings.

But China, Canada, Britain and some astronomers think that if we move solely to atomic time, we may lose sight of the ways our days are linked to the sun and stars. We might lose sight of our place in the universe.

"The United Kingdom is strongly opposed to coming up with a new conception of time, without good reason," said British physicist Peter Whibberley.

The UN won't take up the issue for another three years, so another leap second is scheduled for June 30.

How will you use your extra second?

It's not enough time to learn Latin, climb Kilimanjaro or read Ulysses. But maybe just enough to remind us that our time goes by in the blink of an eye: We should cherish every fleeting second.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let me take a second here. Not very long, was it? But a second tied up delegates to the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union, who postponed a decision this week on whether to abolish the extra second that's added to clocks every few years to compensate for the earth's natural doddering. The earth slows down slightly as we spin through space. No one falls off, but earthquakes and tides routinely slow the earth by a fraction of a fraction of a second, which makes clocks minutely wrong. If not corrected, it could make a minute of difference a century.

So, every few years, official clocks around the world repeat a second. The last leap second, as it's called, was added at the end of 2008. Ah, I remember it well. The U.N. agency has been talking about abolishing the leap second for eight years. If you ever wonder why the U.N. can seem so slow to act in a crisis, consider the time they've had just deciding what to do about a second.

But the implications are astronomical. For centuries, time was figured by the rotation of the earth. But atomic clocks keep time by the movement of electrons in atoms. U.S., France, and Japan consider the leap second to be a nuisance, like having to reset the clocks on the alarm and microwave twice a year, especially when power grids and global positioning systems rely on millisecond timing. Physicist Włodzimierz Lewandowski asked the panel: does it make sense to use an imperfect clock based on a wobbly planet? Don't be offended, earthlings. But China, Canada, Britain and some astronomers think that if we move solely to atomic time we may lose sight of the ways our days are linked to the sun and stars. We might lose sight of our place in the universe. The United Kingdom is strongly opposed to coming up with a new conception of time without good reason, said British physicist Peter Whibberley.

The U.N. won't take up the issue for another three years, so another leap second is scheduled for this June 30th. How will you use your extra second? It's not enough time to learn Latin, climb Kilimanjaro, or read Ulysses. But maybe just enough to remind us that our time goes by in the blink of an eye. We should cherish every fleeting second.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY LIKE AN EAGLE")

STEVE MILLER BAND: (Singing) Time keeps on slipping, slippin', slippin' into the future. Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' into the future. I wanna fly like an eagle to the sea. Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me. I want to fly like an eagle...

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.