Who would have thought that the issue of whether to add a
second to our timing-keeping mechanism, the atomic clock, would be the subject
of an international conference and dispute? The pros and cons of the issue is
the subject of a New York Times article of January 19 by Kenneth Chang. The
issue apparently is that every so often, the length of a day increases by a
second. This is because the earth’s rotation
is slowing down. This additional second is
called a “leap second”. Some time-keepers want it added to atomic clocks every
few years in order to synchronize these scientific clocks with the earth’s
rotational cycle. The last time this
happened was in 2008 and it is scheduled again for June of this year.
Since the 1950’s there have been two kinds of clocks – the atomic
clock which has to do with frequency of electrons moving around and the
astronomical clock which has to do with the Earth’s rotational spinning. The difference between their time-keeping can
amount to over a minute over the course of a century. Proponents of the “leap second” point out
that preciseness is very important in today’s society – both for science and as
part of everyday living. Opponents
essentially say that unless every clock is reset with the “leap minute”, there
will be discrepancies in clocks that can lead to major problems . Y2K anyone?
It is true that keeping track of time has taken on much
greater importance over thousands of years.
There was a time when there were no time-keeping devices other than
daylight and night time. Sundials improved
on that. As the article points out,
there was a time when people set their watches based on a village clock but
villages didn’t coordinate it. It really didn’t matter much. With the introduction
of schedules for transportation, people began to rely more on standardized
timing across geographical areas. Global time-zones were established. Nowadays, knowing the precise time is
important in many of everyday activities – departure and arrival times,
computer settings, and global communications among others. More importantly scientific research such as
space exploration requires absolute precision in time-keeping and is based upon
the atomic clock.
Over 700 delegates representing 70 nations are attending an
international conference of a United Nations telecommunications agency this
week in Geneva to decide what to do about the “leap second” – keep it or
abolish it. They are not in agreement
and the outcome is not determined yet.
If the elimination of the “leap second” is approved, it will take place
in 2018. In the meantime, we will all
enjoy an extra second in our lives.