Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Yes, Virginia, believe it or not, there is an International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service. How do I know this? I know this because the astronomers and the clock community are at each other's throats again. Some modern things just never change. Sorry Virginia, I don't really know what the "clock community" is, though it seems to include everyone who isn't an astronomer.

Anyway, believe it or not the big argument has to do with whether humanity should abolish the leap second, which is defined as 1/86,400th of a "mean solar day," the average time between two consecutive noons - during a lot of which we're all asleep anyway - as opposed to the atomic second, the time it takes for an atom of cesium 133 to tick through 9,192,631,770 cycles or, more roughly, for a running person to miss the train to work.

It seems that the atom does its thing, whatever that is, with amazing regularity: you watch that clock for 20 million years and it won't lose even half a second, though your pension is loooong gone. The heavens, however, are kind of sloppy in that regard, thank God, who is more like us, allowing for anomalies to creep in and then disappear, like species, fashions, puppy love, the need for a leap second and so on.

The folks in charge of time started adding leap seconds in 1972, the year after I took to the road in my own anomaly, and they’ve added seven leap seconds since then, which frankly, as a transient member of the clock community I didn't even notice. But now that I'm a Silver Surfer and the clock really flies, if only those tick-timers at the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service - whose salaries are paid by our taxes - would get off their chronically challenged duffs and add a leap year every couple of months, that might be worth all the fuss.

No comments: