Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Time Bandits

Every few years, the seldom seen, all-powerful merchants of time realize a surplus in their inventory, and give us an extra day, just as a gift. And we are free to spend that extra day as we see fit. Many get caught up on work. Some take the day to help their fellow time consumers. And some just sit and stare at the wall, waiting for the regular days to return.

This February, we will receive the extra day because 2012 is a leap year. So make your extra day plans now!

But the extra day may not be all the added time we get this year. On the night of June 30, the current plan is to recognize one more second in the day — a leap second!

While the leap year keeps the calendar in order, the leap second keeps the clock in order by closing the gap between time as measured by atomic clocks, which rely on the oscillation frequency in an isotope of cesium, and time as measured by the daily rotation of the Earth. Without inserting a leap-something at some point, the gap between earth time and official time as calibrated by cesium clocks — stunningly accurate to one second in 100 million years — would grow and grow, though very slowly.

Unfortunately, the givers of time are exhibiting signs that they may renege on the gift of the extra second. More than 100 countries are due to decide on whether to keep the present method of adding so-called leap seconds to the global time system at the Radio Communications Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. These countries, including the U.S., believe the system to be too cumbersome.

Too cumbersome?? Are you kidding me? That’s our free second you’re messing with! First they want to take our Internet away, and now our time?? Stupid government.

Anyway, my advice is to go ahead and use your leap second before anyone with any such authority decides to take it away from you. The question is:

How will you use your leap second? Reflect on how fortunate you are? Create a new app for a smart phone? Write a joke for 30 Rock? Blink? How will you use your extra day in February? What exactly is the oscillation frequency in an isotope of cesium? Were you or anyone you know born on February 29? If a train left New York traveling west at 550 mph on June 30, and at the same time, a jet left Los Angeles traveling east at 550 mph, which passengers would get their leap second first?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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12 Comments

  1. The leap second will be spent sleeping, most probably.
    I checked my schedule… I will spend the leapday listening to a lecture in Nichomachean Ethics…

    Goddammit Sam, I’m a philosopher not a mathmatician!

  2. GPS time doesn’t use leap seconds. So when you need to do all the accounting to make sure your timing measurements recorded with GPS clocks make sense when converted to UTC, leap seconds are a pain. So I’m going to spend my leap second being grumpy that I’ve been given another leap second to account for.

  3. It’s not an extra day or second. It has already been stored in the “Calander Savings and Loan.” Then George Bailey wishes he’d never had any leap time at all. A kindly angel shows George that, without his leap time, Evil Potter would have … Umm … Well, what do ya know? Turns out there is no difference how we agree time passes.

    …Except the people who end up working an extra day for free because their salary is bi-monthly. That’s too bad.

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