Obscure Box

Thoughts from inside the obscure box

December 30, 2008

Happy New Year to a world out of sync…

Posted by : Michael Lund
Filed under : Media

The world will be a strange place on New Year's Eve.

At exactly midnight a leap second will be added to your clock with some news reports already noting the need for a pause in the cheers.

The wires agency AFP makes the point in "New Year on hold: leap second makes time stand still" (30 Dec 2008).

Which means a Champagne-soaked countdown to 2009 something like this: "...THREE, TWO, ONE-AND-A-HALF, ONE... Happy New Year!"

Apparently the extra second is needed to make the atomic clocks keep up with the Earth's rotation, which apparently is slowing at the rate of about one second every 500 days.

The body responsible for the timing of the second is aptly named International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, based in Paris, France.

Explanations of the leap second can be found on its website www.iers.org, but be warned. It's all very technical.

A better explanation is found over at the incredibly useful timeanddate.com.

But the IERS announcement itself is interesting.

A positive leap second will be introduced at the end of December 2008. The sequence of dates of the UTC second markers will be:
    2008 December 31, 23h 59m 59s
    2008 December 31, 23h 59m 60s
    2009 January 1, 0h 0m 0s

Which got me thinking.

The leap second will only occur at midnight in the relevant time zone which means it will not happen at the same time around the globe.

So when Sydney takes its extra second at midnight tomorrow, Brisbane will have to wait an hour for the pleasure.

That means the two state capitals will be out of sync by one second.

As the clocks of Brisbane tick out the next hour (those that tick at least), the second hand will be one second ahead of clocks in Sydney.

The same will be true for all other clocks around the planet that wait the midnight hour.

How spooky. What strange and magical events will unfold as a result of this out-of-sync event?

It's the sort of stuff the fantasy writers could have a field day with. Perhaps a leap second is the only time a portal to another world will be open.

Midnight's the time to hurl yourself at the nearest wall in the hope it will take you to a land where folk suffering a mid-life crisis are regarded as heroes destined to save the land from evil.

Now there's an interesting idea...

But given New Year's Eve tends to come with drinks that make the legs less reliable than normal, making the body more likely to collapse against the nearest object (including walls), then maybe this is not the best time to open any magical portal.

Imagine all those drunks suddenly turning up to save the land? What would the poor folk think of their heroes then?

Help may be at hand though as New Scientist reports in "Calls to scrap the 'leap second' grow" (19 Dec 2008), the days of the leap second may be coming to an end.

... Elisa Felicitas Arias, of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, France, argues that a timescale that doesn't need regular tweaking is essential in an increasingly interconnected world. What's more, she says, ships and aircraft now navigate via GPS rather than the old time system. GPS runs on a version of atomic time.

Apparently leap seconds cause huge problems for some technologies that rely on clock accuracy of less that a second.

In 1998 - two leap seconds ago - cellphone communications blacked out over part of the southern US. Different regions of service had slipped into slightly different times, preventing proper relaying of signals.

So there's talk of waiting until the time is right to add a whole leap hour.

Now that would give plenty of time to cross through the magical portal. The only problem is that you'd have to wait about 600 years for enough time to build up to introduce a leap hour.

I say keep the leap second so we can keep jumping at walls every couple of years on New Year's Eve. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

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All thoughts and comments here are the honestly held personal opinion of Michael Lund and are based on the information available at the time of publication.